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Hollow Lives

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Man, it’d suck to be murdered here.

 

There’re a lot of places where it’d suck to die. Volcanos. Convenience store bathrooms. Zoos. 

 

But there’s just no dignity in the bowling alley. Dying in rental shoes? Next to the cheap-but-not-cheap-enough-to-be-affordable gachas? Bleeding out on carpet patterned with confetti and Saturn? Imagine if you got blood inside a cabinet, or in a bowling-ball’s holes. Last impact in the world, adding to the nasty crust inside either of those locations. At least there wasn’t a rat.

 

But Ame certainly wouldn’t mind the colorful esoteric carpet design being the last thing she saw. Not that she planned to, but if she kept getting banned from building after building, then a bowling alley might be the only place that’d allow her in all her life. 

 

She was already banned from the town's main arcade, and the grocery store. She’s pretty sure the librarian doesn’t ever wanna see her again. Not to mention no one’s even letting her get near city hall after what she did.

 

The alley at least had games. Games that made Amelia feel alive. ...well, a little alive. The shooters, the pac of mans, the space things, they’re all well and good, but she wondered. Where were the puzzles? The narratives? Did anyone ever try to do something besides shoot the things, eat the things, bounce the things into things, stack things?

 

Thinking about it, she wondered why all the games felt so dated and old. Surely there was something a little more interesting then these cabinets.

 

“Oh...yeh, Ame, there isn’t anything.”

 

“Yeah there is!”

 

“No, there...really isn’t. I’ve asked,” Ina responds, adjusting her silly hat. “According to my manager, our arcade’s a little close to top of the line. We still don’t have Dragon’s Lair, Punch-Out!!, or Spy Hunter though.”

 

“Punch-Out with two exclamation marks?” 

 

“Yeh.”

 

“Why not three?”

 

“Technology has yet to reach the point of three exclamations.”

 

That got a chuckle out of Amelia, it came at a bad time though as the pizza she was eating then got caught in her throat and she choked horribly. 

 

Ina pounded her on the back...well, as much as Ina could. “Aw jeez, no need to get so choked up about it Ame.”

 

“I’m dying--” Amelia devolved into another choking fit. “And all...you have...’s puns?”

 

“It’s your pun-ishment!”

 

Amelia hacked, coughed, and finally hiccuped as the pizza crust finally dislodged itself. “Don’t punish me, I’m already goin’ downstairs if I die.”


“If?”


“You never know!”

 

“...Watson, you are going to die someday.”

 

“Hmph, death is gonna have to catch me first.” Amelia flashes her usual Watson smirk. Her eyes wander to the Pac-Man machine in the corner of the room; a fitting metaphor, and back on track. “Anyways! How do you know that stuff about those games? Is there some kinda ledger? How do you know the forbidden games.”

 

“I uh, read magazines that come my way. Plus I know you like that kinda stuff so I checked some of it out.”

 

“Magazines?” Amelia slams her hands on the table. She looms towards Ina, asking, “Can I see ‘em?”

 

Ina would be lying if she said she didn’t flinch, “Um, sure? I’ll see if I can get them to you anytime soon.”

 

“Yes! Then...” 

 

Amelia trailed off, stammering, and hiccuped.

 

She didn’t actually... know what came next. Something in her just felt like she wanted to...learn why .

 

“Then I can investigate!”

 

She always wanted to be a mystery...doer... mysterator? Was that the word? Person who investigates...things...yeah, mysterator’s right. And this was her chance!

 

---

 

The library was a problem. They didn’t quite like her there, which was unreasonable considering all she ever did was try to deal with the temperature. They shouldn’t keep the building so gosh-darned chilly if they didn’t want patrons burning logs. 

 

As unfortunate as it was though, Amelia was only human and couldn’t just walk in while she’s banned. She had to sneak.

 

The infiltration started alright, sure, thanks to an elaborate and definitely-not-rushed disguise, but...there were librarians who'd recognize her somewhere here. And her dad's card wasn't going to pass too much muster. She had to act fast, catch people unawares, ask nobody nothing. 

 

This made the search for books hard though, as she kinda just...had to hope they had 'electronics', 'technology', 'game', or 'video' in the title. Or in one case, had a really weird cover with some kind of rat robot... Amelia dallied maybe a little too long just looking at whatever the heck that could be before she was faced with the obvious answer: The library's computer.

