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The Day I Met You

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A sharp sting of electricity at the base of her neck - like being stuck by a small lightning bolt. It sent tremors down her spine, made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She sensed that something was off.

Yet everything was normal.

The people were normal. The place was normal. The time was normal. Oh, that must be it. She was running out of time.

 

“Eli-chan? You okay?”

She snapped out of her reprieve with a shake of her head.

“Oh, sorry Honoka, what were you saying?”

“Haha, what was I saying?” Honoka laughed. “What was I even saying Eli-chan~?” She slurred.

Eli chuckled. “God, Honoka. It’s your own party and you’re already this drunk.”

Honoka flashed a dopey smile and said, “It’s the best way to ring in the new year! But I’m not drunk. I’m just…” Honoka trailed off, blinking as if trying to regain her train of thought.

Eli waited patiently.

“Hey, do you think they make bread-flavored booze!?” She asked excitedly.

“Um, well there’s always rice wine.” Eli tried, helpfully.

Honoka gasped. “Eli-chan, you’re a genius!! I gotta go ask Hanayo right now, oh my god, this is my best idea ever! Haha, what if we just poured it onto the bread…” Honoka stumbled off in the direction of Hanayo, mumbling incoherently to herself.

Eli sighed, but smiled into her glass of champagne. Honoka was always full of great ideas, but most of them were doomed to be delusions. Though, once in a blue moon, she stumbled upon gold. Eli thought that bread booze would not be one of those ideas.

There it was again.

The sudden, biting shock raised goosebumps on her arms. This sensation- it made her restless, put her on edge, which is the exact opposite of what she wanted to be, of what she should be.

Rubbing her arms, she scanned the room. Honoka’s apartment was bustling with people. The heater and drinks were driving off any winter chills from outside. A-rise’s new album was playing on repeat. Even the cream orange walls were meant to coax her into a happy, warm and drunk mood. It was Honoka’s annual New Year’s Eve party. And every year Eli had so much fun and could barely remember it the next day, spending January 1st crouching in front of a toilet or in front of the television. Why not this year? What was different this time?

What should be different?

Something was missing, something important. Eli went through her mental checklist for the hundredth time that night, only to draw a blank yet again.

No use worrying about it if you can’t even remember what it is. She reasoned, despite the nagging feeling in the back of her mind, and worked hard to forget it.

Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Nico, who was chatting up some red head girl sitting at the counter. She looked totally out of Nico’s league – and tax bracket.

She left the weird feeling behind her. Resigning herself to be Nico’s saving grace, she made her way toward the two. As she drew closer, she saw a warm blush dusting Red’s cheeks, and Eli suspected it wasn’t just from the alcohol.

Sidling up to the two, she threw an arm around Nico’s shoulders. It was the hand holding her glass of champagne, but Eli didn’t realize this until the sparkling liquid splattered across the countertop. Red recoiled from the drink, moving her fancy handbag away from the quickly-spreading champagne. Whoops.

“Eli…” Nico gritted out between her teeth, “What do you think you’re doing?”

Eli giggled, placing the glass down on the table. Then, she slung her arm around Nico’s neck again, this time tighter. “Aw, it was nothing~ Forgive me?” Eli cooed, batting her eyelashes and trying to look into Nico’s eyes.

Nico was practically seething, but it took one glance at Red to know that her once flustered smile was now a grimace plastered onto her face.

Eli grinned coyly in response to Nico’s frown.

“Um,” Red started awkwardly. The two friends whipped their heads in unison to turn to her. She pointed vaguely behind her with her perfectly manicured nails, “You look a little busy here, so I’m just go-”

“No!” Nico cried.

Red startled a little.

“I-I just mean that Eli here was just leaving~. Plus, I’d be lonely if you weren’t here to keep me company.”

Red brushed her hair behind her ear. “Oh- Okay.” She said, adverting his eyes.

Nico flashed Red a grateful smile before turning to Eli, grin turning murderous. She reached for Eli’s head, pulling her ear down to her lips and hissed, “Don't fucking ruin this for me. I know what you're trying to do, but don’t.”

“Fine,” Eli whispered, “But I know what I'm doing and it's totally working.” She snuck a glance at Red, who was sipping her drink and looking like she wanted to be literally anywhere else.

“Whatever,” Nico whispered before releasing her grip on Eli. “Why don't you go hang out with Kotori? She looks a bit lonely over there.” Nico she said aloud, tilting her head toward the girl sitting alone on one side of the couch.

Oh no, Eli thought.

She turned back to Nico to see her best friend’s eyebrows raised expectantly. Eli turned again to look at Kotori on the couch and conceded, “Yeah... okay.”

 

She crept toward Kotori like she was tip-toeing around a sleeping bear. It wasn’t like the younger girl was dangerous by any means, but sometimes, especially recently, the usually sweet and hardworking girl became more distant and withdrawn. The reason was always the same.

As Eli passed behind Kotori’s back, she caught her tracing her soulmark. It was one of Kotori’s nervous quirks to rub the inside of her left forearm, close to her elbow.

A soulmark was a type of soulsign, something that linked you to your destined soulmate. Soulsigns varied from person to person, but Kotori’s was a kind called a soulmark. It resembled a tattoo and was something that she was born with and would die with. Kotori’s was a simple black drawing of a bow nocked with an arrow and ready to fire.

Eli made her way around the sofa, passing in front of Kotori and plopped down beside her.

“E-Eli-chan!”

“Hey Kotori. It’s almost midnight, you ready?”

“I… I guess.”

Shit. Eli wished she had her glass of champagne right now. She wasn’t good at expressing her feelings and Kotori kept hers bottled up until it eventually burst.

“Well I’m not,” Eli said. She wasn’t sure what to do with her hands or where to look. “I mean, it’s just that so much has happened this year, you know? I don’t really want to leave it behind.”

Kotori nodded and took a sip of her drink. She stared at the blank television in front of them and continued to swirl her champagne around in her glass.

“But new year, new start, right?” Eli said.

Kotori paused for a moment, then said, “You say that every year.”

“I do, don’t I?” Eli chuckled and shrugged, “Well, I say it because it’s true, but I guess I need to remind myself every year.”

“It sounds like a cheesy saying from a greeting card.”

“Yeah, that might be where I got it from,” She admitted. “But it’s easy to remember and it works.”

Kotori nodded, “Yeah, I guess.”

For a beat, both women said nothing, and Eli was anxious to fill the void with the right words that would make her friend feel better. “It’s like saying it to myself reminds me that it’s okay to move forward. To me, it’s like a new year is like a fresh start waiting to happen and all you have to do is take it. New year, new start.”

“Sorry, Eli-chan, but I don’t think that’s true. A new year isn’t a new start; it’s just another chance for the same old things to happen over again. I’m tired of it.”

“Kotori…” Eli said, unable to come up with a logical response. The younger girl’s head was bowed, her hands gripping the glass in her lap. Kotori’s hair hung over her face and hid her expression. Slow seconds crawled by and Eli’s mind fumbled with useless ideas and half-assed sentiments.

Then Kotori lifted her head and exhaled heavily, “Of course that’s not true. I have the most exciting job in the world, the greatest friends. It’s more than I deserve, yet there’s still this missing puzzle piece in my life. It’s probably just me being selfish, though…”

“Of course you’re not being selfish! You’re like the most caring person I know, and you’ve helped me more times than I can count. Come on, tell me more.”

She smiled. “Thank you, Eli-chan.” She said and took a shuddering breath. “I know that not everything is about soulmates or soulsigns. Still, there are times when I look at Honoka-chan and Tsubasa and it just makes me wonder… When will I find that kind of happiness for myself? It just makes me feel so stupid for being so petty and jealous-”

Eli clasped Kotori’s hand left in hers, “It’ll happen, Kotori. The proof is right here, this bow and arrow. The way I like to see it is just physical proof of what’s always been in your heart.”

Kotori chucked. “You always know the right things to say, Eli-chan,” She gave Eli’s hand one last squeeze before letting it slip out of her grip and sighed. “I’ve just been so restless lately. When I do meet my soulmate, I’m going to yell at them for taking so long.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it.”

A comfortable silence was instead filled with bustling partygoers, the clinking of glasses, and excited chatter. Eli smiled and settled into the warmth.

“Anyway, what about you?” Kotori asked.

“What about me?”

“You know! Do you think you’re going to find anyone next year?”

Eli rolled her eyes. “Way to change the subject...”

“Just spill,” Kotori said, giving her a light push on the arm.

“Same as always. I don’t know… and I won’t know until something happens - if something happens.”

It was Kotori’s turn to roll her eyes. “You have an opinion on everything except soulmates.”

“I mean do I need to have an opinion? Soulmates are something that’s just there. They’ve always been there and I-”

Eli jolted as the sensation hit again. This time rushing through her bones, leaving her skin feeling prickly and her soul exposed. She felt like caged animal. Her eyes darted around the room, eyes bouncing from person to person. All around her, they were talking. There were dozens of conversations. Eli tried to make sense of them all at once, but sound of it all engulfed her. Still, she was searching, searching for - what?

“E-Eli-chan? What’s wrong?”

The feeling was weird. Eli didn’t like how it made her suspicious of everything. It was like she suddenly remembered she had an assignment for work, but couldn’t remember what it was supposed to be on.

She had to do something, and she had to do it quick. The clock was ticking and every second was a moment lost.

Meanwhile, Kotori was looking at her like she would faint at any moment.

“Sorry Kotori, it’s nothing,” Eli reassured her. “You don’t have to worry.”

“A-Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m fine. I promise.”

The other girl scrutinized her, then said, “Eli-chan, I know that something’s up but I’ll let you off the hook for now. Once the clock strikes 12, you can tell me what really happened. That way, you can start off the new year by righting a wrong.”
Kotori smiled and shrugged lightly.

Eli looked away and grumbled, “It’s not that big of a deal…”

“Then why don’t you just tell me?”

“It isn’t as simple as you think! I don’t-”

Eli stopped as the music was suddenly cut and conversations dwindled to murmurs.

Honoka made her grand appearance, not-so-gracefully leaping atop the coffee table directly in front of Eli. Honoka knocked into a cup of soda, and the liquid narrowly missed splashing Eli’s shoes. Her sudden appearance also caused several other glasses so shake, making uncomfortable noises as they scraped against the table.

Honoka wobbled on the table, arms spiraling to stabilize her. Eli looked on, worriedly and prepared to catch the girl if she fell forward. Then just as suddenly as she had leaped onto the table, she was stable.

“Safe!” She proclaimed, arms raised above her like a gymnast and the room shared a collective sigh of relief. (They really didn’t need a repeat of last year.)

“Be careful, honey!” Tsubasa called. Eli turned to see an amused smirk on Tsubasa’s face as she looked at her wife.

“Don’t worry, I will!” Honoka said, waving. She turned forward again and exclaimed, “Everyone! Thank you for coming! There are only 60 seconds left in 2016!”

Eli heard a couple of hollers.

“If there’s anything you wanna do this year, now’s your last chance! So go and find someone to kiss and OH WAIT! Wait wait wait! I almost forgot - Tsubasa and me are adopting a baby! Wooo~!” Honoka yelled, as she raised both her arms in celebration.

Cheers arose from the crowd, Eli’s being one of them.

“Kotori’s the godmother and we’re naming it Honoka 2.0!”

Eli doubted the second half of the statement greatly. She turned to her right to see Kotori’s shocked face. Her hand covered her mouth, but Eli knew that it hid a beaming smile. Tears gathered at the edges of her eyes until they spilled down her cheeks. Eli wasn’t sure if the tears were a combination of happiness, the conversation they just had, or alcohol but she couldn’t blame Kotori for crying. Eli felt emotions swelling inside her, and she decided it wouldn’t be so bad to just sit here and cry with Kotori.

Maybe she would have, if not for the nagging thought in the back of her mind, reminding her: she had to be somewhere else.

Honoka had hopped down from her place on the table to sit on the couch’s armrest and console Kotori. Tsubasa had moved to stand next to Honoka and hold her hand.

“Start the countdown!” Someone shouted. Ten seconds left - already?

“Ten!” She felt her heart beat in her chest, in her ears. It pounded in her head. It drowned out everything else.

“Nine!” She looked frantically around, but all the faces blurred together.

“Eight!” What was she looking for?

“Seven!” She couldn’t hear.

“Six!” She couldn’t see.

