Chapter 19 – ‘This interface,’

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                Lilly yelped, shielding herself with her bag and kicking her desk. Her arms recoiled as she felt her bag being ripped apart. She fell out of her chair, landing on her back.

                “Gah!”

                When she came to, she saw her bag, or what was left of it. Journals and textbooks were reduced to shreds of paper around her, and pencils sprawled out all along the floor. The zipper of her bag was still closed, but now had a gaping hole that gutted out all of its contents. Slowly, she reached for the sharpest pencil she could find.

                Lilly shifted her gaze, and beside her head was her lunchbox. The homemade one Lilly’s father fashioned for her as a birthday present. One she gladly accepted, despite the cheesy cartoon ducks that graced the lid. As she got older, it got more embarrassing to bring to school. She’s wanted to replace it for the longest time.

                It was bolted to the wall.

                Fear controlling her movements, she immediately crawled away from it. What kept it on the wall was a spear. A harpoon, more specifically, with the way a single large tooth jutted out from the end of a two meter shaft. But it wasn’t just any normal harpoon. Light refracted off of its jagged crystalline surface. Also, the fact that any normal harpoon wouldn’t be anywhere near a junior high classroom, made it no normal harpoon.

                All of a sudden, it shattered into hundreds of pieces, the smashed remains of the lunchbox hitting the floor as it was let go. Its contents spilled out.

                That- That could’ve been my head!

                “My, my, you’re quicker than I thought. Good job!” A condescending tune sang out to Lilly.

                Lilly struggled to get up, using the wall behind her for support. She took deep breaths, unable to get any words out. Instead, she tried to finally get a good look at her attacker.

                A girl. Judging from the seifuku and the color of the tie, a second year in high school. Average height but broomstick-thin. However, she had masculine features. Her black hair was cut short like a boy’s, and her shoulders somewhat broad. Cuts and bandages cover her otherwise shapely legs, her chest was small but noticeable through the blouse. In other words, she looked way out of place in that type of uniform.

                And she wanted to kill Lilly.

                What, but wait, what!? Kill, me? As in me! I don’t get it, why?!

                “Ah, I’m sorry, I guess I really should introduce myself. It’d be rude, you know, if you died and not know who did it.”

                Lilly realized then why her voice was muffled. She wore a medical mask, ones commonly worn by cautious people during flu season. She removed it, letting one loop hang by her ear.

                “I’m Nao, since that’s all you need to know for now. Get it?” Nao’s laughing was like nails on a chalkboard. Lilly didn’t know how to react. She stopped, still staring at Lilly, and froze her in her sights.

                “Man, you’re tall for a junior high kid. You’re like what, this tall?” Nao exaggerated by extending the full length of her arm above her. Lilly was taller than Nao by a small margin. Not that she was particularly proud about that at this time.

                With her mask dangling by her ear, it longer hid her surprisingly girly face. Her sanpaku eyes were beady and silver, and held a cold glare. Her cheekbones could cut glass. Sans mask, she puckered her lips, which were deep red from a thick layer of lipstick. So thick that it was messily smeared across her mouth and on the inside of her mask. Two dark purple bruises painted the bottom half of her pale face, one on her philtrum and one beside her lower lip. Lilly wasn’t sure if the mask’s function was to cover her bruises, since Nao had no shame in baring them. Her mouth twisted into a sadistic smile, showing a small gap between her front teeth.

                It was the type of smile that was the definition of chilling.

                “You’re…” was all Lilly could get out.

                “Yeah, I made it so that you’d end up visit my little boy. I wanted to see how you’d react in that inter-dimensional space. But you made me laugh though! You two told that girl you just ‘found him there’? And she believed it? What the hell!”

                Lilly herself could hardly believe it.

                “Anyhow, I’ve been watchin’ you for a minute now, but you’re a drag, you know that? You’re not doing shit,” Nao sat on top of one of the desks, acting with a sickening air of easiness. “That’s why I’m here, to do shit.”

                Lilly shimmied along the wall to a corner, until she got to the back door adjacent to her. Running her fingers along the edge of where the door met the wall, she tried to find the latch to slide the door open. Where is it, where is it, where is it… why isn’t it here?

                “Nuh-uh-uh,” Nao wagged her finger, “I’ve got all spatial control in here. That means no way out. Nice try though.” She whistled. “See?”

                She motioned her hand over the windows behind her, each one blending into the wall and disappearing as her hand passed over. The light dipped in increments as each window was absorbed into the grey walls, the room going pitch black as the last one vanished. As it got darker, the faster Lilly’s heart was beating. Nao swept her arm back, and the windows returned. So did the light.

                “Cool, huh?”

                What do I do, what do I do, what do I do? Anybody please come and explain what is happening!

