“Ushiromiya-san, were you talking to someone just now?”
Ange's jaw clenches. The snide jab hits her ears and jars her brain. Tittering laughter echoes by her, but Ange dares not to look. Facing the cruel expressions of her classmates will only drag her deeper into their control.
“Hey, Ushiromiya-san, I know we heard you say something.”
“Or maybe she's implying we're mishearing things? Isn't that spiteful?”
“If that's the case, I want her to speak up now. It's impolite for her keep to herself all the time. What if she's talking about us behind our backs?”
“That would be so unsightly. She drags our class rank down, and she thinks she can mock us?”
“The nerve of her.”
“My, my, I guess her parents didn't teach her any manners.”
“You have a point there. She's completely classless. Talking to herself but refusing to talk to us?”
“It's really, really, really creepy. Hey, Ushiromiya-san, what were you saying? You can tell us.”
“We won't be mad, Ushiromiya-san. You have no friends, so it's understandable why you'd do that.”
More voices chime with delicate reprimand. Their giggling increases as Ange wills herself to gaze out the window. The sky is a pretty cerulean and light on her eyes. She can make out a few clouds rolling in the distance and imagines she were out there soaring through them. She wants to feel the wind against her skin, caressing and soothing out her anxieties, breathing new life into her.
Being the first to arrive to class had been a good idea in theory. At Lucifer's advice, she went early to avoid having her seat be smeared with glue, gum, and insults. While she had her perfectly clean desk without a shred of trash in sight, she made the mistake of whispering to Maria's grimoire. Spells had slipped past her lips in hushed whispers. No one could possibly hear her, but the sight of Ange murmuring to herself as her classmates walked in earned their immediate attention. She made the mistake of being unaware of her surroundings, and now, their shadows encroached upon her happiness once again.
“Are you reading? What are you reading?”
“Tell us, tell us, Ushiromiya-san. It's not right to keep secrets.”
“Oh, that doesn't look like a textbook. What is it?”
“It looks like some grotesque, dusty book! Stuff like that should be in the trash.”
“Aw, I'll do the honors if Ushiromiya-san won't.”
“When is she gonna reply? This is getting boring.”
“Hey, hey, hey! Ushiromiya-san, we're talking to you! Stop it with the silent treatment!”
“Yeah! It's getting really annoying! We're trying to have a conversation with you!”
“You can't mumble to yourself and ignore us! That's the epitome of rudeness!”
“Are you listening to us? Come on, talk! Can't you talk anymore, Ushiromiya-san?”
Concerned voices hiss in her head, and Ange clenches her fist, silencing them. She feels the emptiness between herself and the space the Seven Sisters once occupied. They had been there moments ago laughing and playing with each other, shouting nonsense and jeers until the first student sneered.
Surrounded by cruel jibes, Ange closes her grimoire and slips it into her bag. The immediate clamoring of her classmates as they demand to see what she had been reading pounds against her eardrums. She wants to wipe the feline smirks off their faces as they compel her to talk, their hands banging against her desk and their fingers gouging into her shoulder.
“Hey, what's going on?”
“I just came in! Is Ushiromiya-san being a nuisance?”
“She's being uncooperative, everyone!”
“Oh, she is? How rude! We really need to teach Ushiromiya-san some lessons again!”
“Let's make it a class effort!”
More girls arrive, and their hands encompass her vision. They drag her from her seat and yank her hair so hard that the tresses rip free from her scalp. Her body slams against the floor, but the pain is numbed by months of the same abuse.
Insults rain down upon her. It's nothing that she hasn't heard before. Their words are icy raindrops piercing her skin, but it's all useless. She has already wished to die so often before that their insults almost sound like friendly encouragement.
Someone reaches for her bag. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees someone flip through Maria's grimoire, and she cries out, begging for her to put it down. The girl flinches, a yelp rolling over her tongue as the book clatters from her hands. As it hits the ground, Ange wriggles like a worm and snatches it with a free arm, securing Maria's precious spellbook to her chest.
“Huh? Ushiromiya-san, you're being really disobedient this morning!”
“Wow! Look at her writhe. She's like a half-dead bug.”
“Oh, I wish I had my camera! This is a once in a lifetime shot!”
“Huh? It is not. We'll more than likely be in the same situation tomorrow. Just remember to bring it in the morning.”
“All of this because of her uncooperative attitude.”
“We're trying so hard to teach you how to behave in society, but you're acting like a derelict!”
“I guess that's the result of a horrible upbringing!”
“The child of a killer really does act like a beast! Am I right, everyone?”
“You are, you so are! Ahahaha!”
The girls laugh like a pack of hyenas circling the wounded doe. Ange squeezes her eyes shut, the voices of the Seven Sisters immediately filling her head. Satan and Leviathan shout that they have no right to touch their master, and Lucifer roars that the girls need to be taught a lesson. Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and Belphegor comfort Ange, urging her to stay strong through the abuse. Ange thinks she feels Mammon's hands gently cover her ears just as she had done during their first day together, and she gnaws on her lower lip, hot tears springing to her eyes as another foot slams down on her head.
Blood trickles down her nose as her face connects with the tiled floor. It trickles over her lips, somehow warm and cold at the same time. She doesn't question the sensation and wipes her face with the back of her hand. She clutches the grimoire even tighter to her chest, preventing a single drop of her blood from contaminating Maria's rich world.
“Good morning, everyone.”
The teacher's chirping voice silences the chaos. The girls spring to action, immediately asking Ange if she is okay or needs a tissue. The teacher gasps, nearly dropping her homeroom planner and rushes to Ange's side. Her heels clack against the floor as the girls make a path for her. Hands grab Ange's arms and drag her to her feet, and she wobbles, grasping the edge of her desk as if it were her only tether to life.
