Chapter 25 – ‘This variation,’

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                Utilizing incredible speed, the wooden skeleton caught up in just a few steps, and was almost at its own arm’s length to Lilly. She was already wheezing, having to run so hard for so long to try and get away, and her legs were starting to give up.

                “Watch out!” the girl pulling her yelled. She stopped right in her tracks, and Lilly almost bumped into her from her own momentum.

                “Hu-!” The girl caught Lilly before she could actually slam into her. Using her momentum, the girl lifted Lilly above her, flipping her and tossing her some good distance into a soft pile of grass. Like that helped.

                “Ow!” Lilly didn’t land well, hitting the ground on her shoulder and rolling twice before stopping on her stomach. She didn’t have time to question why that had to happen, she saw it with her own eyes.

                Showing off its power, it directed the flames coming from its spine to its arm, before reaching out in front of it and throwing its fire. The girl who was escorting Lilly had tossed her aside to get her out of the way, but the downside was subjecting herself to the scorching attack instead.

                “No!” Lilly cried out.

                She watched as the girl was engulfed completely, her image swallowed by fire. Soon something does cut through the inferno, but it wasn’t what Lilly wanted.

                The creature took a step out of the fire, and then another towards Lilly.

                “How are you not on fire yet?” Lilly muttered, her breath shortened.

                She struggled to get back up, her aching muscles failed her in standing up quickly. Shoot, shoot, shoot!  The best she could do was sit, but that doesn’t help in getting her away from the monster. Her shoulder was particularly pained, and she winced when she grabbed for it. She got on her feet using just her legs, her right arm being massaged by her left.

                Before she could think of her next step, all movement was robbed from her. She was frozen in fear, all she managed was looking up until her neck strained, all from sizing up the monster.

                It towered in front of her. Its wooden skull blocked the moon behind it, shrouding Lilly in an isolating darkness. It swiped at her.

                Lilly felt the ground leave her feet, when in reality she was being lifted from it. Long, slender branches wrapped around her body, tying her legs and arms. She couldn’t even move a finger, she was gripped too tight. In short, she was fully and wholly constrained.

                Her eyes met the empty, dark holes in the creature’s skull.

                No amount of budging was met with a chance of reprieve. The creature was too strong. Too fearsome, for her to make a wholesome effort without its monstrous appearance taking her full attention.

                Lilly screamed.

                As if in response, the creature opened its mouth as well, but a much louder sound exploded out this time. Not a sentence, but a yell.

                It immediately shut Lilly up, but she noticed something. An element, something subtle, in the sound the creature produced. A vocal tinge.

                Something distinctly female.

                It was enough to quicken Lilly’s pulse even more, and she tried harder to move around, and slip out of the creature’s grip. Futile.

                But, before Lilly could realize what was happening, a sudden force rocked the creature down to its knees, and its fingers loosened. Lilly fell.

                Someone grabbed her in midair, stopping her from hitting the ground. Ayase. They landed safely, but Ayase kept running, carrying Lilly. A no-longer surprising amount of girl from a girl of Ayase’s stature.

                “Sorry about that,” she said with a smile, but slightly out of breath, “But as you can see, things are starting to heat up around here.”

                “We, we don’t have the time for that!” Lilly yelled. “What is that thing?!”

                “Sorry, Miss Akiyama,” Ayase said, “That’ll have to come a little later.”

                Ayase maintained her speed, a hard sprint, while barking orders to her other companions.

                “It’s tougher than I thought, but it shouldn’t be too bad! We improvise until we can get it into a better position for sealing!”

                Lilly heard Riyo yell back. “Thanks for pointing out the obvious!”

                The sounds of fighting filled the night sky. Explosions, lasers, fire. Lilly didn’t see any of this coming when Ayase asked her out earlier today.

                Finally, Ayase slowed down, then stopped, and set Lilly down. Lilly immediately put her hands on her knees, and took in every breath she could.

                “I’m sorry that I keep saying ‘I’m sorry,’ Miss Akiyama, but I’ll have to go accompany those two, right now,” Ayase said. “They’ll be lost without me.” The way she was speaking showed no real sense of urgency, like she was talking about having to go out for a quick errand, rather than doing whatever this was.

                “Hold on,” Lilly panted, “Don’t, don’t go.”

                “Don’t worry,” Ayase said. “This shouldn’t take much longer, now that I have a bit more data to work with, now.” She pointed behind Lilly. “Just starting running towards those trees. Just run. Things should be over with before you get all the way to the perimeter.”

                “You sound pretty confident in yourself,” Lilly commented.

                “That’s because I am.”

                “Ugh, fine. But,” Lilly turned, facing where Ayase indicated. “That’s still a bit of a distance.”

                “You’ll be alright. Just run.” There was a quick swish of wind, and when Lilly looked back, Ayase was gone.

                She no longer wasted any time. She ran.

                Lilly pushed herself as hard as she could. But the more she ran, the less progress she seemed to be making. Behind her, it was still loud, no matter how far she got. But she couldn’t afford to look back and observe the fighting. She had her own part to play in all of this.

                Which was to not die.

                Run, run, keep going!

                She kept telling herself that, but she was still so tired. Lilly could only run for so long. Could only sprint for so long. She was beginning to slow down, even if every bit of herself told her not to.

                The sounds, the deep vocal bass of the creature, it kept ringing her ears. Like it was calling out to her. Screaming.

                And it sounded like it was getting closer.

                I thought Ayase said I’d be alright!

                It was nerve-racking, that she couldn’t turn around to see what was happening.

                She could only see the after-effects.

                A bright light was creeping behind, a glow that was illuminating the grass around her. Blue. The ground was rumbling below her feet, as if just running forward wasn’t already hard enough. She began to stumble.

                With every step, the more intense the light behind her was growing, the more intense rumbling became, nearing the resemblance of an earthquake. Under those circumstances, it was nearly impossible for Lilly to run straight.

                Her right foot landed, but she buckled, and fell.

                The trees were right there, a few more paces away, but she was too spent to move. Hopefully, she had run far enough. She turned.

                It was too bright to see anything. A high-pitch note was beginning to peak, and she felt dizzied and disoriented. She had tried her best. Lilly braced herself, and closed her eyes shut.

                The rumbling becoming stronger, the light more intense.

                “…”

               

                What?

                “Miss Akiyama, you’re safe to open your eyes, now.”

                Slowly, Lilly did just that. She looked up to see Ayase.

                “Do you need a hand?” Ayase asked, extending one out for her.

                Lilly didn’t hesitate in accepting her help. Ayase helped her up.

                Lilly had to huff out her words. “Did… Is… that thing… is it gone?”

                “As gone as it’s going to be,” Riyo said, walking up to the two girls. “That thing was a lot tougher than I expected.”

                Tsubasa joined them right after. “Yeah. As much as I hate to say it, Ayase, but Riyo was right. You seriously miscalculated this one.”

                “Hey, not now,” Ayase lightly pleaded. “Even if you are right, now’s not the time.”

                “Hmph, whatever,” Riyo said. He looked away, back at the center of the meadow.

                The crater was larger than before, with smaller indentations in the dirt from the impacts from the battle that just concluded. It was quiet, now, almost eerily so. A sudden stillness after everything that happened gave Lilly an uneasy sensation. Like it was a false quiet, and something else was about to happen.

                Also, and most importantly, the creature was gone. Nowhere to be found. And it would’ve have been easy to find.

                “What was that thing?” Lilly asked, finally having the opportunity to do so.

                Riyo answered. “You don’t recognize your own nephew? How sad?”

                “Huh, what?” Lilly replied, confused.

                “That’s grossly oversimplifying it, Riyo,” Tsubasa commented. “Come on, you and I can finish cleaning up.”

                “What about the little pipsqueak? Can’t she help?”

                “I believe I owe Miss Akiyama a bit of an explanation,” Ayase explained. “You two can go ahead.”

                Riyo shook his head. “I can’t believe this.” But he didn’t complain any further. He walked away, and Tsubasa followed.

                “Alright,” Lilly said as those two left. “Now it’s officially my turn.”

                “Yes it is,” Ayase said, turning to Lilly and giving her full attention.

                Lilly started, as she brushed away some hair from her eyes. “So, let me ask again. What in the world was that?”

                Ayase inhaled, taking in as much air as she could before answering. “It’s a subspecies of anomalous data that is normally birthed by the societal worries of the collective human conscience.”

                Lilly blinked.

                “Thanks,” she said.

                “To put it simply,” Ayase continued, “It’s a sort of projection, a physical manifestation of the stresses that plague humanity. It’s one of the more common jobs we do as part of our duties. It’s a menial task, but it’s important, otherwise humanity as it stands wouldn’t be here, right now.”

                Lilly was staggered. “Shouldn’t you have mentioned that when you first introduced all of this to me?”

                “Probably. My apologies, Miss Akiyama, but it really is so menial, in my head I didn’t think it was worth mentioning to you.”

                “Me nearly turning into grilled steak is not menial.”

                Ayase looked down, like she was regretting her actions. “I understand.”

                Ah, wait, don’t make that face, now I feel bad!

                “Stop, stop that,” Lilly muttered, “Don’t do that.”