                “I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but… shit. What was it?” Nao scratched her head in thought. Lilly wished she could trade in mind reading for invisibility. Or teleporting. Or having never gotten into this mess to begin with. She’s just playing with me by this point! Nao clapped suddenly, and Lilly flinched. “Oh yeah! I remember…”

                “You know the saying, ‘It is better to do it and regret than not do it at all’? I operate on that, tryin’ to figure out how action can improve a situation.” She laughed. Seeing Lilly’s terrified expression, she lowered hers, glaring as if disappointed. “You were supposed to make a joke about the Japanese economy, or something. C’mon, don’t you know the bit?”

                Lilly stayed still.

                Nao sighed. “Anyways, letting you sit pretty may be fine and dandy, but we ain’t not gonna get anything good if we wait for something good to happen. Thing is, I’m impatient, so I took it upon myself to finally shake things up. Good idea, am I right?”

                Lilly stayed still.

                “So, my fucking fantastic idea was- oh, you don’t mind if I tell you, right? You’re gonna die anyways. Okay, so my idea was to see what would happen to the conceptual deletion if you got offed. My theory is that it’ll most likely stop, so I’ll get points there. And then I thought, how would your little friend react if you died? That’s what I’m dying to know. She may as well destroy the fucking universe. Wouldn’t that be somethin’ else?” She stretched out her arms to accentuate her point.

                Rea, why are you always causing trouble for me? Lilly’s heart was in her throat. She scrambled to see if there was anything she could do to get her out of this. Fumbling with her fingers, she felt a weight in her left hand.

                “Either way, we’ll get a lot more information this way than if we ju- whoa!”

                Nao jumped from her seat, lifting her middle finger. A pencil was flung across the room, breaking its original trajectory towards her face.

                “Wow, you almost got my eye. Nice!” She stood up properly and leered at Lilly. “I guess that means you’re done living.” Readying herself, she patted her body.

                “Ah, crud, I’m thirsty. Maybe I’ll lift some money off your body after this. I need juice. Wait, stop getting distracted.” She returned to glaring at Lilly, who was as still as a statue.

                Then, reeling back her arm in a throwing position, another harpoon materialized in Nao’s open palm. Sweat rolled down Lilly’s face. These can’t be tears, not a chance! Using her other hand, Nao put her mask back on.

                “Now die.”

                Please… don’t…

                She pulled back her arm some more.

                Please don’t…

                She threw the harpoon with all her might.

                “Mama, Papa, Rea, anyone!!”

                A loud explosion. A force from behind Lilly that knocked her forward. Her head spun. She couldn’t feel her left arm, so she used her right to feel along her body. No major injuries. She didn’t get hit. Lilly was close to crying in relief. She turned on her back, and realized she was just lying on her arm.

                Dust covered her and restricted her vision. But she saw two things. One was a huge gaping hole in the wall in front of her, revealing the hallway outside before instantly sealing up again. The other was Midori Ayase, already tugging her hand to help her up.

                “Miss Akiyama, please inform me whenever you get into a sticky situation,” she said with a wink. “Now please get behind me, I’ll take care of this.”

                Lilly did just that.

                Nao placed her hands on her hips. “Oi, if it isn’t Quack.” She didn’t say that last word insultingly, rather as though it were a nickname. “Wait, you’re really her handler? What happened to Copperhead?”

                “It isn’t something you should concern yourself over.” With her left arm she blocked Nao away from Lilly, and with her right hand she held Nao’s harpoon over her head, having caught it earlier. It broke away, dissolving into pieces when she tightened her grip. “But if you must know, I was allowed to take over the ownership right for observation and reporting.”

                “Well then, fuck me,” Nao hissed, “If all I had to do was ask…”

                Ayase put her right thumb and middle finger together. “I’m afraid it’s never that simple.” Lilly heard that sound, and Ayase brought forth her own harpoon. If Lilly could compare the two, Ayase’s was half in length and much slimmer, but also smoother along the crystal shaft and looked more aerodynamic. The bladed tooth was longer and more tempered.

                She spoke again. “May I ask you to leave us? You’re not even a backup’s backup.”

                Nao shrieked, until Lilly remembered it was actually her laugh. “No way! Imma finish what I started. You may have been lucky gettin’ in, but I control everything in here. There is no way you’re leaving without me dead.” She snapped her fingers, summoning another harpoon and deleting all the desks in the room into nothingness. “There we go, now I can finally breathe.”

                “Very well,” Ayase exhaled. You’re not actually going to do that are you? Ayase, that’s too far! Turning back to Lilly, she ordered her to duck. Lilly complied. She looked back to Nao.

                Ayase fixed her grip on the harpoon and then threw it, her arm moving in a blur.

                Nao tilted her head to dodge it, followed by throwing hers. Ayase waved her arms out in front of her, disintegrating the harpoon in an invisible field in front of her. It cackled and cracked before breaking apart into powder.

                In the meantime, Nao rushed towards Ayase, her arms out beside her and running like a protagonist in a popular serialized manga about ninjas. Lilly was too preoccupied with trying to stay alive to make a comment on it. Nao leaped to lead in with a kick.

