The thing about Personal Reality, Misaka-san says, is that it's all about picturing what you want to see happen.
Ruiko supposes that a statement like that makes sense to Misaka-san, but it's not anything that makes sense to her. 'How do you mean?' she says, hoping that she sounds more inquisitive than confused.
Misaka-san slowly stirs the iced tea in her glass. 'It's like...okay, so think about what happened today. You saw those guys grab that kid, and you ran after them. What were you thinking when you did that?'
Ruiko flushes a bit, and the sudden warmth in her cheek makes the bruise throb like a low warning. 'I...I don't really know,' she admits. 'I suppose I just thought, hey, maybe I can stop them, and I ran after them.' She looks down at her half-eaten parfait. Strangely, the melting ice cream doesn't seem anywhere near as appealing as it had looked a few minutes ago. 'Which was pretty stupid of me, now that I think about it. I didn't really do anything helpful.'
'That's not true, Saten-san,' Uiharu says, frowning. 'They might've hurt that boy, or even pulled him into the car. If they'd taken a hostage, it would have been a lot harder for us to fight them. You might've saved his life.'
'Though it still does not excuse civilian involvement in Judgment police activity,' Shirai-san points out. She hasn't removed her Judgment armband, though Uiharu has. 'As I believe I mentioned earlier.'
Misaka-san lets go of her straw. 'The point is,' she says, ignoring Shirai-san's obvious criticism, 'you had some idea in your head of what you wanted to do. You wanted to save that kid. You could have tried to distract the bank robber, or called out for a grown-up to help, or something else.' She taps her fingertips on the table. 'Running over to grab the kid was the thing you actually did, but you had more than one option, right?'
'I suppose so,' Ruiko says slowly. She hadn't thought of it in quite that way, but looking back on it there were any number of things she could have done. Things that wouldn't have gotten her kicked in the face, certainly.
'Okay.' Misaka-san nods. 'So, back to Personal Reality. The way it works for me is that I have to know what I want to do, and then I do it.' She reaches into her pocket and takes out something shiny -- a metal arcade token -- and sets it on the table next to her drink. 'Take those guys in the car. I didn't want to kill them, y' know? But I didn't want them to have a chance to get away. So whatever I did, I had to stop the car, and keep them from getting out of it once it was stopped.'
Ruiko stares at the coin, trying to follow the line of reasoning. 'So you shot the coin at the car, and...?'
Misaka-san's expression turns grim. 'Look at it this way. If someone from Anti-Skill had wanted to stop the car, what would they have done? They'd use one of their guns and try to shoot out the tires or something like that, or even shoot at the engine.' She taps the token once, twice, three times. 'I can fire this coin faster than any bullet, if I want to. It can do some serious damage. If I'd wanted to really hurt those guys, I could have hit the engine dead on. It would have stopped the car, but it might have killed them, and the explosion might have hurt someone else.' She picks up the coin, letting it catch the light of the late afternoon sun. 'So I decided to stop the car, but in a way that wouldn't hurt the people inside. And I figured that it would be easiest to do so by flipping it up and out of the way, and letting it crash to the ground without really hurting anyone inside or anyone who was standing close by.'
'Which would not normally be possible, under the usual laws of physics,' Shirai-san adds, with the air of someone who fully understands Misaka-san's reasoning. 'That is a key aspect of it.'
Ruiko feels like her head is spinning. 'And so you just...pictured that? In your mind?' It sounds like a daydream. Something she'd imagine herself doing, a fun and exciting scene that would entertain her during a particularly boring class. But with Misaka-san, it wasn't just imagination. 'And then it...it happened?'
Misaka-san lets the coin drop back into her hand. 'Pretty much.'
'It is not quite as simple as that, oneesama,' Shirai-san says. 'If one were to consider the way in which AIM particles -- '
'No, that's okay!' Ruiko says hastily. 'I think I get it.' She tries to force a smile up through her confusion, and mostly succeeds. 'That's pretty neat, Misaka-san.'
Misaka-san returns the smile with a genuine one of her own. 'I still think what you did was more impressive, though,' she says, and leans forward to take a sip of her iced tea.
Ruiko's parfait isn't any less melted than it was a few moments ago, but she picks up her spoon and takes another bite of it anyway. It's cool, and sweet, and chocolately, and real.
It helps, a little bit.
