A Scene That Should Have Been
The Ace and the Queen.
The two long-term rivals—or eternal antagonists—were in a situation that was rapidly becoming too familiar for both of them.
They sat across from each other at a table that would have been at home in a Western European café. It was winter and the patio would normally be unacceptable for any sort of social meeting, but this particular café used a combination of air movers, heaters, and open fireplaces to cycle the cool air away, while keeping the patio itself surprisingly toasty.
In any other city in the world, that would have been an outrageous misuse of electricity, but it was par for the course in a place like Academy City.
Despite that, however, the patio was completely empty after a member of the wait staff delivered tea and snacks. The teapot sat sweating while still effectively full.
Neither Shokuhou Misaki, the Queen of Tokiwadai, nor Misaka Mikoto, its Ace, had so much as a nibble on the cakes brought to them; the tea the staff had poured before vanishing had nearly cooled. They weren't even looking at each other.
Shokuhou was scrolling through SNS sites on a tablet, looking away from the patio's dormant hedge. Mikoto was the opposite, looking quietly over the wintering flowers and seemingly admiring the evergreens in the garden beyond.
They hadn't spoken since Mikoto had arrived and Shokuhou's clique had gone inside. The other customers had abruptly and silently stood up, and left. Nobody watching would have known this, but all the cameras, audio recorders, even the thermal and vibration sensors that permeated Academy City, were suddenly nonfunctional in that area.
One girl had blue sparks crackling through her short hair, and had her stomach flip as she saw the remote on the other side of the table. It didn't stop her from sitting down, even if she couldn't bring herself to talk as quickly as she hoped.
A suffocating silence settled in. The air felt still and heavy, as if the movers had suddenly stopped.
It was the kind of silence one might find when an unfaithful couple finally decided to confront each other—although both of these girls would have had a violent reaction to that comparison.
It wasn't that Mikoto's arrival was truly unexpected. Nor was her ensuring that they weren't being observed electronically.
It wasn't that they didn't understand why Shokuhou had used Mental Out to clear the area.
It was that neither of them knew how to bring the subject up.
They'd returned to Academy City only two days before. Long enough to meet up with friends after the temporary exodus, confirm that things were going well with Tokiwadai's reconstruction, and actually rest.
But the lack of any crisis meant that they didn't have an excuse to avoid the issue anymore.
Despite how they looked, only one of them was truly nervous, hiding her shaking and fighting back the urge to burst into tears. The other was trying to build up her courage and finally speak, knowing that the answers to her questions could shatter the fragile partnership the two had built in the last few weeks.
That partnership had played no small role in saving the life of a particular idiot boy, as well as many others. But it had also resulted in the creation of a pathway of trust that, when one of the girls collapsed and broke, had been violently abused.
Shokuhou Misaki had violated the door that Mikoto had opened in the electric and psychological barriers that had so long shielded her from Mental Out's control, and turned her into a puppet. And then had set her against one of the people she most wanted to protect.
Or rather, she had tried. Mental Out only worked on biological beings, specifically humans. Before she lost her mind to invasion, Mikoto had left a series of commands for the A.A.A. to take in the hope that it would take the appropriate action to avoid hurting that boy, or even aid him.
That was as much as Mikoto could guess at. When she been freed from Shokuhou's control, waking to find that boy's right hand patting her head, the A.A.A. had been in full battle mode. She had looked like a biomechanical devil in a ruined, lingerie-like blue dress.
Her reaction to that might have been different if she hadn't been exhausted to the point of collapse. She couldn't even react to the boy carrying the small girl in the fairy tale princess-style dress.
That was all in the past though; it wasn't why she was sitting across from her long-time nemesis and short-time ally. The boy she'd trusted had come through and ultimately saved a crying girl. That was his role. It ticked her off more often than not, but it was also reassuring. It was a part of him she could count on, every single time.
He'd thanked her, but she had no real idea why: she had set the A.A.A. to continually attack as long as that other boy, that fake (or so she considered him), was still there. Its local intelligence was apparently advanced enough to not only use her hijacked body, but to recognize when the threat was gone.
