Author Note:

NoName: I've sent a PM as part of a reply, but to address the end of your review, ACME is acting not just for Major Adelaide, but also to remove a potential threat to their country's ultimate Esper weapon. If they can achieve that, even if Academy City does declare war, America has a chance of winning said war. It is certainly a risk. But no moreso than a good chance at potentially destroying the Soviet Union's Anti-Missile Nuclear defense system (if they had such a thing) during the Cold War would have been. And much crazier plots than that were enacted by all sides during that period.

As for Albert Joule getting into the City, that's never seemed to stop a great portion of the Magicians in the canon series from getting in pretty much whenever they want. Maybe Styil and Kanzaki come in through the border checkpoint or on official flights, but most of the antagonists had to have gotten into the city illegally. Academy City's border protection is either entirely corrupt, incompetent, or filled with agents acting under secret orders to look the other way in most cases. I mean, forget individual magicians, there was that entire battalion of Roman Catholic nuns with swords and axes and maces and stuff, that got into the city. Not to mention the members of God's Right Seat, etc. No, the border security of Academy City is, to me, just like its regular security. There to make the public feel safe, without actually doing anything to protect the city or its populace in most cases. They mostly clean up messes, rather than stop the messes from happening in the first place. When Aleister wants to stop a problem, he has more effective tools to use than Anti-Skill.

321jaz: Seems I was a little oversensitive, my apologies. But I promise you, I will be doing my absolute best not to create overpowered characters. That's why I'm avoiding Magic Gods, for instance. I feel I can do just fine with lower level enemies and problems. About the only character that is probably a bit overpowered is JD, but he can't act on his own and has to be deployed as a single use weapon. Though if you feel one of my characters is approaching that level, please do tell me, and I will see what I can do about it. As for your question about God's Right Seat, serendipity! This chapter should hopefully address that concern in part. It is difficult to determine what Aleister considers "messing" with Touma, given the sorts of things he has allowed him to do, or have happen to him, canonically. A straight up murder attempt might be off limits, but I'm not sure much else is.

Guest: Given that Sven and Izarde are two of the three main Evil villains (there are non-evil antagonists as well, much of ACME and the Russian agents for instance), so I can assure you, Touma will indeed come into conflict with them, more than once.

RPGpersona: Good to see you paying attention to all the little details. It is always a pleasure to have my hints and foreshadowings picked up on.

A Certain Guest: Of course Aleister already knows. Anything that happens within Academy City proper is definitely something that Aleister knows about, that's more or less a default assumption of mine. And a great deal of things outside the city proper as well, but definitely everything inside the city. Reference my reply to NoName above though, about the soldier's being idiots. Don't confuse your own personal knowledge about the series and the dangers their actions pose, with what the characters know when making their decisions. To our near omniscient knowledge, many actions characters might take could seem foolish, stupid or idiotic. But to those characters, with their more limited knowledge and misinterpretations of data, their chosen actions make sense and might seem like the best course of action. I wouldn't consider it too much different to deploying SEALs to kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, and the USA did that, despite the possible reprecussions of doing a Black Op in another country without asking permission first. Again, in the To-Aru universe, the world tensions are much closer to actual Cold War between the various factions, not the relative peacetime of our real world. Riskier actions are more common in such a situation as all sides jockey for advantage.

In my view of the setting, Aleister is less omniscient and omni-powerful than he is in canon. He may have attempted to interfere in the Esper development programs of other countries, and succeeded to the point where even with their vastly larger resources (Academy City is rich, sure, but there's no way it can be anywhere close to as rich as Russia or the USA, with only 2.3 million residents, most of whom don't pay taxes or even work at all) that their Esper programs are inferior to Academy City's by a substantial margin. But he can't prevent the programs entirely, cannot monopolize Espers soley to Academy City as he does in Canon. As for Aleister's opinion on individual Espers, I think he regards them all more or less equally. He has multiple plans in action after all, and whichever ends up succeeding works for him. Most plans involve Accelerator or Kakine of course, but I'm sure Aleister has covered all of his bases, except maybe with Gunha, since that is a power than cannot be replicated or improved artificially. In the end, all of them are ultimately disposable, even if it means he has to wait another whole generation for a new crop of Level 5's... he's got the time after all.

Aleister has near absolute control over Academy City and all that goes on within it. I just don't feel like giving him that level of power throughout most of the world, as he seems to have in Canon. Simply put, Espers exist elsewhere because Aleister doesn't have the power to stop other, more traditional superpowers, from creating them, though he can at least ensure that his Espers are the best and most numerous. Very similar to nuclear weapon proliferation in the real world. Or how the Roman Catholic Church has the Right Seat of God, but other powerful Magic side organizations still manage to exist.

xxxx

London, St. George's Cathederal, Archbishop's quarters, October 6th, Evening

"Are you absolutely sure you know what you're doing, Aleister?" The young looking woman asked, her tone studiously neutral as she half glanced at the video monitor of the securely encrypted communication device. It was about the size of a modern laptop computer, an excellent example of Academy City's highest technologies, allowing instantaneous voice and video communications across the world without delays, interruptions, signal degradation or any chance of being listened in on by anyone else. While most Magicians were rather somewhat hopeless when it came to advanced technologies, especially ones from Academy City, she did not have that luxury. In public she often pretended to be rather clueless about the modern world, often simply for the fun of it to annoy her more straitlaced subordinates. In private, especially in the company of this particular man, there were no need for such pretenses. There were still pretenses between them of course, if anything she was even more on her guard than usual, but that particular act was dropped.

