Chapter 24: Happily Ever After

Kazari entered the 177th branch office that Friday afternoon with a humming melody on her lips and a relieved presence of mind.

"Good afternoon, Shirai-san, Konori-senpai!" She greeted her Judgment partners who were already sitting at their desks. Konori-senpai cheerfully greeted her back; she was sipping a carton of milk, which Kazari had learned was quite a common sight. Shirai-san merely muttered something as a greeting, leaning over her laptop with taut shoulders. Her bandaged leg rested on a low chair, and Kazari wondered if she was really supposed to even be here. It was two days since the incident at Usan Research Branch V, but even though the medicine in Academy City was truly amazing, some wounds still required time to heal properly.

Kuroko suddenly leaned back into her chair with a groan. "This is ridiculous! 'For acting outside your jurisdiction without proper consent, the Judgment Court has deemed it a suitable punishment to write two sets of apology letters as well as contributing in the cleanup of the scene of crime.' Why? I solved the case!" She glared at the screen with a pout.

Kazari smiled uncertainly, sitting down at her workspace and hoping that she would not see a similar e-mail in her own inbox. Even though she had helped a lot and would like to be acknowledged in that sense, if the acknowledgement included something like that, she'd gladly give all the credit to Shirai-san.

"That's what you get for acting outside your boundaries!" Konori-senpai glowered from behind the milk carton. "Honestly, going to that facility on your own without even notifying me – do I have to degrade you to a trainee again?"

Kuroko gritted her teeth. "There was no choice. Anti-Skill would not move and the situation was most pressing."

"Even so, going ahead knowing you would be facing two strong espers with a hostage, and even trespassing into a research facility…" Konori-senpai sighed deeply and put the milk onto her desk. "Sometimes I wonder if any of your training got through to you at all."

Kuroko huffed.

"Well, at least the situation got solved…" Kazari smiled hesitantly.

"Honestly, though I don't like how she dragged our newest member into this mess as well, it's a good thing you backed her up, Uiharu." Konori-senpai said, looking at her approvingly. "You're already an important member of our branch."

Kazari reddened quite furiously. "H-hai!"

"Is there any new info yet?" Kuroko asked sourly.

Konori-senpai sighed. "Last I heard they were still working on questioning all the parts involved in this. Officially, nothing new since the report last night." She folded her arms and looked into her computer screen thoughtfully. "Really, that Fasu Niba is one cunning plot master, isn't she?"

"Hmm." Kuroko stared unseeingly at her own screen. "The report doesn't say anything about her questioning?" She had been forced to stay in her dorm room to recuperate last night, and thus had no access to the newest information regarding the case. She had just started checking through the documentation and reports after coming to the office, and there was a lot of info to take in.

"It will come in a report later today." Konori-senpai said, clicking something on her own computer. "She was questioned by a psychic from 174th branch last night. Seems like she was quite involved with raising her reputation within Tokiwadai, and especially amongst the followers of the fifth level five." She paused briefly, looking thoughtful. "According to 174th branch she was crying throughout the whole thing, claiming they never meant for it to go this far. Apparently they used Unabara-san as a means to gain the upper hand in the student council, and the student council president was an airhead more concerned with popularity than questioning her best friend's antics." She gave a light sigh.

Kuroko tsk'ed.

"In the end, she claims the kidnapping was not part of what she had planned, and that it happened due to Unabara-san finally 'snapping'." Konori-senpai said.

Kuroko frowned. "They have not questioned Unabara-san yet?"

"To my knowledge they only had her confirm her involvement as of now. I suppose they'll let her recuperate first."

Kuroko saw the logic in that. With her mind having been influenced for so long and the wounds she had been inflicted back in the greenhouse being quite serious, she would probably need some time before she could testify properly.

She sighed and leaned back into her chair. "Honestly, this whole incident is annoying. To create so much trouble because of a mere election…" Neither Fasu-san nor Unabara-san had been expelled; however they had both retreated from the council (the school board gave them that chance instead of just kicking them out), and Asanuma-san withdrew on her own. Kuroko hoped this incident would enforce a stricter form of rule for those to join the student council, by requiring its members to not having been part of a faction at all.

Konori-senpai picked up her milk carton again. "According to the psychic who checked her out, the connection between Unabara-san and the Queen got cut off at some point. That was probably good; she said Unabara-san was becoming really unstable…"

"Well, her psyche must have been pretty messed up after being influenced for so long."

Kazari listened to them talk, feeling like she didn't know what to say in this conversation. She had only heard bits and pieces of that part of the incident, having been more involved in exposing Branch V than the actual kidnapping (and handling that part of the case, with the testimonies from the employees and so on, was enough work on its own). She knew only what she had been told by Shirai-san and what had been mentioned in the official reports.

"Still, even if Fasu-san was the culprit behind this specific case, there's no doubt the Queen has been misusing her power to quite some extent here." Konori-senpai said, depositing the empty milk carton in the trash bin beside her desk. "Something like that isn't usually looked lightly upon though…" She sighed, and folded her arms again.

"Aaah, level fives really are allowed to do whatever they want, aren't they…?" Kazari wondered aloud, feeling a bit unsettled by it all.

"Of course not." Kuroko huffed. "They are just as bound by the laws of Academy City as the rest of us." Even though certain individuals seemed to fail at comprehending this.

"Eh? But Anti-Skill hasn't arrested the Queen, right?" Kazari said, looking at her co-worker. "How come they haven't, if she's breaking the law?"

"The same reason they haven't arrested Onee-sama for wrecking half of Usan Research Branch V or hacking into the Anti-Skill network even though she's a mere civilian." Kuroko said dejectedly. Of course, Onee-sama had protested when she told her this. Apparently, being reminded that she was a mere civilian made her pride twitch. Sighing, she continued: "According to the report, the Board of Directors has asked this whole thing to be treated as 'necessary training to develop one's ability even further'. As level fives there's no doubt their level of training exceeds that of normal students, and this incident has been covered up as exactly that – one giant training project for the Railgun and the Queen." Her tone of voice implied just what she thought of this.

"Wah, that's kind of…" Kazari found it hard to imagine the power of a level five and what kind of training would be necessary, but it must be incredible if they even went to those lengths.

"How can they expect everyone to believe that though?" Konori-senpai suddenly asked, adjusting the glasses on her nose. "It's ridiculous. Putting people's lives in danger for a training project is just too…"

"Why, Konori-senpai, did you not read the report?" Kuroko smirked at her senior. "For the public, there is nothing to believe in the first place. The incident has not been on the news, other than the announcement of Usan Research Branch V's withdrawal from the market, and Hitomi-san's kidnapping is not known at all in Tokiwadai; the story is she was merely sick for a day." Of course, rumors would be flourishing about it all, but that was what it was; rumors.

