Chapter 1: Twister
The sound flows, follows till they’re home. Dragged by the power of dreams, that power is yet unknown.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The sun was setting on another week, throwing the city into shades of orange and pink. The clock tower sat like a lighthouse above the crashing waves of looming skyscrapers. They called it the Savior because it seemed to be the only thing keeping its head above water in this city. The hill bolstered it above the buildings, the ones that normally towered over the people clogging the streets with their busy, unimportant lives. Like ants. They were just waiting to be stepped on.
You could see everything from the clock tower. The whole city stretched out right under your feet in all directions. Right now was the perfect time to be here, too. Golden hour was aptly name. The dying sun reflected off of every window pane, every metal beam. In the distance, it painted the shopping center’s glassy ceiling orange. Beyond that was the Tear, the art gallery built like a giant teardrop. It glittered green and blue like a jewel.
While most of the people were squashable, Kamino itself was something special. At least, golden hour made it seem that way. Made it seem like no time had passed at all.
If he plugged his ears, maybe he could tune out the city’s music that had sounded so offkey lately and just enjoy the view.
“Shouldn’t you—I don’t know—try finding something more useful to do with your time?”
“Tch.” Bakugou turned his back on the city. His eyes hurt from squinting against the sun. “Just taking a last look.”
Todoroki stood leaning against the brick, not daring the edge like Bakugou, but hearing his words, he pushed off. “You’re leaving?”
“Nothing to cry about.” Bakugou rolled his eyes. “It won’t be long, just going to the Real Ground.”
Todoroki’s curiosity faded and he leaned back against the wall again, unimpressed. “Oh, if that’s all.” He glanced at Bakugou out of the corner of his eye. “But you never leave. Why the sudden interest?”
In the distance, the sun dipped behind the city skyline, throwing them into shadow. A bruised purple sky descended on the remaining orange hue. Bakugou turned back around, stepping up on the edge before sitting down. His legs swung out into the open air and he stared down at the pavement far below.
“Does it matter? You go there all the time.”
Todoroki didn’t say anything, but Bakugou could feel his eyes on the back on his neck.
“Look, get off my ass. You’ll have to enjoy some Games without me.”
“Whatever,” Todoroki said shortly. “You can’t get any points if you’re not here.”
“Then you better have double when I get back.”
“A bit of advice for the Real Ground. Don’t be such a diva. Someone will punch you.”
Bakugou barked out a laugh and swiveled around to sneer in Todoroki’s direction, but he was already gone. The sneer fell from Bakugou’s face as he hunched over his knees. Alone again. The light was fading far too fast, lights already coming on across the way at the train station. There was no point at looking at nothing. He couldn’t even see the ground anymore. Besides, he had work to do. Just as the clock tower struck the hour, Bakugou slipped over the edge, disappearing into the dark.
The first thing he was aware of was the muffled noise, like his head was being held under water, but that wasn’t right. His cheek was settled on something rough, warm but hard. Faintly, it vibrated, like something was going on around him. He realized his eyes were squeezed shut. Where was he again?
Kirishima opened his eyes and sat up. All around him, people were moving, cars were roaring past. Slowly, he got to his feet, looking all around him. There was no direction he could turn where something wasn’t happening. It was a world full of movement, and he was lost in it. All the people, all the noise. The rush of the city.
There was something cold against the back of his neck and he brought a hand up to investigate. A necklace? Running his fingers along the cold metal, he found it was barely long enough to get it past his chin for a proper look. A black chain. He didn’t own something like this. He didn’t even remember putting it on—
He didn’t remember anything.
No, that couldn’t be right. He knew his name. Kirishima Eijirou. But where was everything else? Who was he? Where was he?
Looking around, he was stuck in the middle of a giant roundabout. There was a white fountain to his back. People walking. People sitting. People standing and chatting. People everywhere he looked. Beyond them, cars drove round and round in a dizzying circle. Even further, there were more people and beyond them, a cage of skyscrapers. The sky felt too low. Too blue. The towers were gray bars and there was no escape.
Kirishima realized his hand had tightened into a fist around the chain, digging it in around his neck. The sounds were still muffled, but there was too much of them. He was panicking. He tried to listen to just one voice, going deeper and deeper into the tangled mess of noise.
It’s such a lovely day… Do I really have to go back—
Boss is gonna have my head if I take another—
There’s a new burger place in East City, but—
If I hurry, I can still catch the matinee price!
A dull ringing began in his ears and he clutched his head with both hands. It felt like someone was pounding a nail into the side of his head.
“What the hell,” he grumbled. “Are those voices?”
Something vibrated in his pocket, chirping loudly, distracting him from the noise. Without his attention on it, the noise muffled once more, like a wall had been erected between him and everything else.
Kirishima reached into his pocket and found a phone. He couldn’t recall it being his, but it was bright red and—well—that matched nearly everything else about him, from his hair to his jacket, all the way down to his shoes. So it had to be his. He flipped it open.
Reach the Dome. You have 60 minutes. Fail and you’ll be erased.
“Spam?” Kirishima wondered, but before he could delete the message, a burning pain erupted in the palm of his hand. The phone fell out of his hand as he clutched at it with the other. As quickly as it had flared up, the pain was gone, replaced by dark red numbers.
And they were counting down.
It was a timer.
His phone chirped again, and he rushed to pick it up.
YOU HAVE 7 DAYS
A splash from behind made him turn toward the fountain. Did somebody fall in?
That wasn’t it. Frogs were jumping out. Their wet bodies splattering the pavement dark with water. They were large frogs, too—like the size of a small dog—but that wasn’t the most alarming thing about them, Kirishima realized. Their heads were split open, revealing part of their brains and their eyes were a milky white. By all appearances, they should be dead, but instead they were flailing and jumping and heading right toward him.
Kirishima took a hesitant step back.
The first frog was getting close. It seemed to regard him for a moment with its glassy eyes, and Kirishima stared back. Then it made a wild leap forward. It headbutted him right in the chest, knocking the wind out of him.
With a choked gasp, Kirishima landed hard on the ground, but before he could make any move, another frog body slammed into his shoulder. He tried knocking back a third one, but it didn’t seem to do anything to faze it.
“Help!” he yelled as he scrambled on the ground, creating enough space to get back on his feet before another frog could attack. He sprinted around the edge of the fountain, putting it between him and his attackers. “Help me!”
With enough distance, he paused. No one was moving. No one was evening glancing his way. They continued chatting or glancing at their phones or rushing along to the crosswalk.
More frogs were plopping out of the fountain, joining the others that were heading his way once again.
Could no one but him see these monsters? And could no one really see him?
“Hello?” He backed up, one eye on the frogs, one eye on searching for someone that could help. “Anybody!?”
The frogs were on him again, two of them knocking him into the street.
Nobody was coming to help him.
A car hugged the inner curve and bared down on him. Kirishima raised his arms in some semblance of protection. If it wasn’t the frogs, then it’d be the oncoming traffic that did him in.
The car phased right through him.
Stunned, Kirishima stared after it. What was going on? Frogs could hit him, but cars couldn’t? Another came and ran through him again. He didn’t feel a thing. Like he didn’t even exist.
But he was real enough to the frog monsters. They could see him and, traffic or no traffic, they had their gross eyes on him and were coming closer.
Kirishima ran. He ran through the cars that couldn’t hit him. He ran through the people that couldn’t see him. He ran from the only thing that could.
The arcade was pretty empty. Some kids were huddled around one machine in the corner, clearly skipping school, but the rest of the place was deserted, just waiting until classes let out for the day. Two figures were near the front, one hunched over a machine while the other leaned back and watched the foot traffic outside.
“You ready to head out?” he asked.
Beeping, the machine flashed game over and started its timer, asking for more coins. “Damn button keeps sticking, man!” the blonde said, kicking the machine hard enough that it rattled. He didn’t lose his temper often, but when you’ve been playing the same game day after day…and losing to boot. It made sticking around him…tedious at times, though not without its benefits.
The kids in the corner didn’t notice the racket.
“Then maybe you’re ready for a different game?” the other prompted. “You know, like the one happening right now? Outside? I already saw a few Players running around.”
But the blonde was reaching into his pocket in search of more coins, muttering to himself like he hadn’t heard, eyes trained on the screen.
Not that there was much urgency. It was only Day 1. They had time, but it was a hell of a lot easier to rack up points on the first day. Players had no idea what they were doing half the time. It was like they were asking to be picked off.
The blonde finally looked up at him, sighing. “I complain to you for weeks about not having a Game, and finally when I find something fun to do—which is what you told me to do—you wanna tear me away the second it’s getting good.”
“You know you’re not winning, right?”
Looking indignant, Kaminari crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s obviously not the point, Shinsou. What’s your hurry anyway?”
Shinsou cracked his neck. “It’s like the day after vacation. Thrown right back into work,” he said, shrugging. “What can I say? I’m antsy to get going again.”
“You just don’t want to admit you missed it,” Kaminari countered with a smirk. “Lazy ass.”
“Keep that up and you’ll be the one paying for dinner.”
“How about a game of our own? We split up and see who gets the most points. Loser buys ramen.”
“Are you that desperate to lose?” Shinsou laughed to himself. “Alright, but you know once I get going, you’ll never outwork me. I’m too good at making it look easy.”
Kaminari rolled his eyes but laughed. “Oh really? Is that why you’re still not an officer even though you’ve been here twice as long as me?”
“Only one way to find out.” Shinsou opened the arcade’s door. “Let’s see what our rising star is made out of.”
Letting him hold the door, for him Kaminari stepped out of the dark arcade and into the sunlight. It was a new day full of possibilities and, if he was optimistic, free food.
“I’ll meet you at the usual place later,” Shinsou said. “Oh, and don’t forget to bring your money, rookie.”
The sidewalk opened up to a small plaza, and Kirishima was headed right for it. So far, he’d lost the frogs behind him, but he found this area crawling with them, too. In front of him were two impressive statues of a lion and lioness. They’d seem menacing—bearing their fangs down at Kirishima—if only they didn’t have frogs clinging to them.
Now they were downright terrifying.
Once again, Kirishima scanned the crowd for a sign of help. He saw the usual indifferent faces, faces of those who had no idea he was standing right in front of them, that stared right through him, but if he didn’t find help soon…
The frogs drew his attention back. They weren’t just coming after him. Through the crowd, Kirishima spotted a few startled and scared faces, backing away quickly like he had back at the roundabout. Some had already been knocked to the ground.
Finally, some people that might be able to help him. He just had to help them first.
Kirishima stepped forward but froze, a chill running through his blood. He didn’t really have a way of helping these people. If he couldn’t help himself, then surely he couldn’t help them. And then, how were they supposed to help him in turn?
But even if he sprinted forward, there was no way to beat the frogs. They descended from the lions, sprung from the brick walls they clung to, coming from all directions. One by one, each person seemed to shatter and fade into thin air, any cry frozen and locked in their throats before they were no more.
And by the way things were looking, he was going to be next.
Like with the car, Kirishima braced for impact, this time knowing that they wouldn’t phase right through him. He was going to end up like all those other people. Shattered and gone. He squeezed his eyes shut. He was just a coward who couldn’t face his own demise.
Kirishima opened his eyes and looked around. A girl was running up to him, followed by her own herd of frogs. She was breathing hard and nearly ran right into him, grabbing hold of his shoulders for balance.
“Finally caught up,” she panted. “Form a pact with me! Quick!”
“But…the frogs.” Kirishima glanced around nervously. There was nothing they could do. Finally, a person who could see him, but it was too late. They were already doomed.
“We can beat the Nomu if we make a pact! C’mon!” She held her hand out to him. “Please!”
Still hesitating, Kirishima reached out to take her hand. “Uh, sure.”
There was a flash of light from where their hands clasped. It faded blue and hugged tight against their skin, staying with them even when the girl dropped her hand.
It was an odd feeling, like both of their nervous energy was mixing together and thrumming just under the surface of their skin. Kirishima could feel it, and he knew that half of it didn’t belong to him. So then, it must be her.
“Alright!” the girl shouted. “Let’s take ‘em out!”
She turned so they were back-to-back, but Kirishima was still confused. While making sure the frogs were staying back, he glanced back at her over his shoulder.
“How?” he asked. “I tried hitting them, but it doesn’t do anything!”
She smirked shakily. “That was before you had me. Use your imagination. We got this!”
He watched her hold up her hands, fingers spread as liquid rained down on the closest frogs. It sizzled on impact and the frogs began scrambling in a panic. They shattered and faded like those people before.
“Acid?” Kirishima gaped, nearly forgetting the frogs on his own side.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one jump at him. Again, he braced for impact, arms crossed in front of his face, but when it hit, he barely felt a thing. It didn’t even knock him back. He looked down at his hands. They were hard as rock. Another frog came flying in and he took a swipe in its direction. It shattered on impact. Gaining courage, he turned on the rest of the frogs. Thanks to the girl, there weren’t too many left. He wheeled on the ones still perched on the lions.
When the last frog faded from his fist, Kirishima breathed out a sigh of relief. He kept glancing around, almost certain more would show up again. When he found the girl again, she was grinning at him brightly.
“My hands. My arms. Did you see that?” He looked down at his hands to find only skin again. The blue glow had vanished as well. He looked up again. “And you—was that acid? That was insane!”
She practically skipped over to him. “Your quirk is pretty useful, too! Looks like I picked the right partner. Protective and powerful!” She punched a fist into her open hand.
“They’re called quirks?”
“And now that we’ve formed a pact, the Nomu won’t bother us!”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Kirishima plopped down on the ledge beneath the lions. Suddenly, he felt lightheaded. “We’re safe,” he said softly, sticking his head between his knees. This was all too much, especially after just waking up in the middle of that roundabout, no clue where he was.
A shadow shifted over him as the girl came closer. “Almost forgot,” she said laughing, apparently not noticing the crisis he was having, or thinking about having. He didn’t know if he’d entered full on panic attack mode or not yet. “My name’s Ashido Mina. It’s nice to meet you!”
Kirishima rubbed his hands over his face. He was sweating, but with the monsters gone, they should be fine. If that was the case, then maybe he could go about finding who he was, where he was supposed to be, and how exactly he came here.
But the girl was still talking above him. “We have a tough week to go, but I think we’ve proved ourselves with those Nomu. We can totally take down anything in our path!”
“A week?” Kirishima croaked out from behind his hand.
“Didn’t you get the text?” She was looking at him funny. It made him want to shrink in on himself. “The Reapers’ Game is seven days. We’re on Day 1.”
Kirishima’s head was starting to hurt again. A dull kind of pain as opposed to the sharp one from earlier. Reapers’ Game? What the heck was that? And how did I get wound up in all of this?
“You didn’t tell me your name yet, did you?” the girl said. “I’m horrible with names, but I’ll try my best.”
He had to get out of here. Start figuring things out. He looked down. There was a plaque in the bricks beneath the statue. He squinted to read it.
In memory of Shimura Nana. A gift from the Yagi family.
May this statue protect Kamino City and be its symbol of peace.
So Kamino, huh? Distantly, Kirishima thought he recognized the name. If he remembered right, it was the hometown of a new rising popstar. There were plenty of artists from here, too, though he couldn’t remember their names. He couldn’t remember anything besides some feeble semblance of familiarity.
“Did you hear me?”
Well, if he woke up at the center of the roundabout, maybe he could try retracing his steps from there. Maybe if he went back there, he’d remember something without the frogs attacking.
“Hellooo? Are you feeling okay?”
Kirishima stood up, nearly knocking the girl back. “Sorry!” he stammered out. He’d been so wrapped up his thoughts that he hadn’t realized she’d been so close. “I just—I have to go. Nice meeting you!” He ran off in the direction of the roundabout.
The street remained clear of frogs and clear of anybody that could see him. He wished someone had seen how he ended up lying on the ground in front of that fountain. It would make solving this mess a whole lot easier.
Crossing through the traffic, he was back in the center of the roundabout, next to the fountain where the frogs had first appeared. Cautiously, he peered over the edge. Nothing but water and coins. Oddly, he that didn’t make him feel all that relieved.
“Hey!” a yell came from behind him.
Turning, he was face-to-face with that girl running at him again.
“What do you think you’re doing, running off on your own?”
He blinked at her. “You don’t have to worry. There’s no more monsters.” He glanced around nervously. “I have to go, so—like I said—it was nice meeting you.”
She crossed her arms. “Oh yeah? Go where.” She was frowning at him. “We’re stuck in Kamino. There’s no going anywhere. Besides, we made a pact, remember? We’re in this together.”
So far, that was about all Kirishima could remember. But what did she mean they were stuck in Kamino?
“Why?” Kirishima asked. “Why are we stuck here?”
“I told you. We’re in the Game. You have to make a pact to survive. If you go off on your own, the Nomu will come back and you can’t beat them alone. We survive together.”
Kirishima couldn’t help but grind his teeth at all this. “Look, I have no idea what you’re talking about! What game? Survive what? What’s the point?!”
“To win!” the girl shouted back. Her hands were balled into fists at her side. “We have to win! Didn’t you see those people? If we don’t win, the Reapers will erase us!”
He looked down at his hand, the timer was still counting steadily down.
Is that what she was going on about? Is this part of the Game? And…if the timer reached zero?
“But I didn’t ask to play any game,” he said weakly. If only he could find some way out of this. If only he could remember!
“But you are a Player. You’ve got the chain and the countdown on your hand.” She inched closer. “I know you do. I’ve seen you looking at it.”
Kirishima looked at her, really looked at her. The first thing he saw was her crazy pink curls, but below that was a black chain just like the one he wore around her neck.
Sighing, the girl put a hand on her hip. “We have to get going already. We only have thirty minutes left.”
Remember the text message on his phone, he pulled it out again. “That’s what this dumb spam said. What’s the Dome?”
“The Dome’s the Dome, duh!” The girl reached out to grab his wrist. “Look, we really don’t have time for this! Let’s just go already!”
She pulled him away, heading away from where they’d come. They joined the crowd as the roundabout came to a standstill and filled with people, taking the opportunity to cross instead of going around. The girl looked back at him.
“And tell me your name. We’re partners. I need to know this kinda stuff.”
She almost stopped, looking at him closely. “You said Kirishima?”
“Yeah.” He couldn’t meet her sharp gaze. “What’s your name again?”
“It’s Ashido,” she said and smiled. Her grip on his wrist tightened. “We’re gonna win this thing, Kirishima!” Then she broke into a run.
As they ran through the buildings, Kirishima spotted what had to be the Dome appear in front of them. It was literally just a huge dome of a building, entirely made of glass so that, when you were close enough, you could see the three floors of the shopping mall inside, escalators crisscrossing back and forth. It was a break in all the looming towers, a breath of fresh air. The skyscrapers seemed to push up the sky a little higher here, making it so that it didn’t feel so claustrophobic. Trees had room to sprout around the Dome, and it was like a miniature park. Back at the roundabout there was nothing to protect the people from the sun. No shade. Here there were grassy patches and benches, people milling about, wasting time like others had at the fountain.
“See?” Ashido said, waving her arm in the building’s direction. “The Dome! And we made it with time to spare!”
They both watched the timer on their hands disappear. Somehow, he felt lighter without it. Ashido, on the other hand, seemed to wilt under its absence. She was certainly a whirlwind of emotion in the few minutes he’d known her.
“But there’s six more days, you know?” She wouldn’t look at him. “They can’t all be this easy.”
“Obviously,” a voice cut in. “The hardest part of Day 1 is finding a partner, but it seems a good sixty-five percent of you can’t even do that.”
Their heads whipped around, looking for the speaker. Ashido scrambled back to Kirishima’s side. They finally found him in the shade of one of the trees, leaning against its trunk. The guy had wild hair and exhausted eyes. Kirishima wanted to think a good strong breeze would be enough to blow him over, but after his encounter with the frogs, he wasn’t sure about anything. Monster, friend, foe—he wasn’t exactly sure he could trust anything right now.
The stranger remained in the shade, silently regarding them.
“You’re a Reaper,” Ashido said quietly, any sign of her previous bravado completely gone now.
Squinting at the guy, Kirishima could make out some obscure movement behind him. There, hidden in the shadows, was something darker. They were black in the dim lighting under the tree but noticeable once spotted. This guy had wings sprouting from his back. Wings, only without the feathers. These were all skeletal.
“And you’re some lackluster Players,” the Reaper said. He raised a hand and the air beside him rippled and tore itself apart until another monster was in its space and this was no frog. It was a boar, its eyes were milky, and its brain showed just like the frogs, only this monster was easily the size of a car. When it stomped its hooves, the ground shook. “I’ll give you another challenge. Survive this, or you don’t deserve to make it to Day 2.”
The boar charged. The city seemed to tremble under it. Yelping, Ashido flung herself out of the way while Kirishima leapt in the other direction. He landed hard on his knees. Across the sidewalk, Ashido locked eyes with him.
“Just like the frogs,” she called to him. “We can fight!”
They got to their feet quickly while the boar made a wide turn to take another pass at them.
Kirishima gulped. “You attack!” he said, voice shaking. “That thing’s huge! I can’t just punch it like the frogs.”
Ashido frowned, but her eyes were on the monster. She held up her hands like how Kirishima saw her do before. The acid sprung from her fingertips and sprayed out at the boar as it neared them.
Sensing the attack, it skidded left toward the Dome and let the acid land harmlessly on its thick coat. It sizzled as it burned its hair but was otherwise ineffective. Nearly toppling over from the turn, the boar managed to stay on its feet as it trotted away from them.
“You have to use more. Completely drench it!”
“Duh!” Ashido snapped at him over her shoulder. She shook out her hands. “And if I could, I would! A little acid rain is all I’ve got. You try hitting it!”
Kirishima didn’t have time to argue. The boar was already coming at them again. There was no way he could make a dent in this thing, even with a quirk, but it wasn’t like he had a choice. Ashido was already backing away, leaving him to face the full brunt of the attack alone.
Well, here goes, he thought before running straight at the monster.
He had one advantage that he could think of. This thing took forever to turn. It barely dodged the acid in time, just keeping it from getting in its already messed up eyes. So, at the last second, Kirishima slid out of the way and slammed his fist along its side. It couldn’t dodge a sudden attack from the side like that.
Squealing, it tried to get away, knocking its rear against Kirishima and knocking him into the ground. He was lucky his skin was so hard. He cracked the pavement with the force of his fall.
“No good,” Ashido said, running over to him. “It looks barely bruised.”
Kirishima looked up and, sure enough, the boar was lining up to charge at them again, tossing its head. He hadn’t even scraped the surface with his hardened knuckles. Sheesh, what was this Nomu made of?
“We need a plan,” Ashido whined.
“What if—” Kirishima wracked his brain, praying for something to come to him. The boar could only run in straight lines. When it tried to dodge Ashido, it nearly fell. It protected its face from her attack. Could the brain be a week point? It was an idea in any case. The coarse hair was as tough as armor, but he didn’t have time to come up with anything else. “We could—we could make it slip in your acid. Then it won’t be able to control where it runs. Then I’ll punch it again.”
“Your punch didn’t work last time!”
“Well, I know to make it count now!”
Ashido didn’t look convinced, but there was no more time. Either she worked with him, or the boar was going to make roadkill out of them.
Face scrunched, Ashido held her hands out again, this time aiming for the pavement in front of them. “Watch out or he’ll slide right into us,” she warned.
The acid sizzled on the cement, smoking where it ran into the grass. The boar saw it too late. Ashido quickly moved out of the way as the boar’s charge slowed and its hooves were knocked out from under it as it lost its footing. It crashed on its side and slid right at Kirishima. He was ready, his feet planted. This time he knew where to aim.
His first punch landed right between the eyes at the base of the exposed brain. His second punch squished into the brain matter. It didn’t give him enough time to feel sick or even to feel it squish between his fingers like he expected. Immediately, the Nomu shattered under his hands and faded away.
Breathing hard, Kirishima found Ashido a little ways away and gave her a thumbs up. She returned a halfhearted smile, but her eyes move back to the tree, smile disappearing. Kirishima followed her gaze. The Reaper—if Ashido was right—was nowhere to be seen. He also saw that any damage from their fight was already gone—erased—like it had never happened. No cracked sidewalk, no acid corroding away everything it touched, nothing.
Ashido stood by his side. “I thought for sure…” She bit her bottom lip. “That was a close one, huh?”
It was only with the adrenaline fading from his body that it hit Kirishima. That monster—that Nomu—it could have killed him! What the hell was going on? Why was he part of this Game?
“Kirishima.” Ashido looked at him, her eyes serious, shoulders still rising and falling quickly as she caught her breath. Then, to his surprise, her face pinched up like she was about to cry. “I don’t want to be erased!”
Those words sent chills down his spine and he stepped back on instinct. Could there be worse Nomu out there? Worse than the frogs, worse than that boar? Bigger? Scarier? If there were, then that Reaper was right and Ashido’s fears were about to become very real. Six more days of this would not be easy.
“Dude, I can’t believe you let two pairs walk all over you today.” Kaminari chuckled delightfully to himself. He held up his fingers for emphasis. “Not one but two!”
Shinsou rolled his eyes as their ramen order was placed in front of them. “Quit laughing or you’ll choke.”
