A/N: And here we are, the first of the one-shots in Extra Life's universe! Technically, you don't actually need to have read Extra Life to read this first one—it's a prequel, so none of the events in Extra Life have actually happened yet, but it does draw off Chiaki's backstory from there.
"No doubt about it…you're definitely the girl in all those rumors."
Chiaki distantly heard the words, but she didn't pull herself away from Hang-On. Her world had narrowed to a single point, the handlebars under her fingers and the road before her. Everything else was unimportant. Even the score in the corner, steadily ticking up, didn't matter.
She didn't care how well she did, or if she won, or even if she lost. All she cared was that she not be interrupted from the rush and fun of gaming.
Finally, when she zoomed across the finish line, she glanced up. She blinked in surprise; there was a middle-aged man leaning against the machine, watching her. Had he been the one to talk to her? How long ago had he spoken up? Most people didn't hang around when she didn't respond…
What had he said again? "The girl in the rumors?" she repeated.
"There's talk about a girl who leaves her name at the top of every high score of every game in Akihabara. I got curious, so I came to see for myself." He cracked a smile. "Though I will say, it definitely wasn't easy to find you! You visit a lot of arcades; couldn't you have picked just one to hang out at?"
Chiaki shook her head fiercely, life sparking in her at her favorite topic. "That's impossible! Places like Taito Game Station or Club Sega are company-owned, so they won't put games from the competition in! Even the ones that are privately-owned have a lot of variety! There's one by this maid café that has some rare crane games, and another that has the only machine of Sundance I've ever seen…one that only has retro games and one that only has modern ones…even one with some imported from other countries! I can't just pick one arcade out of them all!"
Only when her excited chattering had come to an end did Chiaki notice him smiling in an indulgent way. Self-consciousness warmed her cheeks. She ducked her head. I did it again…I got all weird again…
To her surprise, though, the man didn't say anything disparaging. "Sounds like you've got a real passion for video games, huh?"
She glanced up to see that his smile had turned gentle. Encouraged, she nodded. "Yeah…there's just so much to love about them! The mechanics, music, art, story…they weave together to create something incredible. And there's always something different or fresh across games—even ones in the same franchise—so playing one always brings a unique experience. Isn't that amazing? Thousands made, and none of them are exactly the same!"
"It's definitely something, yeah." He tipped his hat at her. "Name's Kizakura Kohichi, by the way. It's a pleasure to meet you, Nanami-chan."
She blinked. "How do you know my name?"
"Didn't I say so earlier? I heard rumors about you and wanted to see how true they were. I've been watching you for a while—not in a creepy way, I promise!"
He opened his wallet and flashed a license at her. "I'm a scout, you see. You know how sports teams send guys to scout new players? I'm like that, except for a certain school. Hope's Peak Academy."
Time stopped. It must have, because Chiaki knew she was still breathing, but the world around her seemed to have frozen in place. The lights of the machines, the sounds of the games, they all just…stopped. Hope's Peak Academy…?
Even she, who didn't have any interest in anything but games, knew about Hope's Peak Academy. Those who graduated from it were said to have complete success in life, and many of its alumni were indeed influential. It was prestigious. It was towering. It was a birthplace of hope. It was where the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the absolute talented went.
It was…for special people.
"Hope's Peak—b-but, why would a place like that be interested in me? I'm not…"
"Anything special?" Putting away his wallet, Kizakura-san smiled wryly and pointed at the arcade screen. "That, and the many others like it, says otherwise."
She glanced at the score. It was record-breaking, yes, but was that really worthy of attention? Even if it was…was there really anything that could come of it? A talent at gaming wasn't the type of thing that could be called a beacon of hope.
The sound of a zipper drew her attention. Kizakura-san was opening a duffle bag she only just now realized was with him. He angled it towards her, showing her the consoles—Game Girls, PSPs, even a pair of Wonderswans—inside. "Tell me, Nanami-chan…how good are you on these? Or do you only play arcade games?"
