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Where We Draw the Line

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Where We Draw the Line

 

 

 

 

Detective Amelia H. Watson has a favorite spot in the city.

 

There, under an old, tall tree, a metal bench just the right distance away from a vending machine that’s always stocked up. The bench is along the park’s natural route. The park itself is a short walk away from Ame’s apartment. The park also happens to be a short walk away from the teleporter she needs to take to report to the Warden of Time for work.

 

The breeze is pleasant. There are white, fluffy clouds crawling along a bright, blue sky. The surrounding is all bright greens and browns littered with patches of natural wildflowers. Ame leans back on the bench, cradling a canned coffee in one hand. Patches of sunlight illuminate her face through the gaps in the leaves.

 

Despite everything, the park is so silent.

 

She can hear the rustling of plants as the wind blows through. She can hear the mechanical hum of the vending machine. She can hear the distant cawing of crows.

 

It’s a shame, she thinks – the park’s really nice and should be more popular than it is.

 

Amelia looks down at her hands. She sloshes the remainder of her coffee. On her right hand, tied tight around her pinky, is a glowing red string.

 

The string, as the stories go, connects her to her soulmate.

 

Supposedly everyone gets one, but you can only really see your own. Even gods get one. Ame thinks of the Warden and the Guardian, often found together, often sharing little stories and glances and touches. It’s as if at times that the rest of the world fades away when they’re together.

 

Amelia would be lying if she said she wasn’t jealous of what they have.

 

But that’s the thing – Amelia’s a special case. She doesn’t age like normal people do. As far as she can remember, she’s at least two hundred or so years old. She’s not really sure. And for as long as she can recall, she’s had the same string wrapped around her finger. The string should have vanished if her soulmate were to ever pass on. It could only mean that Amelia found herself a soulmate that does not age too.

 

Or, well, her soulmate could be something weird. Like the string ending abruptly into the ground or leading up directly into the sun. She’s even seen movies and shows about such cases. The plot then tends to be more of a “maybe the soulmate is the friends we made along the way” kind of scenario. The characters find joy in being just with themselves and the inner peace they’ve discovered or something to that effect. The people in those stories seem happy enough.

 

She imagines it a little – just her and her string connecting her to absolutely nothing. Like her and this park. Just her, alone, always, every day. Nothing but white noise to keep her company.  

 

Amelia remembers how much she hates this line of thought. She chugs down the rest of her coffee and tosses it in a nearby waste bin. She stands up. Stretches.

 

Time for work.

 

_______

 

The elevator in the Warden of Time’s office building moves unbearably slowly.

 

It’s as if it’s lurching up and down the building, moving inch by inch like a turtle trying to cross a busy road. At least, it’s how Detective Amelia Watson feels about it. She’s staring at the display at the top of the door, watching the red arrow crawl along without a care in the world.

 

The building only really has a handful of working floors. It just so happens that the building is this impossibly long, twisted spiral of a clocktower in the middle of the endless sea of sand in Time’s domain, reaching far up into the clouds where The Warden’s office is.

 

Thankfully, the elevator itself is nice. On the walls are spotless mirrors framed by intricate carved wood. Over speakers plays the quintessential elevator tune.

 

The woman beside the detective, Warden of Time Ouro Kronii, hums absentmindedly to the tune as she flips over pages of a document in her hands.

 

“Are you sure you’re gonna be okay handling this case?” asks Kronii. The Warden turns her attention to Amelia, who is most definitely impatiently hopping on one foot and the other.

 

“If I say I’m not gonna be okay, will you take me off the case?” Ame asks back.

 

“Well, no,” goes Kronii. “I would’ve just said ‘Oh no, that sucks. Oh well,’ and then sent you on your way with a pat on the back.”

 

“So if I say it’s fine?”

 

The elevator successfully descends a floor. They’re only halfway to the ground floor where the teleporter to the mundane world is.

 

“Well then I’d say ‘Yeah that’s the spirit go get it tiger!’ and then send you on your way with a pat on the back.”

 

“Why me though?” the detective whines.

 

“Amelia,” Kronii starts as she hands over the document to Ame, “you’re literally my only employee. There are simply no alternatives. Besides, it’s probably just some big coincidence. You probably don’t have to worry.”

 

The detective looks over the document handed to her. A referral from the Guardian of Civilization to assist some clients with acclimating into the mundane world. There are some contact details. Some basic information. One client claims to be an actual 9000-year-old shark from Atlantis. The other claims to be an eldritch cult priestess. Amelia sincerely hopes it’s some kind of prank.

 

Kronii chuckles. “Hey remember that one joke I made to you before about Cthulhu being your soulmate?”

 

Amelia groans in response. “You just said it’s a coincidence I can’t believe you’re bringing it up.”

 

The expression on Kronii’s face changes. “Do you ever think about trying to find your soulmate again?”

 

Amelia looks down, at her right hand. Tied around her pinky is a red string that only she can see, pulling down and away, taut, going through the elevator’s tiled floor and into the unknown. A beam of red light supposedly connecting her to her soulmate. She looks up at the Warden’s right hand. Imagines a glowing red string connecting her boss to the Guardian of Civilization.

 

“Nah,” says the detective at last. “Unless you want to lend me another motorcycle.”

 

Kronii laughs. “Fair point.”

 

The elevator finally manages to find its way to the ground floor, signaling its arrival with a ding. The doors slide open slowly.

 

There, standing in front of them. On Ame’s left is a short woman with sharp jagged teeth and blue hair. She’s wearing a loose hoodie that has this general vibe that just screams ‘Oh wow it’s a shark girl!’ She seems to be in the middle of cracking a joke to the woman on Ame’s right. A woman with long, lanky limbs and straight, dark purple hair. The detective immediately notes the odd, distinctly inhuman appendages on the woman’s head. Amelia’s vision is drawn down by something red and glowing in her periphery.

 

Kronii is barely through saying “Oh hello th – ” when Ame’s reflexes kick into overdrive and she immediately lunges for the “close doors” button on the elevator. She proceeds to slap all the buttons on the panel for safe measure.

 

– Amelia what are you doing!?” goes Kronii, baffled, as the elevator begins its slow march toward the top. “This is a five-minute elevator ride! Those were the clients!”

 

Barely under her breath, Amelia whispers. “It’s her.

 

“Who ‘her?’”

 

The detective didn’t let herself linger on it too long. Lest the other woman notice before she has a chance to escape and maybe hide forever. But it was there, undeniable. The end to the glowing red string around Amelia Watson’s right pinky.

 

My soulmate.”

 

_______

 

She tried, once, to find her soulmate.