* * *
The thing about Personal Reality, Shirai-san says, is that it is a matter of refining one's technique to ensure that one has absolute confidence in one's skills.
Which is about what Ruiko would have expected her to say. She doesn't know much about the Teleporter Ability, but she's seen Shirai-san jump out of the way of a direct punch or use those metal nails of hers to pin creeps to the pavement. There's no room for error in that kind of skill. It's the sort of Ability that makes Uiharu go all starry-eyed -- of course Shirai-san can do that kind of thing, Tokiwadai ladies are taught to be elegant and deft and graceful under any circumstances! -- and makes Ruiko feel like nothing more than a clumsy little kid who'd trip over her own shoelaces if she tried to run. But it's fine, it's really not a big deal. Shirai-san can talk a little weirdly at times, but she's a good friend and a smart student and devoted to her Judgment work. Academy City would be a lot worse off if Shirai Kuroko ever lost confidence in her own skills.
Today it's different, though. Shirai-san had done everything right with her teleporting, taking down two of the three guys who'd been picking on that heavyset boy, but the third one had done something, used some kind of freaky power, that had allowed him to slam her right through a plate-glass window. And now he's chasing Shirai-san through the condemned building, and Ruiko knows that there's no way that he was exaggerating when he threatened to kill both Ruiko and the boy if Shirai-san tries to run off and get help.
So now it's just her and the boy, who's in no condition to help anyone, and the other two thugs that Shirai-san knocked out. Her phone's out of battery, her forehead hurts from where that crazy guy grabbed it, but the worst part is that she can't get his cold, sneering voice out of her head: Weaklings like you have no place telling others what to do.
In a city with guys like him, a Level 0 is a target. Someone to beat up for their money. Someone to push around.
In a city with Teleporters like Shirai-san, a Level 0 is a victim. Someone who gets beat up. Someone who needs to be rescued.
There's a sound like breaking glass from the top floor of the building, and Ruiko looks up anxiously. Shirai-san's still in there, probably hurt, and Ruiko can't do anything about it. In superhero stories or kids' TV shows, this is the point at which the normal character is so worried about her friends that she closes her eyes, reaches deep within herself, and finds the special hidden power that she's had inside her all along so she can come charging in to save the day.
There's nothing like that in her.
When the building starts to rumble, and the first fragments of concrete crumble with a sound like an approaching avalanche, Ruiko can only watch in numbed silence.
When Shirai-san suddenly appears on the ground in the alleyway, holding the punk guy by the collar of his dirty shirt while the entire building collapses in a deafening roar behind them, Ruiko's hand tightens around the dead phone in her pocket.
If that's what absolute confidence in one's skills looks like, she's never wanted anything more in her entire life.
* * *
The thing about Personal Reality, Uiharu says, is that you have to try to do what feels most natural to you.
Or rather, that's what Uiharu had said not all that long ago, the day before she and Ruiko and their classmates had taken the latest System Scan. She isn't actually here to say it in person. For that matter, she'd probably be really mad at Ruiko for bringing it up in the first place, considering the situation they're both in right now. But Ruiko knows what Uiharu is like when she's mad, and she greatly prefers the flustered, angry Uiharu she's used to seeing to the sobbing Uiharu who had been on the other end of the phone a few moments ago.
Uiharu won't arrive in time. Even though Ruiko feels fine now -- apart from the stuffed-up head and aching eyes that come from crying too hard -- there's no chance that she'll be able to stop the Level Upper from doing to her what it did to Akemi.
Maybe it won't hurt. That's one small comfort. Akemi hadn't cried out when she fainted. She hadn't had a seizure or grabbed at her head or her chest or anything like that. She'd been smiling and laughing, looking happier than Ruiko had ever seen her, and then suddenly the laughter had stopped, and Akemi was on the ground. Between one second and the next.
Ruiko holds up a hand, and can't quite connect the slender, shaking fingers she's looking at with any part of the rest of her body.
'What feels most natural....' she whispers, her voice sounding much too loud in her silent bedroom. But that was the problem, wasn't it? Her Ability wasn't natural to her. Watching those leaves float above her hand, slowly swirling in a breeze that she was somehow creating out of absolutely nothing...even if she'd been able to make it happen, she couldn't quite figure out what she'd done that had let her do it. It was like copying someone's answers when they'd done the homework and you hadn't, or sneaking a crib sheet into a test when you hadn't studied properly all semester. Ruiko hadn't done the homework. She didn't even know what the homework was. How could anyone know what was natural when they didn't know where to begin?
