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I was not one to deviate from the standard. Dressed in my cerulean threads, I too read the tabloids, too painted my nails a shade of fruity plastic, the toxin brush in one arm and my familiar pink Docomo the other. I too shopped department racks, took, and take, the word clearance like the bubonic plague – all those things, marked down, unwanted, on the fast track to obsolete. That being said, I begin this retelling with all the necessary components in order. A girl, dead and forgotten and on clearance, floating in her miniature cosmos; her anonymous friends, merely fodder for whatever stasis existed before it all happened; and a wolf, dangerous, scavenging, beautiful. It's enough set-up for any imminent conflict. Teeth filed.

And so this horror story arrives in thick rubber boots and neon grey jersey, bandana-tied hair wild and matted and embarrassing to anyone over the age of thirty. It has a bright-sounding voice, loud, not nasally but getting there, which has a penchant for insults and trigonometry; its face is angular and feline, I think it's pretty. It tells me I'm pretty, or wants to. But before it does this, it barges in drunkenly with a revolver and laughs in our faces. We are all fifteen. We have not yet learned how to be afraid of things.

"You hectopascals!" His wings jut out like melting salad forks. "You think you have a chance at survival?" And he scans over us with palpable contempt. Akane, mousy with bright pink lips, flanking me down the streets of the shopping district, plays this game also. She is looking up like the rest of us are looking up, at the record store rooftop whereupon sits this week's catty Game Master, legs crossed and pleased as punch. She barks back at him,

"Hey! You're that fucking reaper in charge of things! Your missions are absolute shit! Just wait, asshole, we'll see you at the end of the week!" and her tongue and a choice finger spring out in unison, which makes the reaper laugh. I think I am holding onto Akane's free arm, suggesting we continue on to Cat Street, where our cell phones promise some arcane reward. Of course she pulls this arm out and wraps it around me.

"Anyway, gotta go, this bitch here is getting antsy. What a total bitch."

The reaper eyes me with an expression unreadable. My heart flutters for a moment when I consider it to be lust; from the moment I crossed the threshold into the Underground I had been met with all kinds of reactions, so this is not unthinkable. My vision traces the edges of his tan skin and I imagine how warm it must feel in the summer sun. This is the first time we have encountered, and yet I am already daydreaming.

"Yeah, she's an ugly little digit," he says. If you are familiar with the feeling of missing a stair and stepping into gravity so that your stomach lodges itself in your throat, such is precisely the sensation I felt when he declares this and folds his arms and looks strikingly better than anyone I've seen in the whole city. I tow Akane's arm and tell her we should definitely, definitely be going, but this man makes another barrier, throwing Noise for us to take care of – impossible waves of Noise – before vanishing into the summer afternoon.

There are other players prepping now, consulting their partners and getting into a defensive stance to enter the other plane. I try to do this with mine, and she reluctantly obliges. We enter.

"What's your deal, bitch?" says Akane. I hear her from somewhere off, fighting her own monsters. I am stuck with crabs and tadpoles and kangaroos of energy.

"It's nothing," I tell her. "He was just getting on my nerves." The last part of this is true. I sense Akane nodding enthusiastically, and I add, "Besides, we have a mission to take care of."

I remember first pulling out a yellow flip phone that morning to find

64 CUPS OF Q29mZmVl
T = 120 MINUTES
FAIL AND FACE DELETION

staring at me. I did not know what a Q29mZmVl was, or whether or not it fit in a cup, and evidently neither did anyone else. My own partner dismissed the message with a few choice terms and promptly sat on the pavement. Other pairs, the fourteen or so left, stared at their screens with a similar disbelief. I was good at algebra, many were, and hearing of the infamous mathematician in charge from one chatty, intrusive, red-headed reaper, had felt a flush of pride at being prepared for the challenges on the first day. When it had been some stupid system of equations. But here I was at a loss for where to start.

"Damn straight, girl," says Akane, and one of her kangaroos perishes.

Luckily there had been one stubborn kid, who blankly asked why we didn't just try reasoning this one out. That there were only so many Shibuyan landmarks featuring cups. A group had been sent to report back on Ramen Don first. They said the whole street was blocked off. One sugar puff in a magenta bear hoodie said it might have meant "like, totally cups of love," but she was dismissed vehemently. There was chatter of beverages, hot beverages, and Hanekoma's place. Akane and I were among those being sent to scout there.

"Take that, fucking bastards!" she continues. The Noise fizzles out and we are sent back to the Underground, the five pairs of us sent here, the sunlight as harsh as ever. I hold my steady baseball bat, my however fortunate psych, in two hands. Akane takes a breath; she has never been so exhausted. "What a dickhead, sending those on us," she says. On the first day I was told, with the only emotion she could foster, she and her family had moved to Japan some time ago, devout Christians – though she phrases this more like "that bastard Jesus Christ is my fucking savior," – from somewhere in Canada, here because her dad got a job as a university professor at such-and-such institute. She had never gone out after dark, or smoked a cigarette, or left the tap running; she did not watch TV and ate only whole grains; she snacks on carrot sticks during the week. She was on honor roll. When she died prematurely, hit by a bus, she entered the Game and lost her purity as a token.

She wears her shirt low, now, so the large, wooden crucifix round her neck bounces over undersized cleavage with her strides, and I am certain she has slept with at least three other players since the start of the week. "Didn't even hurt," as she told me.