 

She departed early that day, unsure of what to expect, of how far she’d have to travel, of who she’d meet at the other end of that string. She stepped out her home, without really knowing how long she’d be away. She had a few days’ worth of clothes in a bag along with some bare essentials. A notebook. Cash. Toiletries and basic rations. Camping gear too, to be on the safe side. She even went ahead and borrowed one of Kronii’s motorcycles and notified the Warden that she might be gone for a while.

 

At first, she was riding through her city. Starting from her apartment and following the pull of her red string along streets and districts. When it was quickly becoming apparent to her that her soulmate was nowhere near her city, she’d gotten on a highway to ride to the next town over. The string continued to pull, taut, in one singular direction. It beckoned to her.

 

Days were spent driving. Nights were spent in motels, her lying on lumpy spring beds and her hand splayed out in front of her face. And during the times where she had nothing but wide, empty, and endless roads, she camped in tucked away hideaways, off the beaten path. When she happened upon towns she stocked up, did the laundry, slept with a roof above her head. But still, all this time, the string pulled, taut. As if no matter how far Amelia Watson traveled, she was getting nowhere near the destination.

 

The detective knew she shouldn’t, but she did it anyway – she built herself a version of her soulmate in her mind. It was a lonely journey. The thought of finding someone at the end of the string was comforting.

 

Her soulmate would be kind, hopefully. It would be nice if they could make her laugh, too.  Maybe they liked sweets. Maybe they were the type to greet passing animals as if they were people. Yes, Amelia could imagine it – someone outgoing, cheerful, who lit up the room with their smiles and their laughter.

 

Of course, Amelia would really appreciate if they spoke a mutual language. Otherwise, they’d have to choose a language and learn it together, maybe. That could be something to bond over. Something romantic. She imagined the many movies she’d seen before where the characters could not speak to each other but were compelled nonetheless to love one another eternal. That’s the stuff of soulmates, maybe. Hopefully having that for herself made her feel warmer on cold nights spent camping under the endless, starry sky.

 

When she found herself at another town, she bought as many language books as she could. She wanted to get a head start.

 

Towns became more and more sparse. That meant more nights camping out, alone, with nothing but the wind and the sky to keep her company.

 

The image of her soulmate in her mind grew more vivid. Amelia imagined someone tall. With broad shoulders and sturdy hands. She thought of someone whose embraces were powerful.

 

It made her feel safe when rain and storm rattled her tent.

 

The sun was bright overhead when she found herself at a fishing village.

 

She almost couldn’t believe the damn string wrapped around her pinky. Pulling, as taut as ever, into the horizon. Past the ports and their stench of sea brine and fish, past the creaking wooden ships, and past the endless waves.

 

Into the ocean itself.

 

That’s just great, Amelia Watson had thought.

 

The detective mustered up more willpower. She imagined her soulmate, with their wide smiles and bright laughter, waiting for her with open arms.

 

Amelia wandered into a nearby post office and wrote a letter to Kronii. It only said, “I’m renting a boat. Your motorcycle is also getting on the boat. See ya.”

 

And so, the intrepid detective found herself on an old, rickety boat she’d purchased from an equally old fisherman. She’d loaded as many rations as she could – crates of stiff, dry hardtack and barrels of drinking water. Some jerky, some dried fruits, and a fishing rod just to be on the safe side.

 

The sea breeze was comforting. The ebb and flow of the waves was mesmerizing. The smell of salt filled her lungs and the cries of sea gulls grew more and more distant as she ventured further and further into the unknown, with nothing but a rusted compass, a torn-up map, and a red string pulling ever forward.

 

Amelia began talking to the motorcycle on the boat as if it were Kronii.

 

“Listen I know I could have used my powers but this feels meaningful, you feel me?” She had told the motorcycle.

 

The motorcycle was looking a little worse for wear. In dire need of an oil change and a good waxing.

 

“Listen this is kind of your fault too okay. I could only stand walking in on you shoving your entire tongue down Mumei’s throat so many times until I feel like I’m going to eat the entire door.”

 

The motorcycle could use a tire change too. The starter was also beginning to give out.

 

“You think they’d like to meet me?”

 

The motorcycle’s front light had gotten dimmer than when Amelia first started riding it.

 

“I’m worried. They might be too good for me, you know?”

 

The motorcycle was there. Inert. Alone. As alone and as inert as Amelia felt, riding along waves that promised to pull her towards her destined soulmate.

 

And then it happened.

 

One morning, the sea was still. Unusually still. There was barely any wind to pick up the tattered old sails of the boat. The ocean was a dark, dark blue. The sky above was cloudless. The boat creaked as it rocked idly with Amelia’s steps.

 

And the string. The string connecting her to her soulmate. Red and bright, the string still pulled, taut.

 

Into the ocean. Into the deep, dark blue.

 

Amelia Watson was standing on a boat directly above where her soulmate was, under the ocean itself.

 

The detective wasn’t sure what fueled her then – curiosity, determination, loneliness? It mattered little. Before she had any moment to collect herself, she’d wound the chain of her pocket watch tight around her wrist and dove headfirst into the cold water.

 

She swam, deep, deep, and deeper still. Past the point her lungs would take her. Past the point her arms and legs would let her. Past the point she could keep her stinging eyes open. She remembered thinking that the sensation was ironic. She was submerged in water but it felt like her entire body was burning.

 

She couldn’t see the bottom of the ocean. She couldn’t see anything but the empty expanse of the sea. She couldn’t see anything but the bright red string pulling her deeper and deeper.

 

Her lungs gave out. Her arms and legs went numb. Her eyes went dark. The thought then – This is it, I’m gonna die trying to find my soulmate and I don’t even know if they speak English or Korean.

 

At the last moment she pressed on her pocket watch.

 

It was a bright flash and a thunderclap.

 

She found herself gasping for air on the hardwood floor of Kronii’s immaculate office. She rolled around in the seawater puddle of her making, her lungs and blood screaming for oxygen.

 

Kronii sat at her desk, startled. She swapped from looking at the handwritten letter in her hand to the sopping wet detective on the floor.

 

At last, she said, “Hey wait where’s my motorcycle?!

 

To which, Amelia had responded, her chest still heaving, “Sorry I’ll pay you back.”

 

Kronii set the letter down. “Did you find your soulmate?”

 

“At the bottom of the fucking ocean,” Amelia had answered, finding the strength to get back up on her feet. She was dripping all over the floor. Her coat felt incredibly heavy. Blonde strands of hair were stuck to her face. She was beginning to feel a little cold.

 

“Oh,” went Kronii. “That sucks.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“My motorcycle though…”

 

“Gee Kronii, thanks for worrying about me.”

 

After a pause, Kronii finally went, “I guess your soulmate’s Cthulhu or something,” and laughed.

