The Last of Our Summers
She loses a week to practice, and then it's sports day.
It’s shaping up to be the kind of summer that makes the air shimmer with unseen shapes. When they were younger Kirigiri had taught her how to go slightly cross-eyed, so the heat mirages gained definition as they appeared above the heated hoods of cars in traffic.
She sits with Sugino and Chizuru and watches the ball toss. Kirigiri is a laughing beacon in the crowd. Yoshioka is at the side, cheering her class on.
"She thinks she's helping you," says Sugino.
"Interesting approach," says Chizuru. Her eyes are hard.
Kazuha doesn't say anything.
In time, Chizuru gets up and leaves for cheering, falling into step with Natori on the way. Their classmates drift towards Kazuha and Sugino then: Kazuha doesn't quite pay attention but she's surprised to find that she knows most of their names.
"Better win," says a quiet boy with a troublingly long fringe. Kazuha's brain gives her his name: Akira Uehara.
Rinka Nakamura (good at gossiping and badminton), says, grimly, "Can't lose. Look at them."
Kazuha turns her head.
Chizuru and Natori are twin flagpoles, so stunning they draw gasps from the crowd. Even in her cheering outfit, Chizuru looks intimidating: the icy chill of her expression is only accentuated by Natori’s warm, boyish good cheer.
Those are my friends, Kazuha thinks. Mine.
They shine. Their routine is simple, modest, and ends almost too quickly, but they clearly outmatch everyone, and Kazuha finds herself hugged by some of the girls as their class dissolves with joy.
She can't stop smiling. She's never been prouder of someone else than she is then, and it rockets up her spine, makes her joy explode like confetti.
She's running out of time for the relay, but she's nothing if not fast; she covers half the ground in one sprint and catches Chizuru and Natori in a hug.
Natori laughs, and swings them about a little. "It was good?"
"It was amazing," Kazuha says, her eyes shining.
Sugino catches up too, panting behind her. "It really was." She bounces on her heels. "When you went whoosh and Aonuma went wham and-- Kajiura, the relay's starting! Go go go!"
As Kazuha pulls away from her friends and runs, she calls, "Kick Yoshioka's dumb ass!"
"Yeah!" chimes in the rest of their class, overhearing. They cheer. "Good luck, Kajiura!"
The bubbles of joy in her stomach don't dissipate as she goes towards her starting line. Yoshioka's across from her. For once, she's not smiling.
"Bet," she says, once Kazuha is all the way next to her.
"Whoever loses has to do whatever the other one says."
Kazuha shakes her head. She doesn't even want to look at her.
Yoshioka whistles. "Ice cold. I thought we were friends."
The whistle rings out.
Kazuha shouldn't say anything. She should just ignore her, not let any of this get to her.
She says, "You treat all your friends like this?"
"Kajiura, for a smart person you're really dumb. It's not me you need to clear things up with, you get that, right?"
The third wave of runners is almost upon them. The sun is in her eyes.
"Accepted," she says.
"Your bet. I accept it."
Her world explodes with noise and color as her teammate pushes a baton to her hands. She leaves Yoshioka watching her open-mouthed.
Running is usually a good way to filter out her thoughts, but today she holds on to two specific memories. The first is the way Chizuru had looked that day in the rain, directing traffic around her. The second is Natori, eyes averted, holding out a handkerchief.
The head start is obviously not enough, but Yoshioka only catches up to her almost at the end of the track. Her ponytail streams behind her, and the frivolous smile that's almost always on her lips has tightened into a frown.
Kazuha thinks she looks beautiful.
It's a draw. In the split second before their teammates run up to them, time seems to dilate in a cocoon around them as Kazuha and Yoshioka look at each other, panting.
"If I'd been training longer I'd have destroyed you."
Yoshioka nods. She's so uncharacteristically grave. "That's what scares me about you, Kajiura. That's what scares everyone about you."
Inhale, exhale. "What does that mean?"
Yoshioka shakes her head. "About our bet. You do what I say and I do what you say. And I say: confess to Kirigiri."
"Confess to Narumaki, then."
Her eyes widen. "I don't actually–"
Kazuha shrugs; she's better at these things than she used to be. She recognizes the look on Yoshioka's face.
