The Last of Our Summers
Natori looks up as she approaches.
"Hello, Kajiura," he says, warm. "We were talking about how we didn't get to go to any festivals this summer."
The ground is, as she was warned, busier than she expected: there’s a few students from their year that Kazuha recognizes, but most of them are fresh-faced and young, anxiously lining up in their gym uniforms behind older students with clipboards.
As she sits down on the grass in their quiet, shady corner, Sugino laughs. "Right, festival date. Classic romantic trope. It's sad that none of us here have any game."
Natori gives a surprised laugh. Sugino's posture has changed: she's leaning forward, a grin crooking her mouth. The way she flusters when Natori catches her eye, though, is all Sugino.
Kazuha sits next to Chizuru, who has a not-quite-real smile hooking up the edges of her lips. She won’t meet Kazuha’s eyes.
"When you go, it just ends up being crowded and awful," Kazuha points out.
Sugino’s eyes flash. "That's the point! God, you're hopeless." Natori nods along as Sugino starts counting on her fingers, "Crowded means you need to hold hands when you walk. As if that wasn't enough, if you want something from a stall you have to tug on their shirt to get their attention. Not to mention! Confessing! Under fireworks! Imagine it getting drowned by the noise!"
"You read too much manga. You just have to have good projection, and they can hear you no problem."
"It's just as nice to go with friends," says Natori, diplomatically. "Less manga-like, but half the fun is getting serious about the games."
"Yeah," Kazuha says, softly. "We should have gone."
A flash of movement.
Chizuru stands up, abrupt, brushing down her skirt with mindless motions.
Kazuha stands, too, her eyes on Chizuru’s fast-retreating back. "Let me," she says, faintly.
Chizuru’s half-running by the time she reaches the building, and, too surprised to break into a sprint herself, Kazuha nearly loses track of where she’s headed for.
On the first-floor restroom that Kazuha once hid in and desperately wished for a friend, Chizuru is crying. When she sees Kazuha, she spins around and locks herself in a stall.
Her heart does something strange: full of affection, it jolts, overspills.
"Let me in," she says.
The noises break into soft, muffled gasps.
"Chizuru," she says, soft.
Kazuha leans against a wall. "I keep thinking of Yoshioka," her voice falls into silence, like a stone thrown into a dark pond. "I wonder what she would have done, if she had a little more time. I read about bucket lists online, but does that stuff really make you happy?"
"All the happiness I've known is at this school, with you guys."
A wild swing of the door, the slam! of it hitting the wall.
Chizuru emerges. She's not looking at Kazuha as she stalks over to the sink and starts to wash her hands.
Kazuha pulls herself upright, rusted all over like a forgotten automaton.
"You don’t have to like what I’m putting you through right now."
She shakes her head. Her mouth is a thin pencil line. She doesn't stop washing her hands. Her face is pale, sweaty, hair sticking to her face.
She's the most beautiful girl in the world.
"I'm sorry," Kazuha says, soft.
A guttural noise chokes out of her best friend. She ducks her head, and when she raises it back up, her eyes are hard.
"How long have you known?"
Kazuha doesn't pretend she doesn't know what she's talking about. "A while. I've been seeing the light on my reflection."
"And you didn't tell us?"
"How could I?" Kazuha's voice shakes, despite herself. Despite everything. "There was nothing any of us could do. If there was, Kirigiri would have tried."
"Kirigiri," she spits his name like a curse. "This is his fault."
"It's not, though. He tried his best to save me that day. Isn't that the best any of us could do?" She tries a different tack, when Chizuru just hardens. "Do you blame me for what happened to Yoshioka?"
For a second, Chizuru looks stricken.
The world spins quietly under their feet. A minute, then two.
Then: "I don't want to stop being angry, Kazuha. I'm scared of what I'll be next."
"You don't get it. I tried, but I can't pretend to be all happy like Natori and Sugino. When I see Kirigiri, I just—I want to kill him, for doing this to you. For doing this to me."
She's a knife's edge. She's beautiful.
Kazuha leans over and turns the tap off. Chizuru grips the edge of the sink so hard her knuckles go white. Kazuha knows the feeling. She's spent half her life trying to contain herself.
"But that's it, isn't it? I'm making myself happy by making you miserable. And that's the decision I took. We promised to be selfish this summer, didn't we?"
Kazuha says, "You can choose to be selfish too, by making me worry about you. Worry that two of the people I love the most in the world are never going to get along. Worrying that you won’t be happy without me, worrying that you will."
“I think that’s what it means. For me, at least. To love someone.”
Chizuru holds herself very still, a statue of a goddess in the middle of a restaurant restroom.
