The Last of Our Summers
Kazuha crunches on some of Natsuki's specialty burnt toast as she checks her messages.
sorryyyyy, reads the first text from Sugino.
running a little late :(
mom asked me to come to the hospital to help her with something :(((((
Me too, says Chizuru, with a sticker of an ugly panda crying. Chizuru's taste in stickers was…unique. I'll be there in an hour. Kazuha?
Kazuha looks at the fourth member of their group chat. She clicks on the profile picture, and a photo of a giant hippo plushie shows up.
She snorts, despite herself.
Yoshioka's on the very corner of the picture, making a face, blurry and unfocused. She has her hair in a ponytail and her eyes crinkled in a suppressed laugh.
She clicks back to their group chat.
I think I'll go ahead and wait for you guys there.
Maybe the boys will come early.
LOL, says Chizuru.
lmao, says Sugino.
She puts her phone in a little bag, and gets dressed. She never thought she'd need a swimsuit, so she hasn't bought one–not in years. Maybe she should have gone with her friends.
Dreaming about going shopping with Chizuru and Sugino, she pulls on a pair of shorts, looks at her reflection, blushes, and puts on a T shirt. Then she pauses and checks the reflection again.
A line of numbers glow on her head like a neon crown, but Kazuha's not interested. Instead, she looks at her own face, blinking a little at how much she's changed.
There's something quiet and still in her eyes. A kind of summer burn glimmers under her skin, something that has consumed her and changed her, inside out.
The whole summer has felt like a freefall, and she is finally getting on to her feet, dusting herself off. She likes who she sees.
While she was daydreaming about Kyoto, maybe this is who she really wanted to be. Quiet, content, humming with a core of hidden joy.
When she goes downstairs, she finds Natsuki and her mother are talking in the living room, serious-faced. Natsuki smiles and waves. Her mother's serious mask loosens a little.
"Going out?" Natsuki asks.
He comes over, and reties the ribbon in her hair for her. He reminds her of herself: bashful, awkward, looking for excuses to touch the ones she loved. She leans into it, and he smiles.
Her mother is nodding, too. "It'd do you good to get out of the house, Kazuha."
"Yeah," Kazuha replies stiffly. "I think so too. I'm meeting my friends at the beach."
"Take care," says her mother. "You have to take better care than last time."
"Didn't you almost drown the last time you went to the beach?"
Kazuha nods. She didn't think her mother would remember.
"It's only been three months since then. Are you sure you want to go?"
"I want to meet my friends, mom."
Her mother sighs, turns back to her toast. "Eat something before you go, at least."
"Did you put on sunscreen?" asks Natsuki.
In a burst, Kazuha feels wildly, disproportionately happy. She tries not to grin too weirdly at them, but it feels like a losing battle.
"Yeah," she says, loud, intense. She picks up some toast with blind hands, trying not to fumble in her joy. Watching them sit together, two androids of the same make as her, has made her heart overfull. "I'll be going now."
"Come home soon," they both say at the same time. Kazuha's smile grows.
It's not a long way to the beach. Kazuha's strappy sandals have just started to dig in a little into her feet when she passes the last stretch of buildings that block her view of the sea. She takes them off before she steps off the walkway, and lets herself sink into the dry sand, and breathes.
The scent of the ocean that pervades her whole life is everywhere now. It feels, strangely, like coming home.
The beach isn't as crowded as they had feared it would be. There's a lot of kids though–Kazuha keeps almost crashing into gaggles of them as she makes her way forward, and accidentally kicks one that's half-buried in the sand. The kicked child smiles at her, calm and forgiving, but–
"What the hell do you think you're doing? I saw that!"
Kazuha turns around with a heavy heart. Angry footsteps slash through sand towards her, only to slow as they approach.
"Oh, it's you," Hikari says, with great unenthusiasm. She's wearing a bright blue bikini top and shorts, with a sort of violently flowery silk robe number over them. Her hair is in two braids under her white sunhat.