"Go ahead. Tell me you don't actually like him."
Yoshioka's face is downturned, dark. "Is this a revenge thing? You know it'll never work out."
"It's our last summer before we graduate."
"Anything we hide in our hearts now is going to stay there forever." The sun burns her skin, and Kazuha almost laughs. "Besides, I heard that the chances of rejection is just fifty-fifty no matter how bad it looks. Those aren't bad odds."
Their classmates are surging towards them, but Kazuha's eyes are on Kirigiri. Fifty-fifty.
Yoshioka starts to laugh. "I'll take it."
Natori’s making faces at her during the closing ceremony. Check it, he mouths. He mimes holding a phone up to his ear. Check it, he insists.
Kazuha checks her phone. He’s sent a message to the group chat: ice cream after this?
Kirigiri’s already replied: can’t, broke.
Natori’s typing. Kazuha can hear their class calling to him, but Natori’s little typing… bubble doesn’t disappear. I’ll cover you, he says. Girls?
When she looks up, Natori’s nodding at her, then her phone. She quirks her eyebrow at him and he just nods harder.
I’m in, I guess, she types.
I’m in as well, Chizuru types. She adds a sticker of a pink bunny giving a thumbs up. For someone whose whole brand is about being aloof, Chizuru uses some really cute stickers.
Us as well! says Sugino. She waves at them from far off in the crowd.
Yoshioka is with her, hanging back slightly. She makes a face when Kazuha meets her eye.
“It’s a plan,” Kazuha says. Chizuru sends her a smile.
They sneak out during the celebrations. A few people waylay their little group: Natori gets stopped the most, various teammates slapping his back, but Kazuha's surprised when a few girls that she talked to during the day also step in to tell her that they thought the relay was cool.
"Oh," she says, flustered. That little spark of joy pings in her mind again. "Thank you."
"You really boosted morale, even at practice," says Touka Terasaka (class president's girlfriend, good head on her shoulders). “Seeing someone who makes everything look effortless try so hard was inspiring."
"And to think you tied with the captain of the track team."
"I had a head start," Kazuha says.
Terasaka rolls her eyes. "Learn to take a compliment, Kajiura. See you."
The rest of the group have meandered on, but Natori's still lingering, talking to the boys from their class. He catches up to her.
“Today’s your chance,” he says, tipping his head down a little to speak to her in a low tone. He doesn’t seem to mind when Kazuha steps away on instinct. “You should talk to Kirigiri.”
"Why is everyone saying that?"
"They've got a point. You need to at least tell Kirigiri that you’re not mad at him, or avoiding him, or whatever. Unless—“
Kazuha looks away.
Natori sounds genuinely incensed: “Seriously? Kajiura, do you think he deserves this? He thinks that he made you hate him that day.”
“You know?” Natori sounds incredulous now. “What am I saying, of course you know. You and Kirigiri have your weird telepathy thing. Kajiura, I’m disappointed.”
Kazuha tips her chin defiantly. "He could have said something too."
"You're not the type to make excuses, Kajiura."
Chizuru and Natori are her closest friends (bar one) and they might not do it on purpose, but they still think of her as some kind of symbol. It’s what everyone (bar one) has been saying her whole life: that she stood for something, as an icon, a concept of a person rather than a scared, stupid girl who can’t even talk to her best friend properly.
Kazuha Kajiura, top of her grade. Kazuha Kajiura, the loneliest girl in the world.
For a second, she breathes in the dust of the playground, and she misses Kirigiri as hard as she ever has. Kirigiri didn’t think she was a stand-in for something bigger than herself. Kirigiri thought she was awful.
She picks at her nail. “Okay,” she says. She can barely hear her own voice.
Natori huffs. “Okay,” he says. He pats her shoulder. “I’m sure it’s going to work out, Kajiura.”
Kazuha doesn't say anything. She speeds up till she catches up with the rest of their group.
Yoshioka and Sugino are fighting again. Chizuru has stepped in, to questionable effect: she's just absorbing some of the impact of the slaps that Sugino is giving Yoshioka.
Kazuha's eyes gravitate to Kirigiri.