"I never get tired of being asked that." Aleister Crowley, Superintendent of Academy City, replied dryly, his features on the video screen appearing at normal orientation for his caller, rather than upside down as he normally would be when meeting in person. "Archbishop, you of all people should know that anything that happens within my City, happens only because I allow it to. While some plans might be disrupted and discarded, the vast majority proceed unimpeded, and new plans are created to address new issues as they crop up."

"I am glad to hear you are still confident." Laura Stewart, Archbishop of the English Angelican Church, and one of the most pwoerful and influential Magicians in the entire world, replied with equal dryness. "I do not dispute your control over your City. It has remained in your grip from the moment you founded it, and despite the best efforts of many, including at times myself, no one has been able to shake it loose from your hands just yet. I do however, feel concern that recent actions on several fronts might be stirring up trouble from places outside your City, that you cannot control so easily."

"Enlighten me then. What concerns you so much that you would call me ahead of our regularly scheduled meetings?" Aleister almost seemed to smile for a moment, but Laura refused to rise to even the most subtle of provocations.

"As if you do not know." Laura answered bluntly. "You told us that there was a Necromancer causing trouble in your City. As per our usual and long lasting agreement regarding the official balance of power between Magic and Science, we sent an agent to deal with the issue. However that agent found the Necromancer to be rather more than just a simple trouble-making Magician, and even suffered a humiliating defeat in the process... a very rare event for this particular agent. While I believe I have contained the news of this encounter solely to my own Church for the time being, it is certain that news of it will spread soon enough. The defeat of a Saint, even by a monster as she reported, will not go unaddressed by the powers of Magic, especially if it happened within your City."

"He is a Necromancer, and quite an ancient one too. It is not my fault that Kaori Kanzaki, that dear girl, assumed that he was ONLY a Necromancer, and then further assumed that he was a Saint like herself. Looks like the Church's editing and censoring of religious history regarding Magic came back to bite you all in the nether regions there, doesn't it? It sounds like this will be a learning experience for her, an opportunity for growth. She should be thankful, really." Aleister did not move, not even an eyebrow, but Laura got the impression of a nonchalant shrug all the same. "As for what other Magic groups and persons might do upon learning of her humbling, well, that has never been within my control. It may have happened within my City, but it wasn't like it happened by my order."

"But you control everything in your City. As you say, nothing happens within it, that you do not allow. That is well known. And that means that you caused a Saint to be deployed to your City, and then allowed her to suffer a humiliating defeat, temporarily removing her from play, and greatly embarrassing Necessarius and the English Angelican Church, weakening our position in the eyes of many of our rivals. Of course, Science had no direct hand in her difficulties, and you even helped expedite her recovery, for which I am grateful of course. But the indirect hand you had in matters, will be enough to provoke those already looking for provocation. Do not think that the Roman Catholics are going to simply lie down and take what you caused to happen to the Queen of the Adriatic Sea and her fleet, the most powerful naval force the Roman Catholic's possessed!" Laura warned, though personally she was rather impressed with what Aleister had managed to do with that situation, and with such small expenditure of resources too.

"They have no grounds to complain. By their own admission regarding the incident, the Bishop involved was rogue and did not have the authority to make use of the Fleet in a pre-emptive attack against Academy City. That would be a brutal act of war, perhaps even genocide after all, hardly fitting for a religion of peace and love, correct?" Aleister's sarcasm was biting, even if it barely colored his tone.

"A polite fiction to save face, as you well know. Had that madman succeeded, he would have been a candidate for the Papacy the next time it opened up. They wished to attempt a surprise attack, hoping your guard was down. For some reason they keep underestimating you, even after all their prior failures. But perhaps no longer." Laura frowned, disturbed by this particular bit of information not a little herself. "I have reliable information that the Right Seat of God is now taking a personal interest in Academy City and the Imagine Breaker, whom they are in the process of having the Pope declare a writ of Diabolus Haereticus upon due to his power to apparently deny God. And somehow the Catholics seem to be negotiating with the Russian Orthodoxy for a form of truce or cease fire in their ongoing skirmishing, which would free up a great deal of the Catholic's covert and magical forces. I fear it likely that they may be planning a new Secret Crusade or Inquisition targeting Academy City and Imagine Breaker. Once news of Kanzaki's defeat gets out, especially paired with the fact that the monster who defeated her remains in Academy City, apparently under your aegis, or at least by your permission, it could easily be the impetus to start open conflict."

"Not unexpected. You religious types never react reasonably to having your hand smacked from poking something you really ought to simply leave alone." Aleister said in bored tones. "A few thousand years of cultural hegemony have spoiled most of you and rendered you unable to emotionally accept the fact that you rule this world no longer. You do know that denying objective reality could be considered a quality of being an Esper right? And yet so much religious leadership indulges in it on a daily basis. Perhaps I should offer to put them through my Program? They might easily end up as Level 4's and 5's."

"The power of the Church... of all Churches... has decayed somewhat over the last century or so, especially with the advent of Academy City." Laura acknowledged, because she at least didn't deny the obvious in favor of comforting herself. "But I feel you may be taking us too lightly. While I will do my best to stay out of the brewing war, unless one side or the other appears to be winning overwhelmingly, it may be that the Russian Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholics will actually ally over this matter, and potentially bring in other major denominations from across the world. Perhaps even call upon old ties with the Islamists and Jewish Orthodoxy to create an Abrahamic Alliance. The other major religions will probably sit things out, as I will, but depending on how things go could join later. This could very well be the start of a grand war of Magic vs Science. And Academy City, while powerful, cannot stand against such an Alliance alone..."