 

Big, yellowed, clunky, and capable of only a few functions, it was basically top of the line for their small town. Black screen and green text --why green text? The arcade machines were capable of other colors, does it take such a big thing to manage blue?-- lit up menus of the filing database. She wasn’t entirely familiar with working with the thing, but she’s sure she could figure out enough to find the books of technology. It was a computer, how hard could it be?

 

The sound of a chair moving behind her caused Amelia to jump, but when she whipped around there wasn’t anyone looking her way. 

 

At least...not anyone she could see .

 

Amelia attempted to get back to the computer, scrolling to the...card...catalog? That...that sounded right, sure. She wished she could just google it. 

 

What a funny word, google. 

 

Her thoughts are interrupted by the bizarre realization that she didn’t know what a google was...was it something like ogle? That meant... looking ... maybe it was something like, look up? Search for? Hunt down but with eyeballs instead of weapons? Go and ogle a thing.

 

That made enough sense for her to stop thinking about it at the moment.

 

And think a little more about the footsteps behind her.

 

Amelia froze. 

 

Something slapped against a chair, still behind her, to her left. The footsteps didn’t have weight to them, they were soft and deliberate. 

 

She waited for them to pass.

 

After holding her breath for what seemed a solid minute Amelia was pretty sure whoever’s haunting her was gone again.

 

And then it returns, on her right. 

 

Something’s circling her.

 

“What’cha doin’ here, Watson?”

 

“Gyah! Gura? Don’t sneak up on me,” Amelia hissed. The circling predator was just good ol’ Gura. It was a relief to see a familiar face, even if they... weren’t on the best of terms.

 

“I thought’cha were allergic to learnin’!” She said, with the smarmiest of grins.

 

Oh that stung. She looked smug as always, in her fancy navy blue hoodie with those fancy sharp teeth and fancy looking pretty blue eyes. Bleh, it should be illegal being that fancy. 

 

Amelia flicked Gura’s nose. “Important, uh, detect--nah, just, uh important, business? Important things. That I’m doing.” She reached up to adjust a hat she hadn’t brought, and brushed some hair aside to save face. “And I’ll...I...” Amelia trailed off as a storm of hiccups bubbled up her throat. “ Heck.

 

“Hey! No fucking swears in the library!” 

 

“I mean, no me in the library, uh, technically I can’t be here.”

 

“I’d ask if you gotta reason, butcha never do, so--”

 

“Not this time! Amelia Watson’s got a quest! An investigation! A mystery!”

 

“A wha?”

 

“A mystery: Technology!”

 

“There’s manuals for that, stoopid.” The words hung in the air for a second, then Gura flinched, and she zipped up her coat more. “What I mean is. How’s that a mystery?”

 

“Welll we’ve got all this technology from, what, the seventies, eighties, blahdeblah some time ago? Why hasn’t it gotten better?” Amelia slapped the book she was holding; The Unauthorized History of Charles Entertainment Cheese . “We’re decades past that, so why hasn’t it developed? Don’tcha find that weird?”

 

For a moment, Gura’s brows furrowed.  “Nah. Never thought about that.”

 

“Well you should!” Amelia crossed her arms and hiccuped. “All of the stuff we’ve developed, like, scientifically, computorically, as, as a technology thing, it all stopped...at some point!”

 

“You’re suuure? What point?”

 

“...see, that’s part of the problem!” Amelia held up the book for a moment. “Hold on, Gura, let-- give me a bit.”

 

Gura leaned against a chair, wordlessly, as Amelia flipped through pages of pizza diagrams, some guy named Nolan Bushnell, rat-based animatronics, and--

 

There. A timeline.  Amelia slapped the book right next to Gura’s face and pointed. 

 

“1983. It stopped in 1983. That...matches two of the other books in my dad’s office.”

 

“That’s... seven, seventeen or, hold on lemme...” Gura scratched her chin for a moment. “...That’s twenty years ago. Holy sh-- holy mackerel that is weird.”

 

Amelia nodded so fast she could see through the universe. 

 

“I almost wanna help on that, that’d be...kinda fun, instead’a just...” Gura cast her eyes towards her own stack of textbooks, and Amelia could already feel the back pain. 

 

She snickered. “No takebacks.”

 

“Hey man, I didn’t say I would! I mean it’d be fun, but I wouldn’t do much anyway.”

 

“Nah, you would! You’ve got some words in that bonehead.”