He’s standing alone. He’s not checking his phone, or spinning his basketball, or talking to any of the students that are flowing out around him. He’s just standing there. Looking at the tops of the trees. His hands in his pockets.
Her heart hurts. She feels like a clumsy child holding something breakable in her sticky hands when she walks in front of him and says hi, breathless.
Kirigiri looks cautious. “Yo,” he says. “Congrats on the relay.”
Kazuha nods. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands. “Your team won, though. It must be nice.”
Kirigiri’s shoulders are hiked high, tension running all through his body.
“Yeah, pretty cool,” he says. “Some of the games were fun."
Kazuha gives him a thumbs up. Kirigiri looks a little freaked out, and weakly returns it.
"Listen," she says. "I wanted to talk to you about something, and--"
“Where are we going?”
The awkwardness is sliced through as Natori and Chizuru catch up with them. Kazuha and Kirigiri both step away from each other, eerily in sync.
Yoshioka is laughing. “I know just the place.”
They end up going to a little shop near the train station. Kazuha sees it every day on the way home, thought vaguely about going there on her own one day.
She watches Natori slump over Kirigiri, Yoshioka and Sugino get into yet another fight over what they're getting, and bends her head over the flavor cards with Chizuru.
She's quietly, intensely happy that she got to come with them instead.
Their ice cream are wild and varied: Kazuha looks with distaste at the neon green of Yoshioka's as Yoshioka laughs at her for picking salted toffee.
“What flavor is yours, Aonuma?” Kirigiri says, startling Kazuha out of her single-minded goal of eating hers before it melts.
“Mocha,” Chizuru says. She smiles, a rare playfulness entering her features. “Would you like a bite, Kirigiri?”
“Sure,” says Kirigiri, and he—
He leans down, and delicately bites off a chunk from Chizuru’s ice cream.
A ringing starts in Kazuha’s head. She feels herself take a step back and bump into Natori. When she looks up, he’s as white-faced as she thinks she must be.
“Kirigiri—“ he begins. Low, tense.
Kirigiri’s eyes go wide. He scrambles back from Chizuru, cheeks steadily turning red. “Sorry,” he blurts to her. “Sorry, I’m so used to—I spend too much time with Kajiura, I—let me buy you a new one.”
Chizuru says, “It’s alright, I can—” she looks at Kazuha, for some reason, and then says, “Look, that part’s melted off already. It’s fine.”
Kazuha steps forward. Without really thinking about it, she leans forward and takes a bite out of Chizuru’s ice cream as well. From the exact spot that Kirigiri had.
“There,” she says, pushing her hair behind her ear. She still feels like she’s dreaming. The others are now staring at her instead, so she explains, “Chizuru and I have shared food before, so it’s fine.”
“…yeah,” Chizuru says, with a short laugh. “I suppose it is.”
“But now you both owe Aonuma half her ice cream,” Natori cuts in. He also sounds a touch hysterical. “Aren’t you Mr. Narumaki’s favorite, Kajiura? Shouldn’t you know how fractions work?”
Kazuha makes a face at the favorite comment. Her heart is racing.
The conversation naturally flows back towards school, and how difficult Math is (Kazuha nods but doesn’t offer opinions; her opinions on Math tend to be divisive). As Natori, Sugino, Yoshioka and Chizuru debate over who studies more, Kazuha feels a tap on the inside of her wrist.
She raises her eyebrows at Kirigiri. “Hm?”
“You said you wanted to say something,” Kirigiri says, his voice low.
He looks much more relaxed now, almost sleepy. His smile is warm and familiar and Kazuha basks in it like a cat in a sunbeam.
“Yeah,” Kazuha says. She looks ahead at their friends, and makes a decision. “Actually, I’ll tell you tomorrow. But you have to hang out with me first. We could, um. Go shopping.”
He looks surprised, then relieved. “So it’s going to be something dumb, then.”
“Why would I try to tell you something smart?”
He laughs, and Kazuha joins in. Both of their laughter sounds more like relief than anything. Even through the taste of her own ice cream, the sweetness of the mocha lingers on her tongue.
Tomorrow, she thinks. She’s telling him tomorrow.
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