 

“Fuck you,” Ame had barked back, but she was laughing too, despite everything. Despite the burning in her lungs. Despite the cramping in her limbs. Despite the stinging in her eyes. Despite that aching, screaming loneliness in her that never got to know who the person at the end of her string is.

 

She tried, once, to find her soulmate.

 

She became content to let go of that person. Them and their idealized embraces and brilliant smiles, with sturdy hands and laughter that rang out. She had them, in her mind, in her heart.

 

And now she has no one.

 

_______

 

This is unfair, thinks Amelia Watson.

 

It’s the present.

 

It’s the present and Detective Amelia Watson’s attempt to meet her soulmate is in the distant past.

 

It’s unfair because this is the present but now, she’s suffering through the world’s most awkward introduction because she never thought it was possible that she’d ever meet her soulmate.

 

“I’m Detective Amelia Watson,” says Ame, looking pointedly at the wall behind the two clients in front of her. She has her best client-facing smile on but her insides feel like a pizza roll left in the microwave for far too long.

 

“I’m the Warden Ouro Kronii,” goes Kronii, completely undeterred by the absolute pain her only employee is experiencing. “You two are the ones Mumei are sending over, yes?”

 

“Yup,” goes the shorter woman. “I’m Gawr Gura. The shark one.”

 

The other woman isn’t saying anything. She’s staring very hard at a speck on the floor.

 

“Yo Ina use your words,” says Gura.

 

Uhh,” goes Ina. She straightens up. She’s now looking directly at the wall behind Ame. “I’m Ninomae Ina’nis. The, uh, the eldritch priestess one.”

 

Amelia Watson makes the mistake of looking at the priestess. They lock eyes. The woman’s expression is soft. Shy. There’s the smallest smile on her lips. “Nice to meet you,” she says.

 

It’s too much. Amelia decides it’s far too much. Her insides feel like hot molten lava and she’s about to explode.

 

She looks down at Ina’nis’s hand and confirms that yes, there is the other end of the string connected to the detective. She looks up and finds that the priestess is doing the same thing. There’s the barest ghost of a blush on the woman’s face.

 

Ame points toward the pair of incredibly large, intricate wooden doors at the entry of Kronii’s tower. “THERE’S A PORTAL TO THE MUNDANE WORLD JUST THROUGH THOSE DOORS. YOUR HOUSES ARE THAT WAY,” she bellows at the top of her lungs.

 

She then turns back to get into the elevator and slaps all the buttons on the elevator panel. The three other people stare at her, dumbfounded, as the elevator doors slowly close and for once in her life Amelia is immensely grateful at how slow Kronii’s elevator goes.

 

_______

 

 

The detective finds herself at the entryway of an average, nondescript apartment complex. On a note in her hand are some directions from Mumei written in a very confusing scrawl. She looks up at the building. Architectural design that seems to have come from at least three decades ago. Dull concrete walls that look like they’re long overdue for a repaint. The overcast sky looks like it’s about to rain any time soon.

 

Amelia steps in. She’s looking for the third floor according to the note. Past the old, tinted glass entryway doors is a narrow hallway with a flickering light and then an even narrower stairway with rails that look like more rust than metal. Now Amelia understands the need to hide supernatural creatures from prying eyes but this feels excessive, somewhat.

 

She ascends the steps. On the second floor she can distinctly hear some of the tenants having a shouting match. On the third floor she finds an abnormally large pile of empty cardboard boxes in front of a door. And of course it’s the unit where her new clients (and soulmate) reside.

 

Ame crouches near the boxes. They’re all pretty recent, which checks in with how they’d only moved in a few days ago. It’s actually impressive how much of a mess they’d already managed to accrue. She makes a note to herself to inform the two about how regular humans perform garbage disposal.

 

The detective starts checking the boxes. Due diligence and all that, she thinks. Mostly furniture boxes. Some from the nearby grocery. There are even a few with the name of the largest online shopping provider. It’s a good sign, thinks the detective, because it means the duo are capable of figuring out how to navigate the internet and sourcing needs.

 

She inspects the packaging further. Now she probably needs to verify that the two aren’t spending money on dumb online scams and the such. She pulls out one particular box. The label had been scratched out but Ame can clearly see the energy drink branding all over. Bright colored logos and prints and words with far too many exclamation points. Ame pulls out another box. And then another.

 

She makes the horrifying realization that at least a third of the boxes are energy drink boxes. How many cans are they chugging?

 

And here, the dangerous thought – she’s imagining now, Ninomae Ina’nis (her soulmate) chugging far too many energy drinks because bless her soul she probably doesn’t even know what those things do to her organs. The poor girl must be going through it now. Shortness of breath, heart palpitations, light headedness. God. Good thing Amelia H. Watson is a time traveler, detective, and a doctor.

 

There’s Doctor Amelia, to the rescue! She’s handing her soulmate a glass of water. Telling her to take it easy. Her soulmate is totally swooning because Amelia is so attentive and caring. Now Amelia’s writing her soulmate a doctor’s note. More exercise. More sunlight. And how about… a date that weekend so her doctor can… examine her further?

 

It takes everything within Amelia Watson not to scream in the middle of the sketchy apartment hallway. She buries her face into a pile of boxes instead.

 

The door opens, just a crack. Amelia immediately jerks up.

 

It’s the shark girl. Gawr Gura, recalls the detective.

 

“Here I was hoping we’d catch another kitty,” says Gura. “We caught a weirdo instead.”

 

It takes Ame a moment to register. “Wait. Another kitty?”

 

“Cats, dude. There are like, so many cats on the surface world it’s amazing.”

 

“No wait, I mean, another? Are you guys catching them?”

 

Gura laughs. “We noticed that cats like boxes. We don’t know who owns them or where they come from, but we like to watch them play in the boxes.”

 

From deeper inside the apartment, Ame barely hears another voice call out. It has to be Ninomae Ina’nis (her soulmate).

 

Gura shouts into the apartment. “Ah no, it’s not another kitty, Ina. Sadly. It’s Detective Awkward Watson looking through our garbage.”

 

Ame suddenly regains the presence of mind to stand up straight and dust herself off. She readjusts her tie. Clears her throat. “It’s protocol,” she says, “I’m just checking on what you guys are up to.”

 

“Sure,” says Gura, grinning from ear to ear. “Wouldn’t you like to know what your soulmate’s up to.”

 

There’s a sudden wild blush creeping up on the detective. She feels her words get caught at the back of her throat.

 

Oh yeah,” goes Gura, smug. “Ina fessed up. So are you here to try to ask her out or are you going to continue to be weird?”

 

“I. Ah. Uh. Well.”