Kaminari tried saying something in return, but his mouth was full. Shinsou looked toward the ceiling again, as if he’d find any otherworldly help there.
“They were already partnered,” he said, “which meant they were a lot stronger than any of the solo Players.” Then he smiled crookedly. “Still got more points than you, didn’t I?”
That nearly got Kaminari choking. He pounded his chest with a fist as he cleared his throat. “No fair,” he pouted.
“If you had time to watch, then you had time to get more points. It’s your own fault.”
“We’ve got six more days,” Kaminari said, idly poking his egg with his chopsticks. He looked up from his bowl with a grin full of challenge. “That’s six more days to beat you. Then we’ll see who’s paying for ramen!”
“Still probably you,” Shinsou said dismissively and Kaminari wilted.
“Way to kill my vibe.”
Smirking, Shinsou turned to his meal. So far, everything was pretty much par for the week. The typical number of Players had been erased. He’d earned plenty of points. He even got his usual free meal, courtesy of Kaminari losing their game, of course. Shinsou could almost sit back and relax for the rest of the game.
“Why didn’t you finish off those Players?” Kaminari asked after a while. His bowl was already empty and Shinsou knew he was debating getting another, but he had to be running low on money. Maybe Shinsou could spot him another, just this once.
But he focused instead on Kaminari’s question. He supposed this could be a learning experience for the rookie. Kaminari had been around for years, but there was always more to know about the Game, especially when you were Kaminari and the lessons didn’t quite stick the first hundred times.
“You have to pace yourself,” Shinsou said, wiping his mouth and turning toward Kaminari. “If you bring out too many Nomu, then you’ll exhaust yourself for the rest of the game. Take it slow and build up points gradually. Besides, we can’t touch the Players until the last day. Attacking those two was just insurance. Points I’ll be able to collect at the end of the week. Just biding my time for now.”
“You’re a devious bastard, you know?” Kaminari punched Shinsou in the arm. “I knew I stuck around you for a reason.”
Shinsou sighed. “Yeah, yeah. You want another bowl?”
Kaminari blinked at him.
Kaminari beamed. “Hell yeah! Shinsou, man, I love you!”
Shinsou held his flailing arms at bay and waved the owner over. “Don’t get used to it and sit down. You’re embarrassing.”
He was disoriented again. He was waking up in another strange place again. Was this what the Game was? Wearing him down until there was nothing left? Maybe that’s what Ashido meant when she said they’d be erased.
The cement was cool under Kirishima’s hands as he pushed himself to his feet. They weren’t back at the roundabout. It looked like they were under some underpass. Cars roared on either side of them and every inch of the place was covered in graffiti murals and tags, a dizzying effect after just waking up. Had he been sleeping? It didn’t feel like it—there was no lingering tiredness behind his eyes—but there was a lapse in his memory between standing at the Dome’s entrance and suddenly opening his eyes here. Besides, what a shady place to wind up.
At least he wasn’t alone. That was one thing. Ashido had made it very clear before. They would be sticking together all week. So surely, she must be here, too. Kirishima wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He wondered how he’d normally react if he had all of his memories. If his initial reaction was anything to go on, he figured he wasn’t much of a people person.
Thinking of Ashido, he wondered why he didn’t hear her. Or why she wasn’t glued to his side. She’d proven to be quite the chatterbox and was determined not to let him leave her sight.
Looking all over the underpass, Kirishima finally found her leaning against one of the supports. Her knees were drawn up to her chest and she was looking at her phone.
He flipped his own out. She could be texting someone. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? If this was his phone, then maybe it’d have some clue as to who he was. He checked the contacts first, but there were none. The messages were empty, too. Even the mysterious spam was gone. No photos. No music. Nothing.
And Kirishima didn’t think he was that plain a guy to carry around a blank phone. He had red hair. Clearly, he had some personality.
Giving up, he walked over to Ashido.
“Hey,” he said.
She nearly jumped out of her skin, her phone clicking shut. “Oh—” she relaxed when she saw it was only him “—you’re awake!” She got to her feet. “About time! I’ve been waiting!”
She was already pushing into his space and smiling and loud and Kirishima wanted to disappear. He cursed the Game for requiring partners. Apparently, he didn’t do well around people. He kept freezing up, didn’t know the right things to say, the rights things to do. He wished he knew why.
Thankfully, Ashido turned her attention away from him to look around, humming thoughtfully. “Huh, we must be near the train station.”
“You can tell that from here?”
“You can’t?” She peered at him. “I’m Kamino born and raised. I know every inch of this city.”
Then maybe having her as a partner wouldn’t be the end of the world. She could know everything while he knew nothing and maybe they’d reach a balance somehow.
Or he’d just be burden for her to tow around all week.
“Anyhow, you can hear the trains! It’s not that hard.”
Before Kirishima could think of some reply, their phones chirped, causing them both to jump and pull them back out.
“The mission,” Ashido gasped quietly.
Free the King and his Queen. You have 60 minutes. Fail and you’ll be erased.
Immediately, Kirishima’s hand burned hot. Ashido flinched and yelped, and they both grabbed the attacked hand.
It was just like yesterday. Reading the message over again, Kirishima realized his hand was shaking. Yesterday’s mission had been straightforward enough, especially once he knew what the Dome was, but this one went over his head again. The King and Queen had to reference something in the city. That meant Ashido could figure it out.
He looked to her expectantly. She was rubbing at the timer, muttering to herself. Kirishima went back to his phone, as if he could somehow figure it out himself. Then something caught his eye.
“Wait. The date changed.” He glanced between Ashido and his phone. “My phone! We were just at the Dome. What’s going on?”
“It must be Day 2,” Ashido said with calmness that evaded him. “Alright, we’ve gotta get to this mission.”
“Aren’t you at all concerned about this?”
Ashido frowned at him. “Obviously, that’s why I want to solve the mission. One day at a time, Kirishima.”
Ashido’s composure was completely beyond Kirishima, but he had to admire it. Balance, he told himself. He was the one totally losing his mind while she was taking this all in stride.
And there he was again, not bearing his own weight.
“We have to free the king and queen. That means there’s two.” She tapped her chin in thought. “King could mean…king of the jungle? Yeah, that’d make sense, right?”
Kirishima realized she was waiting for his input. He gaped at her. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“King of the jungle,” she said, slower this time. “You know, lions? The Statue of Lions? They’re not too far from the train station. Yeah—” she pounded her fist into her open hand “—that’s gotta be it. C’mon!”
“Wait!” Kirishima called after her, but she was already rushing off. “What does it mean about freeing them?”
Waiting for him to catch up, Ashido shrugged. “We’ll figure that out on the way, but we should be moving. Time’s a’wasting.”
“Yeah, I’m coming.” Kirishima put his phone back into his jacket pocket.
“Hang on,” Ashido said, stopping him. “You dropped something.” She bent over to pick it up. It must have slipped out of his pocket. “It’s…” She stared at it in before offering it back to him.
There was that black chain again. Kirishima’s hand flew up to his neck to check he was still wearing it. For some reason, he breathed a sigh of relief when he found he was. He took the second chain back from Ashido.
“It’s a Player Chain,” Ashido continued. “But you already have one.”
“But why do I have two? Do you—”
“Nope. Just the one.” They stood a moment, staring down at Kirishima’s hand and the timer beneath the chain that continued counting down. Ashido shook herself. “I’d keep it on you. I don’t know what they do exactly, but you never know when it might come in handy. Hurry though, we should get going.”
Kirishima nodded and, rolling up his sleeves, looped the chain around his wrist until it was tight enough so that he knew it wouldn’t go missing again. Ashido went running on ahead, forcing him to run after her.
The sudden sun hurt his eyes after the gloom of the underpass. He shaded his eyes against the glare. While it was nice to be out in open air, the sudden noise came crashing in on him again. Just like yesterday, the muffle of the crowd noise seemed to double. If what he’d found out was true, then not only was he listening to the murmur of passing conversation, but he was hearing their thoughts as well. Kirishima shook his head roughly. If he focused his attention away from the noise, he could push it to the back of his mind. It wasn’t so distracting then.
He nearly ran into Ashido, his eyes still adjusting.
“Hey! Whoa, uh, not so close!”
That was a new voice. Kirishima peered around Ashido and found too guys with their attention on them near the station building. They didn’t look through them like everyone else. Kirishima recognized the Player Chains around their necks.
“It’s okay!” Ashido held up her hands placatingly. “We’re not gonna hurt you.”
“No offense, but your word isn’t good enough.” The green haired one was talking, looking skeptical if a bit awkward as he kept enough space between them. Behind him, the other guy was looking on with a guarded expression. His hair was half red, half white, and he sported a harsh scar over his left eye.
“Well then, I don’t really know what to tell you,” Ashido said, smiling apologetically. “There’s no reason for Players to attack other Players.”
Scar Face stepped forward with a sigh. “They’re not Reapers, Midoriya.”
Ashido caught on quickly. “Oh yeah! No, we’re not. See?” She held up her Player Chain. “Reapers don’t where these.”
That made the other boy—Midoriya—relax. “Sorry,” he said, stepping forward. “I couldn’t hear your thoughts, so…” he trailed off.
“You can’t hear Reapers’ thoughts?” Kirishima asked, looking at Ashido, who shrugged.
“You also can’t read other Players,” Scar Face said, “apparently.”
Kirishima hadn’t considered that, but thinking about it, he hadn’t heard one peep from Ashido’s internal thoughts. Knowing her, she’d be filled with them. In one way, it was a relief.
Midoriya blushed fiercely. “We were attacked by a Reaper yesterday. It was bad. There were a bunch of Nomu and we barely got away. Didn’t even reach the Dome.”
“That’s rough,” Ashido said. “One got us after we completed the mission. Totally not fair. Reapers are scary.”
Midoriya laughed weakly. “You can say that again. Oh! I’m Midoriya by the way. Sorry.”
“Stop apologizing,” Ashido said kindly. “I’m Ashido and this is my partner, Kirishima.”
“Todoroki’s my partner,” Midoriya said, smiling at Scar Face. “I would’ve been erased for sure yesterday if it hadn’t been for him.”
“So what’s up with the Reaper that got you guys?”
“He stopped us in the roundabout,” Todoroki said. “He had black wings.”
“Oh,” Midoriya mumbled sheepishly. “That’s right. The black wings. Forgot Reapers have them and you two obviously don’t. I guess I was just jumping to conclusions.”
Ashido only smiled. “Hey, anyone would after that, but—” she hesitated “—you guys didn’t even complete the mission? Then how…” Her voice faded and Kirishima related. He didn’t like thinking about the consequence of this Game either. These two should’ve been erased if they didn’t make it to the Dome.
“I don’t know,” Midoriya replied softly, “but technically our timers never reached zero. They just kinda disappeared. Next thing we knew, we were here.”
“Ours only disappeared after we reached the Dome,” Kirishima said, finally finding a way to insert himself in the conversation. He froze when all their eyes landed on him but tried not to let it show.
“Maybe only one pair has to complete the mission,” Todoroki said. “You and Ashido might’ve been the first to get there and that saved the rest of us.”
Midoriya looked up at him. “But we can’t count on the other Players completing the missions before us. We can’t let up for even one day, Todoroki, especially if it means the other Players are counting on each other.”
“So you’re saying we should team up,” Ashido said.
Smiling, Midoriya nodded. “Makes sense, right?”
Kirishima’s palms sweated at the thought of meeting up with every single Player. That was way too many people and way too many counting on him to pull his weight. He doubted he could come through each and every time like yesterday. But now all Players were relying on each other? That was way too much responsibility, more than if it was just him and Ashido relying on each other.
“But…what if we just bring each other down?”
Everyone fell quiet, and Kirishima was horrified by the fact that he’d spoken out loud.
“Uh! What I mean is, with the Reapers after us, if all the Players are in one place, what if they all come after us? It might be harder to slip under their nose and get the mission done.” Rubbing the back of his neck, he avoided their eyes. “’Specially if only one pair has to complete it.”
“Kirishima,” Ashido said softly, but he stepped backwards. Her hand fell away, and she pulled out her phone. He wondered what was so important on it when his own was completely empty.
He wanted to push her away from these two and focus on the day themselves. He was anxious just standing here like this. They were standing around talking while they had a mission to complete, and Midoriya was right. They couldn’t just sit back and rely on someone else to do it.
“He could be right,” Todoroki said, surprising Kirishima. “Like today’s mission—”
“The Statue of Lions,” Ashido pitched in, lighting up and closing her phone.
Todoroki nodded. “That’s what we thought, too. But they’re drawing us to one place.”
“Why don’t you and Kirishima take a look at the statue. Todoroki and I will head to Angels Circus. There’s always foot traffic around the Fountain of Wealth, so we’ll do some recon and report back.”
“You’re right,” Ashido said. “That’s a good idea.”
Angels Circus. Fountain of Wealth. Statue of Lions. So many names Kirishima didn’t recognize. Why was he the only one that was so out of place here? These people seemed to know Kamino well, so then why was he stuck in it when he’d hardly even heard of it?
Blinking, he looked down at Ashido. Midoriya and Todoroki were already walking off.
“You alright? We’re heading to the lions now.”
“Yeah. I’m good.”
She didn’t seem to believe him. “You sure?” She looked concerned. “I thought teaming up with them was a good idea and, while you’re point is good, too—I dunno, but you have to talk to me if something’s wrong, okay?”
How would he even start? How could he tell her that not a single thing right now was okay? Nothing seemed to make sense, but he doubted Ashido would be the one to set things right. He just had to get through this week. Then, maybe everything would start coming together.
“Thanks,” he said with his best smile. “Let’s go finish the mission. The lions, right?”
“Sure,” she said haltingly and caught up to him.
“What are the lions anyway? What’s so special about them?”
That caused her eyebrows to arch. “Everyone knows Peace and Might! You sure you live in this city?” she joked with a laugh.
“Not really,” he muttered, but she was already talking again.
“Peace and Might were donated, like, a way long time ago. They’re the city’s protectors, that’s why they’re in front of the train station. They watch over the people coming and going.” She laughed again. “I can’t believe I’m explaining them to you. Everyone has a story about them. They mean different things to different people.”
They came to a stop in the plaza, the two lions gazing down on them. Ashido called them protectors. Maybe it made sense that Kirishima first ran into her here instead of getting erased by Nomu.
“Okay! Here we are. Let’s free the lions!”
They stared up at the lions. Kirishima figured there’d be Nomu or a Reaper or something around here to fight, but there was just…nothing. He turned to Ashido.
“Why me?” She ran her fingers through her hair. “I figured the riddle out. What about you? What do you think?”
I don’t know anything about this city! How am I supposed to figure it out?
But Kirishima kept his thoughts to himself.
“You’re sure this is what the mission meant?”
“What?! Yeah, of course!” Ashido glared at him before stepping up on the brick platform to take a closer look. She came nose-to-nose with the lioness. “They seem a bit off, don’t they?”
Kirishima shrugged helplessly. “I wouldn’t know.”
Ashido jumped back down to join him. “It could just be us, but let’s try reading people. Maybe they’ve noticed something, too.”
That made sense. If the lions were so important to people, then they must be thinking about them if something was wrong.
They closed their eyes and Kirishima focused on the noise around him. It came roaring in loud and clear now that it had his attention. He went deeper, not interested in the conversations. What were people thinking? Could they give them any clues about the lions?
Man, I’m hungry.
Why’d I wear this skirt—
What classes do I—
Huh, Might seems angrier than usual today. Peace too.
The lions are giving me the creeps today… Wonder why.
Why is she crying? The statue never bothered her before.
Kirishima opened his eyes to find Ashido doing the same. “It’s definitely the lions,” he said, and she nodded her agreement.
“Definitely. Nobody’s even gone up to pet their paws since we got here. I do it every day for good luck, so something’s up. Only question now is how do we free them?”
Kirishima stepped up on the platform. It was his turn for a closer look, just in case Ashido had missed anything. “Hey, it’s like there’s some graffiti here,” he said. Something red was smeared on the lion’s back. There was blue on the lioness, too. It was like someone had tried scrubbing off some old graffiti and only managed in smudging it.
“What if you try cleaning it?”
He looked back at Ashido and she shrugged.
“What? It’s not like we have any other ideas.”
That was true. Kirishima bunched his jacket sleeves around his hand and started scrubbing the lion. The surface was warm, even through his sleeve. It wasn’t a very hot day, but the metal felt as if it had sat out all day under the sweltering sun. After a minute, his arm was starting to burn.
“Ouch!” he finally yelped and fell backwards.
Ashido tried catching him, but that only left both of the sprawled on the ground.
The bronze color of the statue was melting away as the lions stepped down from their perch, leaving the king red and the queen blue. Their haunches raised and teeth bared, they moved slowly to circle them. They were Nomu! Kirishima saw it the second he recognized the exposed brain and the white eyes.
Quickly, he scurried backwards on the ground only for Ashido to be in his way. They were tangled up together.
“Okay, this is totally not fair,” Ashido breathed out to him. “This is much worse than yesterday.”
She was right. A boar was nothing against a pair of lions. Suddenly, Kirishima was wishing that Midoriya and Todoroki had stuck with them. That’d at least make this a little less terrifying than getting sized up by these monsters with just Ashido at his back.
But, he figured, pushing himself slowly to his feet, at least the lions weren’t nearly as huge as the boar had been.
“We’ll each take one,” he said quietly to Ashido as he helped her up. They kept their movements slow and their eyes on the lions circling them. They didn’t want to spook the monsters into attacking before they were ready.
“Sounds good,” Ashido whispered back. “Yell if you need help.”
Then, they separated the same time the lions pounced. Kirishima ducked while Ashido rolled out of the way. Above his head, the lions collided and tumbled to the ground, landing on him in the process. He grunted as their combined weight knocked the wind out of him.
“Watch out!” Ashido cried and Kirishima protected his face with his armored arms. He could hear the sizzle of burning fur as the Nomu scrambled off of him, one kicking him in the ribs. That was gonna bruise.
Ashido’s acid was enough to split the pair. Kirishima jumped up and faced off against the male lion. Its fangs gleamed in the sunlight and it hissed. Kirishima ran at it, jumping over its raised paw, and aimed to punch it in its head. If it worked on the boar, why not every other Nomu?
But the lion reared back and out of the way, Kirishima’s fist left swinging through empty air. He noticed too late that the lion was close enough to punch a second time. In his hesitation, the Nomu took the advantage to back away, leaping back onto the platform and the medal trees that had held them up earlier. It was about to pounce at him again. It was way too fast!
At the last second, Kirishima bent his knees and leaned back, falling to the ground but managing to dodge the lion’s attack, the claws only a hair’s breadth from his face. He spun on his knee and kicked out, connected with his hindquarter. The lion let out a strange whine and pounced again, landing squarely on his chest.
Kirishima raised an arm up just in time to keep the lion’s mouth from chomping down on his neck. It gnawed against his hardened skin, drool dripping down on his face while its paws scrabbled against the concreted on either side of his head. Way too close for comfort. He pulled his knees up to his chest and dug his toes in under the lion’s ribs, using his heels to send it flying over his head. With a loud scrape of teeth, it released his arm
Thank goodness for the quirk. Otherwise, he’d be mincemeat right about now.
The Nomu turned to face him again. Once more, Kirishima thought. This time, he wouldn’t waste his chance.
He ran in close, avoiding the paws that swiped at him and their sharp claws. He aimed his punch for the head, not surprised when it was dodged again. There was a brief moment before the lion bounded away, and Kirishima took it. He used his free arm to uppercut his fist right into the monster’s chin. Then, while it was dazed, he aimed his next swing for the brain.
The Nomu shattered away and he looked up just into time to see Ashido’s opponent meet the same fate, writhing under her acid.
Kirishima glanced down at his hand. The timer was gone. Looking up again, he smiled at Ashido. “We did it!” he called, and her face brightened.
But then it fell, her eyes locked on something above him.
“Hey, c’mon. Give a guy some points.”
Kirishima whirled around. Sitting up on the real Statue of Lions, in the branches between the pair, was a blonde guy with a black lightning bolt dyed into his hair. However, most worrisome were the black wings. They were just like the Reaper’s from yesterday.
Ashido sounded like she was about to hurl. Kirishima glanced at her to see she had gone completely pale. She swallowed and tried again.
“You’re a Reaper?”
If he weren’t so afraid, Kirishima would roll his eyes. Obviously, the guy was a Reaper. He had the wings. How could he make it any plainer? But Ashido didn’t stop there.
“Kaminari…you’re not alive?” Wincing, she gripped her head with one hand.
The Reaper sighed and shrugged with his arms out. “I’m just a Reaper trying to do his job. So, you were the two that got through Shinsou yesterday. Go figure. But I have to admit, I didn’t expect you to be part of the Game, Mina.”
What were they talking about? Did that mean Ashido knew a Reaper? This whole thing was giving Kirishima a bad feeling.
“You gave us the mission today?” Ashido asked.
“Nope, that’s not my jurisdiction. Above my paygrade. I got some points from the other Players, then came here to collect.” Leaning forward on his knees, he frowned. “Those Nomu were supposed to give you more trouble than that.”
“But we cleared the mission! Leave us alone!” Ashido shouted up at him.
“Are you kidding? This is the best part! And if I wanna get more points…” He seemed to be counting on his fingers, like he suddenly forgot they were there. Or were they that far below his attention? “Oh, I mean, sorry, Mina, but you gotta play the Game. Players complete missions. Reapers collect Player Points. That’s just the way it is.”
Ashido glared up at him before looking to Kirishima. “We have to go,” she said. “Let’s get out of here and regroup.”
“We can’t just turn our backs on this guy,” Kirishima said, gesturing at the Reaper. “He’s gonna attack us, so let’s strike first.” Kirishima’s hands clenched into fists. That meant another fight.
That made Kaminari laugh from his perch above them. “Not a bad strategy, Red, but do you really think you can take a Reaper on Day 2?”
“No, Kirishima,” Ashido said more forcefully this time. “He’s a Reaper. He won’t even give you the chance to fight. He’ll just erase us.”
She had a point. He relaxed his hands. Maybe picking on a Reaper wasn’t such a good idea.
“Alright, no fighting,” Kaminari said, grinning down on them. “How about a game instead? Think of it like a bonus mission. I am a Reaper, after all. I can hand out missions whenever I want, and you have to complete it if you don’t want to be erased.”
“Kirishima, don’t listen. We don’t have to do anything that doesn’t come through our phones. We should just leave, like I told you.”
“Aww, but Mina, if he plays my game and wins, I’ll release him from the Reapers’ Game.”
That caught Kirishima’s attention. He might get his memory back if he were out of the Game. Even if he didn’t, at least he wouldn’t be fearing for his life every other second he spent here. That was something at least. All he had to do was do whatever this Reaper said. He’d fought a giant boar and lions. He could do this one thing. Probably.
No. He would do it. It was either that or be erased.
“Alright, what’s the game?”
“Sweet! Alright, you have sixty seconds to complete the mission or I erase you, got it?”
Grinding his teeth, Kirishima could only nod. This was what he signed up for. No matter what, he was getting out of this Game.
“Erase your partner.”
Kirishima took a step back. “What? Ashido?”
“Yeah, erase Mina, just like you did to those Nomu. Make her fade away and you, my friend, get a free pass out of the Game.” Kaminari pulled out a phone to check. “Annnd—go!”
He had to kill someone? He had to kill Ashido? And if he didn’t, then he’d be the one erased? He looked back at her. It was like she was frozen to the ground, eyes bouncing between him and Kaminari, face still pale.
“Kirishima,” she said when she caught his eye. “You don’t have to do what he says. We can just leave.”
“Oh please,” Kaminari interrupted. “Thirty seconds. Surely you can put it together, can’t you? She’s always messing around on her phone. Heck, she even knew me by name, Kirishima. Something about that doesn’t smell fishy to you?”
“What’s he talking about?” he said, his voice cracking. His eyes landed on Ashido again.
“Shut up, Kaminari!” she wailed. There were tears in her eyes now. “What’s your problem?!”
Kaminari only shrugged and directed his attention at Kirishima, who was still trying to piece everything together. Ashido saw his brain working, too.
“Kirishima, c’mon. Don’t think like that. You know I’m not working with the Reapers.”
She tried to reach out for his arm, but Kirishima pulled away. “Do I?” he asked, which made Kaminari laugh. “How do you know him then?”
“I don’t know!” There were more tears on her cheeks now. “I don’t know what he’s doing here, Kirishima. I promise!”
“Then why does everyone know more than I do?” he suddenly shouted. “You! Those other Players! I don’t even know where we are, but you guys know everything! How can I trust anything any of you say?!”
“Ten seconds!” Kaminari called down to them, cutting in.
“Kirishima…please, don’t kill me.”
Kirishima stared down at his fist. “I’m sorry…”
His hand flew out and grabbed her by the neck, his hand hardened with his fingers digging in. Ashido gasped and made a choking sound. Her hands grabbed at his arm, the acid making them slip to gain purchase, but the acid ran down and dripped off his elbow harmlessly. He still flinched, eyes squinting as he tried to look away from what he was doing.
He couldn’t trust any of them. Not the Reapers. Not the other Players. Not even Ashido. He just had to get out of this Game.
