The Last of Our Summers
The next day, she wakes up to the sound of the doorbell ringing and a message from Chizuru: what are you up to today? Would you like to study at my house?
Kazuha's fingers have lost sensation: Going out with Kirigiri.
Ah, comes the reply. A lengthy pause. Be brave.
Kazuha nods. She holds the phrase to her heart like a talisman: be brave.
The ringing of the doorbell continues.
Kazuha pulls herself out of bed. Her fingertips are tingling in a way that she has to fight to ignore. Just think of it as just another day, she tells herself. Just another Saturday.
Just another Saturday, when she'd finally really talk to her best friend, and tell him how she feels. Maybe.
Nope, don't think about that. No no no–
Kazuha slaps her warm cheeks. She needs to get it together.
She looks in the mirror and she looks exactly how she feels: bright-eyed with lost sleep, raccoon eyes. She’s trying to fix the slanted tuft in her hair when there’s a soft knock on her door.
It’s Natsuki. Kazuha puts her brush down and goes to open the door. “Yes?”
“Did you just wake up?” He’s smiling at her, his eyes bright.
“It’s late,” he chides. Then, as if he can’t help it, he pats the tuft of hair that’s sticking out of Kazuha’s head as Kazuha eyeballs him in confusion. “Your hair still does that in the mornings, huh?”
“Never mind,” he’s grinning broadly now, as if Kazuha’s groggy stupidity is endearing, which in turn makes Kazuha smile back at him. Natsuki has a nice smile. “Now, you better get ready. Kirigiri’s here.”
This makes the simple happiness of Natsuki’s warm hand on her head dissolve like seafoam.
“He’s—what do you mean? We’re meeting at five.”
“Oh? He’s here already. Maybe he got the time wrong?”
Kazuha begins hurrying downstairs before she remembers that she just rolled out of bed. And it’s dumb, so unbelievably dumb to try to change what Kirigiri thinks of her now, but—
–she doesn’t want him to see her looking like this.
She looks at Natsuki desperately. He’s already headed to his room, blowing at the steam coming off his tea and frowning at his phone.
“Natsuki,” she says, quiet, embarrassed. “Do you mind—can you go ask Kirigiri why he’s here already?”
Natsuki looks taken aback.
He still looks bemused, but he hands her his mug and heads downstairs with the wary gait of an eighty-year-old.
“Drink that,” he says. "You look too tired for a date."
Kazuha screams internally. She's sure her cheeks have caught on fire.
"Not a date," she hisses behind him. He waves.
The green tea he handed her tastes like nothing, but it makes the nervous thrill in her fingertips settle. Kirigiri's hiding something, she tells herself. This isn't a date. We're just going to talk.
She’s in the shower when she hears Natsuki come back up the stairs.
“He says he wants to watch a movie!” he calls. “He said something about making it up to him for going shopping with you.”
Under the spray of water, Kazuha’s heartrate spikes. Not a date, not a date, she chants in her mind as she steps out of the shower without rinsing out her shampoo. Not a date, she thinks, as she gets back in.
It takes her a while to get dressed. She meets her own thousand-yard stare as she tries on every single on of her clothes. Why doesn't she have anything that fits properly? When was the last time she bought anything that wasn't beige?
A knock on her door. "You ready, Kajiura? Need me to set an alarm for you?"
Kazuha has a brief, intense moment of wishing she had Chizuru to check her outfit for her.
She slams the last of her green tea. "Coming!"
Outside her room, Kirigiri's chatting to Natsuki. He's wearing his red hoodie that clashes terribly with his skin, a white T shirt peeking through. The familiarity of him lounging about lazily in her house makes her panicked heartrate slow.
He turns to Kazuha as she emerges, grins. “Ready?"
She's so happy to see him. She nods.
"Cool. See ya, Natsuki!"
They leave the house in silence. As they walk to the bus stop, Kirigiri says, not quite looking at her, "Cool dress."
Kazuha almost snorts, but she's too anxious. No sound comes out. "Thanks. Dad brought it for me. From somewhere."
"Couple years ago. He didn't know my size so it was too big for me back then, but I grew into it."
Kirigiri’s lips thin out. "Hm."
"At least he brought something. Sometimes he forgets."
She's talking a lot. She's sure Kirigiri's noticed. She looks at the road with determination, says, "Oh, here comes the bus."
They sit next to each other. It's a beautiful day to be out: the sun nestles behind fluffy clouds and the ocean, in the distance, is a vastness of green-blues.
"Hey Kirigiri?" she says, not looking away.