"Why do you assume I would be alone? Academy City is not the sole source of Espers in the world. I have delegations of Espers from several powerful nations visiting my City right now actually. What an... unfortunate... thing it would be, if they were caught up in a full bore Magic assault upon my City. That might even provoke their Nations into joining a coalition with Academy City, to deal with this threat from the dying and decaying and obsolete forces of Magic and religious superstition. EKG would relish the opportunity to settle scores with the Russian Orthodoxy and try to purge them from their influence in the Russian government, I know that. And the Americans have never been as influenced or controlled by the major religions as you all have wished with their whole separation of Church and State dynamic, and especially if the Islamist's join an Alliance, they might be only too happy to extend their Middle Eastern proxy wars into a more direct conflict if it means breaking the power of Fundamental Islam for good." Aleister smiled coldly. "And of course I do possess the Imagine Breaker, the ultimate trump card."

"He is also the only person in your City whom you cannot control, and have admitted as much. You can predict him to a degree, but what if he chooses not to assist you?" Laura countered.

"That is impossible in that sort of situation. The attacks upon Academy City would be indiscriminate and vindictive, as you well know. Civilian casualties would be immense if Academy City's defenses were to fail. That boy would never stand by and allow such a tragedy to occur. He, and his nascent faction of allies and supporters, would lead the charge to defend the City even, quite without any need to intervene on my part. The boy is yet still in the Egg phase, as you know. Such a conflict might cause him to hatch though, and once that growth begins, my trump card will only grow more and more overwhelming. I wonder though, do the Catholics and their petulant allies realize what sort of sleeping giant... or rather Dragon... they are threatening to awake with their childish aggression? Given their posturing and their secret plans according to you, it seems doubtful. What comes next may be less a smack on the hand for being naughty, and more like pulling back a stump where their hand used to be..." Aleister sounded supremely confident, and perhaps had reason to be.

"Regardless, the world will be thrown into chaos and confusion. It will be a world war unlike any before it. A storm will rage across this globe of ours, and dye its waters red with blood, regardless of who wins, if anyone wins at all." Laura did not say such as a protest, merely stating a fact.

"Is that so awful? Remember that the world often grows greener and brighter once a storm has burned away the old growth and washed off all the dirt and mud and grime that stains things. It's not a thing to be feared, just part of the natural cycles of the world. I for one, am quite interested to see what the world will become in the wake of such a storm." Aleister smiled again, beatifically.

"And what of the Hollow Ones, this new Dark Cabal, that is apparently burrowing into the flesh of your city like a tick?" Laura asked with a small frown.

"What of them? For now they amuse me, and could even unintentionally serve me, either by provoking this storm, or in other ways. I believe that their leader, Lord Izarde, possesses knowledge of the Imagine Breaker and at least some of its potential. Their goal as he stated is to bring chaos and anarchy to the world and transform it in the process, and I believe he intends to try and awaken the Dragon fully in order to accomplish this."

"That's insanity. If the Dragon of Destruction ever escapes the Imagine Breaker, it would doom this entire world at the least, and potentially all of Creation!" Laura was shocked that Aleister could speak of such things so calmly.

"Obviously I will not allow this to occur. A partial Awakening though, could serve my needs quite well, especially if it begins to occur before the storm of war breaks upon us. Once Izarde and his monsters have served their purpose and grown tiresome, I will dispose of them, or turn them over to your side for disposal, whichever is most expedient. But for the time being, they represent a refreshing breath of chaos in my ordered City... a micro-storm, you could say. I will be regarding with interest what effects this new variable has on my Grand Experiment." Aleister did the non-moving shrug again.

"What about these reports I'm getting of an independent Mage traipsing around your City? This Albert Nikola Joule? I hear he's starting to poke his nose about regarding Esper Development? Our file on him indicates he's mostly harmless, especially as he refuses to join any religious sponsored cabal. He can be easily eliminated at any time. Or could be, until he entered your City, with shocking ease, even for your border security. His brand of Magic, this Technomagic... what are your intentions regarding him?" Laura moved on to another topic of interest.

"An interesting case. One of the few truly non-hostile Magicians in the world, regarding Science. Also, as you say, a true independent with no ties to any religious authority or Magical organization. A rarity in these days. If you are asking if I am harboring and protecting him, perhaps I am. He presents some intriguing possibilities for interacting with and potentially even improving some edge case examples of Esper powers. You are of course aware of the Parameter List I use in order to decide which Esper candidates are most worth expending effort on to improve in order to find a useful place within my plans. However there are examples of Espers with very useful powers, which the Parameter List declares not worth the cost of developing due to the astronomical resource costs involved, using the standard methodologies or Scientific technology as we currently understand and possess it." Aleister quirked his lips slightly.

"But what about this Technomagic discipline? It is in some ways fairly close to Science. While of course an Esper can never become a Mage or vice versa, they can still be affected by Magic without suffering Dissonance feedback. Perhaps the boy will come up with some way of improving Esper abilities, especially edge case ones, to a useful level, using his Technomagic and artificer skills. It could never be mass produced of course. But another potential level 4 or even level 5 in my arsenal, and one I would have to invest little or no City resources in gaining, would be quite an achievement. And since this Joule boy owes no allegiance or ties to most of Magic, I can allow him to work without risking him or his research being turned against me. There may be some collateral damage to civil order in the process, but gaining a new Level 5 is worth that, easily. Mr. Joule is also a potential new recruit for the Kamijou faction, and could serve as an effective bridge between the Magical and Science sides of that Faction, improving its overall effectiveness and coordination. There are many upsides to keeping the boy around and protected, and few downsides." Aleister continued blandly.

"Ah, so you're going to treat him like the Index then?" Laura asked, perhaps a bit pointedly. "A resource for the Kamijou faction and a draw for conflict regarding it so that they can gain battle experience at relatively low risk over time. I was initially behind your reasoning for allowing her to stay within the City, certainly it is a relief on my organization and the resources we would need to keep her safe ourselves. But with a war brewing, I think it is now time for you to return her to us for safekeeping. It would not be good if the Roman Catholics or Russian Orthodoxy, or any other major group, got hold of her and her 103,000 Grimoires during the chaos of war. They would absue and misuse her knowledge."