“The only thing I can really be sure of…is me.”
I'm so excited to be on another fic journey! And yes, this is a The World Ends With You au because I was getting re-obsessed with it as I was planning out a new fic. So, obviously, I started thinking about kiribaku in this world. Totally an obscure thought, but I'm pumped to explore these characters in the TWEWY plot!
Chapter 2: Calling
Let me go, gravity. What’s on my shoulder? Little by little, I feel a bit better.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ashido’s hands clawed at his arm, but it was no use. Kirishima barely felt it. The Reaper was probably getting a good show, too, watching them struggle like this. Kirishima’s hand trembled terribly, but with his quirk, his hand was locked in place. Struggle all she wanted, Ashido wasn’t going anywhere, and Kirishima couldn’t back out now.
“Alright,” a voice drawled behind him, causing them all to freeze. “That’s quite enough of that.”
A heavy hand descended on Kirishima’s shoulder and immediately his quirk shut off. His hand slipped limply from around Ashido’s neck and she fell to her knees, coughing and hands hovering, unsure what to do with them.
Above them, Kaminari’s smile dropped as he jumped down to the pavement. Kirishima turned to see the newcomer, too stunned to fear giving the Reaper his undefended back. A man with a five o’clock shadow and dark hair stood behind him, his hand still on Kirishima’s shadow. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days, but that fatigue only made him more intimidating. He wore all black except for a scarf which he jutted his chin out of.
“Reapers should know you have to play by the rules,” the man said. “Giving Players a mission like ‘erase your partner,’ is a logical deception, but clearly a violation.”
“Obviously,” Kaminari countered, rolling his eyes, but Kirishima was slack-jawed.
“Only the Game Master picks the missions, and that’s once a day,” the man added.
Kaminari crossed his arms over his chest. It looked as though he was pouting. Any authority he seemed to have before had vanished the moment this man showed up. “Obviously!” he said again. “I’m not the Game Master, so in all technicality, it wasn’t a mission. It was just a game.”
“Then, I don’t see why you’re still here.”
“Hey!” Kirishima shouted because despite the man holding onto him, neither of them was acting like he was even there. “You lied to me! You said you’d get me out of the Game.”
Grinning at him, Kaminari shrugged. “If I erased you, would you still be a Player?”
Kirishima didn’t have a quick enough reply to that.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so.” He gave a cheeky wave, then jumped up on the statues. “See you two tomorrow.” Then he was gone.
The man let his hand drop from Kirishima’s shoulders and strolled over to where Ashido was finally managing to catch her breath. He offered her a hand and helped her up. She smiled up at him.
“Thank you,” she said. Kirishima was surprised her voice didn’t sound too affected by him trying to strangle her just a moment ago. Maybe it was part of the Game. “We owe you one…sir.”
“And you can see us, Mr. Aizawa?”
He shrugged, looking nonchalantly off to the side. “I watch the Game. I make sure everyone is playing by the rules.” His eyes slid over to land on Kirishima and he felt a chill go up his spine. “And I try to keep Players from acting stupid if rules are broken.”
Kirishima studied his feet, shame curling in his stomach. What did he think he was doing? Even if Kaminari was telling the truth and could get him out of the Game, that was totally out of line.
Aizawa heaved a sigh and rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t do this for everyone, but I recognize the path you’re heading down, Red, so let me break it down for you. This isn’t a single player game, understand? There’s a reason why you need a partner to defend yourself and complete missions. You ignore your partner and act alone like you just did? You get erased.”
Kirishima glanced at Ashido out of the corner of his eye. She was looking down at her hands while she twiddled her thumbs, constantly glancing between her hands and him. He quickly looked back down.
“So, when you make a mistake you learn from it—” his eyes were cold and made Kirishima want to sink into the ground “—and you apologize.”
He flinched. “I’m sorry?” He glanced between Aizawa and Ashido and then ducked his head once more.
Aizawa rolled his eyes. “Like you mean it. If you want to survive as partners, then you do more than half-assed apologies.”
Gulping, Kirishima nodded and turned toward Ashido. She almost looked as nervous as he did. “U-um—” his throat had gone dry, he cleared it “—I’m really sorry, Ashido. You warned me and I didn’t listen. I should have listened to my partner over some Reaper.”
“Oh! Uh, yeah. It’s okay.” She seemed embarrassed now, trying to wave him off as she rambled on. “I mean, it was pretty shady that I knew his name, so I’m sure that complicated things. Let’s forget about it and move on, okay?”
“Great,” Aizawa said, though he didn’t sound particularly pleased either way. “To celebrate your making up, let me give you two a piece of advice. Trust your partner. That’s all you can do in this Game. If you want to survive—” he arched an eyebrow at them “—you have to trust each other. Communicate. Talk to one another.”
Ashido nodded vehemently at Aizawa before turning to Kirishima, her fists clenched. “He’s right, Kirishima. Tell me what you’re thinking! I didn’t know you were so confused until that Reaper showed up. How could I? You don’t say anything.”
He blinked at her. She really didn’t realize anything before then? Nothing he was thinking made it past his lips? She couldn’t pay enough attention to tell something was wrong? “That’s easy for you to say,” he mumbled before looking up at her, hand on his chest. “I’m trying to figure it out, too! I can’t remember anything!”
“You…can’t?” Ashido looked taken aback.
Aizawa looked on but didn’t say anything to intervene. Maybe he was giving them this chance to get everything out in the open. To talk.
Then Ashido’s face lit up in realization. “Oh, you know what? That makes perfect sense actually.”
“You didn’t recognize me!” Ashido pointed at herself. “You look so different, but as soon as you told me your name, I knew you. We were in the same class in middle school.”
He blinked at her. “Oh,” he said dumbly. What else was he supposed to say? It’s not like hearing that suddenly brought back any memories.
“Sorry to hear about your memories, Red,” Aizawa cut in to say, “but that means you need to speak up even more.”
Kirishima ducked his head again. Easy for you to say, he though, but out loud he said, “Yeah, okay.”
“So,” Aizawa said, looking between Kirishima and Ashido, “what can you two tell me about the Game? I’ve gone out of my way for you already, so I might as well make sure you aren’t erased the second I step away.”
“The Reapers’ Game is seven days long,” Ashido said, speaking up right away.
Kirishima scuffed his foot on the pavement. “We can’t be erased if we want to win.”
“Oh! Um, we found out only one pair needs to complete the missions.” She cocked her head at Aizawa. “Is that right?
Aizawa nodded. “And at the end of the seven days, you’ll be graded, so don’t get lazy. Complete the missions.”
“Graded?” Ashido asked, her face turning fearful. “What does that mean?”
“You’ll find out if you aren’t erased.”
Ashido thought about this for a moment, then bit her lip. Kirishima could see the cogs in her head spinning, a question on the tip of her tongue.
“What can you tell us about the Reapers?” she finally asked.
“They run the game and test Players, just like the guy you just saw, but not all are like him. There are two kinds of Reaper.” Aizawa held up two fingers. “Harriers and Support. Harriers will try to keep you from your mission by attacking you with Nomu. Keep in mind, no Reaper can touch you until the last day. Support Reapers are more likely to test you. They’ll put obstacles in your way and expect you to overcome them. Don’t take too long, or you won’t complete the mission in time.”
“Are you a Reaper?” Kirishima asked, nearly speaking over Aizawa.
The man snorted. “Me? A Reaper? I told you, I just observe the Game. Reapers need to earn points to stay in the Game and they do that by erasing Players. If they don’t have enough points—” he looked at them expectantly.
“You mean, Reapers can be erased, too?” Ashido finished.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Everyone’s just trying to survive. You Players just happen to be on the bottom of the food chain. You all come here for a common reason, entry fee required, of course.”
A common reason? Kirishima didn’t think he had anything in common with the Reapers. But, if Aizawa was right, then they weren’t as all-powerful as he first believed. In a sense, maybe they were only a tier up from Players. Like they were in their own Game, only theirs didn’t end. Or it was one they tried to keep playing as long as possible. As long as they had point. As long as they kept taking out Players.
And—what—they all paid a fee to play? What was so special about this game that someone would pay a price to play?
“Entry fee?” Kirishima asked.
“You have to give something up in turn for playing the Game. Something important. Lose, and you don’t get your entry fee back,” Aizawa said. “And you’re erased, so it’s not like you’ll need it.”
Kirishima gulped. He wanted to know more about entry fees. How important did they have to be? Was there any connection between that and his strange case of amnesia? But Ashido interrupted before he had a chance to ask.
“Can you tell me why Kaminari’s a Reaper?” burst out of her mouth. There it was, the question she’d been dying to ask.
“If you’re asking how he became a Reaper, I have no idea. I watch the Game, that doesn’t mean I bother with the Reapers. But if you mean why you know a Reaper from outside the Game, that’s easy. This isn’t Kamino, not the real Kamino, though they exist in the same space. What you see, the people, the buildings, that’s real, what we call the Real Ground, but above that is the Game Ground, where you are now. The RG can’t see you, but you can see them. That means no one in the RG can help you. You’re on your own here. Now, the Reapers, they can move between the RG and the GG. Some even live real lives in the RG, just as long as they keep their points up in the GG. The Composer makes sure of that.”
Ashido and Kirishima glanced at each other. “The Composer?” they both asked.
Aizawa gestured vaguely around them. “All of this is his. He’s in charge of the Game. He keeps everything running, maintains order.”
“And that’s not you?” Kirishima asked, still suspiscious.
“That’s not very trusting of you, Red.”
“Well, you’re not my partner.” Carefully, he glanced at Ashido out of the corner of his eye. “And I’m working on that, but you we just met.”
Aizawa grinned down at him, though it wasn’t a pleasant smile. “Fair enough, but no, I’m not the Composer either. Just interested in the Game.”
Ashido leaned forward on her toes. “Can you tell us anything more?” she asked sweetly.
“Sure, what do you want to know?” Aizawa rubbed the back of his neck again as he looked away. “My full name is Aizawa Shota. I prefer cats to dogs, but I don’t have any of my own since my landlord is allergic. I get terrible dry eye and I own a coffee shop.”
That’s just his character profile! Kirishima thought. That tells us way too much information, yet nothing at the same time!
But that didn’t throw Ashido off. “Oh, you own a coffee shop?”
“Yeah, it’s on Bell Street. You know, past the old clock tower.” He shrugged indifferently. “It’s more of a hobby, so don’t expect it to keep normal business hours.”
“If we’re ever over there, we’ll check to see if you’re in!”
Again, he shrugged and took a step away. “Well, don’t get erased, or else you’ll have just wasted my time.” He paused a moment a looked back at them. “Try to connect to each other. You’re partners, after all. You’ll find that carries a bit more weight in the GG.”
But they were so different, Kirishima thought as he looked at Ashido. Like complete opposites. Trusting her, he figured he could manage since that’s what he needed to do to survive the Game, but connecting with her? Getting on a level of complete understanding sounded downright impossible. But Kirishima didn’t get a chance to raise these concerns with Aizawa. As suddenly as he had appeared, the man faded into the crowd, hands stuffed into his pockets and not looking back.
Kirishima came to underneath the Statue of Lions, oddly not too far from where they had just been talking to Aizawa. Hadn’t it been just moments ago? He pulled out his phone. Nope. Another day had passed already. Flipping his phone shut, he sat up, looking around for Ashido.
“You’re up!” her voice came from behind the statue and she hurried around to him. Her phone was in her hand and, like yesterday, she kept opening closing it. “Ready for Day 3?”
“I guess I have to be,” he said, leaning back on his hands as she sat down on the brick platform beside him.
“There’s no mission mail yet,” she told him before he could even ask.
He closed his eyes against the sun and tilted his head back. He wondered if what Aizawa said was right. Were they really connected in the pact they had made? He focused on Ashido. There were no thoughts pouring into his mind like with the people in the RG, but the more he focused, the more the other sounds dipped away. Instead of thoughts, he could feel something. A ball of nervous energy that didn’t belong to him. Worries that ping-ponged around within the tangled ball and a flimsy shell of optimism wrapped around the whole package. Immediately, he pulled away and opened his eyes. Ashido was still playing with her phone.
“Did you know about the Reapers’ Game before you came here?” he asked. Usually he’d be fine to sit in uncomfortable silence, but Aizawa had told him to make an effort. And Ashido had told him to ask if he didn’t know something.
Ashido glanced up at him, hand pausing on her phone. “Sure, everyone at school talked about it. It was kind of like an urban legend, you know? Like Hanako-san in the third bathroom stall or the Red Room web pop-up? Kids just talked about the Reapers’ Game and if you didn’t win, the Reapers erased you. Actually—” Ashido tapped her chin as she thought back “—there was a game we played in middle school. Kinda like tag. But you had Reapers and Players, and if you were tagged, you were erased. Pretty silly, huh?”
“You kidding? That’s creepy as hell!” but Kirishima was laughing. “A kids’ game turned into real life? We could actually get erased, Ashido.”
“I know, I know, but I kinda forgot about it, you know? Weird thinking back on it now…”
Before Kirishima could respond, their phones chirped. Ashido squeaked, the surprise sending her phone tumbling out of her hands. It landed open in Kirishima’s lap.
“Don’t,” she said, reaching out, but Kirishima had already picked it up.
Ashido’s wallpaper was visible. He recognized her smiling in the middle, but on either side of her were two boys. One had dark hair, but the other boy was the Reaper from yesterday.
“Hey, this is—"
“He went to school with me,” she said quietly. “We were friends. That’s why yesterday was…” she trailed off and Kirishima handed her phone back to her.
“Let’s focus on the mission,” he said, and she nodded.
Kirishima turned his attention to his own phone and pulled up the message.
Defeat the Blind Director of East City. You have 360 minutes. Fail and you’ll be erased.
Their palms burned. It was familiar now, but no less painful.
“The Blind Director?” Kirishima questioned. “What does that mean?”
Ashido rubbed a thumb over her stinging palm. “Well, there’s the Blind Man’s Theater in East City. That counts for both parts of the riddle.”
“It’s a longer timer than yesterday.”
“We are farther away. It’s not too far from the Dome and if it’s anything like yesterday’s mission—"
“Then we’ll have to beat some Nomu.”
“Well,” Ashido sighed, “no time to lose, right? Let’s head over and have a look.” She stood and turn toward the lions, petting each of their paws in turn. Kirishima noticed that they were discolored from so many others doing the same. “Watch over us today, ‘kay?”
Protectors of the city, huh? Kirishima thought to himself. While Ashido walked past him, he reached back and tapped each of the lions’ paws. Better safe than sorry. Distantly, he wondered if it was something he did before the Game. Before he lost all of his memories.
They put the lions and the train station behind them and headed for the roundabout. Kirishima wanted to ask more questions about Kamino, about the Game, but he didn’t know where to start. Ashido had told him to open up, but how could he? No matter what she told him, he would never have the history she already had with Kamino and whatever past he had with it was locked away from him. That meant he had to trust her to figure out these riddles. He’d just have to pull his weight fighting the Nomu.
“That’s a serious face you got there,” Ashido spoke up as they joined the crowd at the roundabout crossing. There were so many people going every which way, but they stuck to the current heading in the direction of the Dome. “Wanna tell me what you’re thinking about?”
“Um!” His hand flew up to run self-consciously through his hair. He wondered if she could feel their connection, too. If she could feel the emotions bundled away inside of him. He wondered what they felt like to someone else. “Just worrying, I guess.” He let his hand fall back to his side.
“You shouldn’t!” Ashido said, smiling at him. “We’ll just take it one day at a time. Don’t think about tomorrow until we get this mission done first. You trust me and I’ll trust you and we’ll survive, just like Mr. Aizawa said.”
That didn’t really put his worries to rest—it sounded far too cliché—but for now he’d just have to listen to her and push on.
“He was a funny character, wasn’t he,” she said. “There was something about him…”
“Like he wasn’t telling the truth?”
“Oh you!” She slapped his arm lightly. “But there was. Like a special certain something. I can’t put my finger on it. That was nice of him to help us out though.”
Kirishima didn’t need her to tell him that. He was all too aware of what might have happened if Aizawa hadn’t shown up in time. But she was right. Something about Aizawa—that devil could care attitude, casual disinterest that didn’t align with all the advice he gave them. He may just watch the Game, but that couldn’t be it. Kirishima was sure of it.
“It’s too bad the mission didn’t take us to that part of Kamino today,” Ashido lamented. “I would’ve liked to see his place. Oh, we take this next left.” She directed them past the Dome and down the next street. “Not too far now.”
The Blind Man’s Theater was easy to point out in the row of buildings. The marquee jutted out, neon letters on top were left unlit in the daytime and the showings were listed below. Kirishima didn’t recognize any of the titles. It was a squat building compared to its neighbors and Ashido pranced right up the steps toward the entrance before looking back at him.
“You coming? Whatever the mission is, it has to be in here.” She spun around again only to backtrack quickly, nearly tumbling backwards down the stairs.
Luckily, Kirishima was close enough to grab her shoulders only to have her jolting right back to her feet once she regained her balance.
“Whoa, holy smokes, hi!”
There was a woman standing near the front door and she turned at Ashido’s voice. Her brown hair was bobbed, and she wore a billowy t-shirt for some band tucked into a pink skirt with a jacket over top. She smiled kindly at them.
“You have to be Uravity, right?” Ashido gushed. “I’m a huge fan! I play your song, Meteor Shower, on loop when I study.”
“Oh no, you’re making me blush,” the woman said, smiling and waving Ashido off. “But shh! I’m playing hooky on my manager today. Call me Ochako.”
Kirishima blinked at the exchange. The woman clearly wasn’t a Player. She had nothing on her hands as she shook Ashido’s, and she didn’t have the same sense of urgency. Plus wouldn’t she need a partner nearby? So then, how was she seeing and talking to them right now? His thoughts were interrupted by Ashido pulling on his leave.
“Kirishima, this is Miss Uraraka Ochako. She’s the lead singer of the Indie band, Uravity.” She turned back to Ochako. “But you broke into Pop just recently, right? During your world tour?”
“You noticed!” Ochako looked pleased. “We just got back a few days ago. I haven’t seen this place in a very long time, but I’m so happy my hometown hasn’t forgotten about me.”
“Never!” Ashido gasped. “Are you playing in Kamino soon?”
Kirishima wanted to kick the theater’s doors down and drag Ashido inside. Even with the extended timer, they had a mission to complete!
“My manager’s already got a show lined up for me next week.” At that, Ochako smirked proudly. “He’s a bit of a workaholic, which is why I’m trying to dodge him today.” She cast a pout toward the theater’s entrance. “But it’s closed, oddly enough.”
That finally got Ashido back on track. She looked concerned as well. “Really?” she asked hesitantly. “We came here for a movie, too.”
Still looking at the theater, Ochako said, “An old friend of mine works here. I wonder if she’s running late,” she trailed off, tapping her lip with her finger. “I’d go look for her myself, but I can’t risk being seen. My manager will be on me the second my name starts floating around, ya know?”
“Then we’ll look for her,” Kirishima piped in, causing Ochako to beam his way and Ashido to look at him surprised.
“You’d really do that? Thank you so much! The girl you’re looking for is named Tsu. Her hair’s dark green and she always wears a bow in the back,” Ochako said. “While you look, I’ll hold down the fort here.”
Kirishima took that as his cue to pull Ashido away and back down the steps. She came along while waving back at Ochako. When they were out of sight, she leaned in.
“You really sure we have time for this?” she asked.
“We don’t have time not to,” he replied. “If we want in that theater, we have to find the person who can unlock it. People and cars might phase through us, but I haven’t been able to just walk through buildings yet, have you?”
Ashido hung her head. “You’re right. Wait a minute!” Then she came to a dead stop. Kirishima lunged back so as not to lose her. “How was she talking to us just now?!”
Kirishima couldn’t help but to laugh. “Remember what Aizawa said? She must be a Reaper. Maybe she’s testing us to get into the theater.”
“Do you think the girl we’re looking for is a Reaper, too?”
“Because, if she isn’t, we’re gonna have a hard time getting her to the theater if she isn’t heading there already.”
They stared at each other for a moment, unsure of the full plan. The two of them might just have to look all over Kamino for this Tsu person. Kirishima just hoped they found her with enough time to finish the mission.
“C’mon, let’s head to the Dome for now.”
The large glassy building was still surrounded by swarms of people. It was the ideal hangout spot, if you didn’t mind the crowds. Kirishima was panicking just thinking about finding one person in the middle of all this. It was a needle in the haystack kind of mission.
“Hey look!” Ashido said excitedly as she pointed. It made Kirishima’s heart leap, thinking she might have spotted something, but then she added, “It’s Midoriya and Todoroki.”
Squinting through the crowd, Kirishima found the two Players over in the grassy area shaded by the Dome behind it. Ashido grabbed his wrist and pulled him over at a run, waving at the two to get their attention.
“Oh! Ashido,” Midoriya said, looking away from Todoroki as they approached. “It’s good to see you again.”
“I take it we have you to thank for yesterday’s mission?” Todoroki added.
Ashido shook her head breathlessly as she rested her hands on her knees. “Don’t worry about it. Kirishima was the one who really figured it out in the end.”
Blood rushed to his cheeks and he tensed as the other two Players’ eyes shifted to him. Ashido was giving him the praise? Sure, he might’ve noticed the markings on the statues, but he’d also been the one to nearly ruin everything yesterday. He was in no position to be thanked, yet here Ashido was giving him the credit. Here was Midoriya and Todoroki smiling their thanks at him.
Midoriya fortunately changed the topic. “But what about today’s mission? We haven’t been over to the theater yet. Some Reapers held us up.”
“Did they give you trouble?” Ashido asked, suddenly serious as she straightened to her full height.
“Nah,” Midoriya said. “They were walling off all of the streets and making us fight some Nomu. It wasn’t hard, but we only just got here.”
Obstacles, Kirishima thought. More tests from the Reapers.
“Well, the theater’s locked up tight,” Ashido said, hands on hips.
“We’re looking for the person who can open it, but we’re not sure if she’s a Reaper or how we’ll get her over there if she’s not,” Kirishima said.
Ashido caught them up, explaining their meeting with Ochako and gave the pair Tsu’s description as best as she could.
“It’s not much to go on,” Todoroki said thoughtfully. He looked down at Midoriya.
“But we might have a way to solve getting her back,” Midoriya piped up. He glanced at Todoroki in return. “A Reaper told us about Imprinting as one of the tasks to get through their wall.”
Ashido tilted her head to the side. “What’s Imprinting?”
“It kinda sways people’s minds, convinces them to do something. Like leading their train of thought. It won’t work if they’re totally against an idea, but if you pay attention to their thoughts and really focus on one of your own, they might catch on,” Midoriya rambled on excitedly. Kirishima noticed he really used his hands a lot once he got going.
He glanced at Ashido. “That could work,” he said. “And if we split up—”
“—we’ll cover more ground,” she finished, nodding at him before turning her attention back to Midoriya and Todoroki. “What do you guys think?”
“It’s more likely she’s in the east part of Kamino. We started in the park and everything was walled off. The Reapers only let us access the Dome.”
Midoriya bit down on a knuckle. “That still leaves quite a bit of city to search,” he murmured to himself.”
“We can’t waste too much more time just standing around,” Ashido interrupted before he could really go off on thinking out loud.
Todoroki nodded. “We’ll take East City. She might be heading to the theater from there.”
“And we’ll go back to the train station,” Ashido said. “She might be just coming into the city.”
“And watch out for Ochako,” Kirishima added. “She didn’t seem threatening, but she’s a Reaper, too.”
“If a Reaper doesn’t outright attack you with Nomu, they might have information,” Midoriya added before they could all head out. “That’s how we found out about Imprinting. You never know if there might be something more to this mission.”
Ashido nodded and looked to Kirishima. He returned her gaze steadily. Now they had a plan. Unlike yesterday, the four of them really were going to work together, and it didn’t seem like any of this would have them falling into another Reaper trap. Actually, today the Reapers didn’t seem totally out to get them. While they weren’t actively trying to erase them, it was like they were at least leading them to complete the mission.
Todoroki and Midoriya share their own look. Midoriya gave a determined nod at Todoroki before starting off toward the way Ashido and Kirishima had just come, leaving the other Player to stare off after him. It might’ve been Kirishima’s imagination, but he could’ve sworn Todoroki’s eyes softened ever so slightly once Midoriya’s back was turned.
But then the look was gone, and he hurried after his partner without another word. Kirishima couldn’t dwell on it, couldn’t even be sure of what he’d seen. He and Ashido ran back to the roundabout. They stopped next to the Fountain of Wealth and swept the area in every direction. Did this city never sleep? Never take a pause to just sit and breathe? Kirishima supposed not. It wasn’t like the Players had that luxury either. The city was alive and buzzing around them.
“See anything?” Ashido asked and Kirishima shook his head.
“This is ridiculous. We’ll never find her like this.”
“Let’s try the train station before we give up hope,” Ashido said, nudging him with her elbow.
They ran passed the Statue of Lions and came to a stop outside the station, panting hard. He remembered they’d met Midoriya and Todoroki right here just yesterday.
