Chapter 11 – ‘This month,’

<– Previous                                                                                                                                                 Next –>

<– side story 1

                “Are you sure it’s okay?”

                “Yes, yes, please come in!”

                “We don’t want to intrude…”

                “You’re not, I promise. I’m the one inviting you!”

                The club room sat in a separate facility away from the main school building. Occupied mostly by clubs that don’t require a specialized room or equipment to store. Pretty much anything that wasn’t a sport. And that included the club Lilly and Rea were invited to visit now after school.

                “I didn’t know you were in a club. The room… is a bit…”

                ‘Old,’ Rea. The word you’re looking for is ‘old.’

                It’s an accurate description. A few cracks along the ceiling and walls were but a small piece of evidence regarding its age. Every step produced a creak on the wooden floor. The sparse décor made the room look even larger. The only things that seem to be in regular use were the long rectangular table, metal chairs, and a bookshelf, but even the shelf has its own small private collection of dust. To be fair, there was a large extension of the room that housed what appeared to be gardening equipment. A few pots hang from the ceiling, and soil scoop shovels litter the desks in that area. But it looks like it hasn’t been touched in years.

                “Oh that? That’s from the old Botany Club, but they disbanded a long time ago. Apparently they used to take care of the flowerbed in the back of the school,” Ayase explained.

                She stepped forward to the center of the room, and does a spin while stretching out her arms.

                “Welcome to our Refuge of Recluses! Our Center of Chaos! The Headquarters of Hell! This is the Society of Occult Literature!” Ayase wore her pride in the dingy club room like a badge.

                “S.O.L.?” Lilly asked.

                “Or S.O.O.L.” Rea added.

                “It doesn’t matter,” Ayase flatly retorted. “Ah, here’s the club president now!” She pointed to someone behind Lilly and Rea, directing their attention to them.

                “H-hello,” Megumi said. Wait, Megumi is in a club. And she’s the president?

                “What a surprise, Megumi, I didn’t know you were into this kind of stuff,” Lilly said.

                “M-hmph.” Megumi walked past the three others and had her seat at the table, a window letting in orange sunlight gave her an ambient glow. There it is, Lilly thought, I thought the room was missing something. “P-please don’t mind me,” Megumi said as she took out a stationery and book. ‘Ghosts and Ghouls and Where to Find Them.’ Who would have thought?

                Rea joined Megumi at the table. “Wow, you never told me about this!” She proceeded to strike up a conversation with the shyer girl, one-sided as it is. They simultaneously pushed their glasses up with their finger. Cute.

                Lilly talked to Ayase. “You too, I never pegged you as the occult-loving type.”

                “Naturally,” said Ayase, “for me, it comes with the job description. Although, it is like knowing the answer to a riddle before it’s given to you.” There was that wink again.

                Lilly exhaled an ‘hmph’ sound and folded her arms. Don’t be so smug about it.

                The door behind them swings wider open, and then a loud knock. Everyone followed the sound.

                Their brown hair sat at shoulder length. Curves and proportions well set and in all the right places. Green eyes like jade marble. A thick mature aura exuded from them like armor. If this happened to be a time traveling Ayase from the future, everybody in the room would believe it, but in reality there’s a simpler explanation for the identity of the beauty who descended upon this lowly club room.

                “Hello, Sis,” Ayase greeted her sister.

                “Hey,” said Ayane, her tone indicating that she was here for business. “Showing your seniors your club?”

                “Mmm,” Ayase submissively nodded. Her body language folded inward. It was like Ayane flipped a switch on Ayase. Frightening for sure, to have such power over one’s little sister. Wait… if Ayase works for that organization thing, then does Ayane…

                As if she heard that thought, Ayane directed herself to Lilly. Keeping that cold glare. Lilly froze.

                “Has my sister been of any trouble to you?” Ayane asked.

                “Eh? Um, n-not at all!” Catching Lilly off guard, she stuttered her reply. Was she ever this scary?

                “I see. That’s good.” Ayane lightened up, letting her shoulders loosen. If one used a magnifying lens they may see a hint of a grin. “I just wanted to check on all of you, that’s all.” Satisfied, she left the room, but not before strictly telling Ayase to not stay out too late, despite having club activities. And also not before giving Lilly an assuring nod. Whatever that meant. And just like that, Ayane left as quickly as she entered.

                Ayase uneasily laughed, trying to brush away the odd exchange. Megumi had already lost interest and went back to what she was doing, whatever it was, and Rea continued to talk her up a storm. Lilly felt a tap on the shoulder.

                “So, what do you think of our humble little club?”

                “What? Yeah, sure.”

                “It’s quiet since it’s just me and Megumi, but that can be fun on its own too.”

                “Yeah I bet.”

                “For the next festival, we wanted to do a haunted house. It’d be a tough undertaking since it’s such a big project and we don’t have very many members.”

                “Oh, good luck then.”

                Ayase, exasperated, took it in stride.

                “You know, I was hoping you’d come to asking to join our club on your own. You’re not attuned to picking up on hints are you?”