"I did read the report, thank you." Konori-senpai muttered, folding her arms below her chest again. "I just think it's too far-fetched. But if it's only Usan Research, Judgment and Anti-Skill that knows the truth, they will be able to hide it, I guess." She sighed. "And of course, Usan Research immediately fired everyone at Branch V."

"They had no choice, really..." Kazari said, smiling hesitantly. She was still feeling slightly overwhelmed by everything; this whole incident had made her realize how truly complicated Academy City was on the inside. All the Judgment training in the world wouldn't have been able to prepare her for something like this. And still, she felt like it had been very educational rather than too much to handle.

Kuroko suddenly smacked her laptop shut and stood up, pulling on her school jacket.

"Where are you going?" Kazari asked.

"I have an appointment with Onee-sama." She said importantly, buttoning up her uniform. "I just stopped by to work on my report."

"Oh, a date, is it?" Kazari grinned. "So you really are that kind of girl, Shirai-san: I'd never have guessed!"

Kuroko stopped, stone-faced. "This is the first step to a deeper bonding…" Her voice was deadly serious, for some reason.

Kazari continued to smile. "Hai?"

Kuroko looked up at her all of a sudden, declaring: "Today the red string of fate tying mine and Onee-sama's story together will start weaving into our lives!"

"Aaaah… good luck then!" Kazari continued to grin, though it was starting to feel kind of awkward.

Kuroko picked up her school bag and teleported out of there.

Konori-senpai sighed loudly. "Seriously…"

Kazari laughed hesitantly, and then turned around to continue working on her own report. In the silence of the office, she kept typing on her keyboard, humming lowly to herself.

For several minutes, only the low sound of the computers and the clacking of keyboards could be heard. Then, slowly like a flower springing up from the ground, a strange feeling seeped into her chest. Her fingers paused on the keyboard.

She hadn't really had the time to think about it lately, but… At this time, last week… it was unreal, but there was only one week since she had passed the make-up tests. Yet, here she was, feeling like she had been working in 177th branch for years.

A warm feeling filled her up, and a smile appeared on her lips. She continued to type on her keyboard, just a little lighter than before.

There was a knock on the office door. Konori-senpai sighed and stood up to open it. "Yes, this is Judgment 177th – wha –"

Her senior's surprised tone of voice made Kazari turn around, and her eyes widened.

"Heya…" Ruiko was standing in the doorway, a silly grin on her face and a cute yellow flower pin in her hair. What had surprised the two Judgment members so wasn't the girl herself however, but the red- and white striped animal purring by her legs.

"Hyou-chan!" Kazari exclaimed, and the cat mewed in greeting.

Ruiko looked down at the cat as well. "Hehee… he was roaming about outside and followed me up here…"

Konori-senpai bent down and picked up the kitten; she seemed flabbergasted. Kazari came over and looked down on the bundle in her arms.

"Where have you been, I wonder?" She smiled.

Hyou-chan mewed back.

XXX

The weather was sunny; it was really starting to get too hot to be wearing winter uniforms. It would only be a few weeks before those bothersome garments were switched out with their lighter summer variants though, and the Garden of Education was crowded with girls looking forward to the change.

The two sitting outside a small café enjoying a cold drink might be among them. But right now, their conversation was about things that had nothing to do with uniforms.

"So at least Hitomi-san ended up as the new student council president." Kuroko said, twirling the straw in her empty glass of soda around leisurely. Her elbows rested on the table, one hand supporting her head; hardly how a proper lady should be sitting, though that was far from what she was concerned about at the moment. Her leg was bandaged and hurt a bit still, though the pain was kept at bay with pain killers. It would probably heal within a week.

"No wonder, there was no other candidates after Asanuma-san retreated, was there?" Mikoto gave a small huff. In contrast to Kuroko, she was sitting in the chair as if it was a sofa, leaned backwards leisurely, legs crossed, and a slightly annoyed look on her face, though Kuroko had learned that her expression did not necessarily mirror her feelings. One could not see any traces of her having been in a harsh fight just days ago; as expected from the ace of Tokiwadai, Kuroko supposed.

"Ah, but Onee-sama, Hitomi-san is quite popular so she might have won even if there was competition…" She traced the edge of her glass with her finger, watching the older girl intently while speaking. They were sitting at a small table, looking to everyone like they were friends enjoying their free time together. Mikoto had been at school later than usual due to her violin recital, so Kuroko had joined up with her when she finished. For some reason she had been forbidden to enter the music room while she practiced (and she had been told so quite fiercely when she went to find Misaka-san after school – along with the four other girls crowding around the second-year asking the very same thing – even though she had chased them off). Their school bags and Onee-sama's violin case now stood on the ground, resting against the table legs.

"Hai, hai." Mikoto sighed and swirled her can of Coconut Cider around nonchalantly. "Perhaps she can actually do some of those things the student council promised last year. Seriously though, I still don't really get what was going on and all. It feels like something was just completely messed up all over the place."

"Yet you still showed up at Branch V and proceeded to blast the wall apart and destroy equipment worth millions of dollars." Kuroko said dryly.

Mikoto blushed. "It's not my fault they insisted on being stubborn. If they'd just let me in I'd…" She stopped, hesitating slightly.

"You would what? Partake in their experiments and become the next Gimei?" Kuroko's tone of voice was awfully smug.

"O-of course not!" Mikoto glared at her can of cider with a stubborn look on her face. Kuroko couldn't help but revel at her expression, even though she still thought the other girl had been reckless. Still, that seemed to be just like Onee-sama; throwing everything away to help others in need. "By the way, what happened to that guy? Gimei or whatever." Mikoto asked.

"Aah, he was arrested by Anti-Skill."

"Eeeh, really? I thought he was innocent after all?"

"Well, why he did what he did is yet to be properly answered, but there is no denying he did rob a lot of girls, made a bus crash on purpose, assisted in kidnapping and attacked a member of Judgment." Kuroko sighed, pulling her finger up and observing the soda that had stuck to it. "In any case, Anti-Skill is taking care of him. If they choose to punish him, that's up to them. I doubt they will though; the guy is obviously unstable." She carefully licked her finger clean.

"Hm. I guess they can't just let him go after all that." Mikoto said thoughtfully.

"By the way, Onee-sama, there was something I wanted to ask you."

"Hmm?"

Kuroko put her hands on the table and looked up at the other girl. "Gimei – or Kino – was indeed able to manipulate wavelengths, just like you suspected. However, wavelengths are in fact nothing more than electromagnetic waves, are they not?"

"Saying it's 'nothing more than that' makes it sound so simple, but I suppose you're right." Mikoto answered solemnly.

"Then should you not be able to do the same as him? You can manipulate electromagnetic waves, no?" She had had a lot of time to think last night, and this was one of the things that had popped into her head. Considering Onee-sama was the level five electromaster, controlling electromagnetic waves was just part of what she could do, wasn't it?

