The start of this week comes with a lot of events.

From FF and STH: Now as for making something serious out of the Wii Fit Trainer, is she not almost like Mr. game and watch. Where both are characters I would not think you could do story wise serious.

Do you know of Pokemon x and y and of the new fairy type. With that Jigglypuff is going to be an dual-type Normal-Fairy Pokemon, is that fact going to be add for her in your story and if yes then how.

From me: I really can't say what I'll do down the line so…yes. You'll have to wait and see.

From BOB JOHNSON: Ha, I honestly wasn't expecting you to agree with me. A lot of authors get really defensive about their self-inserts, so seeing you admit that that was kind of overstepping boundaries comes as a real surprise.

I take issue with Chris's character pretty frequently because he feels really entitled. Him butting in last chapter is just a symptom of the whole issue where he's actually really kind of a jerk. He defines himself entirely around video games by choice, since he knowingly makes sweeping generalizations about other people, and then acts like that's a horrible punishment even though he's clearly living the dream life for a person like him (he has a real life Lucario as a roommate!) It also feels like a lot of the characters in the fic like him for very flimsy reasons and take his side a lot. (And his heart is as pure as an angel's according to Lucario. Sorry, but there's no way in hell.) That and the massive amount of powers he has... Well I'm sorry to tell you, since you clearly feel strongly about the sentiment, but Chris really is kind of a Mary Sue a lot of the time. (Oh, and one of his jobs is Anise, which I personally take issue with, but that's just me.) Not that I dislike the fic- dislike isn't the word, it's kind of a complicated relationship- I just can't stand Chris, is all. And Lucario by association.

So taking a break from complaining about Chris, I think a big reason that some of your readership has dried up is that this arc has kind of overstayed its welcome. A bit of formatting necessity because of how you decided to do the arc, but still. Most of your arcs are just a vignette from the story of the game, or some unrelated story set in the world of the game, but this is the entire shebang and, due to that, a lot of the more ancillary characters that people might like (for me it's Snake. I miss Snake,) haven't shown up in ages. That, and a lot of it is battle scenes, which you admitted you have trouble making interesting. I actually don't see why the arc had to be this specific Reaper's Game rather than another one in another location, which also probably would've made it stay fresh longer for the people, like myself, who HAVE played TWEWY and therefore already know all the twists. (Rhyme's delayed death must be a hell of a long con, it still really hasn't made any difference.) It's also an issue because TWEWY's story is largely about isolation and designed for a very small core cast that, by circumstance, can't really talk to other people. Having this massive group kind of takes away a lot of the atmosphere of the game, which is one of my favorite things about it, personally. That and a lot of the Joshua messing with Neku is pretty distilled thanks to him having to pull hexuple duty on mocking people. Not that that matters now that he's dead, but still.

Oh, and one last thing: why does everyone ALWAYS need to pitch in anytime something happens? I feel like that really breaks a lot of the flow of the chapters, since every time a boss fight happens or people ruminate you're going to get about eight or so lines to exactly the same effect. A few people can, but the entire group is not one gestalt entity that needs to have eight thoughts or lines every time something happens. Please cut down on that a bit.

Anyway, looking forward to this arc finally ending. Maybe then we can get back to the parts of this fic that it's named for!

From me: I really couldn't agree more with you. Those flimsy reasons that the others feel like having for him are one of the main issues I have from the start of the fic (which is one of the reasons I'm doing a retcon to make everything more believable). So yeah, your complicated relationship is completely understandable.

Also, for those last two bits? …You scare me, man. It's like you know that I'm aware about what I'm doing. I'm talking about the feeling of isolation and the other random battle bit. In truth, there's something big about the first one, and the other one… Well, you'll see once the next Game Master fights the group. Thanks for reviewing. You've been one smart reviewer. :)

From NowhereStarr14: So! What I wanted to say originally, is, this cliffhanger is...a pretty big one. Actually, a lot of the big fight scenes in this story are pretty long and epic. And I was wondering...is the ending of this story going to be...good enough...? I mean, with these scenes and them being so long and epic, you're setting the bar so high, and if the ending isn't as epic as the rest of the other scenes happening, it could possibly ruin the whole story because of it. I'm not trying to be rude, but, seeing how the Werehog fight and this Noise Lucario fight coming up is so huge, I'm just wondering...are you gonna' be able to top them?

From me: I'm not always concerned about "how I can top this" when it comes down to writing something similar. In fact, I only concern myself if there's something to write about. In the end, it's all about finding your favorite moments out of all the examples the story gives to you.

