"Eh?" Uiharu Kazari blinked at her supervisor. "A visiting Judgment member?"
"Ah!" Shirai-san raised a finger sagely. "Is this because of the shared training unification program that was mentioned to us in the last branch-wide meeting?"
"Oh yeah!" Kazari had been too focused on fretting over Saten-san and the Level Upper problem to pay attention to the meeting, she remembered guiltily, even though everything official had been wrapped up by then. "That means... um..."
Konori-senpai took a sip of cocoa, and nodded. "That's right. Yamashiro Chika is a third-year student at Joshibi Middle School in the 14th District. She works for Judgment in Branch 83, but she'll be visiting Branch 177 for a week. So please welcome her, okay?"
"Okay!" they chorused, more or less in unison.
"Um..." Kazari turned sheepishly to her partner once Konori-senpai had gone to her computer. "Sorry, but I forget what the training program's about..."
"Sheesh, Uiharu-san." Shirai-san rolled her eyes, and settled in to bestow her gracious wisdom on her partner. Kazari was used to it by now -- and, she had to admit, there was something so cool about Shirai-san's ladylike ways, even when she was being annoying about them. "In order to promote unity across the various branches of Judgment, an ongoing exchange program has been implemented. Members will be selected to spend a week in a different branch, where they will shadow their local comrades and learn about that branch's particular focus and way of functioning. In other words, it's a great honor for our team to be one of the first models chosen to demonstrate Judgment's workings to our fellow members."
Kazari wondered briefly, as she often did, how Shirai-san managed to get out such long sentences without getting out of breath. "All right... So she'll be helping us with our work, and teaching us about how Branch 83 does things?"
"That's right." Shirai-san sipped her cocoa daintily. "Of course, there shouldn't be much difference between the branches. We all have the same training, and the 14th District isn't very different from the 18th."
"That's true." Kazari grinned at her partner, determination firming inside her. "All right! Let's make sure to make Yamashiro-senpai welcome!"
Yamashiro Chika proved to be a tall girl with long black hair, a thin angular face, and a quiet voice; her long-skirted uniform looked like a burgundy version of Kazari's own Sakugawa Middle School clothes. "Pleased to meet you," she'd murmured after Konori-senpai's introduction, and bowed low.
Kazari had immediately felt her heart go out to the older girl. She looked uncertain, and Kazari was sure she'd feel the same in Yamashiro-san's place. It had to be hard to move to an entirely different district for your job, without your usual friends or Judgment partner or anybody, even if it was just for a week. "Pleased to meet you!" they'd chorused back, and Kazari added, "I really hope you'll enjoy your time with our branch, Yamashiro-senpai!"
Yamashiro-san had looked startled, and then pleased. "Oh," she said softly. "I'm not your senpai here -- I'm the one learning from you!"
"Then I hope you enjoy it, Yamashiro-san," Kazari told her, and smiled as warmly as she could. She won a smile back from Yamashiro-san, and twin approving looks from Shirai-san and Konori-senpai.
"Come on," said Konori-senpai. "I'll show you around the office. Information databases are your specialty, right?"
It was hard to tell, Kazari thought as the afternoon wore on, whether Yamashiro-san was used to doing things differently or not. She was very quiet -- not at all like most of Kazari's lively friends. She listened, and nodded frequently, and didn't take any notes in the tiny flowered notebook she carried in one hand, and didn't ask any questions. Kazari didn't think she was either bored or overwhelmed, but it was hard to be sure. Still, she answered every question put to her, and she usually had a small surprised smile when she did it, and she was in a brand new place with an important job to do, after all. It only made sense that she would take a little while to warm up to new friends.
Yamashiro-san yawned, covering her mouth sheepishly with a hand, and then ducked her head shyly. "Sorry," she mumbled to the table. "I'm a little tired, I guess."
Kazari winced at the clock, realizing that they'd been showing Yamashiro-san around for nearly two hours, and their shift was almost over -- and she'd had a train ride from the 14th District before that. Judgment work usually alternated between tiring and boring, when you got right down to it; today had been a quiet day, but for Yamashiro-san it had been full of new acquaintances talking in great detail about all the (mostly boring) procedures of the branch office.
"Well, of course you are!" said Shirai-san. "I'm sure we've been tiring you out with lots of new information all at once, haven't we?"