                Using her forearm, Ayase successfully blocked, blocking again when Nao’s twisted her body in midair to try another kick. Nao sprawled in all directions, fists and feet attack every opening she could find with an impossible speed. Ayase matched that speed with her arms, blocking every attack without fail. To the normal eye, it’d simply look like Ayase was standing still, her arms moving so fast they couldn’t be seen. The sound of wind being cut gets progressively louder.

                Ayase flicked her wrist, and that was enough for Nao to cease her volley. She flipped backwards, clearing the length of the room. “Hell yeah!” she shouted as she landed.

                She spun her arms around her, and what was once a rectangular classroom stretched and morphed into a full-sized circular arena, three of four times the perimeter of the original shape. Lilly felt the wall behind her pull away a good ten meters.

                Nao let herself fall backwards, and before she hit the floor she disappeared. Or rather she moved so fast her image disappeared. Ayase groaned.

                “Would you excuse me, Miss Akiyama? I’ll return shortly.”

                She leaned forward before disappearing as well, leaving Lilly by herself. She decided to run to the wall at least get some bearings.

                The classroom was still distinguishable, with the circular grey boundary and the wooden floor, but the windows on one side of the wall curved to fit the new shape. Her torn bag and its innards of school supplies litter a small portion the floor. Orange light filled the room. Also, any doors for escape were all gone.

                Then, out of nowhere, Nao’s face reappeared right in front of Lilly, a knife in her hand. Her teeth just four centimeters away from Lilly’s nose. An expression of wild bloodlust. With her back to the wall, Lilly had nowhere else to go. C-crap!

                Before she could strike, Nao jerked back. In one fluid motion she hurled across the room, flying through the air before vanishing again. Lilly saw Ayase in front of her, who dropped a piece of Nao’s collar. In between a blink, she’d gone again.

                Are you sure you’re actually human?

                To Lilly, it seemed like she was the only one in an empty room, Ayase and Nao’s images hazily appearing here and there throughout the space. One image of Ayase dodging a punch, another of Nao twisting out of the way of a light beam. Occasionally there was an image of Nao sprinting towards Lilly, only for a crash to occur on the side of the arena across from her, Ayase having intercepted Nao in time. She got up unfazed.

                Nao swung an arm upward, and Lilly felt the ground under her start to shake. Her legs suddenly felt much heavier. A rough push, and she fell. But the descent took longer than it should.

                “Unf!”

                Ayase caught her, and Lilly saw why. Where she was just standing was a pillar that covered the whole height of the room. Nao tried to crush her by smashing her into the ceiling.

                “Oh, how could you hope to beat me when you’ve got her to protect?” Nao taunted, “You’re jugglin’ one too many balls!”

                “I’ve hardly broken a sweat,” Ayase said. She tried to hide a tinge of fatigue in her voice, but Lilly picked up on it. What can I do, I have to help somehow…

                Lilly set herself down, and got behind Ayase again. Ayase curled her fingers into a gun.

                Nao continued. “C’mon, why waste our time? You already know there’s always gonna be another one.”

                “That’s not the point. You’re supposed to obey my orders.”

                “Fuck that, we obey results.”

                Ayase grimaced.

                “You wanna keep going, fine, but I gotta warn yah, I don’t feel nothin’ you throw at me, so this is just a match of endurance,” Nao dashed ahead, shortening the distance between her and Ayase by half in a split second. A distance of ten meters. In that same time Ayase lunged forward, her finger gun held out in front of her.

                “…”

                Wait, I can use this!

                “Ayase!” Lilly cried out, “Not forward, aim for her left leg!”

                At the last second Ayase made that adjustment and fired.

                Nao pulled her foot back to avoid a hit, but was forced to trip. Her face hit the floor, the momentum throwing her legs above her, flipping her over. Ayase hopped to the side to not run into her.

                She coughed up blood. “Shit…” Her image disappeared again, but Lilly knew she wasn’t headed for her.

                “Above you! Another pillar!”

                Ayase jumped as a cylinder came down from the ceiling. She got away. Oh no, that was a distraction.

                “From behind! A kick!”

                She twirled her body dodge the incoming kick, Nao coming into focus where Ayase would have landed. Ayase grabbed a hold of Nao, and spun again in midair to slam Nao back down. That maneuver would have earned Ayase a perfect score in an upcoming judo competition. Lilly momentarily considered taking Ayase there before remembering where she was right now.

                Nao got winded as her back bashed against the floor. Weakly, she lifted her arm and pointed to Lilly.

                Lilly started to move. Running along the side of the room, she yelled the next move. “She’s going after me again!”

                She was right, a barrage of harpoons charged upon where Lilly was standing, and more started following her. They rapidly caught up.