"She will not be going anywhere without a fight. I trust you to use her fairly as much as I do any religious organization, that is to say, not at all." Aleister retorted seriously. "Bad enough that you perverted my intentions for her by turning her into the Index in the first place, I will not allow you to use her as a weapon or political favor in your petty religious squabbling any more. She is as safe as she can be, and happy, in the Kamijou Faction. That is where she will stay."

"Oh my..." Laura covered her mouth in coquettish mockery. "Sentiment? From you? Pardon me while I swoon..."

"I am not without human failings. You know that better than anyone." Aleister answered coldly.

"So what, you want her to live a normal life? Even in your Fortress of Science, you must know that is impossible. What was done to her cannot be undone, not by you, not by me, not even by Imagine Breaker. She is the Index now, and will always be at the center of controversy and conflict. She may be happy, but she will never know peace, not in this flawed world of ours. And now that the memory containment ritual has been abolished, you know what will happen to her, especially with her Mana still largely sealed. Are you just going to sit by and watch that happen, Aleister? Your Science is helpless against her condition. If she's to have any real chance of a life, even if it is one of isolation and misery, you know that the memory containment must be re-instated and the link to the other maintenance rituals re-established. Keeping her like she is, isn't a solution. In the long run, its a death sentence. It is her fate now." Laura retorted, equally as coldly.

"Do not speak to me of fate." Aleister responded with a deep frown. "Once my dream is complete, fate will no longer trouble her or anyone else. She will survive until that time comes, I will ensure it. Afterwards, she will no longer be bound by fate and it will be a non-issue."

"Your dream is just that, a flight of fancy. You have no idea if it's actually possible or not. No one has ever done it, or even come close. All you have is your desperate theories and wild hopes, as usual. For a man of Science, you sure do have a lot of Faith in the unknowable..."

"Is now the time to drag this up again? I thought we settled on agreeing to disagree long ago."

"I suppose not. But Aleister, if war does break out, I will send people to collect the Index, and I will not rest until she is safely back under my guardianship. Resist me too hard, and I may have to renege on my promise to keep the Angelicans out of the wider war." Laura warned him.

"In the parlance of the street youth of my city, "bring it, bitch". I will not allow her to be your pawn again, any more than she already is given what you did to her." Aleister warned right back. "It appears that we are at an impasse on this situation though. I have better things to do with my time than argue with you. You will act as you see fit, and so will I. Thus it has always been, and always will be, between us. Until the next time, my dear Archbishop." Aleister ended the call before Laura could reply, the screen turning to static then black.

"That man is so annoying." Laura said to her empty room, sighing in irritation. Well, it wasn't like she'd expected him to be any different. And he was correct. Though partners of convenience, especially in these latter years, they had never been allies, not in this past century anyway. Their self interests had coincided often as of late, but such a situation could not last forever. Perhaps the tides were turning as the storm brewed overhead. If so, she would need to begin her own preparations. "Bring it... indeed..." Laura smiled in a way that would have sent chills down the spine of anyone to see it.

xxxx

Academy City, Tokiwadai Middle School, October 7th, Morning

Misaki Shokuhou, the acknowledged Queen of Tokiwadai, held her morning court in the usual place for the autumn and winter months, an upper veranda around the third floor of the Arts and Cultural building on the school campus. A combination art gallery, drama theater, performing arts center and classroom complex, the building was located near the center of the campus, though somewhat to the rear of the main school building. Away from the sports fields and Esper training arenas on the front grounds, it was a quiet place of reflection and dignified creation, with just the proper air of importance and gravity necessary for one of her status in the school. In summer and spring she held court in the outdoor eating area along the back of the main school building, but it was too cold for comfort now. Food and drinks were delivered by special order from the school cafeteria to the upper veranda, which doubled as a VIP viewing area for when the Arts and Cultural building was being used for events.

Seated in a comfortable chair with a table by her side, Misaki had several plates of confectionery breakfast dishes arranged within easy reach. Sweet and sugary things, especially morning treats like donuts, cinnamon rolls, eclairs and other pastries, were a significant weakness of hers. Any smart petitioner approaching the Queen for a favor would do well to come bearing at least one example of such a treat, preferably one the Queen had never tasted before. She really had to struggle not to over-indulge in them on a daily basis, despite knowing what a pain it would be to have to work the excess calories out of her figure after going on a binge. She'd even gone so far as to program a few of her closest hangers-on to be strict with her regarding the matter, even taking food away from her sometimes. Of course, in the heat of the moment, she sometimes overrode that programming anyway, but at least she was trying...

She was dressed in her standard school attire, the Tokiwadai uniform with long white gloves almost to her shoulder, and white stockings nearly to the hem of her skirt. Her shoulder bag filled with remotes and other knick-knacks was placed by her side, within easy reach should she desire or require it. Her hair was perfectly washed and combed out, tasks she had some of her clique members help her with fairly often. The pampering wasn't necessary, she could and did sometimes handle it on her own. But after the life she'd lived, first as a Child Error and then an experimental subject, she felt that indulging herself in luxury now that she had the chance to do so, was not inappropriate. Some might disagree with the way she used her powers to ensure she had her luxuries whenever she wanted them, chief amongst them being privacy and sweet treats, but Misaki found it difficult to care about what noisy tomboy level 5's who didn't even realize what a great life they had and were largely wasting anyway, felt about how she lived her own life.