 

“Duly noted,” says Gura. She turns to shout into the apartment. “Hey Ina! We can get the detective to show us the best take-out place near here! Why don’t you go with? I’ll hold down the fort.”

 

Amelia Watson suddenly realizes she’s incredibly unprepared to hold a conversation with her soulmate. She remembers that she’d spent the commute to the apartment complex brainstorming. She pulls out her notebook to see what she’d written down.

 

On one page of her notebook, in nearly undecipherable handwriting: “Hello!” “I am Amelia Watson!” “Hey cutie!” (This one was crossed out several times.) “I am detective! The best!!” “Hello my name is Ame.” “Detective who can time travel very cool right!??!?” “Is it weird if I’ve kind of made up an idealized version of you in my head that I fell in love with?” (This one also got crossed out several times.) “Oh I’m also a doctor!”

 

Ame resists the urge to stuff her entire notebook into her mouth. She looks up, about to tell Gura that she’s unfortunately too busy to show Ninomae Ina’nis (her soulmate!!) around, but she looks up to find said soulmate looking right at her.

 

Um,” goes Ina.

 

Ame looks down at her notes again. Looks up again. “Detective that time travels very cool right?”

 

Ina blinks. Stifles a laugh. Tries to pass it off as her clearing her throat. “Yes,” she says, very strained. “Cool.”

 

From inside the apartment the detective can hear loud cackling.

 

The doctor diagnoses herself – she is currently dying of embarrassment. She decides to turn around to hide the blush on her face. “All right,” she says, “I’ll show you this taco place near here that serves up really good quesadillas.”

 

Ina quietly follows. She has a small backpack slung over her shoulders and she’s wearing a loose hoodie and a pair of track pants. “Thanks,” she says, looking amused.

 

Ame feels like she’s burning up or something. They’re walking down the steps, through the doorway, out into the cool city air, but all Ame can really look at is the girl and the string connecting them both.

 

It’s weird, she thinks – she feels like she’s known this person for so long but she doesn’t line up at all with the person she created in her mind. They stop at a street crossing. Cars zoom by while they stand quietly by one another.

 

Ame breaks the silence at last. “You’re different from what I’d thought you’d be like.” She looks up, at the clouds. Trying her hardest to look at anything other than her soulmate. In the distance, thunder rumbles.

 

“Different how?” asks Ina.

 

Ina’s voice is calm, cool. Ame feels a little envious, actually. She’s so nervous she could swear her voice wouldn’t stop wavering.

 

Ame conjures the image of the soulmate that she’d built for herself all those years ago. She looks to the person beside her. Ina’s smiling but looking a little tired maybe, a little distracted. Her frame is lanky and her hoodie seems to swallow her whole almost. Her hands are buried into her pockets and Ame’s sure Ina would be taller if she wasn’t slouching so much. “Just… totally different,” Ame answers. “Sorry. It’s just really weird.”

 

Ina smiles, softly. “Well, I wasn’t expecting to meet you either.”

 

The way the woman’s voice sounds, the way her presence feels, it’s almost too overwhelming of a concept for Ame. She looks away again. A nearby puddle ripples. Rain droplets. Ame looks up. It’s beginning to drizzle.

 

Ina pulls out a small umbrella from her bag and pops it open. She holds it over Ame. “It’s raining. Let’s share.”

 

Ame decides Ina’s being far too nice. The warmth is too inviting. Too comforting. She steps out of the umbrella’s shade. Rain droplets are splattering against her cheeks. “I’m good,” she declares.

 

Ina seems confused. Ame goes ahead and runs across the street just as the crossing light turns green.

 

“It’s just over here, around the corner!” she shouts. Ame decides she needs distance. She knows she’s being irrational. But she’s afraid, maybe. She doesn’t even want to confront the thought right now. Her insides feel like a pressure cooker. There’s pressure building up inside her. Uncomfortable. Tense. Awkward. She feels like she’s about ready to burst at any moment.

 

Now, the taco joint isn’t actually five-star material. It’s dingy, at best. But there’s a kind of allure to hole-in-the-wall places that just seem to meld so well in the surroundings. There’s familiarity in it. Safety, even. The walls are an off white, covered nearly entirely in posters and pictures of menu items. The tables and chairs are old and rickety, some repaired with cheap palette wood. The overwhelming smell of spices and herbs fills the air. It feels humid, and it seems somewhat foggy. There’s an electric fan mounted on one of the walls that’s barely producing a draft.

 

They pretty much have the entire place to themselves. Ame slides into one of the seats. Gestures toward Ina to follow suit. A waiter practically materializes at their side, setting a pitcher of water and two plastic cups without saying anything.

 

“Two servings of the special, please,” Ame tells the waiter.

 

The waiter nods, scribbling down on a ticket and handing it into the kitchen.

 

“The special?” asks Ina. She settles down into her seat.

 

“Skirt steak with fresh salsa quesadillas, basically. Really good stuff. I usually always get some of it when I’m in the area.”

 

Ina reaches for the pitcher. She pours out water for the both of them. There’s a look of quiet focus on her face. The barest furrow of a brow. Lips drawn into a line.

 

“Is there…” Ame starts, but she falters. There’s a nervousness in her that feels electric. She pulls her resolve together. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

 

Ina is looking down, at the table. “Yes, actually,” she says. She seems to be fidgeting with her hands.

 

The detective takes a sip of water.

 

“I didn’t think I’d ever meet you,” Ina says at last. “I… I don’t know how much about me you got to learn but, I was born human.”

 

There’s a tone to Ina’s voice that makes Ame feel like her insides are twisting and turning.

 

“I’d heard you were made into an eldritch priestess, yes,” says Ame.

 

“Yes, well,” Ina starts. She seems unsure how to put her thoughts into words.

 

“I was kind of human too,” offers the detective. “I stopped aging after a point though. Time travel apparently does that to you. At least, if your employer is the god of time.”

 

“Ah. Yes, I’d heard from Mumei just before we met.”

 

There’s a tension to the conversation that’s putting Amelia on edge. She finds herself adjusting in her seat constantly. Behind them, in the kitchen, there’s a roar of fire, the clattering of pans. On a nearby wall, an electric fan clatters noisily against the screws mounting it in place.

 

“Sorry if this comes off as rude,” goes Ame, “but where were you going with this?”

 

Well,” Ina starts. It takes her a while to gather her thoughts. “I guess I also wanted to… apologize.”

 

“Apologize?”

 

“For not trying to meet you sooner. I. Ah. Well, I thought that my soulmate would be mortal. I thought it would be more pain that it was worth. Since I was suddenly immortal.”

