Friday, 22 August 2014

[FF- To Aru] Traces of Your Tears [Chapter 8]


~By Xasharla~
This is an Alternate Universe To Aru Majutsu no Index/ To Aru Kagaku no Railgun fan-fiction.
Read and Review please! Constructive feedback most welcome.
Disclaimer: The canon characters, canon plots/ ideas, anything canon- do not belong to me, but the creators of the original To Aru universe.
A special thank you to Cundou, who beta-ed this chapter! Please make sure to check her awesome stories out also!
Warning: Fanfic Rated M

CHAPTER 8:


Minutes slowed to an eternity between them, the shocked brown eyes unable to look away from the frightened gold. Mikoto couldn’t think, couldn’t move. Nothing came into mind except for the oddly disembodying feeling of pure astonishment. Unless she was actually dreaming, there was really another person there in front of her. After three days of no contact with a living being, this seemed too good to be true.

“Please don’t hurt me! Let me go!”

Brown eyes widened as the Tokiwadai girl suddenly realised that the panicking and struggling person before her was pinned against the metal fence. Her eyes travelled down to see a hand brutally pushing against the girl’s chest, crushing it.

It was her own.

With a jolt, she realised that the placing was rather inappropriate. A brilliant crimson flush quickly spread from her cheeks down to her neck, and Mikoto jerked her hand away and cradled it as if burnt. The freed girl slid down the fence into a crouch, gingerly rubbing the area Mikoto had surely bruised in soothing motions. She sniffed miserably, and the corners of her eyes filled with unshed tears.

Mikoto averted her gaze, stuttering frantically in embarrassment.

“I- I- I’m sorry! I- I didn’t mean to touch… I mean… I was just… I thought you were…”

Floundering over words of apology, Mikoto’s stammers became a string of incoherent mumbles.

The golden-eyed girl stood up, carefully brushing down her long navy skirt that reached to her knees. Her nose scrunched up into another delicate sniff and she pushed up her round glasses to rub her eyes with the back of her hands. She peered at Mikoto cautiously. The teenager’s face was turned away, her expression shadowed by the protruding bill of her cap. She was still mumbling something frantically.

The girl leaned forward towards Mikoto with a questioning tilt of her head.

“Are you okay?”

Mikoto flinched away in surprise, for the girl’s voice had been too close to her sensitive ear. Her posture shot up and she took a step back, waving her hands energetically as she quickly shouted,

“No! Yes! I mean yes!! I’m fine!!”

Realising she was sounding like a complete idiot, Mikoto snapped her mouth shut, the corners of her lips pulled downwards as her eyebrows twitched. Her entire face was now the colour of a ripe beetroot and she could feel the intense heat of her own embarrassment radiating off her skin.

“Uh…”

The girl stared at her with question-filled eyes and Mikoto blinked, observing the other person properly for the first time.

She had long dark brown hair that reached down to her lower back. A portion of it was tied off to her left side with a blue bauble hair band Mikoto personally found endearing, but would never admit. Large glasses sheltering round lenses were worn over her striking golden eyes, but they didn’t seem to sit very well on the girl’s nose at all. They continued to slide down the length of her nose as if they were perched upon slippery ice, forcing their owner to make the effort of pushing them back up from time to time.  She was wearing a navy blue school uniform, and Mikoto found the emblem etched upon the blazer quite familiar, although the name kept slipping from her grasp. A striking red tie sat nestled below the pristine white collar of her blouse.

This girl must be in high school, Mikoto decided. She eyed the fabric of the blouse straining against the girl’s voluptuous chest with envy.

Seconds of silence passed and Mikoto hurriedly averted her gaze again, the flames of embarrassment renewed.

“You’re crying,” the girl suddenly said in a small voice.

“Eh?” Mikoto whipped up her head in surprise, unsure of what the girl was trying to say.

“You’re crying,” she patiently repeated.

“???”

A trembling hand rose up as if it had a mind of its own and lightly brushed her cheek. Mikoto felt the wetness on her skin, the trail of watery pearls that had leaked from her eyes. She gazed blankly at the fingertips, shining from the residue of tears she hadn’t even realised she was shedding.

“Why were you crying?” The girl asked quietly.

Mikoto recoiled away as if being accused. The fingers curled into her palms, crushing the slippery remnants of her weakness dry.