                Ayase blitzed to Lilly in a heartbeat, raising her arms to form a force field, managing to destroy them as they ran into it. Lilly stopped to catch her breath. Her heart sank when she realized…

                That was a trap!

                Simultaneously, as Ayase was busy with the bombardment of harpoons, Nao had rushed towards Lilly in a flash.

                “Ah!”

                Ayase tried to clear the distance between her and Lilly, but it was too late. Nao pounced upon Lilly, and performed a swift kick. She aimed for her head.

                The image of Ayase zipped in between Lilly and Nao. But she had no time for much else.

                Lilly could only watch as the sound reverberated. The side of Ayase’s head took the full force of the kick, her neck folding under the weight of Nao’s foot. Ayase’s ear touched her shoulder. Her body went limp as it flew several meters. Nao clicked her fingers, and the room shifted back to its original dimensions. Lilly got sent forward as the wall behind her moved into its proper place.

                It was perfectly timed, the way Nao kicked and the reshaping of the room. Ayase’s spiraling body collided into a window. Lilly had hoped that the metal bar separating the window into two panes would stop her, but it instead bent inward as Ayase continued to ram right into it. Metal and glass crack and then broke, and the image of Ayase’s body rag-dolling through the window, bloody cuts and all, burned into Lilly’s mind. The shock of everything hit Lilly all at once.

                Ayase was gone. The classroom was back to normal, even the window she got sent through was instantaneously repaired. Even the desks were back in place where they should be. It was as though Ayase was never there, never showed up, never came to help Lilly.

                Lilly was now truly alone with Nao.

                They were on the third floor, but she couldn’t tell if Ayase ever hit the ground outside. All she heard was Nao clapping her hands together like she just finished a job.

                “Really? Are you really worth that?” There was that laugh again. “Now, where were we?”

                Slowly, or rather leisurely, she strolled towards Lilly. A knife in one hand and a spear in the other. “How should I do this, hmm?”

                “Classic?” She held up the knife.

                “Or something different?” She held up the spear.

                “Reaaal clean? Or ugly? Should I show your little friend pictures, or just your swiss-cheese body straight up? So many options…” she sang, the words like poison to Lilly’s ears.

                Lilly was on all fours, trying to back away as Nao closed in.

                Nao was beaming. “Please die!”

                Gotta come up with something, gotta come up with something, gotta, gotta, I have to I have to I have to I have to I have to-

                What the heck!

                It was like throwing a punch. A punch that came from the most proper of stances and the most solid of techniques. A punch that you had put all of your weight into. Your heart, body, and soul. A punch that, even if you missed, it actually felt good to throw. But it felt even better if it connected. That sensation coursed through Lilly’s head.

                With her mind reading, she wound up, threw, and connected.

                “The school festival last year! Under the cherry blossoms!”

                Lilly screamed those words, not really understanding the meaning behind them. She just reached for any thought she could find and blurted it out. She didn’t even know it was possible.

                A sense of disbelief swelled in Nao’s glowering eyes. She dropped both the knife and spear, and put her arms by her side. She inched forward a step, and then another, and then another, and then another until she was at a full sprint to Lilly.

                A punch to her throat, and another on her back. Breathing stopped. Her legs were dangling, the floor half a meter away from her feet. Nao had grabbed Lilly by the collar and pinned her to the wall. It wasn’t rage, it much more potent.

                “How do you know about that!? How the fuck do you know about that?!” she screeched through her mask, to the point of being incomprehensible. She kept knocking Lilly back and forth against the wall.

                Even if she knew why, even if she wanted to, Lilly couldn’t answer. She was choking. A sharp pain sent her head turning one direction. Nao slapped her across the face, a fingernail getting in her eye. But that wasn’t the worst of it. In no way.

                Like last time, except it wasn’t. This was much worse. Hello, yes, this is he. Thousands of thoughts spilled into Lilly’s head. Gotta pick up the paperwork today. Even if she tried to think for herself, it’d drown out from everything else. You keep getting yourself into trouble, little sis. Not even as a faint sound from far away. I should get back at Lilly for missing our date the other day, hehe! Overload. Her mind reached a red alert.

                Lilly’s eyes rolled back until only the white were visible. She gagged at the feedback of her power. If Nao kept hitting her, she no longer felt it.

                Blind, all senses robbed from her. The thoughts entered into her throat, controlling her voice.

                “AAAAAAAAAAAA REMEMBER!! THE SCHOOL FESTIVAL?! AAAAAI’LL ALWAYS BE WITH YOU SENPAI!! MAMA WHY HAVE YOU GONE PLEASE TELL ME WHERE YOU’LL GO AND I GET THE BOOK THE BOOK THE BOOK MY FAVORITE ONE I CAN’T FEEL MY MYMY AY PORK CUTLETS I WANNA BE LEFTALONEALONEALONEALONG WITHMY FRIEND MY IT’S NOT LIKE THAT SHE’S JUST A-“

                And then, very suddenly, she was let go. Like someone butted in and broke them apart. Falling in slow motion, it felt like. She collapsed to the floor, not feeling it when she does. Eyes watery. Getting dark. She tried to look at something. Anything.