“Five!” She couldn’t think.

“Four!” But none of that mattered – Not if she found what she was looking for.

“Three!” Where was it?

“Two!” No… no.

“One!”

At last, she was out of time.

Chapter Text

Eli jolted awake, gasping for air, though she had never fallen asleep.

She lurched upright and gripped her blanket tightly in her fists, fighting to fill her lungs with air. It was if she had been underwater, at the brink of drowning before being flung roughly onto dry land. Her vision still swam in front of her eyes.

The floor seemed to swirl below her, and the walls were spinning. The whole world was unstable and unhinged. Eli squeezed her eyes shut, hoping the churning in her brain would end. Her throat was a desert. She needed water. She needed something – anything that would help. Anything… please.

But there was nothing. Gripping the blanket tighter, she heaved frantic breath after breath until she felt her heartbeat begin to settle and her panic subside.

Her skin was covered with a light sheen of sweat. Eli brushed a piece of damp hair back that had been sticking to her forehead. She exhaled slowly then opened her eyes once again to the world.

She was in her bedroom. It was a surprising fact, though Eli did not know anywhere else she would wake up except her bedroom. Nothing moved or jumped out of the shadows but she was hyper-aware and awake and exhausted.

It was quiet, save for her ragged breaths. Dim starlight shone through her curtains, illuminating vague outlines of her furniture.

It was dark and Eli was alone.

This was an indisputable fact. She knew this to be true yet she knew that she should not be. She shouldn’t be here. She should be at Honoka’s party. That’s where she was before.

Before what?

Eli couldn’t be sure. One moment she was there and the next she wasn’t. What? How?

It didn’t feel real. It didn’t make sense. How could it? How could she be at a party one second and end up sitting on her bed the next?

She couldn’t even pinpoint the exact moment it had happened. Her memories just before that precise moment were muddled. Like watercolors bleeding together, voices muffled and indistinguishable as if underwater. The more she struggled, the more they faded away. Eli knew that all she had to do to hear them was to surface – to remember.

It frustrated her to no end that she couldn’t remember. She wanted to understand. But how could she be expected to comprehend what had happened? How could it be sure it was real?

Perhaps the previous day was a strange dream.

No. She could recall that morning, the moments leading up to the celebration. She knew that it wasn’t from the alcohol. It wouldn’t’ve had any effect on her anyway. That was thanks to those electric shocks.

She could remember those very clearly…

Eli sighed. She still had no clue what was going on. The facts just didn’t add up.

She turned her eyes to her bedside table and was pleasantly shocked to find that her phone was there. It rested in the spot that it did every night. Even the charging cable was connected.

How strange. If she actually was… transported or something, wouldn’t her phone transport with her, inside her pocket?

Realization struck her. She grasped the front of her shirt, eyes widening when she felt the fabric between her fingers. These weren’t the clothes she wore to the party. They were her pajamas.

Of course.

Eli laughed humorlessly into the silent room. This couldn’t possibly be real. The whole thing had just been a dream.

Determined, Eli grabbed her phone and unplugged it. She flinched away at the sudden brightness. Squinting, she read her lockscreen: 12:10 A.M. December 31, 2016

Of course it didn’t really happen. Eli thought and chastised herself for thinking any different.

She placed the phone back on the table and fell backward onto her bed, arms spread, and stared up at the ceiling. I must be going crazy or something. Teleportation? Ridiculous.

God, she must’ve needed this break more than she thought.

I should just go to sleep she thought. But despite herself, her eyes remained open and her mind still churned with unanswered questions.

She reached for her phone once again. 12:11 A.M. the screen read. She frowned then shut it off again. Great. she thought and put it back in the same place.

Eli pulled the covers over her shoulders and tried to settle into a comfortable spot. The key word was tried. She tried adjusting her pillow, but that made it even worse. She rolled over and faced the other way. These covers were suffocating her. Wait, now she was cold. Maybe if she just laid really still and closed her eyes… Why wasn’t it working?!!

Did the universe have some sort of vendetta against her? She was always a good person: student council president, straight A’s, a good sister and daughter. She had a great job as a marketing director… Why was the world punishing her?

All this was simply impossible! Strange dream-realities, memories that were faint enough to taunt her but were never more than hazy dead ends. It just couldn’t be true. It was impossible. She shifted spots again, refusing to move from that spot until sleep overtook her. A feeble and uncomfortable attempt at protesting the universe’s ways? Maybe. Worth it? Not particularly. But would she stop? No.

Somewhere along the way she must have drifted off because the first thing she heard when she woke up again was her ringtone coming from a buzzing phone. Eli blinked her sleep away and drowsily reached for the wretched device.

Incoming call: ♡ Nico Yazawa ♡

She pushed the answer button and brought it to her ear. “Hello?”

“Oh my God! Where are you?” The high-pitched voice screeched.

“What are you talking about, Nico?”

“What do you think I’m talking about? Get your ass down here NOW!” A few beeps later, and the line was dead.

Eli brought the phone from her ear and scrutinized it, like it might tell her why Nico was so mad. She glanced at the time. 11:28 A.M.

What the hell did Nico want? She did everything yesterday… in her dream. Fuck! She was such an idiot!

Eli threw off her covers and changed at rapid speed, not even bothering to brush her hair. Nico didn’t care if Eli looked like a mess. (By looking horrendous, Eli would only make Nico look better by comparison.) She sprinted out of her room and was just about to send Nico a text, except where was her phone? She patted her back pockets, then front pockets, then jacket pockets and felt nothing. Of course she forgot her phone, of course! Eli turned and ran to her room, grabbed the phone, and ran back out. She made sure to grab her purse sitting on her countertop before leaving.

She finally managed to get out her apartment after what felt like an eternity. She locked the door behind her and sent Nico a text apologizing and saying she was on her way.

Eli wished that this day were a dream too.


Nico Yazawa sat alone at a table meant for two outside of Eli’s favorite coffee shop. The girl calmly sipped her drink and scrolled through something on her phone. Eli stared at the back of her head, hesitant to approach her. She was all too familiar with the sheer amount of wrath Nico held in her tiny body.

It pained her, it really did, but Eli mustered up enough courage (read: self-hatred) to approach the twin-tailed woman. She didn’t think Nico sensed her approach, but the slow pace in which she moved made the seconds drag by. Really, this had to be some medieval form of torture.

She finally made it beside Nico’s table.

“Hi Nico…” She said.

Nico silently scrolled to the next post in her feed. For a few nerve-wracking moments, Eli feared that Nico wouldn’t acknowledge her at all. Then, she slowly looked up from her phone and stared Eli straight in the eye.

“Oh, Eli!” Nico said with her patented smile. “I didn’t notice you there.” She tilted her head and beamed even bigger at Eli.

Eli sent a wobbling smile back.

Nico’s smile dropped in a millisecond. She dug around in her purse before throwing down a bill on the table. “Let’s go.”

Nico stood quickly, making the iron chair scrape sharply against the concrete. She shouldered her handbag and walked purposely in the direction Eli had just come from.

Eli was shocked into action, taking long strides to catch up to the other girl. Nico slowed her pace and the two settled into a nice rhythm. Well, nice for the pace, strained for the atmosphere. But Nico was her best friend; Eli knew that she should just wait for Nico to say what she wanted to say. Still, the waiting was always worse than the words.

They walked in silence.

Eli looked around. She hadn’t been here in ages, to this quiet little place. Eli used to use this small town as a reprieve from her packed life in Akiba, where the streets were filled with people and light. Once upon a time, Eli feared that she would be blinded by that light. So she snuck out here and discovered her favorite coffee shop. Though nowadays, she couldn’t find a good enough excuse to leave the glowing city – even though this quaint town was where Nico lived.

“We were supposed to meet at eleven.” Nico said, “It’s twelve o’ six.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know you are.”

“Really, Nico. I’m sorry. I didn’t want it to happen this way, and I’m sorry it did.” Eli looked at the shorter girl, but Nico’s eyes were locked on the path in front of them.

Nico sighed. “You don’t have to apologize. I don’t wanna hear it.”

“Right…”

She wished that things could have happened like they had in her dream.
In her dream, she had arrived on time, had a nice meal with her best friend, bought some stuff, then made her way to Honoka’s apartment. Reality wasn’t as simple as dreams though, no matter how eerily similar they were to real life.

Eli didn’t want to think about the similarities. She didn’t want to see how the same beautiful, purple flowers caught her eye – just like before. She tried not to notice the sweet smell wafting out from the open door of that fortune-telling shop. The same child crying over a cone of dropped ice cream was just a coincidence. And especially the fact that she had fucked up lunch with Nico made this whole experience even more unbelievable.

Maybe if she were lucky enough, this day would turn out to be a figment of her imagination instead.

“Eli,”

“Y-yeah?”

She didn’t respond for a while, then said, “…Nothing. It’s nothing.”

So Eli said nothing. Neither did Nico. Every step was stiff, every blink forced. The worst part was that she had nothing to say. She had no idea what Nico would have said either, and it wasn’t like she had the courage to ask either.

“You know what, screw it.” Nico said abruptly. “Why’re you late and what’s wrong with you?”

“What? Nothing’s wrong. I just – slept in too long, that’s it.”

You slept in ‘til eleven thirty?”

“I was working on a project last night.”

“Don’t believe you.”

“Really, it’s nothing.”

“Well, you’re lying. And that’s something.”

The store was in view now. It had the same window art as the day previous – no, in her dream. But Eli knew what it would say before she was close enough to see the words.

“Okay, don’t respond then.” Nico said with an exasperated sigh. “Anyway, you probably feel guilty or whatever so stop.”

Too late for that.

“Sorry.”

“I said that I didn’t want to hear it. It’s annoying. I don’t care about that, anyway.” Nico huffed.
“What are you mad about then?”

Nico did not answer her question. “We’re here.” She said, opening the door and strolling briskly into the shop. Eli followed, albeit reluctantly.

“Woah…” Nico said as she gazed around the shop. Eli had seen the same sight in her dream, but it impressed her nevertheless.

The window art had said the store was having a sale on New Year’s items.

And some sale they were having. Special plants furnished the entrance as well as small potted flowers. Strings of yellow lights dripped from the ceiling, the fans pinned to the walls reflected the glow of the many hanging lanterns. Eli counted 6 mini-shines complete with 7 mini-pagodas and one not-so mini shrine sitting right by the entrance. Not to mention the shelves packed with actual store products completely unrelated to New Years. There was also the large head of a Chinese dragon costume perched atop a shelf in the corner whose plastic, reflective, obsidian eyes saw into her very soul.

Eli tore her gaze away from the dragon head to look at the cashier, who was fast asleep behind a desk cluttered with what were probably hundreds of cat figurines of varying sizes. There were like 8 of those good luck talismans with the waving paw. Cats of all kinds, really – porcelain, glass, clay, wood, there were some origami cats too. Even more cats sat atop some display shelves behind the desk. Eli guessed there were more in storage.

Nico made a face, probably having an internal struggle about whether it was worth it to shop here or not. Then she stepped over some boxes as she led the way to the back of the store.
Eli slipped on a stray kimono on the floor, but luckily caught herself before she would go tumbling into a display of colorful kites.

She heard Nico grumbling something about wine and remembered what they were here for. “What kind of stuff does Honoka want again?” Eli dared to ask.

“Another thing you can’t remember?” Nico shot back. “Whatever. I’ll just get it myself.” She strode away without even a final glance.

The words stung and Eli pretended that she hadn’t accidentally set herself up for that insult. She really had forgotten what kind of wine Honoka wanted for the party, and she definitely couldn’t remember where the alcohol was located in the store… well, based on her weird dream. She didn’t remember much from the dream day to be honest. Stupid, stupid! Eli thought. This New Year’s Eve was going terribly.

She needed a new start – fast.

Stupid day and stupid dream and stupid Dragon! She glared at the costume head. The lifeless eyes offered no assistance.

Eli couldn’t stop the thoughts that crawled into her mind, the thoughts that promised that dream had been more than a dream. And as much as she dismayed, the same creepy dragon head that had haunted her dream was staring her in the face right now.

She turned away from the dragon, only to find yet another New Year’s display.

The wall was littered with dozens of small, wooden charms pinned to the wall and hanging from tiny loops of red ribbon. Each had some handwritten inscription on it and Eli craned to see what was written on them. ’I wish for a new job.’ one said. ’I want to pass my exams.’ was written on another.