“I was not!” Mikoto denied between grinded jaws.

The careful golden eyes peered at her, looking confused and doleful. Mikoto hurriedly looked away, erasing the last traces of her tears on her cheeks with a quick swipe of her arm. The very last thing she wanted was pity from a stranger.

“Who the heck are you anyway?!”

The question came out more roughly than Mikoto had intended. Immediately she felt ashamed, but she quickly put a lid on the feeling with suspicion.

I shouldn’t trust so quickly,’ she reasoned her own harshness, ‘it’s weird that she suddenly appeared out of nowhere and I know nothing about her!’

The long-haired girl blinked. Then, like golden rays of sunshine peeping out from the clouds, her lips pulled into a wide genuine smile that sent Mikoto into pure bewilderment.

“I’m Hyouka!” She cried enthusiastically. “Kazakiri Hyouka!”

“… …”

Mikoto stared at her with a gaping mouth, unsure what to make of the unpredicted turn of events. The girl before her was positively beaming, the sorrow in her eyes now entirely replaced by an unrivalled happiness that sparkled endlessly. She jumped forward and grabbed Mikoto’s hands, squeezing them affectionately in her palms.

Mikoto’s neck flared red once more, her body freezing at the unexpected contact.

“I’m so happy!” The girl exclaimed. “Can you really see me? But of course you can! You’re even holding my hand! Waaaah~ I’m so happy! I’m so happy!”

Her golden eyes were glistening with tears. Mikoto felt a surge of discomfort at the open display of emotion from this strange girl she had only just met. She had mind to viciously pull her grasped hands away, but the absolute joy on Hyouka’s face dampened her will to do so.

“So what’s your name?!”

“…”

Realising she was staring quite dumbly at the bewildering girl, Mikoto re-started her frozen brain cells to allow her mouth to function.

“Misaka… Mikoto,” She managed to choke out.

“Misaka Mikoto?! Mikoto, Mikoto, Mikoto! I can call you that, right?!” Hyouka cried happily. The portion of her hair that was tied off to the side bounced up and down with her enthusiasm. Mikoto didn’t need her ability to visualise the sparks of excitement charged around the girl.

“Jeez… That’s so forward…” The Tokiwadai girl lamented under her breath.

“Oh.” The pair of golden eyes grew abruptly large and sad behind their glasses. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean…”

A torrent of guilt somehow flooded Mikoto again, but this time, she had no excuses to cover it. “It- it’s fine,” she found herself saying before she could think over it properly. “You can call me whatever you want.”

The girl’s happy state immediately returned.

“Really? Really?! I’m so happy, Mikoto! You can call me Hyouka!”

“Honestly…” Mikoto sighed. Was this girl for real?

“Hmm?” The clueless Hyouka tilted her head.

“… Can I have my hands back now?” Mikoto’s left eye twitched in mild annoyance, the pink flush of her cheeks still visible.

“Oh…” It was the other girl’s turn to go red. “Sorry...”

Smiling shyly, the other girl released her hands. An awkward silence ensued between them, neither girl quite meeting the eyes of the other.

Mikoto rubbed the back of her neck with a palm, unsure of what to do or say. Her knotted stomach still felt unsettled and she felt weak and sickly. Her throbbing head was definitely not helping. She wished she could just lie down somewhere and shut everything out. It was the worst possible timing to meet somebody like her.

Still, this wasn’t a chance Mikoto could just let slide. It was an opportunity to receive some answers she had been desperately searching for, and perhaps even find new leads. She juggled her weight between both feet, wondering how to break the awkward silence that had stubbornly persisted for the last minute.

 “So…” Mikoto finally spoke, “how old are you anyway?”

Her brown eyes mindlessly fixed themselves upon the two even mountains rising from the girl’s chest once more.

“You’re in high school, right?”

Hyouka, who had eagerly perked up when Mikoto had spoken again, looked very puzzled by the question.

“High… school?”

“Yeah, you’ve got to be in high school!” The words were fierce, ringing with the will for them to be true.

The pair of round glasses slid down the length of her nose as Hyouka blinked. Mikoto stared back at her with knitted, trembling eyebrows.

“Why?”

A crimson heat rapidly spread across Mikoto’s face. She could almost feel the hot steam pouring out from her own ears, enough to engine a generator for a week.