A hooded reaper in blood red lets us submerge into the Miyashita Park Underpass. The other groups run, so I pick up my feet at a suggestive pace. Akane grimaces at me and says she's too tired, though not in those exact words. So we'll walk. She flips open her cell phone and clicky-clacks away to her harem. I never realized the phones could text until she started doing so, saying "You could figure it out too if you weren't such a fucking dumbass," with a girlish wink. There isn't anyone I'd love enough to text anyway, so it doesn't matter.

I wonder if it's worth it for her to come back to life. The tunnel is dark and the cars of the living world tear past with a frightening velocity.

Suddenly, there are screams from up ahead. I have to run. I turn to tell Akane this over the smack of her now applying cherry balm, but she has already heard it too and saunters forward with the grace of a thin, injured gazelle.

At the end of the park bridge where the sprawling highway meets Cat Street's smoky retreats and sinewy alleyways, a grizzly the size of a skyscraper casts its shadow over a girl sobbing at its feet. Her partner is gone. There are 9 of us on Cat Street, soon to be 8.

"Shit!" says Akane, and not even texting has gravity over the situation. Her eyes and hands are focused on this bear, this noise, which she regards with impish fear. The other kids stare at it too; they haven't seen something this big, they had no idea that the GM would throw this at us. I grab her bracelet-covered arm and run forward, bat loosely gripped in the other hand and targeted towards static skull. Its massive fur ripples like oil in an empty sky.

We enter the battlefield, I on my side and she on hers. I hear the other players in dim chorus, saying they too will join the brawl for their lives. First I charge forward and feign to the roaring side, narrowly avoiding a ferocious swipe that would have torn my eyes out and dealing a charged blow to the flank. It gathers up its aura to smash my opposing body and does so with arms like hammers. I swivel behind the thing just before its angry paws mold the concrete back into cement. I hear Akane from another plane, trying all the tricks in her sleight of hand. She has told me she holds a bible out, the same one she always carries in her Chanel bag, and exorcises the noise until their energy folds into pages. After battles, she has shown me this; the fallen line up beside the gospels like stickers, a picnic line of ant corpses.

And I got a baseball bat.

"The power of Christ fucking compels you, bitch!" she screams at the top of her lungs, while I wail on the grizzly's back as it unfastens its claws from earth. Evidently she's having trouble.

"Hold on, I've almost got it!" I hear myself say.

I leap onto its back as it rears up, which causes it to howl with beastly rage and shake me off. My legs wrap around the bear's waist to get a grip, but it wrings the rest of me wildly. I hold onto my bat as though it were my own soul and slash it randomly. Swoosh. Swoosh. Nothing but air being sliced apart.

Crack. A homerun on its cranium. Grizzly collapses with a nauseating thud and dissipates into nothing-ness. Akane goes, "What an absolute bastard!" before we, too, disappear.

Outside the J of the M, in the dead beat of August, the girl who lost her partner is still there, crouching till the tears rake her spine, transparent. Less than ten minutes left to die. The other girl players are clucking mother hens around her, whispering their condolences and broken promises.

The timers fade away from our hands. It seems Cat's Street was the Game Master's trick after all, which makes me laugh that we could guess it.

"You totally saved us," cries a boy in blue, noticing our return. His smile is temporary, concerned, pink clouds behind an airplane. Akane struts over to him.

"We did it all for you, handsome," she says unabashedly. Somehow her arms wind around his neck already, and she's purring to him.

I approach the dying girl.

"What's your name?" I ask.

She looks up at me tearfully. You were too late, she says. "Yukiko," she says.

I'm not sure why I wanted to know. I, too, mutter that things will be alright, for good measure, not because it means anything. Her nod is so minute I barely see it.

Freed of my partner, the dried ink of countdown, and the threat of imposing death, I wander off in the direction of WildKat with the pretext of spending money on calories. The paint on the door is flaking, and a tiny inset window holds an OPEN sign in neon pink handwriting, framed with tacky metal signs bearing catchy slogans like "U.S. Route 66" and "Sorry, we're open!"

Entering, I find the place empty, not startlingly enough, yet the building still has the breath of life inside it, as though there are invisible people sitting in the booths. The big banner of menu hangs over the barista counter, screaming pastries and a pumpkin soup special.

There's a little bell sitting on the marble countertop, tantalizing in the fluorescent light. Next to it is a folded placard which pleasantly says, "Gone a' fishin'! Please ring!" Taking a seat in the first black leather barstool, I look around again to ascertain the room's apparent vacancy, and then I tap it once. The silver sound rings out in a clear high note before fading out.

A moment's pause. The invisible people seem to hush and look up from their coffee, ghost talismans around their heads clattering ominously. From a hallway on the other end of the room hover the sounds of footsteps.

"Just a sec'!" says that hallway. The voice is young and rough, like stubbles on a beard. Sure enough the man is poorly shaven when I first see him, rolling up the stained sleeves of his cotton dress shirt and peering pleasantly over the rim of a pair of sunglasses. Indoor sunglasses. He cracks a smile at me as though we were long time friends. "Hey! Nice to see you!" he says. He triple long-jumps behind the bar and presses forwards on his elbows to get a good, long look at me.

"Lemme guess… Your name starts with a… an E. Am I right? Is it an E?"

I stare back with doe's eyes. "I'd really just like some bouillabaisse please," I tell him.

"That's definitely an E face. See, I can tell. I got a lot of experience, boss. Fifty years in the business makin' big bucks. It's a good life. It's an E, right?"

"It says on the menu you sell bouillabaisse here."

"I'm just kidding. You didn't really think I was older than fifty, did you? Also I'm poor."

"Can I get some soup please."