                Ayase looked up, “I suppose there’s no point in dwelling on things like that.”

                “Yeah.” But Lilly was still curious. “Anyways, even if that’s the case, why bring me? And… I really don’t want to consider this, but was that thing after me?”

                Ayase grinned, though a little forlorn. “You caught on, but I’m not surprised, given your sharp eyes.”

                “Less flattery, and more answers, Ayase.”

                “Right, sorry. Yes, that is the case, unfortunately. It was coming after you. In fact, it’s exactly why we had to bring you here in the first place.”

                Lilly asked her next question slowly, worried. “… Why?”

                “Well, it was going after you, we couldn’t have you be in your home. We had to take you somewhere safe, with no one else around.”

                “You used me as bait?”

                “That’s a rather negative way of looking at things,” Ayase commented. “We didn’t have much of a choice.”

                “You couldn’t do any of your weird spatial… magic tricks? You couldn’t snap your fingers and take us elsewhere?”

                Ayase shifted in place, scratching her shoulder. “That’s the thing. Normally, we’d be able to, but it was a lot tougher than it looked. Believe it or not.”

                “Try me.”

                “Like I mentioned, it’s not exactly what we normally go up against, it’s a subspecies. Instead of coming from the collective mindset of the human population, it came from a singular source.”

                “A singular source?”

                “A single human.”

                Lilly was staggered. Again. “And who would that be?”

                “Haruko Rea.”

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Chapter 24 – ‘This assemblé,’

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              “What’s a panda’s favorite food?”

                Lilly’s eyebrow twitched. “What?”

                Pan, duh?”

                “That’s enough out of you!”

                Down along the highway, the taxi rolled along speedily.

                By the time they left what could confidently be considered the edge of the city, or perhaps even the prefecture – should one want to exaggerate – the moon was reaching above the clouds, trying to pierce the gloomy sky. Mountains and hills rolled past Lilly’s window, dark shapes mostly thanks to the little light the current time offered. Ayase promised they’d be gone for an hour at most, but Lilly was worried if they were able to make good on that. The moon seemed to be racing up towards the stars.

                “You still haven’t told me what exactly we’re doing,” Lilly pointed out to Ayase, for what felt like the millionth time. The lack of information was becoming increasingly bothersome. It didn’t help that she’d been talking to the back of her head.

                “Ah, I hoped we’d have a clearer night.” Ayase tone of voice paid no attention to Lilly. She might as well have said nothing.

                Lilly’s fingers curled into a soft fist. “Hey!” she called out.

                Ayase finally turned to her. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”

                Can I just yell? Lilly thought, but Ayase’s soft lips folded into a sweet smile, genuinely apologetic. She couldn’t bring herself to get too work up. She dropped it.

                Lilly then looked over at the meter by the wordless driver, who had yet to say a word the entire trip. Three red dashes instead of an increasing fare. If that meant this ride was on the house, then fine by her. But that did make her uneasy.

                She looked back out her window, watching the moon with her good eye. The fabric on her other eye made her more uneasy.

                The ride was quiet, very quiet, since even the sound of tire on road was missing, giving her the illusion that they were gliding to whatever location they were headed. An eerie drive. But it allowed her to retrace her steps from her normal routine to this not-so-normal taxi.

                “What do you mean exactly by ‘accompany?’ Lilly inquired.

                Ayase waved her hand. Lilly knew by now that meant she wasn’t going to get a clear answer. I’ll make a mental note of prodding you later. A million times if I have to.

                “It’s nothing big, it was just good to let you know now. Don’t want you making a bigger mess of things.”

                “Hey?!”

                Ayase motioned again. “Here’s the plan. We’ll hold club as usual, and afterwards, you drop Rea off like you usually do, and go back home. As usual. I’ll meet you at your place after an hour or so. Don’t mention anything to Rea.”

                “Wait, huh? What are we doing? And what am I supposed to tell my dad?”

                “Tell him you have to study at a friend’s place, or something. Bring some schoolwork, you can put it in the back.”

                “You didn’t answer my first question. And hold on, how do you know where I live?” Lilly asked.

                She answered quickly. “I don’t want to freak you out right now, so that should be the least of your worries.”

                Lilly stepped back. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re scarier than you look?”

                “Ha ha, excuse me.”

                “Miss Akiyama, your leg?”

                Lilly suddenly became aware of her body. More specifically, what it was doing. Her leg shook up and down, forming the only source of noise within the car, and Lilly only now noticed it. She must have been like that the whole trip.

                “Woops.”

                With all her might, she forced herself to stop.

                “Relax,” Ayase said, “While we’re still in the car, you’re fine.”

                “It’d be a lot easier if you could tell me what we’re doing then.”

                Ayase patted Lilly’s lap. Her eyes darted right at the contact, fully aware of her presence. And the fact that she was wearing shorts.

                They both were in casual wear, Lilly in a dark green sweater and denim shorts, and Ayase in a bright pink hoodie and short track shorts. The word ‘HOT’ was printed across her chest.

                Lilly was partially grateful she had the opportunity to change out of her uniform, it helped in making her not as anxious as she could have potentially been.

                She was still pretty anxious, though.

                “Do you know the story of Alice in Wonderland?” Ayase suddenly asked.

                “Huh?” Lilly scratched her head. “Yeah, sure, whatever.” She shrugged.

                “I’ve been meaning to say, but it’s not good to do that. Bad manners.”

                “Did you have a po-”

                “Anyways, what do you think of Alice by the end of the story?”

                Lilly wanted to sigh, but she felt that Ayase would comment on that too. “It’s all just a dream, right?” She rested a hand on her face. “To be honest, I kind of envy her.”

                Silence settled in the car for a bit. Ayase broke it first. “How so?”

                “All those crazy things that happened to her, to the point that she could have even died, and she gets to wake up from it all, with no consequences other than being able to say, ‘what a strange dream.’ I wish I could do that.”

                “I know how you feel, Miss Akiyama, but we can’t control the hand that we’ve been dealt. The cards we get.”

                “I know. Why bring it up anyways?”

                Ayase looked back out her window. “Just curious.”

                “Context?”

                “Yes, Miss Akiyama. Now, you wanted to know what we’re doing? We’re going to a tea party.”

                They both felt the car slow down. “We’re here,” Ayase said, as the taxi began to park.

                ‘Here’ wasn’t much in the way of being a descript location, with the taxi stopping not even by the side of the road, but right in the middle. They were so far and out that it didn’t matter where they parked. Thick woods now lined up both sides of the road. Lilly looked at the three red dashes on the meter, still unchanged.

                By this time it was almost completely dark, Lilly barely making out the shape of her hand as she held it out in front of her. Exiting the car, she followed Ayase by grabbing for her shoulder. The car didn’t depart as they walked off the road towards a forested area.

                “Ugh, what is this,” Lilly complained. Leaves and sticks poked into her leg.

                “Please stick close,” Ayase said, not much in acknowledging what Lilly said.

                The trees and foliage were less thick than Lilly initially expected, the mass of green thinning out as the girls entered deeper into the forest. Soon enough, they passed through everything and entered a spacious meadow. It was like the trees were a barrier to hide to this place.

                Grass still up to their knees, the occasional flower brushing against them as they kept walking. Lilly took in the view, until she realized that she was able to take in a view in the first place. Maybe it was due to the trees behind them that had blocked away any and all light, but now, in this open space, the moon served as a perfect backlight. It hung high over the large but soft rolling hills that was this meadow. If there were more trees on the other side, they were dots from where the girls stood.

                “This place is huge,” Lilly commented. She bit her tongue. Wait, duh.

                Due to the vastness of the field, it would be easy to see if they weren’t the only ones there. The hairs on Lilly’s neck jumped up when she realized that wasn’t the case.

                Two others stood around the relative center of the area. Despite the plethora of room available to them, they were right up to each other, but not in a cute way. If only a second late, Lilly would have walked in on a full-blown fight.

                “Late,” one of them said, not facing the girls, keeping their glare forward instead. It was a girl. She looked to be in high school, wearing a blue track jacket and skirt. Her stare was intense, her thick glasses magnetizing them even more.

                “If we were late, you would all be in a lot of trouble,” Ayase said in return, her confident tone was something Lilly was already used to.

                “That the troublemaker?” the other one asked, popping in. A boy. Probably in college. His arms were crossed. He didn’t bother to break his stare with the girl.

                You talking to me? Lilly thought. Also, what is with you two?

                “Not this one,” Ayase responded, “They’re a different type of trouble.” They handled their conversation like Lilly was invisible. She was sure that wasn’t a power she had.

                Deciding whatever lead up to his standstill with the girl was no longer worth it, the boy turned his attention to Lilly. In response, the girl straightened up, now crossing her arms, her face giving a smug satisfaction.

                Like the other girl, he too had glasses, but unlike how hers made her look more serious, the way the light caught the lenses made it harder to gauge his expression. The way he grinned suggested lightheartedness, but in a way that carried a bit of an edge, like a lion playing with its food.

                “Dang, if that’s the case, I’d give my condolences. But, you know, schadenfreude.”

                Schaden-what? Lilly wanted to say, but he left an intimidating impression. She kept still.

