Author's Notes: Ahhhh! I'm so sorry that I'm late with this chapter! So many things cropped up!
This chapter marks the end of the Index Arc. So read on folks!
Date: July 25th, Afternoon
Kumokawa Seria was a celebrated beauty. Lustrous long black hair, a poise that had remarkable grace and glamour, eyes that would stare into your soul and a body to die for. One would say that Seria could drive a sports car in her uniform without looking out of place, such were the rumours about her. But Kamijou Touma wasn't bothered by all that. They were just that – rumours. Of course, that didn't stop half the male populace attending summer class from staring daggers at his back while he walked down the stairway with Seria beside him.
Misunderstanding the situation as usual.
"Come on," Seria gestured for Touma to follow after her into the empty classroom, her expression businesslike as she deflected the questioning and somewhat envious looks directed towards her by more classmates. Stepping aside by the doorway to allow Touma pass, Seria shot those females a sweet, devilish smile before shutting the door in their faces. "Well, you have females by the score, as always," Seria laughed as her face relaxed, turning to face Touma with a friendly expression.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Touma deflected glibly, taking a seat in front of the teacher's table and grinning back at Seria.
The two of them had a… strange relationship, Touma reflected. Kumokawa Seria, his senpai, was an advisor to one of the Directors of Academy City. To say that she had influence was an understatement. She was undoubtedly one of the most capable, if not dangerous, people he knew. This was why he had contacted her. If anyone could help Kiyama Harumi, it was her. It also helped, of course, that they were on very good terms with one another.
After all, she was the one who had okayed his controversial return to the educational system of his age rather than being held back for essentially skipping on about one and a half years worth of education. Their whole initial meeting had been very, very complicated.
"So, this is about Kiyama Harumi, I presume?" Seria got straight to the point as she sank down on the teacher's chair, eyeing Touma quizzically as Touma shifted in his chair nervously.
"Nothing escapes your notice, as usual," Touma mumbled as he scratched his head sheepishly at Seria's pointed glance.
"You should know that I don't think I can help you out on this one," Seria said heavily as she leaned back, her lips pursed, "The Board of Directors isn't too happy with the direction she took in order to run her simulations."
"You mean the Level Upper?" Touma pressed.
Seria inclined her head slightly to indicate that he was half-right, "You have to understand, Touma-kun, that the Board does not take lightly to people messing with the system that they have established. It makes mockery of the work that they've put into the city." Her eyes narrowed, "You and I both know what goes on in the darkness but there's nothing we can do about it."
"So you're just going to let them die?" Touma growled heatedly, his hands clenching on reflex.
Seria shrugged, "I never said anything about letting them die, Touma," she reminded him lightly and the spiky haired male looked away in embarrassment, "But this isn't something that can be done with a snap of my fingers. It's not that easy. There are rules, procedures and…" she trailed off. And there was someone else behind the entire Board of Directors. But she couldn't tell him that, of course. Aleister was someone that all twelve members of the Board feared reverently and she had heard tales of what had happened to foreign agents attempting to track him down.
None of them were pretty.
There was something the General Superintendent of Academy City had taken a vested interest in though, and that was the person sitting across her right now. Kamijou Touma, with his mysterious right hand – The Imagine Breaker, the right arm that could nullify all abilities. If Seria was not as shrewd as she was, even she would have been surprised at the amount of 'favouritism' given to Kamijou Touma.
But she knew better. While she was not on Aleister's side, she would be considered to be simply because of her status as the 'brain' for a member of the Board of Directors. One could say that Seria was the one who fuelled the political movements in Academy City for him. In short, Aleister pulled the strings of his puppets (the Board) while she attempted to direct the 'puppets' in a slightly different 'plot'. It was a risky manoeuvre but Seria had already gotten herself involved. There was no going back.
"Senpai?" Touma asked, jerking Seria out of her thoughts.
"Ah?" Seria blinked, her face burning up slightly at Touma's distance from her nose. He had leaned forward to wave his hand over her eyes quizzically. "Oh!" this time, her reply was a yelp as her normally unflappable mask dropped and she jerked back violently to put some distance between them. Her heart pounding wildly, Seria swallowed thickly. 'Ah, he's got his charms working on me too, how troubling,' She thought as Touma drew back with a strange look on his face. "S-sorry. I got distracted," she excused herself as she attempted to calm her beating heart down.
"You ok, Senpai? You're looking…?" Touma couldn't describe it. Sure, Seria was friendly around him but she rarely dropped her 'cool and collected' mask no matter how relaxed she was. She was more honest around him but even she couldn't drown out the habits forged after years of politics in Academy City. He should know, of course. Seria had taught him well in the field of politics and tactics for information gathering that were better left unsaid. So, to her face so… expressive (and red) was a surprise, at least. She looked… for a lack of a better word – Troubled.
"No, it's nothing," Seria interrupted his question, deciding to simply wing it. It was tough keeping on a mask all the time. For once, maybe she could be more like her real self. "Sorry. As I was saying," she sighed, her face weary, "There are rules. Those stuffy bureaucrats wouldn't know compassion if it kicked them in the balls."
Touma grinned despite himself.
"Maybe except the person I work for and Director Monoka," Seria corrected herself lazily, "But even then, two people against the vote of ten is quite a point against her, wouldn't you agree?"
"But she did it for a good cause," Touma argued.
"Kamijou, Kamijou…" Seria's lips lifted in a ghost of a smile, "What did I teach you before? In politics, 'good' is only as effective as the people who believe in it. It doesn't matter if a powerless person perceives his or her way to be 'right' and 'just', in the end, the ones with the power are the ones running the show and they make the rules 'right' and 'just' to them. To people of differing standpoints –"
"The people who oppose them are 'evil' and the ones on their side are 'good,'" Touma finished for her, an impatient note in his voice, "I know that. But –"
Seria held up a hand to stop him before he could run his mouth off again, "Did anyone tell you how much you love to talk?" she commented archly and Touma shook his head with a wry expression, "Well," Seria said as she leaned forward with a wink, "You do. A lot. Now let me finish." Seria lifted her hands, "Imagine Kiyama Harumi to be the right arm," she fisted her right hand to elaborate, "And the Board the left." She spread the fingers of her left hand. "To be precise, Kiyama-san would merely be a finger," she uncurled her right index finger, "And…" she poked her fanned out left palm, "This was what she was trying to do."
"Huh?" Touma looked blank.
"A ripple," Seria clarified, "All she did was doing was nudging them in an irritating fashion. But the Board, you see, hates to be irritated. What their typical response would be is to…" she used her left palm to wrap around her right index finger and made a snapping motion. "Do you understand?"
"What you're telling me is that the Board would have eliminated her outright?" Touma guessed shrewdly, the cogs of his mind beginning to turn.
"Exactly. Now do you understand why I say I can't be of much help?" Seria asked blandly, like a teacher was interested in seeing the results of her tutoring.
"You were the one to defended her case?"
"Precisely," Seria confirmed, even as her expression dimmed slightly, "So you see, Touma; I've done what I can. I could arrange for her not to be treated too harshly by Anti-Skill on the account that she did save all those people who had used Level Upper but that's about all I can do."
"And the children?" Touma asked.
Seria's expression twisted slightly to become a mix between disgust and a sneer before dropping into a self-depreciating smile, "I can't help you there either. Kiyama-san is going to have to find her own way to wake them up. I would say, however, that you do have someone that is the most qualified to help you in saving those children. After all, 'who do you think he is'?" she smiled as Touma's eyes widened in understanding.
"Oi, this brings me to something. What the hell were you thinking when you took down Kakine Teitoku?" Seria snapped suddenly, glaring at Touma sharply, "Do you know what kind of ruckus you've stirred up?"
"Enlighten me," Touma muttered, an annoyed look coming over him. "I did what I had to do!" he defended himself as Seria scowled at him with enough malice to make him shrink back a little in fear.
"Well, you've just caused an uproar underground," Seria informed him, raising a hand to rub her temples at the stirrings of a headache, "Skill-Out is going crazy and the Esper organisations are in a tizzy. I don't know who put the word out on the streets but this is getting out of hand already."
Touma paused, confusion in his eyes as he sat up straighter "What exactly do you mean 'Put the word out on the streets'?"
Seria grimaced, "Exactly what I meant, Touma. People are saying that the 'Devil' of Big Spider has returned from the dead to exact his vengeance for the incident about two years ago."
Touma's blood ran cold, "What?" he said numbly, "Why?"
Seria made a sound deep within a throat, "Because someone spread word out that Kakine Teitoku was completely and utterly dominated by someone with an arm that completely stopped his powers. And to the underground, only one person has existed in the past that could do that. You." Her eyes were fixed on him steely now, "Most of the new guys don't know about your true identity, Touma. But the old hands who have seen your face? There's going to be trouble and it's probably going to get worse. The Satellite that was observing your fight was unable to get a recording because of massive electromagnetic interference and all Anti-Skill deployed were either knocked out or killed by Kakine. No eyewitnesses to see you, Touma. Someone is out to stir a reaction."
"And they're getting one, aren't they?" Touma hissed angrily, his eyes hardening in frustration.
"It's likely that the more violent gangs of Skill-Out will be galvanized into action," Seria said astutely, "There might even be an uprising if we're not careful in how we deal with the rumours and the aftermath."