The raised embroidered threads of the temple charm are silky but rough beneath the fingers of her other hand. It, at least, feels real. Someone had to make that charm, to weave the fabric and sew the pouch and insert the little scrap of paper with the blessing into it. It isn't fake, it isn't a fraud like her. Maybe if she clings to it, clings to that reality in her hand, she might be able to hold out for just a little while longer. Not long enough for Uiharu to arrive, but maybe....
Maybe she should stop fighting it.
Maybe she should --
* * *
The thing about Personal Reality, Tsukuyomi-sensei says, is that it's something that only you can understand.
In all honesty, all that Ruiko understands is that she'd rather be anywhere else but this classroom, on her day off, with a dozen other students who are in the exact same position that she's in. It's hard not to feel like this whole special session is anything other than a punishment for using the Level Upper. And if it's a punishment, then there's no point in spending a whole morning hearing the same lecture that she'd hear in any other Ability Theory class, when it's clear that if she actually understood what any of it meant, she wouldn't be here in the first place.
But that isn't what's really bothering her now. She's a lot more creeped out by the knowledge that if everyone else in the room had used the Level Upper, then all of them had gone through the same thing that she had. Listened to the song. Used their new powers. Lost consciousness. Become part of that...that thing that Misaka-san had mentioned. (AIM Blast? AIM Burst? Uiharu had called it something like that, Ruiko knew.) They'd all been connected to each other in their comas, linked like a giant computer network of brains, and the thought of it makes Ruiko want to squirm in her seat.
She'd told Uiharu and the others that she remembered being in her apartment, and then remembered waking up in the hospital with no clear sense of anything that had happened in between. That much was true; she hadn't lied about that part of it. But what she hasn't told them is that she still feels like something is missing. Like she'd lost a part of herself that she hadn't known was there before, and now the sensation of loss keeps scratching at the edges of her awareness. It's a little like the feeling that comes after you take a pebble out of your shoe -- it doesn't exactly hurt, because the pebble is gone, but you still have a sense that something was there and now it isn't anymore. The pebble's gone, but the sense of it lingers.
Do the others feel the same way? Not just Ruiko, or even Akemi and her friends, but all the others who took the Level Upper? Even that scary upperclassman girl, the one with the boys who call her Anego? Do they all feel the same way? Do they all feel like there's something missing? Is it actually real?
Or is this something else that only Ruiko can understand?
* * *
The thing about Personal Reality, Yomikawa-sensei says, is that you can't decide your own limits.
The sand of the school track is sticking to the sweat on Ruiko's legs, leaving an icky, gritty sensation that she's sure she'll be feeling on her skin even when they're all back in their school clothes. She hasn't run so hard, for so long, in ages, and she feels sick to her stomach on top of everything else.
If she'd known that Yomikawa-sensei would have them run until they quite literally dropped, she would have started out differently. Adjusted her pace for the first few laps. Maybe stretched a little more before they started, or grabbed a big bottle of fruit water from one of the vending machines, or something that might have given her some extra energy. Right now, though, she's too exhausted to feel angry about any of it.
But maybe Yomikawa-sensei's right, just a little bit? Even without any of those preparations, she'd still run for a long time, longer than almost anyone else in the special lesson class. Running is something she's never had a problem with -- if you wanted to state the obvious, it's just putting one foot in front of the other.
Would she have run quite so long, or so hard, if Yomikawa-sensei hadn't been blowing her whistle at them the whole time? Was that what she was trying to get at?
Maybe she'll figure it out at some point. Right now, she's just glad to stop running for a little while. The soreness in her legs, the sticky heat where the band of her bra touches her back -- that's all too real.
* * *
The thing about Personal Reality, Konori-senpai says, is that you have to be comfortable with who you are before you can figure out what it means to you.
It's just the two of them in the Judgment 177 branch office. Uiharu and Shirai-san are still out on patrol, and Misaka-san just texted to say that she'd missed the bus and would be about ten minutes late to meet up with them. As usual, Konori-senpai's nice enough to let Ruiko hang around until everyone's arrived, and Ruiko is returning the favour by helping to scan some old documents. But Konori-senpai's comment comes from so completely out of the blue that Ruiko actually drops the handful of papers she was about to feed into the scanner, and the papers go everywhere, all over the floor.