Kazuha wets a tissue, and wipes Chizuru's face. A lifetime of friendship, condensed into one gesture.
The restroom is quiet. Like a crack going through granite, Chizuru begins to shake.
"I keep thinking about," Chizuru says, and breathes in deep, bites her lip hard.
"I keep thinking about that day on the roof."
"You'd barely known me for a few hours. You didn’t even like me. But when I asked you to come with me, the strangest look came over your face. Even back then, I knew you knew something bad was going to happen. And you came with me anyway."
"And then I got to know you and you were–standoffish, and capricious, and you had the meanest streak in you. But you were brave, too, and kind, and you opened up like a sunflower to anyone who was the least bit kind to you. You were just a girl, but you shone."
Kazuha pulls out more paper towels, wets them, and dabs at Chizuru's face. Something dark and unnamed chokes her for a second: something like a deep ocean of grief, vast and unknowable.
But then she grits her teeth. She would be selfish. She won't let herself be sad.
"You can't," she says, and takes in one gasp of a breath. "You can't forget me. Promise me you won't."
Chizuru looks at her, finally. Courteous, she leans in and kisses the tears on Kazuha's cheeks. Her lips are so soft.
"I love you," she says, simply, and Kazuha closes her eyes.
"I love Kirigiri."
"I know," says Chizuru. She draws her close and hides her face in her hair, her whole body shaking.
Kazuha looks at the ceiling, and dreams.
A knock on the door, and Sugino appears.
The way she looks at them is a sad, weary acceptance.
She crouches down next to them, and ruffles Chizuru's hair. "Come on."
"Those two twins are looking for you. Looks like they want you to be in the race.”
“I don’t…I don’t have any of my gym clothes.”
The twins shake their heads. Their smiles are as big as ever, but there’s something odd and hollow about their expressions. Did they still idolize Yoshioka, call her Ai? Did they cry at her funeral?
Did they carry her with them, as Kazuha carries her?
“It’s okay, senpai! It’s really just a casual thing. We just don’t have enough people to represent the third-years, because, um. We—”
“Good luck, Kajiura!” Natori calls, as she lets herself be led out to the ground by the twins.
She looks over her shoulder to grin at him, before being struck with a pang of love. Her friends sit in a messy line, the sun behind their backs.
She wants to burn the sight into her eyelids. One day, they’ll go to college without her. One day, they'll be grown up, and Kazuha will be a time capsule they bury in the sand, taking with her all the memories of their last summer of high school.
She hopes they'll remember her often. She hopes she is loved.
“We found a replacement for—we found Kazuha-senpai!”
Someone writes her name down on a clipboard. She is pushed towards a starting line, and looks straight ahead.
“Good luck, senpai!” Hinata calls.
She doesn’t need it.
The whistle blows, and she lets the world fall away around her.
There’s something freeing about running that makes her thoughts fall away. She is moving, she is made of inertia: soon she will transcend everything and become endless, weightless, free.
She runs past the finish line, and sees Kirigiri waiting for her. She runs straight into him. They knock together like badly-fitted puzzle pieces, her head against his chin. He yelps out a curse. Kazuha cradles her head.
“Sociopath,” Kirigiri says. “Ow, ow. Bit my tongue.”
It’s the Kirigiri she knows, cradling his chin with his eyes watering with pain. A laugh flies free from Kazuha’s mouth.
“Suck it up,” she says. “Come on, I’m sure they have like a med pack somewhere here.”
“No need, I’m fine,” but he’s fussing, and he looks truly miserable. Kazuha laughs at him and runs off to borrow a painkiller from the twins.
“Congrats, Kajiura-senpai!” Hinata singsongs, as Momoko rummages in a bag. “That was beautiful! Oh, it was as amazing as when Ai runs!”
Kazuha’s lip quirks. Their expressions are content. “Be good, you two.”
“When are we not!” they singsong. “Thanks for standing in for Ai!”
As Kazuha walks away from them, she joins the scattered groups of runners walking out of the ground. She hands the painkillers to Kirigiri, and he swallows them dry.
It’s getting dark now, the ground dotted with the last few students packing up to leave. The twins wave at her as they go.
Idly, searching the sky for the first stars, she asks, “Now?”
She points at her head. He looks like she ripped his heart out for a split second before he smooths his expression and says, “One hour, nine minutes.”
“Huh.” Kazuha had never had a great grasp on time.
Kirigiri sighs. He looks exhausted. She hates seeing him like this, so drawn and pale.
On impulse, she leans in. She headbutts him again.
Kirigiri goes stumbling this time, his legs giving out and sitting down hard on the ground. He looks up at her, pure, clean surprise written all over his face like a sunrise in a cloudless sky.