                Huh? “Why?” Lilly said, not meaning to be rude, just simply out of curiosity.

                “The club could use a few more members. There is a vice president, but he never comes to meetings. I think it’d be good for Megumi too, since you guys are good friends. Plus, it’d be easier to keep track of you two.” It would be redundant to mention she winked again, but she did. What kind of underclassman is this?

                “Hmm, I’m not sure.” As a proud member of the Going Home Club, everyday Lilly looked forward to retreating back home after that school bell rang. Also it’s October, it’d be so late into the year to join a club now. But the idea of a literature club did seem enticing, especially since the members were all people she already knew. Anticipating her hesitation, Ayase motioned over to the bookshelf, and started advertising the different books on display with several ‘Ooos’ and ‘Aahs.’

                Ignoring her bit, Lilly called out to Rea, still at the table. “What do you think, Rea? Do you want to join this club?”

                Rea put a finger on her lip and thought it over. A bit of a wasted gesture since she came to her answer immediately. “If you do it I will! Plus Megumi’s here too!” For emphasis, she hugged Megumi like a newly won carnival prize. Megumi reacted like how Megumi would.

                “I guess that’s that,” Lilly said to Ayase, who was delighted by the results. “We’ll take advantage of your offer, please take of us.” Lilly bowed. “In the context of the club, you’re our senior, right?”

                Ayase waved her hand to dismiss that idea. “No, that’s not necessary! Moreover, I’m happy you’re going to be members! I have a feeling this will be an interesting year.” In no way could Lilly disagree with that sentiment.

                And with that, a week from the arcade incident, Lilly and Rea submit their resignation from the Going Home Club, and right away became new members of the Society of Occult Literature. A month passed since their joining. And what happened in that month was nothing short of unbelievable.

<– Previous                                                                                                                                                 Next –>

<– side story 1

Chapter 10 – ‘This anomaly,’

<– Previous                                                                                                                                                  Next –>

                                                                                                                                                                side story 1–>

                If you were to open up a dictionary and look up the word ‘anomaly,’ it would give you… “Deviation from the normal order, form, or rule; abnormality. Something unusual, irregular, or abnormal.” ‘Abnormal,’ huh? I guess so. You know, I don’t really monologue to myself all that often – I mean, who does – but is it too much to ask for someone like me to stay in the background and mind my own business? I mean, come on, that sentiment lasted me this long, and it was pretty good up until now. I don’t mind sitting back and letting others be more outgoing, I can enjoy myself by just watching. I don’t need to expend all that energy, in fact it gets too tiring to do so. But now all this stuff is happening… It’s something I didn’t realize I took for granted. Being normal. I’m not that anymore. Oh but I still want to be… I’m sorry if I’m coming off as too overdramatic, but you may not understand where I’m coming from. Or maybe you do and you still want me to shut it. Sorry then. But… I suppose there is a bright side. You’re here with me, right? You’ve always been here, for these last ten years. If I can remember that, then maybe one day I’ll be okay with being ‘abnormal.’

                My little ray of light…

                Ayase snapped her fingers again, and a stone bench materialized in front of her. Literally out of thin air. She walked over and took a seat on one half of the bench. It’s so silent here, and her footsteps ring out into the empty space. “Care to join me?” she asked Lilly.

                “Uh…” Lilly was at a loss of words. What was there to say if you were in an arcade and then suddenly transported to some mysterious area? Nothing but sky in every conceivable angle, like an empty snow globe. Even the ‘floor’ they were on was invisible. Considering her surroundings, Lilly could have ran in any direction, until Ayase and the bench were just a dot, and she would most likely not encounter anything else but more clouds. Left with little choice, Lilly sat next to Ayase.

                Upon closer inspection, the bench had an intricate Victorian design, a leaf motif and flower pattern that was as inviting to sit on as it was comfortable. But it was a design that existed exclusively in a closed off section of a park, known solely by two people.

                “How do you know about this bench?” Lilly asked while sitting down.

                “I don’t know about it myself, but using psychoanalyzation I determined what would be the most suitable design for you to be at ease with. Is it not to your liking?”

                “It’s creepy. If you wanted it to be suitable, we would still be in the arcade.”

                “Fair enough.” Another snap, and the bench morphed into a generic wooden bench, a replica of the ones at their school. “But it’s important we stay here, I don’t want to risk any interruptions.”

                Interruptions from what? Where are we? Endless blue skies surrounded Lilly and Ayase. It’s so bright here, but there was no sight of the sun or any other source of light. Like this place simply enveloped the essence of ‘dazzling’ and ‘clear.’ A beautiful sight to behold, the disturbing means of getting here aside.

                Lilly spoke without thinking. “So where are we, exactly?”

                Ayase answered with a hint of pride. “We’re in a Taschenraum. Normally you aren’t granted access to create your own so early, but I guess I’m lucky!”

                Yeah, that makes sense, thanks. Lilly sat in wait for an actual explanation.

                Ayase spoke up again after a pause. “I guess I’ll go first. And then I’ll answer any questions you may have. What do you say?”

                Lilly wore her sarcasm on her sleeve. “You know what? That sounds like a great idea.”