 

“Oh,” goes Ame. She feels her shoulders slumping. “You didn’t know the string disappears after your soulmate dies?”

 

Ina’s shoulders slump too. “It… does?”

 

“Yeah,” says Ame, a little distant. She’s trying her best not to sound bitter about it.

 

“Oh,” echoes Ina. “I just… I thought… the worst thing would be seeking out your soulmate and then finding a grave at the other end.”

 

“That’s kind of dark,” says Ame.

 

“Right?” goes Ina. “That’s why I just… kind of ignored it all this time.”

 

Outside, the light downpour turns into heavy rain. Inside, the air is still somewhat stuffy. The waiter turns on a television. A sports game is ongoing, but the voices coming through the speaker sound discordant.  

 

Ina seems to be folding under the weight of what she’s trying to say. It’s an almost unbearable sight to Amelia. She can see, in the corner of her periphery, the bright string connects them both under the table. The detective feels like she’s rapidly approaching her breaking point.

 

“Hey, can we get the order to-go?” she asks the waiter.

 

The waiter nods and disappears into the kitchen.

 

Ina seems to sulk. There’s a visible frown on her features now. It’s making Amelia feel all kinds of awful. She wishes this were easier. She thought it’d be easier, really.

 

Wasn’t that supposed to be how it goes? You meet your soulmate and it’s supposed to be this grand thing, like puzzle pieces connecting snugly or some other metaphor to that effect. The heavens part, the angels sing, all of that stuff. Amelia Watson looks outside. Miserable weather with an extra serving of thunder and lightning. The detective almost feels cheated. Part of her thinks that maybe it would have been better if she’d never gotten to meet her soulmate at all. Then at least she wouldn’t have the pleasure of having her every expectation destroyed.

 

Ame sighs. She’s being weird about it, she decides. “Don’t worry about it,” she says. “It’s not like I tried to go meet you either anyway. So we’re even.”

 

Ina’s frown deepens. “Don’t lie,” she says.

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Don’t lie,” the priestess repeats. “I know you tried to find me.”

 

The memory is unpleasant. It feels like it’s bubbling up at the back of her throat, acidic and bitter. A lonely journey, a lonely ship, a lonely detective, lost in the middle of the lonely sea.

 

“I saw the ship,” Ina continues.

 

“What makes you think that it was me, then?”

 

“I searched the sea to find any trace. But it’s almost like… like she’d jumped away,” Ina’s leaning forward in her seat. There’s now a quiet fire in her dark blue eyes. It catches the detective off guard.

 

“Probably a lot of people in the world have the power to teleport.”

 

Ina’s voice is steady, but there’s a new edge to how it sounds. Playful, almost. “There was a motorcycle on that ship. It belonged to the Warden of Time. Ask me how I know.”

 

Ame looks toward the kitchen. No sign of the waiter or their food. She looks back at Ina, who is now sitting at the edge of her seat. “Alright,” says the detective, “how do you know?”

 

“I had the great misfortune of asking the Guardian of Civilization about a prized motorcycle that I’d just happened to come upon.”

 

“Oh,” goes Ame. She can imagine the look on Mumei’s face clear as day. The world’s most sinister smile on her face as she talks to some random woman who showed up with a valued possession of her soulmate. “She tried to kill you,” Ame deduces.

 

“She tried to kill me,” Ina echoes.

 

They laugh.

 

It feels good, Ame thinks. Like the surface of the ice finally giving way. The tension melts as she listens to Ina laugh. As she feels the gales shaking her frame. She’s looking at Ina and suddenly things feel a bit more… as they should be.

 

What did she imagine her soulmate to be like, again?

 

Their moment is interrupted by the waiter placing two paper bags on their table.

 

Ame pays for the food, picks up the items. Outside, the rain is still going. Ame frowns at the sky.

 

“You still don’t want to share an umbrella?” Ina asks. She’s smiling now.

 

There’s a fire burning at the pit of Amelia Watson’s stomach. She is suddenly consumed by the single-minded need to talk with the woman more. She wants to know how she and Gura ended up in the mundane world. She wants to know what the priestess was doing at the bottom of the ocean. There’s still so much to discuss. To catch up on. To discover.

 

She’s finally meeting her soulmate for the first time.

 

Ame shakes her head. “I’m busy,” she decides. She hands the paper bags to Ina, who gratefully accepts them. As she’s doing this, she can feel her very insides recoiling against her.

 

There’s a patient smile on Ina’s lips. “Alright,” she says. “Thank you for your time.”

 

“Just give the office a call if you need anything, okay?” says Ame. Saying those words make her heart ache. There’s a burning sensation building up in her lungs, in the corners of her eyes. It’s too much.

 

Before Ame can step out into the cold, harsh rain, Ina speaks up.

 

Wait,” says the priestess.

 

The detective is held in place. Ina’s eyes seem… glossy. “Yeah?” goes Ame.

 

“Do you think we missed our chance?” asks Ina. “Do you think that, that if we met sooner, we’d be just like all those stories about soulmates?”

 

The words seem to knock the very air out of Amelia Watson. She almost loses her balance. The world feels surreal. Like everything but Ina is melting away from her senses, from her periphery.

 

She’s there, again, on that creaking wooden ship, looking down into the deep expanse of the ocean and hoping to meet someone that would understand her.

 

“I…” starts Ame, but words are escaping her grasp. All she knows is the intense aching in her chest. All she knows is the burning loneliness in her memories.

 

Ina forges on. She takes a step forward. “I… I don’t think we missed our chance, Amelia Watson.”

 

Amelia Watson?” goes Ame, suddenly dumbfounded by Ina’s use of her full name.

 

Ina takes another step forward. There’s a deep blush on her face, spreading out to her pointed ears and creeping down her neck. “I… I think you’re very beautiful, Detective Amelia Watson!

 

Detective Amelia Watson sputters. She stumbles backwards a few steps. She can feel that her face is positively on fire. Her heart is racing. She’s going to pass out, she’s so sure of it.

 

Ina continues. She takes another step, the paper bags clutched in her hands so tightly they’re crumpling up. “I came up with so many pick up lines! I… I wanted to impress you!”

 

“M… Me…?” Ame backs into a chair. She holds it for support (and for dear life).

 

I’m sorry but you’re just so cute and I forgot how to form words for a bit,” Ina declares.

 

How are you saying these things to me!?”

 

I don’t know!” goes Ina. “I just… I just feel like I can tell you anything!

 

Outside, the rain grows stronger. Thunder rumbles. There are flashes of lightning stretching their shadows out.