“They’re New Year wishes,” said the voice behind her.

Eli whirled around. The sleeping cashier stood beaming in front of her. Well, she wasn’t sleeping anymore. Now, she was sneaking up behind unsuspecting customers and leaving Eli inexplicably speechless. Perhaps it was the way the golden light of the lanterns cast a weird glow on the girl’s already orange hair. But more than likely, Eli was a little afraid of facing the person who collected all those tiny cat figurines.

“Did I scare you? Sorry.”

“Oh… It’s fine,” Eli hesitantly replied.

The girl smiled and turned to look at the wall and Eli followed her gaze. “Some of the customers write their wishes or resolutions for the new year and we hang them up here nya~. It’s pretty fun to see what people write. Hmm let’s see… this one says ‘I wish I could see the color blue.’ Oh, I know we have another one that says, ‘I wish the clock would count down faster.’ Let me see if I can find it.”

Eli searched too. She felt a little weird about reading these strangers’ personal wishes, especially when they were about soulmates, but they were the ones who chose to share them so what was that harm? She hadn’t seen these the other time she had come into the store, (all the more reason to believe that that “other time” didn’t even happen). Though the wall of wishes was sandwiched between a sizable display of durama dolls and the creepy dragon head and that “other time” she didn’t have any reason to venture off on her own. So if it did really happen, Eli remembered why she hadn’t ventured to this side of the store previously.

Eli noticed that one was flipped over, so she turned it over and read it aloud. “I wish Rin would clean the shop like I asked her to.”

The cashier, or rather Rin, as it also read on her name tag, smiled. “Yeah, that’s my friend, Umi’s.” She chuckled and then pointed to the one beside Umi’s. “This one’s mine.” Eli leaned in to read the words, “I wish Umi would let me set the alley cats on blind dates.” The sentiment was accompanied by a cartoon drawing of a smiling cat with a caption of it saying, “Nyan~~!”

Eli chuckled at Rin’s wish. “Why would you try to set cats on blind dates?”

“Well, it’s mostly one cat. But I do it to find his soulmate, obviously! Because when I find my soulmate, I’ll have to leave Ramen behind, so I thought that if he had his own soulmate, he won’t be so lonely.”

“That’s an interesting name.”

“Yeah, I really wanted a name that represented his personality.”

“Yeah… Anyway, wouldn’t fate lead him to his soulmate on his own?”

“I’m just trying to help him out a bit! Fate probably sent me into Ramen’s life so I can help him find his catmate! Except I can’t find a soulmark on him and Umi won’t help me do a color test on him!”

“Would that even work? Aren’t cats kinda colorblind already?”

Rin’s smile dropped so suddenly that Eli literally flinched. Rin narrowed her eyes and quickly looked around her. It looked like the girl was surveying the store for – something. Burglars? Stray alley cats? Potential soulmates for said cats? Eli glanced tentatively around too in a futile attempt to find whatever it was.

The cashier leaned in slightly, motioning with her hand for Eli to do the same. Eli leaned down a bit and Rin cupped her hand around Eli’s ear. She whispered, “Truth be told, Ramen is leftist. If I could find him a nice cat to love, he wouldn’t even need a soulmate.”

Rin leaned back and held up her index finger in front of her lips. “Don’t tell anyone, though. I don’t want him to be ostracized by the rest of society, nya~!”

Eli nodded and Rin smiled at her. She wasn’t entirely sure if she should make a comment about a cat’s political standpoint - but whatever she might have said promptly flew out the window when she heard the sound of a series of things breaking and a shriek, followed by an angry string of curses.

Eli rushed over to Nico’s aisle only to find her friend flat on her ass, cheap post cards scattered on the floor around her.

She knew that she shouldn’t laugh. And really, she did try, but when she to say, “Are you okay?” the words came out sputtering. She offered a hand to help Nico up, but the other woman scowled at her and knocked Eli’s hand away.

Rin skittered to a stop in front of them, fretting over the mess. “Oh no! I’m so sorry, this is all my fault! Are you okay?”

Nico grumbled, “Fine.” And stood up, dusting off her skirt.

“I’m really sorry! My boss keeps telling me to clean up the store and I was meaning to do it but…” The girl bowed deeply to Nico. “Sorry!”

Nico held up her hand. “Really, I’m okay. Could you just tell me where the wine is?”

“Of course, of course. This way.” Rin said and navigated her way through all the items and aisles.

The store was relatively small, but the way Rin led them through it turned the shop into a festive, clutter-ridden maze.

“Found you nya~.” Rin said proudly gesturing to the store’s selection of ten alcoholic beverages. Eli remembered why it had taken so long to find last time.

“I’d recommend this one,” Rin said while holding up a bottle of red wine.

“No thanks.” Nico said and swiped a bottle from the shelf. Eli wasn’t sure if Nico had even looked at what she picked up.

“Oh.” Rin placed the bottle back.

Eli didn’t know what to say, so she grabbed a bottle of champagne and the red wine Rin had suggested. She gave the cashier a sympathetic look. Rin replied with a glowing smile.

Eli went to shuffle after Nico. Rin was close to follow.

Nico had placed the bottle on one of the few cat-free spots on the desk. She was waiting, arms crossed, looking out the window at passerby’s and stray cars.

Rin took her place behind her counter. Eli’s two bottles joined Nico’s. Rin punched keys into the register at lightning speed. Nico held out her card and Rin swiped it.

Though before bottles were bagged, completing the awkward transaction, Rin pulled two white wooden charms and placed them on the counter. She moved some cats out the way and set out two markers. “Would you like to write your New Year’s wishes?”

She held out the markers, one in each hand. Eli reached for one. “Thanks,” she said, smiling. Rin smiled back and turned her gaze to Nico.

“What?” Nico asked, taking her marker apprehensively.

“New Year wishes nya~! We have a whole wall of ‘em back there and it’s full of our customer’s hopes for the new year!”

“…So like a shrine?”

“But they’re not at a shine – they’re here!”

“Hmm,” Nico said and uncapped the marker.

By then, Eli had already written a miraculous two words on her charm. I wish…
She was stumped.

I wish Ramen would find his soulmate. - No wait, Ramen was a leftist.

I wish Ramen would find a cat to love. - What kind of wish was that?

“Done.” Nico said and Eli startled. It was like high school all over again; the test was over and Eli had only completed half of the answers.

“Perfect. I’ll lead you to the wall.” Rin said to Nico as they walked away. “Let me show you some of the funny things our customers write…”

And with that, Eli was left alone with her thoughts.

Well, she wasn’t completely alone. There were always the cats to keep her company. Not to mention the ever-lingering gaze of the Chinese dragon head watching her every move.
Eli sighed. How much sleep did she actually get last night?

It was just a wooden charm; it didn’t really matter. But it also kinda did - because it was fun and because Eli wanted it to matter.

One wish, one New Year’s wish… She thought and fiddled with the red string attached to the charm. Then it came to her.

The wish turned out to be easier than she had originally thought. But what was a decision if you didn’t painstakingly overthink it first? A bad decision, that’s what.

And after overthinking this one way too much, Eli was confident that this was a good decision. It was probably the first good decision she had made all day. Because if she had one New Year’s wish, this would have to be it.

She walked her charm over to the wall. Rin was still showing Nico some of the wishes. Nico was pointing to them and giving her personal commentary on all of them.

“Well, I suppose that I understand where they’re coming from. After all, not everyone can be as blessed as me!” Nico switched to another one. “Hm… This one’s actually pretty sad. I hope their grandmother gets better, too.”

“Oh are you finished, nya~?” Rin asked.

Eli handed the charm over and the two other girls leaned in close together to examine it.

“Yep, that’s an Eli wish right there.” Nico said while nodding.

“An Eli wish?”

“Yup. Just the response I’d expect from someone like you.”

Eli hummed doubtfully.

Rin grinned. “This is a really nice wish… Eli-san, was it?”

“Yes. Thank you, Rin-san.”

“Call me Rin! Honorifics are boring and perpetuate arbitrary interpersonal relationships!” Rin said as she stuck out her free hand.

Eli shook it. “Of course.”

Nico coughed. “I think you’re forgetting about someone. Nico Yazawa, but you can call me Nico-sama, Nico-sensei, or The Fabulous Nico Ni.”

“Sure, The Fabulous Nico Ni.”

Nico grinned smugly.

Rin turned to hang the charm from the wall. Eli’s eyes fell to the charm hanging above Nico's.
“So what did you write, oh fabulous Nico?” Eli said, sliding up to the wall and leaning in to read.
“Well, since I have the perfect life already,” she flipped one of her pigtails back. “And because I’m the greatest sister ever, I thought that others could benefit more than me.”

“’I wish for: The future my family always deserved.’” Eli smirked. “That’s a very Nico wish.”

“Is it?” Nico responded.

Eli simply said, “Yep,” and brushed off Nico’s skeptical look.

By the time she turned back, Rin had finished hanging her wish. Eli regarded her wish with a hint of pride. It was only one out of dozens, and it was doubtful that she would ever see it, but if anyone needed this, it was Kotori.

Eli smiled to herself as she re-read it to herself. ’I wish Kotori gets her new start.’

“Okay, I’ll go bag your stuff. You guys seem to have somewhere fun to be.” Rin said and snickered.

“Yeah… so much fun.” Nico drawled.

Eli smiled. “Don’t act like this isn’t the best time of the year.”

“Yeah. ‘Cuz it’s the end of the year.” Nico said as she briskly walked past Eli.

Eli resisted the urge to say, ‘New year, new start.’

“Oh and don’t even think of saying your stupid New Year’s catchphrase thing.” Nico added, not even turning to look back.

“Harasho?”

“Don’t say any of your stupid catchphrases.”

Eli rolled her eyes. “Like you’re one to talk.”

“Jealousy isn’t very befitting of you, Eli.” Nico said breezily while she pulled out her phone. “Oh shit! Eli it’s twelve fifty-seven!”

Eli’s eyes widened in fear. “What?! We’re never gonna make it!”

“What? What? What’s going on nya?” Rin asked eagerly as she placed the last bottle into its bag.
“No time to explain!” Nico exclaimed.

“Our friends are dicks!” Is the only explanation Eli could offer as Nico grabbed the three bags then shoved two of them into Eli’s chest, muttering “Go, go, go, go…” over and over to herself. As if Eli didn’t understand the gravity of the situation.

“Ok then! Bye Eli! Bye The Fabulous Nico Ni! Come back soon nya~~!” Rin waved as Nico hightailed it out of the store.

“Bye!” Eli managed to say to Rin before she let the door swing shut behind her. “Nico, wait up!” Eli yelled as she chased after her friend.

“No time, Eli! You know this! Remember what happened to Erena??” Nico shouted back.

She watched Nico descend the steps into the subway stop, and Eli rushed to catch up, taking the steps two at a time. She tried not to bump into the other people too much, but she never stopped to apologize if she had. Up ahead, she saw that Nico had stopped in front of the entrance machines. She had put the shopping bag down and was fumbling around in her bag. That’s right, the passes! Eli realized.

Eli stopped next to Nico and quickly dug into her own purse. Nico found her pass and Eli did shortly after. After passing the entrance, the two raced to the platform, weaving in and out of other passengers.

“Is it here?” Eli gasped as they reached the platform.

“No… no…” Nico whispered. Eli followed her horrified gaze to the electronic sign. JR Line arriving in: 7 minutes

“We are so fucked.”

Chapter Text

In her 24 years of life, Eli had had to make some tough decisions. Whether it was deciding to run for the student council in high school or deciding to quit perusing her childhood dream of becoming a ballerina, she had always managed to push through. And the results were good enough.
 
That’s why Eli knew that the decision she had made would be the easiest one of her entire life.
 
But when you thought about it, it wasn’t her fault, honestly. By now, Nico really should have known the consequences of arriving late for the annual Honoka Kousaka Friendship Get-Together and New Year’s Pre-Party Party.
 
Which is why she had to do it.
 
She couldn’t be last.
 
Nico may have gotten a head start straight out of the cab, but Eli couldn’t be last. Not for this.
 
“Give it up Nico!”
 
"Fuck off Ayase!" Nico took the time to flip her off over her shoulder before continuing her mad dash through the building’s entrance.
 