 

“Hardy har. It’d still take more.”

 

“More what?”

 

“People. Whatcha gonna do, Watson? Get the band back together?”

 

For a moment, Amelia could kiss Gura. Right smack on the lips. Right there. Mwah.

 

Getting the old group back together! She knew where Ina was, she could guess how to find Calli and Kiara, pitch the mystery to them, get them to agree, get their help and their new phone numbers, and then they’d all be friends again, and then...

 

And then.

 

And then someone’d talk to her without yelling. And then someone’d listen to what she had to say. And then someone’d spend time with her, by choice, by a volition not caused by her wrenching the world into something that could maybe fit her for just a few minutes more.

 

And then Amelia Watson wouldn’t be so horribly alone.

 

(Take responsibility, you’ve taken everything else!)

(Let's tako later, okay? I'll call you.)

(It’s not like that anymore, I’m busy. Whatever time you pick, Watson, I’m busy. Please don’t call me again.)

(You aren't my sunshine anymore, Watson, you're just a pain.)

 

A clock ticked. Tick, tock, tick, tock, went mechanical hands, mechanical moments, the artificial expression of time. She heard the gears inside. They needed oiling. 

 

Something plinked against the ground. Water? In a library? Gura seemed to have brought it. It was all over her face. Amelia reached over, sleeve ready, and Gura flinched away, teeth bared. Amelia opened her mouth. Nothing came out.

 

Gura wiped her face and broke the silence. “Yeah, nevermind, heh. That wouldn’t...heh, funny huh?”

 

Amelia didn’t laugh, but a sound came out when she opened her mouth. It wasn’t really a word, more something quiet and hurt, something that died in the back of her throat. She coughed, and tried again. “...so, you uh. You did offer to help, though, then?”

 

It hurt, still. But Amelia could stuff that down, shove it away. Because...because she missed her. She missed their talks, she missed their jokes, she missed sitting on Gura’s rooftop until someone shooed her down with a broom. 

 

“I’m kinda busy with...y’know.” Gura gestured at her books. “Studying. Heard of it?”

 

“Ehhhh I’ve got more important stuff to deal with!” Amelia shrugged off the issue.

 

“You suuure?” Gura leaned to the side, resting her chin on the back of a chair.

 

“Yeah. Very sure. This is vital! A vital investimagation to our lives and all that stuff! I just know it!”

 

She didn’t really expect a yes. She didn’t expect anything aside from a maybe, really, and Amelia definitely didn’t expect an “Okay, Watson, I’ll help.”

 

Amelia Watson blinked. 

 

Gura snapped a finger into the air. “On one condition!”

 

“I hate conditions,” Amelia griped.

 

“That’s why your hair’s like that, y’know.”

 

“Can it.” Oh, something was coming back.

 

Gura closed the difference between the two of them, stomped up to her and grabbed her arms. “My condition is! Come to a few classes. A week. Just...come with me and learn some stuff. Please?”

 

Amelia hiccuped, tapped her foot, considered her options. On one hand, studying. Suffering. Fuss and misery. Useless info she can never focus on. On the other hand...help. Gura. Assistance. Gura. An extra hand in the investigation, an extra eye in the search. And, most importantly, Gura. 

 

“You drive a hard bargain. But...for the investimagation, I’ll do it!” 

 

And for you , she refused to admit.

 

---

 

Caffeine. Coffee. Coffee coffee coffee. Kiara Takanashi’s next shift started soon. She need-need- needed as much coffee as she could get.

 

There’s one near her work, less cozy than any other cafe in town, not even a proper cafe but a step up from the canned coffee at the convenience store. At least it was warm.  

 

She brushed some snow off her shoulder and shoved her way through the door. There wasn’t really a line to the register, thankfully just one person ahead. The pungent stench of coffee overwhelmed her nose as the space in front of her opened up. 

 

“Welcome to Pete’s Coffee, something something blah whatever, what’s your order?”

 

Their eyes met.

 

Kiara's...and hers.

 

There was a time when the young Takanashi, all acne-covered and sweaty-palmed and burning up with her own young lesbianic thoughts, would meet those eyes and combust with joy. With longing.

 

Instead, the present-day Kiara Takanashi merely winced.