Shielding her eyes, Ashido peered in through the glasses. People were coming and going, buying and scanning tickets. Kirishima joined her on the other side of the door.
“How long do we wait?” he asked after a minute, breath fogging the glass. He turned away to watch the crowd behind them. “We could stand here all day until the clock hits zero.”
“I know! Just—give it a minute.”
All sorts of people passed them. Kirishima hadn’t really taken the time to notice before, but the city was certainly colorful. So many different people, so many fashion trends, and they were all passing in front of him right now. He’d never seen anything like it—well, considering his lapse of memory, of course he hadn’t.
There were lace stockings, frilly skirts, business suits, bright pops of tri-colored jackets, neon sneakers, and everything in between. Purple platform shoes, necklaces that hung low and heavy, earrings like mini chandeliers. Brands etched across everything. Onigashima jeans; Dragoir jackets; Mt. Lady heels and shoes; Wild, Wild Pussycats EEPC t-shirts; Present Mic headphones—it was enough to make Kirishima’s head spin. Hair in all colors, too. Pigtails, braids, mohawks. It all blew him away. Not once had he bothered to stop and look around—there hadn’t been time—but now that he looked, he was getting the smallest taste of what Kamino was. He saw how Ashido fit in perfectly. Her pink, bubblegum hair. Even her school uniform was unique to her, with her sleeves rolled back, wrists covered in bracelets, ears pierced. Every part of her matched the crowd around them.
Regarding his own hair, though his outfit was really nothing special—just a black hoody, red t-shirt, and jeans—it seemed that even he had some claim on this city, something that told him he belonged here, too.
“You sure this isn’t—” he started, but as soon as his and Ashido’s eyes locked, a girl passed between them, long green hair flowing behind her. She wore a light blue summer dress with a matching bow pinned to the back of her had.
That had to be Tsu.
Kirishima found Ashido’s eyes once more. “You think—”
“It’s gotta be” Ashido turned on her heel and went after the girl, catching up to her quickly. “Um excuse me!” she said loudly over the noise of the crowd. “Are you Tsu? Miss Ochako sent us to find you.”
Tsu made no sign that she heard. She paused next to the Statue of Lions and pulled out her phone, as if checking the time.
A frustrated groan split from Ashido’s throat. “Why do they make this so difficult?”
“We could try Imprinting,” Kirishima offered. “That’s what they called it, right?”
Ashido nodded and turned her attention back on Tsu. She closed her eyes. They squeezed tighter and tighter and Kirishima held his breath. At her side, Ashido’s hands bunched into fists and her shoulders hunched up until she nearly exploded with the pressure.
“Agh! I can’t do it!” she finally shouted, eyes flying open. The stress leaving her body. “All I can do is hear her thoughts, but everything’s too loud for me to get much more than that.”
“You tried focusing on the idea?”
“Yes! Of course, I did!” She rubbed at her temples with her fingers. “Why don’t you try?”
Kirishima sighed. Like he’d have any more luck that Ashido, but he couldn’t waste more time saying that out loud. Instead, he closed his eyes and opened his mind to the noise and thoughts surrounding him. There were so many! So many people thinking of their destinations and their plans for the day and who they were meeting. Tsu’s thoughts were buried beneath all that, hers coming in quieter
I know I’m supposed to meet Ochako, but she changed her mind so many times I can’t remember where. If only she didn’t change her number, then I could just call her and ask.
Uraraka Ochako, Kirishima thought intently, hoping to catch her attention with the name. Blind Man’s Theater.
And I was going to skip work for her, too…
The theater. It’s closed. You need to open it.
A moment passed. Kirishima still kept his eyes shut. He thought for sure she’d missed the intent he was trying to pass onto her.
The theater…that’s it! That’s what she said.
Kirishima opened his eyes just in time to see Tsu’s head spring up in recognition. Pulling himself out of the girl’s deep thoughts, he nearly stumbled backwards. Ashido steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Look,” she said and pointed. “She’s already heading toward Angels Circus. D’you think it worked?”
“I think so,” Kirishima said, rubbing his forehead with the palm of his hand. There was a dull headache building there. “We should follow her to make sure. If it didn’t, we can always try again.”
Ashido nodded. “You’re right.”
They jogged after Tsu. There was no sprinting this time, Tsu didn’t have the same sense of urgency they did, though she walked fast. Having remembered the place of her meetup with Ochako must have spurred her to hurry. Ashido and Kirishima hung back off her shoulder, keeping an eye on her through the crowd, but not overtaking her or walking too closely.
“You know, you’re pretty good that that,” Ashido said as they waited for the light to change at the roundabout’s crossing. “I tried, but the second I heard her thoughts, it was like I hit a wall. No matter what I was thinking, she was too distracted thinking about Miss Ochako.”
It had been pretty easy for Kirishima. All he did was hear her thoughts and the more he focused, the quicker he sunk into them. Was focusing on Ochako the thing that helped, too? What made the Imprinting succeed?
He just shrugged at Ashido as the light turned. “Dunno. It just—happened.”
“Well—” Ashido clapped her hands together “—then, in the future, we’ll leave the Imprinting to you! Maybe you just connect well with others, Kirishima?”
I hardly doubt that, he thought dejectedly. If we had connected better on the first day, we wouldn’t have had the problem with the Reaper yesterday.
There was no way he was a people person. He just had a knack with Imprinting, which was just another part of the Game. That didn’t mean anything else.
To their relief, Ashido and Kirishima followed Tsu past the Dome and right up to the Blind Man’s Theater. They stopped at the bottom of the steps as Tsu ran up to greet Ochako, who threw her arms around the girl. Apparently, it had been a long time for the two.
Ashido whispered something about Uravity’s world tour that took her away from Kamino for over a year as she watched, but Kirishima didn’t pay much attention. He felt awkward watching the girls interact with only Ochako knowing about their presence. Ashido, on the other hand, didn’t mind at all. She stood on her toes, grinning widely as she watched the reunion. Kirishima was only interested when Tsu pulled out her keys and unlocked the doors.
“Now’s our chance,” he said, grabbing Ashido’s wrist.
She resisted only for a second. “You think we should get Midoriya and Todoroki?”
Kirishima checked his palm.
He felt his pulse quicken as his stomach dropped. He pulled Ashido harder. “We don’t have time! Now or never!”
Ashido quickly caught sight of her own palm and they both ran, taking the steps two at a time and rushing past Ochako and Tsu in the lobby.
There was one hallway of theaters but five doors. Kirishima spun in a circle, racking his brain for an idea of which door was the right door. He looked at Ashido.
“Um—” she tapped her bottom lip, eyes flicking from one theater to the next “—door three for Day 3?”
Kirishima threw open the door and rushed inside, Ashido hot on his tail. Inside, it was silent and pitch black, but Kirishima pushed on blindly until they were in the center of the room, Ashido pinching his jacket between her fingers so they stuck together.
There was a creak.
“Something’s in here,” Ashido whispered, and her grip tightened.
“How are we supposed to fight if it’s dark like this?” Kirishima asked, voice just as quiet, but it sounded all too loud in the large room. “Is this even the right theater?”
Before Ashido could respond, a projector overhead flicked on and music blasted through the speakers. Their hands flew up to cover their ears as they squinted up at the screen. Some black and white footage was playing, but Kirishima had no clue if it was a film or a commercial. The video kept skipping around, sliding off screen, and glitching.
But the projector helped illuminate the room, even if the light flickered. It made them aware of the wooden stage beneath the screen. And the giant hole that was ripped into it.
One moment, it was empty, but in the flicker of the projector, there was a Nomu filling the hole and looming over them.
Ashido screamed and Kirishima stumbled over his feet and landed hard on the ground.
It was a giant mole. A Nomu, he could tell, from its brain, but the monster’s tiny eyes squished below its forehead revealed none of the milky coloring he’d come to expect. Its snout was elongated and star-shaped and its long, clawed forelegs braced its weight on the stage on either side of the hole, causing the wood to creak. The giant black head moved back and forth slowly, nose wriggling.
Ashido was grabbing fistfuls of his jacket, trying to haul him to his feet while she stared horrified at the Nomu in front of them.
“It’s so big!” she whispered hoarsely, her voice a pitch above how she normally sounded.
Kirishima flinched at the sight of it. The Nomu was definitely bigger than any of the others they’d fought but…
“But it can’t move around,” he said to her, not taking his eyes off of the mole. “It’s stuck up there on the stage. We have the advantage!”
Ashido glanced at her palm. “But not much time!”
Eyes still stretched wide, Ashido looked up from her hand and nodded. Together they ran between the rows of sets. With a swipe of her hand, Ashido flung her acid at the mole, but it spat into the air, its saliva and Ashido’s acid colliding midair with a violent hiss.
“Better stay away from that!” Ashido shouted, ducking out of the way from the mole’s shower of spit as Kirishima kept going. It seemed just as harmful as her acid.
A few drops landed on his hardened arms, but while the spit foamed where it landed, it didn’t penetrate his armor. Maybe if it was more than a few drops, he’d be in trouble, but he could handle this. While Ashido was crouched down, Kirishima jumped over her and up onto one of the seat backs, making a flying leap at the mole. He was going to hit it in its weak spot and end this before it took too much longer.
With an awkward slash of its claw, the Nomu batted Kirishima out of the way. Air immediately whooshed out his lungs as he was flung to the side, before crashing head first into the end row of chairs and tumbling into the wall. For such limited movement, there was power behind the monster’s short swing.
Kirishima wheezed out a cough, blowing debris and plaster out of his face.
“You alright?” Ashido called over to him. She was on her hands and knees now, squished between a row.
Kirishima gave her a weak thumbs-up.
“Can’t give up now!” she said. “Keep going at it!”
He knew she was right. Groaning, he pushed himself to his feet while Ashido peered over the back of the seat in front of her. At her nod, he flung himself forward.
They did it again. Ashido rained her acid down in spurts while Kirishima ran in from the side. He found he wasn’t very fast. That, or the mole’s claws were too big for him to beat. They protected the monster’s neck and chest from any of Kirishima’s blows before they could hit, knocking him out of the way before he could get close enough. One even planted itself on top of him, trapping him until he wiggled himself free.
During their continuous attacks, something was building. He couldn’t tell what, but the air was charged with it. There was a mounting pressure steadily growing in his chest, too. The need to hurry, but it wasn’t just his own panic, his own desperation. There was another bubble of emotion close to his own. It was different, they weren’t quite mirrors of each other, but they were on the same wavelength.
It was Ashido, he realized. He had felt it earlier in the day, only now it was sharper, a nagging discomfort beside his own anxiety, stacked on top.
He glanced over to see her breathing hard, in more of a panic than simple exertion. She couldn’t run in like he could. One swipe of the mole’s claws would do a lot more damage to her than it could to him. Kirishima tried to channel something—anything—other than this worry. This fear.
It’ll be alright, he thought, more to himself than aiming the thought at Ashido. She couldn’t hear him while they both wore their Player Chains, but if he could get himself to calm down, then maybe he could transfer some of that energy back to her.
Somehow, she seemed to feel it. Her head lifted and she met his gaze. She gave him a half shrug of reassurance as she took a deep breath. Raising her hands, she returned to her acid attack. Though it was deflected by the mole’s equally toxic saliva, it was finding a better way through its defense than Kirishima was. Both the Nomu’s spit and Ashido’s acid hit Kirishima in the crossfire as he charged in again, but with his quirk, he barely felt it. It was like an itch in the back of his mind, easy enough to ignore for the moment.
But because of that, they were doing damage—Ashido was doing damage. Though it wasn’t much, it was something. Kirishima could tell. The mole’s movements were growing even slower. Running in again, he ducked under the mole’s claw as it raised, and he landed a solid punch in its chest before the other claw swiped him away again. The hit to his stomach made his laugh of triumph come out as more of a grunt, but they were getting there! This time, he barely stumbled off the stage.
“You hit it?”
“Yeah! Keep it coming!”
Something happened then. It was almost as if the energy buzzing in the air reached its peak. Like it suddenly snapped. The pressure in his chest, too, like he was about to pop, but he felt Ashido’s connection more than before. Not only that, it was almost as if he knew what she was about to do just as she did. He was aware of everything she felt, could feel her breathlessness, the tingle of her fingers from handling her acid. She had to be able to feel it, too.
He thought back to what Aizawa had said about connecting to his partner, that it carried more weight here in the GG. Was this what he meant? Did he mean it literally? The way they could fight Nomu completely in sync? Connected like this?
It was easy, just like sinking into Tsu’s thoughts before. Focusing deeper on his connection with Ashido the same time as he was aware of the Nomu’s movements. This time, when he jumped over the stage, he hit the mole right in its starry nose and jumped back, untouched.
A soft blue glow was surrounding him. Ashido too, he realized when he looked back at her. It reminded him of the time they fought right after they made their pact.
Ashido was examining her arm. “This some kind of power up?”
“Only one way to find out.”
A wide grin stretched her face. “A finisher move!” she cheered, pumping a fist into the air. When she released it, acid shot out, way more than before, almost like a wave. It was more than the mole could block with its spit shot attack.
Kirishima’s entire body was hardened in his quirk’s armor and he barreled his way onto the stage, ignoring Ashido’s acid pouring all around him. His body felt lighter and everything seemed to have slowed. The mole’s claws were easy to duck under. His first punch landed squarely into the underside of its chin. Its saliva dripped down onto his shoulder, but though it burned with so much of it, he kept going. One punch to its chest, then another. He kept going like a turret, one after another in quick succession.
“Kirishima, get back!”
Without a second though, Kirishima jumped back into the crowd of seats, already feeling what Ashido was planning. The second he was clear, the air above the Nomu seemed to ripple and open. He glanced back to see both of Ashido’s hands raised above her head. He turned back to the mole just in time to see an entire waterfall of Ashido’s acid crash down onto its head, right onto its brain. The amount of it pinned the Nomu to the stage, washing over it until there was no more. The Nomu was still only a second after the acid cleared before it shattered and faded, leaving the gaping hole in the splintered wood behind.
The glow around them disappeared and Kirishima suddenly felt twice as heavy. While the music dipped, the projector remained on, flickering but giving them enough light to see by.
His entire body ached. He couldn’t feel the fingers or the arm from below the shoulder that had been covered with the Nomu’s spit. Flinching. He rubbed at it with his unaffected hand. He expected him and his jacket to be drenched, but he was surprised to find it already dry, just his arm twitching and numb from the attack.
Faintly, he sensed Ashido’s relief and he nearly collapsed back into the seat behind him when suddenly her relief was filled with pinpricks of worry. His head whipped around to look at her.
“The timer,” she said, shoving her hand under his nose, “it’s not stopping!”
She was right. They only had less than thirty seconds. But they defeated the giant mole! Was there something they missed? Kirishima looked every which way, but there was nothing he could see.
Ashido looked ready to sprint off toward one of the other theaters, but Kirishima knew that would be useless. There wouldn’t be enough time. They were going to run out! Once they hit zero, they’d be erased for sure!
Suddenly, a chill blasted through the air. In front of them, ice ripped apart the hole that was still on the stage, sprouting its glassy spikes up and up. At the very top, Kirishima spotted a smaller Nomu, a mini version of the mole they had just defeated.
Just as the ice slowed to a stop, a body flew past them, ignited by green sparks. Incredibly fast, they jumped up the icy tower and, arm reeled back for a punch, they slammed their fist into the miniature Nomu, sending it through the ice. It was impossible to see it fade through the shattered ice as it crumbled down in front of them, but Kirishima noticed the timer on his palm vanish just before hitting zero.
His knees shook before giving out. He collapsed into the chair behind him while Ashido sank to her knees in the aisle with a watery sigh of relief. They had almost been done for.
Craning his neck so his head was upside-down, Kirishima looked behind them. The overhead lights flickered on and Kirishima squinted against the sudden brightness. When his eyes cleared, he saw Todoroki coming down the aisle, hands in his pockets. Back on the stage, Midoriya was dusting off his hands.
“You serious?” Kirishima said, his voice straining. “You mean, that small fry—”
“That was the director?” Ashido finished for him. She sighed again, scrubbing at her face with her hands. “Geez! That was one close call!” she said into the palms of her hands.
“Glad we made it in time,” Todoroki said, his voice betraying nothing, but Midoriya smiled brightly as he jumped down from the stage to join them.
“We heard from some Reapers that there was more to the mission than just taking out the big bad Nomu,” Midoriya explained.
Ashido’s hands dropped from her face as she sprung to her feet. “You mean, they just told you? And not us?”
Midoriya scratched his cheek. “Well, we were clearing some of the walls they put up while we were looking for that girl and well…”
“We asked them about the mission since we were going out of our way,” Todoroki continued. He reached out to brush some ice off of Midoriya’s shoulder. “Since you guys put together the first half of the mission, we wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be any hairy surprises.”
Ashido wilted at his words. Looked like they’d rushed into things, Kirishima thought. But there’d only been ten minutes left at the end. They were in a hurry for good reason!
“But you had to take out the big guy before you could find the real boss, so we really did end up splitting half the work,” Midoriya pitched in, hoping to brighten Ashido’s spirits.
“You guys have awesome control over your quirks,” Kirishima said, standing. “I bet you would’ve taken out that giant mole in a second!”
Blushing, Midoriya mumbled something about it being all his partner while Todoroki only smiled in his small way.
“You know—” Ashido said, looking up to smile at Midoriya and Todoroki in turn “—you’re right. We made a good team today!”
Todoroki nodded seriously. “We wouldn’t have completed the mission without each other.”
“Then we’re gonna work together tomorrow from the start,” Ashido said. She looked at Kirishima and smiled as she bumped his arm with a fist. “We trust each other like Mr. Aizawa said,” she told him, “and use teamwork to take down these missions and win the Game.”
Kirishima recalled what he’d said to working together just yesterday. It already felt so long ago, but this time, the others were right. They all would have been out of luck without the other today, so maybe Ashido was right about that.
But whether she was right or not, Aizawa had made it clear that he had to trust her no matter what. He’d be erased if he didn’t. Besides, despite fearing what might happen to them, he couldn’t argue with her. Four was better than two, that was sure. And he did trust Ashido. They were all in this together.
In another part of Kamino, a bar was filling for the first time that week. It was a place tucked carefully out of the way from locals and not very large. Though the bar wasn’t particularly full, the few inside made it feel like a crowd, Chisaki thought from his seat on the couch. The floor under his Giran brand dress shoes was made of glass paneling and beneath that was a flowing river of lava. Real or not, it threw the room in a reddish glow, casting everyone as shadowy silhouettes. The whole décor was a bit extreme for his tastes. He hadn’t been the one to design it, of course. The black couches, the dart board, the bar itself, and the red glass panel that was supposed to be artful behind it were all gaudy additions in his opinion. Soon, it wouldn’t be an issue.
“Hey Boss, Player erasure has reached fifty percent. We’re a day early,” one of the men sitting at the bar reported lazily, leaning back in his chair as he tilted his glass for more of his drink. They would soon be into Day 4, the halfway mark of the Game. Chisaki himself couldn’t be out watching the Players, naturally, so he left that job to his officers and left the managing of the Game during the week to his appointed Game Master.
“Rest in peace,” said a solemn voice to the man’s right before turning to glee. “But I’m really pumped!”
“You’ll get your chance, Twice,” the other man continued with a laugh. “See? The grunts are biting at the bit it seems. It’s been a while since a Game, so maybe they’ve gotten a little trigger happy.”
“I’m no grunt! I’m the grunt!”
“No matter,” Chisaki said, waving the issue away. “Akaguro is doing well, Dabi. Don’t twist due praise into a reprimand.”
“I would never,” Dabi said, taking mock offense. “He’s putting up some pretty numbers. The rest of us hardly have to lift a finger.”
In the far corner, Akaguro leaned against the wall with his arms crossed. “Past Game Masters have let winners come and go too easily. This time, there will be no victors. I have seen none that are worthy of the prize.”
“And that’s precisely why I selected you for Game Master this session,” Chisaki said, leaning back in his seat, fingers crossed in his lap.
“You know, the grunts already nicknamed him Stain. He might even set a new record by the end of the week,” Dabi added, eyes lit with intrigue.
“Blah, blah, blah,” a voice came from the door. “Are we just standing around or is there a point to this meeting?”
“Shigaraki,” Chisaki said, “better late than never.”
Shigaraki’s eyes narrowed as he took a seat on the couch across from Chisaki. “I’m a busy man, you know, Chisaki.”
“Hey, hey, who went and made you boss? You know he prefers Overhaul,” Dabi drawled, but Shigaraki paid him no mind.
“I have things to do, so if you pulled me in here just so we can all praise Stain, then I won’t stick around.”
“You can do whatever you want, Shigaraki,” Chisaki said pleasantly. “Your numbers are just as impressive as Akaguro’s. Just understand, you’re not Game Master. When you are, then I promise you, we will all stand around singing your praises just the same.”
Not pleased with the answer, Shigarki go his feet. Chisaki noted his unkempt hair, his overcoat and the black attire underneath, his red shoes. Sometimes his officer acted far too childish for his own good, which is what made Akaguro his first choice for Game Master this week. Shigaraki had potential. Chiaskai was content to wait as long as necessary for it to develop. He watched the man sulk out of the bar, slamming the door behind him. Yes, it might be a long time before that happened. Until then, he had Akaguro. He turned his attention back to his Game Master.
“It is true you are doing well, Akaguro, especially since you are standing in for me and acting on my behalf,” Chiskai said. “If you continue with this success, then I will speak to the Composer personally about your permanent promotion. All you have to do is keep up the good work and meet my high expectations. I want to see every single Player erased by the end of this week.”
Akaguro waved his hand in acknowledgement. “That’s the plan, Boss. I look forward to the promotion.” His hand curled into a fist as his eyes glared at it. “Then, there will be no more winners. No one is worthy of escaping this Game alive.”
I'm having so much fun with this fic, so thank you everyone for the kind comments and kudos!
Just a heads up, updates might be sporadic between now and the end of July. Not that there won't be updates, I just don't know if they'll be every week (though I'll try). I have a draft of my thesis due in the beginning of June with the final draft due in July, so as much as I'm enjoying this fic, I'm gonna try and make myself juggle both evenly and with work pulling back, I might actually be able to keep up with the updates. So we'll see!
In any case, thank you for your patience!
Chapter 3: Déjà Vu
Where did we meet before just like this? I know your smile, your voice just like that. You talk to me and I smile right back.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Kirishima came to, he was surrounded by grass. It smelled freshly cut and scratched the back of his neck. For one blissful moment, not fully awake, he imagined he was out of the city far away, leaving its busy streets and noisy crowds behind him. Some empty field in the middle of nowhere might sound lonely, but at least it’d be away from this Game.
Kirishima opened his eyes to the blue sky above him and the skyscrapers that crowded in around it. Today, the sky didn’t seem to be pressing down on him. Like it had backed off, giving him enough space to breathe. He ignored the idle chatter of passersby and sat up. The moment he let them in, he’d hear every word, every thought, and have a headache on top of everything else. He didn’t need that at the start of the day.
“Look who’s up.”
Craning his neck around, Kirishima found Todoroki looking down at him, sitting at a wooden table. At the sound of his voice, Midoriya and Ashido peeked over the edge at Kirishima as well. He got up and joined them, sitting beside Ashido.
They were near the Dome, he could tell, but it was a shaded area in the back he hadn’t seen before. There was a koi pond and each table was matched with a red umbrella. The three of them were turned toward the back entrance to the Dome, watching people coming and going.
“What’s happening?” Kirishima asked.
Ashido shrugged. “No mission mail yet.” She heaved a giant sigh. “Just people watching, I guess.”
Midoriya tilted his head on the table as he watched. “Nothing else we can really do.”
Todoroki was the only one not looking bored. “People are more exciting in Kamino though.” At everyone’s raised eyebrows, he added, “That’s what I always thought, anyway.”
“Nah, you’re right,” Ashido said, her eyes sliding back to the people.
“No one looks the same,” Midoriya said. “It kinda makes you dizzy. Everyone is proud to show who they are. If they’re not wearing their interests, then they’re talking about it.”
“Or thinking it,” Kirishima said, rubbing at his temples, “loudly.”
“They fight over which is better, too,” Todoroki said. “Bands, shows, trends.”
Ashido giggled into her elbow. “Especially if it’s over who’s the bigger fan.”
Midoriya laughed lightly, too. “Yeah, I’ve been there.”
“No way, Midoriya,” Ashido said, slapping his arm playfully. “No offense, but you’re way too nice a guy to be getting into fan wars. I can’t see it.”
But Midoriya nodded. “I’m at the comic store every Saturday for new releases. There’s still nothing better than All For One. The owner hates it because he can’t convince me on any other series.”
Ashido gasped again. “Omigosh, I didn’t realize you were a nerd.” Then laughed, causing Midoriya to join in.
“Pretty much,” Midoriya relented. “I’d like to make my own one day.”
“Oooh, let me know! I’d totally buy every volume!”
“What about you, Ashido?”
“What? My thing?” She smiled and winked. “I’ll let you guys guess.”
Midoriya tapped his chin. “Hair styling?”
“Coffee painting,” Todoroki said. His voice was soft, almost as though he was bored, but his eyes were filled with pleasant interest.