Eli scowled and grunted in frustration as she heaved the now swinging door open again, much to the chagrin of the poor receptionist. But Eli had no time for sympathy. Sneakers slipping over the glazed tile floor, she clamored to catch up with Nico. But by then, the other had completely abandoned the elevators and started scrambling up the stairs.

Just as she reached the elevators, she saw the up arrow light up with a ‘ping.’
 
Eli froze in her tracks and stared at the small, illuminated symbol. She tore her gaze away to look at the now empty staircase. Could she even catch up with Nico at this point?
 
The sleek elevator doors slid open and Eli leaped into the box. She looked at the buttons in panic before stabbing the 4 button and spamming the ‘close door’ one until the doors were completely shut.
 
The elevator rose swiftly and soundlessly and Eli could only hope it was fast enough to math Nico’s desperation. Eli’s heartbeat was stifling in the silence. It probably beat around 20 times between every floor and went into overdrive over every growing number the glowing panel displayed. Ding! - Floor 2.
 
Come on, come on, come on. Hurry up you piece of trash.
 
Ding! - Floor 3.
 
And after an eternity of agonizing seconds:
 
Ding! - Floor 4.
 
The doors glided open with the speed of molasses and Eli dashed though. There was only one right turn and a sprint down the corridor between her and the entrance to apartment 9M. She ran though the hallway, mind abuzz. Surely the elevator is faster than Nico’s tiny legs, right?
 
And whether a blessing or curse, Eli just happened to know what happened to poor Hanayo, but she didn’t want to dwell on what it would mean if the same thing happened to her.
 
So she ran. And she prayed to whoever listening that the pig-tailed demon hadn’t already arrived.
 
Though the universe had already decided today that Eli was unworthy of its benevolence.
 
She watched in almost comical horror as she saw Nico claw her way to the fourth floor. The scene panned out in slow motion: A sweating Nico emerges from the depths of hell at the opposing end of the hallway and lunges for the door of apartment 9M, a mere 4 doors away. And it was then that Eli knew. It seems that 24 years’ worth of bad karma had caught up to her that day.
 
But Eli was already halfway down the hall. The two friends’ eyes met for just a moment, their arms extended toward the knob. Eli’s hand slapped Nico’s on the doorknob as the later wrenched open the door, collapsing into the room.
 
“Oh, speak of the devil!” Tsubasa gasped.
 



 
8 minutes. 8 lousy minutes. That’s why she was in this situation.
 
“This is all your fault, you know.” Nico said.
 
Eli sighed and shook her head.
 
“More walking, less talking girls!” Someone called – Tsubasa? What a little devil. She lived with Honoka! How unfair.
 
Ever since Honoka had met Tsubasa, the group had stepped up their game when it came to punishments. A-rise had too much money and influence for three 24-year-olds to reasonably do with, but what Eli learned very quickly was that A-rise never backed down from a challenge.
 
And so the punishments escalated from ugly selfies posted on social media to skydiving out of helicopters when you were deathly afraid of heights. (Poor Erena) Then having your friends pelt you with water balloons (that were not all filled with water) from the safety of the plane as you free-falled to the ground below. This year – in accordance to Nico’s and Eli’s greatest fears, the two were being led blindfolded to god-knows-where to do god-knows-what.
 
This definitely hadn’t happened yesterday.
 



 
“It’s not the destination that’s important, silly! It’s all about the journey!” Anju said cheerfully, “So just shut up and enjoy it, kay?”
 
Eli frowned and started to grumble, “I’ll shut up when- Ahh!”
 
"Watch your step.”
 
Eli huffed angrily. She could honestly say that she no idea where this destination would be. She knew that they were walking on some city streets, judging by the sound of cars and busy chatter surrounding them. Wherever A-Rise went, talk was sure to follow, meaning Eli would see this plastered all over social media as soon as she took the blindfold off.
 
After about 5 more minutes of humiliating walking, Erena said, “Alright we’re here. Turn right.”
 
Eli did as she was told, stepping into the warm room. Excited chatter filled her ears and butterflies flitted around in her stomach.
 
“Screw you guys, I didn’t sign up for this.” Nico’s annoyed voice said beside her.
 
“None of us did, Nico, trust me.” Honoka replied while giggling as Eli’s blindfold fell off.
 
Blinking at the influx of light, Eli soon recognized the place as the maid café that Kotori worked at, entitled School Maid Project. Because while the workers themselves might not actually be students, the idea sold well.
 
Then she noticed the maids themselves.
 
“Welcome!” One of the maids greeted, the bunny ears swaying as she bowed deeply to the group before she scurried off to serve another table. From this angle, Eli could see a white fluffball pinned precariously to the back of her skirt.
 
She wasn’t the only one dressed this way. Cat-girls, bunny-girls, fox-girls, and other kids of creatures roamed around the café, waiting on tables, serving various dishes, and putting on the cutest display of fanservice possible.
 
“Please, no,” Eli said, backing up slowly, only to find a body was blocking her path to escape.
 
“Now, now, Eli-san….” Erena cooed, voice laced with sickening sweetness as she grabbed Eli’s arms and craned over her shoulder. “This is nowhere as bad as what happened to me last time.”
 
Eli was frozen. How could she had let this happen?
 
“Wait, guys what’s happening?” Nico asked from beside her. She was still blindfolded and held by Anju. What was happening? Was Nico not joining her? But before she could consider what that meant, Hanayo interrupted her thoughts.
 
“Erena-chan…” Hanayo peeped. She tapped Erena on the shoulder and pointed at one of the maids, who was making her way over to the group. She seemed to be dressed as a dragon, complete with a large green tail that swished as she walked.
 
“Kotori-chan… and friends. Welcome,” She greeted with an easy smile. Her amber eyes flashed to meet Eli’s. Eli gulped. The woman considered Eli for a moment then smirked. “Hmm… You weren’t lying when you said your friend was cute.”
 
“Of course, senpai.” Kotori nodded. “Everyone, this is Ohara Mari, my manager.”
 
“Pleased to meet you all,” She said with a small bow and turned to beckon another girl who seemed to be a sheep or lamb of some sort. “Yoshiko will bring you to your table and I will take Miss Eli, yes?”
 
“Take Eli? Where even are we? Someone tell me what’s happening!” Nico demanded.
 
“You’re coming with us, obviously,” Honoka told her.
 
“Who’s ‘us?’”
 
“Tsubasa and I of course. We’re going somewhere different for your punishment.”
 
“Somewhere else?”
 
“Yup!” Tsubasa confirmed. “I actually think that you would enjoy it if you did the same thing that Eli’s doing. Come on, let’s go Nico.”
 
“Bye you guys!” Honoka said with a wave as they returned to the streets. “Don’t try to enjoy yourself too much, Hanayo-chan.”
 
The other girl gasped. “I’m just here because I heard we were getting a discount.”
 
“Yes, all employees get a 20% discount. Just in case anyone wants to come work permanently…” Ohara-san said with a wink in Eli’s direction.
 
“Come,” the dragon maid said as she took Eli’s arm.
 
She took one desperate look back at her so-called friends. None of them were paying any attention, though. Hanayo was gazing around the café, probably deciding which foods looked the best. Kotori, Erena, and Anju seemed to be captivated by whatever the sheep-maid was saying.
 
Eli turned back sadly and resigned to her sad fate. It wasn’t like it was the worst punishment in the world… except that it was. Eli had never even thought of doing anything like this in her entire life and now she had to do it for the entertainment of her friends. Was being late this much of a crime?
 
She could already see it. This would haunt her for years. Eli still thought about embarrassing things she did when she was still in school when she couldn’t sleep. During those nights, she did not sleep at all.
 
Ohara-san led her through the labyrinth tables and servers to the back of the building. It was rather large for a café, but considering it was in the heart of Akihabara, it was a very popular establishment. Which for Eli, meant that she would have even more trouble trying to wade through it all by herself.
 
They finally came to some sort of changing room. The right wall was lined with lockers that were decorated with personalized stickers and decorations. The opposite wall kept portable clothing racks that many spare maid costumes hung from. They ranged in style and size, from classic to more risqué options. And the far wall was filled with shelves that boasted a large variety of accessories. Shoes, bonnets, bows, and yes, animal ears and tails.
 
Ohara-san walked to the clothing racks. “Okay Eli-san. Do you know what size you are? Or perhaps will we have to measure you?” She asked with a glint in her eye and a teasing smirk.
 
“N-no. That won’t be necessary. I believe a medium will suffice just fine.” She said firmly, though she couldn’t help the small blush that rose to her cheeks.
 
“Ehh? What a shame.” Ohara-san said with a small pout. But it ended as soon as it began, as Ohara-san raised a pondering finger to chin. Lips spread into a smile and her eyes lit up once again.
 
“Though now that I look at you a bit more closely, Eli-san, you seem like a bit of a romantic. Could it be that you are waiting for someone? Or have you already found them?”
 
The question threw Eli. The topic of soulmates always did, her soulmate especially. (However non-existent that person may be.) Was Ohara-san hitting on her or just teasing? Did she not have a soulmate, or did she just not care?
 
She vaguely wondered if Ohara-san was a leftist. Not that Eli had anything against leftists, or anything. Ramen the cat was a leftist. How could she hate a cat just for rejecting mysteries of fate that even science failed to explain?
 
“Not yet,” Eli responded. “Maybe not ever.”
 
“Ah, that is a sentiment I can understand. Perhaps we have more in common than you think.” Another wink.
 
“Anyway, Ayase-san, I’ll leave you to change into one of our standard outfits.” Ohara-san dragged a section of costumes away from the others. “And when you’re done…” She moved toward the shoe racks and beckoned for Eli to follow. “Wear one of these black shoes. High heels are optional, though encouraged.
 
“And of course, because it’s our ‘Saturday special’, choose one of the ears and a corresponding tail. Personally, I think you would look cute as a white fox,” Ohara-san said as she picked up a headband with pointy white ears attached to them. She glanced at Eli. “But please pick whatever you like. The more you like the animal, the more fun you’ll have, right?”
 
She set the headband back in its rightful place gently. “You can put your clothes into Kotori’s locker. They’re not locked, but nobody but employees are allowed back here. I’ll be back in 25 minutes, okay?”
 
Eli nodded and gave her thanks.
 
Once she was alone, Eli took a deep breath to relieve the stress in her body. Sadly, it didn’t help one bit. She just couldn’t calm down. Eli just hoped that her friends didn’t have anything else up their sleeves.
 



 
Of course they had something else up their sleeves.
 
“Give us a smile, Eli!” Anju urged.
 
Eli’s frown stubbornly remained.
 
“The people want to see a smile, Elichika!”
 
“Don’t call me that!” She gasped.
 
“But you’re so cool and cute, Elichika!” Erena said, her hand barely covering her stupid shit-eating grin.
 
Eli groaned internally. Why couldn’t the ground just open up and swallow her now?
 
“But we promised that once we hit 500,000 yen, you’d give them a smile.” Erena lamented.
 
“Fi-five hundred thousand??”
 
“Well we do have over 10,000 viewers right now.” Anju pointed out.
 
Kotori and Eli gasped for very different reasons.
“Ten thousand?” Kotori said, delighted. “That’s fantastic Eli-chan!”
 
Hanayo, who had been previously buried inside a comically large pastry, popped out to comment, “Yeah, 5 minutes ago, it was only at 8,000.”
 
Eli didn’t think any response would be appropriate. She was so embarrassed she wanted to die. Hundreds of thousands of fans tuned into A-Rise’s livestreams every week, but it seemed like a large fraction of them found Eli interesting enough to keep watching even though it wasn’t their usual content. Anju and Erena had even turned on donations, something they never did. All the money was going to a good cause but still….
 
“Woah! Thank you to raburaibu23 for the generous donation of 25,000 yen. You’re helping a lot of kids with that money.” Anju commended.
 
“Looks like someone’s taken a liking to you, Elichika.” Erena teased.
 
Eli frowned.
 
Kotori clapped her hands. “It’s because Eli-chan is so cute!”
 
“You look just like an idol, Eli-chan!” Hanayo praised.
 
Erena nodded. “Agreed.”
 
“Yeah, we would know.” Anju said with a giggle.
 
Eli hummed low in displeasure. “You guys, are you-AAH!“
 
She never got to finish her sentence, as a massive weight slammed into her, dragging her down, down, down. Vaguely, she felt something wet splash against her hair before the back of her head met the tiled floor.
 
Then it was lights out.
 



