Ruiko took the stairs to the Judgement branch office far more slowly than usual, step by step instead of her usual two-step leaps. The medicine that the school nurse had given her had eased her cramps until they were little more than a dull ache, but her insides still felt like sludge. However, all she had to do was to get the notes from Uiharu, and then she could go home and copy them over into her own notebook -- that is, if she didn't just curl up on the bed and close her eyes like she really wanted to. At least then she would be in her own bed, with the rumpled sheets and the pillows that smelled nothing like a hospital or a school infirmary. There'd be no one fussing with a thermometer, no one poking or prodding her, no one looking at her medical charts and seeing the big bold notification that she knew was there.
Former Level Upper user. Long-term physical and neurological side effects unknown.
Her visit to the nurse this afternoon was probably being written up right now, ready to be added to the medical records that were kept on all students in Academy City. Was this how it was going to be every time she cut her finger or twisted an ankle or had another bad case of cramps? Would the nurse or doctor treating her always look at her and think, Better keep a special eye on her -- you can't be too careful with these Level Upper kids?
It was enough to make her want to crawl under her blankets and stay there all week. But there were tests coming up, and she needed Uiharu's notes. So she turned at the top of the stairs and knocked twice, quickly, on the office door.
'Yes, come in,' came a voice from the other side.
Ruiko opened the door, and her heart sank when she saw that Konori-sempai was the only one in the office, seated at one of the computer terminals facing the door. Uiharu and Shirai-san were probably still out. She would have to wait for them to get back.
'Good afternoon, Konori-sempai,' she said, doing her best to muster a smile. 'Uiharu's not in, is she?'
Konori-sempai looked up from her computer, and resettled her glasses on the bridge of her nose. She gave a small smile as well, polite but friendly. 'Hello, Saten-san. No, she and Shirai-san are on patrol -- they should be back in about ten minutes.' She glanced at the clock on the office wall. 'She won't be off duty for another half-hour or so, though.'
'That's all right. I wasn't planning to stay very long -- I just wanted to get her class notes from this afternoon.' Still standing in the doorway, Ruiko shifted her weight from foot to foot. 'I was in the nurse's office for most of this afternoon, so I ended up missing half of Ability Theory and all of History. She texted me and said I could get the notes from her here if I stopped by on the way home.'
At the words nurse's office, Konori-sempai frowned, and by the time Ruiko finished her explanation she had pushed back her chair and was getting to her feet. 'Are you feeling better now?' she asked, with quiet concern. 'You do look a little pale still. Are you coming down with something?'
'Oh, no, nothing like that!' Again, Ruiko had to smile through gritted teeth. Having a school nurse hovering over you was one thing, but she didn't want an upperclassman -- a senior Judgement officer like Konori Mii-sempai, no less -- treating her as if she would break into a million pieces if anyone so much as sneezed in her general direction. The truth was icky, and yet it was a lot less embarrassing. 'It's...uh, it's that time of the month, only I wasn't expecting it to start today, and...well, you know....'
Konori-sempai gave a sympathetic tsk, which was awkward but still better than the overly concerned expression she had had a few moments ago. 'Believe me, I do,' she said. 'I've spent a few afternoons in the nurse's office myself. You can lie down on the couch over there if you want.' Her eyes lit up as an idea came to her. 'And I'll get you some milk -- us girls need all the calcium we can get.'
'Thank you. I just need to sit for a bit, and I'll be fine.' Which was true enough, and it gave Ruiko an excuse to sit and wait for Uiharu to return. 'Oh, but not too much milk, please?' she added anxiously, as Konori-sempai opened the small refrigerator that held cans of juice and iced coffee as well as several cartons of milk. 'The nurse gave me something for the cramps and made me drink two big glasses of water before I left, and I still feel a little sloshy from it.'
'No problem.' Konori-sempai took out a fresh carton of milk -- that Musashino Milk she always seemed to be drinking -- and poured some into a clean mug. She carried it over to the couch as Ruiko sat down and set her school satchel on the floor, and held it out to her. 'Here you go.'
'Thank you.' Ruiko took the mug, wrapping her hands around it. The mug was already cold from the milk inside, and it felt good in her hands. 'And thank you for letting me stay here and wait for Uiharu,' she said, hoping that she didn't sound as uneasy as she felt. 'I'm sorry to bother you while you're at work.'
'That's quite all right.' Konori-sempai refilled her own mug with the rest of the milk and tossed the empty carton into the recycling bin near her desk. 'Nothing to be sorry for. To be honest, I'm glad of the break -- I was just finishing up some paperwork from the other day.'