“B-b-because..!” She spluttered, “Y-you… They’re... You just HAVE TO BE!!”

Hyouka's lips broke into a dazzling smile as she giggled.

“But Mikoto, I’m ten years old!”

Mikoto folded her arms across her chest, nodding in satisfaction.

“Hmph, I knew it!”

Then it finally hit her.

“Wait, WHAAAAAAAAAT?!!!”


**********


“Are you sure you’re okay, Mikoto?”

They had moved to a nearby area, and were now sitting on a long wooden bench underneath a street lamp. The afternoon sky was gradually darkening, the large reddening sun preparing the sky for its nightly slumber. Soft patches of dark orange tinted the girls’ hair and skin as they sat side-by-side with a carefully calculated space separating them.

“I said I’m fine already!” Mikoto grumbled. She leaned back with a sigh, resting her still-throbbing head against the curved back of the seat as her legs slid forward carelessly. She closed her eyes for a moment, massaging her sore temples. After some insistent pestering on Hyouka’s part, Mikoto had relented to the other girl’s advice that she sit down somewhere because Mikoto looked red, like she had a fever.

‘If only it was that simple…’ the Tokiwadai girl mourned inside.

She had to admit though; she did feel much better after sitting down. Her tired legs were no longer trembling from the simple effort of keeping herself upright, and her stomach ceased to feel like it was on a spinning rollercoaster out of control. Healthier colours now replaced most her previous pallor, although Mikoto was hardly aware of this. She only wished she could think more clearly, so she could decide on what to ask Hyouka first. Her mind felt sluggish, weighed down by the persistent pounding of her head. Too many questions swam about in muddy clutters, shattering to senseless words with each drumbeat resounding in her brain. If she still had her ability, Mikoto doubted she would be able to produce a single spark in this state.

She shook her heavy head, trying to clear her thoughts of unnecessary ramblings.

‘Where do I even begin?’

She had no desire to talk about her Sisters, or about Accelerator. Besides that, Mikoto wasn’t sure if Hyouka would even believe her story if she told her.

‘She’s doesn’t seem to be bothered by this place at all…’

Mikoto snuck a sideways glance at the other. Hyouka sat with hands neatly folded on her lap, gazing out at the view of the park calmly.  How serene and peaceful she seemed suddenly dawned on her, and Mikoto had an instinctive feeling that this girl could never do any harm to anybody. She was one of those people, who were so innocent to the point of ignorance, that they could not be touched by the grime of the world.

Her throat tightened, and a strange feeling of regret welled in her chest.

“I…”

The word tumbled out without her permission. Hyouka turned to her expectantly, the questioning glow of her golden eyes darkened by the falling sun.

Suddenly aware of her parched throat and dried lips, Mikoto’s mouth closed and pursed, the personal pronoun still hanging heavily in the air, ready to receive verdict. Her shoulders tensed with uncertainty, pondering the burdening weight of the word that had slipped out of its own accord. Then she met the gaze of the still-questioning golden orbs, and her brown eyes softened in realisation. There was but only one thing to say.

 “I’m sorry,” she said simply.

Hyouka’s eyebrows shot up, her head tilting in a gesture of confusion. She opened her mouth, perhaps to question, but Mikoto continued to speak.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated. The words came in a flow, a stream of genuine sincerity. “I didn’t mean to hurt you earlier. I thought you were somebody else…” Mikoto trailed off, pausing. She wondered if that was the only reason why she was apologising. Perhaps she was also pre-redeeming herself for what she knew she had to do.

Taking a deep breath, she quickly resumed.

“I am looking for some answers, and I think you may have them. I know I hurt you before, but we’re f- friends now, right?”

Hyouka’s eyes immediately brightened.

“Of course we are!” She nodded eagerly with the biggest happy smile the Tokiwadai girl had ever seen. “I’ve never had a friend before! You’re my first friend!”

Mikoto gave Hyouka a questioning glance, briefly wondering what the strange girl meant. But she had more pressing matters to discuss than ask about her social life. She cleared her throat awkwardly.

“R-right. So… Will you help me?”

“Of course!”

The response was just as Mikoto expected—immediate, and with a whole-hearted acceptance of responsibility and willingness to truly be useful. A whispering wash of shame burned through her frame, at the memory of lashing out so recklessly earlier and mildly taking advantage of the girl’s trust now. But she had a job to do if she was to survive this place that had Accelerator roaming about.