 
It was all too bright for Eli. Too white and too bright. It made her feel sick. She didn’t want to open her eyes, but she found that whether eyes open or closed, it did nothing to ease the deep ache in her head and neck.
 
She groaned and reached up to feel where it hurt, only to feel some sort of resistance in her arm too. A long tube was injected into her left forearm. Her eyes followed the trail of the tube to a bag filled with some concoction of clear liquid. She never learned what was actually inside IV bags – nutrients and wasted money, she figured. Did she really need an IV just because she took a small fall? Or did they just hook everyone up and charge them for it?
 
“Eli, you’re awake?” Nico Yazawa’s voice sounded from the opposite side.
 
Eli turned her head to the sound, but a sharp stab of pain erupted at the base of her head. She hissed involuntarily.
 
“Hey, don’t move. The nurse just did your bandages.” The voice of Honoka Kousaka warned from her left.
 
Bandages? Eli shifted her gaze a bit to look at her good friend. Honoka sat in an uncomfortable-looking seat. She lightly took Eli’s left hand in her’s and guided it back to rest on the bed again.
 
“You took a hard fall, Eli. We weren’t there to see it, but you hit the ground so hard you started bleeding.” Honoka said.
 
“Yeah, one of the maids tripped and fell right on top of you. She was carrying a tray of drinks and that fell on you too.” Nico informed her.
 
Honoka nodded. “Right… So, there’s some good news and there’s some bad news. Which one do you want first?”
 
“Choose good news first. The good news isn’t good enough to make up for the bad news.”
 
“Bad news.” Eli said.
 
Nico huffed. “Suit yourself.”
 
“So, the bad news is that your fall was livestreamed for 10 thousand people and then became the #3 trending topic on twitter.”
 
“Ughhh,” Eli groaned. It was a combination of her physical injuries as well as the emotional distress.
 
“But the good news,” Honoka continued, “is that there was only a little bit of bleeding and your concussion is only mild. AND after you went viral, donations came flooding in and we raised over two million yen to fund students’ afterschool clubs. BUT… - bad news again – we just found out that the streaming company takes a 30% cut of all donations given…”
 
It was a shame. For a second there, Eli had thought that the good news really would outweigh the bad news.
 
Honoka scratched the back of her neck and laughed guiltily. “Sorry, I guess I told you the bad news first and then ended it with bad news again. Like a bad news sandwich.”
 
“Wait, wouldn’t it be a good news sandwich? ‘Cause the good news is in the middle?” Nico asked.
 
“Oh. Right – it’s a good news sandwich. That’s good news, right?”
 
Eli sighed. Her head was still pounding. “Where are the others?” she managed to ask.
 
“In the waiting room.” Honoka supplied. “They only let two people in at a time and-“
 
The door made a clicking noise then slowly slid open, revealing a young doctor with neatly styled red hair.
 
“Ayase Eli? I’m Doctor Nishikino Maki.”
 
Eli tilted her head a bit and tried to gauge Nico’s reaction out of the corner of her eye. Surprisingly, she seemed overall calm, though a bit tense. Eli would have expected a more shocked reaction after seeing the girl she flirted with at the party being her doctor.
 
“Nice to meet you, doctor. We’re Eli’s friends, Kousaka Honoka and Yazawa Nico.” Honoka introduced, motioning to herself and Nico respectively.
 
Doctor Nishikino nodded curtly. “Pleased to meet you both and you as well Miss Ayase.”
 
Now Eli was confused. “But- haven’t we already…”
 
The doctor’s eyebrows furrowed, frowning slightly. “Haven’t we..?”
 
“I-I thought- But you and Nico… you guys were talking at the party.”
 
Doctor Nishikino glanced at Nico only to turn back to Eli more confused than before.
 
“Eli, what are you talking about?” Nico asked, concern and confusion lacing her voice.
 
“T-the New Year’s party…”
 
“Eli,” Honoka breathed, “the party hasn’t happened yet. It’s still the 31st. Though… I suppose it would be better to cancel it now.”
 
“What? No, Honoka. You can’t! You always say the party is the best part of the year.” Eli protested.
 
“Come on Eli-chan, after what happened, I can’t just hold the party. We’d all be miserable including you.”
 
“Excuse me,” Doctor Nishikino cut in “May I ask what kind of party you are referring to?”
 
“Of course,” Honoka replied graciously. “It’s a New Year’s Eve party that I hold every year. It’s nothing too crazy… but um, there’s music and fireworks and a lot of people so…”
 
“Yes, that would likely just exacerbate your condtion, Ayase-san. What you need is to rest, stay hydrated, and eat a healthy diet.”
 
“There’ll always be next year, Eli. We’re not going anywhere anytime soon.” Nico said with a smile.
 
“We’ll be sure to make up for this one next time.” Honoka added.
 
“Yeah it’ll be bigger and better than ever.” Nico promised. “We could invite some of A-Rise’s celebrity friends or even like… Doctor Nishikino, how about you come,too?”
 
“O-oh, I was already invited by your friend Hanayo.”
 
“Huh, Hanayo-chan did?” Honoka asked.
 
“Yes, I stopped by her flower shop the other day by chance and we caught up. We were high school classmates, you see. I actually ran into her downstairs in the lobby. She was rather distressed, so I’m sure she’ll be relieved to find that you’re fine, Ayase-san.”
 
“Right, of course. They’re probably all worried. I-“ Tingling bits of electricity skittered from the base of her spine to the top of her neck. Eli jolted up straight. “I- um-”
 
“Eli, what’s wrong?” Nico asked. She leaned forward in her uncomfortable chair and rested her hand on Eli’s arm.
 
“I- It’s really nothing, don’t worry.”
 
Doctor Nishikino hummed and Eli turned her attention to her. She scribbled something down on her clipboard. “Are you experiencing any discomfort? You took a serious fall, Ayase-san, one that rendered you unconscious for over seven hours. So if anything is bothering you-”
 
Eli held up a hand to signal her to stop. “Wait, wait. Seven hours?”
 
Doctor Nishikino’s eyebrows raised a little bit. “Yes, while it may seem like a long time, it’s important that your body has had enough time to rest.”
 
“What time is it?” Eli asked, looking around the eggshell white room for a clock.
 
“10:12” Honoka relayed.
 
Eli tried not to be too disappointed. She had missed out on a whole day of spending time with her friends – and not just any day – New Year’s Eve. It was the only time when all of them really gathered together to hang out as friends. It was a special time for all of them, Eli knew, and she had made them all hang out in the hospital for seven hours.
 
“Doctor,” Eli started, keeping her voice steady. “Would it be possible to be discharged right now?”
 
The doctor was really surprised this time. “Some paperwork is necessary… But if you’re absolutely certain that nothing else is ailing you, Ayase-san, we could have you out within the hour.”
 
Eli let out a sigh of relief. Finally some good news.
 
“Though… there is one last thing,” Dr. Nishikino began. “This entirely voluntary of course… but your records say that your soulsign is unknown. Has this changed?”
 
“No,” Eli stated.
 
Doctor Nishikino scribbled on her clipboard once more. “Okay. That’s all. A nurse will be in shortly to change your bandages. After that, come to the reception area and they will handle everything else.”
 
“Thank you.”
 
Dr. Nishikino nodded and swiftly exited the room.
 
Once the three of them were alone, Eli quietly said, “Thank you guys.”
 
“Don’t worry about it, Eli-chan.” Honoka said, placing her hand on her shoulder.
 
“Yeah, Ayase. It’s like you always say – new year, new start.”
 



 
It was nearly 11:30 by the time they all had reached Honoka’s apartment. A lot had happened that day – too much for Eli’s liking.
 
“Home sweet home,” Tsubasa breathed, swinging the door open to the empty apartment.
 
Looking at it now, Eli felt a bit of a twinge inside her. She recalled when every square foot had been bustling with tipsy partygoers and booming music barely contained by these walls. That had only been about 24 hours ago… or maybe not. It had been in some alternate universe Eli had dreamed up where everything had gone to plan – unlike today.
 
Eli was quiet as all the girls filed into the living room.
 
She glanced over at the kitchen. Paper bags of refreshments and snacks sat unopened on the marble countertop. She idly wondered if there was any wine in any of them. Drinking right now probably wouldn’t be best for her quote-unquote “mild concussion” but maybe if she got drunk enough tonight, she would go to bed tonight and this day would turn out to be the dream instead.
 
“So movie night?” Erena was suggesting as Eli finally joined her friends, plopping down on the leather couch next to Nico and Anju. “Any suggestions?”
 
“Romance,” Kotori and Hanayo immediately suggested, sitting together on the couch left of her.
 
“Pass. Let’s watch “Your Name,”” Anju said.
 
Erena frowned. “You’ve seen “Your Name” like 17 times, Anju.”
 
“And your point is…?”
 
Erena shrugged in response, seeming to be indifferent to the idea.
 
“No complaints here,” Nico said, leaning back and seemly sinking into the couch’s cushions.
 
“Sweet,” Anju smiled and stood up. Stepping over Erena’s propped up legs, she made her way to the cabinet that Eli knew held Tsubasa’s prized movie collection.
 
She shuffled through the DVDs for a while, muttering a bit. “Damn, I know it’s in here. I got it for her for Christmas.”
 
“Tsu! Where’s my Christmas gift!?”
 
“One sec!” Came Tsubasa’s voice from behind her.
 
Eli turned to look back, finding Tsubasa and her soulmate turned away from them, heads bowed, quick and quiet whispers being exchanged in rapid succession. Honoka was motioning with her hands and Tsubasa was shaking her head.
 
Something about the sight sent a slight shiver down her spine which traveled through her arms to the tips of her fingers. She swallowed a lump in her throat, deciding that she was lingering too long.
 
Eli turned to face front again, but not before her gaze slid to meet Nico’s pink irises for a split second.
 
Anju exclaimed, “Never mind! Found it!” while raising her prize with glee.
 
Eli let a small smile turn up the corners of her lips and resolved herself to forget this perfectly un-perfect day.
 
Or at least try to. For some reason, she felt the odd sensation that she was forgetting something.



 
“Wait, pause the movie for a sec; it’s almost time.”
 
“But this is the good part, Tsubasa!” Anju whined.
 
“Just. One. Second.” Tsubasa grunted as she wrestled the remote out of her friend’s freakishly vice-like grip.
 
Eli knew the exact moment that Tsubasa found the right button. The apartment was bathed in silence. She could faintly hear the chatter of the street roamers several feet below and if she focused a bit harder, the consistent boom of fireworks growing louder every second. A bit premature if you asked her, but wait – it sounded suspiciously like –
 
It wasn’t the sound of fireworks. Not at all. It was Eli’s heartbeat. In her ears, in her chest. Aching.
 
“Thirty seconds, bitches. Say your last words now.” Nico’s disembodied voice sounded from somewhere far away, warped and jumbled in Eli’s mind.
 
30 seconds? Just half a minute? It couldn’t be. She still had so much to do.
 
“Nineteen! Eighteen!”
 
Fuck. It was all moving too fast.
 
Her brain swam with memories, with-
 
“Six!”
 
“Five!” She couldn’t hold herself upright anymore. Bracing herself with one hand on Honoka’s coffee table, she choked on air that should have been easy to inhale.
 
“Eli!”
 
Three.
 
“Are you all right?”
 
Two.
 
“Can you hear me? Eli!?”
 
One.

The table evaporated from existence underneath her hand. Eli squeezed her eyes shut as the floor flipped from under her for the second time that day.

Chapter Text

Eli woke up in a cold sweat in a dark room. Her gut was pulling off a mutiny, threatening to cough up whatever sparse contents it still contained. But what else was new?

Her stomach was roiling one way and her head the other. Sharp and shrill, dull and chronic all at the same time. Deafening ringing in her ears; watercolors swirling in her brain, mixing to make mud; fire in her eyes, hot, painful fire. Eli pressed her eyes shut in vain.

Her world was pitch black and her eyes burned underneath her eyelids. Even as she pressed the heels of her palms into them and shook her head and willed and prayed for it to stop, acid still coursed through her veins and right into her goddamn eyeballs.

That was the bad news. But the good news was that the screeching, shrieking fire alarm in her inner ear had stopped 2 seconds ago. But the other bad news was that her stomach decided that it would expel all of its contents right then and there. The good news was that apparently her stomach was empty, but the new bad news what that Eli was now dry heaving onto her late grandmother’s patchwork quilt.