'About the Skill-Out gang?' Ruiko sipped her milk, and peered at Konori-sempai over the rim of the mug. Misaka-san and Shirai-san had told Uiharu and her everything that had happened during the big sweep of the Strange area of District Ten, and if their account of the battle had been anything to go by then it was no surprise that Konori-sempai had risen to become a Judgement branch office supervisor. But it couldn't have been easy to arrest two people she knew personally -- one of whom she still had feelings for, if Shirai-san's less-than-subtle hints had been correct. 'What's going to happen to them?'
'I don't know yet,' Konori-sempai said. She carried the mug back to her desk, but didn't sit down at it. Instead, she picked up her desk chair and pulled it closer to the couch where Ruiko was sitting. 'I should've had the final processing report from Anti-Skill by now. They're not usually this late, but sometimes these things get held up for one reason or another. Someone's out sick, someone's stuck in meetings....' She shrugged, and sat down. 'It happens. But I've made my statement as one of the arresting Judgement officers, so it's out of my hands now.'
Ruiko nodded, and took another sip of milk. 'Misaka-san and Shirai-san...they said you were pretty cool in that fight.'
'It helped that I knew what to expect from Hebitani and his gang.' Konori-sempai's mouth twitched wryly. 'Judgement training teaches you a lot about self-defence and safely disarming criminals, but when it comes to a down-and-dirty brawl, it's a whole other story.'
What you see today is quite different from the delinquent she used to be, Konori-sempai's roommate had told the four of them. Hearing that from someone else was one thing, but hearing Konori-sempai herself talk like that was a little unnerving. 'Were you...were you ever in a fist-fight, Konori-sempai?' she asked hesitantly.
Konori-sempai laughed quietly at the question, and shook her head. 'Not a real one, no,' she replied. 'But I had to learn how to take a punch as well as give one. The guys in Big Spider would sometimes beat each other up for fun. It wasn't actual fighting to hurt, but it wasn't only sparring, either. You were expected to give back as good as you got. And if you were beaten...well, it just meant that you had to do better, next time.'
'Wow,' Ruiko breathed, without thinking, and then clapped a hand over her mouth when she realised what she'd said. 'Mmm...I mean, that's...that's v-v-very interesting!'
'Oh, don't get me wrong,' Konori-sempai said, waving her free hand dismissively. 'Big Spider wasn't all like that. We were really just a bunch of kids messing around. In fact, I remember this one time -- ' Abruptly, she stopped, and looked down at her mug.
The silence in the room was so complete that the hum of the computers sounded unpleasantly loud to Ruiko's ears. 'What time was that?' she finally said.
Konori-sempai looked up, and gave Ruiko a tiny smile. 'No, it's nothing. I don't want to bore you by going on about all the stupid things we used to do.'
'It wouldn't be boring!' Ruiko insisted. 'It's fine if you don't want to talk about it, but...but I'd like to hear about it, if you do.' There was so much about Konori-sempai that she didn't know -- that none of them knew, not even Shirai-san, who had been working with Konori-sempai for longer than anyone else -- and even though it wasn't right to pry she had been bursting with curiosity about the whole Big Spider gang for more than a week now. She couldn't let this chance slip by.
At first, it seemed like Konori-sempai wasn't going to say anything more. She swirled her mug gently, and finished her milk in a single long gulp. But after she had set the empty mug aside on the nearby desk, she looked back at Ruiko, and the light in her eyes had changed. It wasn't the calm, professional expression that Ruiko was used to seeing; it seemed younger, more relaxed -- and maybe even a little mischievous.
'It was the end of summer, right after school started up again,' she said. 'You remember that one summer a few years ago, where it rained almost every day and was so hot that your clothes never seemed to feel dry? Well, at that time we used to hang out down near one of the canals on the edge of District Ten. There were plenty of places to shelter from the rain, and you might feel a little breeze if you stood on the bridge, so it was better than most spots for beating the heat.'
Ruiko remembered that summer: she had spent so much time in front of the air conditioner that she had ended up catching a chill and almost missed the first day of classes with a late summer cold. She nodded, encouraging Konori-sempai to continue.
'I don't remember who started it, but the fun thing for the guys to do that summer was to toss each other over the bridge, so that you'd land in the canal. With all the rain, the water was high enough to make it feel safer, but if you didn't fall right then you'd hit the water at a bad angle and it would hurt like crazy. Every evening ended with at least two or three of the guys going home soaking wet.' Konori-sempai snorted softly through her nose. 'It was stupid and dangerous, but that was half the fun.'