 

Calliope Mori, longtime-crush-of-her-life Calliope Mori, the woman she used to fawn over even back when Kiara was the scruffy-haired new kid in town, dirt under her nails and feathers in her hair, and Calli was this sunken-eyed skeleton of a girl with a mouth full of rude words and “evil” plans.

Her eyes had sunken back since Kiara last saw her. They looked dead, for a moment, then opened wide. “GUH!”

 

Kiara tilted back her hood. “Oh heyyyy Calli! What a surprise!”

 

“It’s, uh, a surprise to see you too. You got an order?”

 

“Black coffee. Uh, three of them.”

 

“...you suuure, Kiara? You hate black coffee.”

 

It was true. She couldn’t stand the taste. But her hourly didn’t exactly pay for flavors. 

 

“I’ll put some chocolate in--”

 

“No. Just the coffee.”

 

“I’ll totally cover it. It’s a treat, on me. Kay?”

 

Free chocolate in her coffee. Tempting. Very very tempting. She’d take the chocolate, sure, maybe treat Calli to something later on down the line. But why?

 

Was this a gesture of friendship? Or pity?

 

Calli’s hands, shoving aside a bouquet of roses and spider-lilies. Her voice, harsh, almost hurt. We're hardly even friends, Kusotori, you don't even know me.

 

She could take her own words, Kiara decided. 

 

“We aren’t friends anymore, Calli.”

 

“W-well, duh, I know that. I...” Calliope’s face adopted her usual expression; strange, detached panic. “I mean, we could be again?”

 

It took everything in Kiara to not immediately accept. She fought the smile off of her face, but its spark lingered, dancing deeper into herself. The prospect of friendship, even after what she said, after what she did.  “I thought you didn’t have time.”

 

“...yeah, I...don’t...” Calliope trailed off.

 

Neither did Kiara. Between their jobs, even if everything was at its best, even without having to pay most of the rent, they had to work enough to eat, to afford the basics, to keep their houses warm. If Calli still even had a house. 

 

“I...don’t either. Except for now.”

 

“So.” Calliope coughed. “How’s, uh, how’s the family?”

 

The spark dies. 

 

Words came from Kiara before she even thought about it. “You were at the funeral.”

 

Pink irises contracted to pins and darted around the room. 

 

She wanted to shove the words back into her mouth.

 

Mori looked anywhere but Kiara. 

 

At this point, she shouldn’t care.

 

Maybe there never was a spark.

 

“Can I please get a coffee?!”

 

They both flinch; a line had formed behind Kiara, a really big line. Residents from all over town, oh god one of her coworkers.

 

She sunk into her hoodie.

 

The barista spoke up once again. “...Kiara, your--”

She turned away. “Uh, bye... Mori.”

 

Kiara’d pick up some energy drinks from the gas station from now on.

Chapter Text

Calliope Mori was to bowling what bodybuilders were to sewing. 

 

Magnetic, dynamic, and pathetic. 

 

She had all the grace, poise, and style needed to wow anyone watching, even as she sunk further into the paper bushes of disheveled corporate servitude. But...her scores. Her scores . Sometimes she managed single digits. She got a strike, once , and that was...three years ago? Four? Five? Too hard to remember.

 

The day’s session, however, was a wash. Calli’s face laid on the counter, petal pink hair splayed everywhere. Ina peered over her printer paper.

 

“Don’t beat yourself up Calli, you didn’t do that bad.”

 

“...I hate chickens,” she groaned. 

 

“Er, did something happ-hen?

 

Calli only groaned harder, maybe hoping to merge her face with the table if she pressed hard enough against the worn plastic.

 

“Sorry, force of habit.” Ina halfheartedly apologized as she laid down her pen.  

 

“Yeah...somethin’ happened alright. I eff-worded up. With Kiara.”

 

Ina’s hair raised, just a little. “Mhm? Kiara? What happened?”

 

“What didn’t happen.”

 

“Nobody died, right?”

 

Calli didn’t answer. 

 

“Did...” Ina reached across the counter and placed her hand on the taller woman’s own. “Calliope Mori, do I need to hide a body?”

 

“What-no! God no, who do you take me for? Jason Voorhees?”

 

“Mhm.”

 

“And god, sure like, just the thought of Kiara makes me wanna strangle her but I’m not that far gone.”

 

“I see.”

 

“It’s just that, jeez, have you heard her talk? It’s like talking to the sun. Like the actual on fire flaming sun. She’s so positive and chipper and I hate it! She never knows when to stop!”