"Maybe I should –"
"No," Seria cut in sharply, "You should know better. If you go back there thinking you can just waltz in and TALK, you're being naïve. They won't let you go that easily, Touma. Even if you are feared, you're still one man. Either way, the odds are stacked against you."
"Then what would you have me do?" Touma demanded.
Seria smiled, "Wait it out. Just leave this to me, ok? I'm not your Senpai for nothing, you know," she teased as she got up from the teacher's seat, "Alright. Session over, Touma. Don't go staggering out or people might get the wrong idea."
"Do you want them to get the wrong idea?" Touma grinned back as he got up and walked towards the door.
"Umm… I'm thinking about it. But then I'd have to deal with more irate schoolmates," Seria countered saucily, leaning over the table with a flirtatious smile.
"You know… I like you better when you're being yourself." Touma said earnestly as Seria's eyes widened in shock at his honest statement before Touma left. The upperclassman shook her head to regain her bearings, straightening her back as she placed a hand on her waist wryly.
"That boy is going to break many a lady's heart when he grows up." She murmured as she stepped out of the classroom, ignoring the stares directed at her with a sultry smile of her own as she put on her mask again.
Her phone buzzed.
Frowning at the unknown displayed on her phone, Seria picked it up, her eyes flickering wide in surprise and trepidation as a bland and utterly chilling voice greeted her.
"Good afternoon, Kumokawa Seria."
*** XXX ***
Date: July 26th, Late Morning
Misaka Mikoto was confused. Lying on her hospital bed and staring at the ceiling blankly, she wondered exactly why she felt so… strange. Something in her heart had constricted painfully when she had seen Touma holding Ruiko's hand so… intimately. Feeling a lump rise in her throat, Mikoto turned to the side, irritated that she cared about something so trivial like 'holding hands'. But it was her hands he should –
Mikoto moaned silently. She was getting more and more bewildered by her frequent mood swings around him. It wasn't like she was jealous or anything! Maybe she was just uncomfortable sharing his attentions with her friends? But she didn't mind Kuroko being open with others. Well, Kuroko was TOO open with her as it was. So what was it? Damn that idiot for making her feel this way!
"Onee-sama? Why are you giving off sparks?" Kuroko's voice shook her out of her thoughts abruptly and to her mortification, she discovered that she was, indeed, giving off sparks of irritation.
"Ah!" Mikoto turned to face her roommate as she schooled her face to one of normality, "it's nothing, just thinking."
"About Kamijou-san?" Kuroko guessed as her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Ye – NO! Why would I be thinking about Touma!" Mikoto denied hotly.
Kuroko shot her senior a droll look, "Onee-sama, I may be younger than you but I am in no way inferior to you when it comes to deducing complex emotions. After all, my affections for you has been forged through years of sweat and dedication!"
"Uh… we've only known each other for two months, tops. And besides, you weren't exactly very warm to me the first time we met," Mikoto reminded her dryly.
"That's beside the point," Kuroko rambled on and Mikoto felt a drop of sweat roll down her head. The teleporter had completely ignored, "The point is that you seem to be troubled regarding Kamijou-san."
"… I already said no, didn't I?" Mikoto rejected lightly.
Kuroko huffed, "You don't need to lie to me, Onee-sama. I've seen the way you look at him." There was a strange intonation in her voice and Mikoto looked at Kuroko curiously as the teleporter faced her with a resigned expression. "It's an expression of longing, Onee-sama. The same way I look at you."
"Hah!" Mikoto snorted as loudly as she could, even as a strange emotion welled up at that statement, "There's no way I'd look at him with ardent lust in my eyes."
"Not lust, Onee-sama," Kuroko corrected softly, "Love."
Mikoto cocked an eyebrow quizzically, "He's my childhood friend. Of course I love him."
"… Not that kind of love, Onee-sama," Kuroko was beginning to get frustrated. She had been thinking things through after her near-death experience at Kakine Teitoku's hands and she had come to the uncomfortable realization that Kamijou Touma was growing on her. He had rushed headlong into danger without care for his safety in order to save Mikoto and the others. He had taken on Kakine freakin Teitoku in a one on one battle and had somehow come out on top. He had done the impossible, accomplished what she could not. Shirai Kuroko had never felt as powerless as she did now.
Yesterday had been the clincher. The look in Mikoto's eyes… there was no mistaking it. And all the times they hung out together, Mikoto's devastation when Kamijou Touma had gone off on his own… they were all too evident.
Misaka Mikoto was in love with Kamijou Touma.
And for the life of her, Shirai Kuroko could not fault her. She loved her Onee-sama, worshipped the very ground she stood on and had simply assumed it would be enough. But no, her very idea of 'worthy' had been completely shattered by Touma. He was a Level 0 but Mikoto never saw him as anything other than her equal. There was a unbreakable bond between them that Kuroko knew she could never compare to. They understood one another, fought by one another… and completely trusted each other with their lives.
It should have sickened her.
But now, she wasn't so sure.
How could she? There was just something about the two of them that clicked. And that… feeling made her despair. She wanted to weep at the unfairness of it all. She could have been the one for Onee-sama. But she wasn't. Misaka Mikoto wanted Kamijou Touma.
And she didn't even know it.
The irony would have made her laugh if her heart hadn't already been shattered to a thousand tiny fragments. However, Kuroko also understood something – Emotions could not be forced. Love… like… it just happens. Despite her bitterness, she wanted nothing more than her Onee-sama to be happy.
Of course, a threesome would be nice as well. Kamijou Touma wasn't all that bad looking, after –
Taking a deep breath, Kuroko decided to just wing it. The hurt in her Onee-sama's eyes had been all too evident yesterday. Jealousy was a dangerous thing. It could eat you out from the inside and make you do stupid and ridiculous things. She would have wanted Saten-san to win but she couldn't bear to see her Onee-sama hurt. Shirai- Kuroko may be unreasonable at times but she only wanted the best for the people around her.
Even if she had to force them into it.
"You love him the same way I love you… or the same way a man loves a woman," Kuroko said bluntly. "Or a woman loves a woman. Oh , you know what I'm trying to say!"
"Wha? That's ridiculous!" Mikoto denied, her nervousness translating into sparks being emitted suddenly from her forehead as Kuroko sighed.
"Ha… Onee-sama… A maiden's heart is a very delicate thing especially to one such as yourself. You may not be all that feminine and even wear shorts under your shorts but even one lacking in feminine wiles like yourself should be – OW!" Kuroko yelped as Mikoto kicked her cast-covered broken leg forcefully and she bit her down on her tongue to keep herself from screaming the house down.
Mikoto was scowling now, her initial awkwardness evaporating into indignant anger at Kuroko's jibe at her supposed lack of 'feminine wiles'. "I dare you to repeat that again," Mikoto hissed through her clenched teeth.
"Well, then you need to be more honest with yourself, Onee-sama," Kuroko croaked hoarsely, her injured leg throbbing wildly from the force of the blow, "Don't you feel uncomfortable and incensed every time he gets close to another girl?"
"N-NO!" Mikoto snapped even as she looked away hurriedly. She did feel uncomfortable every time he directed his attention to attractive girls but she wasn't about to tell Kuroko of all people that. And who was she to be interrogating her about her love life? "Why exactly are you harping on this?" Mikoto shot back.
Kuroko cocked an eyebrow faintly, "Onee-sama. Forgive me for being blunt. But as your kouhai and someone who values your happiness above all else," there was no dry wit in her tone, no sarcasm; just pure earnestness "I cannot help but ask you to fight for your own happiness." She paused. There was a painful feeling in her heart but she forged on, allowing herself to voice the words that came from her heart. "There's something that you and Kamijou-san have that I can't replace or overtake. There's this implicit trust and camaraderie that on a completely different level from most people. It may pain me to admit it but Kamijou-san has proven himself to be your equal in ways I never could."
"Don't stop me, Onee-sama." Kuroko went on, "I may be unreasonable and often… overzealous but I care for you above all. That's why I'm telling you to face the truth. You can't run from it forever. I don't know what troubles you and Kamijou-san have gotten yourself involved in. And maybe I'm not good enough to know… but the one thing I can tell you is – You like Kamijou Touma in a way that is beyond friendship. Can't you feel it?"
Mikoto's eyes met Kuroko's and her words of denial caught on her throat, unable to be voiced. Eventually, the words vanished and she slumped. "I don't know, Kuroko. I honestly don't know. It's difficult to express in words." She admitted dully, "I mean, Touma and I have been friends for so long… It's difficult to think like that, you know?" her face was getting redder now, "I thought it was just that I was uncomfortable with sharing his attentions and…" 'Losing him' she wanted to say but she couldn't.
Kuroko sighed heavily, "Onee-sama. You really need to be more aware of your heart."
"And act all crazy, like you?" Mikoto muttered sardonically.
Kuroko humphed, "Ha, Onee-sama. Kuroko is merely being honest and open with the one whom she is determined to spend the rest of her days with. There is no shame in sniffing your underwear and – AH!" Kuroko gave a shriek of agony as Mikoto shocked her before she could finish her outrageous statement, the poor teleporter falling unconscious as Mikoto let out her frustrations in the most convenient way possible.
"…" Mikoto huffed. "That's what you get for talking about things like that." She growled as she lay back on her bed. But Kuroko's questionings had opened a can of worms that were now eating away at her. "Do I… really… love Touma like that?" she wondered. "I wonder…" her mind began to wander again.