All the moreso when that noisy tomboy Level 5 had access to the one luxury that Misaki wished for above all others, but was forever denied to her by her own inadequate actions in the past. She had no one to blame but herself, for rushing that attempt at assisting her Prince when he needed her. She had saved his life, yes. But in so doing she had forever destroyed any possibility of them having a happy life together as she wanted so badly. He could not remember her, as soon as she passed from his view, it would be like they were meeting again for the first time. And she could not force her Prince to live a life in such a one sided partnership, not after everything he had done for her. It was a bittersweet situation, heavy on the bitter. And yes, she did resent Misaka for how she could be around him and even fall for him, while still having a chance for those feelings to actually mean something, result in something! It wasn't fair of her to do so... she knew that. But life wasn't fair. That was for sure!

However it wasn't Misaka and the way the tomboy level 5 had been getting very close with her Prince in the last few weeks, that was raising Misaki's ire on this particular day. Instead it was a less personal but no less troubling situation involving her domination of the Tokiwadai social scene. By creating the strongest and largest clique, filled with wealthy and powerful and influential students, Misaki was able to control matters within the school, and to a degree outside it, to ensure that she could live whatever life she wanted without outside interference. She'd had more than enough of that during the Exterior project. In the end, Misaki just wanted to be Free. Free to do what she wanted with her life. Even if that meant she had to enslave others in order to ensure her freedom. It wouldn't be permanent, at least. And she took care not to harm their personalities or memories, in most cases. Was it moral to do so? Perhaps not. But morality interested her less than Freedom did. Let Railgun worry about saving the world or the people in it, Mental Out just wanted to live a good and safe and happy life away from as many of the horrors of Academy City as she could.

But something now threatened to interfere with Misaka's freedom, by eroding her power base in the school. While her clique was not the only clique, it was by far the strongest and most influential, and was either allied with or secretly puppeteering all the other cliques in the school, aside from the so called "Misaka clique", which was different from the Misaka Fan Club which was under Misaki's control, and used to annoy the other Level 5 whenever she felt the need for some amusement. The actual Misaka clique was just Misaka, Shirai, Kongou and Kongou's two friends, who were in no other cliques. Far too small a group, especially with Misaka's social disinterest, to pose any threat to Misaki. The cliques maintained their power from school year to school year by ruthlessly stamping out any efforts to start new cliques, such as Kongou had tried to do at first, ensuring that new students would be recruited only into existing cliques rather than forming their own.

So it had been during Misaki's whole time in Tokiwadai... which was, as Misaka had wondered one time, perhaps just a trifle longer than the two years of Middle School that most student's got. Not that anyone aside from Misaki would ever know the truth of that. Tokiwadai was the first place she had ever truly called Home after all, and she was reluctant to leave it, as long as she could even somewhat pass for a Middle Schooler. But getting to the problem that vexed Misaki at the moment, things were not working out as they usually did. Though the new foreign transfer student had only been at school a few days now, she was already bucking the usual trends and distorting the school's social scene! Never mind that she should never have been allowed to transfer mid-term at all, and especially not without Misaki first vetting her, as she did all new students, to ensure she wasn't a threat to her! Everyone made a big deal about that one Princess that had been denied entry to the school because she wasn't a strong enough Esper. That had been her work... the Princess's detected power type had been far too close to her own, and if allowed to develop, might have threatened her hold on the school, so she made sure that application got binned in no uncertain terms!

But this new girl, Claudia Corbowitz, had somehow conspired to bypass all of Misaki's warning networks, that should have allowed her to investigate the girl thoroughly before her application to the school was processed. A great deal of money had certainly been involved, but there was more to it than that. Misaki had hardwired mental programming into the school staff and administration that should have alerted her to any attempts at bribery to bypass or expedite the transfer or acceptance process, but somehow none of them had been triggered. Misaki had, at length, managed to get a copy of the girl's information, and found it puzzling. The girl was rated as a Level 3 Physical Enhancement Esper. Common enough, and certainly no threat to Misaki, as the brawny types could be easily controlled by Mental Out without them even realizing it. But then how did the girl get into the school without tripping Misaki's alarms? Something did not add up.

All the moreso because Claudia was busily creating her own new clique, who called themselves La Famille Incarnat, or the Crimson Family, identified by a vivid red accessory, often in the form of a heart shaped bandage or ribbon worn on the lower side of the neck and collarbone. In a matter of a few days her numbers had swelled from just here, to several dozen girls, many of them longtime members of other cliques! They had confronted Claudia, to lay down the law and explain how things worked at this school, socially speaking. But all of them had converted to La Famille Incarnat instead! Including even some of Misaki's deep cover and mentally programmed pawns that were seeded into other cliques to ensure the staus quo was maintained! They should have been physically unable to join Claudia's clique, but had done so regardless! Her mental programs had all been erased somehow, when she checked again, which was worrying to say the least.

La Famille Incarnat was now the fourth largest clique in the school, and the fastest growing! A dozen or more students defected from existing cliques with every passing day, and the trend if anything only seemed to be speeding up! Her own dominance over the school was not yet threatened, but it could be if things went on. That was intolerable. So Misaki had, this morning, called up some of her most fervent lieutenants and sycophants within her clique. Girls who were loyal to her both because Misaki made them be, and because they wished to be, because they admired her personally. She had charged them with taking some of the more combat capable members of the clique to "interview" the new girl and make sure it was properly impressed upon her that she was not going to be allowed to grow a power base that might threaten the Queen. Even if they had to get a little rough in the process. She would use Mental Out to smooth over trouble with the teachers and administration. It was distasteful to resort to legbreaking tactics like out of a underwold mob, but difficult times called for difficult measures.