And no stupid feeling was going to get in her way.

Hyouka looked very worried all of a sudden, and a small frown formed on her forehead, gently wrinkling her fair skin. Overly large glasses slid down the length of her nose, and the girl sniffed, pushing them back up with an elegant finger.

“Well… I’ve never actually helped anybody before, so I might not be good at it… But I can try… For my first friend.” The frown smoothed out into a genuinely wide smile at the blink of an eye. “So how could I help you, Mikoto?”

Mikoto did not speak right away, and the golden-eyed girl waited patiently. In the self-created silence, Mikoto gave herself time to think, to reorder her cluttered thoughts so she could formulate the best sequence of questions. There was no reason to tell Hyouka everything, or give her the suspicion that she was in such a crisis. It was just not necessary, and the last thing she really wanted was a tag-along who was way too over-enthusiastic. She already had enough problems thrown on her plate.

‘Besides,’ Apathetic brown eyes glanced sideways at Hyouka’s lingering smile of innocence, ‘She would probably believe anything I say now…’

“Say, Hyouka,” Mikoto suddenly said.  Hyouka sat up straighter, her attention solely focused on the Tokiwadai girl. “Have you always lived in Academy city?”

Hyouka nodded in confirmation. “Yeah, as long as I can remember.”

“I see…” The Level 5’s lips curled into a slight smile that did not reach her eyes. “So then, which school do you go to?”

“Kirigaoka Girls’ Academy,” came the immediate reply.

 ‘Kirigaoka’s?’ Mikoto frowned. She had definitely heard of the school, so there was no questioning that it existed.  From what she knew, it was dedicated to raising students with rare abilities. Mikoto had read some interesting research papers from the teachers who taught there. Many of them had been about controversial topics, such as the unconventional Animal Intelligence Esper theory by Isoshio, and the Imaginary Number District investigation. The latter topic had been so bizarre that Mikoto had only vaguely skimmed over the articles.

Needless to say, many queer characters attended that school.

‘But that’s not the point,’ Mikoto corrected her side-tracking thoughts. ‘This probably means she has a rare ability…’

Suspicion rattled her mind once more. If Hyouka had a rare ability, it implied every possibility that she was behind this mess. Or at least, being used to create the strange situation. With Academy City being the way it was, this was definitely not an impossibility. But if that was the case, she was still not much closer to determining the exact culprit. Was it one of the people from Kirigaoka Girl’s Academy? Perhaps one of the teachers? No doubt such an elite school would be harbouring its share of greedy and ambitious scientists, seeking to achieve their own personal goals without recognising the consequences or the casualties. Trapping two Level Fives using a rare ability user as the medium for some twisted experiment didn’t sound so far–fetched any longer in this context. But then, just what was Hyouka’s ability? And what would be the purpose of such an experiment? There was no point in wasting resources on research that had every potential to be useless in the end. Any good scientist would know that. Why go into all that trouble?

 “What’s wrong, Mikoto?”

Abruptly pulled out of her spinning thoughts, Mikoto glanced back at Hyouka’s worried expression. Her doubts and suspicions were still fluctuating, unable to make up their minds. Was this girl such a good actor? Or was she truly the clueless victim here, used for someone else’s gain?

‘That’s right’, Mikoto told herself, ‘I already decided I was going to trust her for now.’

She shook her head with a small smile in response to the waiting girl’s worried query.

“Mmm~ It’s nothing.”

Brown eyes glanced up at the darkening sky scattered with drifting clouds, hardly even seeing them. There was something else from her memory about the school that was greatly bothering her, among all the questions that demanded to be answered. When Mikoto had last tried to cross into the neighbouring district, there had been an impenetrable barrier preventing her…

“Your school. It’s in District 18, isn’t it?”

Hyouka confirmed with a quick nod of her head.

“How do you get there from here?”

The girl raised a slender finger to point in a south-easterly direction. “That way.”

“No, I mean… How do you go through the districts you have to cross?”

“Yes, you have to go through District 9, and then District 7 to cross to District 18.” Hyouka smiled cheerfully. “I know my way around Academy City really well, if you need help finding anything.”

