Chapter 1: Day 1
“Mr. Composer, there appears to be a disruption in the fabric of Shibuya.” Neku gives his Conductor an unimpressed glance.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Should I do something about it?” She pushes up her glasses, back stock-straight as if ready for orders. She’s not fooling anyone. If she wanted to do something, she would have done it already, behind his back. He’s not known for being very attentive to the UG, and a lot of Reapers take advantage of that. It’s not like he cares, but it’s the thought that counts. He waves a dismissive hand.
“Leave it. I’ll handle it.” He hasn’t been to the city in a long time. It’s not like there was anything to miss there. He watches Konishi leave, making a mental note to watch her more closely, before standing and stretching his wings. They’re a mottled grey, feathers falling out at random. This shouldn’t take long.
He takes off, descending through the planes, seeking the source of the disruption. Souls pass by, sharp and definitive, each closed off from the other. It took him a long time to get them to look like that. The corner of his mouth twitches upward, proud of his work. Distracted, he doesn’t notice the disruption until it’s right in front of him. A blinding light, next to an unfathomable darkness. Two souls, blurred around the edges, overlapping as if they belong together. A feeling of unease makes itself known in his chest. He’s never seen souls like this. They don’t belong in his city.
He turns down his vibe, stationing himself behind the statue of that stupid dog. Peering halfheartedly around the side, he notices two people conversing. One has a mop of brown hair, and is chatting loudly to the other, bouncing around as if he’s high on caffeine. The other responds in a much more reserved manner, taking the time to glance around the area vigilantly, long silver hair blowing in the wind. Both of them have Player pins.
Despite the uncomfortable feeling in his chest, he’s instantly intrigued. Who are these people? They’re obviously not from Shibuya, from the way they dress to the way they talk. He hides away his wings and steps out into the open, refusing to give himself a moment to second guess himself.
The silver-haired one is instantly on guard, getting the attention of the shorter male. Seemingly unconsciously, he angles himself so that he’s between the brunette and Neku. Neku pulls his headphones off so that they rest on his shoulders.
“Hi, I’m Sora! Are you a Player too?” the brunette asks, peering at him from behind the other. Neku scrounges around in his pocket and pulls out his old Player pin, from that one fateful week. He flashes it at them. The taller of the two gives him a once-over.
“Where’s your Partner?” he asks. Neku almost scoffs.
“There’s no need for Partners here. It’s every man for himself.” Courtesy of me, he thinks.
“Sounds kinda lonely.” Sora nudges the other with his elbow. “C’mon, Riku, introduce yourself!” The silver-haired guy, Riku, still has a wary look in his eyes. Neku respects that.
“I’m Riku. And you are…?”
“Neku.” The uneasiness turns into a dull, throbbing pain. He doesn’t have much time left in the UG before his powers start weaken. “How’d you die?”
Riku doesn’t even blink. “Drowned.”
“Together,” Sora quickly adds as if that makes everything better, and it seems like to them, it does. Neku can’t understand. He refuses to understand.
“Why don’t we work together?” Sora is saying. “It’s always nice to meet new people.” Neku shakes his head violently and puts his headphones back on.
“People are just handicaps. You’ll only end up getting hurt that way,” he mutters. Sora looks like he’s ready to argue, but Riku slaps a gloved hand over his mouth.
“Don’t bother. We don’t have time for a fight, we have to figure out the curse on this statue.” Sora pouts but remains quiet. With one final look at the odd duo, Neku retreats to the Scramble, disappearing into the crowd. When he’s certain they’re out of view he brings out his wings and ascends once more, making his way back to the Composer’s chambers. The pain in his chest subsides, the strain from the UG healing. He glances at the Player pin in his palm and resolves to find out more about these strange people. Drowning, huh? There’s no way they accessed the Shibuya River, unless they somehow managed to get under several feet of concrete. They had to come from somewhere else.
Through his phone, he dismisses the Game Master for the week, some low-rank Reaper he can’t be bothered to remember the name of (he’s some sort of musician or something, Neku thinks). He’s going to take over the Game himself. Even though the first day is over… there’s still six more to explore. He wants to break the strangers’ beliefs. He wants to show them why his world is better, safer, less painful than the silly notions they seem to have about “friendship” and “trust”.
Six more days. He’ll get this done.
