It’s nice to meet you, Akane! I’m Junpei.
Those are the words wrapped around Akane Kurashiki’s ankle, a promise that somewhere out there is a person who will always love her, no matter what happens. She thinks that that’ll be nice. Aoi is the best big brother in the world, and she loves him lots, but she still gets lonely sometimes. Even though she knows that she probably won’t meet her Junpei until she’s a grown-up, she’s still excited. She could have gotten a dull mark like, “Hi!”, but instead, she actually gets to know her soulmate’s name beforehand! And she knows just what to say; all she has to do is introduce herself to people, and she’ll find him someday.
When she enters third grade, it isn’t exactly a big change for her; there’s a new teacher, but she knows most of her classmates from the previous few years, and the classroom is cheery and inviting. She spots the one boy in the class that she hasn’t met, and strides confidently over to him. “Hi!” she says, beaming. “I’m Akane, what’s your name?”
The boy turns to her with a bright smile of his own, and says, “It’s nice to meet you, Akane! I’m Junpei.”
Akane stares at him, completely thunderstruck. She’s blushing and grinning like a maniac, but it slowly dawns on her that something is wrong here. He said her words, but he’s given no indication that she’s said his. This is a Junpei, but not her Junpei. It’s a shame, she thinks. He seems really nice, for a boy.
They end up best friends anyway.
A couple of years later, they sit on a hillside, contemplating their future. Junpei- or Jumpy, as she’s taken to calling him- is sporting two impressively black eyes, a split lip, assorted bruises, and a laundry list of other injuries. He still looks happier than Akane has seen him in a while. Even if it wasn’t very smart to stand up to those eighth graders, Jumpy still believes strongly that he did the right thing. The rabbits were avenged, their murderers would answer for it- that was what mattered. Akane thinks she might love him.
She’s never brought up her soulmark with him, and he’s never asked or made any mention of his. But today, she shyly pulls her sock down and shows him the messy handwriting on her ankle. “I thought it was you, when we met.” she says.
Jumpy blushes and ducks his head. He mutters something, but Akane can’t hear him so she makes him repeat himself. “Your soulmate is really lucky, whoever they are.” he declares, his voice defiant and his face crimson.
Akane blushes too. They’re holding hands; when did that happen?
“What about your mark?” she asks, unable to hold back her curiosity. She knows that it’s on his left wrist, but since he always wears a large and rather clunky watch she has yet to catch a glimpse of it.
Jumpy scratches the back of his neck. “Um, it’s kind of a weird one.” he says apologetically. “But at least I know one thing: whoever it is, I’ll know right away.”
Akane is a little disappointed that he doesn’t show her, but she understands. Soulmarks might be visible, but they were still a private thing. And if his was weird, it might be really embarrassing.
Instead, Jumpy gives her a doll. He isn’t her soulmate, but she knows she’ll treasure June forever.
She does, but it’s not at all like she would have pictured.
(“Why couldn’t you leave the stupid doll behind!” shout Aoi’s eyes every time he looks at it. Akane doesn’t know. She may never figure it out.)
She burns to death a dozen times, but Jumpy saves her in the end, like she always knew he would. Whatever fate has to say, he’s the only Junpei that matters to her.
She hates this plan, fights against herself to think of something, anything, that would save her without forcing people to “play” that horrible “game.” But the more she thinks, the less able she is to find a way, and somewhere along the line, she numbs herself to the necessity of her actions.
Sometimes, she wonders if she has any soul left at all, or if it was shredded long ago. She has seen so many things, things that she can’t even tell Aoi about anymore. He doesn’t understand. Nobody can. The human mind isn’t equipped for it, however attuned to the fields it may be.
By the time she dons the gas mask and cloak, she has no regrets. This is what needs to be done.
It’s laughably easy to break into Junpei’s apartment. As she lets the soporil gas fill the room, she intones something suitably melodramatic about the Nonary Game. If this is to work, ‘Zero’ needs to be a villain. Akane wonders if it says something, how easy she finds it to slip into the role.
Once everyone has been abducted successfully, she and Aoi prepare them. Kubota and Nijisaki are fed their explosives; Musashidou is given an extra dose of soporil and tied to the chair behind the number one door. Seven is a little tricky to arrange, but Akane is well-prepared and it goes without a hitch. Everyone gets their bracelets, and each is left in their room on D Deck.
It’s probably sentiment that makes Akane leave Junpei for last. She’s not going to examine that thought in too great detail.
It’s funny, but she had forgotten all about his soulmark. It had ceased to matter years ago. And so, when she removes his watch, she is completely unprepared for the shock that shoots down her spine. Her brain- always active, always planning, always scanning the morphogenetic fields for information- shuts down, unable for the moment to comprehend the small, precise handwriting that stands out in stark relief against Junpei’s pale skin. The number five bracelet drops from her hand, clattering across the floor. Something wet drips onto her hand, and she lifts it to her face, dully surprised to note that she’s crying. How unexpected. She bends down mechanically, picks up the bracelet, and fastens it to Junpei’s wrist, covering up those inconceivable words.
“Consider this a privilege.” they say. “You have been chosen. You are going to participate in a game. The Nonary Game. It is a game where you will put your life on the line.”
Zero leaves the room, already composed once more. He is her Junpei, after all. Akane had just not been his yet.
Somehow, it doesn’t help.