                Ayase laughed. “Good to know!” She took in a deep breath to indicate a shift in tone, and began to make her case. “Things happen in this world, Miss Akiyama. Things that most people wouldn’t have the mental capabilities of understanding. Sometimes they’re inconsequential and pose no real danger. Sometimes they can threaten the whole universe. Either way, that’s where we come in.”

                We? Lilly repeated.

                “I belong to an Organization that deals in those matters. We’re like journalists,” Ayase said, winking to Lilly. “We report and keep record of the various ‘irregular’ occurrences happening all across the world. And then some. What that means specifically is hard to put into terms for humans like you to understand.”

                Is that some sort of insult? Lilly raised a thick eyebrow.

                “But what does that mean for you? Hmm… well, I’ve been assigned to oversee you and your development. You are what we refer to as an ‘anomaly,’ or a ‘phenomenon.’ A very interesting one actually. Do you know why all these things have been happening to you lately? To put it simply… you’re the source of it.”

                Now that was a shock. “How, how is that possible?!” Lilly rushed her words in disbelief.

                Ayase still spoke with a calm demeanor. “That maintains a mystery. I don’t know how it came about yet. But what I do know is this, the first report of data regarding your status as an ‘anomaly’ was recorded about three weeks ago, sometime early September. We refer to that as the ‘ground zero’ of an anomaly.”

                Three weeks ago in September? That had to be my birthday! The revelations continued to pile upon Lilly. She was lucky she was already sitting down to properly take in all this information. “Okay… what else?” She hesitated to ask, nervous to what the answer may be.

                “What else? Like I said, you’re the source your own powers. Although, you actually share a unique causality relationship with one other person. That in and of itself is an irregularity. Can you guess who it is?”

                “…” I couldn’t imagine.

                “Haruko Rea.”

                The name echoed in Lilly’s head. A clear image of Rea’s face came to her. And suddenly some pieces fell into place. That’s why I’ve only been switching bodies with her! And why she can tell if I read her mind! But why is this all happening in the first place? What exactly is a ‘causality relationship?’

                “Haruko Rea seems to have an insurmountable influence over your developing powers, despite having not once displayed any of her own,” Ayase continued, “to make a comparison, it’d be like a dam controlling a river’s flow.” She peeked at Lilly’s face. Still confused, huh? She kept going.

                “Her state of being is strongly tethered to your powers, more than yours are for sure. What that entails exactly has not yet been fully observed. Allow me to guess, you have limited control over some powers but none for others, right? Are you getting all of this?” Ayase talked to a blank Lilly, staring off at a cloud floating by.

                “Yeah… I mean… yeah…” was all Lilly managed to mumble. Are you kidding? This is getting harder and harder to follow!

                Ayase smiled. It really is a lot to take in in such a short amount of time. “I’m sorry if this feels like overload,” she said. “I have a colleague who was much colder. No one would believe her when she tried to explain-”

                “Are you done?” Lilly now rubbed the palm of her hands together, as if she too can create some sense of normality out of nothing. All things considered, it might not be out of the question.

                “Not yet,” the brunette gave a meek smile, like a waitress trying to apologize for a long wait. “Please bear with me.” Another second to find the words. “Oh yes. The reason why you, and by extension Rea, are so intriguing is that you’re indeed human. Anomalies typically consist of dimensional vortexes or time dilation improbabilities – you know, the usual – but it’s extremely rare that one would manifest as a human. It’s… interesting, to say the least.” The complicated jargon flew over Lilly’s head, into a cumulonimbus.

                Lilly was about to interject, “…ah-”

                “However,” (Lilly shuts her mouth), “you’re still classified as low level. Low level anomalies are only observed and hardly dealt with. In addition, and because of that, they’re actually quite difficult to erase.” That answered one of Lilly’s questions; are you going to help me get rid of this? “So you pose no threat to the universe at large. You’ve got that going for you, which is good.”

                Lilly shifted in her seat. “Awesome.” She racked her brain a little more. “What about you then? What’s the difference between you and me? I mean, you’re the one who brought us here, to this Ta-, Tasch-, Tack-, place! Aren’t you an anomaly too?”

                Ayase fixed her hair. “You have a good eye! It may be construed as such, but there is a distinct difference. To study and report on all the phenomena that occur, the Organization grants me and my colleagues ‘access’ so we can manipulate what we need to in order to properly do our job. Producing a Taschenraum is one of those accesses I’m allowed. These powers aren’t my own. I have limits in place. You, on the other hand, are not bound to anything.”

                “Then what are you? An alien? A time traveler? Some sort of slider or esp-”

                Ayase giggled. “I guarantee you I am also human. You… can check me if you want to.” She says this while blushing.

                “That… won’t be necessary.”

                A few clouds drift over the girls’ heads, blocking some invisible light source and shading the two. This small, delayed moment gave Lilly some odd seconds to wrap her head around the situation. She hated to admit it, but it was gorgeous in how surreal it was. She entertained the idea of showing Rea this place, what would she think of it? Speaking of which…

                Lilly rapid fired her remaining questions.