'Damn it!' she exclaims -- realising half a second too late that it's probably not good to swear in front of an upperclassman, let alone a senior Judgment officer who's the boss of two of her friends -- and gets down on her knees to retrieve them. They're old invoices for the branch's computer equipment, including some of Uiharu's special equipment requests, and it would be a big hassle if they were scanned in out of order.
'Here, let me help.' A second later, Konori-senpai's on the floor next to her, slipping her hand under the scanner to reach for two papers that'd slid beneath it. 'I'm sorry, Saten-san. I didn't mean to startle you like that.'
'No, you really didn't -- ' Ruiko hastens to say, though she can't figure out how to end that sentence. She had been startled, after all. 'I mean, it just surprised me, that's all.'
Konori-senpai sits back on her heels, and huffs a breath to blow the hair out of her face. 'I probably shouldn't have brought it up so bluntly. I only thought...well, I'd heard about that special lecture you and some of your classmates went to a little while ago. It came up in the branch chiefs' meeting the other day.'
Ruiko's face is growing hot, and she's grateful for the papers that need to be sorted because it means that she doesn't have to look Konori-senpai in the eye just yet. 'It wasn't much, really,' she says. 'Just a lecture and a physical fitness thing.'
'And an Ability test.'
The stack of papers is becoming more tidy; in another minute, she'll have to look up. 'That, too, yeah,' she says.
'And when you took the test, I'm guessing that nothing in your score had changed.'
Konori-senpai's Clairvoyance doesn't extend to reading people's minds, but Ruiko stifles a weak laugh at the mental image of Konori-senpai looking through her skull, deep into her brain, and picking thoughts off the top of it like Uiharu plucking the cherries off the top of a fancy French pastry. 'No, nothing changed,' she says quietly. 'Like I said, it wasn't much, really.'
'Saten-san.' This time, Konori-senpai's voice is gentle, and Ruiko can't help but flinch a little from it. 'I just wanted to let you know that I'm sorry that I didn't notice that you were having a hard time. I know what it's like to feel like you're stuck where you are, and that nothing you can do will change things.' She pauses, and adds, 'And I also know what it's like to do something dangerous because you feel like you don't have anything else to lose. Something criminal, even.'
Ruiko looks up hesitantly. 'What...what do you mean, Konori-senpai?'
It's Konori-senpai's turn to glance down at the papers in her lap. 'You know a little bit about Kurozuma-san, right?' She doesn't wait for Ruiko to reply. 'Well, after he...after I'd thought that he was killed in the fire, I stole his motorcycle and went driving around the city all night.'
'You stole...?' Ruiko can't believe her ears. 'What did...I mean, you didn't get -- '
'I didn't get caught, no.' Konori-senpai shakes her head soberly. 'But I did wipe out on a bad patch of road in District 10, on some loose gravel that a road work crew hadn't cleaned up. I didn't have a proper license to drive, and I'd only ever been a passenger on his bike before. If I hadn't been wearing my helmet, it probably would have been a lot worse, but even as it was I scraped up the side of my left leg something awful.'
Ruiko winces, and nods. 'But you didn't break anything, right?'
'Just my own stupid pride,' Konori-senpai says, her mouth quirking. 'I left the bike where it was and limped home, crying like a little kid with a skinned knee the whole time. I don't know whether I was crying more from the pain, or because of Kurozuma-san, or because I was feeling really, really sorry for myself.' She laughs softly, sounding not quite ashamed but not quite rueful. 'It was a stupid thing to do regardless, and I only made myself feel worse about everything.'
Ruiko's feet are starting to get the pins-and-needles feeling of falling asleep, and she shifts her weight gingerly. 'So what happened?'
Konori-senpai sighs. 'I stayed in bed for three days, pretending I had a bad cold. But even when I dragged myself back to school so I wouldn't fall any further behind, I felt more alone than ever. I clearly didn't belong with the Level 0 kids in Big Spider, and I didn't have any real friends in school, either. If I hadn't gotten involved with Judgment, I don't know what I would have done.' She shuffles the papers in her lap. 'They were the ones who reached out to me. Gave me a reason to keep trying, I suppose -- but they also gave me something better than that.'
