The Last of Our Summers
For a moment, she is drowning.
There is a well-known, well-loved voice calling to her from the distance: Kajiura, it calls.
Kajiura, don't do this to me.
But she's drowning all the same; her lungs are taking in gasps on seawater, and the current pushes her under, and under, and under.
A hand on her wrist, a sharp tug.
Noise comes rushing back in to the void of silence that rings in her ears, like a dam that's been broken.
"Kajiura!" someone is shouting. "Shinonome!"
Overwhelmingly loud chatter. It reverberates in the hollow chambers of her mind. She's not underwater. Where is she?
She meets someone's wide and terrified eyes.
Oh, it's Hikari.
Why is she standing that way? She's practically dangling from one of her hands, held above her head.
Kazuha follows the neat line of her arm and finds that she, Kazuha, is the one that's holding on to her wrist, holding her in place. But above her hand, there's a bigger one clamped over it, helping her.
Natori's eyes are grim. He's looking over her shoulder as Kazuha stares at him.
"Hey, Mr. Narumaki," he says, casual. "Kajiura and Shinonome are up to their usual."
His eyes flicker to Kazuha's, then widen.
For a second, they dart up to above her head. He frowns.
What is he looking at?
"She tried to kill me!"
The silence shatters like glass.
Hikari snatches her hand away from their grip. Her eyes flash, wide and furious. Scared. Of her? Why?
Kazuha's thoughts are a loud, echoing mess.
Hikari's being patted and placated by her friends, who take turns protesting to Mr. Narumaki, who Kazuha sees now standing at the foot of the stairs frowning.
“What's going on here?”
"Sensei, Kajiura tried to push Hikari off the stairs!"
"Kajiura was trying to steady her. She was about to fall."
Natori's voice cuts through the chatter, smooth as glass. Even Hikari's friends seem taken aback for a second, convinced by the picture he makes: tall, handsome and reliable, their grade's most popular boy.
Kazuha can't take her eyes off Hikari. "Natori, you don't have to–"
"Shh," he says. He's not looking at her. His eyes are smilingly trained on Narumaki. "Sensei, if anything I'm curious why Kajiura's cheek is bruised."
Hikari draws in a breathless gasp.
"Nothing happened," Kazuha says.
A rush of cold is sweeping up her limbs. She's taller and bigger, towering over this mouse of a girl. Three years of her life, she'd spent cowering from this vicious little snake in the grass with her ribbons and bows and sweater paws.
Hikari's eyes brim with hate. They overspill.
"Nothing. Happened," Kazuha repeats, almost smiling now.
Hikari flinches. Her eyes turn down.
"Nothing happened," she says, in a tiny voice.
An alien triumph surges through Kazuha.
“Regardless. Both of you, in the counselling room. Now.” Mr. Narumaki sounds tired.
Natori's hand lingers on her shoulder for a split second before it's gone. She keeps a safe distance from Hikari as they go down the stairs. Kazuha looks up once more at Natori—and catches sight of Kirigiri and Yoshioka, frozen in the doorway.
They’re standing so close together.
She can't help it. She slashes them a grin.
Yoshioka looks confused. Kirigiri goes white.
Turning to face forward, she catches up with Narumaki and Hikari as they walk in silence. Hikari's arm hangs at her side. Kazuha pretends her cheek doesn't sting.
She pauses for a brief second as Mr. Narumaki opens the door of the counselling room. Her reflection flashes by: there light over her head is brighter than ever, almost taking shape.
"Sit," says Mr. Narumaki.
Kazuha averts her eyes from where her reflection had been. She sits. After a minute, with great reluctance, so does Hikari.
Kazuha almost feels sorry for her. Doesn't she know that's not the way to get a teacher to side with you?
“This isn’t the conversation I’d been hoping to have with you, Kajiura,” Mr. Narumaki says gravely. “And Shinonome, before you start, Kajiura's cheek is bleeding."
It is? Kazuha raises her hand to the center of the pain that’s slowly pulsing across her whole face.
No wonder Kirigiri had looked so surprised.
"Now you tell me what I should do about this, you two," Mr. Narumaki says. In the harsh lighting of his office he looks older than he is, deeply troubled. "You're both third years. Both aspiring to go to good universities. Fighting will look terrible on your permanent records, but I won't hesitate to write you both up. Unless…"
Silence. Hikari doesn't move. Kazuha holds her tongue as well.
Finally, Hikari spits out, "Unless what?"
"Well, unless you both make amends. Agree that there are no hurt feelings."
Slam! Hikari's chair goes flying as she thunders to her feet. She'd seemed so small just a few minutes ago. Now she's enormous, her shadow swallowing up the room.
When she speaks, her voice is full of teeth, bloody and savage. "I know she's your favorite and all, but this girl tried to kill me."
"Because that's such a smart thing to do," Kazuha drawls. She can't help but want to egg her on: she hadn't realized that being mean was so easy. "Isn't that what you were complaining so much about when you slapped me? That I was too smart?"