Bad news sandwich.

Eli decided to pray a bit more and then maybe scream until –

She blinked. Her eyes flitted around the room. She blinked some more. Was it over? Was it really? In an instant? Eli breathed out in sweet, sweet relief.

Now that that was over, she had a little bit of time to think. Think Eli, think! Her stomach churned in a dull ache but it was way better than before, at least she thought it was. It was a bit hard to focus on when a hundred fire ants were crawling behind her eyelids mere seconds ago.

She breathed in then out again.

Where was she?

At home? Again?

A metallic twinge stabbed through her head. It was like she had turned her neck too fast, except all she had done was think. Was she not even allowed to do that anymore?

So she was home… The thought confused her a bit. Hadn’t she just been somewhere else?

Eli had half a mind to check her phone. That’s what people do when they’re in doubt, right? Like in the movies?

She pressed a button to wake it up, then immediately regretted it. For multiple reasons.

The first of which being that the artificial light seared her irises with the might of a solar eclipse and left Eli hissing and shielding her eyes like a vampire.

The second, and slightly less horrible reason, was that when she took a second look at the screen (after her poor eyes had had time to sufficiently heal), she was met with a screen that proudly proclaimed in all its blindingly bright fashion: 12:10 A.M. December 31, 2016.

A day which was very quickly becoming Eli’s least favorite day.

She set the phone down and rubbed the haziness out of her abused eyes.

Maybe if she went to sleep, she would wake up and it would be 2017 at last.



The Good News: Eli woke up again and the sun was still rising. Eli checked the time on her phone.

The Bad News: It was still 2016 and the previous days were not dreams.

But the Good News: It was 7:06 and Eli had a date with Nico Yazawa at 11:00.

And even better, she seemed to be retaining more information than the previous days.

Back to the Bad News, yesterday was still today. And Eli didn’t think that “yesterday” was still a dream anymore. She would test out her theory later today, but either way she was sure that this was very, very bad news.

But the Good News was that if she ended this on a high note, it would become a Good News Sandwich.

Eli swung her legs off the bed and decided to make some coffee. Unfortunately for her, her knees collapsed under the pressure and Eli went face first into her hardwood floors. Damn! She pounded her fist on the floor.

Just when she thought things were going her way. Honestly, she should know better by now.



It was 8:59 AM and Eli had too much time to think.

At 9:30 she would catch the train and head down to Nico’s favorite coffee shop and enjoy a nice chat with her best friend in the world at 11:00. Then, the two would travel to Rin’s shop, purchase the alcohol that Eli would down later that day, and she would ask the shop keep about affinity for cats and the leftist cat named Ramen. She would write a wish on the wall – for it to be 2017 already – and the two would be at the Honoka Kousaka Friendship Get-Together and New Year’s Pre-Party Party BEFORE noon.

It didn’t give her too much time to talk with Nico, but she knew better than to ask her friend to wake up early on one of her days off.

Eli drummed her fingers on her countertop. It would be better if the two of them didn’t have to go pick up some stuff for the party. It would leave them more time to talk. What if Eli went before her date with Nico to pick up the wine?

It would leave her more time to talk with Nico and Rin and maybe find some answers too.

With a quick glance at her kitchen’s clock, Eli gathered her things into her purse. Phone, check. Wallet, check. Keys, check. With all luck, she would be needing them to get into her apartment tomorrow.

As soon as she pulled on a coat, she was out the door and on a mission.



The town was different during the morning, though Eli supposed that most things were. It was quieter, a bit more subdued, partly due to the slightly overcast sky. She walked the sidewalks as aimlessly as she could manage, constantly reminding herself that she had time. There was nowhere she had to be. No obligations, no worries.

In other words, it was her day off. And as a fully-functioning adult member of society, Eli could do whatever she pleased - At least in theory.

Strolling down the street a bit further, a flash of vibrant purple caught her eye and immediately, a fragrant smell dripping of syrup and something more hit her nose. Flowers in full bloom in the middle of winter? She slowed enough to eye the flowers. A gorgeous green, almost blue, hue blossomed from the very center, transitioning into a light blue and finally a bright purple that reached the ends of the petals.

Was such a strong smell really coming from these flowers?

They were planted in a tall planter about the height of her waist on the side of the sidewalk that bordered the street. She couldn’t tell if the city owned them or what. The colors were so vivid and exotic that they looked like they belonged in some rainforest in South America, not on the side of a Japanese small town’s street.

Brushing a loose lock of hair behind her ear, Eli craned her body down a little to experimentally sniff at them.

But as she drew closer, the smell did not get stronger. Strange, Eli thought as a light breeze rustled the plants, the fragrance sharply came in from her left. She sniffled then sneezed as the scent invaded her nostrils.

Turning her head to the origin of the smell, she blinked in confusion as a glass door to the adjacent storefront jingled closed. And after taking in the shop’s unusual appearance for a second, she identified the smell as incense.

As in incense from a fortune-telling store.

Though it was less of a store and more of a… building that happened to host a fortune teller and their business. Pinned to the storefront were several scattered signs - that displayed in various fonts, shapes, and colors - promises to read palms, soulsigns, and even tell the future, all for a conveniently unlisted price.

But that wasn’t all. Images of unblinking eyes and stars and other “mystical” images decorated the border of the glass panel.

Through the clear glass, Eli thought she could make out the interior of the place. It looked very western-inspired with deep brown wooden floors and furniture. Very strange, but somehow…

Eli shook her head out of her reverie. She still had to go see Rin and select the bottle that she would be finishing that night as the clock struck twelve.

She made her way a few steps down the street, barely passing the entrance to the peculiar shop before she looked back at it.

“Soulsigns: Psychic Readings,” Eli read aloud.

Eli looked further down the road a bit guiltily. Rin’s convenience store was in sight. She turned back once again to Soulsigns, the incense still lightly wafting through the air.

I’m an adult. I have no obligations. She reminded herself. Besides, was it really a detour if her whole mission was to find some answers for her problem? Maybe this place can help me. She rationalized as she grasped the door’s brass handle.

The door swung open easily and Eli was transported to another world. She had almost staggered back as the powerful scent invaded her senses along with a cool breeze that welcomed her into the shop.

The bell jingled and a woman with gorgeous green eyes, almost blue, looked up from a magazine of some sort. She straightened herself from her previous position of leaning on a counter as a familiar smile graced her lips. It beckoned Eli in.

“Welcome,”

Eli took a few tentative steps forward, stopping a respectful distance away from the counter. She had just entered, and she was already way too far out of her element to pretend to be anything else. Especially with such a gorgeous woman staring at her expectantly like that.

“Um,” she eloquently said.

The purple-haired woman’s smile quirked up on one side and Eli could swear that she saw a twinkle in those deep eyes of hers.

“Care for a fortune reading this morning?”

“Uh- no, no actually. I, um, I came in to- because I-“

Why did she come in?

She gulped. Sudden feelings she had while being forced to dress as a cat girl overtook her again. “I-I have a problem,”

“Oh?” The beautiful woman prompted with one eyebrow raised. She still hadn’t taken her eyes off Eli.

“A-and I was hoping you could give me some information.”

The woman hummed thoughtfully, eyes roaming Eli’s body up and down like she was appraising her.

“I can help you,” she finally said. “But it might cost you.”

“It might?”

She shrugged before answering. “It might. I’ll be the judge of that later. So, tell me…” She said, leaning on the counter again. One hand came to prop up her chin, the other resting by her elbow. “How can I help you?”

Oh, where to start?

“I’ve been experiencing something… strange… the last few days.” Eli began.

“Mmhmm,” the other nodded encouragingly.

“It feels like… I’ve been reliving the same day over and over again. This day.”

The woman raised her eyebrows at this. When she sensed that Eli wasn’t going to continue, she prompted, “Can you tell me more? When did this start?”

“Three days ago,” she responded with a sigh. “I, um, was at this party but I kept on feeling these weird like- electric shocks? And they haven’t gone away since that first day. They get more frequent as it gets later in the day I think. I don’t know why it’s happening.”

“Interesting…” The woman pondered for a bit before continuing. “Have you ever considered that this might have something to do with your soulsign?”

Those green eyes were staring into Eli’s again.

Eli balked. Her soulsign?

Strange, almost magical soulsigns were not unheard of, ones that re-defined the laws of space-time. Could it be…? Despite herself, she felt hope bubble up inside of her. With that realization, she also felt a bit sick to her stomach.

Eli wasn’t as vain as to link every little thing that happened to her soulsign, but it wasn’t like she was a leftist either.

Even though almost every human being since the beginning of time had had a soulsign, despite the fact that her society, at its core, revolved around soulmates, the topic of soulsigns and soulmates just – made her freeze up. Again, she wasn’t aromantic and she wasn’t a leftist, but sometimes she just wished that society could put less emphasis on soulmates, romantic soulmates especially.

A soulsign: a bond put into place by God or fate or by evolutionary design; A bond stronger than human will. The bond that linked people through a singular shared soul. To have a soulsign was to be human, that’s what she had learned. Eli was a human so of course she would have one.

Her whole life, she knew this. She knew… but did she want it?

When this woman, a soulsign reader, told her that this was her soulsign at work, that after all this was done, she would meet her destined pair, Eli had felt a flash of something. It was a split second of joy, elation, longing.

But what was beneath all that was dread..

Dread and doubt and fear. How could Eli have a soulmate if she took one look at this random fortune teller girl and had her breath taken away. Shouldn’t that reaction be saved for her soulmate?

The woman, seeing Eli’s distress, held up a hand. “Now, not to be too presumptuous, and not to be too political, but you don’t seem like too much of a seeker.”

Something about the friendly tone of her voice calmed Eli down. She sighed. “The only thing I’m seeking is an answer.”

The woman seemed to like her answer, because with another breathtaking smile, she said, “Aren’t we all?”

Eli gulped again.

“Anyway,” the woman continued, “you probably know what’s coming next. Do you know your soulsign?”

“No,” she answered, feeling the need to avert her eyes.

When Eli looked back, the other woman was nodding, muttering to herself as she did so. Eli thought she caught her say the word “Irregular.” She rubbed her chin for a bit before turning back to Eli. “There are many, many kinds of soulsigns, you know. More than imaginable, in fact.”

She paused for a second, seemingly hesitating. “Here, I’ll tell you what, I’ll help you out – free of charge.”

Why? Eli wanted to ask.

She spread her hands, easy smile gracing her lips once more. “It’s in the cards. I feel that this is how the fates designed it to be.” The woman replied then smirked. “Also… I like a challenge.”

The woman continued, “It could be that a past life is calling out to you; that’s what could be causing the time loop. It might be something more, though. This whole thing might not stop until you meet your soulmate, or touch them, or look into their eyes, or combine your blood with them. There is, of course, the possibility of multiple soulmates or platonic soulmates and even…”

She trailed off when she took in Eli’s expression.

She chuckled. “Of course, all this is purely theoretical. Look, what I think you’re dealing with isn’t exactly romantic in nature. Platonic ‘mates aren’t exactly my area of expertise. So, I’ll tell ya what. I open the shop at 8 AM. If you come in then, someone else will be here with me to help you.”

“Someone else?”

“Umi Sonoda, the other co-owner of this place. She has something to do today so she only came in to help me open up. It might take a bit to convince her to help, but if you come in and tell me what I told you today, I could do it.”

Eli smiled. Finally, some good news. “Thank you so much, um…” Her mouth went dry as she tried to place the woman’s name. Had she said it already? Was she too distracted by her looks to remember her name??

“Nozomi Tojo.” She said with a kind grin. “But you can just call me Nozomi.”

“Thank- wait- really?”

“Of course,” Nozomi drawled. “We’re friends now, aren’t we?”

“I- yes, I suppose so.” Eli said as she coughed awkwardly. “I’m Eli Ayase. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“You as well, Ayase-san. And don’t hesitate to call me Nozomi when you see me again; that’s how I’ll know to believe you.” Nozomi winked and Eli died inside. From this distance, Eli wondered if the delicious scent had been coming from Nozomi instead. Had she always been this close to the counter? When had she started moving up? That didn’t seem to matter, though as a curious gaze met her own and Eli could just about pick out stars that seemed to glimmer in Nozomi’s eyes.

Just then, Eli heard a familiar jingle coming from behind her. Another person had entered the shop.