"Let's go to the beach again soon. With everyone. Haven't been in a while."
The last time she went, she'd almost drowned. She understands Kirigiri's hesitance when he says, "You sure?"
Silence, again. The bus rolls smoothly inland till she can't see the ocean anymore. Her knee brushes Kirigiri's.
At their stop he gets up first. "After you," he says, with flourish. Then: "Buy my ticket for meee."
Kazuha bonks his head as she gets out of the bus. They stand on the sidewalk outside the theater, catching each other's eyes in a grin before they look back away.
There’s a self-consciousness between them that was never there before, and it dances across Kazuha's skin like a faint breeze.
It’s ridiculous. She’s never felt the urge to apologize to Kirigiri for bumping into him before, like they do when they both try to enter the revolving door to the cinema a little too fast. She’s never felt hyper-aware of the material of their shirts whispering over each other as they stand in line.
She can’t stop stealing glances at Kirigiri. So far, the data has been inconclusive: Kazuha’s own brain is too muddled to stop herself from reading into everything. Once they’re seated and the room is dark enough to obscure their faces, Kazuha finds the courage to speak up.
“Why a movie?”
Kirigiri shrugs as the screen begins lighting up. His features look sharper like this, the slope of his jaw strong, defined.
Kazuha quickly looks away.
“We haven’t done anything in a while,” he says, just before the movie starts. His voice is low, a little raspy. “You might get swallowed by a textbook. Or worse, Yoshioka's weird running agenda.”
Kazuha breaks, and lets herself be desperately uncool: “She couldn’t join us? Or, um, Natori and the rest?”
Another shrug. The way Kirigiri’s facing away seems almost deliberate. “Didn’t ask.”
That quietens something deep inside Kazuha. She turns away without saying anything.
Her cheeks burn in the dark.
There's a department store right opposite the theater, and still blinking in the sunlight, Kazuha and Kirigiri venture in.
“Why shopping?” Kirigiri asks, about an hour in. They’ve both just finished peering critically at designer watches as if either of them could afford them. Kazuha is picking out jeans.
She doesn’t answer. It’s not like she could tell him that she loved Chizuru, but she felt positively shabby next to her. Or that there was a comfort in repeating those times when they were younger, and Kirigiri’s mom would take them both shopping.
“No reason.” She puts the jeans back. She’s too aware of Kirigiri making baffled faces at her. “Just felt like doing some shopping, that’s all.”
She doesn't end up buying much. She's always had weird proportions, so nothing fits her exactly right, but there's one skirt-and-sweater outfit that made Kirigiri's eyes widen when she came out of the fit-on room. It's brown, and the sweater's made of soft, tactile wool. As she stands in line to pay for it, she holds the material to her face.
Kirigiri's waiting for her at the end of the line. He's got his hands in his pockets, messing around with some of the other boys waiting for their girlfriends. Trust Kirigiri to make friends while he waits.
Her heart fills with giddy delight. Some secret, embarrassed part of her thinks, boyfriend.
"Kajiura," he says, and he does that thing where his whole face brightens. She's never really noticed before. "Why are you red? Let's go get something to eat. I'm starving."
Kirigiri walks in front of her. He takes a few turns that surprise her: having lived here her whole life, she's not unfamiliar with the area he leads them to, but she's rarely been here before. She almost takes a few steps in the wrong direction, and Kirigiri holds her wrist to pull her back. The contact makes her blush all over again.
As she fights thoughts of holding hands, Kirigiri clears his throat and announces, "We're here."
Yoshioka and Sugino tend to bring them to a line of cafés a little uptown, but Kazuha thinks she likes the ambient mellow lighting of the traditional restaurant that they step into a little better.
The cute café waitresses were intimidatingly cheerful, but here, there's little more than a counter where a kindly-looking mom type stands, her eyes crinkling when she sees them come in.
"What'll it be, Kazuha?"
Kazuha's eyes widen.
Kirigiri says, "A platter of gyoza, please."
A wrinkled smile. "Sit down, both of you. Help yourselves to soda from the fridge while you wait."
The tables are separated by partitions, and the conversations are low enough that they barely register. The atmosphere is casual, yet somehow intimate.
"Too much?" Kirigiri whispers, as they sit down across from each other.
She shakes her head. "I like it a lot."
He rubs the back of his neck. He's pleased.
"Big swing with the gyoza, though," she can't help saying.
"I've always wanted you to try it. It tastes like the exact thing your weird tastebuds would love."
"So you come here often?"
The question hangs in the air. Kirigiri's wide eyes jerk up to meet hers.
She raises an eyebrow.