She says, "First you try to kill me and now you're kicking my brother. I should report you to the police."
The boy undigs himself. "My sister's very sensitive," he tells Kazuha. The way he squints up at her makes her suspect his eyesight is nothing to write home about. "Mom said she could relax at the beach, but she doesn't want to relax, I think."
"Shut up, pipsqueak," says Hikari.
"Sorry for kicking you," Kazuha tells him.
He nods solemnly. "I forgive you. If I didn't, it's my own peace that would be forfeit."
"How fucking old are you," Kazuha says helplessly.
He holds up seven fingers. Then, with a whee! he runs off towards another group of yelling boys.
"Don't swear at my brother," Hikari complains, belated.
"He's kind of strange."
Hikari sneers. "You're one to talk."
Oh. She's flipped into malicious Hikari again. Kazuha doesn't have time for this.
"Yeah, well whatever, Hikari."
Hikari's eyes widen for a split second. As Kazuha pushes past her, she makes a cute growling noise under her breath and catches her wrist.
"I heard you confessed to Kirigiri and got rejected. Welcome to the club, or whatever."
A familiar pain twinges through her heart, but she's used to it by now. Instead of being thrown, Kazuha studies her. "You don't look happy."
Her hand drops from Kazuha's wrist like she'd been burned. "Of course I'm happy, it's no less than you deserve!" She worries the brim of her sunhat, pulling it down to cover her eyes.
Kazuha raises an eyebrow. Hikari's body language has not changed in the three years they didn't talk. Here, where they're not surrounded by her giggling friends or the stares of their classmates, Kazuha sees that Hikari has not changed much at all.
It takes her a while to finally stick her chin up, and announce, "I just think it's kind of sad. You pushed me off a staircase for him."
"That was all you, actually."
"And now Mr. Narumaki's going around saying you're not applying for Kyoto after all."
"I think Mr. Narumaki's dating my brother."
"He was always overinvested," Kazuha says. It's nice to say it out loud, even if it's to Hikari. "I mean, I'm happy they're happy but he shouldn't have just. You know. Used my education as an excuse to get close to Natsuki, or whatever."
Hikari's making the strangest face. Two of her teeth peek out, chewing her lower lip. A hamster.
"Y'know, that doesn't necessarily mean– like. That might not have been an angle. He might just have been trying to be a good teacher, or whatever. You are the top of our grade."
Kazuha raises an eyebrow.
"Ugh, ew, why am I saying this," Hikari complains.
Kazuha raises her eyebrows further. They both know. Hikari being friends with her to get close to Kirigiri, Mr. Narumaki watching over her to get close to Natsuki. Kazuha's heart is easy to read, her insecurities on full display sometimes.
"Do you want to sit," Hikari says, sounding angry that she has to ask. "You look like a weird pole jammed in the ground. And it's boring as hell out here."
One of the groups of playing children rush past her, almost knocking her over. "Hey!" she yelps, and then, to Kazuha, "Don't laugh at me. Asshole."
Kazuha hides her smile. "Chizuru and Sugino are coming later, you can join us."
"Bleh. Hard pass. Aonuma always looks like she wants to claw my eyes out."
"She's my best friend."
This seems to fluster her. "What are you, ten?"
"Kirigiri was my best friend when I was ten. Now it's Chizuru. I don't think you have any reason to be scared of her. She's very nice."
"That's not the only reason. Sugino's been kind of weird. Since that girl from Class C passed."
A cloud over the sun.
Hikari slumps into a colorful mat spread out on the sand, a fair distance from the waves. There's an umbrella rigged precariously over it, looking like it'll fall over any second.
Kazuha looks down on her. "Yoshioka was Sugino's best friend."
For a second, Hikari's expression crumbles. Something almost sad and scared enters her face before, with almost visible effort, she pushes it away.
"I don't want to start being nice to everyone," she says, "just because they're sad."