Chapter 2: Day 2
The first thing he does during breakfast is send the day’s mission, a challenge to seek out and defeat two Rhinoceros Noise per Player. With the amount of Players still alive, there is no way they’ll be able to finish the mission without cutting it close to the time limit. He sits back and watches the ensuing chaos from several planes up. As expected, the locals start picking each other off, corralling others into the grasps of field Reapers and backstabbing each other at the first opportunity. But when he turns his sights on the two newcomers, his eyebrows furrow in confusion. They don’t seem to be paying attention to the others at all; instead, they’re roaming the streets side-by-side. They’ve already defeated two Noise, and when the third appears Neku observes their fighting style with unfettered fascination. They work in tandem, conjuring up these large key-like weapons and trading off attacks effortlessly. It's as if they're communicating without saying anything... but that's impossible, since they can't scan each other. Right?
He fingers the Player pin in his pocket. Ever since that first interaction, he's been increasingly aware of the tiny circular object's existence, whereas before he hadn't even spared a thought on it. If only he could spend more time in the UG without suffering the physical consequences... Frustrated with his limitations, he crushes a grape in his hand. The fruit's lifeblood spills through his fingers, sticky red dripping to the floor. By the time he roughly wipes the residual juices away with a napkin, Sora and Riku have already found and erased their share of Noise. They're impressive fighters, he admits grudgingly to himself, sitting up more in his chair as he watches them run into another Player. Instead of facing off in a duel, the two offer to help this new person. It's completely illogical, and it goes against all of his expectations. Why would they help a complete stranger, when not only are they competition for winning the Game, but they hinder their success for completing the mission? Impulsively, he grabs his phone and calls his Producer. It only takes the man a few minutes to show up.
"Whatd'ya need, Phones?" he greets. Neku frowns.
"Don't call me that. I need something that can prevent the sickness that comes with travelling to lower planes." The Producer raises an eyebrow from behind his stupid sunglasses.
"You finally thinking of visiting the UG? I gotta warn you, your powers will be diminished down there." Neku scowls.
"What are you, my mom? I'll be fine, it won't even be for a week. Just get me a solution by tomorrow morning."
The man shrugs. "You got it, boss." On his way out, he passes Konishi, who spares him a perplexed glance before going back to rearranging the files. Neku slumps back into his seat, fuming as the timer on the wall stops, signalling the completion of the mission. He has plans for tomorrow.
Five more days. His fingers are stained red.
Chapter 3: Day 3
The Producer delivers the solution early in the morning, as promised. It's a pin, a black feather symbol etched onto the front. As he runs his fingers over the polished surface, he can feel his powers draining away. Startled, he swiftly pulls his hand back and stuffs the pin into his pocket for later use.
Making the mission a competition didn't seem to work yesterday. He'll have to up the stakes. How about... guilt? He instructs a Reaper to set up the trap and sends out the mission mail, fingers twitching in delight as he schemes.
After descending through the planes once more, he settles in front of the Shibu-Q Heads storefront and waits for the two Players to pass through, pinning the black feather pin to his lapel in the meantime. The drain of energy is a burden, but he can handle it. He spots Riku's silver head of hair first, then Sora who's sprinting behind him, trying to catch up. Riku stares at him for a moment, allowing Sora to pass and run up to greet him.
"Hey! Neku, right?" Neku nods sharply, a jerking motion with his neck. "Any idea where this 'Pork City' place is?" Sora flashes the screen of his phone at him. Neku doesn't bother to look; he wrote that message not twenty minutes ago.
"I was actually heading that way until you two showed up." Sora grins at him, and Neku has to fight the urge to crinkle his nose in discomfort.
"Great, we can all go together then!" Riku frowns but doesn't offer any objections.
For a moment Neku contemplates what could go wrong by accompanying them, but in the end he decides to go through with what he had originally planned. "I guess that's fine. It's this way." He begins to walk down the road. Sora runs up ahead, obviously eager to finish the mission.
A hand touches his shoulder, and he has to physically stop himself from retaliating on instinct. He turns to meet Riku's icy cool gaze. "I'll be blunt," he says. "If you lay a finger on him, you're dead." There is no lightheartedness in his voice. This is a threat. Neku almost scoffs but manages to keep it together.
"I'll keep it in mind," he responds, breaking eye contact and following Sora through the crowd. Is Riku trying to protect his obviously more naive partner? It's likely not a matter of strength, since they seem to be pretty evenly matched. He can feel that stare on the back of his neck. Suppressing a shiver, he passes Sora and takes the lead, guiding them to the base of the Pork City building.
He takes a moment to be grateful for the fact that he doesn't often visit the UG, because the Reapers guarding the stairs don't seem to recognize him. On the first floor, Sora and Riku summon their keys and spring into action, slashing through the Noise as if they were made of butter. Neku's so enthralled that he almost forgets to take care of his own battles, narrowly avoiding getting hit by a frog Noise before throwing around a vending machine with one of his psychokinesis pins.