 

“Yep.”

 

“And...I mean, what am I, then? I’m not Icarus. I’m...someone who flirted with the sun for a bit. And then the sun fucked it up and I got burned. And now I hate the sun. Y’know?”

 

“Dunno. Dracula?”

 

“Yeah! Except I’m not dead!? I’ve got, like, a pulse, and eyeballs, and like...warm blood? Guh.”

 

“Wait...when did Dracula not have eyes?”

 

“You saying the Drac man has eyes? No. There’s voids in there. I eff-wording promise ! Dracula? No eyes.”

 

“But without eyes how’s he a vamp-eye-re?” Ina was too tired to argue, but she was never too tired to pun...although, not on her best game.

 

“The eyes have it.”

 

“What do the eyes have?”

 

“Tact. She doesn’t got it. ...your boy doesn’t either, though.” Calli groaned. “I coulda sworn she still... god eff-wording damnit. I fucked it all up. She fucked it all up. Why do I still think there’s something there?! Guh.”

 

“Mhm. Follow your heart.” It was all Ina could advise. Her mind too tired to actually come up with advice that wasn’t recycled positivity advertisements.

 


 

Kiara was like the sun. Vibrant, cheerful...orange. And like the sun, she seemed to have enough energy to last billions of lifetimes. 

 

“-And isn’t that just so unfair right? Like I offer to work all these hours but they still won’t bump me up to full-time as if I’m not practically bleeding for this company! Which isn’t even that good! Do you know what they put in their KFC sauce?”

 

Ina scratched her pen against her paper’s corner. Just a little more ink, she still had enough to finish. Maybe she wouldn’t get to the frills on the dress anyway. “Since you’ve told me seven times...yes.”

 

“Garbage! They put garbage in there, like sure it’s alright but is it good? No, no it’s not. It doesn’t work, which is what-”

 

“Which is what you always say, but management doesn’t listen.” Ina finishes the sentence for her. Kiara doesn’t even seem to notice, leaning back in the booth they situated in, eating the so-called garbage KFC. As was tradition with Kiara’s late shift breaks. 

 

Since she worked so late, she was often lonely, and Ina already didn’t have a sleep schedule so she couldn’t really find a good enough reason not to swing by and talk to her. Though, Kiara did most of the talking. 

 

“I mean I certainly wouldn’t bring that sauce within twenty miles of my chickens” She whined, “I love them too much, but also it just seems like a crime. Especially since Jennifer got sick so now I’m taking care of that . Ugh. It just feels like everythings been going wrong in my life lately y’know?”

 

“I know how it can be, yeah.” Ina says politely, a hand clumsily missing the cold fries beside her sketchbook.

 

“And that’s not even mentioning my old skeleton walking out of the closet.” Now she sounded close to crying. That had Ina surprised, she hadn’t figured Kiara for a killer but, if that’s the kind of friend she needed to be-

 

“Ugh!” The fast food employee splays across the table, “Why did I have to fall in love with THE most emotionally stunted hottie in town.”

 

-oh ok she meant Calli. With this in mind she lets out a sigh of relief and returns to halfheartedly poking at her food. “Thought you were avoiding the uh...angel of, hold on, a dead...ugh, just, I thought you didn’t see Mori anymore?” She paused, then corrected, “the deadbeat.

 

Kiara snickers, “That’s a good one, I’ll have to remember that.” She says before sitting back up and continuing her rant. “And I mean I was! I really was! If I saw her on the other side of the street I would walk awayyyy, I threw away her number, I even stopped going to the music store she loves and broke the records we bought!”

 

“You mean old lady Maizono’s store? Wah Wah World? I thought you loved that place?” Ina lazily mimed a conductor’s...stick thingy with a fry. Personally she didn’t care for it, but the grandma running it was too sweet to stop visiting.

 

“EXACTLY!”

 

“So uh…” Ina’s brain chugged to process the information, “…how the hell’d you end up in that mori-tifying run-in, then?”

 

“Seven out of ten.” The offhand rating gives Ina a new reason to frown. “And honestly I was just practically dead on my feet, total auto-pilot, going to grab coffee before my shift and BAM there she was!”

 

“Ah.” 

 

“I swear, she works everywhere. Has she ever been fired or is she just constantly working twenty four seven! I don’t think I’ve ever really seen her sleep to be honest. Oh my god it was sooooo awkward you have no idea.”