                Oh, someone new.

                Brown hair. Beige, more precisely. An angel? Yes. No. Maybe. Their hair was long, it reached their lower back, like Lilly’s. Theirs parted differently though. Just above the skirt, their hair split away into two directions. It looked like a snake’s tongue.

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Chapter 18 – ‘This tip,’

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                Tomorrow came, and Lilly had a feeling she wanted it to end early.

                But there was still a whole school day to deal with.

                As the morning sun rose on her way to school, Lilly aimlessly went through the steps of her early routine. Splitting up with Rea, she made it into her classroom, staying close to the back wall as much as she could as not to garner attention from others, and having to converse with them. Fortunately for her, she successfully slunk into her desk. The teacher staggered in right after, tripping over the metallic groove where the door slides over. Everything was moving along like normal. Lilly liked that.

                Though, she swore she kept seeing Ayane look back at her every now and then.

                The hour and minute hands on the clock at the head of the room began to spin across the clock’s face, racing against each other.

                A long, droning noise that gave a semblance of a melody rang into the air, and Lilly was shocked to learn that it had approached lunch time without her realizing. Perhaps the day would actually go her way this time around. She gathered her school materials into her bag, and left her classroom.

                She climbed up the steps towards the club room, anticipating another slow and easy book discussion. Since joining the club, she and Rea have been having their lunches there with the others. Normally, she’d prefer the isolated location of the flowerbed, but a change of pace like this wasn’t always bad. I do need to check up on those flowers soon.

                “Excuse me!”

                She stopped and turned in response, standing on the last few steps.

                “Hello?”

                It was a girl, but to be precise, the same one who came to Lilly and Ayase for that job just a few days ago. “Hi!” she said back.

                Darn, what was her name? Lilly searched for a way over this conversational hurdle. “What… um, is up?” She internally smacked her head.

                “Nothing, I’m just sorry I made you go through all that trouble.” She bowed.

                More trouble than you’d know. “No, there’s no need for that.”

                “Surely I can do something for you. May I buy you lunch?” This girl’s generosity was impressive.

                “No thanks,” Lilly said, trying to politely reject her offer. She tapped the bag by her side, containing her own lunch. Pork cutlets and rice. Which I’d really like to go inside and eat right now…

                …I know, I know, I shouldn’t be too rude.

                “Uh, how is he, by the way?” Lilly couldn’t help but be curious, if only marginally. “Your boyfriend?”

                “He’s fine, just a little shaken up. He says he couldn’t remember anything during the days he was missing, though.”

                “I bet,” Lilly whispered.

                “What was that?”

                “Ah! Nothing! But I’m relieved to hear that he’s okay.” Lilly kept her real thoughts about that particular high school student to herself.

                “I also wanted to thank Midori as well, is she in?”

                The door to the club room behind Lilly beckoned for her, enticing her with its offer for freedom. The desire wanted to go through said door was approaching new heights. “I don’t think she’s in right now, but I’ll send her your message!”

                “Is that so? Then, thanks again!” The girl waved as she descended the stairs, disappearing as she turned the corner and left the old building.

                “Whew,” Lilly exhaled. Although…

                Considering where they found her boyfriend, Lilly did worry as to whoever was behind that incident. But she knew it wasn’t really her concern to know. Ayase said she’d take care of it, I guess I’ll leave it to her. And her stomach just let out a distressing growl, one she was glad no one was around to hear. So she continued up the steps. The club room never seemed like such a haven until now.

                Every step on the wooden floor creaked as she walked to the door. With her hand on the club room’s doorknob, she was ready to relax. Her lunch was calling out to her, ready to be eaten. And she was ready to eat. “I can finally-“

                The door opened with an impressive force. “Whoa!” Her hand still on the knob, Lilly fell face-first into the room. “Ow!!” Her hitting the floor made an audible thud. She got up off her knees, and rubbed her cheeks. “That really hurt…” Her voice was muffled as she massaged her face.

                “That’s nothing, plus your chest cushioned your fall anyways!” Rea said. Her being by the door made her the obvious culprit. “Get up already!” She helped Lilly up, or rather lifting her up with remarkable strength, hardly giving Lilly a second to recover.

                “Now let’s go!”

                She grabbed Lilly by the sleeve and dragged her out the door. When Lilly fell, her bag slid across the floor out of her reach, now getting further away as she was pulled by Rea.

                “Hold on, wait, Rea, my lunch! My lunch!”

                They ended up back in the main school building. Only when they get in a line down a hall does Rea let go of Lilly’s hand.

                “What are you doing? What is all this?” Lilly asked, shoving her hand in her pocket.

                “One question at a time, Lillychi!” Rea peeped, clearly excited about something. “We’re in line!”