"Word of advice, champ. Don't flunk out of college. Yeee. Bad times." But his hands set to work on prepping a celery-colored bowl and he walks towards a bubbling pot of something warm on the back stove, ladling in some of the syrupy orange stuff loaded with mussels. He loves this moment, and takes a minute to smell the vapor of fish stew rising through the café air before returning to me. His smile is so frank when the stuff reaches my hands that I can't help but feel the same way.

"That's 580. But for you, 280. I like the E's. I'm an S, but I like the E's." I fish through my summer shorts pockets for the money and hand him three bills, but rather than taking them he extends a hand and shakes mine cordially.

"Sanae. Sanae Hanekoma. I can tell you're someone with a good story. And I know just what's wrong with you." He won't tell me what this is.

"I'm not really particularly noteworthy," I offer. Sanae only nods.

He says, "That's it, that's it exactly."

The next time I'm back on Cat Street with a seafood belly and 280¥ cheaper, everyone else is gone and only the last of the RG pedestrians filter in an out of the sidewalk. The Shibuyan sun is setting somewhere behind the high rise of bigger and more business-like buildings, and here the shadows are cast as tall as strangers. Without thinking I wander daftly in the direction of the Scramble, a lost sheep. I pass under Miyashita's highway, and in the flaming orange evening, it scares me. Towa Records looms distinctly; it is the color of cowardice and has brought stars down from the sky to show on an LED screen, where its met with CAT's charismatic scribbles. Even the usual passers by can't help looking up.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. It's the sugar puff, one of the players. Her bear hood sticks out as horrible as ever, and even its looming pink cannot hide her hair that's split down the middle in two colors. She has the face of a baby.

"Hi, like, I totally couldn't help but notice you. Are you like, looking at Towa Records? I love Towa Records. They sell records." I don't hear this, however. Her skirt looks like a living mis-painted traffic cone, a color that can match only the cheap plastic Necco Wafer bracelets on her wrists.

"I don't know. I was just staring at the building." She wraps her arm around mine and rests her head on my shoulder, brushing the platinum blonde strings out of her blue eyes.

"Totally." I sense the moment was, like, so deep.

Suddenly the most important thing in the world happens, apparently, and she tears away from me, jumping up and down, having hatched an idea.

"Let's go up to like the roof!" Rainbows begin to pour grotesquely from her eyes.

"What?"

"I've always wanted to go up to the roof. Come on, I think there's like, stairs inside! Awesome!" I am pulled unwillingly through the door. It's cool and dark and musky inside. On a better day I might have stayed in a place like this forever. A disc spinner who looks half asleep eyes us like delinquents, before Sugarpuff waves at him with her high voltage enthusiasm and begins bolting up the stairs, five steps per leap.

I am tired by the second floor, I am out of breath by the third, I am dead by the fifth and by the seventh I am crawling immensely. Sugarpuff calls me a slowpoke and assures me it's only a flight further, then resumes her star-chasing frenzy.

"Found it!" There's an unceremonious bolted metal door, with one of the bulletproof windows that don't serve much a purpose except to let the night air in. She yanks on it with the muster of her ten-year-old arms, and by some god's blessing there's a satisfying unlatching and the thing clicks. "Come on, like, silly goose!" Her pink goofy shoes carry her through the doorway and onto satisfying concrete.

"Wow! It's like, so amazing up here, k!" Sugarpuff spreads her arms and twirls around in a fairy ring, giggling all the while. I worry the shop owner might see what we're up to, but the skyline grabs my attention before this can unnerve me. The sun had set during our trek through Towa, and in its place is the enormous royal blue cloak of early evening, as dulled by virtue of the blaring city lights and trumpets. There's a gentle breeze, like a spoon stirring through melted chocolate, that makes a gentle tarp at the backs of our legs. I have to step out and immerse myself, I leap to the edge to peer over the railing, glimpse the flashing streetlights directing traffic so many stories below.

But first, I stumble on something.

And not just any something. A something hard and metal and the size of a toaster that utters a noise when my foot connects with it, the cry of a distressed

"Sine!

Cosine!

TANGENT!"

And then goes silent.

"Wow, like LOL," and Sugarpuff already has her kitten nose all over the artifact, which makes a covetous part of me bubble just under the skin. "It's that, like, reaper's megaphone!" I crouch down beside it and cradle it in my hands before she gets to, assessing for damage and replaying the sacred message again.

"He's goin' to be like, totally lookin' for that thing, everywhere. What are you goin' to do with it?"

I remember the man in his grunge get-up and the way he stepped up to lean over the roof balcony like he meant to fall, and soon I'm balancing up on his bird's perch. The entire world is silent. I take a breath with the grace of the conductor lifting his baton. And then the fireworks roar.

"Listen up, Shibuya!" I tell them. The megaphone crackles with angry static. "Things are about to go to hell! You're looking at this week's player champion!" Japan is listening. They tune into their radios and televisions. From far off, someone turns on an apartment light switch, and the scene turns yellow in a distant window.

"What else should I say?" I mouth to Sugarpuff. She shrugs at me, and then covers her mouth to suppress an irresistible giggle. "Um.

"Hey, reapers! There's a new kid in charge now! So you better… get ready to go back to Friday night dinners at Ramen Don!" I don't know what reapers do or what's insulting to them, so I'm not really sure what to say. "Um, sine! Cosine! Tangents!" I stick my hands on my hips and burst my chest out for extra good measure, taking care that the tips of my toes aren't sticking out over the edge, and Sugar applauds.

"That, was, like, totally wicked!" she screams. "I don't like, get it, but it was totally wicked! Seriously!"

