Interlude – Ayase

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                I hate my sister.

                Well, I don’t hate her.

                I love her like you would a sister, of course, and if something were to happen to her – anything – I don’t know what I’d do.

                Devastated, probably. No, more than devastated.

                But she can really get under my skin.

                And that attitude, I wish I could punch it right in its face. In her face.

                So yes.

                I hate my sister.

                Ayase kneaded her neck. It wasn’t long until she had to knead her arm as well. She coughed. Or rather she wheezed. When she did, her whole body seared with pain, forcing her to slump her posture even more. She hated when she couldn’t stand straight. When she couldn’t stand properly. She hated it.

                You’ve been through much worse, she thought to herself. Definitely. Much worse.

                Her face betrayed her thoughts.

                Halfway up, where the stairs would wind and ascend to the upper floor. Standing there, she waited. Waited for the inevitable. She had braced herself long ago, so now it was only a matter of time. Inattentively, she rubbed a finger along the edge of a hole in her shirt. After a while, she moved along to a tear along the side of her jacket.

                The rhythmic sounds of footsteps began coming down the staircase. She secured her bag and straightened her stance, until her back was parallel to the wall. Her eyes were as wide as saucers, her mouth forming a large ‘O’ as her muscles protested against standing like this. Come on, just bear with it please.

                The footsteps got closer, louder as they wind the other way and towards her. Ayase looked on with a smile as the owner of those steps became visible. She waved.

                “Hey, sis.”

                Ayane frowned at her, seeing through her rather than just seeing her.

                There was a moment of tense stillness. If someone took out a match, it’d light up on its own. In reality, this was how Ayase would thank her sister, and how Ayane would return her welcome.

                “You messed up,” she said, curtly, “Big time.”

                Getting right to it, huh?

                “What are you talking about? I had it under control,” Ayase said, forcing a light tone. Even she knew that wasn’t true.

                “Don’t give me that,” Ayane snapped back, “You could’ve been killed. Or worse, she could’ve been killed.” She approached Ayase, standing right in front of her.

                She had to lift her neck to study her sister’s face. It hurt to do so.

                Unreadable. Her brow was set in a line, just like her lips. No, where the anger really was, was in her eyes. Those incredibly green eyes. If they could, they could make a tectonic plate run away from their gaze, pushing into another plate and forming volcanoes. Her gaze resembled a snake, with its sights set on an injured bird.

                Ayase stared back, unfazed.

                “Hmph,” Ayane hummed, breaking contact first. “You’re so goddamn stubborn.”

                I’d say the same to you. But she kept silent.

                “I’m beginning to wonder if you having Akiyama and Haruko was a good idea,” Ayane said, cutting the silence in half.

                “I’m doing fine.”

                “Are you? Because I physically cannot find it within me to think that you have even a semblance of a clue about what the hell you’re doing.” Whenever Ayane cursed, it was for the sake of intimidation. Ayase heard it enough times to be used to it.

                She kept going. “Treating Akiyama like a low level? How naïve are you? Were you aware at all of what I meant when I sent you to that shed? How violently the anomaly would react in her presence? And after taking her between the time frames? Bet you didn’t know they’d go after her too.”

                Ayase wanted to move her body somewhat, but didn’t will herself to. It started to ache, being so still.

                “And the conceptual deletion? With how unprecedentedly fast the concept is degrading? It’s got about two days at least until the very idea is gone from existence and we won’t even have had this part of the conversation.” She observed her little sister’s face. Blank with a hint of holding back a wince.

                She summed it up more fully. “Anomalies are reacting to her in ways that haven’t been fully observed yet, and I don’t appreciate you irresponsibly putting her into contact with them.”

                “Well, we won’t get data if we don’t expose her to them, right?”

                Ayane kept her arms tightly beside her. She laughed. The sound went down the stairs and into the hallways they connected. “You’re funny.”

                She let a final laugh echo out through the halls before continuing to drill in her words. “How am I supposed to explain all of this to our seniors?”

                Ayase had rehearsed this over and over. “Nao was an outlier, a factor I for-“

                “This isn’t about Nao! This is about how you’re constantly going against what’s the best idea.” Ayane touched the bridge of her nose. “Nao would’ve have went after her anyways, whether or not you told Akiyama about us.”

                “If that’s true, then telling her was the only course of action,” Ayase said, finally defending herself. “You would’ve let her be. Who knows what she would have done to herself after the powers kept bearing down on her, and she had no one to help make sense of it all. And then what? She needed something to hold on to. Something that made sense.”

                She kept up her momentum. “And you just said that Nao would have come for her anyways, so wouldn’t be better if she knew about us for some sense of security? What would you have done, then?”

                Ayane stepped back. A look of confidence that said she did have an answer prepared. However, she didn’t bother to expound on that. “Fair enough. At the very least, the very least, Haruko is still kept in the dark in all of this.”

                It’d be bad if she wasn’t, Ayase silently agreed.

                “That still doesn’t excuse having them both join your little club. You’ve included a civilian who has no business being anywhere near those two,” she stated, referring to the unaware president of the Society of Occult Literature, Hinata Megumi.

                “They’re her friends. And she’s safe. I’ve set up precautions already.”

                “The perimeter?”

                “Yes.”

                “Hmph,” Ayane sounded, crossing her arms. Her lips curled with a centimeter of a grin. “Maybe you’re not entirely hopeless.”