"Touma… I really… really… really… ah… ah… ARGH!"
"ARGH!" Mikoto wailed at the same time as she released a stray current of energy, her face reddening, "I can't do it even in a dream, huh?" she moaned as she buried her burning face in the sheets. "Wait." Her mind screeched to a halt. "Can't do it… confess in a… NO!" she squirmed deeper into her hospital sheets, "I'm not in LOVE WITH TOUMA!" she shouted in her mind.
"Mikoto…" Touma whispered wickedly against her ears, his right hand holding both her arms hostage and pressing her against the wall roughly, the Tokiwadai student panting as he dipped his face to press his lips against her neck hungrily, "I'm going to demonstrate how I like you…"
"We shouldn't. I'm in school," Mikoto stammered, her voice breathy, weak. Looking up, she could see Touma's eyes flare wide as he lowered his head and her lips parted to –
"GAH!" Mikoto shook herself out of her daydream and she groaned, feeling a strange heat suffuse her body. 'Hormones…' She cursed the hormones that made her have such a dream and instead not stimulate the growth of more important parts.
"What're you doing, Misaka-san?" Ruiko asked blankly.
Mikoto jumped, almost falling out of bed as she saw Ruiko standing next to her bed with a curious expression. "Wah! Wh-when did you arrive Saten-san!" she gasped.
"I've been here for over a full minute," Ruiko informed her as her blank look changed to an evil grin, "So, what were you dreaming about that had you all red and squirming?"
"Nonsense! My face definitely wasn't red and it definitely wasn't about Touma!" Mikoto denied quickly.
"…" Ruiko smiled devilishly as she placed a hand on her waist. "Oh?"
*** XXX ***
"Come on! I won't tell Touma anything!" Ruiko winked as she tried to pry some answers out of Mikoto. Uiharu Kazari was undergoing a private check-up to make sure that she had not suffered any internal injuries, so Ruiko had come back to kill some time. And now she had stumbled upon something irresistibly delicious. Currently dressed in a white cotton blouse and blue jeans, along with her usual flower hairclip; Ruiko had been discharged from the hospital without any problems whatsoever.
Mikoto huffed and looked away, "Hah, you talk too much, Saten-san."
"Wah, how can you say something about your friend like that?" Ruiko teased, glancing at Kuroko's slightly twitching and unconscious frame curiously, "Uh… what happened to Shirai-san?" she asked.
"Oh, she got a shock-treatment," Mikoto said offhandedly.
'Shock treatment?' Ruiko thought awkwardly as she decided to lay off the teasing lest she suffer the same fate as the teleporter.
"But enough about me," Mikoto said suddenly, struck by something she had been holding in for a while, "Saten-san…" she looked at Ruiko in the eye seriously, causing the Level 0 to back a little at Mikoto's intense gaze, "What do you… well…" Mikoto finally got the words out, "What do you think of Touma?"
"Eh?" Ruiko felt her face burn at the blunt question. "Wh-what kind of question is that?" We've only known each other for a week at most so… friends, I guess?"
"Friends?" Mikoto probed, a strange happiness welling up from her heart, "Just friends?"
"Wh-why are you asking something so embarrassing suddenly!" Ruiko stammered, "I think you're the one that likes Touma, right!" she pointed an accusing finger at Mikoto as a way to divert the question.
"That's it, you – MPH!" Ruiko's mouth was smothered as Mikoto grabbed her mouth hurriedly, her face beet red.
"Shh! Don't shout! I don't like Touma!" Mikoto growled, "We're just friends! Just strangers!"
"…" Ruiko stared.
"Just strangers, huh?" the door slid open and the person in question walked in. Touma sighed and placed a hand over his heart in a dramatic fashion while sporting a caricature of a hurt look on his face, "I'm hurt that after about 9 years of friendship, we're still strangers, Biri Biri…"
"Gah! When did you arrive? Why is everybody a ninja today!" Mikoto sputtered.
"You're the one that has been acting strangely, Misaka-san," Ruiko pointed out.
Touma blinked, "Really?" he bent down to place a hand on Mikoto's forehead, "Are you ok?"
'You like him, don't you?' the words rang out in Mikoto's head and she drew back with a sudden movement, slapping Touma's hands away reflexively, "No!" she exclaimed, her face burning. "I mean… I'm fine!" she corrected herself as Touma stared at her with a puzzled look.
"Are you sure?" he and Ruiko asked in unison, worried about Mikoto's strange behaviour.
A pillow to Touma's face was his answer as Mikoto looked away, "I'm fine!" she snapped.
"Oh… kay…" Touma said slowly as he exchanged an uneasy look with Ruiko. He hadn't bothered with his school uniform today. Instead, he was currently decked out in a white singlet that exposed both his muscular arms and the upper-part of his chest while hefting a brown sports jacket over his shoulder and a pair of black track pants. His sweat-stained body had made his singlet more or less transparent, which did not escape the attention of the two teenage girls beside him; they kept sending furtive looks at his toned-chest shyly.
"Uh…" Mikoto coughed, unnerved by her sudden change in dynamics with her childhood friend, "Did you go running today?" she asked, her eyes dropping to his chest again before she pulled her gaze away with a furious blush.
Touma nodded, "Needed to get my mind of things," he explained with a careless shrug of his shoulders. Finally noticing Ruiko's odd look, Touma folded his arm over his chest defensively "Do I stink?"
Ruiko jumped as Touma waved a hand in front of her and she raised both hands hurriedly, a sheepish smile on her face, "N-no! It's not that!" she stammered.
"…" Touma looked at Mikoto, then back at Ruiko before repeating the process. "Why are you two looking at me like that?"
"L-like what?" Mikoto and Ruiko croaked. 'Damn Kuroko and her insinuations!' Mikoto cursed.
"Uh…" Touma scratched his head in thought, "I can't really tell but –"
"Excuse me!" a nurse entered the room, interrupting their conversation as she glanced down at her clipboard, "Is a Misaka Mikoto here?"
Mikoto raised her head, "That's me."
The nurse bobbed her head enthusiastically, "Misaka-san. It's time for your checkup. Do you need a wheelchair?" she inquired politely.
Mikoto shook her head, "That won't be necessary." Getting off her bed, Mikoto nodded at Touma as she followed the nurse out "See you later, Touma."
"Yeah. Meet me at the same place when you're done," Touma called out, "You know what it's about."
Mikoto waved her hand lazily in response as she left. Satisfied, Touma turned back and blinked as he caught sight of the slightly twitching, yet unconscious Shirai Kuroko. "What happened to her?"
"Shock treatment," Ruiko supplied.
"Ah…" Touma understood immediately. Inclining his head to face Ruiko with a grin, he gestured to the window "Wanna go for a walk?" he invited as the black haired girl brightened at his offer, getting to her feet with a wink.
"Sure, why not?"
*** XXX ***
"So, how's it going?" Touma inquired as he leaned against the bark of a towering tree, the canopy providing a decent shade for the two of them to talk. They were currently in the garden located inside the hospital grounds, which had been cultivated to resemble a natural habitat. Heaven Canceller always did say that nature worked miracles that no man can hope to copy.
"How's what going?" Ruiko responded.
"Life," Touma added simply.
"It's great, I guess. I feel lighter now. Like I can truly be me, you know?" Ruiko said thoughtfully.
Touma nodded with a gentle smile, "Yeah. I think I can." With one hand in his pant's pocket, Touma looked up at the sky wistfully. A place where he could truly be himself, huh? A wistful look appeared on his face as Ruiko watched himself shyly under her long lashes. "What are you staring at?" Touma murmured suddenly, startling Ruiko out of her wits. Bending down, he looked at her in the eye sharply.
"W-well…" Ruiko stammered, "I was just thinking… you look kinda troubled."
"Really?" Touma sounded surprised. He hadn't been aware that his emotions had been expressed on his face again. This was turning out to be most annoying. He was becoming too secure around them already. "It's probably nothing." He lied.
"Are you sure?" Ruiko pressed.
Touma let out a sigh, "Aren't you the curious one?" he said as he took out his phone, scrolling down to a saved message before showing it Ruiko. "Recognize this?"
"Ah! It's that message I sent you before I passed out!" Ruiko exclaimed. The message was simple, really. It was just 'I'm sorry.'
"At first I was wondering what you were apologizing for. But the moment the news of you falling unconscious reached me, I knew," Touma explained heavily, "Mikoto and I blamed ourselves for not doing more. I guess that's why she tried so hard."
"That's why you felt it was necessary to take on a monster like that? Uiharu said that the Number 2 Esper had appeared but he had vanished by the time the ambulance came. You beat him, didn't you?" Ruiko said.
"Maybe," Touma tried to skirt around the topic.
"Maybe?" Ruiko's tone was challenging.
"There was too much at stake to lose," that was Touma's curt reply.
"You know… sometimes I don't think we know about the 'real' Touma," Ruiko remarked, looking back at him with a determined look in her eyes, "There's so many sides to you that I don't which is the real Touma. Is he the hero that saved us? Is he our friend who laughs and smiles with us? Or is he a stranger with a fearsome reputation on the net? I can't tell at all."
"Does it scare you?"
"…" After a moment, Ruiko shook her head. "No," she replied earnestly, "For some reason… it doesn't scare me as much as it used to. Deep down… I think I know… you're a good person. I can tell."