                “Hey, one-eye, do a trick for us,” he put a hand behind his back. “How many fingers am I holding behind my back?”

                Lilly was a millimeter close to blowing a fuse. “That’s not how that works… And even if that was how it worked, I can’t answer if you keep moving your fingers.”

                The boy’s eyes widened in surprise, and soon dropped his hand to his side, as well as his act. The girl beside him turned away and covered her mouth. Her shoulders still shook.

                “Shut up,” he said to the girl.

                Lilly took advantage of their momentary distraction to lean to Ayase’s ear. “Who are they? You never said there would be others here. Actually, you have yet to say anything regarding this.”

                “Hold on, it’s not important,” Ayase said.

                “Uh- aren’t you going to introduce me at least?” The last thing Lilly wanted was to be the odd one out, even if that meant having to talk to these two more. “Are they part of your little group thing?”

                “Said it’s not important.”

                A-ya-se.

                Regaining his composure, the boy directed himself to Ayase again. “Hold up, is it really a good idea to bring her like that, though?” He flicked a hand to Lilly, not looking to her at all. “She’s out in the open.”

                “Not much of a choice. Copperhead’s orders,” Ayase said.

                The boy clicked his tongue. “Tch. Friggin’ kids. And acting like the boss?” He folded his arms once more, and began tapping his foot.

                “Now, now,” the other girl butted in. “That was earned. You could learn something from them, Rii.”

                “Wait! We were given work names for a reason!” The boy stomped his foot, crushing the grass under his feet.

                “Your name sucks, Rio.”

                “Huugh, it’s Riyo, not Rio, at least get that right!” He caught himself too late. “Dammit!”

                The girl lifted her chin, and turned the other way. “Whatever, who cares?”

                “Who cares? Why did you bring it up, then? What about her?” he pointed to Ayase, “Her’s is Quack. Quack! What kind of name is that!”

                Those two stood on the precipice of fight since Lilly got here, but only now did they fall back deeper into their conflict. They charged at each other, and it didn’t look like it would end well.

                Ayase went in between the glasses girl and Riyo, disappearing from Lilly’s side and coming in between those two in an instant. She brought a hand out to each of them, stopping them in their tracks. She might have stopped their movement, but she couldn’t stop what they were feeling.

                “Come on Tsubasa, Riyo, now’s not the time.” Ayase’s words were cool, not giving way to the fact that she was among those who were more than five years her senior. She noticed that Ayase didn’t use either of their ‘work names,’ too. At most, all Lilly ever felt towards Ayase was a well-deserved trepidation. If there was a time to have any real fear for Midori Ayase, right now was as good as any.

                It took a sentence more to snap them out of their spat. “It’s here.”

                In a quick second, Tsubasa and Riyo’s bodies tensed up, and Ayase started to stretch her arms. From that much, Lilly knew something was about to happen. Something she wished she had not been taken there to see.

                At first, it looked like a shooting star, soaring across the night sky. All hopes of it being that were dashed as the small point progressively became larger. For an instant, Lilly thought the sun was tumbling towards the earth. She took multiple steps back in anticipation, in fear, ready to run. The three others ahead of her didn’t budge.

                Whatever it was, it crashed in front of Lilly, between her and the others. A flash of wind gushed in every direction, and she felt the intense heat. On instinct, she brought her arms to her face. It was like standing too close to a bonfire. When enough dust had settled, she was afraid of how accurate that simile was.

                It stood in the small crater it made upon impact, still as a stick.

                A skeleton of seven meters. Gigantic. But even more frightening about this thing was that it was made of wood. The individual bones that would normally make up the human skeletal system was made up entirely with thick wood. Its joints creaked as it stood upright, sounding like an old wooden door being swung open. Lilly noticed that its skeletal structure didn’t exactly resemble a human’s. It had a single horn protruding from its forehead, and it had claws for fingers and toes. Half-meter spikes also ran down its spine.

                With the creaking of wood, it then looked towards Lilly. She expected to at least see eyes, but she instead stared back into two dark, blank spaces. The empty holes contrasted Lilly’s wide stare.

                A giant man made of wood. Also, it was on fire.

                Tongues of fire covered its head, and the flames reached down to the end of its spine. The heat was intense, with Lilly starting to sweat, and she was a decent distance away. Plumes of smoke started forming out of its body, and reaching out to the sky. Lilly prayed that the smoke would attract attention from someone somewhere, but they were in the middle of nowhere. And, it was so dark already, the black smoke began to dissipate into the night. Other than the moonlight, this creature was the only thing that lit up the meadow.

                A giant skeleton made of wood. On fire. Lilly once again thanked her good luck.

                As though another surprise was necessary, it lowered its jaw, and actually produced sound. A low drone, barely anything resembling human speech. More like a cruel imitation.

                “I am frustration. I will burn all that is here. Mountains and flowers.”

                Lilly found herself unable to scared stiff, unable to run away from this thing. What exactly that threat entailed, she didn’t want to be around to find out.

               Riyo wasted no more time, crouching forward and lunging into a blur, disappearing entirely.

                Although he made a beeline straight to whatever this thing was, it crumpled to its side, the impact sending it flying away perpendicularly from Lilly. Another impact was made on the far side of the field, with another load of dirt and dust being kicked up as the creature crashed there.

                The creature stood right back up, without a hint of injury. Apparently, wood is as tough as metal, Lilly thought.

                Without wasting another breath, Ayase and Tsubasa rushed towards the thing, joining Riyo. They began to engage with the creature, with Lilly appropriately surmising that they were attempting to take it down.

                Lilly was at a loss of what to do, being left alone in the middle of a field without much to protect herself, or even much of an explanation as to why she, or that, was here. As if to answer some of her concerns, a shape quickly appeared in front of her, grabbing her arm and pulling her one way.

                “Stay close, I’m in charge of you for now.” It was Tsubasa. Lilly concentrated on not tripping over her own feet, especially with all the tall grass around them. She didn’t have time to think on much else. They ran towards the trees.

                When she figured she had a good pace, besides the occasional rough yank from the girl, Lilly tried to look behind her. Even at their distance, the thing was still tall enough to be seen, the flames it was producing off of its body making it all the more discernible. Its wooden arms swiped wildly into the air, presumably to fight off the other two. The others kept out of its range of reach, one was firing beams of light – Lilly figured that was Ayase – and other as knocking it around with physical force.

                After he brought it down, hard, Riyo brought his hands outward.

                The creature lashed out, throwing an arm, but it stopped mid-swing, hitting some invisible thing. It soon was forced into a crouch, and then on its knees. Its arms pressed against something above it, like it was try to stop something from crushing it. The smoke from its fire started shrouding a small space around it, filling a shape of a cube. It didn’t take long for Lilly to realize that it was being crushed by some sort of force field enclosing it.

                With all of its strength, the creature hunched down even further into itself before springing upward into the air, destroying the force field containing it along with Lilly’s hopes that it had been fully contained. Another instance of this particular trend that Lilly despised; her hopes being dashed.

                In reaction, Ayase, and Riyo jumped up to intercept it. To no surprise, they ascended to an impressive height. With a front flip, the wooden creature surrounded its entire body in flames, turning into a fireball in midair. It was too hot for the two to handle, so they were forced to get out of the way.

                With a loud boom as it landed, the creature ran as soon as it touched ground, getting away from Ayase’s group. It ran with a frightening speed, and its form not unlike an professional sprinter. It didn’t take long for Ayase and Riyo to catch up, and attempt to impede it’s movement with their barrage of attacks.

                But that was when Lilly realized something.

                Not once did the creature ever attempt to harm or attack Ayase or Riyo, only moving to evade or block whatever they threw at it. Whenever it swiped or threw a punch, it was to get them out of its way. It was moving with a purpose, a goal. Every time Ayase or Riyo tried to force it backwards, it would block or dodge, and keep trying to move forward. It advanced closer towards Lilly and the Tsubasa, significantly closing the gap with every step.

                The creature was going after her.

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Chapter 23 – ‘This appointment,’

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                “Yeesh, Rea, you’re so clumsy,” Lilly said. Rolling off to her side, Lilly got herself up, standing squarely on her feet.

                “Woops, sorry sorry,” Rea said lamely in return, setting her glasses straight. She got up by lifting her legs above her, and somersaulting backwards onto her feet and to a stand.

                “…!”

                A far, muffled voice came from the door, Lilly recognizing it as her dad. “Dinner must be ready,” she translated.

                “Kay kay!”

                Leaving the room, the two met Lilly’s dad down by the dining table. Three plates set, with plenty of curry and rice to go around. Lilly licked her lips in anticipation, so did Rea.

                “You should have called me down earlier,” Lilly said, “I would have help.”

                “Nah,” he responded, brushing away the suggestion, “I like doing it myself.”

                He pulled out chairs for all three of them, and they all took their usual spots. Lilly and Rea on one side, and Lilly’s dad at the head of the table.

                They clasped their hands together. “Let’s eat!” they said in unison. They all helped themselves afterwards.

                “So, Rea,” he started, “I haven’t seen you since Saturday, which means you haven’t been around in a while. How’s your mom?”