"Oh -- most of it's not really new," Yamashiro demurred, tucking a lock of long hair behind her ear. "We're all Judgment, after all, right? But sometimes the details do change."
"What you need, Yamashiro-san, is ice cream." Kazari nodded decisively to back up her own statement. "Come to Joseph's with us, okay? You can meet our other friends!"
"Well..." Yamashiro glanced from one to the other.
"I'll call Onee-sama and let her know," Shirai-san announced, punching the speed dial on her earpiece before she'd finished the sentence. Kazari smiled as Shirai-san's voice caroled upwards on the greeting; her partner really was predictable.
"I'll call Saten-san," she said, but didn't open her phone quite yet. "You'll come, right, Yamashiro-san? They're really nice! And the drinks and sundaes are delicious there."
"All right," Yamashiro-san said after a moment, and pushed more hair back with a tentative smile. "I'll come along. Thanks."
When they got to Joseph's, Misaka-san and Saten-san had already staked out their favorite booth. Kazari beamed and waved, with Yamashiro-san trailing behind her.
Shirai-san paced sedately at Yamashiro-san's side, hands clasped in front of her around her schoolbag's handle, until they were a few yards away. "Onee-sama!" she warbled. "You didn't get a drink yet! Were you waiting for me, your dear Kuroko?" She flickered out of existence -- Yamashiro-san jumped -- and reappeared pressed against Misaka-san's side, twining her arms around her roommate's neck. Misaka-san sputtered, and growled, "Kuroko!"
While they scuffled, accompanied by faint sparks and a growing smell of ozone, Kazari and Saten-san traded a look and a tolerant sigh. "Those two," said Saten-san, and shook her head. She smiled up at Yamashiro-san reassuringly. "Don't worry, they're always like that."
Yamashiro-san's attention seemed riveted on Misaka-san and Shirai-san, but she pulled her eyes away to bob a bow at Saten-san. "Pleased to meet you," she said, and Saten-san bowed hastily back, twisting sideways to face Yamashiro-san better, or else to avoid getting her hair in her mango smoothie.
"Pleased to meet you! I'm Saten Ruiko. I'm not in Judgment, but I go to school with Uiharu-san. We're classmates at Sakugawa Middle School."
That meant they were neither especially rich nor especially high-powered; the highest levels at Sakugawa were a couple of third-years who had just made Level 3. If Yamashiro-san knew that, she showed no sign, or just didn't care. "I'm Yamashiro--"
"Yamashiro Chika-san?" Misaka-san was holding the shorter Shirai-san at arm's length with a palm to her forehead, the better to direct her puzzled look at an unsurprised Yamashiro-san.
"Eh?" Shirai-san froze, blinking at Misaka-san and then Yamashiro-san.
Kazari tried to stare at both of them at once, and ended up having to glance rapidly between them. Beside her, Saten-san was doing the same thing. "Misaka-san, Yamashiro-san -- you two know each other?"
"I thought it was you." Yamashiro-san tucked her hair behind her ear again, and tilted her head slightly. "Long time no see, Misaka Mikoto-san."
"Onee-sama?" Shirai-san straightened, pointing a reproving finger at Misaka-san. "Onee-sama, you haven't been getting in trouble in other districts, have you?" She folded her arms huffily. "You're always so reckless! You know you shouldn't go wandering without your dear-- ow!"
Misaka-san rolled her eyes, poised to deliver another head-smack if needed. "Sheesh," she muttered. Then, to Kazari and Saten-san, "Yamashiro-san and I were in elementary school together. But we both transferred out when we were nine. I haven't seen her since then."
"I attend Joshibi Middle School now," Yamashiro-san said, clasping the strap of her schoolbag with both hands.
"Oh!" Misaka-san smiled, settling forward a bit. "That school focuses on art and design, right?"
Yamashiro-san looked startled, and her stiff posture relaxed slightly. Kazari racked her brains to remember anything more about Joshibi Middle School, but she couldn't come up with anything. She had never been very artistic, despite the flowers she wore, so she'd never even considered applying to Joshibi. "Yes, that's right," said Yamashiro-san. "Everyone there has to take art courses, and do projects every term."
"Wow!" Saten-san scooted over to make more room on the bench, and Yamashiro-san cast her another faintly surprised look before sliding into the booth herself. "Yamashiro-san, you must be really talented!"