I open my lips to respond, but in that moment the drowsy haze of cold blackness folds over us like a thick butter. The Game Master puts a close to the day, and I realize in those last moments of fleeting consciousness that the reaper will want this back that I'll have to answer.

And I don't mind so much.

Blackout.

Chapter Text

 

A bus left the Scarlet Devil Mansion; three people boarded at the start
At Hakugyokurou, one left and half a person boarded
At Yakumo-san's house, two people left; so how many passengers in total?
The answer is, the answer is, zero people, zero people
That's because, that's because,
There are no buses in Gensokyo!

- IOSYS

We're up in the Scramble Crossing, watching people walk by, speaking, traveling crosswalks, alive, flitting like diamonds. I carry a messenger bag, the one I died with, which I quickly grope in search of the megaphone: still there. I breathe a sigh of relief and simultaneous exhaustion.

Akane finds me the moment I reenter reality.

"You're up fuckin' late," she says pleasantly. "We already got the freaking shitty mission. The other assholes are halfway completing it." She shoves the screen of her glossy phone up to my nose. Stifling a yawn, I get my sleepy eyes to focus on the message displayed:

sec^2 - tan^2 + cos^2 + sin^2 = y

y = ROUTE NUMBER

t = 100 MINUTES

"I didn't even remember fucking trigonometry." Akane stops off, heels clacking, and makes a pouting face. "But somebody said they did. Keiji's already off with the rest investigating Cat Street…" she half mumbles to herself, looking off woefully. Keiji was one of the spitfire types, a lackluster player who assumed himself in charge and met little protest from the confused mass of dead children. I'd heard the name thrown around, though I couldn't, and can't, associate it with a face.

"Why Cat Street?" I ask.

"They fucking worked it out, dumbass." She returns to the phone, and presses the keys rapid fire to bring up a pixilated map. "We're starting at the Scramble Crossing. See Hachiko? Where that road goes off to some freaking place that's just fucking question marks?" A lonely black line goes from here to the line of bus station shops as the crow flies, then zigzags to the terminal, the Station Underpass, and disappears under a marker labeled ambiguously. "That's fucking Route 1.

"It goes around counter-clockwise, I don't freaking know why. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7." Her porcelain nails lead my eyes around the circle.

"So?"

"So?! Put two and two fucking together, bitch. The trigonometry thingy equals 2. Route 2 is Cat Street. That's where everyone fucking went. But I had to get the shitty end of the stick and wait for my fucking bitch-face of a fuck partner to fucking wake up fuck!" She doesn't seem angry that she had to wait. Only that she couldn't be around the other male players. Her angry face is hardly genuine. Her hair frizzes from where she's been dramatically tearing at it.

I suddenly remember my hand, and the timer, and glance down to see how long I was out. The cut in my flesh reads forty minutes. Forty minutes. Of one hundred.

"They've been gone for an hour?" I say. Akane understands my concern and nods gravely. I begin to pace back and forth, roving through the mental list of possibilities: eaten by another bear, hit by a car. Gave into existentialist temptations and resolutely abandoned all hope, decided to play a trick on us. Genuinely forgot where Cat Street is. None of them were pleasant. "There's, what, twenty-six of them?" Again another nod, and now she's thinking too.

I pull out my own flip cell and examine it. Sure enough, the text has arrived on mine as well, unopened. The same math equation, the same time limit, the same y = ROUTE NUMBER.

Wait a minute.

y = ROUTE NUMBER

y = ROUTE NUMBER

y = ROUTE NUMBER

"Crap." Akane perks up.

"What?" she asks.

"Route number."

"The fuck does that mean?"

I ask her to pull out her phone map again and go through the black lines, thinking aloud: "Route. Number. Route. Root. Root number. As in math. 2 is the root number. Root. Inverse of square. 2 is the square root of four." I look up. "He wants us on route four. Route four is from Spain Hill to Molco."

I never knew petite teenage girls who hardly fit in their own stilettos could scream so loud. But when her almighty expletive rings through the morning air of Shibuya, I think for a moment, perhaps, even the living world crowd will stop for a moment to listen, thinking the sound is some suffocating crow on a telephone wire.

"Come on!" I say, now the one to grab my partner's arm and charge onward to the narrow Center Street entrance. For once in her life she's willing to match my speed, suddenly aware of death's imposing threat in a little over thirty minutes. We pass underneath flying city district banners and advertising slogans and through the shadowy streets overcast by the tall mountains of department stores. There are girls in school uniforms arguing, whom we race by without noticing, and a man in a suit looking as though he, too, just woke up in the middle of the early afternoon on the curb of disaster. The exit isn't blocked, so we enter into AMX without obstacle. I tap into my black skull pin for a quick scan of the area.

"Blue noise!" Akane looks serious.

"Fucking leave it! We have better damn things to do!"

"Got it!" We're on our feet and sprinting to where the road takes a turn by Tipsy Tose Hall, into Spain Hill, where large panels of women in lingerie circle around above us like a flock of geese, and everything is hot and crowded and quiet. The scent of chili and beef drift through the lines of consumers and up through our nostrils. Meeting us at the end of the line is a support reaper in red. We brake in front of him. Akane is having none of it.

"Hey!" she scowls, grabbing him by the scruff of his baggy sweatshirt and pressing her face up to his so that it tilts back and she can see his startled eyes beneath his baseball cap visor. "Let us through, you fucking asshole!"

"Gimme a hot dog," he says mildly.