Eli’s mouth snapped shut before she had the chance to question why it was open in the first place. Was she going to tell Nozomi something? No, Eli shook her head slightly. Speaking before thinking is a dangerous idea.

“Thank you again, Nozomi.” Eli said.

Nozomi graced her with one last smile and wave before turning her attention to the other customer.

Eli turned and walked out, the sweet smell of incense trailing behind her on her way out.



It was 10:12 AM when Eli found herself facing off with the creepy dragon head for the third time. (Which was four times too many.)

She couldn’t help it. As soon as she passed through the door to the small shop, her gaze caught those bulbous black spheres again. Hadn’t Nozomi said something about her eyes meeting her soulmate’s earlier? Eli fought the shiver that threatened to run up her spine.

“Welcome, nya!”

The cheerful voice ripped her attention away from the cold stare. Rin, unlike the day before, was awake when she came in.

Eli smiled kindly at her friend. Though they weren’t really friends, at least today.

Nozomi said that you were her friend, her brain unhelpfully reminded her. Eli grimaced and shook her head as she made her way to the alcohol aisle. Stop thinking about her. Don’t you have a soulmate to worry about?

But what if Nozomi was-

Nope. Nope. She was stopping there. It wouldn’t do Eli any good to dwell on what if’s. Besides, Nozomi had said that Eli had a platonic soulmate, which wasn’t a problem, but Eli had always thought…
Her foot caught on something and Eli went stumbling forward. She was dangerously close to plowing into a display of cheap, colorful paper plates and napkins before she caught herself – barely.

There she went again. Earlier that morning, the idea of having a romantic soulmate made her sick to her stomach. But here she was, practically drooling over the idea of having one. It was almost as if she were seeking one. Eli couldn’t stop the unpleasant shivers this time.

She picked up the same two bottles her and Nico had grabbed last time. Carrying one in each hand, Eli maneuvered her way through the organized clutter and eventually came upon a familiar display.

She set the bottles on the floor and they clinked a bit as they met the hard floor. She leaned in closer to inspect a certain section of charms. If she was correct, that would mean…

There it was, dangling from a rich red string. Eli grasped it between her fingers, flipping it around to reveal a single wish: “I wish Rin would clean up the shop like I asked her to.” -Umi Sonoda.

Umi Sonoda, friend of Nozomi and friend of Rin. This was good. Now she could question Rin about-

“They’re New Year’s wishes.”

Speak of the devil.

Eli turned to meet the short store-keep’s yellow eyes. It seemed she still hadn’t lost her habit of sneaking up on people.

“Did I scare you? Sorry.” Her voice was as cheery as her smile. She rocked back and forth on the heels of her feet with her hands grasped behind her back. Her open expression told Eli that she was patiently waiting for a response.

Eli felt the corners of her lips lifting before she told them to.

“No, it’s fine,” she responded with a light shake of her head.

“Some of the customers write their wishes or resolutions for the new year and we hang them up here nya~. It’s pretty fun to see what people write. Hmm let’s see…” Rin moved next to Eli to inspect the tiny words written on tiny wooden plates.

“Right, I’ve seen some interesting things written about soulmates.” Eli noted, but her eyes weren’t on the charms.

“Exactly!” Rin’s attention turned to her and Eli saw stars twinkling in Rin’s amused eyes. “It’s so fun to see different people enter the shop and think that each person has their own soulsign, nya!”

Eli hummed and nodded in agreement. “But don’t you think that it’s a little bit personal?”

Rin flapped her hand in the air dismissively. “This isn’t the type of store that would limit personal expression like that. This is a safe place. And anyone can write whatever they’d like. Besides, nya, it’s a wish. And who can control what you wish for?” Rin said with a shrug.

The girl spoke nonchalantly, but Eli could sense the underlying emotion in her tone. It was the same way Nico spoke when Eli made a careless comment. Eli had to remember that Rin was a leftist, just like Nico.

So, Eli put on her best smile and responded, “Of course. I was just feel bad if you were to get some less-than-pleasant comments about it.”

Rin’s grin stretched impossibly wider. “None so far, but there’s always, always time for that.”

Eli nodded her head solemnly. “This one’s pretty interesting,” she said, grasping Umi Sonoda’s charm again and angling it toward the shorter woman.

“Yeah, that’s my friend, Umi’s.” She chuckled and then pointed to the charm to the right. “This one’s mine.”

Eli leaned closer to read Rin’s charm. Same as yesterday, “I wish Umi would let me set the alley cats on blind dates.” The image of Rin capturing two feral cats and putting them in a Lady and the Tramp-style date conjured up in her mind’s eye.

“Why would you try to set cats on blind dates?”

“Well, it’s mostly one cat, Ramen. He’s my favorite, nya. He’s orange and he has spots of darker orange fur and he’s the cutest thing in the world! But anyway the idea is to find a nice cat for him to settle down with.”

“Ramen? That’s a cute name.”

“Right?! I really wanted a name that represented his personality, you know?”

“Yeah…” Something wasn’t adding up from yesterday. “So you said that you were trying to find a nice cat for him? So you don’t think he has a soulmate or anything?”

“Ah, well I’ve noticed Ramen isn’t exactly one for seeking if that’s what they’re calling it nowadays.” Rin took a glance back at the shop’s entrance. “Truth be told, I’m not really either, but if I did happen to find my soulmate, I’d have to move out of my place and poor Ramen would have no one to care for him!!” Her expression turned pained and she trailed her forefinger down her cheek to mimic a falling tear.

“Maybe… you could take him with you?”

Rin’s bottom lip jutted out. “A lot of places don’t allow pets. Plus, Ramen likes it there and it’s a nice alley.”

A nice alley. Was that an oxymoron?

“Maybe you could get a friend to watch him.”

Her suggestion seemed to upset Rin even more. “My friend Umi would be perfect for that, but she keeps telling me to stop meddling in the cats’ love lives! It’s not like I can help it!! She’s all like,” A stern look complete with deep-set frown overtook Rin’s innocent countenance and when she spoke next, her voice was deep and serious to match. “If the cat has a soulmate, then just let it be,” she chastised with a wag of her finger.

Rin’s expression eased. “But she doesn’t understand! I know Ramen. Ramen doesn’t want to conform to the ways of this world!”

“Ah, well that’s unfortunate. Not many animals are known to have soulmates, so it’s very brave of him to uh… do that.”

“Right?! I’m so proud of him.” Rin pressed her palms to her chest in a display of emotion for her beloved alley cat.

Here it was. “Just curious, but… how do you know that Ramen has a soulmate in the first place?”

“Ah,” Rin’s attention quickly turned back to Eli. “Well, I can just tell, nya~. I know Ramen better than the back of my hand! And I’d trust him with my life!”

This was a bit more difficult than Eli had anticipated. Dealing with the eccentric cashier was very different than negotiating through conference calls.

“Why doesn’t your friend want to watch him?”

“Oh, that’s… she’s busy like all the time and she’s serious like all the time. She’s a soulsign reader at the shop over there.” Rin flapped her hand noncommittedly in the direction Eli had just come from. “She’s always there or she’s off doing some super important work. I don’t really know. I wouldn’t be able to keep track of it even if she told me about it.”

“A reader? At the place down the street?”

Rin nodded ecstatically. “Super cool, right? She doesn’t really seem like the type but she’s super good! Well she’s super good at everything anyway…”

“Wow, does she get a lot of customers?”

“Oh yeah, all kinds of people, you know. I have lots of cool stories. Wanna hear a weird one about body switching?”

“Um actually…” Eli said, sliding her phone out of her pocket.

Rin seemed unbothered. “Okay, but get this- it wasn’t with her soulmate! She would switch with random people every day and every day she’d come in with a different body! And she’d go like all over the world every day to find her soulmate! Amazing nya! Oh but I have another one! You’ll never guess where this guy’s soulmark was!”

No, Eli supposed she wouldn’t guess. A clear 10:51 flashed on her screen.

“It was on-“

“Actually, Rin. I think I need to go.”

“Oh.” The look Rin gave her looked so much like she had stepped on one of the the girl’s cat figurines that Eli had to remind herself that she hadn’t.

But the Rin’s smile bounced back as soon as it had fallen. “That’s fine, Nya~. Um- I don’t think I ever caught your name…”

“Eli.” She said as she gathered her items.

Rin led the way to the register, expertly sidestepping the dozens of items on her way.

“Come back soon, Eli-san. It can get really boring during this time of year. People expect us to be closed or something.” Rin said when all the bottles had been bagged.

“I will.” She replied, grabbing the handle of her bag and offering her new friend one last smile before turning to leave.

Eli hoped that the smile didn’t look too fake. It wasn’t that she was lying to Rin. (She actually thought that would be a great sin?) But if she didn’t get this whole “soulmate” thing figured out soon, she’d be coming around this shop for the rest of her life.

“Oh wait! Wait!”
When Eli turned back, she was greeted with two outstretched hands- a wooden charm in one, red string trailing through thin fingers, and a black felt-tipped marker in the other. Eli’s gaze travelled up. The offering was complete with a grin as bright as the owner’s hair.

“One last New Years wish?”



“Ah, right on time, Ayase. I almost thought you would be late for a second. Should’ve known better though; ‘punctual’ is your middle name.”

“Really? I seem to recall you deeming it as ‘smart-ass’.”

“Don’t forget about ‘stick’.”

How could she forget? ”Is your middle name stick, Ayase? Because it seems like it’s not only stuck between your two names, but your butt cheeks as well!”. Eli had busted her and some girl fooling around on the rooftop during class time. Eli had no regrets. She was the student council president after all. Besides… Eli ate on that rooftop.

“Please, I’d rather not be reminded of that right now.”

Eli set her bags down at the foot of her chair and took her seat. Nico shivered a bit and drew her coat tighter around herself.

“Me neither.”

A gust of chilling wind blew in from behind her. It rattled their table which apparently was not entirely level nor was it heavy. Eli watched as Nico’s cup clattered and clanged against its plate, dark liquid threateningly close to spilling over the edge. Knowing Nico, this was likely her morning cup of coffee- despite it being almost noon.

“It’s pretty windy today.” Eli noted.

Nico sipped in her drink. “Yeah, perfect weather for punishment, huh?” She eyed Eli over her cup.

“Can you just not for even one second?”

“I can but I won’t. You know this.”

Eli did know this.

“Anyway,” Nico continued, “Who do you think it’s gonna be this time? My bet’s on Hanayo.”

“Just because Honoka lives in the fancy penthouse now, it doesn’t mean that Hanayo suddenly doesn’t live 20 minutes from her place.”

“Fine, fine. But I just have to say this. These punishments were the best thing to happen to the Honoka Kousaka pre-party party and New Year’s friendship whatever-the-hell.”

“You won’t be saying that when you’re on the receiving end.”

“Ah,” Nico’s cup clanged sharply as glass met glass as she placed it down. “But that’ll never happen as long as I have you with me.”

What if you won’t have me forever? “What about when I meet my soulmate?” Oh fuck. Eli fucked up. Damn it. Nico wasn’t gonna let this slip by. This is why one shouldn’t speak without thinking!

Eli watched Nico’s face morph in slow motion. First her eyes widened to be as big as saucers with her eyebrows shooting up to the top of her forehead. Next her mouth grew into a large O but soon transformed into a lecherous smile. The final product was one of shock and sick sadism.

If Nico had been drinking right then, she would have had to spit it out. “Ha! Soulmate?! When you meet them? Not even an if but when? Are you sure you’re okay, Eli? The weather isn’t getting to you right?”

Nico moved forward quickly and placed her hand to Eli’s forehead. The table wobbled dangerously as Nico rested her weight in it.

Eli jerked away from the touch, swatting the hand away. Nico continued to laugh devilishly.

“Ugh, forget about it. I wasn’t thinking.”

“No, no, no. It’s fine. It’s great, actually. Eli is finally growing into the purist that we all knew she would be.”

“Shut up. I am not a purist.” Eli groaned, cursing whatever spirit possessed her to say these lies. “This was a mistake.”

“Ohoho, now is she a radical leftist? All soulmates are mistakes?”

Eli scowled, eyes meeting Nico’s only to immediately regret it. The smile she saw was sick and dripping with sadism.

“That’s not what I meant.” Eli sighed.

“So what did you mean? I’m all ears. I wonder what could make the Eli I know willingly talk about soulmates.”