                “Good! She got a promotion recently, so she’s been even more busy.”

                “Oh, awesome. Tell her to take it easy, don’t want to get her hands tied.” He shook his head. “No wait, she tied up other people’s hands!” He laughed at his own joke.

                The girls cringed instead.

                He glanced down, still smiling. “C’mon, I thought it was funny. She was a cop, after all.”

                Stop it, Dad.

                With another question, he switched to another topic.

                “Then, how was school today, Lilly?”

                Let’s see, in the past few weeks I’ve time traveled, nearly gotten myself killed – on two, no, three different occasions – and saved the very concept of the donut from disappearing from reality. And today a junior wanted me to learn basic self-defense and attacked me to accomplish that goal! Dad, I do wonder how school has been lately, much less today. I know you only asked about today, but still.

                She took a spoonful of curry rice. Staring at it for a second, she blew on it to cool it down. She took the bite. Mild, but still had that kick. Delicious, as expected. After swallowing, she cocked her head a little.

                “Okay.”

                He scratched his scruffy chin, accepting the generic answer.

                No benefit saying anything else.

                The rest of the dinner continued as usual, Lilly’s dad making the occasional bad stab at comedy, and then the girls responding accordingly. Lilly thanked the stars that she didn’t inherit his sense of humor. The curry, as usual, was masterfully cooked, the assorted vegetables and beef smothered in the spicy brown sauce paired with the piping hot rice, made for a dish that was as aesthetically pleasing as it was delicious to eat. Lilly and Rea expected no less.

                Rea was the first to finish, eating more than she probably should. She sat back in her chair, satisfied, her hands placed over her stomach.

                “Ah, you knocked it outta the park again, Pops!” She complimented the chef with a thumbs-up.

                “Of course!” He puffed out his chest, returning the same prideful manner. He fully appreciated the feedback.

                Using considerable effort, Rea got up from the table, carrying her plate. Lilly soon followed.

                “I think I’m gonna go home right after this,” Rea said on her way to the kitchen.

                “Really? What about your homework?” Lilly brought back up.

                “Hm, there’s less than I expected, so I’ll just do it at home.”

                “If you say so.”

                Rea put away her dishes, and rushed back up to stairs to Lilly’s room to retrieve her things. The heavy meal hadn’t slowed her down one bit. Lilly opted to see Rea off, and they went outside. A bright moon cuts through the night sky.

                “Wanna do something after school, on Friday?” Rea asked.

                “Already looking forward to the week ending? But sure.”

                “Cool,” Rea said in a breath, “Then see yah tomorrow.”

                “See you.”

                Lilly watched on as Rea ran down the street, slowly becoming a dot as she got farther away. She always has too much energy.

                Going back inside, she saw her dad was halfway up the stairs, turning back around as Lilly locked the door behind her.

                “It’s really been ten years, huh? Wow,” he said. He actually sounded impressed.

                That day in the park was as clear as ever. “Yeah Dad, I know.”

                “I still remember your first day of school. Rea refused to let go of your hand the whole way there.”

                “That’s because she was dragging me the whole way there.”

                He chuckled, then went back up the stairs, his hand raised. His way of saying goodnight. Lilly thought he whispered something as he turned, but instead the sound came from within her head.

                ‘I wish your mother could see you now.’

                Lilly froze up in an instant. Her heart skipped multiple beats, and her throat went dry. She had to mentally blank out in order to restart, like some kind of computer.

                Inhale, exhale. Sigh.

                Me too. You must’ve had a very busy day today, Dad.

                When she went up the stairs, the smell of curry still wafted out of the kitchen.

                Lilly returned to her room, and sat at her desk. She laid out all her homework in front of her. The books and papers piled on to her desk, the top actually curved.

                This sucks.

                As expected, as always, it was a mundane undertaking. Reviewing facts here, solving math problems there, some reading comprehension over there, the typical workload for a middle school student, which is to say was still a lot.

                Off in the corner of her attention, however, were the manuals and manga that Ayase left her. She remembered a color cover of one of the manga being especially inviting. After completing a problem, or reading a passage, she would take a glance over the materials she set aside. Crap, I’m getting distracted! It was getting harder to focus, or actually absorb the material with each repetition.Lilly rushed through the last math exercise, not even sure if she did it right, but it hardly concerned her by this point.

                She checked the time. Ten o’clock. She looked at her bag again. I’ll read at least a page I guess. Just a page. She reached deep into her bag, grabbing the first book she could and opened a page. What parts did she say to look over again?

                Among the first few pages was a diagram on how to execute a proper mae geri. She read the instructions aloud. “A front kick to the groin, huh? Typical.” Holding the book, she tried to copy the move. “Okay, get my center, keep my balance on the left foot as I-“

                “Whoa!”

                Too much force was put into her kick, and consequently, she fell forward. She landed into an awkward splits, her meeting with the floor ended with an unceremonious crash. “Uff!”

                “You okay?!” she heard her father from down the hall.

                “Uh, yeah!” she replied with a grumble, rubbing her bottom. Turning over to her back, she checked if the book was still okay. It was. Breathing heavily, Lilly rested her head on the floor, concentrating on the citrine ceiling. The light above started to hurt.

                “I really need to put my foot down sometime…”

                She then got ready for bed. When she returned, she switched out the book for one of the manga she was lent. The first volume of a martial arts manga. The cover featured a boy, cast in blue, giving a forlorn expression. She flipped through the pages.

               “Ew, why did Ayase give me this? This guy is so gross.”

                She fell asleep before getting through the second chapter.

                The next day rolled around, and even the morning showed no signs of forgiveness to Lilly. She got up, got ready for school, and met up with Rea on the way to school.

                Lilly was as sore as ever. She doubted if the aching throughout her body would ever stop. Every step to the school felt like a chore, and whatever Rea was babbling about along the way was distant noise. And to cap off the gloom of the day were the clouds that were accumulating overhead. It wasn’t going to rain anytime today, but it would eventually, and when it did, it was definitely going to be heavy.

                Another sign that it was going to rain soon, was the fact that Rea was talking so much. More than usual, anyways. Cloudy days made her restless. She liked it warm and bright.

                Rea definitely hated the rain, but Lilly didn’t mind it. A nice drizzle was rather soothing, she thought.

                The rest of the school tolled on in much the same way, slow and dreary. Some excitement managed to cut through during lunch in the classroom. Since joining the club, Lilly and Rea had been having their lunch in the S.O.L. clubroom, along with Megumi and Ayase. Despite her preferance to eat lunch with the least amount of people as possible, Lilly figured it would be a good change of pace. For now. She made a mental note to go back to the flowerbed some time.

                To kill the time as they ate, Lilly and Rea played a spare board game from the club’s old broom closet, and the others read some books off the shelf. The uneasy static that came with rainy days managed to permeate throughout the clubroom.

                The game consisted of a board crisscrossed with a grid of black lines, and the black and white pieces dotting the surface. The objective was to surround a larger area of the board with one’s stones than the other.

                Lilly studied her pieces intently, cautiously determining her next move. The game surface looked like a monochrome mosaic.

                “There!” she announced, picking up a black stone and snapping it back down to its new location. The pieces around it jumped from her forceful play.

                “Oh yeah!” Rea opposed Lilly by moving a white stone in return.

                “Well, try this then!”

                “Then how about this!”

                The game continued with this energy for another eight minutes.

                Rea crouched over the game board, eyeing every stone and nodding occasionally, like she was telepathically communicating with them. She opened her mouth slightly.

                “Say, Lilly, do you have any idea what you’re doing?”

                “Nope.”

                “Yeah, me neither.”

                They move some more pieces, completely at random. After a few more turns, Lilly ‘let’ Rea win. Satisfied, Rea leaned back, and tried to go back to her meal.

                “Can I finish that?” Rea asked, pointing to Lilly’s lunch. It was halfway done.

                “Oh, yeah, sure.” Rea reached across the table to take it, deciding to use Lilly’s chopsticks to eat it. With their lunches being in such small boxes, they can be eaten pretty quickly. Rea had practically inhaled hers.

                “Good thing you didn’t cheat,” she said.

                “Like I’d ever,” Lilly said back, getting what she was talking about.

                As lunch concluded, the bell singing that fact, Megumi scurried out of the room first, her books hugged close to her body. Rea followed as they both had the same class, but not before a loud ‘see you later’ to Lilly. As Rea’s words finally stopped bouncing off the walls, the incoming calm emphasizing the fact that it was only Lilly and Ayase in the room.

                Lilly found it hard to break that silence, but she tried her best.

                “So, after school. Are… we… going to do it again?” Lilly asked, not catching the potentially suggestive meaning should someone had eavesdropped.

                Ayase straightened her back and looked up, like an answer was taped somewhere on the ceiling. “Uh, we don’t have to do anything today if you don’t want to.”

                “Okay then!” Lilly said, almost too hurriedly. She gathered her belongings and left the club room right away. If I don’t have to, then I don’t have to. I should put that up on a wall somewhere.

                “But-!”

                Lilly halted. She hated how tense that word made her. “But?”

                “But,” Ayase said again, “There may be something I’ll need you to accompany me on.”