She laughs at him, and tackles him down. His arms come up automatically: he holds her tight.
The air smells of fresh grass and the first hints of rain.
"Why didn't you tell me you had a superpower?"
Kirigiri shakes his head. His arms are careful around her, respectful and gentle but vice-tight. He's so silly. Doesn't he know she knows?
"It's…it's a part of me I never wanted you to know about."
Kazuha frowns. She can tell when he’s leaving something out. “What else?”
“Well, it’s crazy but,” he clasps his hands tighter. “When you watch the girl you love die right before your eyes, you go a little crazy.” He lifts a finger, counting. “First, I was mad at you for being so careless. But it was a scared sort of mad, you know? Like I couldn’t make myself really mad at you. I just wanted you to be fine so I could be properly mad.”
“Then it gets really crazy. You start making all these bargains with god, with anyone who’d listen.”
"You hate all that stuff."
He still doesn’t look at her. “Does that really matter?”
In a surge of giddy boldness, Kazuha takes his hand. The musculature of his hands is fascinating, trembling as they are. He always had big hands, and he’s finally grown into them. Kazuha’s thankful she got to see it.
“These three months, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, you know," Kirigiri says, in a soft, broken voice. "Thinking about all the dumb, nerdy little things you were looking forward to. Graduating. Going to university. Showing your mom and dad you could be more successful than Natsuki.”
“Sorry, Kazuha,” he says, and he chokes. “I couldn’t give you any of those things.”
“You gave me three months," she says. "It was long enough”
He shakes his head. He refuses to meet her eye.
“Are you still going to go to Nagoya?”
Kirigiri nods. “It was our plan.”
“Don’t,” Kazuha says, suddenly. “I want you to go somewhere else. Go to Hokkaido. Go abroad. Don’t just—marinate in this. In me.”
She sits back, grass stains on her elbows, the wind catching her hair. Her hair is coarse, like her mother’s. Messy like her father’s. For a brief moment, she’s the happiest person in the world.
“Do you really love me?”
Kirigiri’s clearly fighting a wave of shuddering grief. Kazuha doesn’t know what to do.
“Yes,” he says, in a wretched voice. “How could I not. Kazuha, I’m obsessed with you.”
He starts when she yells. The sound makes a bird that was poking at the ground nearby take off in a startled beat of wings. Kazuha feels like she might fly, herself.
“I don’t know about you,” she says, “But hearing the boy I love say he loves me makes me feel pretty good.”
He looks at her incredulously, and she grins and throws a handful of grass at him.
He dodges on instinct. For a second they wrestle like children, her elbow in her side and him pushing her face into the dirt, until she finally stops fighting when he pins her hands to the sides of her head.
She grins up at him.
He’s beautiful, in the dusk. He wears a crown of the first hints of stars, brighter than the light over his head. It’s a beautiful summer night.
“You mustn’t date anyone smarter than me,” she says. “Promise me. If you see a girl at university who seems like she’s smarter, you can’t even talk to her.”
“I’m never dating anyone,” Kirigiri says. He leans his forehead on hers. “Never ever. It’s you or nobody.”
She touches his face and he leans into it, warm. His cheeks are damp. “You have to, Kirigiri. Promise me.” She changes the subject before he can argue. “Ever think about the fact that if we ever got married, we’d both be Kazuha Kirigiri?”
This startles him out of his growing melancholy. He snorts. “We could take each other’s names instead. Swap identities.”
He’s still half-laughing at his dumb joke when Kazuha leans up and kisses him.
Despite both their inexperience, it’s a good kiss: Kazuha’s almost proud of herself. It’s a kiss you could write home about. It’s a kiss that could go on and on.
Kirigiri runs his hand through her hair and she sighs into his mouth.
“One minute,” he says. He sounds soft, peaceful. Kazuha wants to live in this moment forever.
When she draws back, the timer over his head is gone.
She closes her eyes, glad. Between one breath and the next, she wishes for countless things. She wishes that in her absence, the whole world will say it for her: that he was good, that he made her life bright and whole. She hopes that the wind and the sun and the sea will all be her hands reaching out to him, with every beat of the world that she lived in: that he is loved, loved, loved.
When the end comes it’s nothing as dramatic as all the deaths she’s faced before: no skidding cars, no pieces of falling machinery. One moment she’s smiling at her friends in the distance, her hand in Kirigiri's; the next, she feels a pain in her heart.
Bullshit, she thinks. Her heart’s fuller than ever.
She’s never been happier.
“Be happy,” she tells Kirigiri. Her words don’t come out, but he smiles like he heard her anyway.
Kazuha Kajiura closes her eyes.
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