'I started hanging out with Big Spider because I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to reach the next Ability level. When I was around Level 0s, there wasn't that kind of pressure. But I was still allowing someone else to define my Personal Reality, on their terms, because I felt like I couldn't do it for myself.' Konori-senpai's expression seems to tighten, as if she wants to scowl at the girl she had been back then. 'I had to learn more about who I was, and who I wanted to be, before I could make any progress.'
Ruiko is silent for a moment. 'Do you think I'll ever figure it out?' she says, not quite a whisper.
Konori-senpai pauses in the way that Ruiko knows means that she's about to choose her words very carefully. 'I think that if and when you do,' she says, 'it won't be because someone else told you to do it, or even showed you how they did it. I think it'll be because you have a better sense of who you are and what you want to believe in. When that happens, you might be able to truly picture a reality that's different than the one you're in right now -- and you'll realise, at that moment, that you'll do anything to make that reality happen.'
That odd itchy feeling is back under her skin, the sense of the missing pebble in her shoe. 'I'm not sure if I get it, Konori-senpai,' Ruiko says at last.
Konori-senpai gives her a small smile. 'I'm not sure if I get it, either. That's what makes it so frustrating. Just think about it, okay? You don't have to talk about it with me if you don't want to, but I'm here if you ever feel like you have something you don't want to talk about with the other girls.'
It's not really enough, but it's more than Ruiko had ever expected. Konori-senpai always seems so together, so sure of herself...and maybe there are more embarrassing things than admitting how messed up you were, when you were younger. 'I'll keep it in mind,' she says. 'Is that okay?'
'More than okay,' Konori-senpai replies, and her smile widens into something that's part happiness and part relief. She glances at the clock on the office wall, and tucks her legs under her in order to get to her feet. 'Look, I'll finish this scanning. Misaka-san should be here in a minute, and you've got more fun things to do than sort out my paperwork. '
Ruiko hears the dismissal for what it is. Oddly enough, she doesn't mind. 'Thanks, Konori-senpai.'
* * *
The thing about Personal Reality, Ruiko knows, is that it means something different to everyone. She could ask anyone in Academy City what it means to them, and she'd never hear anything like the same answer twice.
Right now, she's hearing one of the ugliest definitions she's ever heard in her life. That Telestina woman's horrible, crazy laughter is ringing in her head. You're nothing but guinea pigs. Lab animals. A farm full of lab animals.
And...she's really not wrong, Ruiko knows. After what Kiyama-sensei had told them about the experiments with the Child Errors, after seeing those poor kids trapped in that awful, unnatural sleep in the basement facility...well, there's no way to shut your eyes and pretend that everything isn't what it looks like. But there are people in the city who actually do care. Who don't think of people like Ruiko as failures to be tossed away. Who don't think of people like Misaka-san as experiments that are only worth something if they do what you want them to do. Who don't think of a person like Erii-san as a tool for getting what they want, no matter how many people die in the process. Who don't believe any of the horrible things that Telestina believes, and who are willing to fight her to prove that her Personal Reality isn't theirs.
Ruiko can't zap the computer with a massive bolt of lightning. She can't teleport it away. She can't short-circuit it with water or crush it with a single punch or blast it with wind or set it on fire with her mind. All that she has is a baseball bat -- and herself.
The facility intercom button is right there, and Ruiko slams her hand down onto it hard enough to hurt. The whine of feedback cuts through her ears, but she straightens up, fingers flexing around the bat's grip.'I don't give a damn if I'm a guinea pig or whatever!' she shouts, her voice making the speakers vibrate frantically. 'I'll never let you lay a finger on my friends!'
She swings the baseball bat with all her might, directly at the machines. And when the jolt of that first impact zings up her arms, it's like Misaka-san's electricity is sizzling under her skin. Glass shatters, wires spark, and she pummels the console until it's a mass of crushed metal and slivers of plastic, driving broken fragments deep into the equipment like Shirai-san's needles jabbing into solid concrete. Her arms ache, her sweaty hair is falling into her eyes, her chest feels as tight and starved for air as if she'd been on a never-ending endurance run. But when she's done, gasping for breath, the Capacity Down device has been smashed to pieces.
No one's going to take this reality from her. Not now, not ever.