A/N: Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places, but I can't find a lot of Toaru fic at all. This is, therefore, my tiny contribution to the fandom, inspired by Index and Accelerator's brief conversation about 'The Ugly Duckling' as they flee from the Hound Dogs. I love Accelerator and Last Order and their strange, lovely little bond, so I wanted to write a fic exploring that.

Some spoilers for season 2, episode 20; warnings for language and some minor mentions of blood.

**For those unfamiliar with the anime/light novels, don't be confused by Last Order's repetition; that's an imitation of the odd ways she speaks, so it's not a formatting issue!

Toaru in all its incarnations belongs solely to its creator(s); I just take the characters out for writing funtimes.

"The hell's all this?"

Brusque, belligerent, Accelerator enters scowling; his crimson glare sweeps the scattered picture books that clutter the floor, spill from shelves, and cover the two small beds in the room. He sets his feet carefully as he maneuvers around the stacked tomes, leaning heavily for balance on the sleek silver cane that supports his right side.

Last Order glances up from her current fixation—an anthologized set of fairy tales complete with glossy, vibrant illustrations—and beams up at him from behind the book as she commences her customary meta-narrative: " 'I'm almost done,' says Misaka says Misaka as she keeps her eyes glued to the page."

Accelerator sighs, eyes fluttering closed, and the edge of his cane catches on a book; he lurches forward, ungainly, and stumbles a few steps before he's able to right himself again. For a moment that crimson gaze hardens and grows murderous as rage twists his sharp, delicate features—

—but then he issues another sigh, softer, and his features smooth as he calms.

She scrambles to sit at the foot of his bed, dragging the book with her; he glances to it speculatively and then takes it from her, holding it up for inspection between a finger and thumb as though it's something odious, untouchable. After scowling at one particular illustration—a knight in gleaming armor, charging off on horseback through verdant fields to find his princess—he tosses the book to the floor. "The hell's all this?" he asks again, and though he sounds as contemptuous as always, she hears the curiosity in his tone.

Someone his age should already know these stories and fairy tales. But she suspects, from his laconic statements and the unhappy set of his mouth when he speaks of his childhood, that he doesn't know, that electrodes and heavy doors and experiments and blood took the place of loving hugs and whispered stories and warm chocolate chip cookies. So she explains:" 'I'm reading stories,' says Misaka says Misaka as she recovers the book." Carefully she clambers down to the floor, picks up the anthology, and smoothes the wrinkled pages with small careful hands before returning to sit cross-legged at his feet while he rests.

Accelerator arches a skeptical eyebrow. "Tch," he mutters, and closes his eyes.

And Last Order can tell by the tension in his shoulders, in his small slender body, that he's in pain, aching from having walked so much around the city today. The cane resting haphazardly against the wall and the black electrode against his pale throat remind her of the wounds he sustained saving her from Amai Ao; instead of thanking him again as she is wont to do, she simply opens the book and informs him of her intentions: " 'I'll read to you,' says Misaka says Misaka as she refuses to take no for an answer."

Though he won't admit it, she thinks he likes her company.

Accelerator glares at her. Glares and glares with those inscrutable crimson eyes, and then—when it becomes apparent she's staying right where she is—sighs and rolls over on his side away from her, pillowing his head on his arm. Last Order finds herself presented with the sight of his back, his black-and-white t-shirt twisted around his slim waist.

She knows this means he is listening.

The Ugly Duckling is the first story she finds and she likes the illustrations, so she settles for reading it aloud, filling the silent still room with the sound of her voice as she tells him about the poor outcast creature that doesn't belong. He's quiet and uncomplaining the entire time, and she pauses only when she gets to the very last sentence, stumbling and falling silent before she can utter the words:

And the ugly duckling became a beautiful swan, and was beloved by all.

She frowns. That's not right, she thinks, and turns her warm dark eyes to the boy in bed. She might look like a child, but she isn't, and she knows he will never feel like a swan, ever, even if his hair is soft and white and sometimes feels like feathers under her hands. She knows, too, that the world wants nothing to do with ugly ducklings, that it casts them out, and that—even if he won't admit it—the rejection will always hurt. So she changes the ending: " 'And so', says Misaka says Misaka with finality, 'the little swan was happy he couldn't join the duckling's social circle, even if he wanted to."


For a long quiet moment she thinks he really is asleep, and then he shifts to face her, skepticism written on his delicate features. "That's the end?"

" 'Yes,' says Misaka says Misaka with absolute certainty," and her beaming smile adds conviction to the words. I like you just the way you are.

And maybe she shouldn't. Accelerator doesn't know how to be around people, vacillates between snarls and indifference and contempt, and she understands that hers might be the only life he values. She's already familiar with the way rage dilates his eyes and twists his features, recognizes the boyish laugh that accompanies sadism and destruction and means he's not really aware of himself any more.