Mikoto shook her head, impatience getting the better of her. “That’s still not what I mean. How? How do you go between the Districts?”

Only a confused expression stared back at her. The girl had obviously not comprehended the question asked.

“… … You walk there?” Hyouka eventually suggested.

Both her hands twitched and Mikoto resisted the urge to rip out her hair with them. She took a deep breath in, trying to clear up her building frustrations. Obviously it was going to be difficult getting information out from the girl without explaining the situation entirely. However, her bewildered responses most likely indicated that the Karigaoka student could cross the boundaries without trouble. Mikoto’s eyes narrowed; it was time to change directions.

“Do you live around here or something? It’s quite far from District 18, and I wasn’t aware they had school dormitories nearby.”

“Dormitories?”

Irritation sparked at how dumb the girl was behaving.

“Yeah. Dormitories.” Mikoto could not prevent dripping sarcasm upon her next words. “You know, like a home where you stay and sleep in?”

For a long moment Hyouka did not say anything. Mikoto crossed her arms, feeling the chill of the dawning night shiver against her bare skin. A lone finger tapped against the other elbow in irritation, waiting for the answer that finally arrived just a little while later.

“I don’t have a home.”

A hot rippling rage, as swift as lightning itself, tore through Mikoto’s body.

Don’t FUCK with me!”

Before she even knew it, the Level 5 had jumped to her feet, dual orbs ablaze with sudden anger. She was already tired of the stupid answers that made no sense. She wanted the truths and the facts, and she wanted them now. If she had to force it out of her, she would do so. Hyouka cowered in her seat at Mikoto’s abrupt display of open hostility, pitiful whimpers arising from her throat. Mikoto swiftly grabbed the girl’s shoulder before she could move away. Powerful fingers squeezed around the bones and muscles, in the perfect position to cause significant amount of pain if they tightened any further. Brown eyes glared down from above, trapping the terrified girl with a fierce stare as the ominous shadow of the Level 5 loomed over her.

“I don’t have time for you to fool around, got that?” Mikoto growled. “I need answers quickly, and you’re going to give it to me. Now spit it out, or I will force you to.” Fingers increased their pressure just slightly, enforcing a dangerous threat and eliciting a pained groan from their hostage.

“Please, I’m telling you the truth! I don’t live in a dormitory! I just wander around the city and occasionally attend my school!”

The grip around her shoulder only tightened further, and Hyouka let out a short scream of agony.

“Please, please, you’ve got to believe me! I enjoy seeing different people and different sights! The world is so colourful and I…  Urgh!”

Another hand snaked its way up to her neck, lightly squeezing it. Hyouka stared wide-eyed at the unfeeling set of eyes burning down at her, ruthless and unforgiving. The figure she had called a friend just a moment ago suddenly looked terrifying, and the young girl didn’t like it at all. Every cell in her body felt frozen, unable to move a muscle as the Tokiwadai girl leaned closer in a predatory manner.

“You expect me to believe that?” she whispered. The soft trickle of words tickled Hyouka’s ear and she squirmed, only to stop when the grip around her neck tightened further. “Where do you go at night time, when it gets dark? Are you telling me you don’t sleep?”

 “It… It never gets dark! I don’t even know what sleeping means!”

A knee swung forward, brutally connecting with the girl’s stomach to grind her body against the back of the bench. Bright stars of pain circled in Hyouka’s vision as she spluttered for breath, and she looked up at Mikoto’s hardened mask with tear-filled eyes, trying to find any hint of sympathy.

None could be found.

“Didn’t I tell you not to fuck with me already? Tell me the truth!”

“I already told you!” Hyouka raised her high-pitched voice. Tears of fright began to leak from the corners of her eyes, those slippery pair of glasses already balancing on the edge of the owner’s nose. Her words streamed out in quick gasps, desperate to prove her innocence. “When the sky gets all dark, I always find myself somewhere else in Academy city where there is sunlight and I wander some more. I’ve overheard other people talking about the night, but I don’t even know what that is, I swear!” Her lips trembled. “I would have asked them, but nobody ever responds to me!” She stared up at Mikoto’s unyielding expression with watery orbs filled with sadness. “You’re the first person to ever talk to me, to notice that I even exist! I’ve always wanted a friend… But it’s hard to make one when nobody realises you are even there! People just walk right through me all the time. It gets so lonely… But you… I was so happy when you were talking to me… Aren’t we friends?!”