Touma grinned. "Thanks," he said softly.
"You're welcome," Ruiko replied with a smile of her own.
"Saten-san!" Kazari's voice came from the entrance to the garden and Ruiko spun, beaming as her friend ran up to them and stopped, panting heavily. Still in her hospital garb, Kazari still sported a bandage around her forehead but she was, at least, able to move about without supervision now. "The nurse said I could be discharged soon!"
"Really, that's great!" Ruiko laughed, grabbing Kazari's hand excitedly "Come on, let's go pack your stuff!"
"I'll be seeing you two around then," Touma said as he came up to the two girls.
"Umm… Kamijou-san…" Kazari bowed earnestly, a shaky smile on her face "Thank you so much for everything. I heard from Misaka-san that you helped save Saten-san."
Touma shrugged carelessly, "I just did what anyone would have done. Now, if you'll excuse me." He left with a wink to Ruiko.
Ruiko placed both hands on her waist with a wry smile as she patted Kazari on the head, "That guy…"
*** XXX ***
Clambering up to the roof, Kamijou Touma let out a weary sigh as he looked up the afternoon sky. Leaning against the wall of the entrance to the roof, he waited. Index had been returned to Komoe sensei's place since it would have been too dangerous to leave her at his. But the Magicians already knew where she was. Tomorrow was the day. He had already planned it out, cajoling Komoe-sensei to take a break in the evening to go drinking with her friends. This meant that they would be left alone to fend against the Magicians with no innocents involved.
Now the issue remained – How were they going to stop them? The main problem was not about combat strength, it was about Index. As long as they could find the main cause of the ailment that was eating away at Index, then getting through to the two magicians shouldn't be an issue at all.
The door to the rooftop swung open and Mikoto walked out onto the roof with a happy look on her face. "Touma! Dr. Gektota said I can be discharged already."
"..." Touma shook his head sardonically, "Dr. Gekota, huh?"
Mikoto pouted, "Can't help it if he looks like a frog."
"Well, as long as he doesn't find out that you said that, it should be fine, I guess…" Touma grinned.
"So… what is it?" Mikoto got straight to the point.
"Tomorrow's the day," Touma said heavily.
"You're going to be fighting beside me, aren't you?" Touma asked.
"What do you think, Kamijou Touma?" Mikoto said tiredly, "Do you think I should?"
Touma turned to face her with a shocked look at how tired she sounded. "What do you mean? You know, you have been acting strange today."
Mikoto scowled, "Then what's the point of asking me? Don't you have all those other girls you can ask? Misaki, perhaps?" her voice was venomous and she couldn't really understand why she felt so resentful either.
"They're not you," Touma replied carefully.
"Then what am I to you, Kamijou Touma?" Mikoto asked lightly, even as her heart pounded painfully in her chest. There was no reason for her to be asking a question like this but there was a strange instinct guiding her along, telling her to assure herself of what kind of place she held in his heart.
"We're best friends, aren't we?" Touma offered, watching her face carefully.
Mikoto felt her heart break a little, "Best friends, huh?" her cheerful voice sounded hollow to her ears.
"Biri Biri… what's wrong with you?" Touma whispered, leaning closer.
"N-nothing!" she snapped, taking a step back from him. He felt warm… too warm. There was a strange uneasiness in her body and she didn't know what to do with herself. Why did she feel this way? She wanted to be more than friends? Then… that meant…
Did she… really?
"I'm sorry. I guess I've been a little jumpy lately," Mikoto apologized.
"…" Touma tilted his head in a puzzled manner. Mikoto was a tsundere through and through. She had been sending him confusing signals lately, so he had found it harder to read her than usual. But wait. She was only jumpy when it involved… other girls?
"You're jealous, aren't you?" Touma asked bluntly.
"Wha!" Mikoto looked away as Touma began to grin like an idiot, "Who'd be jealous?"
"Would you like me to hang out with Misaki then?"
"NO!" Mikoto snapped violently before flushing at her overboard response.
"You're bad at lying," Touma said airily, tapping her nose gently, "No one can replace you, you know."
"I guess…" Mikoto trailed off, "No one can replace you either." She added softly.
Touma blinked. Did she just say what he thought she just said? Before he could think more about it, his phone buzzed angrily and he picked it up immediately.
"!" Touma knew that voice. Mikoto turned to face him as he tensed, her expression confused. "How did you get this number, Kanzaki Kaori?"
"… We have our ways," was Kaori's simple reply. Mikoto stiffened and pressed her ear closer to the phone. "I'm calling to remind you that the deadline is tomorrow at midnight. Bid your farewells to her."
"What's your point in all of this?" Touma snarled.
"I'll be honest with you. When we first had to erase her memories, we spent the remaining three days solely focused on creating memories. On the final night, we did nothing but cling to her, sobbing. I believe you have the right to that same opportunity." Kaori informed him.
"Don't screw around with me!" Touma snapped, "That's like asking me to give up! Well, I can safely tell you that it isn't happening!"
"Have it your way, Kamijou Touma. There is no leeway left for this. If you stand in our way, we will destroy you. There will be no mercy." With the click, the line went dead.
"Damn it!" Touma cursed as he slammed a hand against the wall angrily.
"So what now?" Mikoto asked softly, her eyes telling him that she would fight beside him all the way.
"We prepare for war." Touma muttered, keeping his phone as he left.
Mikoto placed a hand on her waist as she realized that she would need to return to the dorms to get a change of clothes. Which meant that she would have to see the Dorm Supervisor? Mikoto groaned.
She hoped that she'd be able to move her neck tomorrow.
*** XXX ***
Date: July 27th, Afternoon
"Someone's late," Touma remarked as Mikoto walked in with an ice pack pressed against her neck gingerly.
"Tell that to my Dorm Supervisor," Mikoto grumbled.
"Touché," Touma murmured as she took a seat beside him, facing the bed where Index was lying on.
"How's she?" Mikoto asked.
Touma sighed heavily, "She's running a fever and she's not responding to anything I do. I even touched her with Imagine Breaker. Nothing."
Mikoto narrowed her eyes, "And where exactly did you touch?"
"Her head and neck. Why?" Touma replied, shooting Mikoto a droll look.
"Nothing," Mikoto muttered, wincing in pain as she leaned against the wall of the apartment with a moan.
For a moment, they sat there peacefully as Touma shut his eyes at the feeling of powerlessness that he felt from looking at Index's sweating body. Clenching his fist angrily, Touma wondered how exactly they were going to save Index. A telepath wouldn't work because of the nature of the grimoires and using a machine to attempt to erase Index's memories could cause a backlash like what happened to Mikoto.
They were at an impasse.
"She'll be ok, you know. We can stop them." Mikoto said suddenly, looking at him with a sad expression.
"Why does it always have to be this way, Mikoto? Every time I reach my hand out… someone gets hurt. Imagine Breaker is useless when it comes to things like this. It can't save people. It can only destroy." Touma whispered miserably.
"That's not true. You've saved plenty of people. You saved me." Mikoto reminded him.
"It always about the fighting. I'm tired of fighting. It's what killed Wataru. It's taken so many friends from me. For once… I wish I could just forget about everything."
"Do you want to forget me too?" Mikoto asked him sharply.
"You know that's not what I meant," Touma shot back.
"Then what did you mean, Kamijou Touma?" Mikoto hissed, "All these memories… all these experiences have made you who you are. Would you rather have been a wimp your entire life? You stood up, faced adversity head on and gained the strength to forge ahead. You've gone through something that you don't want to talk about. I can understand that. But all that is what makes you… you. I wouldn't have you any other way."
"Wouldn't have me any other way, huh? Touma smiled wistfully at her, "you're something else, Biri Biri."
Mikoto smiled back at him, "I could say the same for you. No matter what, I wouldn't want to forget this… forget you."
"You know yesterday? When you asked me what you meant to me?"
"Uh huh?" Mikoto straightened.
"It's more than that, I think," Touma admitted, "But I don't know what it is. It's more than just friends… I can't describe it. But… I can tell you that you're special to me. So… um…" Touma looked up at the ceiling. "What am I to you?"
"Ah?" Mikoto froze, her face turning red as Touma looked back down at her seriously. "W-well… I…" Mikoto felt like digging a hole and jumping into it. "I… well. Ah… You're…" She looked away nervously, "I don't know." She admitted miserably.
"Really?" Touma felt a strange sense of melancholy overcome him, "I see."
'This feeling… I really… do? Don't I?' Mikoto realized as she shifted closer to Touma and pressed her head against his shoulder's gently. "Let me lean against you a while," she murmured as she shut her eyes with a comfortable sigh. He felt so warm… and safe.
"Yeah." Touma whispered as he gently brushed a stray hair from her forehead away, before leaning back and letting his weariness overcome him.
A chime made his eyes fly open and he blinked blearily, shaking his head to stave off the cobwebs of sleepiness. He stiffened as he glanced at the windows to see the night sky reflected in the panes. The chime continued and Touma looked down at his watch with trepidation. A chill ran down his spine as he uttered a low curse deep in his throat. How could they have slept so long?
The time now was midnight.
As if on the cue, the door to Komoe-sensei's apartment flung open with a deafening sound. There, at the entrance, reflected in the full moon; were the two Magicians.
