The Last of Our Summers
Sunlight comes in pinkish waves through the windows. Some internal alarm spurs her into waking up and tracking the sunrise through her window.
Chizuru and Sugino are squeezed into the bed with her, Chizuru's hair fanned out behind her head like a halo as she sleeps, her worries gone slack. Sugino still looks sad, her body curled up like a scared child's. Kazuha takes care to not wake them up as she gently gets out of bed. She passes Kirigiri, passed out on the couch, his hand lying over his face.
After brushing her teeth and washing her face, she goes out to her balcony, her hairline still damp, and finds Natsuki and Natori drinking coffee.
"Ah, Kazuha," Natsuki says with a smile. "You're up early today. Didn't you stay up late with ?"
"Not too late," she tells him.
Natori's eyes are curved in a soft, sweet smile when they meet hers. He sits very straight, as usual, his eyes direct and unflinching.
"What are your plans for the day? Just lazing around with your friends?"
"I thought I'd go to school. Do some tutoring for everyone. And, I don’t know. Run some laps or something."
Both their eyes widen. Natori's shutter for a split second, but then his lips push up, and there’s his sad, soft smile again.
"On the last day of summer break? Kazuha, are you certain?”
"Better late than never."
He nods, slowly. He smiles. "I'm glad you're opening up, Kazuha. More people need to realize how amazing you are."
Kazuha smiles back. Her heart seizes with love. "Love you, brother."
He ruffles her hair as he goes back inside, and for a moment they stand next to each other in the pale sunlight, two carbon copies, clones who loved each other. He's wearing a robe over a well-worn T-shirt and pajama pants, and in that moment she glimpses the old man he'll grow up to be, laugh lines wrinkled and voice hoarse with love.
Natsuki says, "Be safe. I'll be going to work, but maybe we could get cake again, soon? I want to introduce you to someone."
"I'm sure if Natsuki likes them, they're a good person."
Another half-smile. "My gentle sister."
He looks surprised when she throws her arms around him in a hug. He's barely taller than her: he holds his mug away and hugs her back, tight, with his free hand.
"You grew up so well," he croons. "So kind."
"Thanks to you," she tells him. "All I did was copy you. Even the copycat of a hero is a good person."
He shakes his head ruefully. "You're a thousand times braver than I am, Kazuha."
She lets him go. He pats her face once, and then slips back inside the house.
When she looks back, Natori's looking out at the sky.
"The moon's still out," he says, when she comes to stand next to him. He points. "Look. How strange."
"It's not like it goes away. It's usually just too bright in the daytime to see it."
A small quirk of a grin. "Always there, huh."
"What were you and Natsuki talking about?"
He shrugs. "Sisters. What a pain in the ass they are. Joking, joking," he winces when Kazuha prods him with her elbow. "I don't know. After listening to Natsuki, I feel sure now that university's just not for me. There was a part of me, you know, wondering if I wasn't going because I needed to support my sisters. I wouldn't have wanted to resent them for it, somewhere down the line."
"You're a good brother. You would have figured it out."
Natori finally looks at her. Handsome as a song, he grins. "You never know what's going to happen next, you know? It's always good to have a clear heart."
"Promise you'll take care of Kirigiri."
For a split second, his mask of smiles breaks. His hand is shaking when she touches the top of it, and she wishes that she saw him for his strength earlier. His steadfast goodness.
"He's dumb, you know. He won't know that you all have to stick together." She laughs a little to herself. "We're too alike, in the worst ways, and you and Chizuru are the best things that happened to us."
Natori nods. He's looking out again. His hand, large and solid, slips into Kazuha's.
"The world is so bright and wide," he says quietly. "I wish you could come with us."
Kazuha smiles. "I will."
In a minute, the rest will wake up, and it'll be time to get dressed and go to school. She will have to make sure that Chizuru and Kirigiri don't get enough time to themselves to be sad.
But till then, she and Natori sit on the balcony, holding hands. The sun rises on the last day of summer.
It's strange to change into her uniform. She looks at herself in the mirror, avoiding looking at the glowing countdown over her head and looking at her skirt critically instead.
Then, decided, she rolls her skirt up, once, twice. She nods at her reflection. It looks as cute as she always thought it would.
Sugino's pulling a hoodie over her uniform. "Your shoulders are weirdly broad.”
"Why didn't you go get your own? You live ten minutes away."
"Well. You know."
Chizuru comes into the room next, braiding her hair. "Your brother said he's ready to drop us."
"Oh," a pang across her heart. "He doesn't have to. Do we all have space?"
"I can call my driver."
Kirigiri looks up. He's been quiet since he woke up, moving through room to room as quiet as a ghost. His timer's still there too, twin to Kazuha's: 00:10:34.
"I can take my bike," he says, raspy.
She has to save him in ten hours.
Her heart's light. She can do anything.
Natori stands up from his perch on Kazuha's reading chair, easy. "I'll take Kajiura's bike, then."
Kazuha hums. Natori winks at her as he leads Kirigiri out of the room.