Hyouka hiccupped as she fell silent, blubbering quietly within Mikoto’s threatening grip. A long moment passed without words or movement.

“Friends, huh?”

The hands fell away with those softly spoken words, and the Tokiwadai girl stepped back and away from Hyouka. The world throbbed and spun around Mikoto. An unsteady palm reached upwards to embrace her drumming forehead, eyes staring unseeingly down at the perfectly tessellating patterns of the pavement below. She felt light-headed and dizzy all of a sudden, and her feet tilted in an unstable manner to make her stumble back onto the bench.

“Mikoto… Are you okay?”

Even after she had threatened her like that, Hyouka was still looking worried beside her, concerned for her health. Mikoto’s aching head fell forward, a dull side-glance staring at her in disbelief.

“You’re unbelievable…”

“???”

A sigh arose from deep within her chest, letting go of the anger that had been building there.

“I’m sorry. It’s just hard to believe what you’re saying, you know? Always daytime? Never night? It doesn’t make any sense to me…” Mikoto’s jaws clenched together momentarily. “Still, I shouldn’t have gotten angry like that just because I was confused.”

Hyouka shook her head with a small smile. “It’s okay. It’s my first time being a friend too, so I’m probably not doing a great job...”

Mikoto’s lips curved into a sad smile of her own, staring down at her quivering hands as her shoulders slumped forward. “Honestly… You’re doing better than I have ever done. I don’t know how you managed to keep sane all this time, not being able to talk to anybody and feeling so alone. If I didn’t have my friends, I don’t know what I would have done.”

The golden eyes grew wide. “Ohhh Mikoto has more friends? Can I meet them sometime? Maybe they’ll be able to see me too, just like you can!”

“Sure, I’m sure they’d love to meet you too.” The images of Kuroko, Saten-san and Uiharu-san blurred before her eyes and she felt a sharp pang in her chest. “The only thing is, I’m very much lost and I need help getting back to my friends. If you can help me, I’ll definitely introduce them to you.”

Hyouka nodded eagerly, and Mikoto leaned back against the bench.

“There is no one about now… You said you saw people. Where are they?”

“Sometimes, I suddenly find myself in a different place. There is the Academy City with lots of people and activities to see, and then there is the Academy City with nobody, which is here.”

“I see…” Mikoto sighed. It sounded like something out a sci-fi movie, and resounded in sync with the parallel universe concept. After all the nonsense Hyouka had been sprouting, she doubted anything from that girl’s mouth could further surprise her. The Academy City with lots of people probably referred to the real Academy City where her friends were, which meant that this… Was some kind of…

“… Alternate dimension?”

“Hmm?”

The words “Imaginary Number District” from that essay she read long ago re-entered Mikoto’s mind, and she felt uneasiness creep up her spine. This time, the thought could not be discarded so carelessly and stayed to haunt her.

“How do you move to the other Academy City when night falls?”

Hyouka’s expression fell. “I have no idea. I just… I just find myself there."

“I wonder…” Mikoto muttered softly. There was a hint of hope sparking in her heart for the first time. “Maybe when the sun fully sets…”

The lamp above them suddenly flickered to life, causing both girls to look up in surprise.

“Ah,” Mikoto breathed. “It’s getting dark.”

“You still don’t look well. You’re pale.”

“I’m fine…” The Electromaster smiled slightly as Hyouka peered over her large glasses with concern. In reality, Mikoto felt terrible, both physically and emotionally. Her head still felt sluggish and heavy, her heart thumping away too loudly in her overheated chest. It was out of sheer willpower and pride that she had been able to keep conscious for this long. She felt horrible about hurting Hyouka twice already, and this scared her more than anything else. Like an ability going haywire, it was almost as if she was slowly losing control over her own feelings and actions to become somebody else she could not recognise. She blamed it all on this place, and she knew she had to get out fast.

The sky was dulling into a dark grey, patches of heaven slowly fading into complete darkness. Right now, Mikoto’s only lead was to stay with this strange person and hope that she too, would be affected by whatever ability the girl possessed and become teleported back to the real world when night struck. However, there was still some time left until then. Brown orbs glanced at the other girl, wondering what she could be. Shifting dimensions, not sleeping, always wandering about with nobody realising she even existed… It was as if… She wasn’t human. She looked like a normal girl, but was she a creation of science, just like her sisters?

