Chapter 26:

Backwards in a Mirror

The Last of Our Summers

It's nearing the end of summer. Kazuha can taste it in the air.

There's something odd happening to her, lately. The light over that was just a flicker in the corner of her eye before, has taken up permanent residence over her head. She can't read what it says; it's too blurred.

She stands in front of her mirror in the half-dark and stares at the light.

Stop motion pictures play across her eyes. She thinks of Kirigiri. She thinks of Yoshioka. She thinks of the ocean.

Then, the pictures fade, and she sees herself again: a plain-looking girl with pale skin and dull eyes, washed of color in the bone-white dawn.

Then she goes back to her bed, sitting down and reaching for her phone. She opens her calendar and deletes all her alarms and appointments, one by one. There goes catch up on Maths! and book study room at school! There goes Revise Maths up to page 133!

She leaves one in, the last countdown, though she can still feel it in her bones: it's just a few days till the end of summer.

When she thinks of Kirigiri she thinks of him standing on that hill, his face half-illuminated by festival lights.

Her phone buzzes and she almost drops it.

are you coming or not kajiura

It's Sugino. She leaves her phone on the bed and scuttles off to get dressed. Her eyes keep going to the sweater and skirt that she bought on her date with Kirigiri.

She squares up and wears it. When she looks at the mirror again, she's vibrant. A small thrill at the bottom of her stomach, sparking like pure, uncomplicated joy: she looks cute in it. Her hair looks good too. The light over her head is a steady glow now.

coming, she texts the group.

It's been two days (maybe) since she had met with Sugino and Chizuru, and over those two days the urge to see her friends had been at a low simmer. Her fingertips thrill at the thought.

She takes a bus to the gymnasium. It's a beautiful day: the bus treads through familiar ground, shops, office buildings, their favorite cafes, till it gives way to verdant green of the outskirts of town.

As she passes her school, a banner catches her eye: Basketball Team, best of luck in preliminaries!

She grimaces on instinct. Sports talk. As if she doesn't get enough of that from Kirigiri.

Chizuru and Sugino wave at her from the gate. "Come on," says Sugino. "It's almost started."

They see some girls taking a selfie in front of the steps to the entrance. Kazuha exchanges uncertain glances with her friends, before all three of them give ugly, identical snorts. Chizuru pulls her phone out and snaps a photo of them making the dumbest faces they can.

The stadium stretches out, vast, before them. Paths carved into the lawn are overfilled with students their age, chatting casually as they stroll up to the gymnasium. Dotted among them are the bright colors of sports jackets: when Kazuha squints her eyes she can spot their school's colors, though the boys are too far to recognize.

Nearing the gym, they run across a familiar tall figure.

Kazuha calls out to Natori, and he turns, surprise written large on his handsome features. He excuses himself from his bubble of friends and jogs over with a grin.

"You guys made it," he says, sounding incredibly glad.

"It sounded like a big deal," Kazuha says. "Kirigiri's been going on about it forever."

All three of them look horribly awkward. Kazuha sighs.

"Come on," she says, dragging Chizuru by the hand. "We'll lose all the good seats."

Natori looks amused. "Not really. Our team's match isn't going to start for a bit, and that's what most of the locals are here for. Want to sit?"

He indicates a step that's clearly not meant for sitting.

"Hell yeah," Sugino says, and plonks down, sticking out her legs.

Chizuru sits too, more decorum in her pose as she drapes her lacey skirt across her legs. She looks up at Kazuha, and waits.

Kazuha sighs, and joins them. They all had better social skills than she did; they probably knew what they were doing.

"Now," Natori says pleasantly, "tell me why you're really here."

All three of them freeze.

"Because, Kajiura, half my life is taken up by listening to Kirigiri whine about how you won't come to any of his games. He seemed very offended that you called it sportsball."

Kazuha bristles. "I just thought–"

"Does it have something to do with the fact that he's acting like a dead man walking?"

Natori's eyes are as clear as the summer sky. Kazuha flashes back to a conversation from a lifetime ago: he doesn't have that layer.

"He has a timer," Kazuha finds herself admitting on a soft exhale. "It's counting down to the end of summer break."

Natori takes it evenly. He closes his eyes, just for a second. "That's in two days."

She nods. She pokes at her knee. "I wanted to check. If it had changed."

Natori nods. He looks shaken, his head lowered to hide it. Presently, he says, "I guess we know what happens when the timer runs out. After Yoshioka."