                “So you really can’t do anything about this?”

                “I’m sorry, but there’s not much I can do for you in that regard. My job is to observe and report on the both of you. And on the other hand, even if I could do something, I can’t observe an anomaly that no longer exists, haha.” She made that weak, apologetic smile again.

                “But this is just a phase, right? It’ll go away right?”

                “Who’s to say? The good news is, low level anomalies tend to deal with themselves, and dematerialize on their own, but…” She looked away. “There may be a chance it will go away by itself. Or not. Just being realistic.”

                “Hah!” Lilly exhaled. Absolutely fantastic. Scratching her cheek, she thinks of anything else to ask. Oh right…

                “Have you told Rea?”

                Ayase swung her feet, looking down towards more sky. “The thing is, you’re only a low level anomaly right now because she doesn’t know. It’s unclear what effect it would have on the phenomena surrounding you should she be aware of them. My reports conclude that informing you won’t yield the same risks though. If you want to tell her, I won’t stop you, but it’s just a warning. I think it’s best if we left her out of it for now.”

                “Taking the heat off of yourself in case the universe ceases to be, huh? Nice move.”

                “You know, you’re very sarcastic when you get troubled about something.”

                “N-! No way!”

                Lilly coughed. Ayase found this all funny, in one way or another. Lilly was not fond of Ayase’s just-another-day manner of speaking. Like this was all normal for her. Though her in case, it was. She pondered more on what to ask about, might as well milk as much info as I can.

                She expressed a fear she’s held since coming to this enigma of an environment. “Why tell me all of this then? Are you trying to recruit me to fight aliens, or pilot a robot, or…” she gulped, “be a magical girl?” Lilly shuddered at the thought of a frilly pink dress and heart-shaped wands. Ayase had a confused face before laughing even harder.

                “Ha ha ha! Of course not! What a strange concern, Miss Akiyama!” Now a little embarrassed, Lilly asked again.

                “Well?”

                Ayase regained her composure. “I’m telling you this because you, at least, deserved to know. It must have frustrating to deal with all of this in the dark. My reports concluded that, unlike Rea, giving you all this information won’t run the same risks, and judging from the fact that you and I are still intact, that conclusion is correct.” She stands up, walking on air a few paces away from the bench, and stretched, her back facing Lilly. Thinking aloud all the while. “Uwah! I was so nervous! I actually wanted us to talk way earlier, but I guess Rea never did deliver you my letter. At least it worked out anyways!” Naturally, Lilly has no clue what she’s talking about.

                “… Then what?” was all Lilly had the will power to say by this point.

                In return, she received a smile brighter than anything in recent memory. There was even a dimple on the left side. The cloud passes over, the light hitting her face. Maybe that was what was illuminated this place this whole time. “We’re all young, right? Try to enjoy it if you can. Don’t worry, it’s my job to make sure nothing gets too out of hand. And who knows, maybe you’ll learn a thing or two about yourself!” Ayase’s cute wink was like icing on a cake.

                Lilly leaned back onto the bench. Somehow, that helped in easing Lilly into all of this. Maybe, just maybe, being an anomaly won’t be such a bad thing. Who knows how long until that backfires? she thought.

                Ayase did a little wiggle with her index finger. “Hmm, I think that’s enough for today! I don’t mean to keep you away from your girlfriend for too long!”

                “My g-! What?! I mean, she not, well- It’s like, you see-!” Lilly almost fell out of her seat.

                “Don’t tell me you two just have a causality relationship!” Ayase teased.

                Ayase snapped her fingers once more. Glass-like shards emerged from the clouds and began to form and fuse around Lilly and Ayase, reconstructing the image of the arcade. Soon the shards finished their job, and they’re back exactly where they were standing beforehand. The noisy atmosphere came back as well. It’s as if they never left.

                It was Ayase who leaves first. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep it to myself!” she said as she passed Lilly. Lilly herself perturbed by that tongue-in-cheek tone. Ayase’s image of the cute and docile underclassman was destroyed entirely. “Oh, and give it another ten seconds before you head out too!”

                Huh? Lilly thought, and with that, Lilly was alone. She didn’t see any tangible reason to not trust Ayase by now, so she starts to count in her head. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine

                “Lilly? Where are you?”

                Rea appeared soon after, her deduction regarding Lilly’s whereabouts successful. “Why are you still holed up in here?” Judging from her actions, they must not have been gone for too long. Certainly felt like they were.

                “I have a headache,” Lilly truthfully answered, “so I’m staying here for a bit.”

                Rea grabbed Lilly’s hand, and tugged her along. “Well come on then! We haven’t played together yet!”

                She stumbled forward from Rea’s pulling. “Alright alright!” After everything that just happened, maybe a game or two won’t hurt.

                The rest of the day unfolds peacefully. Lilly kept a close eye on both Rea and Megumi, although those worries were unheeded. Everything turned out okay. Even Saori was manageable enough. And even Lilly and Ayase got a game in together.