"Hmm." Mikoto looked up into the air thoughtfully. Then she sighed, and gave a small smile. "That's kind of a difficult topic, you know? Basically even atoms stick together because of electromagnetism, so in theory, changing the structure of the atoms, splitting them and fusing them, anything could be possible. But there's no way a human brain could fully comprehend something on that level. You'd probably need a brain capacity the size of the universe. Besides, my ability is already pretty versatile." The last part was added with a proud look on her face.

Kuroko frowned. Still, she supposed even level fives had a limit of some sort, even though it far surpassed that of any other esper. "How did you come up with something like magnetizing iron sand anyway?" She asked. "Something so indelicate..."

"It's not supposed to be delicate." Mikoto huffed. "Besides, those spikes of yours are hardly any better."

Kuroko sighed. "I am a Judgment member; it is only natural for me to defend –"

"Same goes for me." Mikoto cut her off. "Do you know how many weirdos I face every week?" She sighed, an exasperated look on her face. "While most of them are pretty lame, suddenly there's someone who my electricity won't bite on; I'd be pretty helpless without any other means of defense." She said this and then carelessly swallowed another sip of cider.

Kuroko frowned again. There was so many things wrong with that sentence she didn't even know where to start. "In the first place, it's your own fault for sticking your nose into things that are of Judgment and Anti-Skill's concerns..."

"Hm? What?" Mikoto looked at her with a bored expression on her face.

"...never mind..." She couldn't be bothered to start an argument right now; besides, that wasn't her intent to begin with.

A cheerful waitress came over to their table and deposited a glass of bubbling and fizzing pink soda in front of Kuroko. "Here you go; sorry for the wait!" She twittered, and left with the empty glass. Kuroko took a sip from the pink straw; it was pretty good, and awfully sweet.

"I can't believe you ordered that thing…" Mikoto said dryly. "It looks creepy."

"It is a matter of being open-minded, Onee-sama." Kuroko said proudly. She frowned. "Still, for them to use almost ten minutes to make it is a bit too much."

Mikoto didn't look convinced, but didn't argue the point. "If you say so." She looked down into her cider again. "Still, this whole mess... I don't get why the Queen would be involved in it. It's not like I know her or anything, but you'd think she'd stay out of things like that."

"I guess it was a minor thing to her, making Unabara-san behave in a way benefitting of Atomics." Kuroko said.

"That's not what I meant." Mikoto huffed. "Why would she do it, in the first place? It seems too bothersome to be worth anything."

"Well, taking care of your fans is one way of staying popular, after all."

"Heeh." A crooked smile appeared on her face. "Staying popular, eh."

"Onee-sama, you should rid yourself of that careless tone and start thinking about your own image as well." Kuroko said, deadpan. It was almost scary how little the other girl seemed to care about this. Really, did she not consider her own reputation at all? Doing whatever she wanted and acting completely airheaded – that was not how the ace of Tokiwadai should be. That was not how any woman should be.

"Don't tell me you're suggesting I should start doing stuff like that too!" Mikoto huffed, cheeks just slightly pink.

Kuroko smirked and leaned forward. "Even if you wanted to, Onee-sama is unable to do something like that. You are too kind."

The other girl blushed furiously. "H-how would you know? Though there's no way I could control anyone's thoughts and actions like that. It seems kind of horrible."

"In your case, starting by removing those shorts of yours would be the first step." For the life of her, she could not understand how anyone could put on something like that without a care. Being oblivious about your reputation was one thing, but walking around in something so horrendous was beyond comprehensible.

"What does that have to do with anything – and stop staring like that!" Mikoto banged the can of cider into the table so their drinks splattered everywhere on the tabletop. "Ack – sorry… but please keep your opinions to yourself if they're not important." Drawing a breath and having the color in her cheeks receding somewhat, she folded her arms, leaving the can of cider on the table. "I'm really starting to wonder why I'm sitting here with you today."

Kuroko smiled at her obliviousness. "Why, that's because the magnetic force between us is growing stronger every day."

"Now we're suddenly discussing physics?" Mikoto asked dryly.

"Ara, Onee-sama, are you really that innocent of nature?" Kuroko smirked, leaning just a bit closer over the table.

Mikoto stared at her with a strained expression on her face, leaning further back. "For some reason your attitude has completely changed the last few days. Did you hit your head at some point? Well actually you did," She added thoughtfully, "maybe some of your brain cells got displaced back there…"

"Not at all, Onee-sama." Kuroko said, settling back into her chair. She had prepared herself for the challenge of successfully unveiling Onee-sama's true nature; and until that happened (most likely in the near future), her most important task would be to keep her from discovering anything else. With small hints and a careful approach to the subject, she was certain Onee-sama would crack open in no time. "In any case, running off to take out Usan Research all by yourself is really something; luckily for you, I was also there." She smirked. "Such a coincidence must be destiny, don't you think?"

"Destiny?" Mikoto was blushing again. "Now you're making no sense. Besides, I already said thanks; what more do you want?"

Kuroko opened her mouth to answer, when another voice interrupted her suddenly: "Ah, there you are – Shirai-san, Misaka-san, good afternoon!" Hitomi-san came up beside them and smiled brilliantly; following her was the arrogant form of Asanuma-san.

"Ah, hi there." Mikoto greeted back, while Kuroko arranged her face into a smile after having her private time with Onee-sama interrupted.

"I'm sorry for suddenly inviting you both out like this," Hitomi-san said, "but I wanted to thank you properly somehow, and buying you both dinner felt like a good way of doing so."

"It is hardly necessary, but thank you either way." Kuroko said.

Hitomi-san smiled at her. She seemed as cheerful as always, and when Asanuma-san came up beside her and put a hand around her shoulders, she beamed up at the older girl. Kuroko felt her heart flutter, imagining herself and a certain level five in that same position.

Mikoto was merely sipping her cider however, cheeks just barely tinted.

"Are you two okay?" Hitomi-san asked, peeking at Kuroko's bandaged leg; "Ah, Shirai-san, should you be moving around with that yet?"

"If I keep my weight on the other leg and teleport most of the way, it's fine." Kuroko said proudly.

Hitomi-san smiled at her. "You sure are durable."

"Or hard-headed." Asanuma-san added, earning herself a glare from Kuroko.

"Ah, that's true." Mikoto said, looking up. "Even after being hit by a bat –"

"That's enough, thank you." Kuroko bit her off. "Besides, you're not one to speak, pulling off such a move after being struck down like that…"

"Don't make it sound like it was easy!" Her face was red all of the sudden.

Hitomi-san giggled. "You were both quite amazing back there."

Mikoto jolted, as if she had somehow forgotten they were there in the span of one second, her eyes darting to Hitomi-san and back, and then she folded her arms, looking into the air with a blush on her cheeks. "Aaah, haha, that was… of course… like a warm-up. A warm-up." She nodded, though it seemed like she was trying to convince herself more than anyone else. "Nothing to brag about, really."