*** XXX ***
Date: July 27/28, Midnight
Mikoto jerked awake when she heard the crashing sound, jarring her to alertness as Touma clambered to his feet. Following suit, the two of them glared at the two Magicians standing before them.
"Time's up. Kamijou Touma. You couldn't save her. Out of my way," Stiyl Magnus declared as the two of them entered the apartment.
"I don't think so." Touma growled, "This is obviously a work of the church. I've confirmed with my sources. There's nothing wrong with Index's brain!"
"Are you still at it?" Stiyl scoffed, a cold look in his eyes, "despite all that you've said, she's still lying there, suffering!"
"That's why I need your help! We can identify if there's any enchantment on her or –"
"Shut up!" Stiyl snapped, glaring at Touma furiously, "You have that Right Arm of yours, right? It can destroy magic without fail and even destroy Index's Walking Church. Just by touching her, you would dispelled any enchantments, right?"
"That's…" Mikoto and Touma had no answer for that.
"In the end, you're all talk, Kamijou Touma," Stiyl sneered as he bent down to kneel in front of the comatose Index, his lips pursing into a frown as his shoulders straightened, as if steeling himself for what he was about to do. "According to Aleister Crowley's Moon Child', one has to use an angel's binding technique to establish the summoning of a spirit, capture it, and seal it…" Standing up, his face was devoid of emotion, "Kanzaki, come help me erase her memories."
"I won't let you!" Mikoto snapped, galvanized into action as she stood in front of Index and spread her arms defensively.
"It matters not if you stand in our way," Kaori said coolly, "We could blow up this apartment and take the two of you out, heal Index and erase her memories. We've already prepared for such an occurrence."
"You can't just give up hope like this!" Touma pleaded desperately, "Even if Imagine Breaker can't stop it… we have the best machines that can tamper with the minds of people, Espers can that change memories at will!" at this point, he didn't care about who got involved anymore. All that mattered was that this method was far too cruel to be inflicted upon the helpless girl lying on the bed before him. He knew how unreasonable he was being. He could have brought her to those doctors or Espers earlier but he was afraid of getting them hurt or involved with the Magicians. But now that they were here… as long as they agreed…!
He knew that this was asking for too much. He has barely known Index for a week at most. But… somehow, she reminded of her. That girl he couldn't save back in the child error facility. Where he could only reach out helplessly while she suffered. That's why… that's why he couldn't forgive himself if he could still save her. He had both his legs and Imagine Breaker and a lifetime of fighting. Surely… surely… he could do something!
"Tch!" Stiyl snorted, his face twisting into an ugly mask that revealed his own tumultuous emotions, "Don't screw around with me! You useless pretender of a benevolent man!" In that moment, Touma could sense Stiyl's own desperation… and resignation. The redhead grabbed Touma forcefully and the spiky-haired teen did not fight back as Stiyl forced him to look at Index, "LOOK!" Stiyl snarled "Those words that you just said, can you say them while facing this child?" Stiyl uttered with a shaking voice. "Facing this person who may die at any second, facing this person who's in so much pain that she's unable to open her eyes! Can you tell her that you want to try a method that MAY work, while she sits around and waits?"
"If you can still say those words, you are obviously inhuman! Look at her! You still want to inject some obscure, untested drugs into her body? Let some mysterious doctors play around with her body? Shove drugs into her mouth? That's not something a human being should do!" Stiyl's roar penetrates Kamijou's inner ears, and goes straight into his brain. "Give me an answer, esper! Are you still human? Or are you the shell of one, a monster taking the shape of one? You're right – You ARE a Devil!"
"You…!" Mikoto clenched her fist angrily and prepared to destroy Stiyl when –
"Enough… Biri Biri…" Touma said lifelessly, the words Stiyl had said ringing through to his ears. He couldn't subject her to such a thing. If so… he was no better than the ones he had fought so hard against… no better than the ones who soaked themselves in the darkness of Academy City.
Stiyl continues, adding insult to injury like a sword piercing the heart of a dead carcass. From his pocket, he produces a necklace adorned with a small cross. "…This little thing is essential to magicians specializing in brainwashing." Stiyl held up the necklace, swinging the cross in front of Touma's eyes. "You can probably tell that this is a 'magical' tool. Once your right hand touches it, it will be negated just like my Innocentius."
"That is, do you have the courage to do so, Esper?"
Touma froze, his eyes fixed on the cross even as his body felt paralyzed by indecision. He had always been assured of Imagine Breaker's finality but now… now he wasn't so sure. How could an arm that could only destroy save someone on the verge of death?
"After looking at her painful figure, do you have the courage to take this 'magic' away in front of her very eyes? If you really believe in your own strength, then just reach out and touch it, you wannabe of a hero!" Stiyl barked and Touma looked down helplessly as Stiyl continued, "her time is already up. If you can't bear to see her without her memories then leave. I won't stop you. Just leave before we start the ritual in fifteen minutes. The mere presence of your right arm will interfere with the process."
With that, he shoved Mikoto aside and proceeded to draw something on the wall.
"The first time we decided to erase her memories… didn't we spend the entire night sitting by her side and crying, Stiyl?" Kaori remarked as she turned to leave. Stiyl swung around to stare at Kaori as if she had just gone crazy.
"…!" For just a moment, Stiyl is rendered speechless. "But… but… who knows what tricks this idiot here might try! If we were to leave him alone with this child, won't he do something crazy?"
"Well, if he had planned on doing that, he would've touched that cross you showed him. It was specifically BECAUSE you believed that he had some 'humanity' left in him that you actually tested him with the cross… and the real one at that. Not the replica… isn't that right?" Kaori reminded him.
"Besides, until the time comes, the ritual can't be held anyway. If we let him keep these hidden regrets in his heart, there's a chance that he might disturb us while we're executing the ritual. That's just even more dangerous, Stiyl."
Stiyl gritted his teeth painfully.
The teeth made a grinding sound. With the attitude of a wild beast biting down hard on Touma's throat, Stiyl scowled at Touma, "You have exactly ten minutes. Ten minutes, you hear me…?" With that, he turned away and walked towards the apartment entrance. Without a sound, Kanzaki follows behind Stiyl; her eyes showing a cynical and bitter smile.
As the door clicked shut, Touma clenched his fist tightly.
In the end… he still couldn't save a girl that was in front of him.
*** XXX ***
'My name is Index'
'You don't want your house to go up in flames, right?'
Are you willing to accompany me to the depths of hell?'
"It's over, isn't it?" he laughed bitterly as Index stirred.
"Touma… Mikoto…" the nun whimpered piteously, her eyes drifting to the circle drawn on the wall wearily, "Magic? Who…? They came back, didn't they?"
"Y-yeah, they did," Mikoto said.
"Don't fight them anymore. They are my allies, yes? Just… let them be," Index whispered as her eyelid fluttered down, "I'm glad I got to meet some kind people before I lose my memories again…"
"Tch…" Touma slammed his fist against the mat furiously, "If only I was stronger… If only I could do more… then I'd definitely… definitely save you! I'll grow stronger still! And then…!"
Index's lips curl into a smile; as if the act of doing that took so much effort that she needed to will herself to smile. "Thank you… I'll wait for you, ok?"
Touma's face crumpled as he got to his feet, willing himself not to cry. How pathetic. After fighting for so long and gaining strength so he could protect people… he couldn't save this one girl in front of him. Again. "Let's go." He said dully.
"Is this it?" Mikoto hissed, grabbing his arm in protest, "Are you just going to walk away? This isn't the Touma I know!"
"Then what would you have me do?" Touma snarled, "There's nothing I can do! I can't let her head be prodded like some lab animal? Am I going to ask them to feed her drugs? Experiment on her? I can't do that! In the end, I'm still the useless person I was as a kid!"
"Are you just going to let his words get to you? She believes in you! Even when she's going to lose her memories, she still woke up and talked to you with all her heart!" Mikoto pointed a trembling finger at Index, "Pull yourself together, Kamijou Touma!"
"You can't give up!" Mikoto snapped, shaking Touma furiously, "Because I… WE believe in you! So get to your feet damn it! Stand up and show them! You think your right arm can't save her? You're wrong. You're the only one who has this power, the only one who can change things. This is it! This is your show, your story! Because you're not pretending to be a hero! You ARE a hero! If it's God that stands in your way, then screw him! The Kamijou Touma I love would never just give up like that!"
Touma's eyes widened. Did she realize what she just said? She just said that she… "Do you… know what you just said?" he croaked.
"Huh? What?" Mikoto growled, the words she had uttered in the heat of the moment lost to her.
Touma finally allowed himself to smile as he felt his heart grow warm. She had admitted it. In her own way… even if she did not mean to. She… loved him. Did he… love her too? Touma did not know. But that's why… "No," he began, raising his head to meet her in the eyes "I'm not a hero…" Mikoto's mouth opened to protest but he continued before she could say anything, "But I will become one. This… I promise you. So let's save her!"
Turning, he knelt down before Index. "The enchantment isn't around her head or neck or anywhere else. So where else could it be?"
"…" Mikoto frowned. Then, an idea occurred to her, "Why not inside her mouth? It's the last place anyone would think to look, right?" Plus, it was one of the areas that was close to the brain as well.