"Alright, yeah, bitch, I'll give you a mother fucking hot dog." She kicks him in the groin and bolts for the hot dog stand. I briefly mutter an apology to the guy, who is doubled over clutching his crotch.

"She's, um… She's like that," I offer. The hooded reaper doesn't look up, so I start to wander towards Mexican Hotdog, where Akane went, passing a few unmarked, charcoal-colored buildings. There are angry customers at the door, muttering about how some girl knocked them over in a rush to get something to eat. They warn me to steer clear of the cyclone chick that wrecked the place.

Inside, a few chairs have been knocked over, and whatever line their was of kids and parents here to get a Mexican hot dog has been dully scattered, giving wide berth to the angry hornet at the counter, their eyes flickering to me as I walk through the door.

"Make it really fucking gross, too." Akane's pressed over like a folded piece of paper so that the clerk has full view of whatever her shirt doesn't cover. "Don't even fucking cook it, bitch. I really hate this asshole. You can even through some soda on that fucker, if you want. Make it shit."

The man, a foreigner, is sputtering beyond control. In one hand is a link in a bun and in the other is a trembling bottle of ketchup. He's muttering ¡tranquila! and nodding to whatever she says. The hot dog comes out perverted and horrid-looking and tie-died in condiments, and the coins she slams on the countertop are still spinning by the time she's out the door.

Akane holds the hot dog in two hands and with a grimace. "Eat up, bitch," she says. The reaper doesn't take it. He just lets the wall go. She throws it on the ground and, shoving past him, the two of us take off running into the sunshine of Molco.

I am two steps behind my partner when the wall comes back.

She doesn't notice, but instead runs so many more paces before missing the echo of sneakers on concrete. She turns around and notices me pounding on an invisible wall.

"Fucking fuck! What the hell!" Akane comes back and beats on it from the other side. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck! Tell that fucking reaper to make it fucking go down again!" Her voice sounds like the inside of a glass jar. I nod, and turn 360 degrees in search of the wall-keeper, peering in and around the schools of shoppers and pedestrians as far as my vision down Spain Hill extends.

"He's not here."

I say it before I realize it, totally, that there's a force field between us and I'm trapped where the mission can't be done and the other 26 children are being eaten by a bear somewhere.

"What do you mean he's not fucking there?!" Akane's screaming and knocking on the wall only increases in intensity. "What do you fucking mean?!"

It's only then the exhaustion of sprinting all those blocks finally comes over me, my heart rate tripled and my breathing shallow and my muscles feeling as though they've been squeezed through a lemon juicer. I fall down on my sweaty knees to get a break. I notice my hand. 19:19.

"Go on with out me," I tell her in ragged breaths.

"I can't fucking go on without you, bitch! I can't fight the noise by myself!"

"Then stay out of trouble." Akane gives me the look of a suicide victim, something desperate and coarse and horrifying, when she clutches her necklace and nods. She turns around and keeps running, only looking back once, and not reassuringly. She's scared to death, but she'd never let me know it.

Left alone and slowly recovering, I take in some of the urban air and let out a wholly sigh that reaches the bottom of my lungs. It's grown silent on the Hill, slightly less dark. The sun is climbing up overhead now. Everything on my body hurts badly and I'm not sure I can move for a while. So I sit, and I watch. And a few minutes pass without action. I am too tired to be worried about them. One of the unspoken agreements of our partnership contract is that I let her do all the excessive worrying.

"You inverse factorials are so zetta slow!"

And then my heart takes a cannonball dive for the pavement, and I lose all feeling in my midsection. My energy has collapsed and I cannot turn around before he appears in front of me in a black frenzy. The unpleasant Game Master is tall and smirking and his eyes glint like a lion's.

"You monomial morons! How is it next to none of you could actually solve a factoring riddle as simple as the square root of 4? Hello?"

I stare at him. The smile disappears. "No, don't answer," he says. "It's irrelevant." Step forward. "Here's the real problem: You've subtracted something important from me, which is less than or equal to me taking it back." I'm hardly listening, though. I'm focused on the way his pea coat strays open towards the neck and his chest shows and his sweet silver necklace sways back and forth. I don't get up.

"You mute? You know what I'm talking about, transversal." For a moment I quit daydreaming and it hits me what he's getting at. I nod and shove an arm through the top of my shoulder bag, which has sagged onto the pavement like it too was resting, gaining foothold on the hard handle of the thing. I notice the way it presses into the renewed skin of my palm, a palm without a timer.

Akane must have completed the mission. I pull the megaphone out.

"This?" I ask, fingers tracing over the operative buttons. I press the familiar one and the Game Master's stifled voice pours out: "Sine! Cosine! Tangent!" I stare up with as innocent a look I can hold together. "Is this what you're looking for?"

"Damn straight," he says, arm extended for me to hand to him. He's standing though; he wouldn't stoop down to grab it.

"Do you want this?"

"Are you braindead? Of course I zetta want it." Another step forward. I begin to feel conscious of the tight moisture of Spain Hill.

"Could you bend down and get it?" I call from my knees. "I'm tired from all that running. I'm not sure I could stand up." This bothers him the way it does the Siamese emperor, but he drops down on his haunches and holds his arm out, dead on locked with my eyes. And not smiling.

And I'm not sure why I do it. I think he's gorgeous and I want to keep a piece of him, maybe. But I gather up the last holds of explosive energy from inside me. I smile at him genuinely. And then I run.

Spain Hill was a lot longer than I remembered it. And the afternoons are hotter than the mornings. But I run, again, all the same, tired and bursting from the seams, and half-nauseated by the intoxicating smell as I pass, again, the meat store. I try not to picture the Game Master tearing after me, and for a moment, in the half emptiness of the street, I imagine he doesn't.