Kuroko was thunderstruck. "Onee-sama, blushing like that in front of Hitomi-san—!"

"Wha – what's wrong with you? I'm not blushing!" Yet her face only reddened even more.

Asanuma-san frowned, and Hitomi-san continued to smile. Then she looked at Kuroko, who was gritting her teeth. "By the way, Shirai-san, about your request…" she winked. "It's already taken care of."

Kuroko's chest fluttered, and she raised her chin proudly.

"What?" Mikoto asked, still a bit red-faced. "What request?"

Hitomi-san smiled at her, but said nothing. Kuroko smirked. "Nothing you need to concern yourself about, Onee-sama."

"Now I am concerned..."

"You probably should be." Asanuma-san said dryly.

Kuroko threw her another stinging glare, while Mikoto looked at her with a perplexed expression on her face. "Huh?"

XXX

Kazari and Ruiko stepped through the iron gates and walked over the vacant yard to the entrance door of Jousei Care. When they stopped in front of the oak door, Kazari could do nothing but gaze at it. Her heart was pounding; she didn't know how to do this. What if that horrible facility manager opened the door and screamed in her face, or took Hyou-chan again?

She pursed her lips together. I can't think like that. Hyou-chan belongs to Miki-chan. They should be together. Steeling herself, she reached out and rang the doorbell. And they waited. She could hear no sounds inside; and just as she was contemplating whether to ring the doorbell again, the door suddenly opened, to reveal a crowd of cheering children and a woman swamped by several of them.

"H-hai? What can I help you with?" The woman breathed, back crouched under the weight of a small boy, and her face sweaty beneath the glasses. It was not the same lady as last time. Perhaps it was one of the employees.

Kazari grinned awkwardly, and beside her, Ruiko rubbed her neck, smiling too. "Um, we came to see Miki-chan, actually… we found her pet… again…" She looked down at Hyou-chan, curled up in her arms; the woman's eyes grew large.

"Waah, what a cute kitten!" She immediately straightened, and the boy on her back fell to the floor with a thud. "Is it Miki-chan's, you say?"

"Hai… um… is she here?" She couldn't see the cheerful little girl amongst the squeaking children.

"She's upstairs; I'll follow you!" She gestured Kazari inside, and the flowery girl entered, albeit gingerly, as if something would jump out of the floor and gnaw her legs off when she passed the threshold. Ruiko followed right behind her though, leaving her no choice but to proceed.

The woman was already halfway up the stairs inside, trying to make the children go away. "Shoo, shoo! Go watch TV or something; I'll be right back!" Reluctantly, the children released their hold on her. Kazari smiled at their antics; at least they didn't have only that crude woman to take care of them.

"Here, they're up here." The woman led them upstairs to a hallway of doors; she approached one and knocked. A small "haaai!" could be heard from inside, and the woman opened the door. "Miki-chan, you have a visitor."

"Who?" Miki-chan's voice drifted out, and Hyou-chan's ears twitched.

"It's some Onee-san's from Judgment!" The woman cheered. Kazari noticed Ruiko's reddening cheeks, and grinned at her.

There was a gasp from inside.

"Let them in!" Another voice said suddenly; it was an older girl, judging by the tone.

"Hai, hai, don't stress yourself." The woman smiled, and then gestured for Kazari and Ruiko to go inside. "Go on."

They entered a simple bedroom with a window on the opposite wall. Kazari was instantly assaulted by a small body winding its arms around her waist.

"Hyou-chan! And Judgment-Onee-san!" Miki-chan was grinning up at her, and Hyou-chan mewed and started wriggling in her hands. Kazari bent down and put him on the floor, and the kitten immediately rubbed against Miki-chan's legs with a purr. "Hyou-chan!" The girl picked him up, burying her face in his fur. "I missed you so much! Where have you been?" She twirled him around and laughed.

The woman smiled and closed the door behind her when she left.

"So it's you, from that time." Someone said.

"Ah –" Ruiko started, and Kazari looked up towards the bed, where the voice was coming from. There sat an older girl, dressed in a blue pajama, long, brown hair falling loosely around her shoulders, and a tired look on her face, though she smiled. Kazari had to look at her for quite some time before she recognized her.

"Unabara-san –?" She felt nervous all of a sudden. Unabara-san's long-sleeved pajama covered most of her skin, but the hands holding a steaming cup were plastered, as were part of her face. She looked like she had fought with a lawnmower, or perhaps tried to shower in scalding hot water.

"Yeah, I am that famous moron." The girl sighed. "I actually thought you were that other girl first – the crazy one with the pigtails… but it doesn't matter."

"The dumbass!" Miki-chan twittered happily, before pulling out a toy mouse from her pocket and dangling it in front of Hyou-chan's face. "Lookie here, Hyou-chan! It's a present from mean Ryoko!"

The cat mewed and pawed at the toy.

Kazari was still surprised at seeing Unabara-san here. "You mean Shirai-san?"

"You know her?" Unabara-san looked surprised too.

"Hai… we work at the same branch."

Unabara-san smiled softly. "Then perhaps you could give her my thanks for me. I don't want to think about what could have happened to me if someone hadn't interfered…" She cast her gaze down briefly, and Kazari suddenly felt a tiny amount of pity for the girl.

"It wasn't your fault, though!" Ruiko insisted. Then she hesitated, looking slightly unsure. She glanced at Kazari; "…was it?"

"Of course not!" Kazari jumped in, fired up. "Being misused by a level five is no-one's fault! After all, you can't fight them!"

"Oh, you don't need to tell me." Unabara-san chuckled. "I'm not lying here boring my head off just because of the Queen, mind you. I guess I should be happy I wasn't hit by a railgun instead." She sighed, but smiled still, even if it didn't really reach her eyes. She looked down at the cup in her hands. "I wonder if it was really her fault though, or if it was just me being naïve and gullible as always…"

Kazari found it hard to say anything to that, and her chest was swirling; even with her skin plastered and burnt, the girl in front of them looked so mature with that solemn look on her eyes.

The older girl suddenly jolted, as if pulled out of her thoughts, and looked at them again. "Ah, I'm sorry for being rude; please, have a cup of coffee." She nodded at the espresso machine adorning the night table beside her bed.

Kazari and Ruiko both smiled awkwardly. "Aah, thanks, but I don't drink coffee…" Kazari said hesitantly.

"Neither do I…" Ruiko said.

"Oh. Well, in that case, have a soda or a cider; there's a lot to choose from." Unabara-san nodded at the small fridge beside the door.

Kazari felt more and more awkward. "Aaah, um… thanks, but…"

"In that case, pardon me~" Ruiko suddenly squatted down and pulled the fridge open. "Oooh, there's really a lot to choose from!"