Her eyes had already started to light up, the dark cloud over her head dissipating. She wasn't good at social stuff, but she was starting to see the direction this might be going. "I own every single one of those consoles! Multiple copies, even! I play them so much I sometimes forget to eat!"
"You should probably do something about that." Reaching into the bag, he pulled out a Game Girl, seemingly at random, and waved it with a smile. "Watching and hearsay only reveal so much, so how about we go a few rounds and I see exactly what you're made of?"
"Well," he said when they were done. "Shame on me for doubting."
She just smiled down at the screen, taking heart from the fact he wasn't getting mad or throwing a huff at losing. Multiple times, at that. They'd left the arcade to not disturb the other customers, heading over to a café to play. He'd brought a wide variety of games with him; some were versus, some were co-op. All were challenging. It was clear as day that they'd all been hand-picked to test her.
Whether she passed or not…well, she didn't really care. She didn't expect to pass, honestly. But she'd had a good time, and that was what mattered.
Kizakura-san pulled a flask out of his coat, taking a swig. "You could really go professional with this, you know. But I rarely see your name in tournaments, even though you always won the few you did attend. Any reason why?"
Her smile faded. Chiaki tugged her hood up, huddling in the safety of its shadows. "…At tournaments, a lot of my opponents are guys, and they don't like losing to a girl. …It's just more fun for everyone if I don't go."
Winning, losing…those shouldn't matter. Having fun is what matters. But…people who like games don't want to play with me…and people who don't like games think I'm weird.
I can't make friends with games, and I can't make friends without them…
It's just…impossible for someone like me to make friends…
"Hmmm," was all he said, screwing the top back onto his flask. Kizakura-san returned it to his jacket and leaned forward, bracing his elbows against the table. "Well, I'm just about done, Nanami-chan, so why don't I tell you how the rest of this process works? I'm gonna head back and give my report to the Headmaster. He and I will have a discussion about whether you're in or not. If you are, we'll contact you in two weeks and you'll send your reply. If not…well, we just won't."
She nodded distractedly. Rising from his seat opposite, Kizakura-san tipped his hat at her again. "Try not to sweat too much about it, Nanami-chan. Have a safe trip home."
Chiaki forgot all about her encounter with Kizakura-san. She simply didn't expect anything to come of it. There wasn't any way gaming could be a talent. She loved gaming to death, but even she knew that it wasn't as important or useful to society as talents like financing or medicine. Those were the sorts of things Hope's Peak would really be interested in, whatever Kizakura-san said.
No, she really wouldn't get in at all. So she forgot all about that, and did not remember until two weeks had passed.
"I'm home," she called softly to the empty house. No one was ever there to greet her after school, but it was still something she did to make it feel a little less lonely.
Kicking off her shoes, she made her way through the hall, eyes glued to her Game Girl Advance. Without looking away, she went to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and withdrew the first snack she touched. It felt like dango? Chiaki bit into it experimentally. Yeah, it was dango. She hummed appreciatively, taking another bite as she headed for her room. Her door closed behind her, and everything except the console in her hands ceased to matter.
Hours later, she heard her name called. Chiaki raised her head, blinking blearily. The clock read 9:35. Her stomach grumbled. Oh…I forgot to make dinner again…
Did she have the night shift today? Guess not. She'd stopped paying attention to her mother's work schedule a while ago."Coming!" she called, pausing her game and slipping it into her pocket.
She and her parents didn't exactly have a great relationship. Or a relationship at all, really. Father was a project manager in a big company, so he travelled a lot and for long periods of time. Mother was trying to be a married working woman, which wasn't really a thing in Japan…so she faced a lot of stigma for it. Her job wasn't as lucrative nor astravel-intensive as Father's—she was just a nurse—but she often took extra hours to prove herself, to say nothing of the sometimes-crazy shifts.