Thrown by Todoroki’s guess, Kirishima only managed, “Um—”
“Fashion design, you dummies!” Ashido said, giggling.
Midoriya nodded seriously. “Ah, yeah, I can totally tell!”
“Yeah right! And just is you know, it has been torture walking around with this one.” Her thumb jerked in Kirishima’s direction.
“Serious?” She raised an eyebrow. “Your jacket has to be at least one size too big and your jeans are frayed.” She pointed down to his feet. “Your sneakers look like your toes are about to pop out, too.”
“Ouch,” Todoroki said on his behalf.
Ashido turned to Midoriya. “In comparison, you and Todoroki are doing much better. White tees with brand names are totally in right now, Midoriya.”
Blushing, Midoriya looked down at his fingers on the table. “It’s not a brand,” he mumbled and for the first time Kirishima realized Midoriya’s t-shirt literally just read t-shirt on the front.
“I know,” Ashido said. “I know exactly where that shirt is from and, trust me, it’s about to get super popular. A really big blogger just started shopping there. Give it a week and all of Kamino will be wearing those shirts.”
She was turning to Todoroki, mouth open to break down his fashion choices, when all of their phones went off, chirping in unison. Freezing, their smiles dipped and what was starting to feel like a normal outing changed like a blue sky choking on a storm cloud.
Kirishima reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone.
Reach the Wailing Chapel. No time limit. Fail and you’ll be erased.
“But that’s way too easy, right?” Ashido said, a wary edge to her voice.
Midoriya nodded in agreement. “The Wailing Chapel is no more than a fifteen-minute walk.”
“Looks like we paired up for no reason,” Kirishima said, leaning his chin on his hand.
“But it sounds suspicious,” Todoroki added. “Let’s stick together until we’re sure.”
Kaminari nearly knocked over his second bowl of ramen. “What the hell?” he sputtered, staring down at his phone while Shinsou wordlessly passed him some napkins. “Dude, what’s up with this mission?” He ran a hand through his hair.
“Stop that.” Shinsou slapped Kaminari’s hand away. “You won’t look good with a receding hairline and that’s what you’ll get if you keep stressing like that.”
Kaminari scowled at him. “This is your fault, you know? First, you tell me to focus on the small fry yesterday so I can’t get my revenge, and now their mission is a walk down the road?”
Shinsou quirked a brow at him. “You really think that’s the case?”
Leaning forward over his half-forgotten ramen, Kaminari rolled his eyes. “Obviously not. Game Master probably has something planned to go down, but that’s boring!” he whined, shoving himself back and tilting his stool on two legs.
“We’ve been doing enough this week.” Shinsou sighed. “Consider it a day off. Over half the Players are already gone. Let’s see what the boss has in store for today.”
Before he could say anything else, both of their phones buzzed on the table, drawing their attention. Kaminari reached for his first.
“Lookit,” he said, a smile forming on his lips. “Direct orders?”
Shinsou hummed in response as he read the message over a second time.
“Maybe today won’t be entirely boring.”
Walking away from the Dome, Ashido, Midoriya, and Kirishima hung back as Todoroki moved ahead in the crowd after claiming he’d look ahead. They made sure he didn’t get too far.
“He’s pretty quiet, isn’t he,” Ashido remarked to Midoriya as they walked. “Even more than Kirishima.”
“Hey, I talk plenty,” Kirishima said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Sorry I can’t talk about my interests and pastimes—what—with my nonexistent memories.”
“Kirishima’s got a bad case of amnesia,” Ashido said for Midoriya’s sake. She was sympathetic, Kirishima could hear it in her voice, but he couldn’t help but feel bitter. Ashido and Midoriya could carry on all day about the things they were interested in—bands, fashion, school—and he could only sit and twiddle his thumbs.
Midoriya leaned around Ashido to catch his. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.
Kirishima smiled a little at his words. “Ashido’s been helping with the riddles. She really knows Kamino well.”
“Aww, he’s a good partner after all,” Ashido giggled. “Kirishima pulls his weight against the Nomu and he was really good with Imprinting yesterday, though you gave up the tip on that one, Midoriya.”
“Really, Todoroki figured all of that out,” Midoriya said. “He figured out that the Reapers knew more about the missions than they were letting on.”
“It seems you two get on really well.”
“As quiet as he is, Todoroki’s the one that asked me to be his partner. He found me hiding in East City,” Midoriya explained.
Ashido blinked in surprise. “Oh really?” She punched her fists out lightly in front of her. “By the way you guys took down that Nomu yesterday without a word, I could’ve sworn you two knew each other before all this. You connect really well.”
Midoriya smiled and shrugged. “I could say the same for you and Kirishima. I guess it’s just how partners work in the Game. After all—” he bit down on his thumbnail as he continued to mutter on “—if we can’t connect with our partners, then we can’t really fight the Nomu, can we?”
“You’re right.” Ashido looked ahead to find Todoroki waiting for them at the next corner. “But you know, Kirishima and I do know each other from middle school—or he would if he had his memories.”
“Oh yeah?” Midoriya had a way of smiling that made you know he was actually interested in what was being said. “What was he like?”
Ashido glanced at Kirishima for permission. He shrugged, trusting her not to say anything too embarrassing. After all, it was only middle school. He was curious to learn more about himself, too.
“I mean, it wasn’t like we were friends, but we were in the same class,” Ashido said, her eyes sliding from Kirishima back over to Midoriya, “Hmm, nothing really stands out. He played around with his friends like everyone else. He was a little shy around anyone else though. He wore his hair down, too.” She looked back at him, eyes softening. “You weren’t—I can’t say you had much presence. You froze up whenever you had to address the class. You were…I don’t know, it’s like you kept everyone at a distance.”
For the moment, only the buzz of the crowd around them filled the air and the sounds of their feet against the pavement as they walked to catch up to Todoroki. Kirishima didn’t really know how to respond. He felt an overwhelming urge to apologize for some reason, but it didn’t make it past his lips. What an awkward kid he must’ve been, he lamented to himself. And to make Ashido recount it all to him out loud just now seemed to make it worse.
“But seriously,” Ashido started in hurriedly, waving her hands between them, “that was a really long time ago! Lots of kids are shy when they’re little. And remember? I could barely recognize you when we first ran into each other. You’re a completely new person!”
Maybe on the outside, Kirishima thought. Apparently, he wasn’t much better considering how he froze around Todoroki and Midoriya the other day and how the constant crowds of the city made his skin itch. From Ashido’s description, it seemed he’d hardly changed at all.
“No worries about the past,” Midoriya added in, catching on to his internal worries. “I was a pretty weak-spirited kid. I got picked on all the time, whether it was my hair or my freckles, but things don’t stay that way.”
They reached Todoroki on the corner and stopped. While Midoriya said something to Todoroki, bringing him into the conversation all while changing the topic, Kirishima gave his head a good shake. He couldn’t let himself be distracted about the past. Midoriya was right. Things were probably different now, even if he couldn’t prove it. He had to focus on the Game anyway. He couldn’t solve these missions and fight Nomu all while biting his nails over who he was or wasn’t. Now wasn’t the time to solve that mystery! Instead, he had to figure out why the Reapers were making today’s mission so easy. He agreed with Todoroki. There was something fishy going on.
In front of them, there was a short, arching bridge they’d have to cross to reach the next block over. Simultaneously as they all stepped up the steps to the bridge, Ashido, Midoriya, and Todoroki all sighed, causing Kirishima to eye them.
“What?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”
Ashido looked puzzled at him for a second before laughing into her hand. “Oh yeah, I forgot. It’s the Bridge of Sighs. Wanna know why it’s called that?”
“I guess, since you all made such a big deal about it.”
“Well, everyone knows about it in Kamino,” Ashido said.
“There’s a lake over by the high school,” Midoriya explained. “Back when they were laying out the city, there was a small stream running through it, so they built this bridge.”
They all stopped halfway across the bridge. It would’ve been a pretty puny stream if the plan had worked out, but now there was only cement below them, some basement entrances to buildings, and moldy dumpsters. A dead-end alleyway.
“They tried making the stream wider, but it flooded and turned all swampy within the first year,” Midoriya continued. “It took them years to undo the damage and it became a huge expense.”
“And all because they wanted to glorify this little bridge,” Ashido added, leaning forward on the stone railing. There wasn’t even a good view of the city from here. “It’s also called the Bridge of Sighs because people usually try to throw themselves off of big city bridges. Well, this is our ‘big city bridge.’ They say when people come here to try to kill themselves, they sigh because the bridge isn’t high enough.”
“That’s super dark, Ashido,” Kirishima said as he looked down over the bridge. It was barely over a story high.
“What? It’s true. Do you know how many people go to the hospital with broken arms and legs from this bridge?” Ashido planted her hands on her hips.
Todoroki looked over the side of the bridge as well, eyebrows raised with simple curiosity. “You’d have to land wrong if you really wanted to die.”
Ashido rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but nobody’s ever died.”
“Anyway,” Midoriya said with an uncomfortable sounding chuckle, “With or without a time limit, we should probably keep going.”
Wordlessly, Todoroki took the lead, stepping down from the bridge and, to Kirishima, it was like stepping into another world. The buildings were older here. They didn’t reach as high as in the blocks surrounding them. Because of that, in the distance, he spotted a clock tower looming above everything else. The city sloped up from here, giving the tower the height it needed to look down on this part of Kamino. He’d never seen it from anywhere else in the city, the skyscrapers had been blocking the view.
Ashido noticed his head swiveling around, looking at the new part of Kamino, and smiled. “This is Historical Kamino. It’s what’s left of the old city. They’ve renovated the buildings and everything from the Savior to the chapel we’re going to,” she explained as she twirled her hair.
“The Savior?” Kirishima asked.
“That’s the name of the clock tower.” Midoriya pointed upwards.
“And why’s the chapel called the Wailing Chapel?” As far as names went, he figured having a mission destination of a place called the Wailing Chapel didn’t sound very reassuring.
“It’s haunted,” Todoroki said over his shoulder.
Kirishima faltered in his steps. “Huh?”
Ashido smirked, rubbing her hands together. “It was built by an American architect back before the bridge mishap and before anything east of the bridge was built. But—” Ashido’s voice turned deep and ominous, even the sky overhead was growing cloudy and dark “—he was a solitary man. He didn’t have any friends or family, just the chapel. He didn’t tell anyone his name and he didn’t leave any initials in his work, so when he died suddenly before he could leave the city, nobody knew who he was. They buried him in an unmarked grave, leaving him to haunt the place for all eternity hoping someone remembers his name so he can return home.”
Kirishima felt a shiver go down his spine. Ashido was way too good at that.
“Your face is pretty hilarious, Kirishima,” she said, breaking the act to laugh at him. “All the first years do a test of courage here every summer. The wood is really old and creaks, and there’s wailing on windy nights. All of the old houses do it, but it’s scary when the electricity doesn’t work, and you only have a sleeping bag and a flashlight.”
“That sounds awful,” Kirishima said.
“I remember doing it,” Midoriya said. “It wasn’t so bad. I think some second years tried to scare us from outside.”
That made Ashido laugh. “It’s fun,” she said, bumping into Kirishima. “It’s just something you do as a kid. I’m sure you stayed a night as a first year, too, Kirishima.”
He probably did, but that was one thing he was glad he didn’t remember.
They turned a corner and there it was. The Wailing Chapel. It wasn’t nearly as big and intimidating as Kirishima had imagined. The stone building was dark with age. It had one spire that made it seem taller than it really was and sat on a small patch of dry grass before the buildings crowded in on either side. He wondered if there really was a graveyard in the back with an unmarked grave.
Todoroki started up the steps. “Huh, you know, I never did it as a kid,” he said, staring up at the church.
“Did you transfer?” Ashido asked as she and Kirishima followed him up. Midoriya stayed behind, still gazing upward.
“My parents sent me out of the city to a private school, so I only spent holidays in Kamino unfortunately.”
“Ohh,” Ashido sang with a smirk, “so you were one of those academy boys.” She turned to Kirishima. “There’s an arts academy just out of Kamino, but you have to come from big money and an established family to attend.”
Kirishima blinked. “Whoa, that’s pretty impressive, Todoroki.”
Todoroki only shrugged. “Sometimes I think it would’ve been better to just go to school here, but what’s done is done.”
“When I was a kid, I really wanted to go, but it wasn’t something my mom could afford,” Midoriya piped up. He was still at the bottom of the stairs. “Academy graduates are always making a name for themselves. They have gallery showings or do special murals for the city. I heard a student from the early years even designed the Tear.”
“Wow, Midoriya. You really know your stuff,” Ashido said.
“It’s my dream! After I graduate, I want to get into a good arts college and get published. Painting is awesome, but I like telling stories through manga.” Midoriya beamed up at them.
Ashido was obsessed with fashion. She could pick apart their outfits in seconds. She knew Kamino’s trends, what was hot, what’d be hot in a week, and she wanted to be on top of those trends one day.
Midoriya’s dreams were set in stone. He had plans, whether or not he’d had a good foundation at the academy like Todoroki. His apparent optimism and hard work were enough evidence to prove that he’d make something of himself.
Todoroki had had the training needed to make the future whatever he wanted. He came from privilege and a good name. With that, all kinds of doors were open for him.
Kirishima was drowning in their potential. He was empty. He had no dreams, no passions. Just a distaste for social interaction and a fear of letting people in. He must have something…if only he could just remember!
“What kind of art did you do, Todoroki?” Midoriya was asking. Even though it wasn’t his voice that drew Kirishima out of his head, but a distinct crunching sound, not to loud to be out of place, Kirishima was distracted by Midoriya’s expression. He was shifting from one foot to the other, hands in his pockets. He was gazing up at Todoroki with the sun in his face as it peeked out from behind a storm cloud. There was not a glimmer of jealousy to be seen there. Despite Todoroki having had something Midoriya never had a chance of, he smiled, so self-confident in who he was and what he would do.
Was Kirishima jealous? He shook his quickly. Now wasn’t the time! The crunching sound was growing steadily louder by the second. Now, it was impossible to mistake for some vehicle or man-made noise. He glanced up and down the street seeing nothing from his angle up the chapel stares. It wasn’t until he looked back at Midoriya that he saw a gray fin sticking out of the road.
Todoroki was the first to move, only seconds after first hearing the sound. Kirishima’s feet seemingly nailed to the ground. He flew past him, skipping the stairs completely and crashing right into Midoriya. Kirishima thought moments like these happened in slow motion. That try as hard as you might, your body just wouldn’t move fast enough. But Todoroki’s did, even when time only seemed to move faster, Kirishima’s brain just trying to keep up. At the same time, the fin erupted from the ground, concrete cracking like a broken wave as a mouthful of teeth emerged, open and snapping wildly. Midoriya was pushed out of the way, landing hard on the ground, but Kirishima looked away from him quickly and back to the Nomu just in time to see Todoroki still regaining his balance between it and Midoriya. Its tail whipped his legs out from under him and it snapped its gaping mouth on Todoroki.
Kirishima barely saw the shattering impact of the bite or the way Todoroki faded away. Erased. He and Ashido were already sprinting down the steps, taking Todoroki’s place in front of Midoriya, Kirishima’s armor already in place and Ashido’s hands ready to attack. It was all happening too fast. No time to react. No time for Midoriya to even have a moment to put together an attack with Todoroki. But there was no chance of that now. Thrashing, the shark Nomu submerged itself again under the concrete, the broken slabs left behind slowly merging back into one, undisturbed road.
Looking up, Kirishima spotted the Reaper from the second day. Kaminari was sitting on top of a lamp post gazing down at them. On the ground beneath him was another Reaper. The tired-looking one they’d first met.
“I’m Shinsou,” he said. “We haven’t officially met, I guess, but we have a job to do.”
“What about Todoroki? That was—it wasn’t.” Midoriya’s voice shook from behind Kirishima and Ashido, but he was getting to his feet.
“Yeah, that’s what happens when you get erased.”
They’d have to worry about that later. Kirishima gritted his teeth. It was always later. All of their feelings, they always had to be pushed away. The Game always came first, not time to breathe, no time for anything else!
But Kirishima did manage to push his feelings down. If he didn’t, he’d be erased just as quickly as Todoroki. For now, the three of them could definitely take out the Nomu. They could take out every Nomu these Reapers threw at them. The Reapers couldn’t touch them.
Kaminari jumped down from the lamp post to land next to Shinsou, his wings slowing his descent. “So, get in line, ‘cause you three are next.” He pointed at them while Shinsou merely shrugged.
“No hard feelings,” he said. “We were told to set a trap. It’s not our fault you walked right into it.”
“How can you take this so lightly?”
Kirishima was surprised as Midoriya pushed his way through Ashido and him to stand between them and the Reapers, his fists clenched like he was ready for a fight.
“How can you just erase people and act like it’s no big deal?!” His voice carried, his entire body shaking now. “You can say you’re just doing what you’re told, but that’s no excuse! Everyone—you’re all in charge of your own actions! And we’ll—” he glanced back at Kirishima and Ashido who nodded at him “—we’ll make you face the consequences!”
The Reapers looked on unmoved. “Blame us all you want, it won’t do anything,” Shinsou said, crossing his arms. “You knew we went after Players. It’s the nature of the Game.”
“It’s your fault, not ours. Our target was you, not your partner, so he’s gone because you couldn’t protect him,” Kaminari added, his smile fading until he looked almost as indifferent as Shinsou. “Your partner understood. Why else would he sacrificed himself?”
“I don’t know,” Midoriya said softly, his fists loosening.
“Apparently your pact wasn’t strong enough if you both couldn’t protect each other. So, like I said, get in line. Game over.”
Midoriya was quickly losing his fighting spirit as the Reapers ganged up on him. “It’s my fault…?” he said quietly.
“Shut up, Kaminari!” Ashido stepped in front of Midoriya, glaring at the Reapers. “If you think we’re gonna lay down and get erased then—”
“It’s over for him anyway,” Kaminari said loudly over her. “If you and your partner wanna fight, bring it, but at least give us the other kid. He’ll just get in your way.”
“No way!” Kirishima stood beside Ashido. They’d already lost Todoroki. He wasn’t willing to give up Midoriya, too. Not without a fight. They were all going to make it to the seventh day together.
Shinsou frowned. “Fine, let the Nomu have you.” The air in front of them turned into static. Out of it, frogs hopped out, the same frogs that had attacked Kirishima his first day of the Game.
“Thanks for the easy points,” Kaminari added, though he hardly looked as carefree as when he’d first appeared. “And, careful, that shark Nomu is still around here somewhere.”
Between the chaos of the oncoming frogs surrounding them and his head looking every which way for the shark, the Reapers disappeared, but there was no time to worry about them. A frog leapt from the herd and knocked Midoriya to the ground. Kirishima hurried to kick it off of him, finishing it off with a punch to its head before turning back to Midoriya. His fists were clenched over his face, teeth bared in frustration.
“I can’t—” his voice nearly broke “—I can’t fight back. My quirk…it won’t—”
“If you can’t fight, then leave it to Kirishima and me,” Ashido said, knocking back the frogs with a wave of acid. It nearly took out all of the smaller Nomu. Kirishima rushed in to help, getting rid of the rest. He glanced around again. There was still that shark. So far, he’d only seen its fin rising above the road at a distance.
“I can’t just stand here and do nothing!”
Kirishima turned back to see Midoriya back on his feet. He looked ready to fight, but there were no green sparks like he’d seen from his quirk yesterday. If one of the frogs could knock him down so easily, then that proved his quirk wasn’t working, which meant he couldn’t fight back. It made sense. Kirishima was powerless before meeting Ashido on Day 1. Close to his own conflicting thoughts, he felt Ashido’s. They were two swirling storms of indecision and pain and adrenaline.
“Don’t be rash.”
A sharp voice cut in, bringing clarity along with it.
Kirishima and Ashido turned to see Aizawa coming along the street. He was scowling darkly, hands shoved into his pockets as usual.
“Mr. Aizawa,” Ashido called.
“You don’t understand! I have to do this,” Midoriya said. “I have to show the Reapers they can’t just walk all over Players like they don’t matter!”
“Oh, so one partner-less Player wants to change up the GG.” Aizawa rolled his eyes as he came closer. Unlike his drawling voice, his steps were hurried. “Without your partner, you have no quirk. You’re defenseless, but you’re alive. Your partner’s sacrifice saw to that. A Player can survive seven minutes after their partner is erased, which means you have maybe five, if I’m being generous.”
“Then I don’t care what happens to me. I’ll help Ashido and Kirishima!”
“And do what, exactly?”
Midoriya deflated under his words.
“Time is ticking, and you have to decide what Todoroki’s sacrifice meant. If it was just so you could throw your own life away, fine. But think.”
“But you just said…” Midoriya looked down at his hands. “I can’t survive without a partner. The Reapers were right. It’s over for me.”
“I can keep you alive.”
Everyone’s heads whipped around to look at Aizawa.
“But we have to leave, now.”
Midoriya still didn’t look convinced. Ashido stepped up to him.
“You have to do this Midoriya,” she said, grabbing his arm gently. “Todoroki was our friend, too. We’ll get your revenge, but you have to live.”
Kirishima nodded. “We got this.”
Midoriya still looked like he was about to object, but then his face caved with a sniff. “You guys…” Midoriya rubbed his hands over his face.
The shark fin resurfaced in front of them and Ashido quickly pushed Midoriya away toward Aizawa. Kirishima made a jab, barely nicking the Nomu.
“Go! We’ll see you soon, Midoriya!” she shouted over her shoulder, then looked back to lock eyes with Kirishima. “Let’s do this!”
The concrete cracked under their feet and they both jumped back just in time to dodge the shark’s teeth. It dipped back under the surface, moving fluidly through the stone surface, only to emerge a second later, its entire body exploding through the debris, aiming to slam on top of them. Kirishima pulled Ashido forward and under the Nomu before it landed, shockwaves rippling through the road and knocking them down, scraped but otherwise unharmed.
Ashido was on her feet immediately, aiming acid wherever the fin appeared with Kirishima quick behind her. He batted the fin away whenever it got too close so that Ashido could keep up her attack. As long as the road didn’t start crumbling apart, then the shark would stay submerged for the moment, but Kirishima knew they couldn’t be doing much damage just to its dorsal fin alone.
That connection with Ashido was building again, just like yesterday but different. Yesterday was fear, a constant need to hurry, hurry, hurry against the clock. Now, there was so much swirling in his chest from both of them that it nearly knocked him off his feet. There was so much that couldn’t just be solved by punching some monster. There were questions, there was sadness, there was pain. Kirishima jabbed out as the fin passed too close, wishing it did something to ease the growing pressure in his chest.
“It’s happening again.”
At the sound of Ashido’s voice, Kirishima turned. There was that glow surrounding them again like yesterday, but what caught his attention were the tearstains down Ashido’s cheeks and the hitch in her breath. He’d felt everything behind those tears within their connection, but he hadn’t noticed their physical appearance. He took a deep breath and nodded.
“I know what we have to do,” he said, knowing she’d understand his idea without needing words.
The bluish light grew stronger as Kirishima took a running start. The shark was farther down the street, zipping toward them. When he’d gauged the distance to be about right, he leapt into the air, entire body hardened at the peak of his jump. He dropped quickly with the added weight and landed directly in front of the exposed fin, concrete cracking beneath his impact. It was enough to lift the shark out of its ocean of stone and, like a geyser, Ashido’s acid shot out of the fissure in the road, raising the Nomu higher. Kirishima backed off until the acid cut off and the shark was left in freefall. He made one last jump when the shark was low enough and slammed his fist into its brain, shattering the Nomu before it even hit the ground.
Breathing hard, Ashido and Kirishima watched the road and sidewalk slowly blur back into place, until not a single crack of their making existed at all. The thick gray clouds above them released their tight hold, loosening to allow a slight breeze to start tearing them apart. Sunlight leaked through like it might after a heavy rainfall, casting beams down on the ground below.
But though things were calm at a glance, Kirishima still felt like there was a ton of bricks settled on top of his chest. Like he couldn’t take a full breath. Ashido was wiping her face. It looked as though she’d stopped crying.
“What do we—” Kirishima tried to breathe in “—what do we do now?”
Ashido’s face pinched at him as though she was about to start tearing up again. “Why do you think I would know?”
“I don’t know.” He looked away. “Do we go after Midoriya?” he asked hesitantly.
“What can we do? He’s with Mr. Aizawa, so…” Ashido wiped at her eyes again. “But how could he survive with only seven minutes to live?”
“What about…Todoroki?” Kirishima regretted the question the second it left his lips.
“What can we do? What do you think?” Ashido snapped, he hands dropping. “You heard the Reapers. He’s gone. He’s erased. It could’ve been any other us that got caught in that trap, but it was him.”
Kirishima pressed a hand against his forehead. He felt another headache coming on. “Don’t you feel like we could’ve done something? Like, maybe if we’d moved faster—”
“Well we didn’t!” Ashido threw her arms out. “Hindsight’s twenty-twenty, Kirishima. You can’t go through life regretting everything you did or didn’t do!”
“But I was right! Look what teaming up did for us. We fell right into their trap because we were all together!”