"S-Saten-san!" Kazari was completely put off at the other's behavior.

"What, she said we could take some, right? You want anything?"

Kazari stuttered: "N—" then again, was it rude to refuse? "P-perhaps something with strawberry…"

"There's strawberry-lemon, you like that right?" Ruiko pulled out a red and yellow can of cider and handed it over to Kazari, who accepted it with just a tiny bit of hesitation. Ruiko continued: "Oh, rice-onion! That's one of the new variants!" She pulled out another can and shut the fridge closed. Then she stood up and turned around, opening the can with a fzzt.

"A-anyway, Unabara-san, shouldn't you be in hospital?" Kazari asked, gripping her own can of cider tightly.

Unabara-san looked up from sipping her coffee, surprised. "Oh, well, I suppose… but I just can't relax in a hospital, and they said what I really need right now is to take it easy. These burns will heal up in no time with some treatment, and they hardly hurt with all the pain killers I'm on. I'm happy they let me stay here instead of the dorm though, even if they installed surveillance cameras all over to keep track…"

"Anti-Skill did?" Kazari asked, surprised again.

"No, Tokiwadai." Unabara-san said. "You wouldn't believe how nervous they are when it comes to their students… someone might steal a DNA sample in our sleep, you know? Heh." The small chuckle hardly seemed cheerful. "Sometimes I wonder how they even dare let us outside the Garden…"

"Heeh…" Kazari didn't really know what to say; while she knew some of her circumstances, she didn't really know all that much about Unabara-san. It was a conflicting feeling; on one hand she felt sorry for the girl, and on the other, she knew she was the one who had hurt Shirai-san and been part of the reason for this entire incident.

Ruiko took a swig of her cider; she was looking over at Miki-chan and Hyou-chan (Miki-chan was trying to make him climb the curtains). "I was wondering; can they really communicate?" She asked.

Unabara-san looked over at them as well; a tender smile appeared on her face. "Miki-chan seems to believe so, and the cat sure is a strange one… whether it's supernatural or not, there's no doubt they have a connection, that's what I think."

The little girl suddenly turned towards them with a fierce glare: "Ryoko, you're lying!" Then she glared over at Ruiko, while Hyou-chan effectively ripped off several strings of cloth from the curtain beside her (Kazari almost felt guilty for a second). "We can talk!"

"Ah, sorry…" Ruiko smiled hesitatingly.

"Hyou-chan told me how he escaped from Ashi-sensei, and ran to get help!" Miki-chan claimed, looking down at the cat in question with a proud expression on her face. He sat down on the floor beside the shredded pieces of the curtain and meowed.

"Really?" Ruiko asked. "Did he bite off her fingers and push her down the stairs on his way out? Oooh," her tone suddenly turned enthusiastic, "maybe she broke her neck and is in the hospital right now!"

"Saten-san!" Kazari was stricken again.

"Well, that old hag would have deserved it, don't you think?"

"Still—!"

"He actually did something even cooler!" Miki-chan said excitedly, picking up the cat to hug him close.

"Oh, he did, did he?" Ruiko asked, completely ignoring Kazari. "Then what did he do?"

"It's a seeeecret." Miki showed her tongue at her. Then she skipped past them to the door, Hyou-chan still held to her chest. "Me and Hyou-chan are going to get a snack! I'll bring you some too, Ryoko, even though you're mean!"

"Aah, thanks…" The older girl sighed, and Miki-chan opened the door and hurriedly sped off down the corridor. They could hear her voice quite clearly by the stairs: "Hyou-chan, you wanna slide down the railing? Weeee~"

"Well, she didn't seem to be too worried." Ruiko grinned, while Kazari laughed hesitatingly.

Then she remembered: "Aah, but..." She looked over at Unabara-san. "Will Ashida-san let Hyou-chan stay this time?"

"Oh, you don't know?" Unabara-san suddenly grinned, making her entire face light up despite the numerous plasters. "Ashida-san was fired – the Jousei Care foundation somehow found out she's been involved with Branch V the wrong way and immediately let her go. Kanon-san – that's the woman who let you in here – will most likely be appointed the new manager. The kids love her."

Kazari's chest soared. She didn't want to bring it up, but during her sorting evidence against Usan, she had found reports about experiments done on Child Errors from many years back – Unabara-san's name had been mentioned in a list of test subjects. She was uncertain whether Ashida-san, being the child care facility manager, knew what really went on at that "spice research facility". But it seems like she did.

"Honestly, I would never have imagined that cat to be so much trouble." Unabara-san said, suddenly sounding a lot more solemn, and lowering her gaze back down to her coffee.

"Huh?" Ruiko asked; Kazari just stared.

The other girl's gaze seemed far-away as she gazed into her cup. "You know, I never even realized the Queen was affecting me like that. I thought it was me and my thoughts all the time. Not even my friends noticed." Her eyes shimmered a bit, but then she blinked, and drew a deep breath. "There's been a lot of stress lately though; with a new school year, a lot of stuff happens… I found myself snapping at people around me when I didn't mean to, and it just got worse and worse. I thought I was growing sick or something. Fasu-san kept nagging about how we needed to make sure Reiko won the election too – and I was convinced she was right. Sheesh, I've been a moron since day one with that girl."

"Um… what does this have to do with the cat…?" Ruiko whispered into her ear discreetly. Kazari had no idea.

"Reiko always makes fun of me for it, but I like giving new students a good welcome, so I befriended Fasu-san when she transferred in first grade." Unabara-san continued. "She joined Atomics pretty quickly and talked me into joining too. It's a great opportunity after all, being in a faction… it grants a lot of assets and all. And I thought I was really being appreciated for once, when they begged me to help them make a deal with Branch V… God I'm so stupid…" She put a hand to her forehead, looking like she could very well start crying any moment.

Kazari didn't know whether to console the girl or encourage her, or what to say in any case. She was still holding the unopened can of cider in her hands; the cold surface was prickling against her fingers. Ruiko looked somewhat troubled too, looking at her own cider and scratching her cheek.

"But you know, Atomics is a bunch of creeps." Unabara-san continued. "So I left, and soon after I joined the council, and thought nothing more of it. However…" She gazed down solemnly, "For some reason, I just… I just had to do whatever I could to benefit the Queen and her allies. It never once struck me as odd; it was just the way it was. All of a sudden, making sure I was benefitting them was my entire cause for existence."

"That was… the Queen…?" Kazari breathed, feeling astonished and wound up at once. Unabara-san's situation was hard to imagine, but it must have been horrible, thinking and acting of your own, believing it was natural, when in reality someone had planted an unnatural conviction in your mind…

"When Hitomi-san suddenly announced she was joining the election this year, I was just as worried as Fasu-san." Unabara-san continued. "I knew if she became the president, I wouldn't be able to manipulate her the same way I had been Reiko. And she seemed to hate us, making me suspect she knew something… heh." She suddenly chuckled. "I guess she saw two manipulating bitches wringing her girlfriend around with their twisted little schemes. In any case, we started counter-measures to make sure she wasn't elected. Spreading rumors and gossip, harassing her verbally, threatening her, you name it, we did it."