                She was returned with an unimpressed look.

                “Are you saying I actually have a chance of not accompanying you?”

                Ayase gave it a second. She shook her head.

                Lilly’s shoulder dipped a smidge.

                “Do you mean ‘accompany’ in the sense that you need help in finding a new skirt, or…”

                Ayase gave it another second. She nodded this time, her lips folding into a simper.

                Funny, that almost looks apologetic.

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Chapter 22 – ‘This chassé,’

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                Lilly ran. She wasn’t left with much choice. She had to. The alternative would have been a lot worse.

                “Eah!”

                She jumped when a loud crash occurred right behind her, almost tripping her over. Stumbling to keep her balance, she tried to run harder. But her upper body was already leaning forward. Her center of gravity was getting away from her. If she kept at it like this she would’ve fallen over completely, face first.

                Her arms flailed, not aiding in her balance at all. When another crash slammed down right at her feet, she was sent forward, her front landing onto the hard, maple surface.

                “Kuh!”

                She lost her sense of direction as her body toppled over a few meters, stopping when she collided into the wall. Though, it wasn’t as painful as she expected, having slowed down somewhat on the way. Not any real consolation, however.

                Her thoughts got jumbled.

                “Come on, Miss Akiyama, please prepare yourself!”

                Gasping, Lilly pressed herself against the wall to stand. This isn’t helping my sore everything.

                “Ayase, please…” Lilly panted, her breath cut short, “Eenoff.” Her chest rose with an inhale. I meant ‘enough’.

                “Aw, fine,” Ayase said in reply, “But that doesn’t mean we’re done yet.”

                Shouldn’t that mean exactly what it means?’, Lilly wanted to say that, but that would require another minute of steady breathing.

                She flopped back down, her back on the wall and her knees to her chest. She didn’t have the breath to protest any more. She could only gave a pathetic look to Ayase, who was now standing over her.

                The gym, after school. All of the sports clubs have already left, leaving the whole large space to themselves. They had on their usual gym uniforms, a plain white shirt and red shorts. And to keep in the spirit of her outfit, she tied her hair back into a ponytail. She looked at the scene behind Ayase. About ten or so craters dented the laminated gym floor, she wasn’t even sure what exactly caused them, only knowing the booming sound and their destructive force. More harpoons? Laser eyes? Spirit bombs? Ayase brought her fingers together, and after a clear snap, the gym floor healed itself. Before she realized it, all evidence of it being damaged was gone.

                “Why… are we…” Lilly attempted to say.

                “As much as I’d hate to say it, Nao was onto something.”

                “Wha…”

                “I had hoped you would try and use your mind reading on me. To try and get the upper hand, or at least dodge better. You really did help me out a lot back there, when you used it on Nao.”

                Lilly hugged her legs closer her chest, resting her chin on her knees. She stroked her ponytail. “That was a one-time thing. Plus, I went overboard.” That overwhelming shock frin her power was but a memory now, but she didn’t want to recall that memory. With no real thoughts, she only concentrated on her breathing.

                “That’s why you need focus, so you won’t go overboard,” Ayase said, stretching her arms. Then her legs. “Also, you can’t focus with just one eye.”

                Lilly touched her eyepatch, feeling the fabric. It was starting to become a habit. “It still hurts though. I was going to give it at least a few more days.”

                “It’ll get better faster if you take it off sooner. It’s all in your head.”

                Lilly huffed out her nose.

                “I’m going to do a few laps to warm down. Would you like to join?” Ayase asked. From the blank expression on Lilly’s face, she knew the answer. “Okay then.”

                She started her run around the gym. By the tenth lap, Lilly wondered if Ayase no longer warming down and instead warming back up again. After five more laps she had worked up a good sweat, and slowed to a stop. One hand was on her waist as she signaled she was done with the other. Lilly was disappointed, one more lap and she was sure to join her for at least two. Surely.

                When Ayase finished her laps, Lilly went to her, handing her a towel.

                “Thank you, Miss Akiyama.”

                “Why are we doing all this again?” Lilly asked once more, having gotten some wind back in her.

                Ayase made some sort of noise like she was scoffing at her. She quickly covered her mouth to hide her face. She spoke behind her hand. “We all need to learn self-defense, we’re girls after all.” Her answer wasn’t complete until she gave a wink.

                “But there’s no way I could keep up with the likes of you. You’re literally faster than I can see.”

                “I’ll just teach you a few basic techniques. I’m not asking you to be Narushima Ryo here.”

                “Who?”

                “Really? That’s a classic. Never mind. Let’s pick up tomorrow, same time.”

                Tomorrow?

               “It might be a good idea to start exercising everyday too. How does one hundred push-ups, sit-ups and squats sound? Maybe even a decent run too.”

               “Everyday? You’re gonna kill me!”

               Ayase flicked her hair. It was weighted by sweat. “Fine by me. Just know it won’t be exercising that will kill you.”

               Lilly snorted and rolled her eyes.

                After Ayase successfully warmed down, they finished up their session, leaving the gym and going back up to Lilly’s classroom to change. Her arms shook by her side as Ayase opened the door. Her heart thumped three times with each step she took into the room and to her bag. Being in this classroom, after school. It hasn’t even been a week yet. Absolutely nerve-wracking.

                As Lilly was changing, removing her shirt and reaching for her white button-up, she heard a thump on her desk. Low but deep, like a pile of books. Turning to it, it was that exactly.

                A pile of books.

                How-to guides on self-defense. Books on aikido, judo, and karate. Various shounen manga featuring protagonists who want to be the strongest. Lilly was curious about that last category.

                “What is all of this?” she asked.

                “Some stuff you can read over in your spare time. We’ll cover page forty-three here, page fifteen on this one, and section B on page three here, all tomorrow,” Ayase explained, picking up the different books and showing her the pages. “The manga is so you can visualize different moves and poses. And just because I think they’re cool.”

                Lilly flipped through one of the manga. “I can’t stretch my arms that far.”

                “That’s not the point.”

                “But why? Don’t you think it’s a little much?”

                Ayase looked up at Lilly, her face stern. “As much as I want to, I can’t be with you twenty-four-seven. There may be times where you’ll need to rely on your own strength. Consider this, you’re almost in high school, and I’m a few months away from thirteen, do you really want someone like me protecting you all the time?” She said all this with a smug look.

                You can’t bring up age, have you seen half the things you can do? “Ah, I get it, I get it,” Lilly supposed, putting the books into her bag.

                “I’m not saying that there will be another Nao, but it’s good to be able to handle things on your own, even if it’s for a little bit. A few extra seconds can be very crucial.”

                “I said I got it already!”

                And she did. Part of her felt guilty for having Ayase come and step in for her protection, now that she remembered that at the end of the day, Ayase was a first year. But after everything that’s happened in the last few weeks, that small detail became negligible. Ayase always acted with a more mature air than other first years, and her knowledge of the supernatural justified that. What she’s seen, been witnessed to, Lilly had no idea. Talking to her, it was easy to forget that she was younger. Not by much, but she was younger. She talked like she knew more than most, which to be fair, she probably did. Normally, it would be annoying at best, blindingly irritating at worst. Depending on one’s tolerance on such manners. But she made it charming in her own way.

                Also, she did save Lilly’s life.

                “Um,” Lilly sounded, and looked down, “You know…”

                “Hmm?” Ayase was taking off her shirt, the cloth over her eyes.

                “‘Miss Akiyama’, you don’t have to call me that, you know. ‘Lilly’ is just fine.”

                Ayase set down her shirt, damp from sweat, and folded it up. She moved slowly, like she was using the time to come up with her response. She put the shirt away in her bag.

                Looking back at Lilly, she smiled.

                “I appreciate the gesture, I really do.”

                “…”

                The tone of her last word made it seem like she would say something more, but she doesn’t. Ayase left it at that, a strange atmosphere hanging between them. Her eyes to the floor, Lilly wanted to say something, anything in return.

                She doesn’t.

                Ayase finished changing first, bag in hand and a foot out the door. “I’ll head out first, Miss Akiyama. Same time tomorrow.” She said that as a confirmation rather than a suggestion. The door slid behind her as she left, leaving Lilly to change alone.

                I’ve spent all this time with Ayase, yet I feel like I hardly know her at all. Given the nature of her job, Lilly was too surprised about that being the case. But, it’d be nice to not feel like a bullet point on a list of responsibilities. She went back to changing.

                After spending two minutes deciding to wear her blazer or not, Lilly settled on wearing it. She fought the aching as she put it on, the muscles on her back still tender. But it was cool outside, better to have it on than not.

                Undoing her ponytail, she checked herself using her small mirror from her bag. Some loose hair stuck to her face, and some got in her mouth. Sticking out her tongue, she got rid of it. Her sight went to her eyepatch. “I look like I’m straight out of some horror special,” she thought aloud.

                It still stung. She gave it some thought, but opted to keep it on.

                She finished changing, and left the school. Seeing Rea waiting for her at the gates, she was hardly surprised.

                “Sup,” Lilly said.

                “Suppers. Finished with all your after school duty?”

                Lilly played with her hair. “Yeah. Wanna go?”