But really, she had no idea what she'd done to deserve being thanked. The dance hall was ruined, so clearly something had gone wrong. She was certain that it wasn't the A.A.A. that took out that other boy, so why did she deserve thanks?
That was something to ask the idiot later.
It wasn't why she was here.
Misaka Mikoto had gone far from her old comfort zone and familiar places, had ditched Kuroko (again) with Judgement, all to confront somebody she had spent a long time hating. She was completely alone, with no guarantees that she was safe from control anymore. And yet…
Even now, she couldn't shake the image of Shokuhou, the ever-perfect queen, shattering as if she was a clay sculpture taking a wrecking ball. The honey-blonde haired girl had crumpled to the floor, holding her head to her hands, apologizing between sobs, even as her power raged out of control.
That was the last memory she had after sending the A.A.A. to send the hoodie-wearing boy flying. When that blackness finally ended, she saw that same queen even more bedraggled, lying in a small puddle of blood, with a deeply sad smile. It had stayed there until a certain, familiar-faced doctor began the process of saving her life.
She just couldn't treat Shokuhou the same after that. She couldn't bring herself to hate her. Something had broken her so badly that she couldn't stop apologizing, even as she continued to make the wrong choice.
Mikoto just couldn't see Shokuhou as the same conniving, selfish, manipulative enemy that she had known.
"You know," she finally said. The suddenness of it caused Shokuhou to jump and almost drop the tablet (given how unathletic she was, catching it was a small miracle). As if she hadn't seen that display of nerves, Mikoto's continued, her voice calm and steady. "I think there's something wrong with me."
Shokuhou shuddered like she'd been slapped. She didn't know where Mikoto was going with that, but she could only assume the worst. Shokuhou choked on the words: "I didn't do anything!" because she knew, at its core, that it was a lie.
She couldn't protest. She'd been completely in the wrong. The Queen had known that, even as she did it, but she just couldn't hold back at that point. The foundation of her psyche had all but crumbled, as if it rotted away.
She mocked Mikoto often about being foolish enough to trust others, but that was completely different than violating that trust herself. It was even worse than that for her, because she had lived for years following a certain set of rules, nearly absolute laws on the use of her power.
It was one thing to read someone's mind or give them an order, but she had always taken responsibility for those she controlled, whose wills she violated, whose autonomy she removed. They were made into her "property", and she owned the responsibility of caring for them, both while under her command and after.
And she had completely violated even that absolute principle on a massive scale.
She'd been deluding herself again, letting herself think it would be forgiven and forgotten without a word in exchange.
Or at least, that's what the Queen of Tokiwadai expected. So Mikoto's next words caused her mind to lock up momentarily.
"I can't ever really seem to stay angry about things that are done to me. When I think back to the summer, the Daihasei, I'm still pissed at you about the shit you pulled. Messing with my friend's memories, kidnapping my Sister, Kongou getting hurt because you isolated me from everyone else who would help…
"Yet somehow, I can't bring myself to be angry about what you've done to me. Sending me after that cyborg, dealing with Blue Blood. Or even what you pulled in Britain."
Shokuhou had put the tablet down on the table. She seemed to be staring at it or her TV remote, but her golden eyes were unfocused and she was sweating from something other than the heat.
Not long ago, in an artificial dream, a darker side of herself accused her of the same thing. That she would only let herself get mad for others, never for herself. It was unnerving to hear her long-time rival and recent victim say the same thing, even if it was about herself.
Mikoto wasn't quite emotionless. When she spoke about the events of the summer, especially Kongou, anger crept into her voice and she clenched her fists. Yet when she moved on from that, the same cold, almost distracted tone returned.
"I think I blame myself for at least part of that. Neither of us really knows what might have happened if I hadn't made the mistake of trusting you and letting you into my mind in the first place."
She'd finally said it.
Part of Shokuhou felt relieved that Mikoto was able to call it that. Another part felt her shame redouble, her stomach lurching. That "mistake" had been working well for both of them, right until Shokuhou betrayed her and everyone else to try holding onto a delusion.
"Of course, I have no idea what would have happened if we hadn't done that. That idiot might have gotten himself killed back in the windowless building. I couldn't have made that near-zero-friction railgun shot by myself, or managed in Britain without your assistance."