Where are they? It's been an hour. Surely they should have resolved this situation by now? Misaka thought in annoyance, stuffing another cinnamon roll into her mouth to help contain her ill feeling. Stress eating was not good for her, but she indulged anyway. Technically she should have been in class right then, but Misaki only attended class when she felt interested in doing so, and she had other matters on her mind. Such as the new girl, as well as Misaka and her Prince, and of course the Independence Day celebration coming up. The festival was going to be held right here on Tokiwadai grounds, which was not her preference. This was her castle and she did not lightly suffer the presence of unvetted guests. Unfortunately, the dictate to hold it there had come down from the City administration, not the school itself, and bucking that order would too obviously reveal her influence to those in the city she would rather remain ignorant to her. On the upside, perhaps she could conspire some way for her Prince to attend the festival... that would surely make her happy!

"Queen!" One of her clique, who was udner compulsion to guard the entranceway to her position so as to prevent any disturbances, suddenly called out in a loud and somewhat panicked voice that did not at all suit the dignity of their surroundings. The girl, who had ringletted bluish hair, raced into the room, holding something in her hands. Misaki winced, grabbing a remote and inputting a "calm down" command into the girl, which instantly purged the emotion from her voice and slowed her approach from a scramble to a more sedate walk.

"What is it? You're interrupting my breakfast." Misaki said, picking up another cinnamon roll demonstratively.

"Yes, I'm sorry, Queen, but we just got news from the group you sent to deal with the upstart girl Claudia." The girl replied, holding out what she held in her hand, which was a small card of white stock, with a big red heart on one corner. Misaki took it, and opened the card. Written within in gold pen, in flowery and antique looking script, were two words. "Mine Now". "This was hand delivered by one of our clique members, Queen. Or I should say, former clique members, as she wore the symbol of La Famille Incarnat..." The door guard girl reported, a trifle nervously.

"I see." Misaki felt simultaneously hot and cold all over. Irritation was a familiar sensation to her, but outright anger was rare. Usually she nipped problems in the bud long before they got to a state where they could potentially anger her. The other cliques losing ground to La Famille Incarnat was one thing, annoying but since it wasn't her power base under threat, no big deal in the long run. But this was different. This was a thrown gauntlet, a deliberate insult and attack aimed at her and her clique! She couldn't even remember the last time someone had done such a thing. No, no one ever had, because her power prevented it from being an issue! Misaka refusing to join any clique was the closest that she'd come to something like this. And as a fellow Level 5, she could cut Misaka slack on that without appearing weak. Claudia was just a level 3. And a transfer student. And she wasn't refusing to join cliques, she was starting her own, and stealing membership from other cliques. Including Misaki's own!

It would be a little difficult to say that the members of her clique were her friends. Many of them had no choice but to be in her clique because of who they were or what they could do for her. They all liked her, because they had no choice. But Misaki had very few friends as most people would understand the term. And none of them really were in Tokiwadai. But they were people she valued, for their use to her, and felt responsible for, because she had altered them with her power. She wasn't THAT sociopathic, that she would use people and then discard them like they were nothing. And this new girl was STEALING them from her. And had the temerity to TAUNT her about it! Her, the 5th ranked Level 5, Mental Out! That sort of thing could not be allowed to stand! It was most irritating, but it seemed like she would have to address this issue personally.

"Gather the clique after class, and have them wait here. I want them to avoid all contact with any member of La Famille Incarnat until I say otherwise." Misaki ordered, emphasizing it with a click of her remote for that purpose.

"Of course, Queen. What will you be doing?" The girl asked, still calmed under Misaki's control.

"I'll be sorting things out with Claudia. Clearly the two of us need to have a long private talk." Misaki answered with a frown frozen on her beautiful face.

xxxx

Misaki stalked into the library, where Claudia was holding her own little court, also seemingly cutting class, and apparently without consequences somehow. Yet another mystery as to how that was being accomplished. Her lips tightened and her eyes narrowed as she saw several of her former top lieutenant's clustered around the raised library nave that was usually where she herself took her leisure while in the library. A deliberate taunt, once more. Claudia was immediately visible, her torrent of vibrant red hair very distinct, as she sat in a reclining easy chair while Misaki's former clique members waited on her hand and foot, all of them completely ignoring Misaki's arrival. A vein pulsed on Misaki's forehead, but she kept her cool as much as possible, since she didn't understand what was happening to cause this. That meant caution was required here.

It was a little demeaning, being the one forced to approach Claudia, rather than being approached in turn, but Misaki swallowed her pride a bit, taking out a remote and pointing it at her captivated clique members. "All of you, get out, and make sure no one bothers us." Misaki ordered, clicking the remote to send the command home. She felt it go home, and even saw some of the girl's stiffened in the robotic way they did when she exercised her power on someone without much finesse. Just as quickly though, another sort of pressure was exerted on their minds, which undid Misaki's control, causing the girls to relax once more, many of them frowning and sneering at her as they reacted to the harshness of her tone and imperiousness.

"What do you want, you big boobed bitch?" One called out nastily. This from a girl who had massaged Misaki's shoulders that very morning while others brushed out her hair after her bath, and had been ecstatic for the privilege.

"Language, ladies. Cute and refined girls should not speak like that, even if she is being rather rude." Claudia interrupted, raising a hand and caressing the angry girl's cheek in a way that instantly gentled her, making her shiver and even moan in delight at the touch. "I know we're still getting introduced and all, but she is the Queen of the school after all, and I'm merely a Duchess, so I suppose we should humor her. Why don't you pretty darlings run along and tell your friends about your change of heart? I'm sure they'll be so happy for you, now that you're in a place where you properly belong."