A few floors up, Neku gets bored of fighting the Noise and hacks open the elevator, allowing Riku and Sora to ride straight to the top where the mission says to go. With a tiny bit of energy, Neku ups his vibe just a bit, making him invisible to the Players, and perches on the top of the elevator shaft building. The trap has been laid; he can see the sparkling glint of the target pin on the very edge of the building. Only one of them can go to retrieve it.
Sora notices his absence first, brows furrowing in confusion as he looks around the empty space in the elevator where Neku had been moments before. He pokes Riku in the shoulder, gesturing around the elevator. Riku doesn't seem to be surprised, which makes Neku uneasy. Who are these people? The lift dings, and they both step out into the pale sunlight.
Neku watches as they leap into combat against the few Noise stationed on the roof, a ploy designed to distract them from the actual trap that's awaiting them. After a quick battle, Sora points to the pin on the edge of the roof. They turn to each other, murmuring. It seems like they're deciding who will go to get it. Neku rolls his eyes when Riku puts his hand on Sora's shoulder, obviously insisting on going. Sora pouts but seems to give in.
Riku cautiously approaches the edge of the building, kneeling down to pick up the pin. At that moment, Neku's trap kicks in, a frog Noise appearing and jumping at the silver-haired boy, pushing him off the side. Sora shouts, erasing the Noise with a single swift swipe, and rushes to the edge. Neku watches in shock as he pulls Riku up over the side, not faltering for a second even though he's just a few inches away from causing both of them to fall to their doom. With a grunt he heaves Riku up, and they tumble together onto the floor, laughing. It sends a cold stab through Neku's heart. Despite Riku's near death experience, they look almost... happy. He scoffs and turns away from the sight, ignoring the sound of the elevator dinging and slipping his headphones on.
Four more days. The music blares loud in his ears.
Chapter 4: Day 4
The next day comes and Neku meets up with the two Players. Sora starts persistently nagging him about his disappearance the day before.
"I forgot to buy some extra pins, so I just stepped out for a minute and went to get some," he explains. Riku glares at him suspiciously. "What? It's not like I was gone for that long!"
"You purposely left so we would do the mission for you," he accuses flatly.
Sora juts out his lower lip. "Hey, we're supposed to be a team, you know!" Neku whirls around, making the brown haired boy flinch.
"I never said we were a team." Riku steps between them, and Neku rolls his eyes at the heroics.
"So you don't want to work together anymore?" Sora asks, obvious hurt in his voice. Neku huffs. He needs to stay with them in order to plan out his strategy for breaking them.
"Listen, I want to get through this just as much as you, okay? So I'll try harder today or whatever." Riku opens his mouth to respond, but before he can do so Sora's face lights up.
"Great! Then we'll make it through today's mission super fast!" With a heavy sigh and a glare, Riku acquiesces.
"Fine. Let's look at that mission mail then."
The mission goes wrong real quick. Neku was planning for the two of them to use the pin they had received the day before against a group of incredibly powerful Noise; however, Sora had clumsily misplaced it, meaning he has to go find his Producer to secure a new one.
The cafe is warm and inviting, and not appealing at all to Neku. His Producer gives him a strange look, but shuffles into the back and returns momentarily with a new pin. He takes it with a muttered, "Thanks."
As soon as they step out of the cafe, Riku rounds on him. "You're one of them, aren't you."
"One of who?" Neku snaps back, a cold feeling in his gut.
"A Reaper." Sora glances at Riku as if he's crazy. "You may have a Player pin, but you're not a Player. I had a feeling from day one. You think like them, always feeling that being alone is the best answer. How did you know to go to this guy for new pins? And for the second day’s mission, we only had to seek out 6 Noise. We worked with one other Player that day, and I didn’t think much about it until the next day, when you showed up still alive. You didn’t count as a Player.”
Sora’s brow furrows. “You’re a Reaper?” Neku sighs. Riku's sharp.
“Think higher,” he responds.
“What's higher than a Reaper?" Sora mumbles. "A... grim reaper?"
“Screw this.” Neku unfurls his wings to the others’ shock and darts towards Sora, fed up with his obliviousness. Riku reacts too late, and by the time he’s summoned his key Neku’s already grabbed the brown haired boy and taken off to a higher plane.
He lands in the Composer’s flat with a massive headache and without further ado drops Sora onto the couch, folding his wings back and pacing back and forth. “Dammit, this is not how I wanted this to go. Stay there,” he snaps at Sora, who’s moving to get up.
“Where’s Riku?” he asks, finally wary. How does he have no concern for his own safety? He has no way of protecting himself here, not at such a high vibe. His key won’t manifest. Neku frowns and ignores him, instead calling for his Conductor.