He huffs out a sigh. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do."
She nods, comes to a decision. "Want to go up to our hill later? I heard there's a summer festival tonight, we could watch the fireworks."
He looks resigned. "Yeah."
Their platter arrives. He eats like he always has: single-minded, fast, silent. Every time she's almost done, he wordlessly places a few more on her plate. He only pauses eating to refill her glass for her.
Kazuha eats. Kirigiri was right: the food is delicious.
It’s dark by the time they’ve climbed all the way up the hill. Kazuha hadn’t planned for that; for a span of five whole minutes she’s chilled with the fear that they’d have to turn around and go home when the streetlights that line the stairs flicker on with a mellow, melancholic glow.
She doesn’t know what to say.
She’d planned for this. Planned it down to the minute, the total number of steps calculated against the number of steps it would take for two athletic teenagers to get worn out. She knows from his subtle little gestures and from having known him over fifteen years that Kirigiri is a little tired, but enjoying the silence that hums between them, likes it when Kazuha points out interesting ferns to him.
She just…doesn’t know what to say.
She could tell him about that time when they were nine, when they were assigned to different classes for the first time, he used to write messages in secret ink and pass them to her during breaks.
Or how, at fifteen and blankly devastated after Natsuki left, Kirigiri brought her up this hill to watch the stars and let her ramble for hours about the summer triangle, and pretended that she wasn’t crying by the end of it.
Kindness to her has always been the way Kirigiri reaches out, clumsily, earnestly.
They’re at the top of the hill before she knows it. Kirigiri sets Kazuha's shopping on a bench and stretches his arms.
The fireworks haven't started yet, but the night is bright anyway. Lights and lights and lights all through their little town. Far off, the roiling, restless tumble of the sea.
“You're not telling me something," she says, softly.
Kirigiri inhales. It reminds her of the way he tried not to cry when he skinned his knee as a child: he learned to breathe through the pain.
"It's not even just Yoshioka, is it? You're keeping something big from me."
No sound from Kirigiri. She keeps her eyes on the distant promise of the ocean.
"I admit I don't notice much. I'm self-absorbed, I'm always thinking about school. But I notice you, Kirigiri. I know when you're not okay. So the question is, what's–"
"You notice? Over all the chatter of your shiny new friends?"
The first of the fireworks go off.
She wheels towards him, finds half of his face bathed in bright light. "You're saying I don't notice you? When we've been joined at the hip our entire lives?"
"You think that's enough to, what? Read my mind? Think I'm hiding something from you?"
"It is!" Kazuha screams. Her voice carries like a gust of wind over the hills. "It is and you are! I may have made friends but you were the one who taught me how, and now that I have real friends I can see that you're different!"
More fireworks. They're beautiful.
"I made real friends, sure, but that just showed how special you are to me," she says, in the calmest voice she can manage. It still trembles badly. "It took me long enough to realize that I love–"
A hand lands over her mouth.
Fireworks, in her periphery. A kaleidoscope of light.
Kirigiri's eyes glimmer.
“Don’t say it,” he says, in a low, rough voice. “I’m begging you, Kazuha. Don’t say it.”
Kazuha doesn’t understand.
“Kirigiri?” she says, pulling his hand away. His hand is full of calluses. A man’s hand. She gets distracted momentarily by the warmth of it, the way they tremble a little in her own.
In the next instant he snatches his hand away like he’d been burned. “You can’t do this to me, Kajiura. Not after all this time.”
Kazuha stares at him. She doesn’t—what was he talking about?
“I can’t, Kajiura,” he says, covering his face with his hand. “I’m not—I can’t tell you that I’ll stay with you forever.”
“What?” her voice sounds so soft. So scared.
“You think you're the only one who knows me? I know you too. And I know how much you hate things ending. Drifting apart. I saw how much you struggled after Natsuki left. You don't have to—” he chokes, “—to pretend to like me just to keep me around.”
Something shudders through Kazuha, an old, forgotten terror.
“But I’m—” not pretending, she wants to say, but the words won’t come out.
“Kirigiri,” she tries again. It’s the most she’ll ever beg anyone, the furthest she’ll go, the most humiliation she’ll ever face. Still, she says it. “Please.”
He looks at her in the eyes, finally, and the look on his face is gut-punch of heartbreak, as if someone split him open up on their little hill. They’d sworn to be best friends on this hill, once.
“Sorry, Kazuha,” he says in a voice like shattered glass as Kazuha lets out her first, shuddering sob. “Childhood friends don't have to stay friends forever. It’s time for both of us to move on.”
(End of Part Two)
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