 

Ina continues speaking. “UH. ARE YOU FROM TENNESSEE? BECAUSE YOU’RE… YOU’RE…”

 

Ame fights the urge to fall to her knees and combust on the spot. She can’t take her eyes away from Ina. Them and the only thing between them – the glowing red string. The detective was so sure that these were things she’d never get to see, get to experience. It’s ridiculous. Completely and utterly ridiculous. But all the same, it suddenly makes so much sense why Amelia Watson’s been on edge this whole time.

 

I can’t believe you really are my soulmate…” Ame whispers.

 

NO,” goes Ina, her face blushing so furiously Ame’s worried she might pop a vessel. “I’M PRETTY SURE IT WAS ‘BECAUSE YOU’RE THE ONLY TEN I SEE.’”

 

This is it, Ame decides. Her absolute breaking point. She briefly considers running off into the rain already.

 

“I WISH YOU WERE A CRIMINAL,” Amelia barks against all better logic in the world, “SO I CAN LOCK YOU UP IN A CAGE FOREVER!”

 

Ina blinks a few times. Squints. “Is that a pickup line?

 

“NO!” The detective turns on her heel to stomp off. She stops abruptly just at the exit. Her heart suddenly feels like it’s full of pop rocks. The feeling is simultaneously exciting and mildly annoying. Raindrops are splashing against her shoes, her legs. She turns around again. “IF IT WERE THOUGH HOW WOULD YOU FEEL ABOUT IT?”

 

Ina starts shouting back. “I DON’T KNOW I’M RATING IT A 4/10???”

 

“FUCK.”

 

“I’M SORRY???”

 

“NEVER MIND THEN FUCK,” Ame shouts, and she runs into the rain wildly.

 

_______

 

“You knew who we were meeting up with,” Amelia Watson accuses her employer. “Mumei must have told you but you withheld that information from me.”

 

The two are sitting in the tower’s conference room. A long, rectangular room with an incredibly heavy solid wood conference table in the middle. Kronii is standing at the front of the room, near an impressive podium, while Ame occupies one of the room’s many luxurious leather seats.

 

“If I told you in advance, would you still have met the clients?” asks Kronii.

 

“Of course not,” quips Ame.

 

“I rest my case,” goes Kronii. “Besides, I got my motorcycle back in the end. That’s all that matters to me.” She clears her throat. “This is not, however, the reason why we’re having a meeting today.”

 

“Kronii why can’t we just meet in your office this room is too big. It feels excessive.”

 

“Amelia do you have any idea how expensive this furniture is? We’re using it.

 

Ame takes in how there’s even a chandelier in the room. She looks around. “Can’t you at least provide free coffee for meetings?”

 

“No more budget,” Kronii states. She frowns. “Don’t make me feel bad about this detective I give you rights, don’t I? You get a salary and everything!”

 

The detective laughs. Waves it off. “Next time then. Continue on with the meeting please.”

 

Kronii pulls out a rolling whiteboard from a hidden cabinet along one side of the room. She draws a line down the middle with a whiteboard marker. On one side, she writes “Socially Acceptable” in her flowing, neat script. On the other she writes “Creepy.”

 

Kronii secures the cap back on the marker as she turns to face the detective. “Okay,” says the Warden. “We’re gonna do an exercise now, okay?”

 

Amelia Watson feels herself sinking into her seat already.

 

“The exercise is called ‘Am I being weird?’” Kronii continues. She gestures toward the board. “Okay Amelia, where would we put ‘Asking to hang out?’”

 

Ame groans loudly. She wills the chair to swallow her. “Kronii, please.”

 

“Come on Amelia, where would we put it?

 

Ame grumbles. “On the ‘Socially Acceptable’ side.”

 

Yay, good! Correct,” goes Kronii. She turns to scrawl the phrase on the Socially Acceptable side. “Now, how about ‘Going through their garbage?’”

 

“Hey okay listen it was not on purpose okay it was entirely an accident I swear I – ”

 

“ – We’re beyond your explanations now, detective,” says Kronii, cutting off the rambling Ame. “It’s okay. We all have our moments of weakness.”

 

Ame makes a pained, wailing sound.

 

Amelia use your words.

 

Creepy,” Ame says at last. She’s rolling in her seat like a defeated toddler.

 

“Good,” goes Kronii. She scribbles it down on the board on the Creepy side. “Now how about ‘Threatening to arrest them?’”

 

Ame starts trying to curl into a ball in the seat. She’s hiding her burning face behind her hands. Her voice muffled, she whispers, “… Creepy.

 

“Hmm?” hums Kronii, leaning forward, a hand cupped over her ear. “What was that detective? You’ll have to speak louder than that.”

 

Ame accepts that the feeling of embarrassment will forever exist as part of her for the rest of her life now. She shuts her eyes as much as she can. She says louder, “Creepy!

 

“Why yes, Amelia,” says Kronii. Ame can hear the squeaking of the marker against the whiteboard. “That is creepy.”

 

The detective is curling into as tight as a ball as she can manage on the conference room seat. She refuses to look at the whiteboard anymore. “I said I’m sorry Kronii can we please be done.”

 

“Oh no no,” answers Kronii. Ame still has her eyes glued shut but she can hear the Warden tapping impatiently on the whiteboard with her marker. “We need to make sure the lesson is clear. This is a matter of me, the Warden of Time, being responsible for you, the Time Detective. I can’t have you running around and being all weird because you can’t ask a woman out you know. It reflects poorly on me.

 

“This is all her fault,” Ame grumbles.

 

“See now you’re just being a baby about this.”

 

If we keep this up I’ll really be a baby and cry and then take a massive shit in your office Kronii,” Ame seethes.

 

Amelia.

 

Ame decides to uncurl from her ball form. She feels herself melting into the seat. She is one with the concept of feeling mortified and therefore she is now untouchable by the universe. “Sorry,” she snips. “You can go ahead and write ‘Threatening to shit in her boss’ office’ on the creepy side now.”

 

Kronii crosses her arms. There’s a deep scowl on her face. “I don’t know what Ina has done to you but you clearly have lost it, detective.”

 

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

 

Well, it seems to me that Ina could really use someone to show her around the whole town since she’s new,” says Kronii. “And you know what’s a socially acceptable thing to do about this kind of problem?”

 

“Send her a link to google maps?”

 

No.”

 

Ame is incredibly tired of this dumb game. She’s going to resist Kronii’s well-meaning talk even if it kills her. “Give her a compass, a shovel, and a map marking the location of the town’s least visited park?”

 

What the he – no! Amelia H. Watson take this seriously.

 

Oh no,” Ame deadpans. “Not the use of my full name.

 

“Alright it’s an actual assignment now. No cases until you show Ninomae Ina’nis around town and work through whatever this is going on with you right now.” Kronii gestures vaguely toward Ame. “Get your shit together detective.”