She drew a deep breath. It looked like she really needed to get this off her chest, so Kazari stayed silent and waited for her to finish.

"It was just a coincidence really, that Branch V was conducting their live experiment with Kino at the same time as this happened."

"Kino?" Ruiko asked, looking confused.

"That invisible purse robber!" Kazari seethed at her, astounded that she had interrupted the other girl.

"Yeah, that's right." Unabara-san said, looking at them. "He's one of my best friends, or was… we used to play all the time, and when me and Reiko became friends back in elementary, he fell heads over heels in love… he's mentally unstable now. For some reason he still listens to me though, and when he started stealing purses all of the sudden, they asked me to talk to him and try to stop that behavior." She grinned. "As if. He wanted to give presents to Reiko, so I told him he should hand whatever he managed to steal over to me, and I would make sure she got it. He did, and he even started writing notes when I suggested it, saying he wanted Reiko to be re-elected and that he hated her competitor and so on. I thought for sure Reiko would tell Hitomi-san and that it would scare her off." She shook her head in disbelief. "That just goes to show how little I was really thinking at that point, I guess. Anyway, with his purse stealing antics keeping up, Kino attracted the attention of Judgment and Anti-Skill, and suddenly, there was this bus accident."

Kazari cringed, remembering the hours spent writing reports afterwards. She was starting to see the whole picture here; a string of coincidences following each other and tying up into that of a much greater event.

"Ah, the one where a beam of light upturned a whole bus!" Ruiko said. "I read about that on the net!"

"It was quite the uproar, you know?" Unabara-san said. "Anti-Skill confiscated the handbags he had stolen, and Branch V freaked out and relieved Anti-Skill and Judgment of the case to 'investigate' on their own." She huffed. "Of course, this was perfect for me, since that meant Kino wouldn't be arrested any time soon. I asked him to create another accident, targeting our students. Just like him to make it another bus crash."

Kazari's heart clenched in her chest.

"I suggested to Reiko this was probably that stalker's means to tell her how serious he was. And of course, Reiko freaked out, thinking he would be hurting Hitomi-san next. I was certain Hitomi-san would finally back out, but… she didn't!" She looked completely annoyed there for a second. "Our last resort plan was to mess everything up during Hitomi-san's debate speech, making her completely turn away her followers. It was all fine, cool, okay. I thought it would be useless, but whatever. And then Ashida-san took that cat and made Miki-chan cry." She paused, seemingly contemplating something.

"Ah, so that's what you… but… you didn't seem to be… um…" Ruiko faltered, hesitating quite a bit.

"There really didn't seem to be anything wrong with you when we met you here!" Kazari declared.

"I guess not." Unabara-san said. "This place has nothing to do with Tokiwadai, so I was able to think about other things… but when Miki-chan started crying her eyes out over that damn cat, something just snapped inside me. I planned to confront Ashida-san – planned to talk her into accepting the beast. But then I was suddenly heading for Tokiwadai instead, thinking I should kidnap Hitomi-san. And I didn't even wonder why; it was completely natural." She smiled sadly. "As if I was thinking that doing so would make Miki-chan happy."

"Ah… well…" Kazari hesitated, finding it hard to say the right thing.

"Maybe some part of you deep down wanted to get rid of that hag by exposing her and that Branch Whatever together?" Ruiko suggested, rubbing her neck.

Unabara-san suddenly looked at her. "That's…" Her eyes widened slightly. "You really think…?"

Ruiko immediately entered emergency mode, laughing: "Aah, I dunno, I mean, it would be a pretty fool headed plan, but then again you were completely messed up in the first place and even if it wasn't for the cat I bet you would have snapped anyway!"

"Saten-san!" Kazari wheezed again, and the other girl chuckled nervously.

"Yeah… I think you're right." Unabara-san said, smiling. "Maybe… maybe I finally realized how sick and tired I am of this entire mess. But I would never have managed to fell Usan Research or get rid of Ashida-san all on my own. Telling Ashida-san what really happened there sure didn't work, and Anti-Skill never did more than sniff at the place." She looked down, eyes glistening slightly. "Yeah… Perhaps some part of me chose to bring Hitomi-san to that place for exactly that reason. Hoping that someone would follow and shake things up."

"Aaah, that worked pretty well." Ruiko said cheerfully. Kazari found it hard to disagree, remembering what they had seen on the surveillance cameras back there.

Unabara-san's smile returned, and she faced them again. "It's thanks to you guys that no more children have to suffer through what Kino and I did. You really should be proud of being in Judgment."

Kazari tried to smile as well, and found it came quite easy, even though she still felt unsettled by it all.

XXX

They stayed for a few more minutes and played a bit with Hyou-chan and Miki-chan when they returned; then bid them good-bye and left the building.

When they were back outside on the sidewalk, Ruiko stretched her arms over her head. "Man, being a Judgment member sure is a lot of work!"

Kazari huffed. "You're not even in Judgment."

"Yeah well, even if I could have I don't think I'd want to." Ruiko said, putting her hands behind her head and gazing up into the sky. "Just watching you work back there was more than enough."

Kazari smiled. She felt comfortable and pleased, feeling like they'd succeeded in saving a lot of children from tragic fates with this incident, and knowing she had done something right in helping out.

"In any case, you're free now, right?" Ruiko suddenly said, looking at her.

"Eh?"

Ruiko grinned. "Wanna go to Seventh Mist?"

There were still several reports needing to be written, and several odd jobs waiting for completion. However, Kazari had no time to worry about that. She had plenty of time to catch up with work later.

A brilliant smile donned her face. "Hai!"

XXX

After an enjoyable dinner with the couple of Hitomi-san and Asanuma-san, Kuroko and Mikoto headed for their dormitory. Kuroko had offered to carry Mikoto's violin case, and the older girl gave it some thought before handing her the case; "If you insist." Kuroko could barely believe her luck, and received the case with almost ginger touches, when Mikoto continued just as soberly: "Just so you know, it's worth 20 million yen. You better not drop it."

Kuroko spent the rest of their trip home concentrating on not putting her feet near anything that could make her trip, and glaring at anyone that came too close on the sidewalk.

It was already near curfew time when they finally entered the lobby of their dorm.

"Aah, it's a bit melancholic having Hitomi-san switch dormitories…" Kuroko said, following Mikoto up the stairs, and down the hall towards room 208. "Ah well… I suppose we can still see her during lunch sometimes."

"Hmm." Mikoto unlocked the door to her room without even swiping a card (which just underlined the uselessness of those electronic locks) and entered.