                “Yuh,” Rea said. “Can I chill at your place though? I wanna do homework there.”

                “Are you sure you’re actually going to do homework?”

                “Um…”

                “You’re so hopeless!”

                Their plans for the afternoon made, they went to Lilly’s house. Judging from the lights coming from a window, her dad was home.

                As they entered, Lilly smelled a remarkably appetizing flavor. “I’m home!”

                Yelling to return the gesture, her dad could be heard from the kitchen. “Hey ‘Eyebrows’!”

                “Curry?” she inquired while removing her shoes, referring to the spicy aroma in the air.

                “Yeah! I hear another set of feet. Rea?” he called out.

                “Present!” Rea shouted, raising a hand. “Hiya Pops!”

                “I have enough for three, are you going to stay for dinner?”

                Rea clapped her hands together. “Yes, sounds awesome!”

                “Geez Dad,” Lilly chimed in, “You always make too much.”

                She entered the kitchen, and found her father hard at work. His back was to her as he was huddled over the pot, stirring ingredients that brought forth that delicious smell. Didn’t matter what how bad a day went, if Lilly could have curry by dinner, all worries melted away with that rich brown sauce.

                “You always make too much, Dad,” Lilly repeated as she walked into the kitchen, making sure he heard her comment.

                He did, and he snorted in response. Turning to face her, they exchanged a quick hug. Seeing Rea, he waved to her as she waited on the other side of the room. She energetically returned the gesture.

                Leaving her dad to get back to cooking, the girls went to Lilly’s room. Lilly set her bag by her bed and put her homework and notebooks on her desk. She looked over all of her belongings. Good thing Ayane was able to save my stuff. Looking deeper into her bag, she saw the books that Ayase lent her. She set them aside for now, leaving them in there.  Rea tossed her own bag into the center of the room, and sat on the floor.

                “Man, you don’t even have a coffee table in here,” Rea stated.

                “Never needed one.”

                “But it feels so empty here,” Rea circled the area around her with her arms.

                “Oh well,” Lilly answered in a drone. She didn’t do much in her room besides read, sleep, and use her computer, so the lack of a table was not a concern. Instead, it was more convenient, nothing would obstruct her path from her bed to her door. Of course, a table wasn’t necessarily for her, rather those who would visit her room. But who besides Rea would visit? Thinking it over, Lilly tidied up her desk, with Rea unpacking her bag behind her.

                “Maybe if you did have a table here, I’d do my homework more often,” Rea said.

                “You should always do your homework!”

                “Whatever! Anyways, you should get a table here.”

                “Why are you so obsessed over that all of a sudden?”

                “I’m not, I’m just saying.” Rea kept shuffling some papers out of a folder. “Hey, your grades are good, right?”

                “Decent, not great.”

                “You do well on tests and stuff? Pop quizzes?”

                “I refer you to my previous statement. Why do you ask any-?”

                A hard yank of her sleeve, and Lilly fell backwards. ”Uff!”

                What’s with me getting thrown around lately?

                The thought crossed her mind as she caught herself from a face-first collision with the floor. On her hands and knees, she found herself on top of Rea, who was on her back, holding on to Lilly’s arm.

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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.”

<– Previous                                                                                                                                                 Next –>

Chapter 21 – ‘This flavor,’

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                The only sound that could be heard on the street were of Rea and Lilly’s footsteps. The soft, uneven rhythm resonated as they walked.

                They were going out for a bite to eat. It’s been a minute, Rea thought.

                “Man, I’m tired,” Lilly said. She wiped her brow.

                “But we just left school five minutes ago,” Rea pointed out.

                “Yeah, but still…”

                Rea chuckled at Lilly. She liked to think of Lilly as a handful. But she was her handful. She brushed closer to Lilly when a car zipped by. The sound soon died back down as it turned onto another street.

                “Did your dad say anything about your eye?” Rea asked.

                Lilly touched her eyepatch, feeling the elastic bands that wrapped around to the back of her ears. “Yeah, he totally grilled me when I got home. He was all, ‘how could you be so careless’, and stuff.”

                “Sounds like him all right.”

                “I felt bad, but it really was an accident.”

                “Has anyone in class said anything about it?”

                “Hmm, they keep asking me about it.” Lilly rubbed her chin. Rea took note of her hand.

               As they let the conversation die out, another car passed by. A part of Rea hoped that one would come by so fast that it would flip up Lilly’s skirt, and Rea could feast her eyes. But she could only get a good view if she wasn’t standing right by her.

               A quick peek, or occasionally bumping arms? Hmm…

               Quite the conundrum.

                They walked a few paces more, passing the edge of the neighborhood and entering into a shopping district. The plan was to go back to the bakery they went to a few days before. Rea saw a cat on the way; she wanted to pet its black fur, but she didn’t want to upset her allergies. She let it go by.

                Upon pushing open the wooden doors, Rea was immediately barraged with the smell of dozens of different pastries. A fragrant kaleidoscope of berries, sugar, chocolate, and dough. The sweet aroma was almost overpowering. She inhaled deeply through her nose, so much so that it was audible.

                “Ah! This place is awesome!”

                The baker welcomed them warmly after recognizing them. She motioned over to the display case, which was much more full than the last time.

                “I’m working on something in the back right now. If you want, I can bring it to you fresh when I finish,” the baker said, smiling.

                “Hmm, that sounds good, but I wanna eat now. Can I try that after?” Rea inquired.

                “That’s just as good.”

                Rea went over to the display case, inspecting the contents with the utmost scrutiny. Muffins, cookies, tortes, various cakes and rolls. Had that last time, nah, no and no.

                She put her hands on the case, almost pressing her face into it. Her breathing left condensation on the glass.

                “Aw, nothing I really want is here!” Rea complained. It was strange, she knew there was something specific she wanted, but neither the name nor shape would come to her. And every passing day it’d be harder to try and remember. It was a memory lapse of the oddest kind.

                She absentmindedly played with the end of her ponytail as she ran through laps in her memory.

                “How about those?” Lilly suggested, drawing Rea’s attention to a piece of cake. Chocolate with strawberries. Caramel lining the edge of the slice.

                That’s not too bad. “Uh, sure,” Rea said.

                The baker took the pasty out of the case and placed in on a paper plate. Upon Rea’s other request, she also whipped up a caramel macchiato. Rea paid, and waited as Lilly got a croissant.

                “That’s pretty big,” Rea said, “Nothing on it like usual?”

                “Yup!” Lilly peeped.

                They took their seats at a table outside, the same place as last time. The weather was starting to get officially chilly, but it was still comfortable enough to sit outside. Rea took her first mouthful of the cake.

                “So good!” she exclaimed. “Super sweet and chocolaty!” It was the type of good that you’d actually smile when you ate it.

                “Awesome,” Lilly said, after swallowing a piece of bread. “What about the coffee?”

                Rea went to sip her cup. Mm, creamy, but a tad bitter, I think I’ll need some more sugar.

                Suddenly, a small sensation was felt in her head. A minute pressure, like someone massaged her head for only an instant. By now, it wasn’t an unusual sensation, but she got curious whenever she sensed it. She looked up at Lilly.

                “What was that for?”

                Lilly rummaged through her bag. She got out a small plastic wrapper, giving it to Rea. “Here, a present from Ayase.”

                Midori Ayase? What for? She suspiciously held the item between her fingers. This is just some candy. “That sounds kinda suspect.”

                “Trust me, she found it at a store the other day and thought you’d like it, nothing more,” Lilly told Rea, raising her hands.

                “Huh? Alright then,” Rea ripped open the plastic wrapping, letting the sweet fall into her palm. A small brown sphere. Coffee mint?

                “Try it,” Lilly said, gazing intently.

                “Okay okay!” Rea brought it to her lips, and placed the candy on her tongue. Her eyes widened. “This is good!” she hated to admit.

                “Did you swallow it yet?”

                “Wah? Nah, Aw’m still sahking awn it.” Rea wasn’t going to let this go to waste anymore.

                “Then try it with the coffee,” Lilly proposed.

                “Eeh?” Rea resorted to just that sound, the candy preventing her tongue to do much else.

                “Just try.”

                With an eyebrow raised, Rea grabbed for her cup. She took a sip, the dark, mocha liquid rushed past her lips and then the candy, soaking in some of the mint flavor. A whole new taste warmed the back of her throat.

                Lilly kept her eyes fixed on Rea, like she was expecting something to happen. “So?” she asked. Her voice tingled with a sense of apprehension.

                Rea swallowed, not wanting to spit or choke when she answered. Her mind was still trying to wrap itself around how good this was.

                “What? I already said it was g-“

                She felt a rush of lightheadedness. A swirl of thoughts crossed her mind all at once. Her home address, her mother, Soldiers of February by The Cabs, Lilly, a kaleidoscope of thoughts and concepts came to Rea without her willing it. But out of that mental fog, one particular shape was calling out to her. She tilted her head, shutting her eyes, and tried to wade through everything else to focus in on its outline. She fought to try and make out that shape.

                It’s sweet, it’s fried, it can have a hole or be filled with jelly, glazed or topped with chocolate… it’s round, circular… oh my god!