"Oh, no--" Yamashiro-san shook her head, flushing slightly. "I just enjoy art. You need a lot of practice to get good at it."
"I bet you are, though," Misaka-san chimed in. "I remember now, you got chosen to help paint that mural on our playground wall. It was great! Are you a painter now?"
Yamashiro-san clasped her hands on the table, and shook her head again, but she was smiling more this time. "No, I mostly do sculpture. I like metal best, but it takes a lot of planning to work with, especially if you don't have any kind of telekinetic ability. And I still have to take academic classes, of course, like it or not. So I don't get as much time for welding as I'd like."
"That's so cool!" Kazari beamed.
"What was your early training like?"
Kazari paused, pen hovering above the page, so that she could blink at Saten-san. They were doing English homework together in Kazari's room, since she didn't have a roommate. Yamashiro-san had gone home to the 14th District an hour ago -- she was going to be spending a lot of time on the train this week, poor girl -- and the others had gone back to the Gardens of Education to do their own homework in their fancy dorm. Kazari had spared a moment then, as she often did, to sigh over the prospect of doing your homework every night in the beautiful room of a Tokiwadai lady. Now, though, she was comfortably ensconced in her own dorm, in socks and pyjama pants, and too preoccupied by English irregular verbs and her strange best friend to pine for luxury. "Huh? Saten-san, didn't you have the same kind of training? Everybody does, except maybe the kids who come to Academy City as higher levels."
"Oh, sure." Saten-san shrugged, fiddling with her pen. Kazari thought about how Saten-san had dropped her gaze and fiddled with her phone weeks ago, concealing the Level Upper song that waited on it, and then tried not to think about that. "But... Well, clearly it didn't really take for me, right? I'm still a Level 0. So I was wondering what it was like for you. You got to Level 1, so I guess it worked better for you."
"Hmmm." Kazari set her pen down and pressed her knuckles to her chin, thinking back. "A lot of it was pretty confusing. I guess they want to develop your sense of Personal Reality, and I'm sure the teachers know what they're doing, especially since most of the time they don't even know what type of ability you have at the beginning. But I remember being really confused. Remember the ink blobs?"
Saten-san laughed. "I hated those!"
"Me too! I don't know what they were even supposed to measure. Do you?"
Saten-san wrinkled her nose. "I guess... well, an optical manipulation talent could change what the teacher saw too, or a telepathic talent could sense what the teacher was seeing? Things like that. But I never met anyone who really knew what they wanted you to do with them, even the ones who pretended they knew everything."
"Yeah. I was never sure if I was supposed to be trying to change the paper, or change my teacher's thoughts, or just come up with the right answer according to some answer book somewhere... So it was a lot of stuff like that. And even when I managed to use my ability, I didn't really notice half the time. Sometimes when I thought I was definitely using esper power, I scored zero for AIM field changes at the end, and sometimes when I thought I'd flunked they'd tell me I'd done a good job. I didn't even figure out what my talent was until I was nine."
"I always scored zero," Saten-san sighed. "Wait, you didn't? Didn't they tell you what your ability family was, at least? I mean, you were using your talent sometimes."
Kazari laughed, though she felt her face heat up, too. It wasn't all that long ago that she'd been in elementary school still, and uncertain if she'd ever make it to anything but the barest bottom of the Level 1 category. She still wasn't very strong, but at least she could use her tiny bit of ability consciously, now. "Yeah, they did, once they had enough data to be sure. But, um, my first teacher was really strict, and I was always kind of scared of him. So he told me, but I didn't understand what the words meant, and I was too embarrassed to ask him later."
"Uiharu!" Saten-san cracked up. "You're always so bashful!"
Kazari pressed her seat reflexively closer to her heels, though she was in pants anyway. Saten-san had very irritating ideas of what kind of things were funny ways to make her friend bashful. "That's not the point!"
"It's hilarious, though!"
"Saten-san!" Kazari scowled at her, though she couldn't manage much real annoyance. "Anyway, that's what ability classes were like for me. I bet it's probably different if you've got a strong ability like Misaka-san and Shirai-san, though."
"Yeah." Saten-san propped her chin on folded hands, laughter subsiding into thoughtfulness. "I can't picture either of them as Level 0s, you know? Or even Level 1s. I know Misaka-san came to Academy City as a normal kid, but I can't picture it."