"When my dad left, all the girls who used to bully me in middle school started acting like I'd off myself any second," Hikari says, matter-of-factly. "All kid gloves and shit. You were the only one who treated me as usual. Most likely because you didn't know, but I liked that you were too dumb to listen to gossip."
Yoshioka speaks through Kazuha, then: "Your ideals are so fucked, Hikari."
She scowls. "You're welcome to leave. We had a good thing going when we didn't talk to each other for three years. No, you're doing it wrong," she says, as Kazuha sits beside her. "You're supposed to leave."
"How could I, when you're this cute," Kazuha says, flat. She sticks her legs out, admires how much longer they are than Hikari's. "Don't bully Sugino. It's not cute, you're not doing her a favor."
"I wasn't going to!"
"She's going through a hard time," Kazuha says, looking at the sky. "She's having an even harder time forgiving me."
"Huh. For what?"
"I was with her. When Yoshioka died."
The words came out so naturally now: Yoshioka died.
"Really? So the first-years saying you pushed her off the building are telling the truth?"
It's not unfathomable that someone saw them. Kazuha squeezes her eyes shut. Yoshioka smiled at her, at the very end, but when she went over the building her eyes had been full of fear. It's not how she wants to remember her.
"No. When her heart gave out. I was with her."
"What a strange combination."
The new voice that calls from a distance makes them both freeze.
Hikari and Kazuha both look up to see Kirigiri jogging towards them, a smile fixed on his face. "What are you two doing? Except giving me flashbacks to middle school."
He's wearing ugly red board shorts and a wary smile. He's been losing sleep again–he looks as tired as she's ever seen him.
Something in her chest gives a loud pang.
"Kirigiri," she breathes.
His eyes on her is a clap of thunder.
She's aware she's being ridiculous, but warmth pools in her stomach anyway. She had missed him so much, missed the goofy way he sang along to songs he was listening to, the lines of his arms, the careful cut of his jaw. Even the numbers over his head-- reading 01:08:11-- are now familiar.
One day, she thinks. Tomorrow summer will end, and she and her friends will save Kirigiri.
Hikari has recovered faster than she has. "Chill, Kirigiri," she says haughtily. "No need for you to go all mad dog. We're just talking."
Kirigiri's all smiles. "Sure, of course. You'll just have to excuse me if I won't take your word for it. Kajiura?"
This is surreal. What are they talking about?
Did Kirigiri rush over because he was worried Hikari was bullying her?
"Yeah," Kazuha says slowly. "We were just talking about Yoshioka."
His expression changes. Something akin to the haunted grief of Sugino's face takes over.
"Oh," he says, sitting down in the sand in front of them. "Yeah. Rough stuff."
He misses her too, Kazuha thinks, sudden, almost nauseous. Whatever happened between them, Yoshioka and Kirigiri had been good friends.
"I was telling Kajiura that it's insane if anyone blames her."
Kirigiri's lashes sweep his cheekbones when he blinks. She's always been so jealous of them.
"Like. Even if there was something she could do about it, it's not like she had prior warning or whatever. There's no way she could have helped."
Kazuha thinks of the timer, blocked out by the sun.
"And even if there was some way of stopping it," Hikari says, sounding genuinely angry at their non-responses, "bad things happen all the time. Sometimes we do our best to avoid it but it happens anyway."
A long-forgotten conversation comes back to her. Kazuha's head jerks up, and she sees Yoshioka reflected in the ocean, glittering smile.
The memory rises of a rainy day, all of them soaked to the bone: Yoshioka saying, cut your losses and move on.
She remembers as Yoshioka was: abrasive, volatile, reckless. Quick to anger, but also to laugh.
Yoshioka had said, at least I was loved.
The sun reflected on the waves. The smell of sea salt. The taste of saltwater in her mouth.
"Wait," Hikari says, a jarring off-key note of panic. "Where's my brother?"
A ringing in her ears. The whole world draws a breath.
At the sea, the screaming begins. A tiny head comes up the waves for a split second, gasping, limbs a-flail.
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