"Kajiura." Narumaki's looking at her reprovingly. "If this is all a misunderstanding as you claim, I'd appreciate it if you both stopped being so antagonistic and figured this out."
Hikari is incandescent. "I change my mind. She was definitely trying to kill me."
Kazuha almost laughs. She yanks her head sharply away to hide her expression as Mr. Narumaki says,
"When I came to the scene, she was holding on to you with all her strength. Natori vouched for her. Yes, Shinonome, I realize that he could be lying on behalf of his friend. But not even Natori would have been able to stop her if Kajiura was truly trying to push you down, as you suggest."
Stop-motion memories flit across Kazuha's mind: the echoing silence in her mind. The give of Hikari's shoulder under her palm. The grip around her wrist.
Did she really catch her?
But she'd wanted to push her so much. She can still feel the aftertaste of it: the adrenaline that had coated the inside of her mouth, the eerie, delighted emptiness.
And that timer, too; slotting down easily, neatly to a row of zeroes.
"Besides," says Mr. Narumaki, "why would she want to push you?"
There it is.
"Hikari-chan and I were friends in middle school. We fell out."
"Don't call me that," Hikari hisses. "We're not friends. We were never friends."
"Hikari-chan is Hikari-chan."
Hikari makes a violent half-gesture that has Mr. Narumaki rising out of his seat. All she does, however, is stoop to pick up her fallen chair, and right it.
"You think you're some tragic bullied little damsel finally standing up for yourself, Kajiura? When everything in the whole world falls at your feet? When you could nearly kill someone and all you get is a slap on the wrist?"
That dark, crazy-cold feeling is at a fever pitch. She wants to scoff at Hikari so badly.
"What do you want me to do, then? Be nice like you?"
"I want you to admit that you turn into a psycho when it comes to Kirigiri."
Mr. Narumaki is quiet, almost forgotten, but even he raises an eyebrow.
“Don’t even pretend this isn’t about that,” Hikari snaps. She raps her nails on the desk, and Kazuha wonders if the blood under them feels uncomfortable to her. "You saw him with that slut from Class B and you lost your shit, and it's like you flipped a switch. Like you always have."
Hikari had been a hamster in middle school: cute and cuddly, but a rat nonetheless. Her friendship with Kazuha had been nothing more than a way to get closer to Kirigiri, but it had meant the world to Kazuha.
In a funny way, she's gladder that Hikari's claws are out in the open now. She likes her better for it.
"Language," murmurs Mr. Narumaki.
The ugly laugh that was trapped in Kazuha's throat escapes.
"What even is your problem, anyway? Today wouldn't have happened if you hadn't come up with your tired little oh no Kajiura's such a pathetic loser agenda. I lied once in middle school, Hikari. When the hell are you going to let it go?"
"Once," Hikari scoffs. "Once. You think it was once?"
Kazuha remembers clinging to Kirigiri that summer. If she closes her eyes, she can still see Hikari’s face when she saw them across the summer festival; the way Kazuha had smiled, and leaned her face up to Kirigiri’s to plant a single, dry kiss on his cheek.
"It was nothing more than you deserved! You spent a year pretending to be my friend!"
Hikari makes another violent gesture. "You-- are you for real? You were the only one who even talked to me after my parents got divorced, and you thought I was faking it?"
The icy feeling begins to melt, and slough off her skin.
"I was some chubby girl nobody talked to and you used to come and ask me to go to the library together. You think that that was all some complicated setup to steal the boy you liked?" Hikari laughs bitterly. "You're as smart as everyone says, Kajiura, but when it comes to Kirigiri you just have this. This blind spot."
Kazuha can't speak. Can't move.
Hikari's mouth twists into a grimace. "God, I can’t stand you. Mr. Narumaki, just let us go. This snake in the grass is never going to change."
When they were younger, Kirigiri’s parents had called her the lightning to his thunder: she thinks that they’re more like vines, twining around each other at the root, inextricable.
After school, she lets her face be examined by him and fights the tears that spring to the back of her eyes.
“Don’t let the baseball team see this,” he says, grave. “They’ll scout her to be a pitcher. What kind of arm strength does she have, anyway? She’s like two apples tall.”
“Shut up,” Kazuha says on instinct. She turns her face away, yanking her chin out of his careful grip.
Kirigiri leans close, as if an empty classroom meant they were the only two people in the world. “Come on, crazy,” he says softly, and Kazuha’s entire spine judders, her head a cacophony of you’re a psycho when it comes to Kirigiri, aren’t you. “What’s going on with you? This is the second time this month that someone nearly put you in hospital. Did you girls start a fight club? What am I going to tell Natsuki, huh?” Kazuha’s shoulders shake. “Tell me, come on. I’ll beat them all—”
The door slides open.