Kazari nodded vigorously. "Yeah! She's just so strong, and she has so much control. You should have seen her fighting the -- well, fighting Doctor Kiyama." She faltered -- maybe on some level, Saten-san had, and thinking about Saten-san as part of that screaming monster was an awful thought -- and rallied back to the topic of Misaka-san's coolness as quickly as she could. "She wasn't just electrocuting things, or even using her Railgun ability. She kept manipulating magnetism like it was nothing, even though that's a totally different application of the Electromaster power than she usually uses. I can't imagine her as a beginner."
"Yamashiro-san must have, though. I wonder how fast Misaka-san advanced? Maybe Yamashiro-san still thinks of her as a Level 2 or something."
Kazari's eyes widened. "I never thought of that! That's such a strange thought. Maybe Yamashiro-san is a high level too. She never said."
Saten-san shook her head. "Uiharu, you dork. She can't be -- she goes to Joshibi. It's very well known for art, but they don't take any pupils above Level 2. Level 3s and above go to their sister school, Fujiwara."
"Really? It must be strange for her to meet her old classmate, then."
Saten-san shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe Misaka-san was, like, a Level 4 by second grade."
"Yeah." Kazari glanced down, and made a face at her half-finished English worksheet. She'd nearly forgotten about it. "Ugh, I hate verbs. Saten-san, you're so much better with English than I am. Remind me one more time about 'to go'?"
The first two days of Yamashiro-san's visit to Branch 177 were spent mostly in showing her around the office and reviewing basic procedures. Kazari wondered privately, and sheepishly, if their team had been picked to host Yamashiro-san because someone thought they would do a good job of showing her the basics of various jobs within the branch, or if instead someone had thought that their team would benefit from a good review of those basics. Konori-senpai had told them specifically that they were supposed to teach her all the procedures and rules, even the obvious ones, and Kazari wondered while she said things like always follow proper procedure for notification of superior officers and always call backup promptly and Judgment files should only be made available to Judgment and Anti-Skill members if she and Shirai-san were the ones who were supposed to be paying attention. She didn't mention the thought to Shirai-san, but she suspected Konori-senpai might be thinking something similar.
By the third day, at least, they had exhausted all the standard training that was easily available. Training a new member would have taken much longer, of course, but Yamashiro-san already knew almost everything relevant, so it was only a matter of review and details. Today, Konori-senpai had set Yamashiro-san to combing the databases for information about recently arrested perpetrators.
Kazari sat beside her, clasping her hands in her lap against the urge to reach for the keyboard. This was her usual role, but she was supposed to be watching how Yamashiro-san went about the search, while Yamashiro-san compared Branch 177's organization of local files to her own. And it was interestingly different. Yamashiro-san knew less about computers than Kazari did, but she was very good at teasing out every relevant details from a database she had legitimate access too. Kazari tended to look for back doors and shortcuts and ways to manipulate the code for greater efficiency, which Yamashiro-san didn't show any sign of doing. She could have just been being scrupulously law-abiding while under scrutiny -- not that Kazari broke any rules in her hacking, but she had to admit she did bend them and duck around them sometimes -- but Kazari was pretty sure Yamashiro-san just always approached the databases from inside their standard functioning parameters like this.
Shirai-san set a mug under the hot water spigot and pressed the dispenser button. Kazari glanced at her, attention caught half by the movement and half by Shirai-san's sigh. "There's been another small earthquake over in District 19," she said, and Yamashiro-san looked up too. "Nobody was badly hurt, but there were several minor injuries."
"There've been a lot of earthquakes this year." Yamashiro-san tucked her hair back absent-mindedly, frowning at the screen. "Especially recently. I hope we're not building up to a really big quake."
Shirai-san shook her head. "The scientists here compile scans into the future for detailed predictions. They would definitely be taking measures if that data indicated an upcoming quake."
"I'm glad they're just little ones," Kazari agreed.
"Hmm?" Misaka-san's voice intruded from the doorway, and Kazari brightened in surprised greeting. "Little whats?"
"Misaka-san...?" Yamashiro-san asked the air, with a quick questioning glance at Shirai-san. Shirai-san didn't appear to notice; she was too busy looking sage and well-informed in Misaka-san's general direction.
"Earthquakes, onee-sama. There was another minor one last night." She cast a pointed look at Misaka-san. "I don't think even Tokiwadai's Ace can fight those with her abilities."