                I know that much. “For what?”

                “We’re about to find out!”

                “Huh?” Lilly put her other hand on her hip.

                “They’re doing a special sale here! Some people in my class told me about it a while back, so I’ve been hyped! They even said they’re selling my favorite food here!” Rea balled her hands into fists.

                “Favorite food?”

                “Yeah, c’mon Lillychi, let’s do our best!” Rea threw a fist into the air, posing. Some people ahead of them curiously looked back.

                Oh, it’s ‘that’ girl again, Lilly heard them think. Her posture drooped.

                “We can’t ‘do our best’ in waiting in line,” she responded, exhaling in exasperation.

                Despite the length of the line, everyone moved along smoothly, perhaps too smoothly. Before long, Lilly and Rea made it to the front. Lilly hoped she had some time to make it back to her own lunch.

                “One special please!” Rea yelled out. The boy running the sales table stood straight up in surprise.

                That sure woke him up, Lilly bet.

                “Actually, I’m sorry, but we don’t have the special today.”

                Rea’s eyes widen. “What! Don’t tell me you ran out already?”

                “K-kind of,” the boy said, looking away. Lilly eyed her, her brow half-raised.

                …

                “Would you like banana bread instead? It’s pretty popular.”

                “Nah, no thanks, I’m not into that.”

                The two left the line and decided to head back to the club room. Rea put too much force into her walk, stomping with every step.

                “Disappointed?” Lilly asked, stating the obvious.

                “Hell yeah,” Rea covered her stomach with her arms, “I was so excited too, I can’t believe they ran out!”

                Lilly tugged at her own skirt, rubbing the fabric between her fingers. “They didn’t run out,” she spoke under her breath.

                “Wuh?”

                “I said they didn’t run out,” Lilly repeated, much more clearly. “They didn’t even know what the special was supposed to be today.”

                “Then why say that?”

                “Saying they ran out would be easier to explain, I guess.”

                “Aw, so we never even had a chance.” Rea straightened her glasses, which were beginning to slip down her nose. “Wait, how do you know all that?”

                Lilly kept quiet for a bit. “You know how.”

                It all clicked in her head. “Oh! You did that for me? I’m so happy!” She hugged Lilly’s arm too tightly, almost dropping them both.

                “Rea, stop that,” Lilly pushed Rea away, who was laughing carefree. Come to think of it… “What was supposed to be the special, anyways?”

                “Mm,” Rea pressed a thumb against her lower lip. “I dunno.”

                “You don’t know?”

                “Yeah, people in my class said my favorite food was there, so I figured if I went, I’d remember. I was hoping I could get something that would fill me up.” She pushed open the school’s front doors.

                Lilly began to trail behind. Rea, Rea of all people, forgetting her favorite food? Take her to any restaurant for the first time, she’ll have the menu memorized the next time she goes there. I’ve seen a lot of weird things recently, but…

                That is the real anomaly.

                Upon making it the room, Lilly was the last to make it in. The others were already gathered by the table. She caught Ayase’s glimmer in her eye.

                And as she feared, she only had about ten minutes until class. She picked up her bag and set it by her spot on the table. With care, she took out her lunch. Yes, it still looks good!

                Everything was set up: Her chopstick in her right hand, her boxed lunch cupped in her left. She was ready to dig in. Rea was already three-quarters down of her own meal, probably leftovers from her dinner the night before. And she brought enough for two.

                “Let’s eat, finally,” Lilly said, a sense of relief entering her breath.

                Her utensils hit the rice, breaking it apart until just a mouthful was meticulously balancing between the two sticks. The rice wouldn’t be piping hot anymore, but it should still be warm. She brought it towards her lips, ready to finally take her first bite.

                Miss Akiyama, can you hear me?

                With her chin down, Lilly directed her eyes up towards the owner of that particular thought, very unenthused. Why didn’t this thing come with an off switch, at least?

                The thoughts continued to intrude into her head. If it’s at all possible, would you please join me right outside? There’s something I need to discuss with you. From their expression, they were eager to get going.

                Dang it, Ayase, Lilly thought. She dropped her chopsticks.

                Her chair skidded back, scraping against the wooden floor. She got up too quickly. All eyes focused on her.

                “Ayase, I can see you outside? Nothing serious.” Lilly said in a monotone, to provide an opening for Ayase, who leaned back to in her chair, legs crossed, arms over her center, as if she was already expecting Lilly to say that.

                “Of course.”

                The two departed from the room, leaving behind an unconcerned Megumi and a confused Rea. They descended down the stairs until they stopped at the doors that led outside. Lilly double-checked to see if anyone could listen in before speaking.

                “Alright, what is it? You’re grinning like you got extra money on New Year’s,” Lilly said, crossing her arms.

                Ayase lifted her hands and shook her head. “What can I say? You’re sharper than you look, Miss Akiyama.”

                A bushy eyebrow was raised in her direction.