“Yes, what is it, Mr. Compos-“ Konishi stops in her tracks at the sight of the other boy. “Oh! I wasn’t aware you had company. Is this… a new recruit?”
“Just keep him here for a bit. Don’t let him leave,” Neku instructs. “I’ll be right back.” On his way out, the timer on the wall stops. Damn, Riku already finished the mission? He’s really not giving Neku any time, is he? Neku swears under his breath and stomps off to get some food, tired of this whole mess.
Three more days. With ice cream melting sweetly on his tongue, the underlying sense of panic begins to grow.
Chapter 5: Day 5
“With all due respect, sir, my job does not obligate me to become a babysitter!” Neku takes a deep breath, fingers tapping idly against his leg. His head is pounding, has been ever since he got back from the UG.
“Your job does obligate you to listen to me, though,” he points out. His Conductor frowns with a frosty glare.
“My job requires me to stay on top of the Game and keep it running smoothly. While I defer to you in terms of the Game, that doesn’t mean you get to control every one of my actions.”
“I’ll take him off your hands, alright?!” he snaps. She looks unimpressed with his outburst.
"Thank you.” The sounds of her heels clicking as she walks away triggers unpleasant feelings. He growls and goes to see his unintentional hostage.
Riku will be coming for him, that much he’s aware of. Since the silver haired boy is the only Player formally left, Neku’s decided to tailor each mission specifically to keep him occupied with other matters. Today’s mission had been simply, “Win at Tin Pin,” a feat that will probably take him a while. He doesn’t seem the type to play games.
Sora’s eyes are wide when he enters. “Riku’ll be here soon, and then we’ll both defeat you together!” He has so much faith in the other boy. Neku can’t understand.
“How the hell do you trust him that much?” he asks Sora, frustrated beyond belief.
“Because he’s my friend,” Sora replies simply, so straightforward it almost makes Neku question why he hadn’t thought of it before. Friend… the word leaves a gritty taste in his mouth. He had a “friend” once; all he can remember of him now is blonde hair and a plucked note ringing out. It gives him anxiety just thinking about it. He grimaces and glances up just as the timer stops, several hours before he thought it would.
Several planes down, Riku holds his winning pin to his chest and looks up at the sky.
I’m coming, Sora, he thinks. Two days left.
Chapter 6: Day 6
The flat is suspiciously empty when he visits the next day, Sora nowhere to be seen. On the couch, a single piece of paper lies folded. He picks it up. In scrawled letters, the text reads:
“Listen, Phones, we have to talk. Meet us at the Scramble.”
Neku fumes. His Producer hijacked his plan?! Pissed off beyond reason, he crumples the note and throws it on the floor. Fine, if he wants a talk, he’ll get a frickin’ talk.
He blasts into the Scramble, summoning all his power into his entrance. Hanekoma, the bastard, doesn’t even blink. Next to him, Konishi has Sora with his hands tied.
“What the hel-“
“Neku Sakuraba, the higher planes cannot permit you to be Composer any more,” he states, voice loud and reverberating throughout the area. “You have interfered with the results of the Game. You are now considered by the higher planes to be a liability. They have given us permission to erase you. However… since despite my better judgement I still have an ounce of mercy in myself, I will give you until the end of this Game’s week to survive. If you make it… I’ll bargain for your fate with the higher planes.” Neku gives Konishi a wild glare.
“You’re in on this too?!”
She sniffs. “I’m tired of the way you run things. Despite your belief that people work best alone, I find it to be more efficient when we work together… specifically against a common enemy.” She pushes Sora at him. “You might want to start finding some more friends, otherwise this battle will be over in an instant.”
Neku growls. “What makes you think I can’t just erase you both right here?” The Producer sighs, pocketing his sunglasses.
“That pin I gave you the first day… not only does it keep your vibe low enough to stay attached to the UG, it also binds your powers to a specific level. You’re no match for us in this state.”
“You’d better run,” Konishi smirks. “The whole Reaper population is out to get you.” She waves and the two disappear into the higher planes.
A silver-haired streak immediately lunges toward them, tackling Neku to the ground. He finds himself at the tip of Riku’s weapon, cold eyes boring into his own. He’s lost everything… he forces himself to relax and accept his fate.
“Riku! Wait!” Sora’s voice shouts. Neku’s eyes widen in shock. Why would Sora of all people be standing up for him? Doesn’t he know what kind of person Neku is? He’s even more surprised when Riku lowers his weapon without further protest, despite his obvious fury. The taller boy strides over and slashes through the rope typing Sora’s hands together. Neku sits up and turns away as they embrace, their reunion too intimate for him to even process.