“So what, if Todoroki and Midoriya were on their own it would’ve been better?”
“I don’t know! Maybe!”
“It would’ve been the same except we wouldn’t have been there to help Midoriya!” She reached out and whacked him in the arm. “Don’t feel guilty!”
Ashido grabbed a fistful of his jacket. “Don’t you get it?! That’s what the Reapers want! Didn’t you hear Kaminari? Going on and on trying to make Midoriya feel like it was his fault? It’s not! It’s just this dumb Game! All we can do is play it!”
“Maybe, but we’re still responsible for each other,” Kirishima gritted back through his teeth. He didn’t try to break out of her hold, but his words made her release him nonetheless.
She stared at the ground, hands clutched behind her back. “You asked what we do now,” she said lowly. “Well, we continue onto Day 5 and then each and every day after until we win.”
They were back by the train station, just barely in the shade of the underpass. The day had no right to be as bright and cheery as it was. Kirishima frowned out at it and the people going about their daily lives, no idea in the slightest of the Game going on around them. Sighing, he got to his feet. Ashido was already out standing in the sun, shading her eyes as she watched those leaving and entering the station, just like she had been doing at the start of yesterday, only Todoroki and Midoriya had been with them then. He joined her, not saying anything for the moment.
“Hey,” she said eventually, looking away from the crowds and at him instead.
Kirishima rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “Sorry,” he said, “about yesterday.”
Ashido shrugged, her usual cheerfulness nowhere to be found. Kirishima was at least relieved to feel the storm of emotions inside both of them had been quelled for now. “We both shouted a lot,” she said. “And you were right. I do feel guilty, even though it’s not our fault. There was nothing we could do.”
“Yeah, I know. You were right about that, too.”
She gave him a sad smile but didn’t say anything else. Though they had both apologized, Kirishima couldn’t help but to feel like there was still a wall erected between them. For the first time, he found himself eager for the mission mail to come in. If they could just focus on doing something other than what had happened yesterday, maybe things could get back to how they were. Maybe he was just used to the Game taking priority over everything else.
Just as he thought that, their phones chirped.
Rid North City of the Nomu. You have 360 minutes. Fail and you’ll be erased.
They both flinched from the timer appearing on their hands. “Where’s North City?” Kirishima asked, looking up from his phone.
Ashido flipped hers shut. “Here, basically. It’s not normally called North City because it’s just the lions and the station. There’s the underpass and the freeway, but that takes you out of the city.”
“Okay, then it’s just taking out some Nomu.” Kirishima cracked his knuckles, the burning sensation slowly fading from his palm. “Not too difficult.”
Ashido didn’t look so sure. “Yesterday’s mission seemed easy, too.”
Kirishima glanced away, hoping for once they could move away from yesterday. “I know.”
“Let’s just…yeah, let’s just focus.”
After searching the underpass and finding nothing, they approached the station, running their hands through bushes, hoping to scare something out. The Nomu didn’t attack partnered Players outright, but if hunting them down was today’s mission, they’d have to make do. There had to be Nomu hiding around somewhere.
“Here, Nomu,” Kirishima called, cupping his mouth. “Come out, come out!”
Ashido threw him a look from where she was shaking down the next shrub over.
“What? Do you have a better suggestion?”
“No, just—” She sighed, shaking her head, and said nothing more.
They moved to the alley behind the station. There, at least, was a dumpster rattling ominously.
“I’ll open the lid and give it a kick, so be ready,” Kirishima whisper, sneaking behind the dumpster. It smelled like it hadn’t been emptied for a few weeks. That, or no one had ever bothered to clean it. He counted down on his fingers so Ashido could see before he lifted the lid. The metal clanged with his kick and two frogs jumped out in a frenzy.
Ashido squeaked in surprise but still took them down quickly, acid coating her hands as she grabbed their brains.
“Nice,” Kirishima said, scanning the alley for any more. “Where does that road lead?” He pointed toward the other end. The road wasn’t visible from the front of the station, but from here he could see how it connected.
“It goes to the high school,” Ashido said. They made their way through the alley, still searching for Nomu but finding none. “There’s no point heading up there. It’s a bit of a walk and wouldn’t be considered North City.”
Kirishima shrugged. “Whatever you say.”
They circled back around to the front. There was still plenty of time on the timer, but it was the fact that it was still visible that had Kirishima worried.
“We still have to check the lions,” Ashido said, seeing him glancing at it. “There’s probably a bunch there.”
Kirishima hoped so. He didn’t want to go on a wild Nomu chase through the entire city. It’d be impossible to take them all down., let alone find them, but as long as they were limited to the station, they had a chance.
Only, when they went to round the corner, Kirishima ran straight into a wall that wasn’t there. The force knocked him sprawling to the ground. As Ashido ran over to him as he glanced around ready for an attack.
“Huh? Oh, hey, Players!”
Looking up, Kirishima saw a hooded figure leaning over him from behind. Nearly choking on his breath, he scrambled to get away and reclaim his footing. Ashido was already backing away but stuck close to his side.
“Hey, chill out,” the girl said with a bubbly voice.
With enough space between them, Kirishima got a better look at her and saw that the hood had just been her pink hoody drawn up to hide her face. Other than the Reaper wings, she looked pretty harmless with tiny jean shorts and pink high-tops and her hoody sleeves were long enough to cover her hands, but he refused to let his guard down. Reapers were definitely threats, no matter what they looked like.
“My name’s Hagakure and I’m the Reaper in charge of this wall,” she continued. “You already beat the Nomu I hid, so…if you want past…” She tapped her chin. “Buy me a melon soda!”
“That’s all you want?” Ashido added, her head cocked to the side. “No Nomu attacks or anything like that?”
“Nope! Just a soda.” She pointed to the train station. “There’s a vending machine in there. Oh, and here!” She tossed them some coins, which Ashido caught, but she was still suspicious.
Then you’ll take down the wall?”
“Yup! And you can finish the mission.”
“Okay,” Ashido said slowly, “and you won’t attack us.”
Frowning slightly, Hagakure pointed at herself. “I’m just a Support Reaper. I only get points by testing Players, not erasing them. You don’t have to worry about me.”
Ashido stared at her a moment longer before turning away. Kirishima glanced over his shoulder but went along with her. It didn’t seem like the Reaper was lying.
“Odd,” he whispered, afraid of being overheard.
Ashido nodded. “Is there something more to this, or is she just lazy?” she asked. “How can getting her soda be a test?”
“Well, she did say we took out the Nomu she made,” Kirishima replied. “I bet she would have made us hunt them down before letting us pass if we hadn’t.”
The inside of the train station was even more crowded than outside. There were queues everywhere they looked, but thankfully the area around the front vending machines was relatively free. Everyone had places to be. No time for snacks.
“So,” Kirishima said, looking around as Ashido entered the change, “none of these people can see us, but we can use a vending machine?”
“Don’t look at me,” Ashido murmured as she squinted at the options. “I’m just doing what the Reaper told us to do.” She pressed a button and a drink dropped down below. Kirishima grabbed it.
“There’s plenty of time, so we shouldn’t have to worry.”
Ashido looked thoughtful as they retraced their steps back outside. Suddenly, she lit up with an idea. “Remember what Todoroki said?”
Kirishima’s heart couldn’t help but drop. “What?”
“He and Midoriya got information from the Reapers. Maybe we can, too.”
Oh, well if that was all. “Only one way to find out.”
The Reaper, Hagakure, was exactly where they left her, rocking back and forth on her heels with her hands behind her back. She perked up when she caught sight of them.
“Thank you!” she said, catching the soda Kirishima tossed to her. With her other hand, she snapped and the air glimmered where the wall had been and faded. Kirishima reached out to test it, only to find nothing blocking his path.
“Uh, quick question, Miss Hagakure?” Ashido asked carefully as the Reaper sipped her soda. “Are there any other ways of finding Nomu?”
Hagakure waved a hand, her hoody sleeve flopping back and forth with the gesture. “Nah, Nomu don’t hide. Either Reapers make ‘em to test Players, or you find ‘em attached to people.”
“you mean people in the RG?”
“Yup, in the GG, Nomu can represent negativity. Those appear by themselves, no Reaper needed.” Underneath the hood, Hagakure smiled. “Good luck with the mission! Thanks for the soda!” Then she wandered off into the crowd and was lost.
Ashido and Kirishima stared off after her, eying the people that passed as if more Nomu would suddenly appear.
“Well, she did say we cleared the area around the train station,” Ashido stated.
“All that’s left is the statue, right?”
Ashido led the way around to the clearing with the Statue of Lions. “There!” Ashido pointed and, between people’s feet, Kirishima spotted five frogs. As soon as the Nomu caught sight of them, they were nearly jumping over each other to get to them. Ashido’s acid rain took down three of them while Kirishima finished off the other two with his fists. So far, they hadn’t seen any big boss Nomu.
When he looked to Ashido, he found her squinting at something behind him. “What is it?” he asked, walking over to her and turning to look as well.
“That Reaper girl was right,” she said. “There’s a guy with a Nomu on his shoulder over there.”
Kirishima spotted the guy standing apart from the crowd, he was blonde and dressed nicely in a suit with one hand in his pocket as he went through his phone with the other. What stood out was a frog sitting on his shoulder. It seemed to sense as though it was being watched because it turned its head to stare back at them with its white eyes. This one was different than the others, though. While every other frog they had encountered had been a bright green color, this one was dark blue.
Slowly, they approached the guy who was muttering darkly to himself.
“—and, of course, the first assignment they give me will either make or break my career. What kind of bullshit is that?” He snapped his phone closed and then opened it again, mindlessly tapping away on it. “It’s not like I can quit. I’ve only been there a month with zero experience to show for it. Bullshit, bullshit.”
The frog Nomu readjusted its grip on his shoulder. It clung on tight but still looked ready to pounce.
Not able to think of a better solution, Kirishima’s hand shot out and he grabbed the Nomu by its head, crushing it quickly. Ashido opened her mouth to object, but the man’s shoulders were already looking less tense as the Nomu shattered.
“Ugh, shake it off Monoma. The profs gave you worse in grad school. This is nothing,” he muttered to himself, cracking his neck and pocketing his phone. “You were lucky to get hired by this place, so buck up! Complete the assignment and get promoted early, it’s as easy as that.”
“I dunno about that,” Ashido said in concern as the man walked off toward Angels Circus, but there were no other Nomu around him. Plus, his mood seemed to have shifted. Maybe that was all there was to it. “Work must be stressful.”
Kirishima turned away. He wasn’t interested in the guy’s life. He had enough of his own stress to deal with. Besides, he doubted they could go much farther that way. The Reapers probably had a wall up in order to keep them on task, and he didn’t want to tempt any other Reapers into coming out.
But facing the lions’ statue, he found more frog Nomu hopping around. He nudged Ashido. “So the station is completely deserted, but they just keep popping up here.” He punted a frog as it leapt at them while Ashido took care of the rest. It was easier than the first day when one single frog would knock him to the ground. Kirishima wondered if it had anything to do with his growing connection to his partner.
“You think something is bringing them here? Like negativity creates Nomu, but maybe it also draws in the rest that the Reapers make?”
“If that’s the case, then someone else must be possessed—” Ashido gave him a funny look and he shrugged “—or something.”
“I’ll check by the lions. Give a shout if you see anything.”
Kirishima watched her weave through the throngs of people. He gazed around but saw nothing, no colorful creepy creature sitting on anyone’s shoulders, no one moping around any more than usual. When he checked back on Ashido, he found her pink head had surfaced over everyone else’s from standing up on the statue. She waved at him
“Hey, here’s another!” Ashido called, something catching her eye. “It’s sitting on this guy’s…”
He lost her voice as hurried over. She jumped down, looking sullen, her hands clutched in front of her. He followed her gaze to a guy sitting on the other side of the brick platform with his back to them. Perched on his shoulder. It was another dark blue frog Nomu. It eyed them closely but didn’t budge. It was just like the last one.
“Careful,” Ashido said softly, seeing him flex his hardened hand, ready to attack.
He cast her a weird look. “I didn’t hurt the last guy.” All the same, he grabbed the frog swiftly but carefully and crushed it in his hand.
Glancing down, Kirishima checked to see if that was the last of the Nomu, but the timer ticked on. When he looked up again, another frog had hopped up on the guy’s other shoulder. Kirishima circled around to find three more sitting at his feet.
“They just keep showing up,” Ashido said, chewing on a fingernail.
“Well—” Kirishima was at a loss “—take those out. I got the one on his shoulder.”
Ashido looked as though she wanted to argue, but she only nodded. But the moment her acid washed away and the Nomu in Kirishima’s hand shattered, more came to take their place, appearing out of static, similar to the Nomu the Reapers had created yesterday.
“You don’t think it’s Reapers, do you?”
She shook her head. She was about to say something, when Kirishima took a step closer and found he recognized the guy.
“Hey, this is him, isn’t it?” he asked, pointing. He nodded, sure of himself “He’s the guy! The guy from your phone.”
“Um, yeah.” Ashido looked away, wringing her fingers even tighter.
Kirishima crouched down to get a better look at the guy’s face. He was leaning over something, so it was too hard to see just by standing over him. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Ashido shrugged. Kirishima didn’t know what it was, but something suddenly made her look a lot smaller. “What’s the point? He can’t see us.”
“Well…you can see him. I think that should matter, right?” Kirishima said. “What’s his name?”
“Sero.” She was blushing. “He’s in my class at school.”
“He’s on your phone, so you guys must be pretty close.” Of course, a Reaper was also on her phone. It was a relief to know that her other friend was just a normal guy in the RG, but the fact remained that while he could trust Ashido, Kirishima wasn’t so sure he could trust her friends. When she didn’t say anything, he continued, asking, “You think he knew about that Kaminari guy?”
She shrugged again, this time with little effort behind it. “I don’t know,” she whispered, looking down at her feet.
Figuring Ashido’s capability to finishing this mission was suddenly compromised, Kirishima leaned in to see what the guy, Sero, was doing. There was a small wooden board set between his hands with a little plastic triangle in the center of it. Kirishima racked his brain for any kind of memory of such a thing, but he came up with nothing. He couldn’t manage this alone without Ashido’s help.
He looked up at her. “What’s this thing he’s doing?”
She came closer for a better look. “It’s kinda like a Ouija board, but it’s just used for yes, no, or I don’t know answers. Everyone plays around with them. Another friend of mine holds seances in the bathroom after school.”
“Your ideas of fun are messed up.”
“Hey,” Ashido said, taking slight offense, though she was slowly getting back to normal. “We just ask it stupid things like ‘Will I pass my exams’ or ‘Is he cheating on her.’ See? Harmless.”
“Sure,” Kirishima muttered jokingly, but whatever was going on was clearly worrying Sero enough to bring out Nomu. A lot of them. “He’s your friend. What do you think is wrong?”
“It could be any number of things,” Ashido murmured into her fist, but catching Kirishima’s eye she smiled and waved it off. “I mean, final exams are this month and he’s never had the best grades. Plus, Kaminari and I haven’t been around with the Game, so—but—yeah, it’s probably his grades.”
She crossed behind Kirishima, carefully tiptoeing between the frogs, to sit across from Sero on the platform. He had placed the tips of his fingers on the triangle and closed his eyes.
“Maybe it requires a more hands on approach than that last guy,” she said. “Like we have to actually solve the problem.”
Kirishima gaped at her. “What, you’re gonna mess with a Ouija board? That’s totally bad news.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take this one.” Her voice dropped as she placed her fingers on the triangle on top of Sero’s. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” she continued, closing her eyes as well. “And if I can’t do the Imprinting, you’ll be the one trying it next.”
He wanted to keep arguing against the idea, but he didn’t want to make things harder. Ashido had enough trouble as it was connecting to the people in the RG, and it wasn’t like they had many other options. With a sigh, Kirishima sank the rest of the way to the ground. The frogs watched him but didn’t move.
It took a few awkward moments of just sitting beside the Nomu, constantly shifting his eyes between them and Ashido and Sero above him. From time to time, Ashido’s lips would move wordlessly and she would slowly move the triangle across the board. Kirishima wondered what was going on in each of their heads, but he didn’t feel like butting in. He supposed he could listen in on Sero, but then that would only be as good as hearing one side of a telephone call. Besides, he was pretty sure Ashido wanted the privacy or else she wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to do the Imprinting. So, he sat back on his hands, muscles tense in case the frogs got too antsy, and waited.
All three of them nearly jumped out of their skin as the Ouija board clattered to the ground. The frogs all leapt into a frenzy but didn’t attack. They simply dodged the sudden clatter of feet and jumped up onto the platform on Sero’s other side.
Kirishima turned to see Kaminari walking up to them and Ashido was on her feet in seconds. Only, Kaminari wasn’t looking at either of them. His eyes were on Sero and he offered a small wave. He looked the same as every other time they’d encountered him, only his Reaper wings were nowhere to be seen.
“Geez, man,” Sero wheezed, placing a hand over his chest. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t have if you weren’t doing that seance shit out in public,” Kaminari said, laughing as he jostled Sero’s shoulder and took Ashido’s vacated seat. That left the two Players standing and staring down at them. Kirishima glanced at Ashido and she stared back.
“What do we do?” she mouthed.
Kirishima only shrugged. They could only watch, he guessed.
“Aw, c’mon. You know everyone does it. It’s not that weird,” Sero said, bending over to pick up the pieces and sliding them away into his backpack.
Kaminari rolled his eyes fondly. “What am I gonna do with you and Mina?”
“Hey, don’t play coy. You do it just as much as we do. Oh, and who was the one who was all excited about that occult shop opening by the arcade?” Sero paused to tap his chin in mock innocence.
“Mina and I have reached an understanding about crystals.”
“What was it called again?”
“Crystal vibes are real, dude!”
“Mystic Goddess?” At that, Sero busted out laughing. “Dude, Mina and I thought you were going on about some stripper.”
Kaminari scoffed, trying to cover up his own laughter. “Oh, whatever.”
Eventually, Sero’s smile slid from his face and he leaned forward. “Look, don’t be a dick. You’ve been ignoring my texts—”
“I’ve been busy.”
“—so just tell me. Is Mina over on your side?” Sero asked. His smile was gone now. “Is she part of the Game?”
Kirishima heard Ashido inhale sharply.
Kaminari leaned back. “I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Fine, be a dick then.” Sero zipped up his backpack and stood up. He frowned down at Kaminari. “I’m heading home.”
Kaminari didn’t stand, but he reached out and hooked Sero’s leg with his foot. “You’re the one being a dick,” he said, though he didn’t sound angry. Kirishima could feel the air bristling beside him where Ashido stood frozen. “I already told you, I can’t say anything in the RG. Everything you know, you put together. If you really wanna know, I’m sure you can figure it out, though I’m pretty sure you already have.”
Sero moved out of Kaminari’s reach, his face not as angry. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll text you tomorrow or something.”
“Fine.” Kaminari shrugged. Once Sero’s back was turned, he smirked, looking at Ashido and Kirishima out of the corner of his eye. A second later, his wings were unfolded. Kirishima took a quick step back though Ashido didn’t budge. “You know, you two must be as subtle as a pair of elephants out of their cages.”
“What the actual hell, Kaminari?! He knows?!”
Kaminari blinked innocently. “Who knows what?”
“Sero knows you’re a Reaper?”
He laid back on the brick, hands crossed behind his head. “Oh, yeah, he does.”
“Hmm—” Kaminari held up a hand in front of his face to count on his fingers “—almost a year now? Look, he found out on his own, so I don’t see why that’s my fault and not yours.”
Ashido leaned over him, fists balled, and Kirishima wouldn’t be surprised if she actually reeled back and hit him. After everything yesterday and now today, he wouldn’t put it past her. He was even surprised. He didn’t know much, but it didn’t seem like people in the RG knew much about Reapers or the Game. There was Aizawa, but he seemed to be a special case. Reapers could be visible in the RG, but that didn’t mean people knew they were Reapers. Ashido had sat inches away from Sero and he’d been none the wiser.
“I’m sorry,” Ashido spat out, “it’s my fault?”
“And Sero didn’t say anything to you, so what does that say?” Kaminari continued, not bothering with Ashido’s question.
“You know what? Sero was right. You are being a dick!” Ashido shouted as she ran her fingers through her curls in frustration. “Ever since the Game started! What the hell did I do to you?”
“Tch.” Kaminari was about open his mouth and be an asshole—Kirishima just knew it—but the color suddenly drained from his face and his face dropped. “Oh shit.” He sat up sharply. “You guys better bounce if you know what’s good for you.”
Before they could say anything else, he disappeared right in front of them.
“A little overdramatic, but I can appreciate when a grunt knows his place.”
Footsteps came to a halt behind them. Ashido and Kirishima turned around slowly, feeling a sudden drop in temperature. The man loomed over them and he’d be even taller if it weren’t for his hunched posture. His face was flat and, although the sun shone brightly above them, here in the shade of the lion’s stature, this man’s presence alone seemed to suck all the warmth from the air. The wings behind him were indicator enough as to what he was, and they were bigger than any other Reapers’ they’d seen. The stouter parts on the bottom weren’t even black but dark red. The skeletal wings flexed out behind him, extending even farther.
“My name is Akaguro Chizome, but you Players can call me Stain,” he said. Kirishima was frozen, but this was a different kind of fear. “I am this week’s designated Game Master. I came to check in on the leading Players—” he paused to chuckle humorlessly “—well, of course you’re the leading Players. You’re the only ones left.”
Kirishima couldn’t find any words to say. Beside him, he could see Ashido’s hands shaking, but she still had her voice.
“So what?” The adrenaline from shouting at Kaminari was still rushing through her veins. “It’s not like we’re gonna lose. If you’re the one in charge, then you’re the one to blame for what happened to Todoroki, and we already promised our revenge.”
“How long did it take you to practice that, girlie?” The Game Master rolled his eyes. “No, you’re not going to win. I’ve seen no Players worth a second chance, so you’ll be erased like everyone else.”
“Second chance?” Kirishima got out.
“I should have had everything wrapped up yesterday, so think of today as a little reward. Take it easy now because you won’t see the end of tomorrow.” Tilting his head back, Stain looked down what should have been his nose at them. “I came to personally observe today’s mission and it’s funny to me how the worst of the lot have managed to survive the longest. Especially you, girl. It’s amazing how hard everyone tries to play hero while they’re just struggling to save their own skin.”
“Me?” Ashido snapped. “I don’t care what you think of me, creep.”
“Of course you don’t. Why would you care about what anyone thinks, you shallow, shallow girl. You can’t hide anything in the Game. Even your entry fee tells me exactly what you are.”
Taken aback, Ashido’s shoulders drooped in confusion.
Emboldened, Stain advanced a step closer. “It’s image, isn’t it? How people look, how they make you look. Is it fashionable? Is it cool?” Stain mocked before his face snapped back to an expression of disgust. “It’s all surface stuff. Nothing deeper because that’s too hard. It’s all fluff. It’s all—” he waved his hand around, searching for the right word “—color. And that’s why you lost yours.”
Ashido took a step back. “Well that’s…”
“So, you can make your threats and act the hero. Stand up for your friends, but are they your friends if you don’t care who they are? Given the second chance, are you really going to be any different? Or will you continue collecting people like fashion accessories?”
“Stop!” Kirishima stepped forward, half in front of Ashido. He heard her move even farther away behind him. “What are you talking about second chances?”
Any expression building on Stain’s face dropped as he turned his gaze to stare Kirishima down. “You’re dead, kid.” He spat on the ground. “Didn’t you know? The Reapers’ Game is a test. An examination of souls.”
For a second, everything fell away. Then, came roaring back. How exactly was he supposed to have known? “Dead?” he mumbled through numb lips. He tried to suck in a breath of air.
Stain turned away, only peering over his shoulder at them. “I’ll see you on the seventh day, if you survive that long.”
Chapter 4: Transformation
Now, open your eyes, put yourself together. Now, you should accept this, it is over. You, keep your eyes on this confusion. Come on, yes, you should watch this transformation.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
For the first time that week, Kirishima woke up to a dark sky. He was laying in the grass again and he sat up. It prickled his hands, but he realized he couldn’t feel it. Not really. There was no coolness on his palms, just that scratchy feeling. It felt as though the breeze that ruffled the trees blew right through him. Was this how it really was? Or was he just imagining things now that he knew he was dead?
There was a lake stretched out in front of him. It was a grayish blue, reflecting the sky above it. Stray raindrops rippled its surface, but he didn’t feel those either. Those he could actually see go straight through him because there wasn’t a body for them to land on. It was like the Game Ground wasn’t even there. Like Kirishima wasn’t there.
But there was something real in his hands. Something he could hold onto. Lifting his hands from his lap, Kirishima locked onto the object, giving it all his focus. It was easier than thinking about anything else.
It was a red chain. There was a clasp that meant the chain must be a necklace. Come to think of it, the red chain was similar to the Player Chain hanging around his neck. He pulled the two together right under his chin for a closer inspection. The links in the chain were exactly the same. The only real difference was the color, this dark red color that gave him a bad feeling.