Kazuha has never felt so seen. First Sugino and Chizuru, now Natori. They all just guessed.

"She fell, actually," she says. "Her timer was counting down to when she fell off the roof. But then–"

She takes a breath. "Then she just–woke up. Her timer had changed to negatives, counting down five minutes."

Sugino sighs, heavy enough to rattle her small frame, but she says nothing.

"And when that one ran out, she died for real."

"It gave her extra time?"

Kazuha thinks of the warmth of Yoshioka's palms on her cheeks. How they'd lost that burning warmth, and slid off.

"Yeah. And–"

I think she could see mine, too.

They're watching her inquisitively.

"Nothing. Um, my guess is that since the timer counts down preventable, um, accidents, maybe it gives you some extra time if it's not prevented. But we can't actually let Kirigiri die."

"And all this time, you know, I've thought that I could stop it on my own, but I think that I'd need your help if I'm going to do anything at all."

Natori stands up. He's tall, taller than some of the basketball players passing by, and with his hands in his pockets and smiling at them, he looks like a hero from a manga.

"Of course we're going to save Kirigiri," he says, and Kazuha, without thinking, memorizes his posture: his confidence, the cadence of his voice, the feeling of joyful faith in her own heart. "Now come on, it's almost time."

She finds herself smiling at him, stupidly. "Are you going to sit with us for the game, Natori?"

Natori looks up and makes eye contact with his group of friends, and waves them off. "Sure," he says easily. "It'll be fun."

As popular with girls as ever, one of the boys hisses, tone full of envy.

"The fact that he didn't make that comment is why he's popular with girls," Sugino announces, loud.

Natori laughs. He really is a golden beacon in the crowd: there's hardly a single group he doesn't stop to talk or exchange high fives with as they make their way inside the gym.

They make it to their seats just as the whistle goes off to start.

It takes Kazuha a scant few minutes to spot Kirigiri on the court. The action that catches her eye is when, three minutes in, his voice begins to ring out, barking out directions and the eagle-sharp intensity of his eyes.

Kazuha shifts in her seat a little. Sugino catches her eye and grins.


Kazuha pouts. "Hardly."

Sugino laughs. "Sure."

She's sitting on Kazuha's left, Natori watching raptly in the seat next to her. On Kazuha's right, Chizuru's gaze is clinical, oddly professional.

"He should have made the pass there," she says from time to time. "Oh, bad call by the referee. That was a foul, one hundred per cent."

Kazuha's delighted. At first she tries to hide her smile behind her hand, but when Chizuru's hand tightens around hers and she snaps, "That was clearly the wrong time for that shot. Kirigiri should beat him up," Kazuha can no longer hold in her laugh.

"You're a sports person, Aonuma?" Sugino asks, amused, when Chizuru looks at them in confusion. "Kind of unexpected."

"Gap moe," says Kazuha.

Chizuru hits her shoulder, a slight flush on her cheeks. "It's not, it's normal!" she turns back to the court, her arms crossed.

Kazuha feels Natori glancing at her, then away, his rapid little blinks. He's so cute.

"Oh, it's halftime already?"

Kazuha snaps back to looking at Kirigiri. Their bench is on the side that they're sitting at; Kirigiri's eyes idly lift up to the crowd as their coach talks to the team.

His eyes meet hers head on.

Kazuha's been braced for this. Maybe she'd been waiting for it. She gives him her best smile.

The water bottle in Kirigiri's hand falls.

His teammates crowd him, shaking his shoulder roughly, but he's frozen.

Kazuha's frozen too, the smile cracking like thin glass. She'd thought— Were they really not even friends now? She thought she could talk to him before she—

"What the fuck," Chizuru breathes. "What's wrong with him?"

The whistle blows for the second half and immediately, something's clearly wrong with him. He's moving like he's stuck in fog. His reactions are almost a full second delayed.

And then: a pass arcs, and hits him straight in the head.

Kirigiri goes down.

Kazuha's on her feet. Her heart's in her throat, Sugino and Chizuru both grabbing her wrists to keep her from vaulting the seats to go and— what, she doesn't know.

The stunned silence that echoes up to the high ceiling is broken by a single voice: "You're looking really uncool right now, Kirigiri!"

All three of them lift shocked eyes to Natori, who has his hands cupped around his mouth and a look of pure frustration. 

Kirigiri looks up. This time, he looks at Natori. His eyes travel down to Sugino. Then over Kazuha, to Chizuru.