So, because they were so job-oriented, her parents weren't really around. Mother had looked after Chiaki when she was a baby, of course, but went back to work when she entered pre-school. A babysitting service was used instead, until they decided she was old enough to take care of herself. They could certainly afford it: Father was really well-paid. So much so that he and Mother had made their dream house in Den-en-chōfu a reality by the time Chiaki was born.
And that was her life: growing up in a nice house in a wealthy, pretty neighborhood, with parents who bought her games whenever she wanted as compensation for their absences. When she was little, she used to cry about it. She used to resent them. She used to seek their attention. Now she just…
She just didn't care. And Chiaki felt bad about that, she really did. But…how was she supposed to care if she didn't even know them? If they orbited independently, rarely crossing paths? Honestly, she got the impression they genuinely believed that wealth and knowledge of a secure future were all she needed to be happy. She wasn't going to just wait for them to change their minds on that. She could have, if she'd loved them.
But they'd have to actually be part of her life for that, and they weren't, and she didn't.
Mother was waiting in the kitchen, smiling lightly. Her sandy brown hair—which had diluted Father's bright pink—was pulled back into a tight bun, drawing her face into sharp focus. A teapot was brewing, and she had draped her jacket over a chair. So maybe she was done for the evening? Chiaki looked around, but there wasn't a bag that indicated she'd gone to an electronics store. Her eyebrows rose.
"You wanted something, Mother?" She couldn't imagine what.
Mother's smile didn't shrink, exactly, but it did become sterner. "Well, there was mail for you on the doorstep, and you didn't pick it up. You should be more diligent about that."
"Especially when…" She held out an envelope, the warmth returning to her face. "It's as important as this."
Surprised, Chiaki took the envelope. It was made of nice, thick stock, the good kind, and there was a seal on the front. A shield emblazoned with a wand and what looked like a bolt of lightning, with wings and a crown.
"Do you recognize that crest, Chiaki?"
She did. Hope's Peak Academy's crest. A glance at the return address confirmed the source. Her mouth went dry. She cracked the seal. Inside was a letter, printed on fine, glossy paper, the same insignia in a corner. Her eyes scanned the contents, confusion giving way to incredulity.
Amazing talent? Ultimate Gamer? But it's not…it's nothing special…
She glanced up to see her mother's expectant face, grin trembling with anticipation. "It says…they want me to attend next year…"
Mother squealed, pressing her hands together. "I knew it! Hope's Peak Academy! The most prestigious high school in the country, no, the world! Oh, this is wonderful!"
Chiaki blinked as Mother hugged her—hugged her. She honestly couldn't remember the last time either of her parents had hugged her. All she could think to say was, "I never applied, though…"
"They don't take applications! They find people they think are worthy! And you're one of them! What time is it in—oh, who cares, I have to call your father right away!"
Suddenly, Chiaki remembered Kizakura-san, what he'd said about Hope's Peak being interested in her. Her legs gave out, and she collapsed in the chair behind her. In the background, she could hear Mother walking away to call Father, her daughter forgotten now that confirmation had been received. It was a familiar thing in a surreal world. Because—this was surreal. Being accepted into Hope's Peak Academy? It was way too surreal.
But…it was really happening, wasn't it? She could feel the letter in her hands. Chiaki looked back down at it, hesitance warring with an emotion she couldn't describe. It felt a bit like…hope.
I still don't think what they call my 'talent' is really a talent, but…it's not like I have anything to lose by attending, right?
Yeah. Maybe I should just give it a try.
Tentatively, she smiled.
Hope's Peak Academy…
I wonder what's in store for me there?
A/N: I honestly have no idea when this will update, or how long it's gonna be. I've got a couple more one-shots in mind and partially written, but there isn't a schedule I'm following like with Extra Life. It's probably going to be an "update when it's done" thing. But hey, they're one-shots, so no worries about cliffhangers, right?
Also, y'all can submit requests if you want, though I can't promise if I'll actually think of a one-shot idea for them or if they'd fit in the universe. But I thought y'all should know the option's there.