 

“Oh yeah. No, she works, like...” Ina attempts to remember, loses count on her fingers, and shrugs. “Only time I’ve seen her sleep is here.” In the middle of the alley twice and on the carpet three times, specifically. She’d roll a gutter ball, fall on her face, and just...lie there. It was one of the few things that scared Ina, since she had to make sure the pink punk was breathing given how still she goes.

 

“Yeah I know right?” Kiara gestures wildly with her whole body. It was almost funny how different the two were, and yet they had the most history together. The only thing they had in common was their similar workaholic attitudes. 

 

“I swear Ina, she picks up jobs like hobbies, her resume must be huge!! Like, absolutely massive I bet. I’m sure even, there’s no way it’s not. How many jobs do you bet she’s listed there? Oh! Oh do you think she ever like, forgets a job with how many she has? She’s had to right? There’s no way...no way she’d remember everything.”

 

“Mhm, yeah. She actually came in for a shift here,” Ina responded. “ Twice , the second time the boss just let her work it n’ paid her part-time . She...what was her degree plan even in...” She put a fry in her mouth and began to chew as she contemplated. “Maybe she’s in debt, I don’t know.”

 

“She got her associates in nursing and took a lot of music classes.” Kiara mindlessly answers. Because Kiara actually knows everything about Mori.

 

“In music. And nursing .” Ina blinked. “Dunno if I should be more ashamed or confused.”

 

“Me either! She’s like, like the swiss army knife of humans! Kinda? I mean like, she does everything but it’s not like she does it well.” Kiara grumbles, shoving fries in her face, “Sure she’s the most beautiful human on earth, amazingly smart, and able to work twenty hours a day on whatever she sets her mind to!”

 

“...but?”

 

“But she’s so annoying!” Kiara hits her hand against the table before her forehead follows suit and she lets out a pathetic whine.

 

Ina reaches a hand out to pat Kiara’s head. “There there. Rest easy my child.”

 

“Ugh, but it is so much worse than you imagine! You see how it’s worse right? Like yeah she’s kind of a trainwreck but she’s a hot trainwreck, like a total babe, like a real-”

 

“Kiara.”

 

“-a real hotty! Total supermodel! She got so many confession letters-”

 

“Kiara.”

 

“-ah right, sorry…I just, what is her deal?”

 

“I wish I knew.” Ina gives a quiet, if tired, laugh. 

 

They sat silent for a moment, not a single pleasant sound in the bowling alley to speak of.

 

Someone booted the door open.

 

“OI INA! IS that you I see in the window!?”

 

A certain someone strolled in. Not Calliope, but...well, a certain someone who was still shorter than the counter. Her aura today was filled with sharp, violent menace.

 

“Hey Gura.” Ina says pleasantly. She hears Kiara inhale sharply and her heart drops a little.

 

“Jesus christ I forgot how loud you are!” Is all she says before practically throwing herself up from the table and walking over to the counter. Which she promptly vaults over in a not-so-graceful heap, if the CLANG was anything to go by.

 

“...well jeez. She’s one to talk, huh.” 

 

Gawr Gura is too short to do most things. Everywhere she goes, height restrictions bob up around her, as people realize ‘hm, this one’s too tall for our little person and child policy, too small for our regular policies, let’s just turn them away’. 

 

But nobody’s too short to bowl. 

 

She was pretty... decent at the sport , of course, Ina mentally corrected herself. But, eh, she wasn’t paid enough to not fantasize on company time. 

 

Gura wasn’t bowling at the moment, though. What the shortest woman Ina’d ever met was doing was an extensive rant on every detail possible for a lesson plan to achieve the hopeless: actually teach Amelia Watson things.

 

She’d take notes but after scratching the paper for a few minutes she’d realized there was no ink left to be had. Mahou Shoujo Ina’nis’d have to make do without a face.

 

Amelia’s knowledge had always been a blind toss. She knew everything or nothing. Couldn’t name a single emperor of Japan but knew every breed of dog, knew how to pick every lock but couldn’t fathom a car. She could tell you who built Mount Rushmore but assumed it was in Mongolia.

 

“--and we’re gonna go twice over the Tokugawa era cuz she don’t know a thing for that and then something with bri’ish hischry oi oi oi’m amelia watson oi know the english speak of tea and crumpets and THEN maybe fitting in some greek mythology and I think I finally have a way to frame calculus to her so...uh...” Gura trailed off, gleeful smile slowly fading from her face. 