Touma's eyes widened, "You could be right," he murmured as he bent down, his eyes narrowing as he puckered her lips with his left arm and peered inside. "I see something," he said, his right hand reaching into her mouth steadily. There was a strange heat emanating from her mouth, something unnatural making him hesitate for a second before continuing. There, there was a symbol there… just a bit more –
Touma was flung back by an incredible force, his hand flying out of Index's mouth painfully as he hit the wall back-first. Drops of blood littered the mats on the floor as Mikoto came to his side, her eyes wide.
"You're bleeding!" she gasped as the room rocked violently. Touma's eyes dilated in shock as a strange pressure erupted from Index and he pulled Mikoto aside as he felt something incredibly dangerous suffuse itself into Index's very core. A single eye opened, the emerald irises stained red with an ominous symbol. A ray of red light burst forth from her eyes with such speed that Touma could not react on time while securing Mikoto. The two of them crashed against the book shelf, with Touma covering Mikoto protectively as the shelf broke, the boards hitting his back as he shielded Mikoto from the impact.
"T-Touma!" Mikoto whispered.
"Don't move!" Touma snapped, painstakingly getting to his feet as Index levitated, suspended by a strange force… mana? "That's right. I was stupid too. If you're not an Esper… then why don't you have mana?" Touma said to himself as he took a step forward, Imagine Breaker at the ready. "Mikoto, stay behind me. This is about to get ugly."
"...Warning! Chapter Three, Section Two of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. 'Collar' stages one through three have suffered confirmed damage. Attempting to repair… Failure. 'Collar' is unable to initiate auto-regeneration. Assessing the current situation, in order to protect the 103,000 grimoires, elimination of the intruder will be given priority." The possessed Index droned as her eyes looked at them lifelessly… robotically.
"John's Pen Mode," Touma uttered softly. The reason was obvious on hindsight, of course. The Church probably placed a multi-layered defence system on her - that is, if anyone were to find out the secret of 'Perfect Memorization' and wanted to unlock the 'Collar', then Index would automatically use some sort of powerful magic pulled from one of the 103,000 grimoires to annihilate the intruder instantly. Thus, all of Index's magical energy would be sealed, forcing it to be used only when the defence system required it.
The person that came up with this was someone terrifying alright.
"What? Are you crazy?" Mikoto snarled as she staggered to her feet, "I'm fighting with you!"
"...Attempting to reverse-engineer the magical attack used by the intruder with the aid of the 103,000 grimoires… failure. Unable to locate a match in the database. Initiating preparations to construct an attack used specifically for removing the intruder." John's Pen Mode Index swayed a little and Touma felt a chill run down his spine as he took a step forward. "...Counterattack against the intruder using the most efficient form of magic successfully prepared. Now deploying special magic attack 'St. George's Sanctuary' for the purpose of removing the target – Kamijou Touma."
A thundering sound rippled through the room as the symbol in Index's eyes shone brilliantly, enlarging to form two crimson magic seals that overlapped one another. Over two metres in diameter, the circles seemed to be attached to Index's eyes as they moved when she moved.
She began singing a song- one that humans were unable to comprehend. Suddenly, the two magic seals which were being projected from her eyes began to emit light, resulting in an explosion of pure, concentrated light. In the space in front of the centre of her eyebrows, it was as if a strong ball of lightning was created, with sparks flying out in all directions. However, it's not white sparks, but rather a ball of black lightning.
Although this defied all laws of physics, it looked like space itself was being torn apart, creating a ripping sound in the atmosphere and forcing Touma back with the force of its generation. Following a thundering clap that sounded similar to a glass wall shattering, dark cracks appeared on all the walls of the room. The cracks look like a turtle shell, appearing to act as a defence against anyone who happened to be close to Index. The inside of the cracks exhibit some sort of rippling effect, making a sound while growing outward.
From inside the dark cracks flowed out something that smelt like a wild beast. At that moment, Touma has a sudden feeling. It wasn't a theory, a logical conclusion, a sensible reasoning, or even an educated guess; it's pure instinct, his mind crying out at him. Although he didn't know what was hidden behind the turtle-shell pattern, he knew that if he saw it for even a second, as long as he sees it, Kamijou Touma would be annihilated instantaneously, leaving behind no trace.
This then, was the chance he had been waiting for. He was trembling. With fear… and with exhilaration. Because now, his right arm could finally do something useful. Imagine Breaker, which could only destroy… could now be used to save someone. He could save the person in front of him with his right arm.
And that was what he was going to do.
Beside him, Mikoto also got the same idea. Taking the initiative, the Railgun unleashed a bolt of blue energy at the John Pen Index as Touma charged. But the crimson seals around Index deflected the energy at him and he was forced to block it as the pressure on his body intensified. Mikoto fell to her knees, a nauseous look on her face as she trembled at this strange feeling that was overcoming her. She coughed and her eyes widened at the coppery taste in her mouth.
'What's going on?'
That girl once mentioned that mana and Espers were incompatible. Was this it then? Was her body suffering from a negative reaction to the mana being condensed in the area? Damn it! She couldn't back down now! Touma needed her support. As long as they breached those cracks… they were home free. A sudden ripping sound made them both pause as a shockwave rippled through the room and Touma staggered back from the bewildering, unexplainable force emitted from the cracks.
At this moment, the cracks open.
Mikoto couldn't describe it. It was as if the fabric of reality was being torn apart, the very lines of electromagnetism being shredded to pieces by some indescribable force from within the cracks. And then something looked at her. Something terrifying, something that made her feel weak and minute in comparison. And then, it looked at Touma. Touma took a step back as a loud, thudding sound came from the cracks and then; a brilliant light erupted from the turtle-shelled pattern.
On instinct, he threw Imagine Breaker forward to meet what could only be described as a massive beam of light. Mikoto and him raised their left hands on reflex to shield their eyes from the ethereal opulence of the beam as Touma felt his body jerk from the impact and the beam held. "Th-this is…!" The two of them could smell something burning and heard a sizzling sound from the point of contact. Touma did not feel any pain but the beam was straining against Imagine Breaker, being deflected in all directions.
Yet, it did not vanish.
"Tch!" Mikoto and Touma understood the terrifying reality of it immediately. Just like Innocentius did not shatter after being negated, this beam was being replenished far too quickly for Imagine Breaker to completely negate it. Reaching into her pocket, Mikoto reached out for her coin and emerged from behind Touma to fire her Railgun. The shell bounced harmlessly off the crimson shells and the beam actually seemed to intensify in response, forcing Touma back even more.
"Touma!" Panicking at how her attack failed to even graze the monster that was the nun, Mikoto grabbed his arm and braced herself, supporting him with her entire body.
Just then, the door behind them flung open to reveal the two magicians.
"Took you long enough! What are you guys? Deaf?" Mikoto snarled in response. Their stunned looks would have greatly cheered her up earlier but the situation was far too dire now. She could see the skin of Touma's right arm being torn away inch by inch, an impossible feat by her standards. "Just what is this beam made of?" The intensity of the beam was becoming even stronger despite Imagine Breaker's negating speed and the two of them knew that if this kept up, they would lose. Mikoto bit her lip. If only she could do something else to overcome those stupid seals!
"Dr – Dragon's Breath…" Kanzaki Kaori breathed, her eyes wide at the sheer impossibility of the scene before her, "B-but how! Index can't use magic at all!"
"Damn it!" Stiyl cursed, "What the hell is going on you damn brats? What have you done?"
"What have we done?" Touma snapped, "We're trying to save this girl you idiots! Stop gaping and tell me how to beat this laser!"
"Impossible…" Kaori took a step back, "This is…"
Touma had enough. "You guys should just snap out of it!" he shouted furiously, Mikoto wincing as his voice thundered painfully above her, "After seeing this, don't you get it yet? Index is using Magic, isn't she? Isn't this more than enough evidence to prove that the Church has been lying to you? The fact that Index cannot use magic… the fact that she needs to have her memories erased… it's all one big lie! The Church tampered with her mind so that she would need to have her memories erased by putting a collar on her. As ling as we remove that collar, then Index won't have to suffer anymore!"
Even with Mikoto's support, the two of them were being pushed back by the nightmarish power of the beam of light that Index was firing at them. Touma could feel his right arm trembling and used his left arm to reinforce his grip. "Kuh!"
"Even with the truth in your faces, you can't accept it?" Mikoto continued for Touma, her expression grim "Calm down and think for a second! The cruel people who created an 'Index Librorum Prohibitorum', would they ever possibly tell the truth to grunts like you guys? What you're witnessing right now is the truth! If you don't believe us then why don't you just ask Index herself?"
Kaori and Stiyl have no answer. Instead, they shook their heads blankly, their eyes darting all over the room to look at the crimson seals and then back at Index herself.
"...'St. George's Sanctuary' is ineffective against the intruder. Preparing to switch to another magical attack in order to complete the current task of ensuring safety to the 'Collar'."
There was no doubt about it. This was not the Index they knew.
Not the Index they had laughed with… had happy times with.
This was merely a program implanted by the Church onto Index. Both as a protection… and as a collar. The Church had lied to them. But… BUT!
"Fortis931!" Stiyl bellowed, his teeth clenched so tightly that they felt like they would shatter from the force. From the depths of his cloak, myriads of tiny pieces of paper fly out. These pieces of paper, marked with fire runes, fly out as if driven by a typhoon and soon cover every inch of the ceiling, walls, floors, and even corners. Not one spot is left undisturbed. In order to protect a girl named Index…
Stiyl was prepared to incinerate Kamijou Touma. "I don't need any ambiguous possibilities! As long as I erase her memories, I can at least ensure the safety of her life! For this, I am willing to kill anyone! I am willing to destroy anything! I have sworn this since a long time ago!"