Kuroko followed, saying: "Still, it must be nice for her and Asanuma-san to be able to share a room." Suddenly her expression turned lewd. "Doing this and that in the confines of their private love nest – aaah, I wonder if we'll be able to learn –" she abruptly cut off when she bumped into Misaka-san, since the older girl had stopped suddenly.

"Kuroko." Mikoto's voice was level as she uttered her name.

"H-hai, Onee-sama?" Kuroko said, rubbing her stinging nose and clutching her school bag with her other hand. The violin case was still secure on her back, strapped over one shoulder.

Mikoto turned around and smiled at her. "This is my room."

"Indeed it is." Kuroko smiled back.

One of Mikoto's eyebrows twitched, but her brilliant smile never wavered. "This is my room."

"Hai!" She beamed.

"Which means you're not allowed in here!" She forcibly pushed Kuroko back outside by her shoulder, one hand still holding the school bag.

"Ah, Onee-sama, it was supposed to be a pleasant surprise!" Kuroko protested.

"What, were you going to assault me or something?" Mikoto glared at her, hand on her waist. "I might tolerate you outside school, and maybe even in school, but my room is out of the question!"

"Ara, what an imagination, Onee-sama…" Kuroko smiled brightly, "however, I was referring to this; tadaa!" She gestured to the nameplate beside the door, and Mikoto looked. Her eyes immediately widened.

"Why is your name on here?" She spluttered, after reading Shirai Kuroko plainly written down with gold letters beneath her own name. "What happened to Koshi-san's name?" Her expression was horrified. Certainly her surprise was just too much.

"We couldn't very well be living three people in one room, so I had her moved into my old one." Kuroko said, smiling brightly. Of course, normally one couldn't just change rooms like that, but knowing the student council president turned out to be beneficial at least this time.

"To Sumone-san –?"

"Besides, we can't have Onee-sama's roommate suddenly turn out to be a traitor along the lines of Fasu-san," Kuroko said with a proud look on her face, "if something were to happen to you, it would defy my whole reason of existence."

"Your whole reason of existence?" Mikoto said, taken aback. "And what's with the traitor thing; this is Koshi-san we're talking about…"

"Aaah, my whole life has been one long preparation for this very day!" Kuroko sighed dramatically, completely ignoring her. "More importantly, Hitomi-san had the maids move my trunk into the room this morning; I better start unpacking." She teleported into the room, leaving Misaka-san startled by the door. Carefully depositing the violin case by the wall, she turned around to look at a room that was identical to her old one in layout. The green tapestry on the wall that looked like something from the late 50s; the small fridge beside one of the bookshelves; the polished desks; the table in the middle of the room, the walk-in closet hidden behind a wooden sliding door; the private bathroom – it was all there. The room was neat and tidy too, just as expected from a Tokiwadai student dorm room. Personal belongings did not clutter every available surface, the beds were properly made, the desks clean and spotless. Kuroko's trunk was standing beside one of the beds, just as expected. Her eyes fell on the other bed, and widened at the giant pirate-eyed teddy bear lying on the quilt.

"Ah, haha!" She laughed joyfully, jumping into the bed to snuggle into the bear. "It's just like I imagined! Onee-sama's childishness is truly real!" Leaving the plush toy aside, she bent down and pulled out Mikoto's bag of clothes from underneath the bed, looking through it with unhidden glee.

"Oh, look at this!" She laughed and pulled out a Gekota-decorated pair of panties. "Gekota! Haha! Now I see why you're wearing those shorts; but really, Onee-sama, a lady should be wearing something to be proud of…we should get you something new tomorrow..." She continued to look through the bag, when she realized there were zapping noises coming from the doorway. "Eh?" She looked up and, seeing Mikoto's reddening face and the blue charges crackling from her bangs, instantly paled. "Onee-sama…"

"You barge into my room and the first thing you do is start looking through my underwear… so you're just a fan girl in disguise after all…"

"Of course not!" Kuroko protested. "My love for you is the real thing – not like those creepy fan girls of yours!"

It didn't seem like this helped much. Shaking in anger, the older girl looked ready to explode any moment. "You have no idea how many times I've refrained from doing this…" she forced out, her voice trembling just slightly.

Kuroko pulled back, sweat rolling down her temple. It seemed like Misaka-san had finally snapped. "Onee-sama… p-please think about your concussion…"

"I'm getting a concussion just listening to you!" Mikoto yelled. "There will be no more holding back, Kuroko; prepare to feel pain!"

The resulting noise of electricity and Kuroko's cry of pain reverberated throughout the whole dorm; stomping footsteps approached the open doorway.

"STOP THIS NOISE AT ONCE!" The dorm mistress glared angrily at the girls inside; Kuroko was still twitching on the bed from the treatment she'd just received, and Mikoto turned a horrified face at the dorm mistress, and then smiled innocently. The dorm mistress' eyes glinted dangerously. "Detention!" She crowed. And she shut the door harshly.

Kuroko breathed out in relief, but instantly stiffened when Mikoto started crackling again. "Onee-sama, don't –!" She didn't know whether she could handle anymore electric shocks like that.

"What's another detention or two?" Mikoto turned on her with a fierce lash. "Get out of my bed!"

Kuroko clasped her hands in front of her chest. "Aaah, your shy nature is just too much!"

This made her redden even more. "Shut up, you creep!" CRACKLE!

Now, whatever one might say about being on the receiving end of hurtful electricity, Kuroko was still blissfully happy. Even if she might end up on the black list of every single faction in the school, she would never regret having come this far. Even if it meant she would become the target of hateful glares from her fellow students; even if it meant having to talk her way out of quarrels or constantly be looking out for threats in her locker… she didn't care. None of that mattered.

Because Shirai Kuroko had found the place where she belonged, and she would gladly prove it to the entire world and any non-believers.

"Onee-sama~!"

"Stay back!" ZZAP!

…and Onee-sama, of course.


Chapter note:

I'm kind of happy with how this turned out, I guess, mostly, and now my right arm is hurting, damn it. (Too much writing?) Yep, this is the last chapter. But is it the last you'll see of me? No way! (Unless you don't want to read any more of what I write of course…) To be honest I'm tired of reading this chapter (again), and I want to start writing something else instead of trying to re-read it for the **th time, so please, if anything is off, just tell me! I think I've weeded out all the weird errors now (like "she has a cup of coffee in her hand in one sentence, and in the next she uses both her hands to scratch her head; what the hell happened to the CUP?"). For some reason there was a lot of those this time =S
Plots are no joke. It's very hard to make sense out of them. But I feel like I've succeeded, and I dare you to say otherwise! *loads shotgun* No but really, I hope I've managed to make some sense. I don't want to feed you everything on a silver spoon, so you'll have to do a little thinking for yourself. But it shouldn't be impossible to understand what was going on, now. I hope.