‘And just like them… It sounds like she’s been denied a normal life…’

An invisible hand twisted a sharp knife in her heart, and Mikoto grimaced against the heavy pain. She turned her head away from Hyouka, expression shadowed by the bill of her Gekota cap. She didn’t want to worry the girl any further. The wave of agony passed, and she slowly breathed out through her mouth, white steam fogging the freezing air.

“I have some friends back home who are very dear to me,” Mikoto said suddenly. Hyouka looked at her with round eyes, attention completely captured from the very first sentence. Mikoto tilted her head back, stretching her arms along the back of the bench as she faced the first twinkle of stars that were beginning to blossom in the blanket of darkening grey.

“Saten-san, Uiharu-san, Kuroko… I know I’ve said this already, but I don’t know what I would have done had I never met them.” A genuine smile slowly spread across her lips. “Fate’s a funny thing, right? You never really get to decide who you meet, so they call it a blessing if you find someone whom you can care about. I know I was very lucky three times over but…” Her eyes clouded, mirroring the shades of the sky. “I’m not sure I can say the same for the others...”

Hyouka remained silent, simply waiting for her to continue. Mikoto wasn’t sure why she was telling the other girl all of this, but somehow it felt right. She justified it as a gift to Hyouka, to tell her what real friendship was truly like, something she had never experienced before. But Mikoto was also semi-conscious of the fact that this act was more driven by a selfish purpose than anything else. Perhaps it was a much-needed confession, a pathetic attempt to discover comfort and self-confidence from somebody who knew next to nothing about what the world was really like.

It was a way to re-validate her own existence, by pursuing pity from the invisible.

“I’ve caused so many problems for them, and yet they still claim they want to stay by my side. I guess we’ve been through a lot together already. We’ve captured thugs together; defeated Kiyama-sensei and solved the Level upper incident; stopped Telestina from carrying out her twisted plans… But still, do I really deserve all that my friends give me? I don’t know anymore…” She answered her own question with a mutter, her head dropping forward to stare at her lap forlornly. “I have nothing to give back to my friends any longer, other than pain and darkness. With the way I am now, I…”

Her eyes abruptly widened and she slowly turned to meet Hyouka’s. For a moment there, her weary mind had even forgotten the other girl’s existence. Fists clenched around the hem of her denim shorts, wrinkling the cloth viciously.

“I’m sorry. Forget I said that.”

A soft hand perched above a fist, clasping around it with a gentle but firm grip. Surprised brown eyes met those golden ones, shining above a bright smile that could rival the flowering stars twinkling in the skies.

“I don’t really understand everything of what you’ve just said, so I know my words probably don’t count for much. But I think you’re a great person Mikoto.”

Something constricted in her throat, and Mikoto suddenly found it difficult to breathe.

“It’s true I’ve never had a friend in the past, but I can tell. You’re a great person!” Hyouka repeated those words with more conviction, and her radiant smile reflected in Mikoto’s dilated pupils.

Teeth crunched together in response, lips trembling against the uncontrollable torrent of emotions. “What are you even saying…?”

“That I’m glad! I’m so glad you’re my very first friend. The world is a kind place to let me meet someone like you.”

Mikoto wished more than anything that she could agree with Hyouka, to match that bright forgiving smile and stand alongside her na├»ve position to face everything with gratitude and fearlessness. Ignorance was indeed bliss, and because of this, the Electromaster was jealous of Hyouka. She had nothing to say to such innocence, and she had no malicious desire to taint it any further. Secretly, the selfish part of her had hoped that some of the girl’s untouchable light would cure her growing darkness, but she realised the truth now. Once that side of humanity was stripped away, it was lost forever in the void of despair.

“Tch, this is making me feel sick. Found a lovebird, did you Railgun?”

A silhouette of a lanky figure arose from the shadow of a nearby tree, its voice distinctly familiar. Mikoto’s thudding heart skipped a beat, toned muscles already flexing to action out of sheer reflex. Her fist slipped out of Hyouka’s gentle hand, the athletic body leaping off the bench and twisting around to face the newcomer with furious eyes.

They narrowed upon those cold grey ones, glinting like hard steel in the darkness.