What was she doing? Why was she calling out the moments when their partnership had shined? Before Shokuhou had abused it, had abused her. She didn't need the reminders of how far she'd fallen. Her stomach lurched and it was a struggle to hold herself back.
"So, I'm kind of at a lost as to how to feel about it. I'm still at a lost as to what really caused you to break apart like that in the first place."
It was odd to let Mikoto dominate a conversation between the two of them. Usually Shokuhou would take the lead and the Railgun would glare angrily before agreeing to work together. Right now though, it was everything the queen could do to avoid collapsing into tears. Sweat was dripping from her like she'd run a marathon (or, in her case, climbed about two flights of stairs).
Was it because she kept seeing disappointment on Dolly's face, rather than the girl who it belonged to? Part of her wanted to hold onto that delusion too, but the rest told her to stop lying. Yet there was no expression on Mikoto's face at all, much less disappointment.
The reality was, she envied Misaka Mikoto's naivety. Or rather, that she could still trust in people after everything she'd gone through and seen. For her part, as much as Shokuhou had been unable to trust anyone she couldn't read, part of her had been relieved to have someone like that around, someone who she couldn't simply control. Someone who kept her in check, even as she claimed she needed nothing of the sort.
She had annihilated that.
"I don't suppose you're willing to talk about what happened? I have a pretty good idea, I think, of what caused it. That… other one. He definitely set something off, but I don't understand what. Not entirely, at least."
Shokuhou could only give her a stiff shake of her head. Mikoto sighed. The Queen's head spun as if she was starved for oxygen.
"Well… I guess it has something to do with the past. And despite everything you know about mine, you still can't—well, won't—share yours." Another sigh. "Kind of what I expected. I'm still angry you didn't tell me about the prototype back then too."
That Shokuhou didn't agree with. If she could have kept Mikoto ignorant of Dolly's existence, she would have. Part of that was irrational, as Dolly was thrilled to meet her "nee-chan" and Mikoto genuinely cared for the Sisters. And of course, they were all built from her.
But Dolly was her friend (well, and Mitori's). She didn't want anyone else intruding on that part of her life. Although, a week ago, she might have made an exception for a certain boy… and probably still would, as much as she knew that was a bad idea.
"But… I'm sort of happy about that. Just sort of, though."
Mikoto turned to properly look at her. She even bothered to sip the now cold tea, causing her to grimace.
("We really wasted this, didn't we?") She was surprisingly frugal about some things—or just cheap. She continued as if she was reciting a rehearsed speech.
"What I mean is, I don't have any way of knowing what you were doing to me while I was under. That guy's right hand canceled out your direct control, and I think anything you might have been doing to my head beyond that. So the fact that I'm still pissed about you hiding her from me, along with everything else, probably means I still have my memories intact.
"But that brings me to what I need to know, Shokuhou." The queen flinched at Mikoto finally saying her name. "What else were you doing to me? I woke up with the A.A.A. engaged, so obviously you were going to use me. But I expected—no, I knew that was going to happen."
"You prepared for it," Shokuhou said quietly. Her voice was almost as hoarse as it had been that night, but she wasn't even crying yet. She was barely holding it back. She was even feeling guilty that she was still upset that Mikoto had done the undeniably right thing and prepared a contingency that Shokuhou wouldn't be able to prevent.
Mikoto nodded. "Yup." Utterly unapologetic, her eyes bored into Shokuhou's. It was a very alarming reversal of roles. "Why wouldn't I? You were making the wrong call, Shokuhou. And you knew it, but did it anyway. I'm just glad it worked. What I want to know—no, scratch that, what I need to know—is what else you did to me."
Shokuhou blinked. Once. Twice. She looked up and finally met Mikoto's eyes, despite her shaking. There was genuine confusion on her face. "What do you mean?"
"What else. Did you do. To my head? What memories did you steal? How much of my mind did you violate?"
Another set of blinks. More confusion.
"I… I didn't do anything." She turned her gaze back down, hands in her head, the dam overflowing. A few fat tears started to form.
"I didn't do anything. I didn't think… I… couldn't think. At all. At that point, I was just following Kam—no, that one's orders. My own brain ability wasn't exactly at peak. Between orders, I just… existed."