 

“…” Ina blinked, realizing she had been prompted to speak. “…so, uh…you seem excited to teach her?”

 

“I mean, ugh! Yeah! Can ya...” Gura sighed. “Can ya believe she used ta call me Cartilage Head?”

 

Ina reached over and bapped her forehead. “You’re still a little squishy, Gawra. Same as it ever was.”

 

“AAA! Okay, yeah, sure whatever, but I’m not stoopid !”

 

“You aren’t stupid. And neither is Amelia. You’re just built different.”

 

“Yeah. We’re different. An’ I’m the one who hauled ass outta farmin’ duties to learn how ta study an’ she’s the one coastin’ on what she knows til it crashes and burns in her big dumb lil face!”

 

“Crashed and burned, Gura.”

 

“Hah?”

 

“Tako bout it. Who in our little clique--” Ina spread her arms and yawned. Did she not have the energy for anything anymore? “--sleeps in the same bed she’s had since a baby, tried starting a company and bankrupt herself, lost every job she got hired for not even a week in, and now isn’t even let into half the places in town?” It was honesty still impressive but a constant source of worry for her,  “Who has a personal restraining order from every member of city hall including her own dad ?”

 

“Oh...Is Haato really doin’ that bad?”

 

“I’m talking about Amelia, Gura.”

 

“...wait what? When’d that happen?”

 

“Oh I don’t know” Ina rubs her eyes, “...probably when you were off drowning in books?” It comes out a little more tongue and cheek then Ina intends, but she doesn’t have the energy to correct herself.

 

“C’mon she can’t be doing that bad.” Gura whines, “I mean, she shouldn’t be right? 

 

“Weren’t you the one who always said Watson’d never amount to much...or, something like that” She wasn’t entirely sure her own memory was correct, but it sounded right enough to not bother.

 

“I wasn’t-!” Gura bit back whatever she was about to say, pouting instead. “Ugh, I’m kind of a huge chump aren’t I Ina? Why can’t I ever stop talking...stooopid.” 

 

“...” Ina couldn’t think of how to respond, thankfully Gura kept going.

 

“I mean I guess it’s good then right? That now I’m helping her? Sorta? Kinda? Jeez, why is it that whenever she’s involved it feels like handling a raccoon.”

 

“Because that’s what she basically is. A petite, feral little raccoon.” Ina hums, mimes daintily donning a crown. “All hail Watson, the runaway princess of the garbage kingdom, may her rabies be eternal and her dumpster dives be clean.” She draws a little circle with her finger and something about it makes her dizzy.

 

Her weariness must’ve shown because Gura then asks her, “Hey uh, you okay? Lookin’ a little more tired than usual.” 

 

“Hm? Ah no I’m fine...just uh, I just need to grab some tea before my next shift.” 

 

“Hmm…” Gura leers at her and for a moment Ina wonders if she’s about to be exposed. If the secrets she’s worked so hard to keep safely under wraps, all the efforts she’s made, all the struggles she’s been through are to be for nought. Just because she was too sleepy to properly cover.

 

“Don’t push yourself okay? You can always ask for time off yeah?”

 

The sigh of relief Ina gives is, a little dramatic to say the least.

 

“Listen, we can just, relax together sometime yea? Catch a broadcast of one of those Narutos or whatever, have some snacks, jus’ chill?” Gura attempted to pat her upon the back, but alas, tiny arms. 

 

“Yeah. Yeah...yeah we can, sometime, yeah.”

 

Sometime was most likely never. Besides, no matter how enticing snacks and the Narutos may be...

 

Ina had a job to do.

 


 

…and in conclusion, if she spent less than an hour in battle she’d be able to walk the path home, a half hour, and be home before five. Ina raised her weapon of choice (a crowbar, she hadn’t mastered any rituals, magic, or anything yet so she had to rely on a crowbar she’s grown strangely attached too) and stabbed another piece of bark to etch the directions down. Forget the way back twice and you learn to leave reminders, she guessed.

She thought once about bringing paint but, given weather is a thing that exists…she etched instead. Her whittling was improving...not much of a skill to practice.

 

At the center of the shallow lake was a grove of sakura trees. Technically, a lot of the trees around here were that too, but these...it’s almost winter, and they’re in bloom.

The only sound was a mournful chime.