“Hey, Neku?” Sora says behind him, softly. He glances up to see the other holding out his hand, as if to help him up. “We'll make it through this. All three of us.”
Neku looks up at him, then looks at Riku. “Why?” He’s so confused, and tired…
“You’re our friend, too.” At this, a single tear drips from his eye, and he bows his head in embarrassment. He can’t even remember the last time he cried, but now he can’t help the cascade of water rushing down his cheek.
“Friends,” he croaks out. “Yeah.” He looks up at them with blurry vision and gives them both a wobbly smile. “So we’re a team?”
Sora breaks out in a huge grin. “Yeah!” Riku keeps his mouth shut, but gives him a short nod.
They only need to survive one more day. A small spark of hope begins to form.
Chapter 7: The Final Day
The final battle takes ages. Reapers attack them from all sides, and right away Neku knows that if he had been alone, he would have been overwhelmed almost instantly. But with the two Players beside him, attacking in sync with their blades slashing, he feels motivated to prove himself. He pulls out all the stops, equipping his full deck of Darklit Planets pins in order to string together combinations that keep the Reapers constantly on their toes.
After chasing off the last of the Reapers, the Producer appears. “You’ve done well,” Hanekoma admits. “This is your last challenge. The higher planes have agreed: if you can defeat this, you’re off the hook.” A bright light shines, and an enormous Noise forms. It roars, flapping its wings and spewing fire into the air. “I’ll give you a hint,” the Producer says, looking directly at Riku. “You’ve had it all along.” Then he takes off into the higher planes once more. The dragon Noise advances, buildings shaking with every step.
“What the hell does he mean?” Neku shouts at Riku. The other seems to be in a similar state of confusion. The Noise roars again and lunges forward with its talons. Neku dances back out of the way and retaliates with a barrage of ice pillars.
The three of them engage the Noise, but despite their best efforts they can’t get its health down below a certain point. Finally, something seems to click in Riku’s head, and he drops his weapon to fumble for something in his pocket. The Noise takes the opportunity to aim some fireballs at him.
Neku moves before he has time to think about it. He leaps in front to take the blow, flames scorching his skin. It’ll heal, but it will take time.
“Thanks!” Riku calls, snatching up his weapon and tapping him on the shoulder gratefully before darting toward the Noise. “Sora, on me!” he yells, holding something up in his hand. It’s a pin, one Neku doesn’t recognize.
The two run in sync at the Noise, and the pin lets out a blinding light. He hears them cry out something, and then the Noise is torn into shreds by little shards of light and darkness. He watches in awe as they deal blow after blow, seemingly floating in midair with the speed of their attacks. The Noise shrieks and dissolves into black and white pieces of soul that then disperse in the breeze. Sora and Riku land, their keys disappearing, and make their way over to him with grins on their faces.
“What the hell was that?!” Neku bursts, grinning back despite his inner instincts.
“Mr. H gave it to me after you took off with Sora. He said it’s called a… Harmonizer pin? It lets you perform fusion attacks with people you’re very in sync with.” Neku huffs out a laugh.
“No wonder it worked for you two.” As if on cue, Hanekoma returns, smiling in a way Neku hasn’t seen him smile in a long time.
“The higher-ups said you’re good to go,” he says. “I hope you learned something this week, Phones.” A bright light shines above them, and Neku looks up in confusion to see a large, glowing keyhole in the sky.
“Oh, that’s our sign to leave,” Sora explains. Hanekoma nods, knowingly.
“I’ll give you time to say goodbye to your friends.” The word sends mixed feelings through his chest. He’s always thought friends were only good for holding you back… yet he could never have made it past today without his two new… friends. And that’s what they are, aren’t they? They’re friends.
Riku shakes his hand. “See you.” Sora grins and high fives him. Neku can’t think. He has to say something before they go, something to show his appreciation. But what?
“Listen, you…” His hands are shaking, he realizes. “I… I’m sorry. For everything. I wanted to show you… to teach you the errors of your ways, but it was you who taught me. So thank you. And… I’m sorry.”
Sora punches him lightly in the arm. “Hey, you made up for it! It’s not like this is the worst experience we’ve ever had, you know.” Seriously, who are these guys? “We'll see you again, Neku, I'm sure of it!”
The two summon their keys one more time and point them at the sky. A beam of light shoots out from each key into the keyhole. Sora waves goodbye as they vanish, and the keyhole disappears.
Hanekoma walks over and puts his hand on Neku’s shoulder. “Well then. Let’s work on revising the rules of the Game, shall we?” Neku nods, grasping his old Player pin in his hand. Maybe having partners isn’t such a bad idea after all…