It was the sort of thing that would have Judgement issuing citations left and right, but it didn't sound all that delinquent to Ruiko. Nothing so bad that it would get Anti-Skill involved, certainly.
'I wasn't the only girl who hung out with Big Spider,' Konori-sempai continued. 'There were a few others, usually girlfriends of some of the guys. Well, one evening, there were three of us girls hanging around with the guys, and we were all teasing one of their boyfriends about how he'd ended up in the canal the night before. But then all of a sudden, Kurozuma-san snapped his fingers -- and half a dozen of the guys ran up and grabbed us, and dragged the three of us over to the railing of the bridge. Before we could stop them, they'd flung us over the side and into the water.'
Ruiko winced, hissing through her teeth. 'Did it hurt?'
'A bit.' Konori-sempai made a face. 'And the water was gross, all murky and full of leaves and silt. We had to swim to the canal bank, and a couple of the guys helped us climb out. You should've heard how the other girls yelled at Kurozuma then.' She waggled a finger in mock admonishment. 'Words I wouldn't repeat before innocent ears.'
'And then what happened?' Ruiko said, raising her mug to finish the last of her milk.
'Well, I got out of the water, and tried to wring out my skirt and my blouse, but it was hopeless. There was no way I could wear those clothes home.' Konori-sempai paused -- and then smirked. 'So I took them off.'
Ruiko nearly inhaled her final sip. 'You...you what?!' she managed to choke out.
Konori-sempai crossed her ankles, looking prim and proper and utterly pleased with herself. 'I was wearing my gym swimsuit under my uniform. I'd changed into it right before I left school that day. And I had an extra top and skirt in my school bag, all dry and waiting for me.'
'Ha!' Ruiko beamed. 'So you just took off your wet clothes, right then and there?'
'Oh, that was the funniest part.' Konori-sempai lowered her voice, and her smile grew almost as wicked as Shirai-san's. 'Here were all these guys who liked to boast to each other about the number of girls they'd been out with -- and two of the biggest braggers actually covered their eyes when I started to pull my uniform blouse over my head!'
Ruiko couldn't help but giggle. 'I bet they weren't expecting that at all,' she said.
Konori-sempai grinned. 'Of course, the other girls started sulking after that. They said that Kurozuma-san had planned it all along, and had told me what to wear beforehand. But he just laughed, and said that he wouldn't have thought of the swimsuit thing in a million years. Better watch out for Konori Mii, he said, or she'll hand you your ass before you even realise it's missing.'
It was still a little shocking to hear Konori-sempai use such crude language, but Ruiko could tell from her fond tone of voice that her imitation of Kurozuma-san came from a truly good memory. It was a shame that Konori-sempai had had to arrest him with the others, when he was only trying to help them catch the real bad guys. 'You really liked him, Konori-sempai,' she said, almost wistfully.
'He was so different from everyone I'd ever known,' Konori-sempai said. The light in her eyes started to fade, her mood drawn down by less pleasant thoughts. 'You see, I didn't have good friends like Uiharu-san or Misaka-san or Shirai-san when I was your age. I wasn't one of the pretty girls, or much of an athlete, or a star in any of the school clubs. Even being a Level 2 didn't count for much at my school, and my Ability wasn't the kind that made anyone notice me.' She frowned, shaking her head. 'Or if it did, it wasn't the good kind of attention.'
'What do you mean?' Ruiko asked, with a matching frown.
With the tip of one finger, Konori-sempai lightly tapped the side of her glasses. 'Some of the people in my school got uncomfortable if they caught me looking at them -- as if they thought I was some kind of pervert trying to see through their clothes. Or if I did really well on a test, I might hear some gossip at lunchtime, or around the shoe lockers, that I'd probably cheated by looking at someone else's paper. Things like that...and some other things.' She shook her head again, this time in remembered disgust. 'It was mostly stupid talk, of course, and I don't think anyone really believed a word of it, but I finally asked the teacher to move me up to the front of the classroom, just so they wouldn't have any reason to talk about me.'
Ruiko's eyes widened. 'That's awful.'
'That's middle school,' Konori-sempai said, with a faintly bitter smile. 'Or at least, that's how it was for me. But in Big Spider, I didn't have to worry about any of that. I was just Konori Mii, with no powers to speak of, and no one cared what school I was attending or how high I'd scored on my midterms or how much spending money I had. Everyone else had problems of their own...and Big Spider was where you went to forget about those problems.'