                After the arcade they went out to grab some lunch and crêpes, Lilly and Rea splitting one between them. They concluded their afternoon excursion right after, the party of six going their separate ways back home. Lilly and Rea took Megumi back to her home, and Lilly dropped Rea off at hers. The sun has set by the time Lilly returned to a home cooked meal, courtesy of her father. All in all, a simultaneously very hectic and very relaxing day, strangely enough.

                In the end I never did tell Rea about everything. Maybe I’ll tell her when I think she’s ready.

               Can’t I just pretend that all this never happened? That’d be nice.

                Night came sharp on time. Lilly lies down in her room, drifting in and out of a state of wake and sleep, her body gripped in a dreary embrace of rest. She waited for the darkness of her room to swiftly carry her to the next morning. The phrases ‘anomaly,’ ‘phenomenon,’ insurmountable influence,’ and ‘relationship’ hop over fences in her head instead of sheep. Zzzt. Zzzt. Lilly picked up her phone by her desk. The light from the phone forced her to squint. It’s a message from Rea.

                R: “U up?”

                L: “Yes. Barely.”

                R: “LOL!!”

                Whatever this was about, Lilly hoped it was important enough to warrant the blinding hit to her vision.

                L: “Did you need anything?”

                R: “Did u have fun today?”

                Lilly decided if she should tell the truth or spare her feelings.

                L: “Beside another instance of body snatching, I did.”

                R: “YAAAY! i’m happy 4 u!”

                L: “That’s sweet.”

                Carefully typing and choosing her characters, Lilly figured she asked Rea about something that’s been on her mind the whole day. They were both up anyways.

                L: “Hey.”

                R: “???”

                L: “When we switched bodies today, I saw you acting weird with Haru. Is everything okay?”

                A response-less minute slogs by.

                R: “Oh”

                L: “Is there anything bothering you?”

                R: “Nothing, really. It’s hard for me to talk to guys when they think I’m you. It’s sooo annoyinggg!! >__<”

                Wait a minute, if Haru was talking to Rea thinking it was me, then does he…

                L: “And that’s it?”

                R: “that’s it… u don’t have 2 worry about me! K – goodnight! !

                The informal text convinced Lilly that she really was fine. Wishing back a sweet goodnight, Lilly put back the phone and honed back in on the dark ceiling. Huh, I never knew that. Her eyelids start to weigh a ton. She thought about the words Ayase told her in that sky-filled chamber. ‘Who knows, maybe you’ll learn a thing or two about yourself!’ They resonated a clear tone.

                “How much do I really know about everyone, I wonder?”

                Sleep finally drifted her to the next day.

<– Previous                                                                                                                                                   Next –>

                                                                                                                                                                side story 1–>

Chapter 9 – ‘This break,’

<– Previous                                                                                                                                                   Next –>

                A soft gust of wind greeted the girls as they left the school. Lilly’s first few steps out of the building were cautious. The worry of any more odd ordeals occurring weighed heavy. Her slow pace caused Rea to already be farther ahead, tapping her foot impatiently as she waited on Lilly to catch up.

                “C’mon, we don’t have all day, Lilly!”

                “Geh, I know, I know!”

                Eventually Lilly does catch up. She carefully eyed Rea up and down in the meantime. Rea squirmed uncomfortably at her look.

                “W-what are you doing?”

                “My shoes,” Lilly said.

                “Huh?”

                “I didn’t have to go switch to my outdoor shoes at the lockers,” Lilly mentioned. “You did of course, since I switched them out earlier.” You’re welcome, by the way, Lilly thought. “That means you never did when you came to school in my body.”

                Rea’s hands went on her hips. “What are you, a detective? So what?”

                “Why didn’t you?”

                Rea sputtered. “Well, you usually meet me at my locker, so I don’t know where yours is!” Rea’s face held a look of embarrassment, having been put on the spot so suddenly.

                “Huh?” Lilly did not foresee that explanation. She spat out a reply, clearly taken aback. “Well, I mean, you should know these things… and…”

                A small foot stomped the ground, kicking up dust. “Whatever then, let’s just go home!” Rea proclaimed.

                They both head out to leave the school. Lilly continued to glare at Rea as they walk. I have this feeling that there was something else I wanted to say… Rea caught her again.

                “What now?”

                “Uh, nothing!”

                “You’re something else, aren’t you?”

                Their walk is interrupted right at the school fountain. They didn’t even get to leave the premise.

                “Hey you two! You ain’t gettin’ away from me!”

                Lilly and Rea both look back instantly. She didn’t know about Rea, but Lilly internally groaned.

                Saori came up to the two, jogging and waving. Followed soon by her posse of people.“Hi! What’s up?”

                Lavender twin-tails swing with momentum. She smiled with that playful snarky hiding-a-devious-plan grin. “Whatcha doing?” she said.

                Lilly’s nose filled with the scent of perfume. She scratched at her arm while thinking of anything to say that could make Saori leave sooner. “Nothing, we’re leaving,” Lilly said straightforwardly. Aside from the occasional garden maintenance, she always went home right after school. She especially wanted to do so today.