"Hey!" From Misaka-san's indignant scowl, Kazari guessed that she had indeed been hoping for a case to join in on. For such a kind, easygoing person, Misaka-san really did enjoy fights. "That wasn't what I was thinking!"
"Of course not, onee-sama."
"Um..." Yamashiro-san's hands had stilled on the keyboard. "Misaka-san, I didn't think you were on Judgment too, are you...?"
"Oh, no," Misaka-san laughed, and scratched the back of her head. "I just come by to say hi to Kuroko and Uiharu-san."
"She just likes to be reckless," Shirai-san contributed sanctimoniously.
"I do not! I help out when I can be of use, that's all."
In Kazari's opinion, the truth lay somewhere in between these two allegations, but she had heard variations on this debate a dozen times. More interesting than the details was Yamashiro-san's closed-off, careful expression as she glanced from one to the other, and then tried a small smile.
"They're probably lucky to have you, in that case," Yamashiro-san said.
Misaka grinned. "I dunno. Sometimes they say that, but sometimes Kuroko spends the whole time yelling at me that I'm too impetuous."
"Misaka-san," Kazari felt obliged to point out, "you do find reason to hit criminals awfully quickly."
"Well, they deserve it!"
"You're not very polite to them yourself, Kuroko."
"That's not the point! I follow proper arrest protocol."
Yamashiro-san's lips twitched. "She used to kick Ueda Takashi-san in the shins to get her turn with the trucks," she murmured. "I can see that you're still a little too enthusiastic."
"...He deserved it too," Misaka-san muttered, and Kazari started to laugh.
Kazari rounded the corner of 7th Street and 28th Ave, swinging her bag in time with the song she was humming under her breath. It was one of Saten-san's new favorites, and it had a catchy tune that stuck in the brain; Kazari couldn't remember the title or any of the words except something something something the wind, let's grab them all, but she couldn't get it out of her head anyway.
She glanced sideways at Furiai Square and its crepe shop, considering whether she wanted to get a quick crepe before her Judgment shift, and then paused in astonishment. Yamashiro-san was seated at one of the small tables in the corner of the square, scowling ferociously down at what looked like homework. Kazari almost expected dark shadows to gather around her, like in an anime, even though that level of light manipulation would take at least a Level 3 ability. She hadn't seen Yamashiro-san look upset at all until now.
She hesitated on the sidewalk, gripping her bag's handle tight. Yamashiro-san was a friend, now, right? And she looked as if she would appreciate a distraction from whatever she was doing -- plus their Judgment shift was due to start in fifteen minutes, and Yamashiro-san would be expected to be on time to shadow their team as usual. Mind made up, she started across the park.
Yamashiro-san didn't look up at her approach, so Kazari cleared her throat when she was a few meters away. "Hello, Yamashiro-san!" she called.
Or -- she tried to call. She heard her own voice come out muffled and faraway, as though she were hearing it through water. Eyes widening, she glanced around the park. Yes -- she hadn't noticed before, but the group of young Child Errors playing in the corner were shrieking while they chased each other like all children, and the sound of that too was peculiarly dulled.
"Um... Yamashiro-san?" She took a deep breath and yelled, "Yamashiro-san!" Even that emerged barely louder than conversational volume, but Yamashiro-san's head jerked up. "Are you--" and then the sound suddenly came rushing back, and Kazari's "--okay?" became a genuine shout. She clapped a hand over her mouth with an embarrassed squeak.
Yamashiro-san was looking even more embarrassed, though; her cheeks had flushed a dull stained red. "S-sorry!" She ducked her head, shoulders hunching. "I guess I was focusing too hard -- I'm sorry about that, Uiharu-san!"
"It's okay!" Kazari rushed automatically, and relaxed into truly meaning it when she heard her voice come out normally. "It's okay, Yamashiro-san. I -- um, is that your power?"
Yamashiro-san nodded without looking up. "Yeah. Um, Wave Dimmer. I'm only a Level 2, so I can only dampen sound all around me. I can't do anything really focused or make it completely silent or anything like that. But I don't usually do it accidentally, I promise! I was just..." She glanced warily up at Kazari, and her long bony face twisted in an apologetic grimace.
"You looked pretty mad at your homework," Kazari offered, and Yamashiro-san made another face at the papers in front of her, though her shoulders stayed hunched and awkward.