He couldn’t do anything with it for the moment, so he wrapped it around his wrist, tangled together with the other black chain he’d found on him. They could be mysteries together. Maybe once he found Ashido, she’d have some idea. Thinking of his partner, Kirishima gazed around him. He was sitting on a gentle sloping hill, which blocked the edge of the lake closest to him. To his back was a building, three stories and a lot of windows. He wondered if it was a school building. For once, there were no skyscrapers wrapped around him. Instead, he saw them rise up out of the horizon just beyond what he suspected was a school.
Kirishima leaned back on his hands, the two chains clinking together on his wrist, a reminder of yet another mystery added to his plate. But if that Reaper—the Game Master—from yesterday had been right, then that was one mystery solved. The reason why he was in this Game…it was because he was dead.
If he was to be believed of course.
Though Kirishima didn’t have many other options. Trust your partner. That’s all he had, and Ashido hadn’t argued with the guy, but then that would mean she had known that they were dead. Biting his lip, Kirishima stared down at the grass. No, he couldn’t start blaming his partner for everything. If they were at odds with each other then they would end up like Day 2, or worse. They could end up like Todoroki and Midoriya. They could end up like those two whether they were on good terms with each other or not.
But if the Game Master was right, then they were all dead—Ashido, Todoroki, and Midoriya, too. So, did that mean that by being erased, Todoroki had lost his second chance? That he was gone for good? And what about Midoriya?
His thoughts were interrupted by his phone going off in his back pocket. Standing, Kirishima pulled it out. A mission already? He hadn’t even seen Ashido. Maybe she hadn’t woken up yet.
Lead the Angels’ view to red at 14:00. You have 180 minutes. Fail and you’ll be erased.
His palm burned as he shut his phone with a forceful snap. He sighed. Another convoluted message he couldn’t understand at first glance. Did he really deserve to be put at such a disadvantage?
With no memories, he couldn’t begin to answer the mission.
So, he glanced around for Ashido. Overhead, the clouds showed no sign of clearing, though the rain continued to sprinkle down lightly. More than a mist, from the ripples in the water, but not enough to drench a person. An alive person anyway. Kirishima still couldn’t feel the drops on his arms.
Looking at the lake again, Kirishima’s eyes were drawn to a blot of color just down the hill. On such a dreary day, Ashido’s pink hair stood out. There was a dock leading out across the water a short way and she was sitting at the end of it, feet dangling just above the water.
Kirishima scrambled down the slope and to her side, his footsteps sounding hollow on the old wood. He must have just missed her, the hill barely blocking his sight from sitting down. She didn’t look up at him as he neared, only stared down at the water, fingers curled around the wood she was sitting on.
“Hey, did you get the message?” Kirishima asked.
She looked up and then quickly away. “Oh, yeah…” she said, the usual pep in her voice missing. “Angels? Red? Yeah, I have no idea.”
Kirishima frowned. That wasn’t like her. She always had some idea about these riddles. He flipped open his phone, angling it down at her. “Do you want another look? Seriously, Ashido, I have no idea.”
“Well, something’s supposed to happen at two.” She only glanced at the phone screen, not long enough for a proper look.
Kirishima resisted reacting to his mounting frustration. That wouldn’t help whatever mood she was in. “Yeah but, like, do we do something? Or is something supposed to happen?” he rambled out loud, hoping to jog her chatterbox muscles. “It’s more precise with its timing than the other missions. Even the countdown is scheduled for just after two.” He plopped down next to her, his legs long enough that the bottom of his sneakers just skimmed the water’s surface.
Ashido only shrugged. Glancing over, Kirishima realized she had pulled her hands into her lap to fiddle with something twisting between her fingers.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing.
“Oh—” she held up the same red chain Kirishima had on his wrist “—just another Player Chain I found.” She squinted at it, voice dropping as she muttered to herself. “But it’s gray, so that might mean it’s not a Player Chain, or…” Sighing, she looked over at Kirishima, whose mouth was open, ready to interrupt. “It’s not gray, is it.”
“It’s red,” he said.
She sighed again, her hand closing around the necklace.
“That guy yesterday,” Kirishima started slowly, “he said something about you losing your color. What did he mean?”
“It’s pretty straightforward,” Ashido said, ducking her head. “Everything’s just black and white. A little bit of gray. That was my entry fee.”
Tilting his head, Kirishima thought back. “Oh,” he finally said. “So that’s why you didn’t see those smudges on the lions that second day.” She had been the one to first look them over and found nothing, but when Kirishima looked over the Statue of Lions, there had been those faded graffiti marks and, when he rubbed them, the lions became Nomu, solving the mission.
“What? No way! You don’t have to apologize,” he hurried to explain. “I’m just saying, it makes sense, but now that I know, I can try and help. Just like how you help me with my amnesia, right?”
She gave him a half smile, but it was better than nothing. “Right.”
“So, the mission.”
Ashido worried her bottom lip with her teeth and stared down at the water again. “We have to figure out where they want us to go. It can’t be here.”
“Why not?” Kirishima asked. “And where’s here anyway?”
“Stitcher’s Lake. There’s Kamino High behind us,” she said, pointing to the building Kirishima had seen earlier. “And there’s no one’s view to lead. Just us.”
“So angels are the key.” Kirishima tapped his chin. “Wasn’t that roundabout called Angels Circus or something? It’s usually pretty crowded, too.”
Ashido’s smile grew just a little. “That’s a pretty solid guess if you ask me.”
“Well, what’re we waiting for?” Kirishima grabbed Ashido’s hands and hauled her to her feet. “Let’s go! Point me in the right direction!”
“It’s just past the high school.”
Putting the lake to their backs, they trudged up the hill toward the high school. It was pretty deserted. Kirishima wondered if the students were on summer break. That would make the lake a popular hangout spot, he figured, but maybe the bad weather was keeping everyone indoors for the day.
“So, if the mission is at Angels Circus, why’d we wake up all the way out here?” Kirishima wondered aloud. He spotted the way Ashido’s shoulders tensed as they passed the school gates.
“Probably ‘cause I died here.”
Kirishima stopped in his tracks. “You remember how you died?” popped out of his mouth before he thought better of it.
“Not exactly, but it’s the last place I remember.”
“Those Reapers are total dicks,” Kirishima muttered as he started walking again. “What, it’s not enough that they’re trying to erase us, but now it’s their job to screw with us, too?”
Ashido laughed awkwardly as she twisted a curl of hair around her finger. “Eh, I kinda deserve it. I wasn’t…well, I wasn’t being a very nice person before I died.”
Her hand dropped back down to her side as she turned to him, smile bright and fake. “Wouldn’t you rather know why it’s called Stitcher’s Lake? It’s because kids are always hurting themselves on summer break. There’s a rope swing over in the trees, but the water’s too shallow. Someone always ends up with a busted knee or their head split open.” Her smile dropped suddenly. “You know, that’s probably how I died.”
Kirishima looked away. They were walking side-by-side again.
“First day back at school, we always had to say what we did over the summer. At least half the boys talk about Stitcher’s Lake. Who got bit by a turtle. How many stiches someone got. If so-and-so broke his arm. Boys like stuff like that, I guess.” She smiled again, but this one was aimed straight ahead, distant.
The buildings grew tighter together and taller the further they got from the high school. The streets became more crowded, too. Cars sped past, honking their horns. They were swept up again in Kamino’s fast-paced energy. The lake had seemed like a breath of fresh air, until Ashido’s words dropped like heavy stones on his chest.
They didn’t stop until they reached the fountain, the center of Angels Circus. If there was a view they were supposed to be looking for, surely they’d see it from here.
“See red,” Ashido murmured to herself. “This mission might be easier if I could.” She looked over at Kirishima. “What do you see that’s red from here?”
Kirishima gazed all around them. Really, there were all sorts of colors, not just red. Fashion was a vast rainbow passing by in a blur as the crowds surged forward. A few even had umbrellas pulled out, and those ranged in colors, too. Across the street, buildings’ LED screens flashed even brighter on this gloomy day.
“Nothing stands out,” he told Ashido.
“Red is clearly the key.”
He knew that, but what could that possibly mean? Today’s mission made no sense. Plus, it was the sixth day. If the Game Master was so interested in them yesterday, maybe that meant they were the last pair. That meant, if they didn’t complete the mission, nobody would, and they’d be erased for sure.
“This is it. This is totally the end for me.”
A voice interrupted Kirishima’s thoughts. His head whipped around looking for the source, wondering why that voice cut through so much clearer than everyone else’s in the RG.
It was because he recognized the guy. It was the same man from yesterday. The nicely dressed blonde man that’d had a Nomu on his shoulder. Was he still so down in the dumps? Kirishima didn’t spy any Nomu around. He nudged Ashido with his elbow and nodded in the man’s direction.
“Hey, I remember him,” Ashido said and they both stepped closer. “He said his name was Monoma yesterday. The obnoxious guy stressing about work.”
Not interested in hearing the man complain again, Kirishima was about to turn anyway when he spotted something familiar in Monoma’s hands. He doubled back and stepped closer. “Hey, that’s—”
Ashido pulled her red chain out of her pocket. “Is it the same chain?” she asked. “Same color?”
Kirishima nodded. “Yeah, that’s the same chain we woke up with.”
“Isn’t it odd,” Ashido started, “that we were given the same chain, and now it’s popping up in the RG?”
“Plus, it’s red,” Kirishima murmured. Then, his face lit in recognition. “That’s it! The red chain must be what today’s mission is about.”
“By two o’clock my life will be over. Meaningless. Caput. Sayonara, Monoma.”
Ashido and Kirishima turned back around to see Monoma sulking away from them. They hurried to catch up.
“I wonder if my parents will let me move back in. No one will want to hire me after this massive failure,” he muttered darkly to himself.
“He said two o’clock,” Kirishima said. “That’s part of the mission, too.”
Ashido rolled her eyes dramatically. “Sheesh, why did the mission have to deal with this loser?” She was about to carry on, but then her eyes widened, and she looked away with a blush. “Never mind,” she said, her voice quieter. “Let’s just follow him and see what’s going on.”
“He might not say it all outright. I’ll try listening into his thoughts.”
Closing his eyes, Kirishima pinned his focus to Monoma, letting all other noises fade away. He let go of his worry. The Game, his death, whatever that had Ashido acting so weird today, he let it all go for the moment.
So much money…
There. That was Monoma. Kirishima allowed himself to be pulled in deeper.
It’s such a short commercial, too. What’s the boss thinking, paying all that money for the Mega Screen? All the big brands get shown there, but nobody will look twice for a stupid necklace. Why’s our company going broke over a dumb chain anyway?
Kirishima pulled back, Ashido’s firm grip on his arm keeping him steady on his feet.
“Find anything out?” she asked.
“The Mega Screen?” he asked, and she pointed across the street.
The tallest building sat on the corner between where East City began and the direction toward the Dome. On it was the largest video screen. Unlike the others, it wasn’t cluttered by neighboring video boards flashing competing ads and commercials. No matter where you stood in Angels Circus, you could see the Mega Screen. Right now, it was flashing a commercial for Dragoir.
Everyone could see it, but that didn’t mean everyone looked. With so many brands being blasted down on the people below, it was just background noise. Eyes pointed straight ahead, not interested. Other than people waiting at crosswalks, nobody wanted to look up.
Monoma was right. His ad campaign was doomed.
And if their mission was what Kirishima suspected—to get everyone to see Monoma’s commercial—then that meant he and Ashido were doomed as well.
Kirishima turned to explain all this to Ashido.
Her face fell. “That’s…that’s impossible. Nobody cares about commercials.” Her fist tightened around the red chain. “And for something like this?” She looked as though she was about to throw it, but instead she collapsed to sit on the edge of the fountain.
“Hey, hey,” Kirishima said, hovering over her, “we can’t give up yet. There’s still a bunch we can—yeah! Remember Imprinting? We can Imprint the necklace on people and get them interested so that when the ad plays, they’ll have to look!”
“But I’m no good at Imprinting.” Ashido’s eyes fell to her hands where she was worryingly playing with the chain. “And you can’t do that all by yourself.”
Kirishima frowned. “We have to at least try.”
“Is there even a point?”
“Even a—of course, there’s a point!” Kirishima’s hands balled into fists at his side. “Don’t you want your second chance?”
Ashido’s head snapped up, a glare in her eyes that quickly fizzled out. “Of course, I do! But—” she looked away again. “—but that doesn’t mean anything will change.”
“What’s your deal today? You’ve been all over the place. Moping at the lake, smiling like you don’t mean it, and now—this.”
“It’s just—” Ashido scowled “—listen to me! Judging that guy, calling him a loser just because he’s complaining about his job. That Reaper yesterday was right. If I win and have my life again, I’ll still be the same!” Her hand grabbed at her uniform over her chest. “Nothing will change…”
“So what?” Kirishima sat down next to her, intent at not looking at how much remained on his palm. “You’ll just give up and let go of that chance? Nothing’s set in stone.”
“You don’t get it!” Ashido snapped. Her voice lowered. “Everything that Reaper said was right. I made friends depending on how popular they could make me. I stayed away from the quiet, plain-looking kids because their appearance made them boring to me. Like you… The truth is, I knew we were going to the same high school, but you were so quiet in middle school that I didn’t even try befriending you. I thought there was no point.”
“That first day in the Game? You were totally lost. It was like you were having a meltdown, but did I care? Did I ask you what was wrong?”
Kirishima didn’t say anything.
“When Kaminari goaded you into attacking me, that was my fault. I was the one not being a proper partner to you. I gave you no reason to befriend me, no reason to trust me because I didn’t care. I just wanted to win the Game and get back to my life!”
“And we are,” Kirishima said. “We’re going to win and we’re going to live again.”
“But when I was at the lake, I remembered.” Ashido sniffed and rubbed her nose. “You remember Sero? That guy from yesterday? I like him. I like him so much, Kirishima, but I couldn’t just tell him, you know? So, I went to the lake with a bunch of other guys. Just hanging out, swimming. I wanted to make him jealous so he’d ask me out. But then I died.” Her hands covered her face as she curled forward over her knees. “If I go back—” her voice was so quiet “—he’s gonna hate me. That’s why Kaminari does. That’s why he kept going after us. It’s all my fault and if I have a second chance, I’m so afraid I’ll screw it up all over again. Or—” she curled tighter in on herself “—that I already broke everything beyond repair.”
There was silence in that moment as her words dropped away. Like there was a bubble around them, separating them from the rest of the city. Kirishima reached out and settled a hand on her back.
“That’s not true,” he said, and Ashido peeked out at him from between her fingers. “Because, we’re friends now.”
Ashido let both of her hands fall away from her face to look at him.
“Things are different now and there’s no way they’ll go back to the way they were.” He scratched his cheek sheepishly. “I don’t remember anything, so I can’t say much, but what I know for sure is that you’re going to change.”
“Why?” Her voice was hoarse.
Kirishima blinked before smiling down at her. “Because that’s what we do. I mean, look at me. You said you didn’t even recognize me when we met here. Doesn’t that mean I changed?” He felt his heart fidget, not really believing his own words. “A-anyway, you want to. Once that’s decided, I think there’s no doubt that you’ll become the person you want to be.”
Sniffing again, Ashido wiped her eyes, sitting straighter with Kirishima’s hand still pressed against her back. “We should’ve been friends a long time ago, Kirishima.”
His smile grew as he let his arm wrap around her. “That’s okay, because we’re friends now. From how I feel—” his other hand rested over his heart “—I don’t think I’m very good at making friends.” He squeezed Ashido tighter. “So you can be my first real friend, okay?”
“Okay.” Ashido pulled back so that she could wrap both arms around his shoulders. “And we’re gonna be for a long time after all this is over, in the RG.”
Kirishima laughed gently until he caught sight of the timer on his hand.
“First, we have to finish this mission.”
Ashido nodded against his shoulder before withdrawing her arms. “And survive tomorrow.”
“Alright, so—” Kirishima got to his feet, looking around for Monoma “—where did that guy go?”
Ashido rose with him. “Hopefully off to gather interest in his commercial.”
“We should try the Imprinting,” Kirishima said. “It’s just Angels Circus. It’s not like we have to sway the entire city.”
“I know I’m not very good, but I’ll still try my best.”
Kirishima held out a hand. “We’ll do it together. If we join our strength, we should be able to reach more people at once.”
Ashido shrugged but took his hand anyway. “We have to get the idea to stick.”
Kirishima nodded, holding both of Ashido’s hands now in his. Together, they closed their eyes and bowed their heads, their attention turning to the red chain.
Everyone around them was thinking of so many different things. It was overwhelming to focus on them all. It reminded him of Day 1, waking up in Angels Circus, head pounding from so many thoughts pouring through. He held Ashido’s hands tighter, letting that ground him. He couldn’t form the right thoughts. What could he Imprint on everyone that would get them interested in something they didn’t already know?
That weirdo with those red necklaces—
He was definitely desperate, but—
Hey, it matches my outfit. Why not wear it?
“He handed some out already,” Ashido whispered, her voice just barely cutting through his concentration, having found the same thoughts he had.
That’s it. Ashido knew trends. She knew fashion, what people wanted, but if she couldn’t reach them through Imprinting…
“Ashido,” he said, “what’s good about the necklace? Why should people buy it?”
“No, think it. I’ll project it like Imprinting.” He smiled, eyes still closed as he gave her hands a squeeze. “You’re the one who knows the trends after all.”
She squeezed back.
Kirishima shifted his focus onto Ashido. There were no clear thoughts coming through with her Player Chain blocking them out, but her feelings poured into him. He hoped that if he Imprinted them on everyone around them, Ashido’s thoughts would come through loud and clear. He hoped she would reach them.
He felt them go out like a wave, could feel attention shifting ever so slight. New eyes found the necklaces Monoma must have handed out. With the Imprinting, the sight stuck, lingering in their minds. If only they could hold onto that image until the ad showed—
The sudden voice ripped apart Kirishima’s concentration as he blinked his eyes open. Was it enough? Did they reach enough people?
“Hardly anybody’s wearing the necklaces.”
Kirishima turned to find Monoma back at the fountain. His suit was looking disheveled as if he’d been running. His eyes were flicking back and forth over the crowd, searching for the red glint of his necklaces around people’s necks. He couldn’t see the way thoughts flowed like Kirishima could. There was at least a glimmer of interest floating around out there.
“And I handed out so many, too.”
Kirishima released Ashido’s hands, lifting one of his own to press against the side of his head. This was the worst headache yet. He felt lightheaded, too. Like he might topple over at any second. Ashido didn’t look much better. He didn’t think they’d be able to try the mass Imprinting again, not before the commercial played at two.
“No good?” Ashido asked, her voice faint as she swayed on her feet.
Ashido and Monoma both gasped, looking at an approaching figure behind Kirishima. He spun around.
“Mr. Yamada,” Monoma responded, looking as star-struck as Ashido.
This blonde man was older and clearly carried himself with presence. His hair was slicked and his eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. His clothes weren’t anything too flashy. Just a black leather jacket and skinny jeans, but that didn’t seem to matter. There was a self-assuredness about him that he could’ve worn rags and made it work.
“That’s Yamada Hizashi,” Ashido told him, leaning in close. “He’s real big in the music industry. Owns a record company, DJs on weekends, and has a morning radio show. Plus, he blogs under the name Present Mic. He was the big blogger I told you about a couple days ago. He knows all the trends. Music, fashion, doesn’t matter. He knows what’s hot.”
“And apparently he knows Monoma.”
Ashido hummed in agreement. “Apparently.”
Yamada walked up to Monoma and slung an arm over his shoulders like they were old pals. Monoma’s reaction was the only indicator that that might not be the case. He stiffened, eyes looking around uncomfortably.
“I hardly ever see you out of the office, kid,” Yamada said. “What’s up?”
“Oh, you know.” Monoma ducked under his arm and produced the red chain for Yamada to see. “Advertising campaign. Doing some legwork for the company.”
“They really run you boys into the ground your first year, but I guess that’s to see what you’re made of, am I right?” Yamada laugh and jabbed Monoma in the ribs with his elbow.
Monoma coughed. “Yeah, I guess that’s the case.”
“Well then, what have you done so far?”
Monoma cleared his throat. “I handed a bunch out, talked to some people, but nothing’s really sticking.”
Yamada pointed at Monoma’s chest. “All while not even wearing the product you’re trying to sell?” He raised an eyebrow at that. “Have you just been playing cat’s cradle with it in your hands all day?” He laughed and slapped Monoma on the back.
“Uh,” Monoma stuttered, trying not to drop the chain.
“Listen, Neito, you were one of my best interns last year. You produced a lot of good results. I have no doubt you’ll pull this campaign together, but as a favor, I’ll take one—” he reached out and plucked the red chain from Monoma’s hands “—I’ll write a little something about it in my next blog. That won’t help you today, but it might help next week.”
Monoma’s jaw dropped. “Really? You’re serious, Mr. Yamada?”
“Of course!” Yamada spun the chain around his finger before looping it through his beltloop and tucking the end in his pocket. Totally not it’s intended use, Kirishima figured, and almost completely out of sight, but better than nothing. “But I’m off to a meeting, so I can’t stay and chat. Good luck, kid!”
As Monoma looped one of his own necklaces around his neck and walked off into the crowd again, Kirishima turned to Ashido.
“Will that help?”
She shrugged. “Like he said, it probably won’t do much for the commercial today, which doesn’t help Monoma or us.”
Sighing, Kirishima checked his hand. There was less than ten minutes and the clock on his phone showed that it was only a couple minutes before the hour struck. The commercial was going to run any minute now.
“You up for one more sweep of the place?” Ashido asked, holding out her hand.
Kirishima took it. “Not sure how much juice I’ve got left, but if we don’t try up until the last second—”
“—we’ll regret it.”
They tried the mass Imprinting again, instantly his focus on projecting Ashido’s thoughts. There was no way to tell if they were really sticking, but this was the best they could do in the moment.
They ran out of strength a lot quicker than before when they were interrupted. Kirishima sat on the ground, rubbing his forehead. He didn’t think he’d make it back over to the fountain. Ashido joined him.
“All we can do now is watch,” she said as she caught her breath, angling her head up to watch the Mega Screen.
“Hey, did you see what that guy was wearing?”
“Oh yeah? What?”
Voices filtered in over their heads. Passing conversations coming in and out. Kirishima leaned back on his hands and listened.
“—kinda plain, but you know, I was thinking it might go really great with that dress I got yesterday?”
“The black one?”
“It needs a pop of color.”
“Black on black’s not bad though.”
“Yeah, but sometimes there’s too much black. That necklace was pretty badass. Maybe red’s the new black.”
“Hah, now you’re making me want one!”
Ashido was laughing. “That’s it,” she said. “That’s how trends spread.”
“Hey, did you see Present Mic’s wallet chain today? Totally cool!”
Kirishima looked over at Ashido. She tapped her head. “It’s all in here, but once you get to talking about it, seeing it on other people—the right people—it can start to catch on.” She winked. “It helps if they’re all thinking about it already.”
“So now we wait and see, huh?”
“Yeah.” She hugged her knees to her chest. “But I’m sorry for slowing us down today.”
“It’s no big deal. I’m glad you told me instead of keeping it bottled up,” Kirishima said.
“And you were right.” She smiled softly against her knees. “When I’m alive again, I’m gonna tell Sero how I feel. I’m gonna change.”
Kirishima grinned and lightly punched her arm. “That’s great, Ashido.”
“It’s Mina.” She turned her head so she was aiming her smile at him. “My friends call me Mina.”
“Then I’m Eijirou.” He pulled his fist back from her arm as an offering, making her laugh as she tapped it with her own.
They turned away from each other to see people pointing up at the Mega Screen.
“You know, I was just thinking—”
“That’s exactly what I need!”
“Wasn’t Present Mic wearing that earlier?”
“I wonder who designed it.”
“I hate necklaces, but…”
“Where can I get one?”
It was as though time went still. Even people walking halted mid-step, taking a second to look up. The commercial seemed to have grabbed their attention, but just to be sure, Kirishima lifted his hand. The timer was gone. He breathed out a sigh of relief.
“We did it!” Ashido shook her shoulder. “They actually watched! I’ve—I’ve never seen Angels Circus like this. Nobody watches the ads.” Then, her smile dropped as she caught sight of something in the crowd.
Kirishima spotted it, too.
It was Sero. He was laughing with some other kids. They were watching the ad as they joked with each other. Carrying on their way after it ended.
“I want to see him again,” Ashido said, her eyes following after him. “I know things can’t go back to how they were, but him and Kaminari—I want us to be friends again.”
“You never know what the future holds, right? Let’s win,” Kirishima said. “That’s the only way you’ll find out. We just have to survive one more day.”
“You won’t win.”
Kirishima and Ashido spun around. They found Kaminari siting on the fountain with his elbows braced on his knees. It was odd not to find him somewhere higher up looking down on them, like a lamp post or on of the fountain’s top level. At the sight of him, Ashido got to her feet with Kirishima right behind her.
“There’s no doubt we will!” Ashido said and Kirishima was happy to see her fighting spirit return to her.
Kaminari didn’t rise to the challenge. In fact, he didn’t look nearly as confident as he did days’ past when he taunted them. It was like this gloomy day was getting to everyone, Players and Reapers alike.