Touma and Mikoto froze, the familiar ring of the words resonating through their souls as Touma's lips curled into an odd smile. Mikoto let go of Touma's arm, twisting to face Stiyl angrily as she gave off warning sparks. "Even so… right now, Index is right in front of you!" Mikoto barked and Stiyl froze, the fire spell he was preparing arrested on his lips as Mikoto glared at him, "So why can't you reach out for her? Isn't that what you've always wanted to do? Don't you want to save Index? This is something that has no logic or reason, isn't it? For this one girl… To save this girl, isn't that why you gained this strength?"
"You don't know anything!" Stiyl roared.
Yes, I do!" Touma shot back as Mikoto pressed against him comfortingly, "Because once, I swore an oath like yours. That's why I understand! The desperate need to save someone, to reach out to the one whom you've been reaching out for… I know it! So let me ask you this, Stiyl Magnus! Isn't this the chance you've been waiting for? The chance for a happy ending? Well, the time is now! As long as you stretch out your arm…" he looked down at Mikoto as he said that, words from so long ago ringing throughout the room, "You can reach it! So do it already!"
At his outburst, Touma felt his hand giving way, his fingers bent at an unnatural angle as the beam finally overcame their resistance. Mikoto flung whatever she could at the beams path but the beam consumed it all mercilessly and rushed towards them without faltering.
"Salavre000!" Kaori's voice rang out with the force of a thunderbolt, her Nanasen attack sweeping past the circles without stopping. In order to ramp up the intensity of the 'Dragon's Breath', the John's Pen Index had miscalculated the power needed to maintain the barrier. But the attack was not aimed at Index. Instead, the wires tore through the air and tangled Index's leg and pulled. Index, still firing the 'Dragon's Breath', had no time to react. Falling backwards, the crimson seals that were linked to her eyes following suit. The pillar of light that was meant to destroy Touma and Mikoto swerved in tune with the crimson seals.
Like a massive sword being swung wildly, the beam tore through the wall and the ceiling like paper, reaching out into skies past the dark clouds and beyond, perhaps even into outer space itself. The resultant destruction did not leave behind a single splinter from the walls and ceiling. Instead, the portions that were destroyed transformed into feathers of light that were pure-white, floating down like winter snow on a summer night.
"Those are the same as Dragon Breath, the strike of the legendary dragon of St. George! Whatever power they may have, I highly doubt the human body would react well to them!" Kaori warned urgently as Touma rushed forward so he could destroy the collar. Too late, Index had already turned her face back to him. The massive 'sword' that was the 'Dragon's Breath' swung down like the hammer of judgment.
A blast of heat erupts from beside Touma as Stiyl completed his chant, Innocentius roaring to life in front of Touma and tanking the beam like a meat-shield. Beside him, Mikoto raised her hand, firing bluish energy to deflect the feathers away from them. The bright light from both Innocentius and the 'Dragon's Breath' was blinding and Mikoto could barely keep her eyes open.
Innocentius spread its arms wide as the beam widened slightly to attempt to blast past its thin frame. Innocentius held firm.
Like a cross protecting a man from sin.
"Go, esper!" Stiyl shouted urgently. "Her deadline has already passed! If you want to do this, don't waste even a second!"
Kamijou Touma did not hesitate nor did he respond. Running around the symphony of red and white, of fire and unholy light; Kamijou Touma ran. He did it because Stiyl wanted him to. Because he understood the meaning behind Stiyl's eyes and words.
They were going to save Index.
"Warning: Chapter Six, Verse Thirteen. New enemy confirmed. Changing combat considerations. Beginning scan of the battlefield… Done. Focusing on the destruction of the most difficult enemy, Kamijou Touma." Index swung her head around, pillar of light and all. But Innocentius moved to protect Kamijou at the same time. The light and the flames continue to eat into each other in an extended conflict of destruction and regeneration.
Touma clenched his fist as he neared Index.
"Above you!" Kaori yelled as more feathers descended upon him. But Touma trusted in his instincts, never looking away from Index. Blue lightning arced over his head and hit each feather unerringly, Mikoto's eyes tearing up at the painful light that was making it difficult to keep her eyes open.
"Touma! If you don't finish this, I won't forgive you!" Mikoto bellowed.
"Warning: Chapter Twenty-Two, Verse One. Reverse-calculation of the flame magic spell has succeeded. It is confirmed to be a distorted Christian motif described with runes. Adding in an anti-Christian spell… Spell One, Spell Two, Spell Three. Twelve seconds until the complete activation of the spell named Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani."
The pillar of white light turned blood red and Innocentius roared almost pitifully as its regeneration slowed down tremendously.
Touma did not look back, did not think about whether the light would be directed at him next. All he knew was that he was going to save this girl in front of him. He would do what he had failed to do so long ago, when he had nothing. He would reach out… and save her. He could reach her! This right arm… now conveyed the feelings of everyone who wished to save this girl called Index. He was not swinging his right arm for himself.
It was for everyone.
"God… if this world is moving along the system you created…" the words fell from his mouth as he drew his right hand back, his teeth bared in an issue of challenge, "Then… I'll break that illusion of control you have!"
And he swung his fist forward.
Imagine Breaker swung down upon the black cracks in the fabrics of reality and the crimson seals, easily tearing them apart. So easily that Touma was struck by how cruel it seemed, that all their troubles had been caused by something he could crush with his right arm without effort.
The sound of something shattering resonated throughout the building.
"…Warning: Final… Chapter, Verse Zero… The 'Collar' has received fatal… damage… Regeneration… impossible… gone." The voice coming from Index's mouth ends altogether. With a searing finality, Index lurched as the pillar of light and magic seals vanished, while cracks snapped shut and it was as if they were never there.
The room fell silent and the light from the John's Pen Mode finally faded away.
Index landed in Touma's arms with a thump, her chest rising and falling peacefully.
The battle was over.
*** XXX ***
"It's over…" Mikoto whispered as she staggered, supporting herself with one knee pressed on the ground as her breaths came in heavy pants. In front of her Touma gently lowered the now sleeping Index with a soft smile on his face as he turned to face Mikoto triumphantly.
"We did it…" he laughed, "We actu – Mikoto!" his eyes widened as he lunged forward but his wobbly legs failed to support as he tumbled along the ground and Mikoto looked up in time to see a half-charred feather land on her head. The feather had escaped all their attentions thanks to the blinding light produced by the fight. Mikoto couldn't react; she was too exhausted to do anything else.
A screeching sound erupted from Mikoto's location as a sudden burst of energy burst out of her head and blasted wildly as Mikoto screamed, blinding pain consuming her as the feather disintegrated into specks as her world went white. Distantly, she could feel as if she were chasing something that was out of her reach. Something that was fading away at a terrifying rate, leaving her behind; her hand reaching out for a mere shadow she could never touch.
"Tou… ma…" she got out brokenly as she fell forward limply, her vision going dark as the spiky haired teen loomed over her, calling out her name urgently as she felt her body being shaken wildly.
Even so, she smiled. She was going to tell him after all.
That she… loved…
*** XXX ***
It is said that every war has a sacrifice. Be it the people or the ideals you believe in, one of it is going to suffer. Who can tell the final verdict? You either fight to win the war or die trying. But along the way, something will suffer.
There are no exceptions.
Touma sat silently on his chair, his gaze hooded as looked down at the fragile girl they called Tokiwadai's Ace. Lying in the bed like this, she seemed so peaceful. It was as if the battle yesterday had never happened. Touma's hands clenched tightly, his knuckles turning white as they strained against the bandages. He made a disgusted sound, his hand slamming against the wall in frustration as he gritted his teeth in the throes of helplessness.
'What do you mean by brain damage!' Touma demanded as Heaven Canceller looked over the radiographs detailing Misaka Mikoto's brain.
'Exactly what I meant,' Heaven Canceller said bluntly as he showed the pictures to Touma, 'I have no idea how this is possible but there you have it. It doesn't look like her head has suffered any trauma, for that matter. I could see a telepath doing something like this but I'm surprised that it could overpower her electromagnetic shielding.'
Touma's blood ran cold. 'So… what's going to happen to her?' he asked numbly.
'She might find it difficult to use her powers at maximum capacity, for one,' Heaven Canceller replied, brow furrowed in worry, 'The damage caused to her brain was likely a feedback loop from her automatic shielding against telepathic attacks. Because it was strong enough to overpower her default shielding, her brain tried to shut out outside interferences by ramping up its defences. Still, I can't fathom who could do such a thing.' He turned to face Touma, 'Is this to do with that Index girl and those two strangers without an ID? A satellite was destroyed and outsiders infiltrating Academy City…'
'No need for words,' Heaven Canceller cut him off, 'I'm a Doctor. I'm not going to inquire about this strange world you've involved in. However, like I said before, you and Misaka-san are my patients. As long as you come back to me alive, I will definitely heal you.'
'Other than her powers, will there be any other problems?' Touma asked softly.