                Rea slammed her hands on the table, almost spilling over her coffee and knocking over her cake. Lilly skidded back in her chair, taken aback. She yelled out.

                “Ow! Ow, ow, god… dang,” Lilly whispered, as she started to massage her forehead.

                “I’m… gonna, go order something!” Rea darted back inside the bakery, leaving her food behind. Albeit very slowly, Lilly decided to follow.

                “Um, lady, did you finish baking your ‘somethings’ already?” Rea inquired, running back to the front counter.

                The baker popped out from behind a door to the kitchen, holding a full tray. Her face and apron were covered in flour. “I just finished! It’s funny though, I thought I was working on something else.”

                Rea needed only a glimpse of the food to give such a goofy smile. “Yes! I’ll take a dozen!”

                When they returned to the table, Lilly plopped into her chair, flabbergasted. “Donuts? It was donuts this whole time?!” She was close to pulling out her hair. She looked like she had gotten back from running a marathon.

                “What are you talking about? It’s always ‘bout the donuts!” The word rolled off Rea’s tongue with ease. Like music to her ears. Although, she could have sworn it sounded vaguely nostalgic.

                Lilly face palmed, slowly swinging her head. “Isn’t that something?” she said, sounding like she hardly believed what she was saying.

                “What’s the big deal?” Rea pouted.

                “Nothing, I’m just glad you remembered,” Lilly said. She held Rea’s shoulder while giving a nonchalant thumb-up. “Also, please never get into monster design for movies. Your imagination is a little…” She trailed off, leaving it at that.

                “Wha? Weirdo.”

                They continued eating their snacks. Neither of them brought it up, but they haven’t gone out to get snacks like this in a long time. Rea relished every second of it. It was nice to sit back and relax. No Midori Ayase – and although she definitely didn’t mean it in a certain way – no Megumi. Just Rea and Lilly. That was better than anything.

                “Good?” Lilly asked, already knowing the answer.

                “Duh! I love the chocolate on this, I bet it’s their specialty,” Rea inhaled another donut, and then two more just as fast. “We gotta come back again and again.” She took down another donut, and went back to her cake, eating like she hadn’t seen food in years.

                “You’ll end up fatter than Majin Buu.”

                “I’m not absorbing people!”

                The girls laughed, not restrained, not caring about who may be around. For once, Lilly was louder than Rea. She didn’t care. Rea didn’t know why Lilly was like that, but she figured she must have been stressed out about something.

                If she feels better now, I don’t have to worry about it now.

                When they finished their desserts, they cleaned up and walked through the shopping district on their way home. They checked out a toy store, a flower shop, and a dusty record store. Before they realized it, it had gotten dark.

                “You’re still coming over on Saturday, right?” Lilly presumed.

                “Yeah, I’ll bring some games!”

                “You just want to win easy.”

                “That’s not true!”

                They ended back on the sidewalk they took to get to the bakery, Rea remembering the car that drove past earlier. She brushed closer to Lilly until their arms were touching. There was no car this time.

                She tugged at Lilly’s sleeve, stopping them both. They were illuminated by a lamppost.

                She always took the lead, so it didn’t bother her to ask.

                “Hey, Lilly…”

                Zzzt. Zzzt.

                “Oh, hold on,” Lilly said, picking up her phone. “Hello? Yeah. I just finished. We’re all good. Really, right now? Um… okay. As long as you make it quick.”

                Rea watched in confusion.

                “Sorry Rea,” Lilly said as she turned to her, “Ayase wanted me to go back to school real quick. It’s some club stuff.”

                But it’s so late already, Rea thought. “Oh, then I’ll go with,” Rea offered.

                “No, you don’t have to,” Lilly brushed her hand, “It’s getting late. You’ll get home faster if you take that way. And it’ll get even more dark if you follow and I walk you home later.”

                “But…” Rea grumbled.

                “I’ll be fine, trust me.”

                “No, it’s just,” Rea paused. She needed a second to find the words, no chance in hell was she going to be defeated by a phone. “I wanted to… kiss you, to thank you for today.”

                A flush of red splashed across Lilly’s face. Even as it was getting darker by the minute, Rea could tell that much.

                “F-fine,” was all Lilly said.

                Lilly closed her eyes as Rea awkwardly tiptoed to reach her lips. She was as still as a statue. Kind of cold. Kind of dry. Rea looked at Lilly’s face twitch uncomfortably. Looking at Lilly’s good eye, it was shut so hard she was sure she was seeing brown shapes in her vision. Her heart dropped.

                How come we’ve never had a decent one yet?

                Rea backed away, until Lilly’s lips was but a hair’s breadth away. Lilly slouched her shoulders, taking a few steps back, breathing deeply. She turned her back from Rea, and began a light stride.

                “I’ll, I’ll see you tomorrow morning!” Lilly shouted when she got further from Rea. When she turned a corner, she was gone.

                Rea was still on her toes.

                She started walking the other way. Her house was closer if she went down this way. Logistically, it made sense to part ways here. But it wasn’t like she needed to save all that time. This is the last time, Rea thought, I’m letting you off the hook, Akiyama Lilly. Next time I’m running after you for sure! She should’ve raised a fist as a symbol of her conviction. Instead, she let out a long, longing breath.

                Licking her teeth, the taste of candy and coffee came back to her.

                “Bittersweet.”

<– Previous                                                                                                                                                 Next –>

Chapter 20 – ‘This snake,’

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                An unfamiliar ceiling. White. There were fluorescent lights, but they were off, the room lit by the auburn light outside.

                Oh, I can see.

                Lilly lifted her hand, wincing a bit when her arm seared in pain. Still sore. She touched her face. Still there, haha. Ow. When she reached for her left eye, she couldn’t feel it. Just a smooth, cloth surface. Maybe it was the splitting headache, but a sense of dread swelled up in her stomach, and her heart beat even faster. She feared the worst.

                “Relax, it’s just an eyepatch. Keep it on for a few days and you should be fine.” A voice. It didn’t sound threatening, but it kept its distance. Lilly’s worry subsided.

                Where am I? Lilly knew she was lying on her back, on a bed. The nurse’s office at school was the best bet. This was probably the first time she’s ever needed to be in here. She sat upright, moving the pillow to her back for support. Looking through only one eye was disorientating, but as she got used to it, the source of the voice came into view.

                “Ayane.”

                Standing by the door, she nodded in response to the name. She walked over to Lilly and sat by her bedside. From her acquaintanceship with Ayase, Lilly expected a wink or a know-it-all grin, but Ayane simply looked straight at Lilly, her lips pressed into a hard line. Like she was a parent, thinking on how to scold a small child.

                It was just the two of them, so Lilly had to freedom to question Ayane about anything.

                “How’s Rea?”

                “She’s fine, of course. I told her you would still be busy, and sent her home.”

                “And Ayase?”

                “She’ll be alright. Scratched up, but alright.”

                Lilly bit her lip. “And Nao?”

                Ayane spoke with a vague tone. “Nao Akihiko has been dealt with.”

                What did you do to her? Lilly decided not to push any further. Whatever it was Ayane did, she’d rather stay in the dark about that.

                “Do… do I have you to thank for saving me?” Lilly asked.

                “Don’t thank me.”

                She’s the complete opposite of Ayase!

                Ayane reached into her pocket and took out an apple. Green. Lilly found the similarity endearing.

                “Ayase was eating an apple the other day, is it like a sister thing?” Lilly asked, trying to stir up something of a conversation.

                Her teeth right over the fruit, Ayane turned to Lilly. Closing her mouth, she put the apple back into her pocket.

                Was it something I said?!

                With her hands on the bed, Ayane crossed her legs and budged closer to Lilly. After a breath, she yielded.

                “Before I forget,” she picked up a school bag beside the bed and set it back down. “Everything should be intact. Even this.” She took out the lunch box from a side pocket for proof. “Can’t say the same for what was inside.”

                “Thanks,” Lilly said genuinely. She had given up all hope on eating that meal long ago.

                “Don’t thank me,” she said again.

                “But really, I’ll feel bad if I don’t repay you somehow.” Lilly meant it.

                Ayane exhaled. “Fine, you really want to? Don’t go running around going ‘why me?’ I hate that.” She turned her voice into a whisper, “Just because picked you, hmph.”

                What does that mean? Without understanding her, Lilly agreed to those terms. “Uh, I think I can do that.”

                Ayane loosened her posture. Her expression was still stoic, but she seemed satisfied. She got up again, presumably to leave. “Good. Then, give it another half-hour or so to rest, after that you can head home.” She headed to the door, her hand towards the knob.

                Lilly had to raise her voice. “Wait!” Ah, it’s really hoarse.

                There was the briefest of pauses, but Ayane turned back. She didn’t attempt to hide her look of being inconvenienced. Green eyes directed themselves right at her.

                She was caught off guard, but Lilly fought past it. “Are… aren’t you going to tell me anything?”

                “Do I owe you an explanation?” she said frankly.

                “It’d certainly help.”

                She stood there for a moment, thinking it over. Finally, she relented. She returned to Lilly’s bedside, sitting back down.

                “My plan was to make sure you were better and head out, but I guess you won’t let me go without a few words.”

