Chapter 0:

1 Hour Till Cram School

The Last of Our Summers

The first time it happens, Kazuha thinks she’s dreaming.

It’s the last day of Midterms. Her mind rattles and rumbles and pushes out answers one by one, which then spurt onto the paper in her ugly cramped handwriting. She hates what she's written even as she double, triple, quadruple checks everything. 

Once she's done, she stands up with a clatter of her chair and turns in her paper, a full half an hour early, well before anyone else. 

She should revise harder.

Then she pads through empty hallways, watching the rain splash on the flower beds in unbroken sheets until she comes to the music room, where the first-years are already setting up.

They all look up when she enters, and surprise ripples across the room. No one says anything, except:

“Ah, Kajiura,” says Ms. Sawatani, hurrying up to her across the room. “Are you sure you can join us today? I know that your Maths exam doesn’t end for another hour.”

She waves her conducting baton with her hands as she speaks, looking anxious but unsurprised. Most teachers look this way when they talk to Kazuha.

Kazuha inclines her head. “I finished,” she says.

Ms. Sawatani droops. She’s on the younger side, and Kazuha’s lackluster responses always seem to deflate her like a balloon. “As expected from you, Kajiura! Did you make sure to double check your answers?”

Kazuha nods. Then, remembering why she’s here, she pulls out a letter from her bag and offers it to Ms. Sawatani.

“Ah,” she says, reading it over. “Are you sure?”

"I’d like to focus on entrance exams.”

Ms. Sawatani folds her resignation letter and squeezes Kazuha’s hands briefly, startling her.

“We’ll miss you around here,” she says.

It’s such a wishy-washy and pointless lie. Kazuha hadn’t done the world’s best job hiding her disgust when the orchestra went all teamwork makes the dream work! 

What a load of crap. 

They hadn’t gone out of their way to make her feel welcome either. She’ll be missed like a heart attack. Even now, she can feel the curious, hostile gazes of the first years needling at her skin.

“Everyone, listen up,” Ms. Sawatani says to the room. Even at her loudest, she isn’t very loud. Dozens of classically trained ears strain as the first years lean forward to hear her. 

“Our first chair Kazuha Kajiura will be retiring from the club today. Let’s all wish her the best for her entrance exams.”

Oh god. Does she have to say something nice now?

Maybe she could have a repeat of her infamous rant from second year about how competitions didn't mean anything. That would make for an interesting exit. 

Could Sawatani make her write apologies for that? She opens her mouth to find out–

–and chokes, as a spike of pain lances through her head.

She doubles over. She can't breathe.

What happens next has all the hallmarks of a dream: vaguely, through the blurred edges of her vision, she sees the club members start. No one comes forwards to help her, even as she claws at her throat and heaves in staccato gasps of breath.

But even as her ears echo with the sound of her ragged breathing, she notices them: flickering lights. They hover above everyone’s heads, cords of pale white that restlessly twist in on themselves, fighting to take shape.

When her watered eyes clear, they’re gone, and she can breathe again.

The first-years are staring at her. 

She tips her chin up. "Do your best. If you're not good enough, give up."

Her voice is hoarse. Her mouth is overwhelmed with the taste of salt. Her whole body is drenched with sweat. 

She squares her shoulders as best she can anyway, and levels her haughtiest glare to the room.

What the hell was that, someone whispers, before Ms. Sawatani can catch them.

Geniuses are a bit weird, don't you know.

She’s finally losing it. No wonder she’s quitting.

They say it with their faces turned away, flickering little glances at her that nick at her skin. Kazuha doesn’t see why they're acting so scared—it’s not like they're wrong. She's hallucinating lights for some reason. She's probably so tired she's falling asleep standing up. 

It's probably nothing serious. She can't let it be. She's behind on her studies as she is.

Right before regionals, someone else says. Typical.

"What regionals?" 

They flinch. 

Kazuha adds, "The one we come home from with our tails tucked between our legs every year?"

The whole room goes still.

"Kajiura, please," Sawatani nudges her, distressed. "You don't mean that. This orchestra is important to all of us."

Kazuha straightens her shoulders and looks into the middle distance. Her skin is still clammy.

“Sure. Yeah, whatever. Thanks for everything,” she says, and bows to Ms. Sawatani before she walks out of the music room as fast as she can.

Regionals, she thinks mockingly.

It wasn’t as if anybody cared if their casual little no-name orchestra made it to regionals. University applications certainly wouldn't.

Kazuha had already rehearsed how she would justify all the hours she spent holding a violin in high school, and regionals hadn’t even factored into it. More along the lines of it gave me an appreciation for aesthetics, which made me a well-rounded person. Nice and humble. The team spirit stuff was grating but it did wonders on applications.

Thinking of university applications puts that familiar churning back in her stomach. Her grades had been so high in first year but they're tanking fast for no good reason she can see. It's getting harder and harder to concentrate in class, and her notes keep blurring in front of her eyes.

Her head feels like there's a great weight slowly pressing her to the ground. She imagines her bones groaning and squeaking under its pressure, reforming around it, her chin level with her ankles and her arms elongated and flailing.

She looks up. Beyond the school building, under the distant span of a cloudless sky, the sea glitters at her, whipping up starbursts of light across her vision.

Then, she breathes. And she's fine.

She goes outside. 

The rain is lighter now, soft and sun-warmed on her clammy skin. Her heart slows down to normal as she walks, and with each step her little…episode feels more and more distant. She'll be fine. She has to be.

She puts her hand over her heart, and listens to its calm, steady beat.

In her bag, one of her alarms goes off. One hour till cram school.

Kazuha quickens her pace. There's two first years near the bicycle rack who glance at her curiously when she arrives. Their gazes, though neutral, also prickle her skin. She doesn't look back. 

Once they've looked away, Kazuha gets on her bike and watches at them carefully as she begins to pedal. No lights over their heads. That's a relief. She isn't going crazy, then.

She quickly looks ahead before they notice her looking. Things like regionals, and lights above the heads of people she doesn't even care about are the least of her problems.

If she hurries, she can revise before cram school.