                A hand raised itself right in front of Lilly’s face. “Nope!” Saori keeps it there. Her hand blocking Lilly’s increasingly irritated expression. Rea curiously observed these two opposing forces interact. “I don’t think so!”

                “And what does that mean?” In the middle of her sentence, she backed away from Saori. Whether or not Lilly noticed she grabbed Rea’s wrist for her to follow was irrelevant.

                Saori stood firm, now pointing at the blonde. “Because you’re coming with us to play! Oh, your friends too.” Saori pointed over Lilly’s shoulder, presumably to someone else. Lilly doesn’t bother to look. For every sly smirk Saori makes, an annoyed frowned is returned by Lilly.

                “And why should we?”

                “Because I’ve let you get away from me for far too long! Don’t think this wasn’t in-every-table!”

                Inevitable? Guh, what a pain. Lilly glanced down at Rea, hoping she felt the same way. A twinkle sparked in Rea’s eyes. Lilly didn’t need to read her mind. Dang it.

                “Really! I wanna go, Lilly, come on!” Rea now tugged at Lilly’s arm, her insisting persistent. That look that Rea held in her eyes was magnetizing. It was hard to say no to. It’d be easier saying no to a puppy.

                By now some passing students began to notice Lilly and Saori’s squabbling. Saori never noticed them. But from the corner of her eye, Lilly could tell some of the boys were staring at her legs. She hadn’t had a chance to remove the thigh-high socks Rea put on for her earlier. Although they were just passing stares, they felt like hot lasers piercing her skin. Go away… Go away… Go… Lilly wanted out. Now. She’s forced to let Saori have her way.

                Saori put her hands on her waist, pleased that this was going her way. “See? Your friend wants to come! I told you, Akiyama Lilly, you’re hanging out with us one of these days!” The more she smiled, the more distressed Lilly became.

                No… I really don’t want to! Why did this have to happen?!

                The plaza bustled with both busybodies and those not so. Tall swaying trees line up a web of pathways that led to a central fountain, tying it all together. Buildings and shops and small boutiques outline the borders, never stepping over bounds. A relaxing deep-city refuge for those wanting a moment away from the urban sprawl. Second only the local park. A nice place to sit or take a walk. Also a good meeting place.

                Splattering of the fountain’s water rose up a light mist, but the sound fails to reach a pair of ears. Heavy music blasted from a pair of headphones. For once, Rea was the one waiting. She looked around as parents, children, friends, and lovers stroll through the plaza. Yearning filled her eyes. Her gazing is cut short as the reason why she was waiting came running towards her.

                “Rea! Sorry to make you wait!” Lilly panted as she got to Rea’s position. She tapped on Rea’s headphones before taking them off herself. “Did you wait long?”

                “Nah,” Rea shook her head, “sorry I had you meet me out here.” She placed her headphones on her neck. The green color popped with the rest of her outfit.

                Relieved, Lilly led the way. “Let’s get going then, might as well make the most of it.” A few days have passed without incident, and that lightened Lilly’s mood. So she resigned to her fate, one of being with other people and enjoying spending time with them. Oh the horror.

                Given that it was Sunday, the plan was simple. Meet up with Saori and her group at an arcade and see where it goes from there. But first, they had to get together with another group of girls who got themselves into the same predicament.

                “They must be waiting for us already,” Lilly mentioned, “it’s not too far from here, at least.”

                “Hey.”

                Lilly goes back to Rea. “Yeah?”

                “We still have some time though,” Rea said, “Why don’t we go shopping around here?”

                Lilly cocked her head. “Shopping? For what?”

                “We could get some posters for your room or something. You know, spruce it up!” Rea made a fireworks hand expression to accentuate her point.

                “Ah, no thanks, I don’t need to,” Lilly brushed away her suggestion. “Come on, I’d hate to be late.” Lilly failed to realize Rea’s disappointment, and they both head to the arcade. The sun rises to noon to oversee this day.

                The walk to the arcade, thankfully enough of Lilly, wasn’t too far, so the pair get deeper into the heart of the city and in front of the entrance in good time. Their company waiting right outside the door.

                “Megumi! Wassup!” Rea cheerfully exclaimed, rushing to hug her bespectacled friend. The startled Megumi loses her words of greeting in the arms of this tiny ball of energy.

                “R-Rea! Woah, h-how, how are-!”

                “How are you, Megumi?” Lilly kindly beamed at her. She didn’t want to break the vase so soon. “Sorry for getting you dragged into all of this.”

                Tight in Rea’s squeeze, Lilly doesn’t see Megumi shake her head. “No, it’s okay. Y-you guys invited me earlier, so it works out. Wuh…” Rea hasn’t let go, a feeling of motion sickness befalling her unfortunate victim. Hah, I’m sorry again, Megumi, Lilly thought again. Beside the bespectacled middle-schooler was another member of their party. One Lilly was not too acquainted with.

                “And you, you probably didn’t have to come… um…,” Lilly recognized the face, but never learned the name.