                “I kid.”

                Ayase took a small breath. “Let me answer your question with another question. Do you think you could ever forget someone like Rea?”

                Lilly stepped back. “Hunh?”

                “Or what about this? Do you think it’s possible that Rea could ever forget you?”

                “I totally don’t get what you’re saying.”

                Ayase continued. “And if she ever did forget, how far would you go to try and get her to remember? Could you possibly live in a world in which she forgot about you?”

                “I wish I could copy and paste what I just said.”

                Ayase angled her head a bit, giving a playful, foxlike grin. “Never mind, it’s just rhetorical. I ask so I can provide context to what’s happening.”

                Context?

                “It’s simple, really,” Ayase said, “What’s going on is a highly advanced case of conceptual deletion.”

                “Conceptual what now?” Lilly brushed the hem of her skirt.

                “Conceptual deletion. It’s an anomaly that causes a widespread forgetfulness of a certain word or term. Usually, it’s dealt with pretty easily, but if it gets out of hand, it can cause the actual concept behind the word to disappear out of existence, any trace of it gets written out of time and space. We’d end up living in a new universe in which the concept never existed, none the wiser.”

                The words started to spin around Lilly.

                “For example, imagine a world without nanikoreka. Spooky, right?”

                “What is that?”

                “I don’t know, it doesn’t exist.”

                Lilly coughed.

                “Okay, I’ll get to the point. I say they’re dealt with easily because the rate of deletion is slow. Very slow. But right now, this particular one is accelerating at an increasing rate, due to an external trigger.” She put a finger to her temple. “Here, I’ll think of what that is, and you can say it out loud.”

                “Very funny,” Lilly responded.

                “Rea. She’s the trigger, and you’re the one who pulled it.”

                Lilly moved over to the stairs and sat. She blankly stared at Ayase.

                “I’ve mentioned this before, but Rea is linked to your powers. If you’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have, but Rea seems to be unable to remember a particular snack she wants to eat. That thought was the trigger, and your powers are now hastening the process of this phenomenon. And now, we can’t remember what it is for ourselves. And it doesn’t stop there. Remember the books? And I’m guessing you had some trouble at the snack line just earlier.”

                The strange occurrences she mentioned came back to Lilly. She never would have guessed they were related to her and Rea.

                “What? So I’m behind all of this? But I don’t feel anything.” She twirled a strand of hair between her fingers. “I didn’t think this is what you meant by me having powers.”

                “That’s why they call it an anomaly.” Ayase raised her lips.

                “Then, what now?”

                “Simple, if we can get Rea to remember what it was she forgot, it should reverse everything. Everything goes back to normal.”

                Simple, right. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Lilly asked. “Aren’t you going to snap your fingers and work your magic tricks?”

                Ayase leaned on the wall beside her. “Unfortunately, it’s not that easy this time around. I’ll still working on the necessary preparations. I might finish today, actually.”

                “I don’t like the sound of that.”

                “Don’t worry, it’s nothing crazy. I’ll let you know what the plan soon, since I’m going to require your assistance on this. It won’t be too bad, I just need an extra set of hands.”

                Lilly placed her elbows on her lap, and rested her head in hands. “Aww, I just wanted a normal week…”

                “And you’ll get one, I promise.” Ayase walked up the steps, passing Lilly. “Come on, if we stay out too long, the others will get worried.”

                “Yeah.”

                “So, I’ll message you when my preparations are all done.”

                Lilly didn’t like how vague ‘preparations’ sounded. “Fun.”

                Soon she followed, and they returned to the club room. If Ayase doesn’t seem worried, then I don’t have to be, Lilly presumed.

                As soon as they made it back, that droning melody of the bell returned, like it was waiting for them. Lilly longingly ogled her meal, exposed to the air, and without a dent. It was the icing on a cake she could never have.

                No one would blame me if I weep, would they? Lilly quietly mourned.

                The remainder of the day continued on unassumingly. The only difference being that Ayase cancelled club activities for the afternoon. Lilly didn’t even know Ayase could make that call.

                With their afternoon suddenly free, Lilly and Rea opted to make the best of it. By going home. The majority of students do have club after school, so when they got to the shoe lockers, there was a stillness there that they were no longer used to.

                “Hey, did you end up remembering what you wanted to get today?” Lilly tested, watching Rea closely. “At the sale.”

                “Nah,” Rea casually replied, “But it’s no biggie.”

                Thought so. Lilly turned away. Thing is, I don’t remember either. How can we get you to remember something the rest of us can’t?

                Lilly started to switch out her shoes by her locker. She covered her mouth when she yawned, which was often. Man, I just want to go home. At least I can eat then. Maybe I’ll take a nap afterwards. That actually sounds like a great idea.

                Opening her locker, an envelope fell out and landed by her feet.

                “Hmm?” She went down to pick it up. Inspecting it more closely, a red sticker sealed it shut. Breaking it open, she found a letter inside. She read it aloud.