Heaven Canceller frowned, 'Well, some portions of her brain have been affected by the feedback. She might suffer from some headaches, dizzy spells and probably difficulty remembering recent events. However…'
'However?' Touma pressed urgently.
'I won't lie. Some of her brain cells were damaged and neural pathways were disrupted. She might have lost some of her memories, since the damage was centred around her hippocampus. It's a major component of the brain that governs the consolidation of short-term to long-term memory and spatial navigation.' Heaven Canceller explained at Touma's blank look. 'She might recover her memories in time if she's lost them. But I don't know how long it'll take. There's no known way to help recovery for a case like this. Though, according to my graphs, she shouldn't have any problems forming new memories. Be prepared for the worse, Kamijou-kun. Not even your Right Arm can fix this. A telepath wouldn't be able to help her as well; I'll be frank with you on this.'
'This type of damage actually seems familiar. Hmm… Ah!' Heaven Canceller finally remembered where he had seen similar type damages before, 'Have you heard of Lacunar Amnesia?'
"I need fresh air," Touma said to himself as he got to his feet, his grim face crumpling as he bent over to kiss Mikoto on the forehead "Wait for me, ok?" he whispered as he left the room. Stepping out of the hospital, he massaged his face wearily as he headed for the gardens where Stiyl Magnus and Kanzaki Kaori were waiting.
"Took you long enough," Stiyl grunted, a cigarette in his mouth as usual.
"Is the young Esper ok?" Kaori asked, noting Touma's haggard visage.
Touma shrugged. He really couldn't summon enough cheer to act friendly with them at all, "I don't know."
"Humph. Acting all high and mighty just because you did what we couldn't?" Stiyl groused, "Fine, gloat over it then. Yay, you and that wretched arm did what we couldn't. Joy for you. Now you think you're better than us? Well –"
Touma's fist connected with Stiyl's face without warning, his teeth bared in a feral snarl as he drew his arms back for another round before Kaori intercepted him; her nodachi's sheath held firmly in his path. "None of this would have been necessary if you guys had bothered to listen in the first place!" Touma snapped, anger finally erupting from the deep recesses of his psyche. His body was trembling with repressed fury and he couldn't think straight. All he knew was that he was really, really furious. "If you guys had listened, if you guys had just bothered to take a leap of faith!"
"So do you regret it?" Stiyl snapped before Kaori could reply, "Do you regret saving Index? Is that it? Because your friend got hurt, you regret saving her?"
Touma's fist clenched and unclenched, releasing a trembling breath as he took a step back, "No. I don't regret saving her. I wanted to save her." He said dully, "But no matter what I do, it seems that someone else always gets hurt in the end, huh? Always acting like a hero when all I am is a loser."
"Not to me."
"!" The three of them turned to face the silver-haired Index who had snuck up on them without them noticing, a sad smile on her face.
"Not to me. And I'm sure… I'm sure Mikoto wouldn't have had it any other way," Index said as she walked closer to Touma, her emerald staring into his earnestly "I'm sure she regrets nothing of entering hell with you to save my life. I could tell. That's why she believed that you would stand up again… become a hero. Because that's what you are to me."
Touma broke eye contact with a rueful laugh, "That changes nothing."
"If you were the one who got hurt, I think she would feel the same way," Index reminded him with a strangely motherly smile and Touma looked up at the sun-kissed skies with a heavy sigh, "the two of you are more alike than you think. You try to bear the burdens all by yourself and blame yourselves for something that is out of your control. She already said it once to you… 'I will gladly burn my hands to help you.'"
"Stop acting like you have all the answers," Touma finally said with a dry smile, "it sounds weird coming from someone like you."
Index pouted, "And you're acting like an old man who has a chip on his shoulder."
Touma shook his head wryly, "I guess you're right." He admitted.
"Kamijou Touma," Kaori cut in, a serious look on her face as Stiyl came to stand beside her, "Index." Her voice softened as Index looked at her curiously, "The Higher-Ups ordered us to bring Index back to Englad after they found out that the 'ring' around her was removed." She held up a hand to stop Index from saying anything, "However, when we asked them why they lied to us, they decided to leave her in your care instead."
"Me?" Touma looked surprised.
"I believe it's more of a 'wait and see' thing," Stiyl muttered, "Though I don't wish to leave her in you care, the truth is that it'd be too dangerous for us to go against Necessarius openly. Index still has the 103,000 grimoires inside her head and while she can't use John Pen's mode anymore, the fact remains we are unsure if the seal around her mana has been undone. If her mana were to return…" he looked down at Index with a pained expression.
"So you want me to take care of her until you're strong enough to protect her, is that it?" Touma asked Stiyl bluntly.
"N-not exactly," Stiyl stammered, looking away at Index's inquisitive look, "But that's the gist of it."
"We're counting on you, Kamijou Touma," Kaori said kindly as she turned to leave.
"Wait!" Index called out and the two magicians froze, their precious friend's sad tone jolting their hearts "C-can't we… talk?" she asked.
Kaori lowered her head, biting her lip as she shook her head weakly, "I can't."
"Weren't we… close? Now that I can keep my memories, can't we… start over?" Index pleaded.
Stiyl shook his head slowly, as if a great force were forcing him to do it, "That's a bad – OMPH!" he grunted as Index suddenly crashed into him and Kaori, almost bowling the two of them over courtesy of Touma.
"No excuses," Touma declared, "No matter what, you still stepped up and protected her with all your hearts. So get to it. Until you grow strong enough, Index will be in my care. I won't let you down."
"…" Stiyl sighed as Index looked up at him with those eyes again. It had been a while since they had eaten together. "You'd better do a good job of it, Kamijou Touma."
"Touma!" Ruiko's voice came from the hospital entrance and Touma whirled around to see her excited face, "Misaka-san's awake!"
"!" Touma broke into a run without thinking, grabbing Ruiko urgently as she took a step back from his overpowering energy, "Is it true?" he demanded, almost shaking her violently as he tried to control his euphoria.
"Y-Yes," Ruiko got out, "I went in and she called my name and –"
Before she could finish, Touma was already dashing into the hospital with unbridled urgency. Ruiko raised a hand, before letting drop limply to the side and letting her heart sink even deeper.
*** XXX ***
'She's awake. She recognized Ruiko. She's ok!'
Touma's felt a jolt of happiness run through him as he dashed past the first-class wards and right into Mikoto's room. "Mikoto!" he shouted as he flung the door open forcefully. There, some distance before him was Mikoto, sitting upright in her bed and looking out the windows with a peaceful expression. At the commotion, she turned to face him quizzically. "Mikoto, you're –"
"Who are you?" the brown-haired girl asked blankly.
Touma's world froze. "Mikoto?" he repeated numbly, telling himself that his ears must be deceiving him; that she couldn't… couldn't possibly have forgotten him.
"That's my name… but… do I know you? Are you a friend of Kuroko? Or Ruiko?" the electromaster asked. There was no guile in her eyes, no repressed laughter. Only a deaths knell for him as he took a step back with every word she said.
"Mikoto… it's me, Touma…" Touma got out hoarsely, "Don't you remember me? You recognize me, don't you! How could you know Shirai-san and Ruiko and not know me!" he unconsciously raised his voice as he took a step forward and the Railgun drew back, a half-frightened look on her face at his vehement expression.
"I'm sorry but I don't remember you…" Mikoto said apologetically as she placed a hand on her aching chest. She was getting more and more puzzled. She normally would have flared up immediately at his brazen attitude but there was something about him… Involuntarily, her hands tightened. There was a constricted feeling in her chest, "I don't know who you are but I think you should leave." She whispered, shrinking further away fearfully at the pain in her heart.
"You're joking right?" Touma yelled, grabbing Mikoto by the shoulders urgently "Just tell me you're joking!"
"Let go of me!" Mikoto screamed in fright as her powers failed to activate as a nurse came rushing in with her eyes wide. Shivering, the electromaster looked up at him with fear in her eyes. She was frightened… of him.
'I think you should leave. I don't remember you'
'Suffered damage to her brain… memories might be affected… Your Right Hand can't help… Telepath can't help either…'
'Lacunar Amnesia is type of memory loss whereby the patient suffers a gap in their memories. It's also sometimes known as Selective Amnesia. I've seen this type of brain pattern when people with particularly painful memories asked to have their memories erased. There's a high chance that Misaka-san will have this condition. The gap can be anything – A person, entire years lost, recent events… With the damage she has sustained, recovery might be low. I'm sorry.'
'Let go of me!'
Touma staggered back, raw emotion overcoming him as he drew away from her look of fright and pain. She didn't remember him. She remembered everyone else. Not him. As that realization hit him, Touma limped out of the room, collapsing on the seats by the corridor numbly. She didn't remember him. She didn't – Touma's heart hurt, it hurt so much that he could only express it in a cry of anguish.
Burying his face in his palms, Kamijou Touma wept.
A/N: What? I said Touma wouldn't lose his memories but nobody said anything about Mikoto, right?
Lacunar Amnesia or Selective Amnesia is a real medical condition, by the way. In this case, the feathers erased the memories most precious to Mikoto since her electromagnetic shielding on her mind attempted to stop the damage. And who was on Mikoto's mind first and foremost? That's right, Kamijou Touma. Note that she has a chance for recovery, though how she will recover it depends.
Next chapter will be filler dealing with the aftermath before we move on to the next arc.
Let me know how I did and how you felt.
Till next time folks.