"O-of course, milady." The girl replied, her voice stammering as Claudia continued to caress her cheek for a moment. Gathering herself, the girl left, leading the others who had once been Misaki's closest servants, and now appeared to be fully under the sway of Claudia, whatever that happened to be! They left the library in short order, each of them passing by Misaki on the way, most of them glaring at her, some simply ignoring her like she was dirt. It certainly didn't do anything to improve her mood, and she was quietly fuming when the doors to the library shut, leaving them alone in the vast and echoing space.

"Well, have a seat then." Claudia said condescendingly, beckoning to a hard and plain chair across from her comfortable lounge seat.

"I'll stand, thank you. I don't intend to be here so long as to require getting comfortable." Misaki answered, her tone sweet but her eyes fiery.

"Oh? Have I upset you, dear girl? You're the one who started this little conflict, you know. It doesn't exactly reflect well on you that you're getting all uptight about it now that you're not having everything go your way." Claudia sneered, relaxing indolently in her chair, barely even looking at Misaki as she stood a few feet away. Misaki noted that the girl seemed to be sitting in the one place on the nave veranda that was not in direct sunlight, which was odd, since most people would like to sit in the sun coming through the stained glass window of the nave, in Misaki's experience.

"No, you're the one who started it. Why are you at this school in the first place? I've tried looking you up but I don't get very far, and certainly nothing about your academic records. But someone with your background could go to any school in this city, and the connections of Tokiwadai's social scene aren't even necessary for you. You came here for some specific reason, in the middle of the term, and now you're breaking up the school's cliques, including my own. What else should I see that as, but an attack?" Misaki countered, leaning against the railing of the veranda.

"I'm just trying to make myself at home." Claudia batted her eyelashes coquettishly. "I'm so, so sorry that its ruffling your feathers, truly."

"This home is already occupied. By me." Misaki retorted with an irritated sigh. "I could forgive you for stealing the other cliques members. But you've gone too far by stealing mine. Your wealth and your background don't mean anything to me, they won't protect you here. You might be allowed to run roughshod over the established order wherever you're from, but you're on my territory now."

"Scary. So what, are you hear to run me out? I think you might find that more difficult than you think..." Claudia smirked confidently.

"Really? How about this then?" Misaki snapped back, pointing her remote and clicking the button. "Apologize to me." She ordered, thrusting forward with her power into the other girl. Or she tried to anyway. At a basic level, Misaki's power wasn't simple mind control. It was a complex manipulation of the brain's chemicals and fluids to change their composition, conductivity and other factors, which then manipulated thought, emotion and memory. Some powers, such as a certain level 5 Electromaster, could thus resist her ability through their own passive electrical manipulation. Accelerator too was immune, because he could reverse the changes to his own brain chemistry as she inflicted them. But well over 99 percent of everyone else in Academy City was completely vulnerable to her power. It was a familiar process for her, instinctive almost at this stage, and it happened faster than blinking in most cases.

This time though, it did not work. At all. It wasn't like it was being blocked, like in Misaka. Or being resisted and reverted, like Accelerator. This was like reaching into Claudia's head, but not finding any brain inside! Her brain chemistry was, as far as Misaki's power could determine, nonexistent. It was so strange that Misaki actually staggered back against the railing in disquiet, her starry eyes wide with shock. How could anyone's brain be like that? No chemistry, no bio-electric currents, no nothing! There was nothing there for her power to affect! "What the hell are you?" She spat out, fingers trembling a little on her remote.

"Oh my, did that not work out as intended? How unfortunate. For you." Claudia replied, her tone icy and yet also predatory, as she leaned forward, staring hard at Misaki. Her eyes suddenly seemed to glow crimson from deep within, and Misaki felt her gaze being drawn inexorably into the depths of those dark eyes. She felt sleepy. Languid. Comfortable, but detached. Like she was slowly sinking into a warm, endless bath, eyelids dropping, breathing slowing, heart rate dropping. She swayed on her feet, her remote slipping from her hand to clatter on the floor. With great effort, fueled not a little by a jolt of fear as she felt consciousness slipping away from her, Misaki marshaled herself, boosting her own brain chemistry, forcing out the lethargy, flushing her body with sensations of chill to counteract the sleepy warmth, straightening up and shaking herself hard all over, throwing off the feeling, so that Claudia's eyes were just eyes once more, now narrowed and fierce.

What the hell was that?! Misaki thought in great alarm. Hypnotism? No, that was too strong. That was some kind of supernatural compulsion! But that's impossible! Her Esper power is Physical Enhancement! Nobody can have more than one power at once, I know that for a fact! Not without cheating through a brainwave network like Gensai did, but that would require brainwaves to work... and this girl doesn't have any! Which means she should be dead, by my understanding of biology... "Doesn't seem like that worked either." She gritted out, glaring challengingly if with some trepidation at Claudia.

"Apparently not." Claudia leaned back in her chair, and began filing her nails nonchalantly. "You have a strong will indeed. Or maybe its your power? Either way, it doesn't really matter."

"Don't get cocky now. Just because you're immune to my Mind control, doesn't mean that's the limit of Mental Out." Misaki said with a sneer of her own, as she fetched a different remote from her bag.

"Oh? Do you wish to challenge me to more than just staring and a contest of wills? Are you sure you want to do that?" Claudia leaned forward again, bracing her arms on her chair, as if preparing to stand and physically hurl herself at Misaki.

"I'll knock you out with brain freeze before you can even stand up." Misaki threatened, finger tense on the button of this remote, which was for a home temperature control system. Her power was moisture based, and could, when stressed, cause dry freezing effects in the environment. Or even within a brain being influenced by her power, though that was a very dangerous thing to do, and she usually avoided it. But she was feeling uncommonly threatened by Claudia, and wasn't going to hold back if this turned violent.