                “‘To Miss Akiyama, if you have the time, please meet me after school in your classroom. There’s something I’d like to discuss. MA.’ Huh.”

                The letter got her mind running. MA? Midori Ayase? What an odd way to contact me. I mean, I did give her my number when I joined the club. Or maybe it’s Ayane. But… I think I have more than enough Midoris in my life so far.

                “Don’t tell me…” Lilly said softly, trailing off her last words. She’s done with those ‘preparations’ already?

                “Rea, I…” When she turned around, she was startled to see Rea with her own look of disbelief.

                “How, where, why?” Rea sputtered.

                “What? You saw it fall out of my locker just now.” Lilly pointed the letter to Rea. “Wait, do you know anything about this?”

                Rea’s eyes grew wide, and she went blurry as she shook her head. “No way! D-don’t ask me or anything!”

                Hmm. Lilly knew that Rea would get more agitated should she try and use her power, so she took her word for it. “Then that’s that. But it does say I need to go back to my classroom, so you can go home.”

                “But-!” Rea protested, “Why don’t I wait here? You won’t be long, right?”

                I don’t know that. Considering this was involving that part of Ayase, Lilly didn’t want Rea to get unnecessarily involved. Not until Lilly knew what this was about, anyways. “No clue. I think you should go home though, I’ll message you about it later if you’re that crazy about this.”

                Her eyes darting between Lilly and the letter, she kept tripping over her words. “Th-that’s, not what I m-meant.” The red streak across her cheeks was no help either.

                “See you tomorrow, Rea,” Lilly said, leaving behind a distraught Rea. She’s really too concerned over me sometimes.

                Lilly took her usual path to her class, going up two flights of stairs, and taking a right. Even though the school day was over, there was still an electrifying air as students were partaking in their various club activities. She made sure to be careful as she maneuvered around the art club kids, who were working on a large painting out in the hallway.

                “You.”

                Lilly wheeled back around. It was Ayane. Her long dark hair draped over her back and shoulders, giving her a regal feel.

                “Hi,” Lilly said back.

                “Going somewhere?” Ayane asked. Her cold composure was a stark contrast to her much more bubbly sister. And since they looked so alike, Lilly couldn’t help but be a little off-put by it.

                “Just… Meeting Ayase,” Lilly answered, simplifying the truth by just its hair. She showed Ayane the letter in her hand, like she cared for any proof.

                Ayane hummed. She had an air about her that could make an adult feel like a child. Lilly certainly felt small.

                “Stay safe,” she said. And just like that, she walked the other way.

                “Okay?” Lilly questioned, standing confused for a second. “Well, whatever.” Putting the letter into her bag, she returned on her course.

                Although the lively school atmosphere could be cut with a knife, it quickly deadened as Lilly got into the classroom of Class 3-A.

                There was no one in here.

                Regardless, Lilly’s heart was racing. She didn’t know what Ayase had up her sleeve for handling this anomaly. Out of habit, she moved to her desk in the back. Looking across all of the empty desks, she felt like an island.

                Waiting for Ayase to drop by, she took a seat. She placed her bag on her desk, hugging it before laying her head down. She closed her eyes, yawning again. Maybe I’ll nap a bit, but I’ll feel weird if she catches me asleep.

                In an instant, Lilly felt the soft embrace of sleep, and soon floated in a half-state between wake and rest. Time slipped away.

                ‘Tip. Tip. Tip. Clink.’

                She heard footsteps enter the room as Ayase came in. The door slid shut, and then a click.

                “Man, I’ve gotta say, stealin’ that note from your little friend was a little too easy. It’s like she wanted to give it up.”

                This isn’t Ayase.

                Lilly raised her head too hastily, her nap and the incoming head rush disorientating her for a moment. What… time is it? Her image of the entering person was fuzzy.

                “Sup. The infamous Akiyama Lilly. The human anomaly herself.”

                “Who… Who are…” Lilly rubbed her eyes to get a better picture of who this was. It didn’t help much at all.

                The voice was feminine. At least I think it is. But there was something about it. Distinct, but unrecognizable. Lilly had no idea who this was.

                “Me? You don’t need to know about me, you’re the interesting one around here. I wish they didn’t hog you all to themselves, after that data spike a couple weeks back, it’s all anyone’s been talkin’ about.” The voice was muffled but had a rasp, like they just picked up smoking and just got back from a coughing fit.

                They kept talking. “And this recent conceptual deletion. I’m sure you’ve got a whole flower-picked plan for it, but that’s boring. What’s cool is data. Information. Something actually worth reporting on. What would happen, I wonder, if I stopped the deletion process in a different way? How would she react, if… oh, I dunno, kill you?”

                A loud snap, followed by a sound of what could only be described as glass crashing together. When Lilly finally got her eyesight back, she saw what looked like a large spear coming right for her face.

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