It's surreal to see them. Kazuha keeps turning around in the backseat of Natsuki's car, watching them pedal in the sunlight. Her eyes keep catching on Kirigiri. There is a stark and unrelenting awareness of him in her, that she never let surface, always pushed down and down to the depths of her mind. She doesn't push now. She looks and looks and looks.
Not at his timer, not at the slumped, resigned way he's carrying himself; but at the angle of his jaw, the clean lines of his legs as he pedals. The flop of his unstyled hair, the shadow of his collarbones. And his eyes: dark sparks in the soft light of day, looking straight ahead.
Natsuki catches her eye through the rearview mirror. "Sit straight, Kazuha."
She does, demurely pressing her legs together. Beside her, Chizuru smiles.
Natsuki parks outside the school, and hangs from his steering wheel like a dad to call, "Take care! Don't study too much, it's still summer break!" after them.
Kazuha pops her head in through the passenger side door and pokes his nose. "We know," she says.
He looks startled. They've always been more like a young parent and a child than siblings; Natsuki looks like a puppy that's been tipped over.
"Love you," she tells him.
A grin begins to bloom over his face. He boops her nose back.
"Love you too," he says.
She watches as he pulls out, and his car disappears into the distance. Then she turns back to her friends, who are hanging back, watching. Her eyes are bright.
The study room is crowded, just like she thought it would be. It's one of those observations that had bothered her, at the back of her mind: why so many of the other students waited till the last day of summer to complete their homework.
Now that she's here, looking at them all, she's unsure. How presumptuous–
Chizuru nudges her. "None of that."
She clears her throat and steps to the front. The room quiets down.
"Listen up," she says, her voice carrying. "My name's Kazuha Kajiura, from Class A. I'm the top of the grade. And I'm going to explain some things to you."
Their class president comes up to her, after a solid three hours of her standing in front of a whiteboard talking herself hoarse.
"So you were lying when you said you couldn't tutor," he says dryly.
"Seriously," exclaims one of the girls (Rinka Nakamura, Kazuha's brain supplies). "You covered like. A whole year's worth of Maths, and you kept doubling back and explaining the parts where I got confused. That's honestly insane."
"Kajiura's just good at everything," says a voice from behind her. Sugino's coming up to them, her hands in her hoodie pockets. She tells Kazuha, "The boys and Aonuma went to get something from the vending machine, but we could go to the ground and tell them to come over.”
Their class president nods at her. "Thank you for the lesson, Kajiura. I don't know what came over you, but that was some really good work. How did you figure out how to explain high concepts like that?"
Kazuha looks at him. Kuze, she remembers. He had been the first one to suggest that she ran for sports day. Even when she'd been nothing but a stubborn snob.
"A lot of things are simpler than I thought they were," she says, confidentially. “It’s about saying what feels right to you. Instead of trying to put it into perspective.”
Sugino tugs at her shirt. She’s looking at her watch. "C'mon," she says.
Kazuha waves at the class president as she goes. Nakamura and her friends stop her too: “If you’re going to the ground, watch out. There’s a track event or something.”
Outside the study room, Sugino takes the lead. "You picked a weird time to decide to be popular.”
They all deal with being scared differently. Sugino seems to turn into Yoshioka; her mannerisms, the way she yanks up her shoulders: they're all a perfect copy.
Kazuha says, quietly, "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry for asking so much of you," she says. "You just lost Yoshioka."
Sugino exhales. "Ai."
"I don't know if you think I'm–taking attention away from her–or something."
Sugino's mouth drops open.
Chizuru's so stunningly beautiful that it's easy to forget sometimes that Sugino's pretty too—pretty in a quiet, refreshing way that it takes a while to notice.
"I don't want you to stop being sad about Yoshioka to be sad about me," Kazuha takes a deep breath. She thinks of Yoshioka's terrified face. "Keep thinking about her."
"Dumbass. Robot girl."
"I can grieve more than one person at a time," Sugino says, darkly. "Watch me."
Kazuha laughs, despite herself. "Why are you taking that as a challenge."
A beat, and then Sugino laughs too. She says, "You're so weird, Kajiura. Like, truly weird. It used to drive her crazy. She used to say you were like a robot that's waking up for the first time. She's good at everything but she's so horrible, seriously who hurt her?”
“Yoshioka talking shit about me isn’t news/"
Sugino's quiet. They're almost at the bottom of the stairs now, a few more turns past the hallways and they’ll be at the ground. She can almost sense Natori keeping the other two in check.
"Do you think you'll see her?" Sugino says, quietly. "I don't want you two to be alone."
Kazuha thinks. The air feels light and fragrant on her skin, like the aftermath of rain.
"Both of us struggled our whole lives to stop being lonely. And neither of us are, in the end. I don't think we ever will be again."
Sugino bites her lip till it goes white. Her hands are trembling.
"Yeah," she says, and balls her fists. "You're right."
In the distance she can see her friends. They’re a huddled group, sitting on the grass, lit by the face of a relentless sun. A strange feeling of fear comes over her.
She doesn't want to go over. She doesn't want to pretend she's not scared. She wants to leave them like this–just like this.
She thinks of Yoshioka saying I just wish I had a little more time.
Kazuha takes a deep breath, and joins her friends.
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