But then there's the wall.

The other wall. The new one. The one that keeps me apart from Tipsy Tose, with the noise grizzlies and minks and even a wooly, in the way back of the mass, forming in front of it. I backpedal a few cat steps and dodge into a nearby sudden alleyway, a tight neckline between two Spanish buildings, a narrow cobblestone hall going downhill and hung with clothes lines. I somehow hope between the chaos he hasn't seen my small form disappear. I slip the megaphone back in my bag as I gallop. The cloth hanging on wire grazes the top of my head.

But then there's his laughter: loud, raucous, beautiful, frightening. It shatters Spain Hill in its entirety and chases me down this thin passageway. What starts as a few withheld snickering crackers erupts into a geyser of something terrifying, and then his boots are carrying him across stones in leaps and bounds and into my arms.

I slam into a wall and try to crumple, but his knee presses into my thigh and holds me up and nearly barreling forward onto him. One arm roughly pins mine above at the wrists, while the other hunts through the bag for his prized item. He leaves me once its returned to him, leaves me to fall on the street and bruise my knees, while he presses onto his treasure and lets out a triumphant roar.

"Learn your place, yoctogram! I won't allow for petty thieves in my Game." That's a laugh. The Game Master presses the same button and his own voice is reiterated: "Sine! Cosine! Tangent!"

"Beautiful," he purrs to the sound of it, cooing to the device and even stroking it with a coarse hand, and I can't help but agree. "Listen up, n factorial!" He stomps down to get better footing on the steep cobbled incline.

"The world is garbage! There are only two beautiful things in this world, and one of them is me!" He jerks his other thumb at his chest and laughs again, self-assured.

"You are beautiful," I say, smiling sheepishly.

The Game Master stands perfectly still, and the wind blows past him, ruffling his hair. His thumb is still out, unmoving, a stone billboard and homage to his arrogance.

Finally, he says, "I zetta like your style." Straightening himself up and unfurling his wings, he looks me in the eye. "I'll kill you tomorrow, radian!"

Then he vanishes laughing.

 

Chapter Text

 

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;

One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;

One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon;

One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;

One chopped himself in half and then there were six.

Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;

A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Indian boys going in for law;

One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Indian boys going out to sea;

A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo;

A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two Little Indian boys fooling with a gun

One got shot and then there was one

One little Indian boy left all alone;

He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

 

                “Noise,” is all she says, not looking at me, but over my left shoulder. Someone had stolen my partner and left a zombie in her place. Her hair and body have gone limp, and hang like paper sacks on a hot air balloon falling out of the sky. “It was noise.”

 

                There are fourteen of us, hanging haphazardly around in a circle, and no mission yet for anybody. I study my company. Besides myself, there’s Akane, her skin paling like tissue paper, and next to her a boy and a girl with the same choppy brown haircut and brash colored shorts; Sugarpuff, who’s still alive, sits next to a woman in black leather with orchid lipstick; a wilting wallflower with full-moon glasses panes and that boy named Keiji are together after that; then there’s an old woman I’ve never seen, her eyes fierce, and a punk-rock type with a black mop of hair over his face and a skull tee; a girl with bobbed hair in cotton pink and a red sweater is next to a kid who’s on his knees about to cry; a spiky kid with candy in his mouth and ridiculous adventure get-up accompanies a short girl, subdued, with bushy long hair and a dark gaze that meets my own as I work around the circle. I am the first to look away.

 

                Fourteen. Seven pairings. Which means five pairings all died in the Cat Street fiasco, because of, as Akane said, “a noise problem.” In the free time we had been so strangely granted, the remaining players had done recon on the area for traps and missions. Nothing. No noise. No walls blocked. No stray monster running about Shibuya like an outbreak at the zoo. Not even a menial social problem attracting that orange, negative noise. Nothing.

 

                While Akane hugs herself and crouches on the floor, invisible Realground people passing her by, the rest of us stand around lithely, staring each other down like the half dead victims we are, as the noise of the afternoon swallows our empty pocket whole.

 

                The spiked kid is the first to speak up. “So what are we gunna do with a full day and no mission?” he says, his voice half an octave lower than what I’d expected.

 

                Sugarpuff answers. “Well, it means we like, get a day off, am I right? We can go shopping and stuff?” There’s a wave of groans from the rest of us. If this is how she acts in the face of plausible death, her life must have been heaps of empty Monster cans.

 

                “Well, I’m sure as hell not staying around here.” Orchid Lips takes a step to the center, clack clack in huge leather boots, and glares at us, arms folded. Her lids are done in a gentler mauve color. “I’m out to Dogenzaka. You in, Coco? I’m buying.”

 

                “Yay, like, ramen!” Sugarpuff is bouncing up and down. She latches onto this woman’s arm and tugs her in that direction, and I try to hold back a half-hearted laugh at their overwhelming height difference.

 

                “Wait! Ugh, you can’t just go off by yourselves!” Now it’s Cotton Hair’s turn. “We have to be prepared for stuff! What if there’s a trap?”

 

                “But we already checked,” says Spiked. “No traps.”

 

                Orchid gives her the once over. “You guys can be prepared and whatever,” she says. “That’s totally fine. But we’re going to Dogenzaka.” Clack clack. Halfway down the Scramble.

 

                “Ugh! You stupid jerk!” Cotton yells. Orchid swivels around in a second, her snake eyes stinging into ours, like a gas heater inside her turned up a hundred degrees.