"Yeah. It's these awful quadratic equations. I don't understand any of it, and I have high school entrance exams coming up, and -- well, it doesn't matter. I'm still sorry. Be glad you don't have to study algebra yet, Uiharu-san."
Kazari bit her lip, feeling suddenly awkward. "Well... Math is my best subject, besides computers. I'm taking it right now, actually."
Yamashiro-san stared at her. "Really?"
"Um... well, I've been taking double math classes for a while... So I'm taking algebra as an extra right now. Like you're doing welding and that kind of thing."
Yamashiro-san buried her face in her hands. "And she's a first-year!" she muttered into her palms. Kazari ducked her head to stare for a second at the pavement. Yamashiro-san lifted her face slightly. "I'll get it," she sighed. "I have to do well on these entrance exams. So I'll work hard until I understand everything. It's just so complicated."
"Um..." Kazari glanced at the city clock nearby. "Yamashiro-san, we have a Judgment shift really soon, but... if you want to do math homework together afterward, I'd be happy to. I can try to help you with the quadratics, if you want. My teacher explained them really well."
"Really?" Yamashiro-san looked so hopeful that Kazari couldn't help but smile widely at her.
"Of course! You've given us a lot of help at Judgment this week, so anyway it's only fair, right? I'd be happy to."
"Thanks a lot, Uiharu-san," Yamashiro-san smiled. It was the most relaxed and friendly Kazari had seen her yet, and she felt a flush of pride.
"Hey, Uiharu-san, we should hurry if we don't want Onee-sama and Saten-san to have to wait at Joseph's. Yamashiro-san, you too -- you're coming, right?"
Yamashiro-san glanced at Kazari, and then down at her hands. "Um... I'm sorry, Shirai-san. I have a lot of homework I need to get done today, so..."
"Me too," Kazari chipped in, and smiled apologetically at Shirai-san. "I'll definitely come along tomorrow, though! Tell Saten-san and Misaka-san I'm sorry to miss them, please." It wasn't a lie -- she did have homework to finish, after she helped Yamashiro-san with hers. And besides that, if Yamashiro-san didn't want to volunteer that she was being tutored by a first-year, Kazari figured she could keep quiet about it too, at least for a little while.
"All right, I'll tell them." Shirai-san tucked her phone away in her pocket, and clasped both hands around the handle of her schoolbag, ladylike as ever. "Just make sure you work hard to get everything done, so you can have ice cream with us tomorrow. It's important to support yourself by having fun with friends!" She nodded sagely to back up her own statement, and Kazari stifled a giggle.
When Shirai-san had trotted off down the street, Kazari smiled at Yamashiro-san. "Where do you want to go?" she asked. "We can go back to Furiai Square if you want, or there are some nice cafes around here too."
"Um... Furiai is fine, if you like it too." Yamashiro-san smiled back, just a little. It wasn't fair to her, Kazari thought, that having such a thin bony face made it so easy for expressions like that to look awkward. "I'll buy you a crepe in thanks at the shop there."
Kazari, who had been feeling secretly a little wistful for the sweet drinks at Joseph's, beamed at her. "It's a deal!"
They settled themselves at a small table near the playground. There was just enough room for Yamashiro-san's textbook and notebook, so Kazari scooted her heavy metal chair around for a better look instead of pulling out her own.
"Hmm, okay... Why don't you show me how you'd do this first problem, Yamashiro-san? And then whenever you get confused, we can talk about it."
"Okay." Yamashiro-san gripped her pencil grimly, and set to work.
Yamashiro-san really wasn't as bad at math as she thought she was, Kazari reflected, as the hour wore on. She had a good start on it -- which only made sense, for someone who made sculptures of the sort that required preplanning. But as soon as she ran into any uncertainty, she got frustrated, and then she lost track of everything she already knew. It didn't make much sense to Kazari, who thought that sorting through puzzles like that were half the fun of math, but at least it was easy to help Yamashiro-san through a chapter she already half-understood.
"That's right!" she cheered, as Yamashiro-san wrote her final x = 3. "You've really got it now, Yamashiro-san!"
"Thanks to you, Uiharu-san." Yamashiro-san's smile this time was open and friendly. "I wish I had you around to help with every lesson."
"Oh, you understood most of it already! All I did was explain in a different way."
"It just never makes sense to me," Yamashiro-san sighed. "Sometimes it does, but usually it's all just a muddle after the first few examples. I think it's worse than ability training! At least the teachers expected us to be confused by that."