                “Ah, Ayase. Midori Ayase. My sister, Ayane, is in your class. Thank you for befriending her.” She cordially bowed, probably to hide her blushing face and to avoid making eye contact. “And there’s no need for apologies. I’m glad to have been invited out with my upperclassmen, be it by circumstance. I just happened to be walking with Megumi when Saori called out to us. Also, my sister said it was okay to come.” Rea glared at the junior like a lion would its prey.

                Well, okay then. At least you’re polite. Lilly remembered when she first encountered her in Rea’s body. I never did find out what she was after… She shrugged, and suggested they all go inside. The rest agreed, Rea finally letting Megumi go, and they entered the arcade.

                The layout of the arcade was standard fair for people who go out often, arcade machines lined up neatly with the more popular games taking main stage in the center of the spacious room. Light bulbs adorn the walls and glow at random times. Bleeps and bloops of the different games fight against one another to produce a cacophony of digital noise. Even at this hour about every other machine was occupied by a player, with either a friend or their date standing over to watch them play. A staircase was in a corner, suggesting more floors of games and people. All summing up to create a lively and vibrant scene. Sensory overload. Ugh, I don’t like crowds… Lilly slumped her shoulders, already drained when she gets inside. Megumi adopted a similar gesture. Rea only gets more excited to play.

                “Aww, this is so cool! C’mon Lilly, let’s play something!” She dragged the reluctant Lilly towards one of the center games. One was a fighting game of some mecha series. Already in use. The players at this particular machine were also half of their party.

                “Hah! Hola, Lilly, you actually came!” It was Saori, in the player two seat, who immediately got up to greet the newcomers, deserting her robot to doom by a volley of laser blasts, courtesy of Haru. He disapproved of Saori leaving her post.

                You would have more than pestered us if we didn’t. But Lilly kept that to herself, showing a half-hearted smile as Saori wrapped her arm around her. Rea did not appear delighted at this. “You look good, it’s cool to see people outside the school uniforms, huh?”

                Even if it was Saori, a compliment can make lift anyone’s spirits. Lilly rolled her eyes to mask her true feelings. Although, it actually was nice to see the others in regular street clothes. Megumi wore a simple yet elegant white sundress. Ayase had on an olive cardigan and a dark blue skirt. Rea sported a bright orange hoodie and dark denim shorts, her green headphones resting on her neck. She came off quite boyish. Lilly herself had a on blue top and a white skirt with light frills. Saori was as flashy as ever, accessories and all decorate both her wrists and a purse she brought along. In all honesty, she looked no different outside her school uniform than in street wear.

                They all stand around for a minute before it starts to get weird. “We’re here… now what?” Lilly says as she tried to lean away from Saori.

                “What do you think? Let’s have some fun! Here, play this one with me,” Saori moved back to her second player seat, pushing Haru out of his seat without care, and patted the now empty space. “Here here!” Lilly watched the small sequence of events with confusion before joining Saori. Ayase watched Lilly watching the small sequence of events.

                “Don’t you think that was a little rude?” Lilly asked, half out of concern for someone she didn’t know but also a small part of her wanted to dig into Saori a little. She awkwardly handled the joystick to select a character, the fighting stats of strength, defense, speed, and control began to dizzy her.

                Saori reached over to select a robot for Lilly. “Don’t tell me you’ve never a played this before! Oh and Haru, he doesn’t care.” Lilly looked to see for herself. As a matter of fact, he’s laughing and conversing with the other girl of Saori’s group before going to another game. He seemed the least bit ticked off. If you say so. Lilly dropped the subject, and remembers she has to play a video game with Saori.

                The gap in skill between the two players was like a pebble to a mountain. Green eyes can attest to that.

                Lilly released the joystick she was poorly handling, and ceased her sad excuse of pushing buttons. She liked video games, she’s played plenty, but by god was she awful at them. How many times has she accidentally ran off the edge of a map? Her mech was better off in a fetal position at the bottom of a lake.

                “How long has it been since we’ve done something like this, huh?” Saori asked, Lilly ignoring her. She allowed herself to slump in her seat for two seconds precisely before getting up. “I’m going to find Rea,” Lilly droned apathetically. Saori playfully protested as Lilly walks farther from the machine. This place is pretty big, where could she be? And in a nanosecond, her question was answered.

                In an instant a jolt hits, and Lilly was sitting in front of another game, her hands gripped tight on a wheel. Eh? What? To her right was a focused Megumi, fully absorbed into their game. Once again, Lilly witnessed a new side of Megumi. She was unfazed as Megumi made quick work of the match.

                She didn’t say anything, just a small congratulatory dance in her seat. Lilly could tell that was Megumi’s form of boasting.

                “Good job” Rea’s high voice came out when Lilly spoke, a sensation she had hoped to never experience again. Why, why now?

                “W-would you like to try another game?” Megumi asked softly. Looking into her eager eyes, Lilly couldn’t find it in her to disappoint her now, even in her current state. Sure, Lilly mouthed.

                They got up to try more games. Megumi held on to Lilly’s shoulder to help maneuver through the crowd. It’s endearing. And a daily reminder that Rea was short. I’m starting to sympathize with you, Rea. My condolences… They go to a crane game. Then a shooting game. Then another fighting game. If a pig somehow manages to accomplish flight, Lilly may be able to win for once.