“I’m just going though something right now.”

“Midlife crisis?!”

“Something like that…” She wrapped her arms tightly around herself, pointedly ignoring Nico’s invasive stare. Maybe Nico was right. She felt a little sick to her stomach right now.

“Come on, Ayase. It’s me- #1 idol enthusiast. I love talking about drama and shit. Don’t deprive me.”

“Hmmm…”

“Fine. I’ll guess and you tell me if I’m right or not. Your soulmark finally developed and it’s a drawing of me saying ‘Nico Nico nii!’”

Eli wouldn’t dignify that with a response.

“Come on!~ If you don’t play the game, I’ll never know!”

Eli grimaced as she looked at the cars lazily driving by and tapped her index finger nail on the table. She took a sharp breath through her nose and let it out through her mouth. She felt her shoulders loosen only to stiffen again as she muttered her response.

“What was that?” Nico asked, cupping her ear and leaning in way closer than necessary. The playful expression still overtook her face.

Eli cringed. “I said, not exactly…”

“Not exactly?” Nico’s expression morphed to confusion to excited, but sick. So very sick and wrong. Someone needed to stop her. Eli wondered why nobody had stopped her yet.

“Soouulllmaaarrrrkkkkkk???!!?” Nico exclaimed, pitch and smile growing higher and wider respectively every passing moment.

It was Eli’s turn to reach across the table as she desperately tried to cover Nico’s mouth. She whipped her head around enough to see that people were looking but she was too embarrassed to even look at then to offer a silent apology.

“If you don’t shut up right now, I won’t tell you anything more.”

Thankfully, (and Eli was very thankful indeed) Nico’s mouth closed with a pop. The other girl held her palms up in a gesture of surrender. It was then that Eli allowed herself a moment to relax. She let out the breath she’d been holding and if she focused enough, she could see it travel off and disperse in the air.

“It’s not a soulmark; it’s a soulsign.”

Just saying the name reminded her of the shop and Nozomi and… Just everything that was wrong in her world.

Nico made a little encouraging gesture with her hand, urging her to elaborate. Nico looked like a plugged geyser just waiting to burst; it cause regret to well up immediately inside Eli. But still, she had dug her grave now she had to lie in it.

“It’s… a time loop.” With those words, Eli felt the unfortunately familiar tingling at the base of her neck. She scratched at the area as she thought of the best words to explain but finding nothing.

At the very least though, Eli’s words gave Nico some pause. The shorter girl seemed exponentially calmer when she said, “A time loop, huh. That’s pretty rare. What of?”

“Today.”

“How many times have you lived it?”

“Once… or twice.”

“So it’s not something you can ignore, huh?”

Eli shook her head, thinking of the way Nico ignored her soulsign and by extension, soulmate, almost daily. Eli did not have that luxury.

“Any idea how to fix it?” Nico asked.

“None. I went to see a reader today.” Eli ignored the way Nico’s eyebrows shot up again. “They said they could help me if I came in tomorrow, or um, the next today.”

“That’s crazy how this is happening to you. I didn’t even notice anything. Huh, so does this mean, you know everything that’s gonna happen?”

“I guess?”

“Awesome. I wish I had that kind of soulsign.”

“W-What? No you don’t!”

“Yeah, I know. I’m just trying to make you feel better. Your soulsign actually sounds terrible.”

“…Thanks.”

“Any time.” Nico brought her cup to her lips, but found that it had been drained long ago. “Hey, you wanna order something for the road? I totally forgot earlier.”

“No, it’s fine.” Eli said, bringing out her phone. “I don’t think we have any- damn it. Not again.”

“Oh don’t tell me... What time is it?”

“Too late to make it on time.”

Nico looked devastated before her I have a plan look came over here which meant she had a plan. Eli hated when Nico had plans.

“They’ll totally let us off when we tell them what happened to you.”

“No, I really don’t-“

“Eli.” Nico stood and leaned awkwardly across the table to press her hands firmly into Eli’s shoulders. “We. Need. This.”

Eli groaned in defeat. “ I hate it when you’re right.”



“Ooh, 8 minutes late, girls. That’s no good.” Tsubasa tutted as the pair made an entrance that was as graceful as Swan Lake compared to the other day’s.

“I know you’re mad.” Nico led, hands in the same gesture of surrender as before. “But we have a very good excuse.”

“Just because you have an excuse, it doesn’t excuse you.” Tsubasa countered.

“This one is very good.” Nico promised as she made her way toward the seating area. “Gather ‘round children. You’re gonna wanna hear this.”

Eli was nothing but a bystander. She closed the door behind them and trudged after Nico, eyes glued angrily to the floor. And they stayed there with Eli only breaking her stare to roll her eyes when Nico exaggerated too much.

After a long time of avoiding eye contact with her friends, Eli heard Honoka say, “Yeah, we should excuse them.”

“Yeah.”

“I agree.”

“Okay, for future reference, what constitutes an excuse?” Erena said.

“Things outside of your control.” Tsubasa responded.

“It wasn’t even that. They still could have arrived on time-“

“Erena. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“But if what she’s saying is true, we’ll probably have to talk about it again.”

“Erena. We wanna talk about Eli’s soulmate not take them out on a punishment that’ll take like 5 hours.” Tsubasa said again.

“Yeah.”

“I agree.”

“Anyone want popcorn?” Honoka offered.

Eli did not raise her hand.

“Me.”

She shot a look at Hanayo that the other girl did not see.

It was almost, almost comforting to Eli when she realized that when the clock strikes midnight tonight, all of this will be forgotten.



“Maybe they’re going through a time loop too!” Honoka exclaimed.

“Okay but how is that gonna help us?” Nico countered.

“I mean I’m just saying that-“

“No Anju, if we ask it on social media, it’d get thousands of trolls!” Erena loudly said from the connected kitchen, forcing Eli’s attention to the other conversation.

Somehow, over the course of a long time, much too long for Eli’s liking the conversation had split into little subdivisions. Eli couldn’t decide which one made her more uncomfortable.

She had her head turned over her shoulder to watch the A-Rise+Hanayo one progress. It was like
Eli could see her life crumbling before her eyes.

“A-Rise has approximately 6.793 million followers on Twitter. The odds of trolls appearing is incredibly high. Plus, it would violate Eli-chan’s privacy.” Sweet summer child, Hanayo said.

“I get that. Just let me play devil’s advocate here. We ask it once, but then the day resets so it’s like we never asked it in the first place. We have to exhaust our options first.” Said Tsubasa, ever the angel.

Erena held her hand up to stop her there. “She said she was going to the reader for help. Don’t you think-“

The couch cushions suddenly shifted as a weight was added to it. Eli’s head whipped around to see Kotori Minami with two empty glasses and a bottle that Eli had picked up earlier that day, pre-opened.

“Isn’t that for the party?” Eli asked.

“The less people who drink, the more that can enjoy my cheese plate. And conversation with you always flows easier over alcohol.” Kotori easily replied, as the glasses made a dull clink against the coffee table.

Eli couldn’t say no to that. She sat content to watch the two glasses fill with dark liquid.

“Shall we make a toast?” Kotori suggested.

“To what?” Eli said, picking up her drink.

“Hmm, true love?”

The look on Eli’s face must have said it all.

“I would usually say ‘new year, new start’ to piggyback on your usual saying, but that doesn’t really apply here, does it? How about ‘to the inevitable?’”

The statement didn’t sit well with her, but she raised her glass nonetheless. The clink of glass on glass still echoed in her mind as she brought the drink to her lips.

“Interesting choice of words,” Eli noted as wine slid down her throat.

“I thought it would be more comforting to you.”

Eli simply hummed as she took another sip.

“Love seems to have found you quicker than you expected, huh, Eli-chan?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“The universe has its ways.” Kotori mused. “It’ll all work out in the end, I promise – these things always seem to do.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Any time.” She said with a smile before her expression took on a more somber yet sincere look. “You know we’re all here for you in our own way, right?”

“I know.” Eli responded and knocked back another gulp and decided to leave it at that.

Her friends continued jabbering on in her peripherals and Eli tried not to pay them any attention.

“Eli-chan,”

Eli turned her attention back to Kotori. “What do you think they’ll be like? Your soulmate?”

The question left her dumbfounded. She had no real way to answer that, mouth parting then closing over and over again. “I-I have no idea.”

Kotori chucked lightly before saying, “I thought you’d say that. But I also don’t think that you’d want the universe to decide it for you.”

....She was right.

Eli wanted it on her own terms, on her own time. That was probably why her soulsign was a damn time loop. Eli had all the time in the world to come to terms with this, all the time in a 24-hour loop, that is. She really hated the universe sometimes.

Eli sighed heavily. “Soulmates aren’t supposed to be this difficult. Isn’t the whole point of soulmates to make life less difficult?”

“Life never gave any of us a break. Soulmates are our one absolute answer, but nowhere does it say that it’ll be easy or it’ll be free.”

Absolute answer,Eli pondered over her drink. Something as significant as a soulmate, someone bonded to one at their very core… If the answer was so straightforward, Eli just couldn’t see why the journey had to be so convoluted.

“If I didn’t know any better, I would think that life was just pulling on our puppet strings the entire time.” Eli said, watching her wine swirl in her glass.

“Eli-chan, I know you’re usually realistic, but you were never a downer. Where’s all that patented ambition and work ethic?”

Disappeared three repeats ago, she thought drily.

Kotori laid her hand on Eli’s thigh. “Eli-chan, I’m just trying to help you sort through this.” She tore her eyes from Kotori’s sympathetic gaze; The weight of it felt worse than waking up in the morning the past few days and it made guilt bubble up inside her.

“I know, thank you. It’s just that I never expected this.” Never asked for it; never wanted it.

“This is how the world works... I don’t know how much that comforts you, though.”

It didn’t, really. But Eli wasn’t sure if anything could anymore.

She took a moment before replying, “You asked me the first night- if I thought I would meet someone next year… And… I told you that if something did happen, I’d just accept it and let it play out the way it was supposed to. But Kotori, I-I was wrong. I don’t think that I can do this.”

I was wrong. I can’t do this. I’m not ready.

“Eli-“

“Okay! Everyone’s ready right?”

“I know you won rock paper scissors but do we really have to?“

Eli’s attention snapped in the direction of the voices. Honoka and Nico were standing next to the ajar door, the latter tapping her right foot incessantly with arms crossed tightly over her chest while puffing her cheeks impatiently like a chipmunk in the fall.

The members of A-Rise were making their way towards the open entrance too, some looking slightly disgruntled.

“Wait, my purse!”

“Hanayo, you don’t need-“

“Wait where’s Eli?!”

“We lost Eli?”

“Already!?”

Eli couldn’t help but flinch as 6 pairs of eyes turned toward her in unison.

After a beat, Honoka slapped her hand to her forehead. “I knew we were forgetting something.”

“If we want to make it on time…” Tsubasa warned.

“Right!” Honoka exclaimed before scrambling toward the Eli and startling her as two hands abruptly slammed down on the back of couch.

“Eli-chan. We don’t have time to explain right now, buuuuut I promise it’s nothing bad, okay? We just have to leave like right. Now.”

Eli hadn’t moved an inch or had any time to respond before Honoka rested her elbows on the couch, pressed her palms flush together, and leaned her face very close to Eli’s.

“Pleeeaase?”

Eli pursed her lips. What could it be that they had to leave immediately?

She really, really did not want to go. Really, she didn’t. But the same traitorous part of her mind whispered, Well, it’s only for today and suddenly the words were out of her mouth without thinking… again.

“Okay, I guess-“

As the words were leaving Eli’s mouth, Honoka’s expression was brightening in an instant. The excited girl snagged Eli’s wrist, dragging her toward the exit with a “Come on!” while seemingly forgetting humans could not go through couches.

“Honoka wait!” Eli cried.

“Sorry, sorry! Okay we have to go, come on!” Honoka called, beckoning with her hand. “Come on, Kotori! Come on, come on, come on!” She was making wild circlular gestures with her arms now like those people with lights who direct airplanes.

Eli took her time rising from her seat and walking around the furniture to meet the others. But apparently 5 whole seconds was too long to wait for Honoka Kousaka. As soon as Eli had walked around the couch, Honoka was snaring her wrist again and dragging her in her wake.

The girls were out the door and on a mission.

Only for today… That must have been the worst lie Eli had ever told herself.