But even so…

He studies her for a few more moments, searching, and then his features soften and he closes his eyes again as the tension drains from his shoulders. "Stupid story," he mutters, but he seems aware of the lack of conviction in his own tone and rolls away from her again, pulling the pillow over his head.

Last Order smiles to herself, humming as she climbs into her own small cot. We belong together, she thinks with satisfaction, because even if he's dangerous, even if the world casts him out, she knows that there's more to this particular Esper than meets the eye. The way his brow draws down in seriousness when he's trying to solve a problem, the guarded vulnerability in those crimson eyes and the heated protectiveness in the way he tells her to stop running around so much, damn it: all of these things remind her that he's human, fragile, searching for himself in a world that only wants to cause him hurt.

"Oi. Get to sleep already." His voice, rough and irritated, interrupts her concentration. She blinks, realizes too late she's been singing to herself—then ducks as he launches his pillow at her without preamble before pulling the blanket up over his slim frame. His voice softens on the last words with what sounds very much like affection: "Damn brat."

Last Order giggles and contemplates throwing the pillow back at him, but hesitates when she hears his deep and even breathing and curls up with it instead. He wants to help her. She wants to help him, too. They're both searching for—

—well, something. Maybe even each other.

She falls asleep smiling.

Accelerator stares in disbelief at the picture book.

Across from him, Index—a spill of white-and-gold church robes across the vehicle's backseat—turns the pages reverently, mumbling as she reads out loud to herself. She seems largely undisturbed by the squeal of the car's tires as it races around corners, equally unperturbed by the sight of the blood that smears his shirt and the bruises on his face.

From the front, the driver moans in pain; Accelerator jams his elbow into the seat he's leaning against as a reminder to his hostage to keep his eyes on the road. Index glances up at the sound and offers him a bright smile as she reads the last sentence of the story he recalls from only three nights ago: "And the ugly duckling turned into a cool, sexy swan and was beloved by all!"

What? That doesn't sound right.

The sister's brow knits in confusion momentarily; Accelerator expects her to question him, at the very least, about the blood trickling from his lip or the captive driver bleeding to death in the front seat. She doesn't. "Hey, what does 'cool and sexy' mean?"

He opens his mouth, shuts it, and finally satisfies himself with a simple glare. "That's not how the story goes," he finally snaps, because he doesn't feel like getting into the finer points of cool and sexy with a sister from the Anglican Church and anyway, that's not how it goes: this isn't the same story the brat read to him when he was supposed to be sleeping.

Index tilts her head, green eyes widening with curiosity, and leans forward to ask eagerly, "Then how does it end?"

He wonders if she's deranged. And then he thinks that, given his current situation, that's a ridiculous question, and so he closes his eyes and tucks his hands behind his head. Before meeting the brat, he wouldn't have known the answer; now Last Order teaches him things like this all the time even when he doesn't ask, and he wonders briefly if he should take pride in this new knowledge. "According to the brat," he explains, "at the end the little swan was happy he couldn't join the ducklings' social circle, even if he wanted to."

Index looks gratified by his explanation and hugs the book to her chest. "I like that," she announces, and smiles at him. "It's better than what's written in here."

Did that brat change the story…?

Accelerator closes his eyes again and decides he doesn't care if she did. He likes her ending better, anyway. Fuck the ducks and the white swans; he's fine without any of them.

So is Last Order.

We don't belong anywhere, except maybe with each other. And that's why he'll tear the world apart to find her. The Hound Dogs, Kihara, the Misaka Network: none of it matters. For the first time he's grateful for his bloodstained hands and all the considerable darkness in his own mind; he won't feel guilty about killing. Not this time.

Not when it means protecting someone precious.

Index leans forward, peers up at him intently. " 'That brat'—are you still looking for her?" She's sharper, sharper than she lets on, and he realizes she wasn't lying about her photographic memory. Does she remember every word of our conversation in the restaurant?

He leans his head back against the seat, tries to ignore the scent of blood and the throb of pain in his own body. "Yeah," he says softly. "I am."

"Then I'll help you look," Index offers firmly—and as soon as she says it he knows he'll have to lose her, so he asks the driver to pull over at the hospital as an excuse to get her out of the car and safely away from the nightmare. Index darts out of the vehicle at his request, laughing and promising to return; the roar of the rain drowns out the sound of her footsteps as she runs, ghostlike, down the street and out of view.

Accelerator jams his elbow into the seat again and hears a groan from the driver. "Go," he snaps, and braces himself against the door as the car lurches into motion again and shrieks down the street, the wipers snapping back and forth wildly.

He glances at the abandoned picture book on the seat opposite, closes his eyes as he thinks of the short little brat and the too-big white coat that hangs from her skinny shoulders, her smile, her big dark eyes and the night-vision goggles pushing wet hair away from her forehead—

—and then he launches the book out the window.

We'll write our own story.