Ina jumped over and splashed…into ankle deep water.

Okay. Okay, she can work with that. The riverbed was solid enough she wouldn’t slip unless she tried. It might not be that hard to lure the monster to more solid land if it came down to it.

 

Luring the monster away would take time though. And that’d cut into the allotted time she set aside to fight before going home. So if she pushed that back she’d have no time to polish her art assignment before going to class. Which would then inflict a domino effect or completely ruining her chances at succeeding at anything ever again.

 

Another bell chime pulled her from her downspire of thoughts as Ina got closer now to the beautiful trees. The trees waved. Fluttering, dancing in the wind. And something...pulled itself out.

It was the exact same color, some sort of natural camouflage. Something that looked like a wolf at first glance, shaped like one, the size of a small house, but actually as it revealed itself Ina noted the monster shared more features with the feline family as its giant paws seemed to have retractable claws, a collar with a large bell like one you’d use for cats and its snout was a tad short, indicating a lower bite force-

 

“THE PACT. HAS BEEN BROKEN. STAY HOME.”

 

Midair, Ina realized that it spoke , too. Which was not a trait typical of felidae. She also realized, with some surprise, that it had swatted her halfway across the lake.

She landed into a tumble, raising her crowbar.

The cat-wolf-thing bore down on her, and Ina’s reflexes took over. 

CRACK!

Various shattering sounds rang out as Ina brought the crowbar down across and against the monster’s arm.

One paw hit.

Another. 

It was bleeding.

Another blow, and the creature loped forward still. What was it—

It shook its shoulders. The skin tore itself off. 

Ina retched. And closed her eyes. Just for a moment, just...just a little second to look away.

Fatal mistake.

Arms ripped themselves from its back, raw muscle exposed muscle flexing its newfound freedom, fresh meat grabbing into Ina in an instant. Flesh and bones and FINGERS she was going to bite this thing out of desperation she in fact DID start biting it but it DIDN’T DO MUCH AND OH GOD OH GOD CAFFEINE PLEASE ADRENALINE PLEASE ANYTHING Ina thought as she gripped her crowbar and used all her strength to push and pUSH AND PUSH AND-

And something else pushed with her.

The monster screamed.

She thrashed.

Ina was rolling, rolling, falling FREE -- OW wet rock. Ina lifted her head out of the water and spat blood.

And a chunk of meat.

Tastes...disgustingly sweet. Slimy. Chewy . So, so horribly chewy. It reminded her faintly of-

 

“-popcorn chicken?”

 

The bells on the monster jangled. 

She spat out the rest of the meat and looked up. That...that thing. Its arms and paws flailed, trying to grab her crowbar and wrench it out of its back.

The core of it had to be there.

Shaky legs, step forward through the water, Ina rushed at the beast.

It swatted her aside. 

She tumbled, soaked herself, spun, feeling her ribs and bolting again.

A hand, reaching out, hers alone. 

The crowbar is hers again. 

Ina strikes. 

The creature howls, thrashes, tries to block and parry but it can’t hit right. Ina draws blood, breaks bone. 

It was nearly dead. It was nearly dead . Ina struggled to keep her eyes open. She could end this. She could--

The lake was a few inches deep. The lake was a few inches deep, but the riverbed was smoothed over by water. Ina loses her footing. In the few seconds before she crashes into the monster her head rings out a solid ‘ah shit’. The impact is a lot less fleshy than when she bit it, but in the blur of the moment Ina manages to stab her crowbar once more into the beast before getting caught between a giant skinless hand and the watery ground.

 

The pressure lessens, from what Ina can tell fully submerged it’s like the beast is struggling.

 

Just as she’s about to lose breath the pressure lifts somewhat and all that’s holding Ina down is dead weight.

 

It takes a lot more effort than it should to get out from under it. And by the time she’s above the relatively shallow surface Ina’s gasping for air raggedly.

 

She turns to see the Monster, dying. It’s lifeless-or, was it ever alive? A deep whimper can be heard from it as the fur begins dispersing into real sakura petals. Exposed muscle greys and turns to dust.

 

Soon all that’s left to prove it was ever there are the wounds on Ina and the single bell now floating in the water. 

 

It sinks. Ina grabs her crowbar, pushing herself up and begins the half hour trek back. 

 

A pause. Her mind catching up to her body.

 

“Ah…I forgot…to sleep again.” She sighs.