 

Ame lets herself slide down the seat. “Roger that chief,” she says, now lying flat on the conference floor like a starfish.

 

Truly, she thinks, it’s all that octopus’s fault.

 

_______

 

 

The office where the detective works is usually empty save for herself, Kronii, and Mumei. It makes sense – the Warden’s realm is generally inaccessible to the inhabitants of the mundane world. Every now and then clients are invited to discuss things with the Warden and what the god of time can offer. Sometimes other members of the Council drop by to visit to offer odd jobs or hang out for some idle chatter.

 

Despite the hundreds of years that the detective has been working under the Warden, Amelia could never get used to bumping into Mumei in the office.

 

Once, the detective nearly had the fright of her life when she’d opened a locker only to find Mumei standing in it. When asked, the Guardian had simply said “Like a dead body,” as if it were any meaningful explanation.

 

Another time, Ame and Kronii were about a full hour into a usual meeting when Ame nearly fell out of her seat because she finally noticed that Mumei was standing in a shadowed corner of the room the entire time. When asked, she’d simply informed the detective that “You failed at preventing an assassination attempt on my beloved.”

 

This time, Ame has a hand clutched over her racing heart while the other is on a light switch. Mumei had been brewing coffee. In the complete darkness of the pantry.

 

Mumei?” goes the detective.

 

Mumei seems unbothered by everything, as usual. She’s frowning at the coffee machine. “I put too little water I think.” She pours out a mug and offers it to the detective. “Here, for you.”

 

Ame nervously takes the mug. She takes a sip. It’s shockingly bitter and tart. The detective stifles a cough. It’s hard to keep down with how acidic it feels going down her throat. “Ough, that’s strong.”

 

The Guardian pours out another mug and takes a large swig. She frowns at the beverage. “Kronii makes it better.”

 

“Why not have Kronii make it then?”

 

“She’s busy,” Mumei supplies. She gestures toward at the table and chairs in the break room. “Keep me company, detective?”

 

Amelia obliges, sitting across the Guardian. She sets her mug down and watches as Mumei continues to sip at her coffee just fine.

 

“You’re too much like Kronii, I swear,” says Mumei at last. She giggles.

 

Ame is taken aback. “Wh-what do you mean?”

 

“Did you know? When we first met Kronii basically ran away and holed herself up here.” There’s a wistful smile on Mumei’s face.

 

“Huh. I thought Kronii would be more assertive.”

 

“She really isn’t,” goes Mumei, laughing lightly. “I chased her down, you know.”

 

Somehow it sounds more threatening than it should.

 

Mumei continues. “You’re being the same right now, detective. You’re trying to run away from your soulmate.”

 

Well,” goes the detective, unsure what to say. “I… I was just caught off-guard.”

 

“Kronii was used to being alone. Just look at this giant tower in an empty sea of endless sand.”

 

Ame looks down into her inky black coffee. The smell is overpowering, almost. In front of her, Mumei has an almost serene expression. “Yeah?”

 

“Then the Council came together. Then I hunted her down. Then, finally, you,” explains Mumei.

 

Ame is surprised to be included in the story. “Me?” she goes.

 

“Kronii would rather eat grass than actually tell you, but she really cares about you,” says the Guardian. “She does things like not tell you you’re about to meet your soulmate or coach you on talking to her because she wants you to be happy.”

 

“I’m not lonely,” says Ame.

 

Mumei grins playfully. “Who said anything about being lonely, detective?”

 

Ah,” goes Ame.

 

Caught you,” says Mumei.

 

Ame sighs. Trying to talk around Mumei is basically impossible, Ame thinks. “Fine. Maybe it’s kind of lonely to be on your own in a world of soulmates.”

 

“Then why are you trying to resist spending time with her?” asks Mumei.

 

“I’m not try – ”

 

“ – Detective,” Mumei interrupts. “Dodging the question might work with Kronii, but not with me. I get what I want. Always.”

 

Right, thinks the detective. She chuckles lowly, despite everything. She takes a large swig of coffee. It burns almost like alcohol, the taste lingering in her mouth like burnt rubber.

 

“I think, that one time I tried to find her, I gave up on her,” admits Ame at last. “It hurt because I feel like I set myself up for disappointment.” She’s thinking again of her lonely journey out into the ocean. Her, and those countless days and those countless nights. A heart ready to love but without anyone to give it to.

 

“But she’s here now,” says Mumei. “So why not try again?”

 

The question makes Ame feel uneasy. Swirling like acid in the pit of her stomach. “I don’t want to be disappointed again.”

 

“So you think she’ll disappoint you?”

 

“No!” goes Ame. She sits up straighter. Her fists are balling up on her lap, her fists clenched so tight her knuckles are going white. “It’s just… I’m just…”

“Yes…?” goes Mumei, egging the detective on.

 

“It’s like, I loved a version of my soulmate that I made up and then I mourned the loss of them,” Ame says at last.

 

“You’re afraid of heartbreak,” offers Mumei.

 

“… Basically.”

 

Mumei nods along. “I think you’re being unfair to Ina though.”

 

The mention of the name alone makes Ame’s heart race a little faster. No, the detective decides, it’s the death coffee that Mumei brewed up.

 

“What do you mean?” Ame asks.

 

“Ina had nothing to do with how you set yourself up for disappointment. And now you’re basically locking her out like Kronii used to do with me.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Mumei claps her hands together. “I think I’ll have a talk with Ina.”

 

Panic seeps into Amelia Watson like nothing else. “W-wait. Why?”

 

“I’ll teach her my finest breaking-and-entering techniques,” Mumei states plainly.

 

Ame is about to retort when Mumei gasps.

 

“Oh, right,” says the Guardian. “Kronii was asking for your assistance like, fifteen minutes ago. She might be mad now. You should go.” Mumei smiles innocently.

 

The detective sighs. There really is no winning against the Guardian of Civilization. “If you’ll please excuse me then,” says Ame.

 

“You’re excused,” says Mumei. “They’re in the conference room.”

 

“They?”

 

_______

 

 

“Oh, Amelia, about time!” goes Kronii. She’s grinning ear to ear, sitting in one of the conference room seats for once. “Do you have any input on the stuff we’re currently discussing?”

 

Amelia Watson is rooted to the spot at the doorway.

 

At the front, Gura, tapping a marker on a whiteboard. Seated in a nearby seat, Ina, blushing a deep, scarlet red.

 

The whiteboard is full. There’s one section with a line dividing two columns. One reads “being dorky” and another reads “being sexy.” Under “being dorky” are items such as “Pick-up lines about Tennessee,” “Awkward declarations of attraction,” and “Rating your soulmate’s pick-up lines poorly.”