Chizuru lets go of Kazuha to yell, "Defense, Kirigiri!"

This jolts him back to himself. He pushes himself back to his feet, with effort. For a second, it almost feels as if the weight that had been pushing his shoulders down had been palpable. 

But he stands up anyway. He rejoins the game.

But still, it stays with Kazuha. The briefest moment where Kirigiri had been stuck in time as the world moved around him.


Their team plods towards a victory. Kazuha watches, heart in her throat, as Kirigiri's pass gets into one of the taller boys' hands, and the ball arcs into the hoop in one long, heartbreaking swoop.

The crowd explodes. Natori's yelling and clapping, Sugino hopping in place, bunny-like. Chizuru's got her hands clasped together, her eyes bright.

Affection surges through her. She almost forgets to look back at the court, basking in her friends' joy.

When she does look back, Kirigiri's looking at her.

Everything goes slow, and quiet.

Kirigiri's smiling his shit-eating grin, well-worn and familiar.

There you are, Kazuha thinks.

Her heart wants to jump out of her mouth.

A hand on her shoulder. She jolts out of the moment, to find Natori mouthing something at Kirigiri: meet us outside.

The basketball team is heading out, laughing among themselves as they go, pushing and shoving each other around. They trail into giddy looks as their group approaches, their gazes flitting from Kazuha to Kirigiri.

"Go ahead without me," Kirigiri tells them. "I'll catch up."

The boys are giggling as they leave, good naturedly shoving each other and sneaking unsubtle glances at Kazuha as they go.

Kirigiri's a little red as he shoos them off. "Ignore them, they're idiots."

He's flustered.

"Good game," she says.


Under the streetlights, he looks alive, healthier than she's seen him in a while. His dark circles are still there, but he no longer looks haunted.

He moves a little loosely, freely, as if some great weight had been laid down.

"I wasn't sure if I could do it," he says, soft. "There's been a lot on my mind lately."

Yoshioka's name rests in the silence between them. The five of them bow their heads for a moment.

Kazuha watches Kirigiri. He's still hiding something, but he seems relaxed. The numbers over his head are brighter than ever: 00:02:10.

When she looks back down at Kirigiri's face, he's looking straight at her.

Her heart does a weird skip-jump.

"You doing okay?" he asks, and oh, there he is, awkward and shy and tactless, her first love.

"I'm okay," she tells him. More than ever, it's true: surrounded by her friends, she is as okay as she will ever be. "What about you, basketball-brain?"

He nods. The peace between them feels soft and tentative, as fragile as the dust motes that float between them in the streetlight.

"I'm good too, Kajiura," he says.

"Good." She clasps her hands behind her back, so she won't do something silly, like try to touch his face or hold his hand. "That's good. And, um, good game."

"Oh. Thanks. You finally came to one of my games."

"Yeah," Kazuha breathes. Her hair falls over her eye. "I wanted to see you."

His hands twitch towards her. Kazuha's breath catches, and--

Awkwardly, jerkily, he brushes her hair behind her ear. His touch lingers on her, for the briefest of seconds.

Kazuha draws in a shaky breath.

Kirigiri's eyes widen. Like he'd been struck by lightning, he tucks his hands in his pockets.

Natori clears his throat and they both jerk.

"Yeah man," says Natori, loud as a foghorn. His cheeks are bright red. Chizuru and Sugino won't meet her eyes. "Seriously good job. If you power through the final league then you have a chance at the cup."

Kirigiri rubs the back of his neck. "Not necessarily, I think. Our rebounds aren't–"

"Any good," Chizuru supplies, nodding. "The rest of the fundamentals are solid, though. Particularly your defense."

Kazuha, Sugino and Natori grin at Kirigiri's surprise. "…Yeah," he says, slowly. "You know, if we got the school's most beautiful girl as our manager–"

"Hard pass," she says, and Kirigiri laughs.


He waves at them all, his smile tired, but happy. Kazuha's hands are still clasped behind her back, twitching with the deafening urge to touch him.

"We were thinking of going out tomorrow," she blurts. "To the beach. It's not a real summer break without it, is it?"

"And we could spend the night at Kazuha's," Sugino adds. "Natsuki would probably make room for the boys."

Kirigiri looks startled. He looks between Natori, and Kazuha.

"It's going to be fun," Natori says, no hint of a lie. "Finish off our summer break with a bang."

Slowly, Kirigiri nods. "Yeah. I guess that'd be nice."

Steward McOy