“Oh, there you are, Kirigiri,” comes Natori’s voice. “That nosy junior of yours was looking for you.”
Kirigiri’s fists clench.
“Can’t,” he says, in a tight voice. “Kajiura might pick a fight with all the girls in the school if I look away.”
“Come on, man, she’s fine,” says Natori. “Are you waiting for your brother, Kajiura? I’ll walk you to the gate.”
Kirigiri clicks his tongue and steps away. Kazuha relaxes—she hadn’t realized she had been shrinking into herself.
She forces herself to look up and smile. “Better start running, or he’ll catch you and take you to basketball hell.”
Her voice is stable, teasing. Kirigiri isn’t fooled.
He furrows his brows at her in confusion for a beat. His eyes wander: from Kazuha, to Natori, then back. His eyes widen. His whole face goes blank.
What, she thinks, ducking her head again. Did he see something on her face? Did he figure it out?
“Come on man, he’s almost here.”
Kirigiri doesn’t say another word. He takes off in long strides, his shoulder slamming into Natori’s along the way.
The silence in the classroom stretches, and stretches.
Kazuha starts mechanically putting her things in her bag. She has a little sticky note on her Math textbook with Chizuru's handwriting on it: parallel lines meet at infinity!
She touches the writing. Some of the glitter comes off on her fingers.
When she turns to Natori at the door, she says, in a low voice she doesn’t recognize, “You probably think I’m overreacting.”
“I wouldn’t know, Kajiura.”
Kirigiri would have immediately agreed. It’s funny; when they were younger, Kirigiri had been the crybaby. A single mean word would be enough to set him off. When had he stopped crying so much? When did she stop paying attention?
She’d just thought—
“I just thought,” she says, and swallows. Her throat burns. “I didn’t know he liked her,” she says, and her voice is a raspy, strangled thing.
She thinks of Kirigiri and Yoshioka on the roof. Her first thought had been, please don't. She thinks of Hikari saying psycho. It’s true, isn’t it?
Her heart feels like it could burst.
“I forgot I left my—” Natori says loudly. “Um. I’ll be right back, Kajiura.”
He carefully shuts the door behind him.
Kazuha keeps staring at the door until it starts to blur. Her face grows warmer and warmer until she can’t ignore the tears that are spilling hard and fast on her cheeks, the runniness of her nose.
Kazuha puts her head down, and sobs.
It may be minutes, or hours later, when Kazuha has trailed off into sniffles, that Natori opens the door.
He doesn’t look at her face, but holds out a handkerchief. “It’s clean,” he says, sounding horrifically awkward.
She barely hears him. “Thanks,” she says, and rubs at her tired eyes.
“Ready to go?”
She follows him out. He's taking almost comically small steps to keep pace with her sluggish shuffling. At length, in a hesitant voice, he says, "Kirigiri seemed…off."
The sensation of bleeding out from an open wound. Kazuha holds in the shudder that wants to run through her frame, breathes and breathes and breathes.
As clinically as she can, she says, “It’s just that—I thought, if I could be his friend forever, I’d never lose him.”
“We don’t know what really happened, Kajiura,” Natori says. Kazuha slides him a glance and he relents. "Though they did date for like three days.”
"Like a month ago."
Kazuha absorbs this. It sinks into the mud of her thoughts and nestles there.
They’re outside their building now, on the road leading to the gate past the tennis courts. If Kazuha squints, she could see Natsuki’s car.
“Are you going to tell him?”
Kazuha wants to feign surprise, but it’s the bitter possibility that poisoned her mind the second Hikari slapped her.
“I don’t know. You’re popular, how awkward is it when someone who you’re not interested in confesses to you?”
“Hm?” Kazuha stops as well. “Anything wrong?"
“Kajiura, do you really believe that Kirigiri doesn’t—”
“Of course he doesn’t."
It’s not like she’s not thought about it obsessively at the back of her mind, or anything: whether the way they fitted together like parentheses could mean something more.
But: “He’s so straightforward. He would have brought it up. And besides that I just know. I’ve known him for so long, I can just tell."
They’re almost at the gate now. They’re both walking so slowly that Natori’s kaiju-sized limbs are in danger of tripping over themselves. Kazuha can see Natsuki’s car now.
“What about you? Didn’t you have feelings for Chizuru?”
Natori shrugs. “I do, it’s true.”
When he reaches out his giant hand, it blocks out the sun in the sky.
"I figure, it's always a fifty-fifty chance, isn't it? Either you get rejected or you don't. If you roll the dice but you can't beat the odds, that's just what it is."
Her voice is whisper-soft. "Those odds might ruin my life."
"But people have been winning that bet since the beginning of time." He quirks her a grin. "And if you do get rejected, that's one less thing for Shinonome to be jealous of you for. Maybe you'll be best friends again."
A laugh rises in her throat like a bad cough. When she barks it out Natori beams at her and she feels at peace: the wound might bleed, but it bleeds clean.
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