So... was it LAME? OR WAS IT AWESOME? TELL MEEEE!

To (blank name…): Answer to your question number 3 from you review on chapter 22: This winds down to how you choose to interpret Kuroko's words in that particular scene. "Her previous roommate was a traitor, so I kicked her out." is one way to interpret it. "What if her roommate was a traitor? I kicked her out to be safe." is another (and this gives me the feeling Kuroko just says this to justify her action of kicking her out, which would be just like her.) I won't say this or that is right or wrong, since I have no idea, and I won't have either until the author decides to tell us. But, who knows who this "Koshi-san" is, in the end? *dundundun…*

End Note:

I could say a lot of things as a finishing note for this story, and I'll say most of it, whether anyone cares to read or not. First I want to acknowledge that I am very pleased with this fic! Started in June 2010, finished in March 2011, spanning now 191 pages in Word (when I started posting it was 140 pages and "complete"), and I think I even managed to stay somewhat true to canon; yeah, I'm very happy =) I also feel like I've learned a lot about story building and plot development and plot twists and so on. The end result of this crazy experiment is what you see here. Could it be different? Definitely. Could it be longer? Most likely. Could it be better? Well, that's up to you, the reader, to decide. If I was to write this again, I know I would make a few changes here and there. Even though I kept saying this was already finished, truth is, the details of the plot and the exact role and circumstances of everyone involved was not clear to even me before this chapter was ready to be posted. But all in all, I'm very pleased.

Now, to be honest, when judging from various aspects of the original story, I don't get the impression that anything major happened before the series started at all. Mikoto definitely doesn't seem like she's ever faced an opponent that could give her a real fight. But thinking about it, I found that "nothing-has-happened" scenario to be ridiculous. This is Academy City. Kuroko is in Judgment. Mikoto is the level five Railgun. Something happened for them to become friends – and I didn't want to write a plain slice-of-life character development fic like some sappy girl's school story! *says MISAKA as MISAKA makes a big point out of this while trying to have a childish temper tantrum*

In any case, this isn't nearly as dramatic as the Sister's Arc, for instance. Of course, during the time it is experienced it might seem dramatic, but in the great big picture and compared to everything else? Not so much. But I am not going to claim this is a perfect pre-series story or anything. In the first place, it's not perfect at all. Any part of this story might get butchered by the original content any day, merely by contradicting something I wrote or reveal new details about the characters we don't know yet, or – God forbid – by giving us their real background story. Perhaps Mikoto was a level five already at the age of eight (how old are they when they enter AC anyway?), or Kuroko had a nice roommate before she switched? Maybe Tokiwadai doesn't even have a student council, and perhaps Ruiko and Kazari already knew each other when they started Sakugawa? And so on, and so on. As long as it isn't known, I had to make it up. I would be extremely surprised if any of it was right.

Leaving that part aside though, my original goal with this fic was not really to create a plausible pre-series happening, but to create an enjoyable story while exploring how Kuroko evolved from that innocent (possibly), sharp-tongued little bugger to become the one we know her as today, without going completely out of canon (to the best of my ability). I consider my mission accomplished. Looking back to the first chapter, I think the Kuroko we met there, and the one we leave here, to be – while still the same core person – quite different nonetheless. There are still a few weeks left before the main story starts – by then, she'll have had time to develop her strategies and stuff (or lack thereof). To be completely honest I prefer the innocent Kuroko over the stalkerish Kuroko, but I amend this by believing her stalker-tendencies is just a phase she's going through, or possibly just a new hobby (Mikoto did say she ought to have a hobby, right?) ;.; In any case, there's no doubt she cares for Mikoto on another level than just mere stalker-level. That's what I think.

And yes, there's Mikoto too. I kept thinking about the fact that she seems to have no other friends – and that means, before she befriended Kuroko, she had no-one at all, right? And even if this is Academy City and Mikoto is a level five and super-awesome and all that, she's still a teenage girl, and most healthy young teenage girls need friends – at least one – to feel somewhat happy. While I'm certain hunting bad guys and destroying people's electrical belongings is an amusing past time, you'd grow sick after the umpteenth time. Or get depressed. Or create some imaginary friends. Still, she seems cheerful or not bothered at all – she's probably found ways to cope with it. But there's a difference in what you show and what you feel… which is why I have written her in a way that is slightly different from what I'd do further down the timeline. After meeting and befriending Kuroko, I think her mood soared to new heights, and I do think Kuroko has a special place in her heart – though exactly where in her heart is up to anyone to guess =P

Also, remember what she says to Telestina in episode 24? About her friends and everything making her feel like she can do anything… this is part of what I'm basing my analyze on. Of course, Mikoto is a complicated character, which is part of why I like her so much (they're all complicated of course, but well… you know?). She might very well be considering everyone as her friends. However, I still stick with the thought that she enjoys spending time with Kazari, Ruiko and Kuroko, and thus, without those close friends, she might suffer from the same symptoms as a "normal" human would. Well, heavy thinking, this stuff. In any case, I hope you just enjoyed the story!

I could probably have kept on writing, but I feel like this is a good place to end it. Though Kuroko's hardships has just barely started, like we know, other things happen in the to aru universe after this that seems just so much more important – the dark side of Academy City has barely been touched… Aaand I feel like this explains some of how our heroines seem to already have some experience when the serious things start happening for real. If I was to write this story again, I would probably change a few things – things that I have learned in the process of writing it, or after seeing/reading more of the Index story. That's how it goes.

Whether you agree with my reasoning's or not, or think this and that could have been different, or have suffered grave injuries from my inexperience in how to arrange chapters and evenly distribute information, I hope that, in the end, you enjoyed the story after all!

Thanks to my brother for having the patience to explain complicated stuff about electricity and theorize about other things I don't know much about to create plausible abilities and fight scenes. I never imagined writing Railgun fan fiction would be so educational. Huge thanks to you!
Thanks to Dendregal for beta-reading several chapters; that was very helpful!
Thanks to Kazuma Kamachi for creating such awesome characters and a really interesting city for them to live in.
And thanks to all of you who have reviewed and read this entire story! Those of you who left pagelong reviews almost every chapter (or only once or twice), those who left behind only one or two words in one single review, those reviewing in a different language entirely, and those falling into the category of "I read and enjoy and don't say a word" – you all are the reason I put so much work into this!

So… see you later?

(PS: There will be an epilogue – kind of – that I'll post as a separate short story as it's kind of a stand-alone. So if you want to read it, keep a look-out! (or use author alert, whatever suits your needs) – and if there's something you'd like to have included in such an epilogue, now's the time to shout. Unless something happens to make me add more to it, the post date will be around one week from now.)

If you want extras, character biographies and other random stuff, visit .com. I'll post my stories there too, whenever I care to… I'll tweak them a little first though (at least some of the chapters in this story).