“I can take Ushiromiya-san to the infirmary if she'd like.”
“Oh, I'll go with you!”
“We're all worried. Ushiromiya-san, are you okay?”
“She was having a nosebleed when we arrived, sensei.”
“Oh, wait, I have some tissues in my bag. I'll lend you some.”
“How did you hurt yourself? Did you fall?”
“Or did the nosebleed happen just because? If so, it's okay! I get them, too. They're bothersome, right, Ushiromiya-san?”
Their lies are as sweet as honey. The teacher laps it up like a greedy fly, immersing herself in their falsehoods. She praises them for their earnest concern and takes a handful of tissues from a student. Offering them to Ange, she grins, and the girls, with their doll features, smile at Ange like she is a welcomed friend.
She can see right through their deception. Behind their eyes lies cold malice. They expect her to obey the truth they've created. If she refuses the teacher or their calculated assistance, she'll be treated to a cleverly disguised scolding. They'll torment her for as long as she breathes inside the school if she doesn't play her part. Their eyes widen at her silence, but their etched smiles remain the same. Like mannequins, they tower over her, watching and waiting for how Ange will react as their teacher asks if she needs someone to take her to the infirmary when the blood trickles down onto her blouse.
Her head throbs as the Seven Sisters arise in her mind, urging her to defend herself. They reach for her, holding her tightly and promising she'll be strong enough to stand up for her beliefs. Lucifer vows to make every single girl pay, and her younger sisters mimic her cry, confidence booming in their voices.
“Ushiromiya-san, you're awfully quiet. Your classmates are looking out for you. Shouldn't you be thanking them for caring about you?”
The teacher smiles, and her classmates have earned their victory. Their venom has taken hold. The students shuffle around Ange and remind her that she is their precious classmate, that if she needs any help, then they will always be with her.
She accepts the tissues with clammy hands. Wiping her face, she blinks away her tears. In a muted tone, Ange thanks her classmates for their mutual concern and bows her head.
She can hear their sigh of relief. Joviality flits in their words as they comfort Ange. Their kindness betrays the shock looming in the outraged cries of the Seven Sisters, who snarl down at the smiling students that they will pay for their transgressions.
Ange sits down and sets her grimoire in her bag. The other girls take their seats with bemused chuckles. With the teacher's back turned, the neighboring students toss pencil shavings at her. As the teacher's chalk hits the board, the girls sit at attention with pleasantries blooming all around them.
A scream rises in Ange's throat, but like before, she swallows it down with bile. Her teeth gnash together, and the Seven Sisters console her, promising she is better than the other girls. Beelzebub chirps that lunch will make Ange feel better, and Satan snaps that it's too early to be thinking about food. Belphegor rubs Ange's back, and Mammon clutches her hands together, apologizing for the cruelty Ange had endured. The other sisters circle around the girls, barking in their faces that they'll die shriveled and alone while their master will rise to the greatest heights of sorcery.
Ange gazes back out the window. All the other girls bring out their textbooks as Ange discards the soiled tissue into her bag. If only she could be a true witch and soar on a broom through the clouds just as Maria wrote down years ago. Touching that beautiful reality of magic would fill her days with enough happiness to last her an eternity.
She also wouldn't be alone. Her family will be with her. Her dear mother, father, brother, and relatives will surround the newly crowned witch. The Seven Sisters will be her friends forever just as they promised, and they return to her, quickly smothering Ange with affection. Their warm arms embrace her, and she feels her cheeks redden and eyes fill with clear tears as they tell her they love her and will always be there for her.
Still, the creeping thought in the back of her head surfaces. Every day she will suffer. She'll face the lashes of her classmates and the rest of the student body. They seek to make her endure as much pain as possible while confined at school as if she were their broken plaything with her stitches shredded at the seams.
The Seven Sisters can't help when she's being belittled or battered. They can only whisper sweet nothings into her ears and hold her with hands that will never fight back against her abusers. Their supposed high-powered killing techniques can't touch the girls who can and will bash their knuckles into Ange's jaw and make her teeth rattle.
They live only in Maria's grimoire and Ange's mind. Imaginary and real at the same time, they're a paradox born from Ange's miserable life and the secrets of her family's massacre. They are beings who will never bring her protection from the claws of humans and can only soothe her darkest nightmares.
Mammon's hand closes around her tight fist. She gently smooths a few hairs out of Ange's face and smiles. She nestles against Ange's shoulder, and the sisters cling to her, their heartbeats gently pounding in her head. Asmodeus and Beelzebub rest against her lap, and the older sisters fuss over who gets Ange's sturdy backside.
Ange smiles and closes her eyes. A fleeting peace is better than worrying even if the pencil shavings remain stuck in her hair. Her desire to learn magic is stronger than the doubt shadowing her heart. The Seven Sisters are her dearest friends, the ones who give her a stronger purpose at the end of each day, and she refuses to doubt their love for her.
If she did, it would only upset Maria, who she imagines stomping her foot and crying. The thought makes her shiver, and she quickly banishes it, the memory of her younger self taunting Maria surfacing like a rising wave.
Leaning back in her seat, Ange reaches for her textbook, and Lucifer slips it into her hand. Leviathan, always eager to help, points Ange to the correct page. Satan hustles to the board and points for Ange to write down the upcoming class events. Belphegor provides Ange's planner, reminding her to not be forgetful. Beelzebub and Asmodeus jeer at their sister, teasing her that she's dragged many men to their doom for engaging in sloth.
“Ange-sama,” Mammon says, wrapping her arm around Ange's waist, “are you feeling better?”
“Yes,” she whispers, ignoring the testy smirks from her classmates with a smile, “I'll be okay.”