 

                “Bitch!” she says.

 

                “Skank!”

 

                Keiji pulls Cotton back with all his strength. Sugarpuff – Coco – continues to hang on to her partner, screaming “No, like, fighting!” while the two girls try to charge at each other in their bull pen. I steal a glance at Akane, who is staring at the space ahead of her dully, the look of utter horror in her eyes. I reach a hand out to her and she accepts it mechanically, gratefully.

 

                “Ezumii’s r-right,” Keiji finally intervenes, still restraining the struggling girl. “I think we should all go ahead -- and take -- the day off – stop kicking me! – and if that-- that means a bowl of ramen, so be it.” Orchid Lips smirks, brushes herself off, and struts for Ramen Don, her fluttering partner still in tow. Cotton finally stops flailing.

 

                “I hate ramen,” she murmurs.

 

                “Easy, girl. Don’t blow a fuse.”

 

                That was how it started. We were left to ourselves to explore Shibuya for the day. For me, that meant hoping for another chance encounter the Game Master – wherever he might be – but I had Akane to worry about first. She lopes along beside me at a troubling pace. Even the old woman overcomes her in three easy steps. It’s the six of us now – me, Akane, the woman and her partner in the skull tee, Spiked and the other girl, who continues to glance over at me often -- having decided on a trip to Mind and Body Foods at the department store. I’ve never been, but the elderly lady became the leader of the group and urgently insisted on it. Plus, it’s a shorter walk from the Scramble than most food places, which Akane needs.

 

                The aisles are low and the lights are lower and the owner of the shop steps forward and regards us in turn. His face lights up when he spies the elderly woman. “Chiyo! Ah, good Chiyo!” he sighs. “It’s been quiet without you stomping your fat legs around!” His eyes give off a mischievous twinkle, but Chiyo only stares back at him dryly. The man recognizes the seriousness and turns around, walking towards an unremarkable door in the back, while his gnarly hands search for a key in his apron side pocket.

 

                “Need the lounge?” he says, flinging the door open and presenting it with his arm in an effort at showmanship. Chiyo nods and takes big strides into this room. She doesn’t motion for us to follow, but one by one the rest of us tither along like ducklings. I notice the black decal present in a lot of these shops the players can use. I’ve begun to realize what it’s for.

 

                “It’s not like you to be gone for so long, woman,” says the shopkeeper, though his face seems to have aged ten years.

               

                I don’t think he realizes the woman is dead.

 

“Strange things have been happening,” is all Chiyo says, before she shuts the door.

 

                The room is drab green, and the paint peels a bit where the hand-me-down bureaus and couches have been moved around.  A strange motley of posters covers the walls, some for bands and local events, others old professional photographs, a few with lame slogans and cartoon monkeys on them, scattered between leftover post-it notes. Most noticeable, however, is the large banner reading, “Clubhouse” in too-formal letters. Chiyo finds the nearest plush arm-chair and throws herself on top of it.

 

                “Ayanokoji is an old friend of mine,” she says with a dry, whistling voice. She sighs and settles into the plump cushions. The kid with the mop of black hair sprawls out on a couch and starts pounding death metal from his headphones, with the volume so loud the tinny echo of the sound rings out from the tips of his ears. Akane sinks down to the floor by a coffee table and seems content to stay there; I take the seat nearby, across from Chiyo. Spiked and the dark-eyed girl find the remaining two seats.

 

                The old lady’s bright blue eye pops open and sucks us all in.

 

                “Now then. First rule of the clubhouse,” she croaks: “Introductions.”

 

                Spiked laughs all over himself. “Please, you’ve got to be kidding me. I thought that lame banner was a leftover from when like, kids used this place.”

 

                Chiyo smiles. “It’s suitable for our purposes.” He stares at her incredulously and tries to shake it off.

 

                “Toko.” We turn towards the source of the sound: the bushy-haired girl is sitting erect, staring politely forward as she says it again. “Toko Marjoram. It is my name. You asked for introductions so that is what I told you.” I can finally get a good look at her now that she doesn’t meet my gaze; Marjoram is short and wears too many layers of dark lace. Her hair is long and fat and cropped just above her ever increasingly dark eyes and around her pudgy face, where it tunnels down into the folds of her dress. Her skin is porcelain pale and her attitude concerns me.

 

                Chiyo claps her hands together. “See, there we go. That’s one down. Who’s next? We’re all going to be dead together, might as well get it out now.” Her gaze makes its rounds and settles on the goth kid. “Takashi! Take off your damn headphones and tell everyone who you are!” She raises her bullhorn voice over the noise of his metal. I cover my ears and wince, and this boy scrambles into sitting position and slams the headphones off his ears so they hang limp around his neck. They’re glossy designer purple and cost more than my whole outfit put together, maybe Chiyo’s too.

 

                “I’m Takeshi,” he says. He flashes us a peace sign before slumping back into his music. Chiyo’s evidently mollified by this, and asks who’s next. Spiked seems resigned not to say anything. He’s puffed out his cheeks and has his legs drawn up to his chest. Marjoram continues to look forward. Akane has gotten lost in herself, curled in fetal position for entirely different reasons. She hardly seems in speaking condition.

 

                “My partner is Akane,” I offer, nudging the body with my toe. She mumbles in acknowledgement. “She’s normally fully functional. I guess the whole noise thing’s got her spooked.”

 

                I hear her faintly add, “damn straight.” But it sounds very sad, like a dying lamb. I stoop down on the floor to look at her, but Akane buries her face into her knees and denies me.