It was Ruiko's turn to look down at her mug, even though there wasn't any milk left in it. 'Where you went to forget about those problems,' she murmured. 'Yeah, I think I understand that.'
(Some problems looked right at you in the mirror, like Juufuku-san's eyebrows. Some problems came from other people, like the ones who'd bullied Konori-sempai in middle school. And some problems...some of them you couldn't see, because they came from inside you, and those were the ones that didn't seem to go away no matter how hard you tried to pretend they weren't there.)
Konori-sempai didn't say anything at first. Instead, she got to her feet, and took the empty mug out of Ruiko's hands. Ruiko was trying to find the courage to look up when she felt a hand on her shoulder, a gentle weight that made a lump form in her throat.
'If I were being honest,' Konori-sempai said, 'I'd say that we were really only running away from them. That's what I was doing, at the time. But I had to lose someone I cared about -- or almost lose him, as it turned out -- to realise that I couldn't run away from them forever.' She gave Ruiko's shoulder a small squeeze. 'So I stopped running, and started to look around for a place where I wouldn't have to face my problems alone.'
Ruiko lifted her eyes, blinking a bit to stop them from watering, and met Konori-sempai's clear-sighted gaze. 'And that's how you ended up in Judgement?'
'Sort of. But that's another story.' She turned her head, looking at the office door. 'And I think you'll have to wait for another day to hear it.'
Confused, Ruiko followed her gaze, and for the first time heard the noise of someone climbing the stairs. A moment later, she heard Shirai-san's muffled voice, though even through the door her words rang out loud and clear:
' -- and honestly, Uiharu, you really must be more forthright in your confrontation of miscreants -- '
The door opened in mid-reproach, and Uiharu had never looked more glad to see Ruiko than she did when she caught sight of her sitting on the couch. 'Oh, Saten-san!' she exclaimed, and hurried into the room, leaving Shirai-san entirely without an audience. 'Are you feeling any better?'
Sheepishly, Ruiko rubbed the back of her neck. 'Mostly, yeah. I stopped by for the notes, like you said in your text -- and maybe to see if you wanted to go to Joseph's when you got off duty, because I could eat about five chocolate parfaits all by myself today.' Even after the water and the milk, she was suddenly famished, and a chocolate parfait sounded like the best idea in the history of everything. 'I can copy the notes there, and you can explain stuff if I get confused.'
'Sure, I'd love that!' Uiharu agreed eagerly. 'I won't be ready for a little while, but if you don't mind waiting -- '
Konori-sempai interrupted her. 'Go ahead and clock out early, Uiharu-san,' she said. 'Shirai-san and I can finish up here.'
Shirai-san looked startled, and opened her mouth, but caught sight of Konori-sempai's expression and closed it again. Uiharu seemed far less certain, and her gaze darted from Ruiko to Konori-sempai and back again several times. 'Are you sure, Konori-sempai?'
Konori-sempai's mouth hardened, and her face grew stern. 'Uiharu Kazari, are you questioning the orders of a superior officer?'
Uiharu snapped to attention so quickly that her flower headband threatened to slip off her hair. 'No, ma'am!' she said hastily, making a quick grab for her headband in a movement that looked almost like a salute.
'Then you two should go on, then.' Konori-sempai set Ruiko's empty mug on her desk, next to her own. 'Take care of yourself, Saten-san.'
Ruiko got to her feet and picked up her school bag, as Uiharu bustled about collecting her own school things and unpinning her Judgement armband. 'Thank you, Konori-sempai,' she said, smoothing her skirt. 'I'll be looking forward to hearing that other story some day.'
Konori-sempai smiled, and sat down at her desk. A moment later, she was all business once more. 'Now, Shirai-san, you mentioned that the two of you were going to investigate a report of attempted shoplifting at the video game store in Seventh Mist....'
They bowed their goodbyes and left Shirai-san and Konori-sempai bent over the computer, discussing a possible shoplifting awareness campaign that Judgement might sponsor at Seventh Mist and the other big malls in Academy City. It wasn't until they were down the stairs and out in the street that Uiharu said, with a puzzled light in her eyes, 'Other story? What story is that?'
'About Konori-sempai, and how she joined Judgement.' Ruiko swung her satchel over her shoulder, letting it bump against her back as she walked. 'And I'll bet you a slice of the most expensive cheesecake from Pasticceria Manicagni that it's an even better story than the one I heard this afternoon.'