It sounded like a petty excuse. A shitty cover story. Shokuhou would have immediately ridiculed the other party if the positions were reversed.
Mikoto blinked slowly. She didn't have the ability to tear into someone's mind. She had to simply judge Shokuhou like another human being, a teenage girl, without being able to know all the details, completely and utterly.
If their positions were reversed, Shokuhou would have walked away and never looked back. Forget getting explanations or revenge. She'd simply erase the other person from her mind. The tears and shaking wouldn't have done a thing to move her. That was who she was.
There was a soft sound. Mikoto moved again, but she was going for the still warm tea in the pot, rather than coming over to zap her.
"I'm still not okay with it," Mikoto said. "I don't think I'll ever be okay with your power, let alone how you abused it. Even if I got away relatively clean, I can't forgive someone who doesn't bother to apologize. But at least I know."
She sipped her tea and made a disappointed noise. "Definitely wasted too much time letting this sit here…"
"I don't know what will happen from here, but I guess I need to find a way to safely use the A.A.A. without you. I can't let that happen again. I can't chance you using me to put someone else—anyone else—in danger."
"I'm so sorry, Misaka-san."
There was a crash as the tea cup she was holding hit the paved stone floor, accompanied by a choking noise. Mikoto's face was red as she tried to cough the tea out of her lungs, one eye still open and staring as Shokuhou quietly cried.
If she were to make a list of the most unlikely things to ever happen, Shokuhou Misaki apologizing to her wouldn't have even made the list. It was inconceivable, an improbability so large that no supercomputer could have calculated it given eternity.
But when Mikoto looked at her, shaking and struggling to hold it together, her assumptions were wiped out. It could have been a trick, an act. But her heart told her that, much like that night, Shokuhou's mask had crumbled: what she was seeing was just too raw to be fake.
She still wanted to know what her history with that idiot was. She wanted to know why it had been so gratifying to be called by name that the threat of losing that illusion caused her to crumble and threaten a nation.
But, she thought with a sigh, that can wait. She had promised herself what she would do if the impossible happened. While she was flummoxed, she was going to follow through.
"Well… thank you. I guess we'll try going forward from here."
Shokuhou looked up in surprise as Mikoto stood up to leave with a cursory wave. Her normally golden eyes were red and puffy, her face covered in tears and mucus. Her rival had a soft expression on her face that she had never seen before.
What? Why are you…
"Sorry about the cup, I'll pay for that. Anyway, I'm sure you still have my number, so use it when needed. Just make sure you're around too." She yawned, stretched, and looked over her shoulder. There was no anger in those brown eyes, just warmth. "No telling how soon this peace is going to get interrupted. You won't sit it out, Shokuhou. I'm not giving you that privilege."
Why the hell are you doing this…
With that, the Ace of Tokiwadai left with much still unsaid, a faint smile on her face, feeling lighter than she had before. The slate wasn't wiped clean, but she could continue on. It was up to the Queen of Tokiwadai to make the next swipe across it.
Well, there you go. First time in about ten years I've shared a written work publicly, other than a few Destiny-based short stories on Reddit. More than that, it's the first time I've ever been so frustrated with a published author's dropping the ball that I felt like it needed to be corrected, even if no-one would ever read it. Yes, maybe Kamachi Kazuma(-sensei) will address this in the very first volume of the next series (scheduled for 2020), but NT in particular had so many plotpoints dropped or gobbled up in bigger issues that I wasn't willing to let it go.
But, if someone does read it, feel free to share your thoughts. I made a few read-throughs and fixed a number of things from the earliest draft, but I have no dedicated editor for something this niche, so feel to point out if there's something missing that needs correction. There's a few pieces here and there that are very much not English-standard, but I chose to settle for a medium between "correct" English and the style of the original works, as translated by js06 and edited by the community.
I also hope I managed to capture the characters well enough, despite the lack of dialogue. I've always felt awkward trying to write for someone else's characters (and yet somehow I started out with fanfiction?!), and Shokuhou in particular is a difficult character to write for.
I'm debating if I'll share any future, original character-centric works here, or if they'll remain on my computer. Haven't quite made a decision yet, given the content already on this site, if anybody would actually be interested in it.