                Ayase’s mouth opened slightly, the corners folding upward. “Thanks.”

                Ayane’s expression fell again, dropping the façade. “But still. You’re underestimating Akiyama, I’m telling you. Haruko too.”

                You don’t have to keep telling me.

                The way that Ayane suddenly leaned in threw Ayase off guard. She stopped herself from falling over backwards. The feeling of Ayane’s breath as she whispered into her ear, it was uncomfortable for sure.

                On the other hand, there was also a sense of relief, since Ayane was so close, she wouldn’t be able to see Ayase’s look of shock from hearing what she had to say.

                Her swung her body ever so slightly. What? I thought their causality relationship was…

                After a final soft breath, Ayane straightened herself up, leaning away from her sister. She continued her lecturing.

                “Now do you get it? You know we have our limits, but if mastered, they both could either be very useful, or very dangerous for us. That’s why there’s so much interest in them, and why it makes more sense that I be the one who monitors them.”

                She wanted to scowl, or react in any way, but Ayase showed nothing on her face. She knew if she did, Ayane would know that she missed that crucial detail. That distinction. She didn’t to show her older sister how wrong she was in her conclusion regarding the causality relationship between Akiyama Lilly and Haruko Rea. But why tell me all this…

                She looked back up Ayane. “You’ve been observing them, too.”

                “Of course.”

                Ayase raised her voice. “That wasn’t part of our deal.” Her teeth were a millimeter from gritting together. “You were supposed to let me handle everything.”

                “I do things my own way. Just think of it as insurance.” A quick glance at Ayase’s reaction. “If anything, you really should be thanking me.”

                The desire to hit something, anything, was welling up exponentially inside Ayase. But she just wrapped her hands around the strap of her bag. So tight her fingernails dug into her palm. She twitched in pain as she moved her arms. She didn’t want to show how much her body hurt, but it was too late. Ayane saw. Ayane noticed.

                Ayane won.

                “To be honest, I can’t say I’m intrigued by your methods, we are definitely getting some good data out of this.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “Alright, I’ll leave you for now. But that doesn’t I mean I won’t act on my own accord.”

                Ayase responded with her silence.

                Satisfied, Ayane moved in to her little sister. She meticulously grazed her uniform. The sleeves of the jacket, the long sleeves underneath, and the back of her skirt.

                “Geez, what did Nao do to you?” Ayane asked while feeling the fabric of the clothes.

                “You know.”

                Tch. We’re girls, and she’s running around doing kicks in skirts? What a pain.” She tried to stifle it, but a chuckle came out of Ayase.

                Ayane finished up. “There, that’s my last favor.”

                Lifting her arms, Ayase inspected her uniform. The tatters and holes were gone, like they were never ripped apart from being kicked out of a window in the first place.

                “Thanks,” Ayase said, sincerely. She did save her life, after all. She owed her that much.

                “Don’t thank me,” she said back. Another second of standing still, then she winked.

                Please don’t do that.

                “Here, before I forget,” Ayane reached behind her sister’s ear, and pulled out her phone. It blinked to indicate a new message.

                Nice magic trick.

                “Since you’re in the business of escorting, bring her to this job.”

                Ayase took back her phone, turning it on to read its contents. “This? I thought I was done with the small stuff.”

                “Just do it. Last thing I want is for things to heat up now.”

                “Guuuh.”

                “I just want to make it clear. Last one, promise.” There was little conviction in Ayane’s words. As if Ayase hadn’t heard that a million times over dinner.

                Ayase didn’t say anything back, which meant she accepted.

                “Good. Now, can I have some cash?” Ayane requested.

                “What?”

                “Mama wanted me to get some groceries on the way back.”

                “You still haven’t paid me back from last time.”

                “Aww…” Ayane moped. She raised a shoulder.  

                “Alright, I’ll figure it out. See you at home.” Ayane went down the rest of the stairs. As she got off the last step, she stopped. Without turning around, she brought up her last point.

                “You better know what you’re doing. After all, she isn’t the only one interested in them. Or…” A pause. “From that fight, I hoped you’ve learned your lesson.” Finally making her peace, she walked away. The sound faded with every step. Then, she was gone, on her way to get groceries, Ayase figured.

                A low sigh dragged out of her, until it rose to a crackly hum. I hate my sister….

                Irritating, it was, but more so to herself than Ayane. Valuable reports or not, she did mess up. Big time. There wasn’t much else but to pick up the pieces and be more careful from now on. A lot of restructuring was on the horizon.

                “‘Learn your lesson’, huh? Don’t give me that.”

                Ayase rested her back on the wall, exhaling. She finally got to relax her muscles. They still haven’t stopped hurting. She gave it some time before reaching into her bag, exchanging her phone for a notebook and pen. Crossing out lines and entire pages and writing in new tidbits of information, Ayase had a whole busy night of data reconfiguration ahead of her. This part of the job is such a chore.

                Although, it’s either this or end up like up Nao… More I think about it, I don’t know which is worse…

                As she lost herself in her writing, she didn’t hear another sound coming from upstairs. The clattering of cloth-and-rubber on tile. They came down the stairs towards her.

                “Ayase, how are you?”

                She looked back up. It’s Lilly. An eyepatch covered her left eye. A grim reminder of her recent mistake. Her heart dropped down to her stomach. Ayase gave a smile, maybe a little weaker than she would have liked.

                “Hey, but I should be asking you that.”

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