                “Hah, what’s the point?” Lilly exhaled when losing another game. Megumi claps when winning another. “Oh my, I didn’t mean to beat you like that,” she would say every time. “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Lilly would respond back. Megumi the gamer, it wasn’t something Lilly was aware of before. It must be coincidence, Lilly presumed, although she does think I’m Rea right now. She had almost forgotten she switched bodies with Rea. About half an hour has passed since the switch.

                This time, Megumi guided the both of them to another part of the arcade, Lilly searching through the crowd of faces to try and find her own. Where, where, where… ah! From across the other side of the arcade she found Rea… standing exactly where Lilly was before they switched. Still close to the machine where she met her match with Saori. Rea hasn’t budged an inch, why? And then another thing staggered Lilly. Is, is that what I look like when I’m scared?

                That out-of-body feeling swelled in Lilly’s stomach when she saw Haru talk to Rea, blissfully dense to the vibe she’s giving off. Haru was only a little taller than Lilly, yet he towered over Rea, who’s shrinks into herself. Her eyes dart to look at anything that isn’t his face. Her crossed arms form a barrier that keeps him from getting any closer. One, two, and another second for Lilly to fully grasp what she was witnessing. Instinct kicks in as Lilly cuts into the crowd to get to Rea. I have to go get her, come on, out of my way!

                “Rea!”

                Lilly has gotten accustomed to responding accordingly to that name. Megumi, mouth half-open, spoke with a hint of apprehension. “Are you going already?”

                “Eh? No, I’m just going to get Re- Lilly! I’m coming back!” Lilly said, reassuring her timid companion. When she goes back again, Rea and Haru were both gone. The space they had just occupied now filled with a stream of people moving to another game to play. Dang it, where’d they go? Putting her hands into her pockets, she shuffled back to Megumi. “Uh, never mind… We can go.”

                Megumi tilted her head, “Are you okay, Rea?” Lilly nodded in response.

                Don’t make me feel worse for making you think I’m someone I’m not.

                The pair move on to play something else. Some nondescript game Lilly doesn’t bother trying to learn about. She loses of course, but not due to her lack of gaming prowess. Not focusing on playing, her thoughts were elsewhere. Her own face, which reflected a fear in Rea’s heart, etched itself into Lilly’s mind. She juggled between wanting to find Rea and not wanting to disappoint Megumi by leaving her behind. Think… think… what should I do? Oh, duh!

                “I’m sorry Megumi, but I think we should catch up with the others, we haven’t really been with the rest of the group at all. I’ll call Lilly and we’ll go to her, okay?” She worked up her best Rea impression to ease Megumi.

                Megumi lifted a shoulder.  “Um… maybe… c-can we finish this game first, at least?” She didn’t attempt to hide her reluctance to go and join a group of people.

                “I know it’s not your thing, but, it’d defeat the purpose of coming all the way out here if we aren’t a group, right?”

                “I-I suppose.”

                “You’ll be fine, Megumi. Here, I’ll help you up.” Lilly held out a small hand to support the withdrawn Megumi, who reached for it like an anchor, hoping not to be swept away by the coming waves of the typical social pressures. For most it would shallow enough to wade in, but for Megumi, it could very well sink her. That was the last thing Lilly needed on her plate at the moment, but she had to risk it if she wanted to find Rea. When she felt that Megumi was secure, she combed through her pockets to find Rea’s phone. Right? No, left. That’d make sense… The phone was half-pulled out of her pocket when –

                Oh, I’m back.

                Lilly patted herself down, making sure every little bit she inspected on her person was indeed her. Confident that she was in fact, back in her own body, Lilly’s next step was to know exactly where she was at. Still in the arcade. Though in some vacant corner. All that occupied this almost abandoned area of the arcade were a few rundown games. Probably more expensive to repair them than they were worth. Just a few steps back to return to the hubbub of the arcade, yet the cluttered noise was muffled here. Odd. The stillness troubled Lilly. No Rea, no Megumi, not even Saori or Haru were anywhere to be found. There was not a soul here.

                “None except for me, actually.”

                Lilly directed her attention to that voice. They’ve been standing there since Lilly got switched back. Bewilderment began to rise to new heights. A whisper left her lips.

                “Ayase?”

                The girl in question smirked. The type that one makes when they know about something others don’t. She ruffled her brown bob cut hair. She snapped her fingers.

                The environment around the two shattered away, breaking off into pieces to reveal a blinding bright blue sky, clouds floating above, below, and sometimes through them. Vertigo hits Lilly and a roller-coaster-nausea in her stomach buckled her legs. Wha- I’m falling! But she wasn’t. Despite what it looked like – her floating among clouds and a blue sky that stretches past the horizon – she remained standing like normal. But this is most definitely not normal. Her eyes could only focus on the sole thing that wasn’t not blue or white; a smiling Ayase.

                “I’m sure you have a lot of questions, don’t you?”

<– Previous                                                                                                                                                   Next –>