“Nobody wins Stain’s sessions,” Kaminari said. “He’s a newer officer, but the only reason he climbed the ranks so quickly is because he erases every Player he faces. No exceptions.”
“I’m not going to argue with you.” Ashido planted her hands on her hips, not wilting like she might’ve done earlier that day. “Because it’s not debatable. Eijirou and I are going to win. No matter what. So, when I come back—” she pointed at Kaminari “—you and I are going to be friends again.”
Kirishima spotted a pained smile on Kaminari’s lips, but he looked away to better hide it, plopping his chin into his palm. “You’re dead, Mina. That’s all there is to it.”
“Doesn’t matter. Players that win get a second chance.”
“Players that win get to decide between going back or becoming a Reaper.”
Kirishima’s eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed. “Why would anyone want to be a Reaper?”
Kaminari shrugged. “For a chance at becoming the Composer, obviously,” he said. “To have total control over this city. And what happens to Composers when they retire? That has to be pretty good, right?”
“So…Reapers are all former Players who’ve won?” Ashido asked hesitantly.
Scowling, Kaminari turned his head so he was looking directly at her again. “Some of us weren’t given an option to go back. It’s whatever the Composer wants, at the end of the day, It’s His world. We’re all just living in it.”
“Game Master, Composer, whatever,” Ashido said, waving it all away. “Eijirou and I are going to live again.”
“You’re dead!” Kaminari sprung to his feet, face suddenly angry and more expressive than Kirishima had seen it. “You’d both be alive if you hadn’t died! Not everyone gets a second chance, so why are you so confident you’ll get one?”
“I’m not confident!” Ashido shouted back. “But I’m going to fight for it because that’s all I can do!”
“Tch.” Kaminari allowed his anger to simmer as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Just because you got into the Game when you died doesn’t mean you have an automatic right to live again.”
Kirishima grabbed Ashido’s arm to keep her from yelling again. “Not everyone who dies plays the Game?”
Ashido blinked at Kirishima’s question, her shoulders relaxing at the change in topic. “What happens when you’re erased?”
“I don’t know. Do I look like the Composer to you?” Kaminari snapped. “In the RG, does the mystery of death have most people lining up to find out? No. Erasure is death for anyone in the GG. Nobody knows what happens to you and nobody comes back.”
The three of them stared at each other in silence for a moment. Kirishima knew there was a finality about erasure, but hearing a Reaper admit a similar fear of the unknown wasn’t reassuring. Who knew that mysteries extended beyond death? But, if there were such levels of existence as the Real Ground and the Game Ground, then surely there could be others entirely different that nobody knew of.
“Listen,” Kaminari finally said, calmer now, “Stain will be tough tomorrow. He’s fast and he’ll slash you up into pieces if you aren’t ready. You’ll be the weakest link,” he continued, pointing at Mina. “Kirishima at least has some defense, but if Stain rushes for you, which is likely so he can cut out your supporting role, you’ll be wide open.”
Instead of exploding on Kaminari like Kirishima expected, Ashido pondered the information, rocking from one foot to the other. “Alright, then I’ll be ready.”
“It’s more than just being ready—”
Frowning, Kaminari closed his mouth, his arms still hugging himself tightly.
For the first time that Kirishima had seen, Ashido smiled at Kaminari. “Thank you. Eijirou and I will be fine tomorrow. I’ll see you back at school.”
Kaminari only huffed in reply. One second, he was in front of the fountain, but the next, he was gone.
“This is it. The final day,” Ashido said. No, she had told Kirishima to call her Mina.
Not wasting any time, their phones chirped the mission mail.
Go full circle. The Game Master waits. Defeat him. You have 120 minutes. Fail and you’ll be erased.
“That’s not a lot of time,” Kirishima said as they both gritted their teeth against the sting of the timer appearing on their hands.
“Yeah, but we’re not far away,” Mina added. They were standing in front of the Dome and it was another cloudy day, though the clouds weren’t as dark as yesterday. “Full circle? That obviously means we’re heading to Angels Circus again.”
They put the Dome to their backs and started walking. The sooner they finished this, the sooner they’d win and get their lives back.
“So the Game Master is that Reaper we met the other day, right?”
“The one that scared Kaminari off,” Ashido said, nodding. “He called himself Stain. You think he’ll be real tough?”
“Doesn’t matter. We’re here to win this and we’re gonna pay him back for Todoroki, too.”
Ashido’s expression hardened. “You’re right.”
Suddenly, Kirishima’s phone started beeping. It was more than just a text alert. Pulling it from his back pocket, he checked the screen. An unknown number.
“Someone’s calling you?” Mina asked. “But we haven’t had service all week.”
Eyes narrowing, Kirishima flipped the phone open and answered.
“Hey, kid. It’s me.”
Kirishima blinked at Mina. “Mr. Aizawa?”
“Listen,” Aizawa said, cutting to the chase quickly, “Midoriya is missing.”
Mina tilted her head to the side, only hearing half the conversation.
“Yeah, he’s been with me, but now he’s gone—not erased, not yet.”
“Why’d he leave?”
“I don’t know,” Aizawa said sharply. “Look, all I’m calling to say is that you two have to finish this mission. Fast. Midoriya can’t fight out there, so it’s up to you to wrap this Game up.”
“Dammit,” Kirishima muttered through clenched teeth. His grip was so tight on his phone he thought it might snap in half.
“Don’t forget, it’s Day 7. The Game Master and every Reaper can attack Players all they want now.”
“So, wrap it up,” Aizawa said. “I’ll call if I find him.”
Kirishima snapped his phone shut. “Midoriya’s gone missing.”
Mina’s eyes widened. “So we have to look for him and beat the Game Master?”
“No, Mr. Aizawa said he’d keep an eye out. We just have to hurry,” he said.
“No time to waste then!” Ashido grabbed his arm and started off down the sidewalk at a run.
That maniac! Kirishima thought as Mina pulled him along. Why’d he have to go and disappear at the last second!
Because Aizawa was right. No partner meant no way to fight and today meant that they had worse than Nomu on their hands. Hopefully, he and Mina were enough of a distraction for the Game Master. Hopefully, he was just waiting for them at Angels Circus. Hopefully, Midoriya could evade anything else that might go after him.
Kirishima and Mina skidded to a halt. A Reaper was blocking their path. His hood had fallen off, revealing a tattooed face, an attempt to make him look more lizard-like and his hair was dyed purple. The long red scarf he wore reminded Kirishima of the Game Master. His black wings made sure they knew what he was.
“Players always mean points but on Day 7?” The Reaper cracked his knuckles. “That has to at least triple the points. Plus, can you imagine how happy the boss’ll be?”
Mina held out her hands in front of her. “Get outa our way!”
“We’re in a rush!” Kirishima added, but he already felt his defensive armor hardening the skin on his arms.
He charged in first, Mina’s acid raining in around him. The Reaper dodged his first punch, seemingly flickering in the air before moving beside Kirishima where Mina caught him in the eyes with a splash of acid. That gave Kirishima enough time to pull his punch back, jamming his elbow into the Reaper’s shoulder.
Holding both of her hands out, Mina caused a jet to surge forward. The Reaper cried out and this time, when he flickered away, he didn’t reappear.
“You think we erased him?” Kirishima asked, rubbing a hand over his forearm where his armor had just been.
Mina shrugged. “Either way, I hope he doesn’t come back.” They continued onward. “Was it me, or was that Reaper…no big deal?”
“Some might not be very strong?” It wasn’t like Kirishima had the answers. “Maybe they’re just desperate for points on the last day.”
“I wish we could count on the Game Master being as weak,” Mina sighed.
“Yeah, me too.”
“You look worried.”
Immediately, Kaminari gritted his teeth and looked away from Shinsou. They were sitting on top of the Dome. The glass reflected the sky above them, making it seem as though they were sitting in the clouds.
“Look, I’m just ready for this damn week to be over, okay?” Laying back, Kaminari turned on his side to put his back to Shinsou. He felt a hand pat his head, fingers running briefly through his hair. It eased some of the tension he felt along his neck down to his shoulders.
“Whatever you say, but you’re right. It has been a busy week.”
Kaminari felt the hand pull away along with Shinsou’s attention. He tensed again.
“And it’s about to get even busier,” he murmured.
Kaminari sat up. It was that Player—the freckled one that had stood up to them after the Nomu erased his partner—he was standing across the Dome’s apex, panting from the climb up. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Kaminari’s eyes narrowed.
“Shouldn’t you be erased?” he asked slowly, leaning forward so that he was braced on his toes. “Your partner’s gone. You should be, too.”
“Maybe he came for revenge,” Shinsou said quietly, making Kaminari laugh.
“No single Player could take on two Reapers. They can’t even take out a Nomu by themselves.”
The boy’s eyes dropped to the glass below his feet. “I want to know more about the Game. About the Players and the Reapers.”
“Why bother? We’re just gonna erase you,” Kaminari taunted playfully.
Shinsou’s finger brushed against his hand. “Maybe we hear him out first,” he suggested with a shrug. “Maybe we answer his questions.” His eyes slid back over to the boy.
“Reapers can control Nomu, right?”
“Sorta,” Kaminari said, leaning forward and balancing on his toes in his crouched position.
“And how…” the boy mumbled something under his breath as he tapped his cheek with a finger. “How do you become a Reaper?”
Kaminari glanced at Shinsou out of the corner of his eye and sighed, pushing himself up to his full height. He cast a quick glance in the direction of Angels Circus before he regarded the boy again. Shinsou was right. Today was going to be busy, but maybe he needed the distraction.
Mina stopped on the corner just before the crosswalk. In front of them, through the traffic and the crowds, Kirishima saw the fountain, the center of Angels Circus. This was where it was all going to go down.
“You meant it, right?” she asked, her eyes watching the fountain just like he was.
She looked up at him. “That we would be friends in the RG.”
“Yeah, of course.”
Mina took a deep breath, then nodded to herself. “We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna win the Game and save Midoriya and we’re gonna live again.”
Kirishima nodded encouragingly.
She looked at him again. “Just so you know, I was right that first day.”
“Right about what?”
“That you were going to be a great partner.” She grinned and punched his arm. He had no choice but to smile back. “Let’s promise each other,” she said after a beat. “You, me, and Midoriya, we’ll all meet in front of the Lions after we get back.”
“Alright then. It’s a promise.”
That said, Mina nodded once more, still trying to give herself the confidence to step forward and cross the street.
Something felt wrong the second they stepped off the road and in front of the fountain. For a second, Kirishima felt dizzy and disoriented, like his feet left the pavement and then slammed back down, jolting his knees. When he opened his eyes, the nausea fading, the streets of Kamino were deserted. There was only Mina to his left but no cars, no people. They were all gone. While he turned right, Mina turned left, each guarding the other’s back.
“I thought you’d get here quicker.”
From under the Mega Screen, Stain was crossing the road. He was slowly sliding a katana out of its sheath at his side. Remembering Kaminari’s words of advice, Kirishima stuck close to Mina, putting half of his body between her and the Game Master. Now he was thinking that they should’ve come up with some kind of strategy, but with the news of Midoriya’s disappearance, there hadn’t been time.
“You seem…” Stain regarded them carefully as he neared “—confident. And here I was thinking yesterday’s mission almost stumped you. You seemed pretty defeated the last I saw.”
Mina glanced at Kirishima before settling her eyes back on their opponent. “Well, that’s what happens when you have good friends. You can talk about your problems and change for the better.”
Stain gave a hollow laugh. “Change? There is no change for humans let alone Players. You may think you change, but the core never wavers. That’s why it’s time to cut you down.”
Behind him, the Game Master’s wings unfolded. Pitch black, they were at least twice the size of any ordinary Reaper’s. He swung his katana in a wide arc and then he dashed in, leaving little time for any preparation.
Mina coated the ground in front of them with acid just in time, but Stain merely slid through it with ease. Kirishima was already in the way and he raised his arms to block the downward strike. Stain’s foot shot out to his side, landing squarely against Mina’s chest and sending her back. Luckily, it was the flat of his boot and not the spikes on the toe.
“I’m okay!” she called quickly, though she was coughing to get her wind back.
Kirishima didn’t have a chance to respond. Stain was attacking again, kicking his foot upward and catching the underside of Kirishima’s chin. The spikes skittered and screeched against the hardened skin. His fist punched out instinctively, but Stain was already darting back and away. Before he could think, Kirishima chased after him, keeping himself between Stain and Mina. The second the Game Master saw an opening, there was no doubt he’d take it. Kirishima had to be the wall that shielded both himself and Mina, taking the brunt of Stain’s attacks. If he could keep that up, with Mina supporting from behind with her acid, then maybe they could find their own opening.
He tasted blood in his mouth and spat it onto the ground. He must have bit the inside of his cheek on that last hit.
Giving no time, Stain darted in again. He swung his katana, kicked his spiked foot, and then darted back out before Kirishima could land a proper hit. If anything, he dodged back out of the way from being splashed with Mina’s acid.
Kirishima was never going to hit him at this rate. He might be able to protect himself from Stain’s slashing attacks, but the Game Master was much faster. It would all come down to which would hold out longest, Kirishima’s shield or Stain’s speed.
Surprised, Kirishima looked away from the Game Master and back at Ashido. She was glaring at him. The anger on her face caught him off guard.
“Stop wasting your energy trying to protect me! I told Kaminari I could handle it, and I meant that!” she shouted. “Go in and attack and let me do my thing!”
Kirishima blinked at her. “Uh, okay.”
She was right. All he was doing was keeping Stain from getting close to Mina, but that didn’t mean he was able to do anything offensively. Plus, he was stifling Mina’s attacks.
If Mina said to trust her, then that’s what he had to do.
He wrenched his feet free of the concrete. They had become embedded from Stain’s constant attacks forcing him down. Keeping his legs free of his armor, Kirishima increased his speed in charging Stain, but while Stain moved like a lightning bolt, Kirishima was a truck. That mean his attacks packed more damage, but it was easy for Stain to jump over him or duck and slide out of the way.
But Stain doing more dodging than attacking meant the opportunity was open for Mina to catch him off guard.
The first few times, she missed. She was trying to predict which way he’d move in avoiding Kirishima. But then, when Kirishima rushed in, both fists reeled back for a hit that would surely miss, Mina caught Stain right in the face with her acid as he jumped to avoid Kirishima’s attack. He dropped, sputtering and hissing while trying to wipe it away with a gloved hand. That was Kirishima’s chance.
He sent one punch to the chest, knocking Stain back. One to his face and a firm kick to his shoulder, sending him off balance.
Kirishima thought that might be it, that they’d done it, but Stain recovered quickly. Too quickly.
Stain followed the momentum of Kirishima’s hit, turning with it to land on his other foot. With ease, he sidestepped Kirishima and ran for Mina, katana ready to swing.
Kirishima opened his mouth to call out a warning, but the noise died in his throat.
Using both hands, Mina raised a wall of acid between her and Stain. The katana dulled as it was swung through the liquid barrier and by the time it struck Mina’s forearm on the other side, it did little more than raise a red welt. Quickly, she grabbed it with acid-coated hands and squeezed down on the blade until is slowly rusted, snapping in half. With his katana released, Stain thrusted forward again with the broken tip, but Mina turned, allowing Stain and his speed to rush past her, right through the puddle she’d gathered at their feet.
Aiming her attention on it, the acid cooled, sticking to the ground and Stain’s boots with a quiet sizzle. Stain was locked in place. He tried hacking away at it with his broken blade, but he wouldn’t be fast enough.
“Finisher move,” Mina said with a wink in Kirishima’s direction as she cracked her knuckles.
He’d almost missed the feeling. He was too distracted watching Mina take down the Game Master. But that feeling was there, their connection stronger than ever. He nodded.
Kirishima ran at Stain one more time. Mina threw up another acid wall just as he passed, running through it but feeling none of its sting. The acid thickened and caught hold around his hardened arms. Both hands gripped together, Kirishima jumped and brought them crashing down onto Stain’s head, where he was still stuck in place. The acid rushed off his hands and completely coated Stain.
“Impossible,” Stain gagged out. “You two are not…worthy.” Then, his head was covered and the acid constricted around him.
When the Game Master shattered to pieces and faded away like static, all that remained of him was the imprint of his boots in Mina’s acid.
Arms crashed around him, nearly sending Kirishima tumbling into the ground.
“Hey! He’s gone! We did it, Ei!”
“Is that…” Kirishima still stared at the boot prints. “Is that game over then?”
They were still standing in a deserted Angels Circus. In fact, the air around them felt charged. White was creeping in on the outsides of his vision and it was almost as if Angels Circus was fading by the second, overexposed. A bad photograph.
“Are we going back?” Mina asked, her voice quiet in Kirishima’s ear.
That was the last thing he heard before the white light enveloped them both. He felt Mina’s grip on his tighten and then, Angels Circus was gone.
When the light faded, they stood in a white room. There was nothing, no furniture, no people, just a slightly darker floor and white walls. Mina’s hands were still wrapped tightly around his arm. The light might have faded, but the white room was still bright. Kirishima squinted around for some sort of…anything.
Mina gasped and turned around, bringing Kirishima with her.
“Midoriya!” She leapt forward and wrapped the boy up in a hug. “You’re safe! We were so worried!”
“Sorry.” Midoriya’s voice was muffled into Mina’s shoulder. He laughed lightly as Kirishima joined, patting him on his back. “I’m glad you guys cleared the last mission.”
“Yes, congratulations on beating the Game, victors.”
The three of them turned back around. There was a man in front of them, dressed darkly with a plague beaked mask covering the bottom half of his face. He held his hands out in welcome, but Kirishima didn’t feel like trusting anyone outside of Mina and Midoriya right now. He was ready to put this Game behind him and move on with his life already.
“Who are you?” Mina said, just as suspicious as Kirishima. She looked ready to plunge back into another fight.
“My name is Chisaki Kai. I’m the Game’s Conductor, which means I serve the Composer.”
That didn’t put Kirishima at ease. He was having a hard time trusting anyone that wasn’t a Player. Anyone else in the GG was either out to keep him from the mission or outright attack and erase him. Reaper, Conductor, Composer, the names didn’t mean anything to him. He just had to survive.
And he had. They all had. So then, what was the hold up with their reward. They should be back to their lives already.
“I am here to set Players on their path after their victory, following the Composer’s command, of course. Per His instructions this session, only one Player has been granted their life.”
Kirishima’s stomach dropped. Only one?
“What?” Mina said, her voice seemed to bounce around the empty room where the Conductor’s had filled it. “That can’t be right.”
“Yeah,” Midoriya added. “We all won. You said so yourself.”
The Conductor’s sigh was muffled through his mask as he ran his fingers through his dark hair. “That is true, but the specifics are determined the Composer. No other rule stands against His word.”
“Then we played the Game for nothing!”
“However,” the Conductor cut in, “you are all winners; therefore, you all deserve to have your entry fees returned to you.” He waved his hand.
Kirishima fell back a step. It was like a hammer had struck his forehead. Immense pressure, pain, it was all building behind his eyes. At first, it seemed like nothing had changed, but then, he remembered. It was all coming back in slow waves. That was his entry fee. His memories. He was remembering everything—his obsession with Crimson Riot’s Music, Present Mic, too, his code of manly chivalry, dyeing his hair, changing right before—as much as he wanted to go through it all, he couldn’t. The Game wasn’t over yet.
Midoriya gasped as well, his hands clapping over his heart, drawing both Kirishima and Mina’s attention. For a moment, he panted, bent in half. Kirishima was debating going over to him, when the boy stood up straight again. He rubbed his hands over his face. “Actually…I’m not done.” Looking up, he locked eyes with the Conductor. “I’m not done here.”
“Midoriya, what do you mean?” Mina asked softly. “What was your fee?”
“If only one of us can go back, then count me out,” Midoriya said, squaring his shoulders and disregarding Mina’s questions. “Give it to one of them. Instead, make me a Reaper. You can do that, can’t you?”
“What!?” Kirishima and Mina exclaimed in unison.
The Conductor took pause, as if mulling over Midoriya’s request. “That is a liable option given to victors.” He nodded. “And I have the authority to make it so.”
“Midoriya, why would you want to become a Reaper?” Kirishima asked. “They’re the ones that erased Todoroki!”
Midoriya’s hands balled into fists, his shoulders raised defensively, but he refused to look at them. “That’s…exactly why.”
Before Kirishima could say anything else, Midoriya was gone with a snap of the Conductor’s fingers. No proper goodbyes. No moment to reconsider. No chance at a second chance, just a Reaper’s fate. Gritting his teeth, Kirishima looked away. The Game was supposed to be over once they beat the Game Master and cleared the seventh day. Now, with only Mina and him remaining, only one of them would make it back to the RG. In some ways, the Game wasn’t over at all.
“Mina,” Kirishima said, finding his voice, “it should be you. You’re the one that needs to—” He stopped himself.
Mina was smiling up at him, a hand reached out to pull gently on a lock of his hair.
“It’s red,” she said. “Your hair. It’s red, Eijirou. I can see it now.” Sniffing, she pulled her hand back to wipe her nose. “It’s perfect for you.”
His mouth hanging open, Kirishima wasn’t sure what to say to that. It warmed his heart that Mina could see color again, but he needed her to understand that she was the one that needed to go back to the RG, not him. Who he was…he still needed time to figure that out for himself, but she knew already. She knew what she needed to do once she got back. For her, there was no time to waste.
“There’s no need for your input. It has already been decided who will return,” the Conductor said, reminding them of his presence. “The points have already been tallied and you two have both been graded.” He took a moment to adjust his jacket. “Ashido Mina, you will be returning to the Real Ground. Congratulations.”
Kirishima sighed in relief while Mina hurried to disagree.
“No, no, I can’t. Not without Eijirou. Not alone.”
Kirishima reached for her shoulder, his heart growing heavier by the second. “You won’t be alone,” he reminded her gently. “You have Sero and Kaminari there waiting for you.”
She shook her head vehemently. “No, why me?”
“Players are graded on their mission performance,” the Conductor explained, no expression visible and his voice was ever patient with them. “You scored the highest.”
“But that’s not fair!” She gestured wildly toward Kirishima. “Eijirou didn’t even have his memories! How was he supposed to solve the missions without them? Plus, he’s a way better fighter than me! His quirk was way stronger!”
Kirishima sighed. She made good points. Every word she said made his chest go tighter and tighter. He wanted to live again. He wanted to go back with her.
“Then what happens to me?” he asked.
“If you like, you can reenter the Game,” the Conductor said. “If your soul leans toward revenge, you can become a Reaper. Either that, or you will be erased.”
“No way,” Kirishima said, arms crossed defiantly. “I’ll reenter the Game.” He turned to Mina, arms falling back to his sides. “Go ahead, Mina. I’ll be right behind you.” He smiled at her worried expression. “I already won this Game once, so what’s another?”
“Then I’ll enter the Game again, too!”
He couldn’t let that happen. “But then what you said would be right. There would be no point to any of this. Just—trust me, okay?”
“That would be impossible, Miss Ashido,” the Conductor said in agreement. “This is the Composer’s decision. The only issue open for discussion is the fate of Mr. Kirishima’s soul.”
Mina stared down at her fist for a second before glaring up at Kirishima with fiery eyes. “You better win, Eijirou,” she said, lightly punching his chest. “I’ll be waiting. Right by the Lions like we promised.”
Kirishima nodded, forcing a smile to his lips. As the moment grew nearer, it was getting harder and harder to keep it up. But he had to, for Mina’s sake. He had to make sure at least one of them reached the RG after all of this.
She held out her hand, and he took it, squeezing until his hand only closed around empty air and she was gone.
The Conductor didn’t waste a moment. “Is your mind made up?”
“Yeah,” Kirishima said, his heart still heavy and pounding fast, but the Game never changed. It always forced itself ahead of everything else. “I’m reentering the Game. One more week.”
Nodding, the Conductor held up his hand.
“Wait.” Kirishima frowned. “You said you returned my entry fee, but something’s missing.”
The Conductor’s head cocked to the side. “Oh?” he said. “Your memories? They should all be there. It was a very valuable entry fee. Memories are the greatest part of a person’s identity. That alone must make you someone special, wouldn’t you say?”
No, Kirishima would not say that, but they weren’t all back. Not all of them. “What about how I died? Where are those memories? Give them back.”
“Oh.” Understanding lit the Conductor’s eyes. “No Player gets those memories.”
Mina hadn’t remembered either, Kirishima recalled, but he needed to know.
“How would that memory serve Players?” the Conductor asked. “It would only be a painful distraction. After all, death is messy. It is painful. It is worse than you can imagine, which is why a person only goes through it once—though there are these few exceptions with victors—but even they will not remember.”
That didn’t rest well with Kirishima, but he didn’t argue. Couldn’t argue. Not really.
“And, since you’re entering the Game again, you need a new entry fee.”
“Not my memories.” Kirishima took a step back.
The Conductor shook his head. “An entry fee is what the Player holds most dear, and it can’t be used more than once. Yours has already been collected.”
Was there something missing? Kirishima ran through everything. He could still see, he could still remember who he was. So then, what had the Conductor taken?”
“You will be playing for Ashido Mina.”