Claudia licked her lips in a lascivious and hungry manner. "Will you now?" She said throatily, her eyes seeming to almost glow again. "Perhaps we should settle things here and now then, sweet thing..."

The sound of crackling electricity from behind them both caused them both to start a little bit, as they looked down onto the library floor to see Mikoto Misaka standing there, a halo of sparks dancing around her head and an unamused look on her face. "If you two wanna fight, take it outside to an arena where a teacher can referee. Other people need to use the library though." Misaka told them both flatly, eyes darting from one to the other and back again, as her electric threat display continued. She'd heard rumors that Misaki was getting into a confrontation with the new transfer student in the library, and had decided to come check it out for herself. Kuroko spoke positively about Claudia after all, and Misaka wasn't about to let Misaki ride roughshod over one of her friend's friends.

However upon arrival, she found them to be more or less equally at odds, with Misaki standing back as far from Claudia as she could get while remaining on the nave veranda, and sounding both angry and shaken as she threatened Claudia with physical harm, which was completely unlike her in Misaka's experience. There was definitely something odd about Claudia too, something that chilled Misaka's spine very unpleasantly. Her eyes, maybe. Or her posture. Something. Something that screamed "Danger, Danger!" into the instinctive side of her mind. It took a lot to put Misaki on the back foot in Misaka's experience. She herself could hardly manage it, even when she got legitimately angry.

"Oh, Misaka." Misaki said, in bored tones, regaining some of her composure. She wasn't going to show it, but she felt a little glad deep down inside, that her fellow Level 5 had showed up. At the very least it gave her a convenient way to back down without seeming weak. "That seems like an awful lot of trouble. I have better things to do than fight with some upstart new social climber. I've done what I came here to do... Claudia knows how things work around here now. The next time she steps out of line, she won't just get a friendly warning." I will purge you from this school like an infestation of vermin, you creepy bitch. Misaki thought fiercely to herself. Tokiwadai is MY home and I will not allow anyone to threaten it or its students! Misaki turned, putting her remote back in her bag and stalking off, brushing past Misaka. "Watch out for her. She's not what she seems." She whispered just barely loud enough to hear as she walked past.

"Neither are you!" Claudia called from her chair, leaning back into it indolently once more, causing Misaki to shiver as she realized that her clandestine warning had been overheard somehow. Something was definitely wrong with this Claudia girl. And she was going to find out what, and then remove the girl from Tokiwadai. If it was the last thing she did!

xxxx

"So what was that all about?" Misaka asked the new girl, once Shokuhou had left the library, head held high but clearly in retreat all the same. Misaka didn't pretend to understand all the subtle social cues that so consumed many of the girls in her school and their daily interactions with each other. But that didn't mean she had no social awareness, merely that she didn't care most of the time. She could definitely see that Claudia and Misaki weren't going to be friends. Normally that was a positive in her book. She didn't particularly like Misaki, felt that she was selfish and arrogant, and that she used her power way too much on innocent people, even for the most frivolous of things. She might not be evil, per se, and had done some good things in the past. But she definitely acted mostly out of self interest, not moral compulsion.

But her spine was still tingling unpleasantly, just looking at Claudia. This was her first face to face meeting with the other girl, and something about her was just plain off. Not her expression or body language, something else. Something that tickled at Miaka's senses in a way she could not articulate. Which bothered her, put her hackles up. She tried to fight it down. Kuroko spoke glowingly about this girl after all, she owed it to her to give her a fair chance after all. And at least she wasn't a big chested monster like some of the girls at Tokiwadai, including Shokuhou, so she didn't trigger Misaka's little inferiority complex on that level. But still, for Shokuhou to whisper a warning to her like that, in combination with her own instinctive dislike? Something was definitely not right here. But what?

"She objects to me forming my own little group of friends and supporters apparently. It seems it's not the done thing here at this school, but what can I say? If I have the charm and charisma to draw followers to myself, then why should I be punished for providing those girls with something they clearly lack where they currently are, regardless of what clique they might be in?" Claudia replied with a shrug of puzzlement.

She's stealing girls from Shokuhou's clique? On the one hand, I guess I'm all for that. Shokuhou's been treating half the school's population like servants for as long as I've been here. But how is she coaxing them away from Shokuhou? I don't have any proof she uses her power on them, aside from those times I've seen her do it, but I would have thought she'd make sure nobody leaves her clique except by her permission. Misaka thought to herself. Though I guess that explains why Shokuhou confronted her. She wouldn't take that sort of thing lying down. "That's all? So why did you two look like you were going to fight when I got here?"

"I guess some people don't handle it well when their privilege is put in check." Claudia shrugged again. "I was only defending myself."

Sure you were. That's why Shokuhou was all but running away from you up there. Damn it, I hate this sort of thing, this sniping and backbiting and politicking! "Well, I guess I can't fault you for that. Just tell me, Claudia-san, that you're not going to be causing trouble here at school are you? Kuroko speaks the world of you, but I don't want you getting her into trouble or getting her involved in whatever disagreement you and Shokuhou have." Misaka said firmly.

"I assure you Misaka-san, I have only the best of intentions towards Shirai. I would never harm her, I only want her to be happy. And I won't start trouble in this school. But if anyone starts trouble with me, I will defend myself and my interests." Claudia replied with a smile.

Why don't I believe you? No, seriously, why? Why do I feel like she's lying to me somehow? Her words sound truthful. Even reasonable. But I can't shake this bad feeling about her! What is it? I'm not the sort of person to judge someone just by how they make me feel, am I? Misaka sighed to herself. Give her a chance at least. I'll keep an eye on her though. "That's good enough for me. So then, Claudia, what are you going to do for the Festival?"

"Oh I have big plans. Very big plans..."