 

Under “being sexy” are items such as “Lacy underwear,” “Being mysterious,” “Having a lot of money,” and “Talking normally (no anime).”

 

On another section of the whiteboard, there’s a picture of Amelia Watson taped to the board. Under it, the words “Things Detective Awkward likes.” The listed items include “Dogs,” “Video games,” “Working hard all the time (Kronii said this),” and “Women???” There’s a drawing of a loaf of bread with an enormous X drawn over it.

 

“What’s… What’s going on here?” Ame asks at last. She turns to look at Ina, who seems to be trying to curl into a ball in her seat. They make eye contact.

 

“aaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA,” goes the priestess.

 

_______

 

There’s someone else in Detective Amelia H. Watson’s favorite spot.

 

Ame is startled, but she walks up to the bench and sits on it regardless. The sky is clear, work is light, and the walk to the park was serene. “Okay,” she says, “did Kronii or Mumei tell you about this place?”

 

Ina hurriedly puts away the sketchpad she was drawing on. “Believe it or not, no, actually,” says Ina. She quickly tries to straighten out her hat, her dress. “I take it this means this is a place you frequent?”

 

“Oh, do you mind, by the way?” asks Ame belatedly, gesturing at how she’d already taken a seat. “And yes, I like it here.”

 

“I don’t mind,” goes Ina. She fidgets with her hands a little. “Hey, listen, about what you saw in the conference room the other day…”

 

Ame laughs. An honest-to-god, head thrown back, stomach cramping kind of laugh. It’s weird, she thinks. There’s a tension in her that’s finally giving way. After years of pining and then years of mourning and then days of panicking, she’s somehow now here with her soulmate and she’s come to the most startling realization of all.

 

Her soulmate’s just a person. Like how she’s just a person. Amelia Watson thought there’d be more magic. More drama. Turns out, it’s just two awkward people learning how to flirt with each other.

 

“Yeah don’t worry I think I’ve embarrassed myself enough with you too,” says Ame.

 

Ina hums. “Yeah, no. Pretty sure I had it worse.” And she giggles softly.

 

The sound is nice, thinks Ame. It’s certainly a step up from just the rustling of leaves and the humming of a vending machine. The world feels a lot warmer.

 

“So what are you like?” Ame asks.

 

Ina considers the question for a while. Gloved hands trace the outline of her bag. She chews on her lip with her fangs. Ame feels like maybe she’s staring a little too hard. She can feel her cheeks grow warm.

 

“I’m not allowed to talk about anime,” says Ina at last. “Gura says it’s not sexy enough.”

 

Ame chuckles. “I mean, there’s like, anime where people bone right?”

 

Ina’s face reddens. “Okay I’m not talking about that kind of anime.”

 

“Alright, let’s do anime talk anyway. What do you like? Maybe I know about it,” Ame offers.

 

The priestess hums again. “Have you heard of… Neon Genesis Evangelion? Or uh… How about… Gundam?”

 

“Oh. You like robot anime,” goes Ame. She thinks she’s seen those. Giant robots with guns that go pew pew and space wars and the such.

 

“They’re so much more than just about robots, Ame. The – ”

 

“ – So you’re a dork,” interrupts Ame, laughing to herself.

 

Ina buries her face behind her hands. “See the anime talk is bad,” she whines.

 

“No no,” says Ame, still chuckling. “It’s… endearing,” she says, sighing a little.

 

The priestess lowers her hands a little. She’s looking directly at Ame, eyes wide.

 

It makes Ame feel a little self-conscious. “Is there something on my face?”

 

God,” goes Ina, barely above a whisper. “You’re really cute, you know that?”

 

Ame looks away, pulls down harshly on her hat. Her face is burning. “Shut up,” she barks.

 

“It’s true though,” goes Ina, lowering her hands completely. The woman looks at Ame like she’s the only thing in existence.

 

Is this what it feels like to be wanted? It’s such an intense, overpowering feeling, thinks Ame. She’s looking directly at the ground when she murmurs, “You’re really cute too.”

 

“Oh,” goes Ina. She looks down at the ground too.

 

Patches of light are cast on them through the gaps in the leaves. There’s the distant cawing of crows. The ever-present hum of the vending machine. The sound of wind blowing through the greenery. It all feels so much more vivid than it usually does. It all feels so much more… vibrant.

 

A few beats pass until Ame finally speaks up. “We’re terrible at this, aren’t we?”

 

“Yup.”

 

The detective sits straighter again. She has an idea. It’s a completely insane, ridiculous idea. But it makes her heart race. It makes her lungs burn. It might work. “Hey, can I ask for a page from your sketchpad?”

 

Ina’s already pulling out the item from her bag as she asks, “What for?”

 

“Let’s do an exercise.”

 

Ina flips to a blank page, hands the item to Ame along with a pencil. “Exercise?”

 

Ame takes the items. Down the page, she draws a vertical line in the middle. On one side, she writes “not flirting,” and on the other she writes “flirting.”

 

The detective looks up to find that Ina’s blushing.

 

“S-so,” says Ame, willing her voice to come out steadier. “Wh-where do you think… where do you think we’re at?”

 

“We… We uh…” goes Ina, faltering. She’s looking down again, playing with that intangible string between them. It takes her a moment, but she finally gathers her thoughts. “Do you think we’d still be here like this, talking, if it weren’t for this string?”

 

It’s hard for Ame to imagine. “I… I don’t know.”

 

Ina reaches out, with the hand without the string. She places it over the sketchpad’s page, covering it. “How about we stop trying to define lines and put labels to things?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Can’t we just be two people that met by coincidence?” asks Ina. “Being soulmates, or awkward, or dorky, or any of that. Let’s just… let it go. I… I want to know you, as you are.”

 

Oh,” goes Ame. There’s a genuineness in Ina’s smile that makes Ame feel like she’s melting from the inside out. “Me… as I am?”

 

“Yeah. Without idealizing you for what you’re supposed to mean to me. Just as you are now, here, with me.”

 

“I’d… I’d like that,” she says. “I’d like to know you like that too.”

 

“Then,” goes Ina. She offers her right hand. “Let’s start again. I’m the eldritch priestess Ninomae Ina’nis. It’s very nice to meet you.”

 

Ame shakes Ina’s hand. “I’m the detective Amelia Watson. It’s very nice to meet you too.”

 

As their hands shake, the string between them touches and tangles.

 

“Ah,” goes Ame, chuckling. “What a coincidence. It seems like we’re soulmates too.”

 

Ina giggles. “What a coincidence, indeed.”

 

There’s a warmth settling into Amelia Watson’s very bones. She feels safer than she ever has in her whole life.