                Lilly lowered her chin. “No, I won’t.”

                Ayane straightened her back. Due the height of the bed, her feet barely met the floor. She pressed down on some creases on her uniform.

                What are you, preparing a presentation?

                “Well, what do you want to know?”

                Lilly didn’t need to think long or hard. “Nao, who was she and why was she after me?”

                Ayane spoke slowly and carefully. “Nao Akihiko is another from our organization, like me and my sister. Data observation, analysis, and maintenance. Like us, she has the same job of observing and reporting on anomalies that occur across the world. Well, among assigned districts.”

                The thought of the bloodthirsty Nao, dealing in matters that could only be described as science-fiction and fantasy, came to Lilly. The image didn’t seem to mesh well.

                “She’s notorious for taking a more, militant, approach with how she does things. She doesn’t agree with sitting back and observing from a distance. I figured she took an interest in you, and wanted to see exactly what makes you tick.”

                “I’m flattered.”

                “You see a bright side, that’s good,” Ayane’s expression lifted a little, but not by much.

                “Although,” Ayane raised more fingers, “She’s actually part of a rogue splinter of our organization called the ‘Super Serious Seven’. All of them adopt more forceful methods in dealing with anomalies. And she was the weakest. You best be careful.”

                Falling back in her pillow, Lilly’s mouth went agape. “Wait, so there’ll be more after me and Rea?!” Six more? I can hardly handle one! A panic rose in her.

                “Kidding.”

                “What?”

                The slightest of grins appeared on Ayane. “That was a joke.”

                Lilly tugged at her blanket, covering more of her body. “God, don’t do that.” Brushing a strand of hair behind her ear, and another deep breath, she calmed down again.

                “But, seriously, me and Rea, what are we? I’m not worth being killed over, I mean, I’m not a secret final boss, or anything,” Lilly said. She twiddled her fingers together.

                Ayane brushed her hand along the blanket hard enough to feel the friction. “The causality relationship between your powers and Haruko Rea has yet to be fully understood.” She spoke carefully, like she was trying to find the right words that didn’t reveal too much.

                Curious, Lilly looked at her with her good eye. Dang, that fuzzy sound agai-

                “Ow!”

                She massaged her temples, a distinct pain between her eyes, in her head. It wasn’t nearly as bad as a before, but the simple feeling of it made her reel back in shock. Ayane eyed her indifferently.

                “Not the best idea to overexert yourself.”

                “Yeah,” Lilly answered.

                “Is there anything else?” Ayane asked, clearly ready to leave. She straightened her posture once more.

                I can’t think of anything else, but I don’t want to waste this opportunity… She recalled when Ayane visited the clubroom, before Lilly and Rea joined. “So, if you’re part of this organization thingy, how come your sister is the one ‘observing’ me and Rea?” She raised a hand, her palm facing outward. “We’re in the same grade, and heck, you’re in the same class as me.”

                Folding her arms, Ayane cocked her head to the side. She pressed her front teeth down onto her lower lip. Lilly felt as though she touched a nerve.

                “Ayase is currently the one who is assigned to both you and Haruko Rea, but…” she stopped herself, mulling over her words. “That’s it.”

                “Wow, I did not know that.”

                “Yes, you should consider yourself lucky, she really wanted to take your case.”

                I want to say I’m flattered again, but I already used that one. “I see.”

                “While we’re on the subject, I may as well bring it up. She may be talented when it comes to using her Access, but she lacks in gathering and properly concluding her data. Let me guess, she told you that it was okay for you to tell Haruko about everything, if you wanted to, right?”

                Lilly nodded.

                “I should applaud you for not doing so yet, but what my sister should have stressed more heavily, was that it’s best to leave her out of this as much as possible. Making Haruko Rea self-aware as an anomaly could spell disaster. I’ll go as far as say I guarantee it. For example, if she knew, she could accidentally trigger a gamma-ray burst towards earth as easy as tripping over herself. Or worse.”

                “You’re kidding.”

                “You should have known by now, just how thin the rope is you’re walking on.”

                Lilly shook her head, hardly believing this conversation. Great, Rea, you’re a Lovecraftian nightmare in the shape of a little girl.

                “Alright, I think that’s enough for now,” Ayane gets up again, a sense of finality in her movements.

                “Hold on, was Ayase off on anything else?”

                “Not much, the rest is inconsequential. Stuff she’ll learn to smooth out once she gets better at reporting. She’s talented enough with the hands-on aspect of the job, but she needs more experience on the actual reporting, the paperwork – per se – which I’d argue is the most important part.”

                She saw Lilly’s concern.

                “I said to relax, didn’t I? She’s doing her best, and Nao was an outlier, a factor she forgot to take into account. I’m sure she’s kicking herself about it right now.” She looked right into Lilly’s eyes, or eye, completely serious.

                Lilly nodded again, slowly. It was all she could do.

                Ayane lifted a finger to bring up another point. ““But,” Ayane warned, “I know you’re not too keen on your powers right now, and that does make it easier on us. So I thank you for not abusing your abilities. But should you yourself ever get out of hand…” Her tone suggested she really would make good on whatever she was hinting at.

                “Wait, huh?”

                “Just kidding, ha ha,” she laughed in a monotone.

                I can make do without that, you know, coming out of nowhere like that. “I think I’m glad Ayase is doing the observing,” Lilly said.

                “Good. Then, give it another half-hour or so to rest, after that you can head home.” Without another word, Ayane left the room in a hurry, so Lilly couldn’t get another word in. The door slammed behind her.

                Taking her suggestion, Lilly closed her eyes, letting herself fall asleep again. She went over everything Ayane told her. With that conversation, it was the most Lilly and Ayane had ever talked.

                This is so weird. How in the world did it end up like this? And what’s worse is that Rea isn’t even allowed to know about this, so I’m the one who’s always running to trouble! Does anyone else want these powers? You can have them.

                She tried to take a decent nap, but couldn’t find it in her. Her body ached as she got out of bed. Checking the time, she only ‘slept’ for ten minutes.

                When she left the nurse’s office, taking the stairs down, she ran into the other Midori.

                “Ayase, how are you?”

                Scribbling into a notebook, Ayase hadn’t noticed Lilly. She looked up, and gave a weak greeting. “Hey, but I should be asking you that.”

                Lilly pointed to her covered eye. “Fine. I just need to keep my eye on the ball next time.”

                “That’s a relief,” Ayase said, putting away the notebook into her bag. The last time Lilly saw her, it was the image of her limp body crashing through a window, cuts and all. Her clothes torn and bloodied. Now, there didn’t seem to be a trace of such an ordeal having happened at all.

                “Oh, this?” Ayase pulled at the end of her skirt. “Ayane replaced my clothes, but I had to patch myself up. Otherwise I wouldn’t ‘learn my lesson’.” She wanted to talk in an easygoing manner, but Lilly saw it in her face. She was sore too.

                “Hey, I didn’t thank you yet.”

                Ayase adjusted the strap of her bag, gripping it harder.

                “Nao was an outlier. That was my responsibility, and I failed. It was entirely my fault. I’m sorry.” Her hair fell into her eyes. Lilly didn’t realize that was supposed to be a bow.

                “There’s no need for that,” Lilly said. She put her hands into her pockets.

                As she did so, she felt crumpled paper. Oh yeah. Taking it out, she handed to Ayase. “Did you write this?”

                She held it, examining the writing. “Yeah, this was mine. It’s not important anymore, since we met at the arcade.”

                “It looks like a letter you’d see in a romance manga.”

                “Coincidence.”

                “That so?” The exchange helped Lilly’s mood. A feeling of normalcy can help after a crazy experience. “Are you heading out now?”

                “No,” Ayase said, “Some stuff I need to do here.” She left it at that.

                “Speaking of which, we still have an anomaly on our hands,” she put away the letter, and exchanged it with something else. “Before we were rudely interrupted.”

                Lilly took it, and looked it over. Another piece of paper. She unfolded it and read it over. She looked back up to Ayase. “This is it?”

                “That’s it. Today or tomorrow, whichever is fine.”

                I could laugh. Lilly walked down the stairs, passing Ayase. “Tomorrow then.”

                “Okay, see you.”

                Leaving the school, Lilly’s stomach rumbled, but the desire to go home was greater. Tomorrow was another day. She did expect a lonely walk back home, but that was dashed when she saw who was waiting for her by the gate.

                “Rea,” Lilly said.

                “Hi!” Rea responded with a cheer, “What happened to your eye? You a ghoul now?”

                “Scratched it,” Lilly said, leaving out exactly who did it. It was half a truth, but it didn’t feel good to have to flub it like that. “Was in the nurse’s office.”

                “Aw, you shoulda told me, I would have met you there.”

                Lilly threw her hands into her pockets.

                “I thought you went home already?”

                “Ayane can get me outside, but that doesn’t mean I’m walking home alone. Now come on!” She reached for Lilly’s hand. She held it without thinking. Her grip was tight. “Oh, that’s a surprise!”

                “Let’s go,” Lilly softly agreed. Certainly better than walking alone. They start leaving the school. “By the way, wanna go get something to eat tomorrow?”

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