 

                “Well?” Chiyo’s waiting for me. “And you are?”

 

                “I was hoping the green kid would introduce himself first.” I nod my head in the direction of Spiked, whose lime-colored do is beginning to deflate under its hairspray. He growls.

 

                “Fine,” he spits. “But only to you. Not to the old hag. Name’s Zak Sage.”

 

                Chiyo snorts indignantly. “What a stupid name!” she bellows, slapping the arm of her loveseat with amusement.

 

                He throws two fists down and stands up as though ready to fight her and says, “I wasn’t introducing myself to you, bitch!” The old lady winks at him and speaks in a singsong voice.

 

“Watch what comes out of that mouth of yours, you little shit.”

 

And that shuts Zak Sage up for a while.

 

                Chiyo stands up grandly out of her chair and spreads her arms out wide. Her grin is toothy and I spy at least a socked handful of golden replacements among its ensemble. She is larger than life, and even Takashi slides his phones a bit to listen.

 

                “Alright, now that Zak Snot’s finished,” (Zak is visibly not amused by this) “I suppose I can tell you a bit about myself.” She reaches into the pockets of her trousers and I catch a thin flash of something distinctly metal before she holds two slick copper-toned pistols in the air with eerily toned elderly forceps, and her look barrels us down with ancient vigor. “Listen well, and don’t forget it! I’m Chiyo!” – bang! – “no Tokaku!” – bang!  (There’s stirring from outside the clubhouse room, and a flustered storekeeper shouts to keep the noise down from the other side of the door.)

 

                “Let me guess, those are your psychs?” says a rather unaffected Marjoram. Chiyo no Tokaku now uses the weapons to gesture like a cruel and dangerously out of hand high school science teacher.

 

                “Yep, so don’t get me angry, little Missy!”

 

                “Duly noted.”

 

                Then we hear the screaming. I’m surprised it took that long to register in her before it started. Akane next to me is looking blindly terrified and shrieking at the top of her lungs. The gunshots likely set her off, which Chiyo also apparently realizes, muttering choice obscenities to herself and putting her pistols back in their holsters. I’m not sure what to do, so I wrap my arms around my partner and whisper reassurances.

 

                Marjoram is the only one who doesn’t leave their seat, even when the door opens and Ayanokoji is standing there barking at Chiyo to seriously stop firing randomly this is why the place is so damn empty and now some kid is screaming and please get her out of my shop. Chiyo gets the two boys to help me carry her out the door and through the racks of protein bars to get her fresh air.

 

                “Akane, nobody’s going to get hurt, it’s ok,” I tell her. A brief glance at the noise field reveals that orange symbols are attacking us in droves. The old lady leads the shop keeper back to something interesting in the shop, so he doesn’t see us disappear in the afternoon sunlight, dead as we are. Zak holds open the door to the thin, high chime of an unassuming bell as we drag Akane through, where she slumps down onto the sidewalk. And even then Marjoram remains back in the lounge.

 

                I settle down beside her, even though the cement is cold and ridgey, and blanket her shoulders with my arm. It’s all I can do as I see tears now streaming down her face. At least the screaming has subsided into gentle hiccups, if that’s improvement.

 

                “Akane, it’s alright,” I say.

 

                Takashi gets down on her other side. I wonder how he can see through that much unkempt hair. “You into 44MAGNUM?” He offers the headphones. Zak looks around awkwardly to see if anyone’s watching.

 

                Akane just shakes her head back and forth, staring at the street. “I don’t want to die.” First it’s just a faint wisp of air between her lips, but as she speaks it grows louder. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to fucking die with the fucking rest of you. I have a family. I have something to go back to. If I die here, I’m going to hell. I have to come back to life and save myself.” I stare at her quizzically and try to wonder what it’d be like in her shoes. I imagine a handful of the players who’d died would be boys she’d already slept with. That’d freak me out. I’ve never slept with someone, but I’ve never been very religious, either. I thought when she lost her essence as an entrance fee she’d never really looked back, but apparently that’s not the case. Though what strikes me as the strangest is how she desperately, hysterically wants to come back to life. I want to live to the end of seven days, too, but just sort of to see how they came out. I’m really only bemused by the whole thing, and figured since I’ve already died, that’s all there is to it.

 

I guess there isn’t much to come back to. My dad and I used to play baseball, I guess.

 

So I try to think of all these things when I tell her to chill out, maybe think of her family and how they’re rooting for her, and I’m rooting for her, and how much easier to kill she is in the middle of a busy Shibuyan sidewalk.

 

                It’s a few minutes before she believes me. Akane looks up with wide eyes.

 

                “Thanks,” she says finally, barely more than a whisper.

 

                “See, life’s not so bad, right? I bet Chiyo and Marjoram are right behind us. Got no mission today. Maybe we can just take a walk and calm down.” I’m not sure if I’m convincing her or myself to believe me. Either way, I’m running out of reasons.

 

                “You’re a damn fine partner,” says Akane.

 

                “And as long as I’m around, nothing can possibly stop us!” I’m pretty sure a high five is what friends do at this point in the conversation. “High five!” I prompt half-heartedly.

 

                “Shit.”

 

                She leaves me hanging.

 

                “Um, ok.” I leave me hanging too. I didn’t really want the high five anyway. But when I look at her, and the two boys, and the whole street around us, I realize it’s not Akane who said “shit,” but Zak, and he’s frozen looking across the road, where two harrier reapers are surveying us with what I would deem a predatory look and start advancing closer.

 

                That’s when Akane starts screaming again.