"Do you think so?" Uiharu fiddled with the piece of paper she'd been writing examples on. "All of mine seemed pretty exasperated when we didn't understand."
"Yeah, but everybody didn't understand, right? Almost everybody, anyway." Kazari wondered which Misaka-san had been, but she didn't ask; Yamashiro-san was still talking, and gesturing with one hand in a looser way than Kazari had seen from her. "No kid could make sense of all those tests and games and requirements. They just expected us to do them. And figure out our Personal Reality by doing it, or something. They don't talk about the underlying theory until later. But with math, you're supposed to really understand what's going on in every lesson, and there are always people who get it right away. Like you, Uiharu-san. I've never been one of those people, not with math."
Kazari had never thought of herself as one of those people either. Math was just easy, like computers; that was all there was to it. She bit her lip -- and then laughed, as a thought came to her. "I'm sorry," she giggled, at Yamashiro-san's inquiring look. "It's just -- art's like that for me. Some people just sit down and do it, and it looks gorgeous! And you ask them how they knew to draw it like that, and they just look at you like you asked how they walk down the street, or how they use their esper power, and say something like it just seemed right. When I try to draw, it looks like a little kid scribbling!"
Yamashiro-san's eyes had widened. She looked completely taken aback. "I -- I never thought of it that way," she said. "But art's just a thing you practice! You do it over and over and over, and you look at how the masters do it, and eventually you learn what you're doing. Math is full of all -- " She gestured at her homework. "--this!"
"You sound like Misaka-san about abilities," Kazari told her, still amused. "Except she's always more stubborn about it. You know -- never give up! Keep trying! I don't think she even knows how to give up."
"She's always been like that," Yamashiro-san admitted, after a moment. Kazari peered at her, trying to tell if she was upset by the subject of Misaka-san, but it was hard to be sure. "If she didn't do well on any test, whether esper or academic, she'd try to argue the teacher into letting her try again."
"That sounds like her," Kazari agreed.
Yamashiro-san looked at her. "I never minded when people were better than me at using their abilities," she said earnestly. "None of us really understood how it worked anyway. I'm not sure even the teachers do -- maybe they just talk about quantum mechanics and personal determination to cover up how little anybody understands about how this really works. But no matter how you look at it, it's just luck and practice. I thought, someday I'll be good at it, and I can just practice what they tell me till then. It's been hard being level 2 for years, but even if I never advance past that, I don't mind too much, because I'll always have art. But I hate it when I'm supposed to understand something, and I just can't."
Kazari smiled at her. "You understand math pretty well, I think," she said, tapping Yamashiro-san's page of finished homework. "You just need to be more confident about it."
"It's going to be weird not having you at the office, Yamashiro-san." Kazari hovered by the train station's front steps. Clouds were gathering overhead; she resisted the urge to pull out her phone and double-check how many minutes they had until the rain was scheduled to begin.
"Not just the office!" Saten-san grinned at her, and Yamashiro-san smiled faintly back. "It was really fun getting to know you. I know it's only been a week of afternoons, but it was nice to have you around."
"I'm really glad to have met all of you. And to meet you again, Misaka-san." Yamashiro-san bowed to them. With a look that Kazari thought might even have been quietly mischievous, she added, "I'll definitely have to come back and visit. I owe you more cake as a thank-you present for all your help with my math homework, Uiharu-san."
"Oh, Uiharu-san helped you?" said Misaka-san, sparing Kazari from the dilemma of whether to demur that she'd been glad to help -- which she had -- and didn't need any thank-you gifts -- which she didn't, but their district had so many wonderful pastry shops, and there was no way Kazari had the budget to visit them all. "That's great! She's helped me a few times too. She's really good at explaining math, isn't she?"
"Oh, well..." Kazari looked down, cheeks heating.
"Yeah!" Yamashiro-san traded a smile with Misaka-san. "Maeda-sensei will be really happy I took on the extra Judgment work. He was stern about it before, since he thought I'd have a harder time finishing up all my homework with this shadowing in too. But it's really helped."
"Good," said Misaka-san firmly. "Hey, Yamashiro-san, keep in touch, okay?"
"I will," Yamashiro-san said after a moment. She glanced around the group clustered around her, and her face firmed into a small, private smile. "Yeah, I will."