And now, the next and final week starts with a lot of facts and… Oh wait, that's a bit too much to mention here.

As I wrote this chapter, I pretty much outlined how everything is going to play out, so it took me some more time to come up with the final plot I have reserved for the TWEWY arc. With the start of this week comes a lot more drama and emotion, which also introduces a lot more conflict. You could say that, even if you have an idea of how things are going to turn out, the most important thing is how you're ending there. It's where character development comes forth.

With nothing else to say, I encourage all readers to read on, enjoy, and review.

Disclaimer: I think I also have a guilty pleasure in making Fox bust his head off.


Chapter 208: ?'s Week – Alone

?'s Day 1 – Sensible, Senseless

Devil Survivor 2 – Desperate Situation

-Shibuya-

Towa Records

The flying fist about to crash and crush Chris's head against the invisible wall made his body react, diving to the left. The Lucario Noise struck the wall with its fist, and it miraculously didn't break. Breathing hard, Chris's eyes froze on the feral Noise still with its fist resting on the wall. When the red, empty eyes stared down at the World Traveler, he screamed, scrambled up to his feet, and ran south as he heard the monster growling with anger, its clawed hands glowing with a purple aura.

"W-what now?!" Chris asked, not wanting to take a look at his pursuer. "I'm boxed in with a beast who wants to kill me! Where the hell should I run to?! I can't outrun him! If they based this Noise on Lucario completely, wouldn't that mean he's inhumanly strong?!" he asked to himself, stopping short when the Aura Hunter appeared right in front of him, having used ExtremeSpeed to defy speed. Yelping, Chris reared back, but the monster slapped him hard on his face, sending the teen to the right side where he crashed hard against the wall.

Chris was nearly fazed by the slap and the crash as he slid down to the concrete, his Black Mage hat falling to the side. He knew the monster was going easy on him, but it didn't look like that anymore once he heard the Noise growl a war cry and slamming its clawed feet as it made its way to him.

His mind racing with fleeting thoughts, Chris looked around and then found the entrance of the music store. Though a small touch of his head revealed that a bleeding bruise was somewhere in his hair, Chris shivered with fear and made a run for it inside the store. It was unknown to him if it was possible to seek shelter inside a building with a Reaper decal, but there were no other options. Caring for his life over anybody else's, Chris took the decision to enter the store, its double doors opening automatically at his feet's request.

Briefly, a cold but strong hand grabbed his neck collar, but when he made it inside the store, the dark hand lost its grip when it reached the boundary of the decal's shield, an invisible wall pushing it back. When Chris noticed that the stomping feet seized their chase, he looked behind and saw the fully-angered look of his predator. The Aura Hunter growled with power to the sky, demanding his prey to come on outside.

The terrifying sight made Chris feel very sick. The feral monster then charged an Aura Sphere that took several seconds to finish. Yelping, Chris dove to the right and barely saw the sphere of destruction vanishing when it came into contact with the decal's barrier, not even causing an explosion. The effect of the barrier only caused the Lucario Noise to growl loudly. It then began to shoot Aura Sphere after Aura Sphere.

Chris gulped and looked back. The Noise was stubbornly trying to attack him from the outside. It was obvious since the Aura Spheres, which Chris noticed were a shade of purple instead of a calming blue color, were clearly going to his direction. Nonetheless, the barrier separating the world of the living and the world of the dead negated the murderous blows.

"Hey, you there, dropped on the floor! You okay?"

Chris gasped and looked to the counter to the left side of the entrance. There was a glasses-wearing clerk with a dark pale afro hair who was scratching his head at the weirdly-dressed teenager gasping for breath. Listening to the insane growls of the Lucario Noise, Chris could tell for a second that the clerk didn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary happening outside, except of course for the teenager who lost his way to the next anime convention in Shibuya and was dramatically looking very perplexed. The Black Mage job made Chris stand out so much in public. "U-um…" Chris stuttered.

The clerk, named Yoji Iwata, winced. "Hey, I know you bunch like getting into your favorite anime characters' roles, but this is just too much," he said, not hearing the Lucario Noise's deafening growls indirectly trying to wreck his store only to kill Chris. "Wow there! Your head's bleeding a little!"

The teen coughed and saw the small stain of blood on his hand. "I…"

Yoji frowned. "Gotta threat that soon!" he said. "You need to head over back home or a hospital in the area to get you treated!"

Widening his eyes, Chris looked outside. The Lucario Noise stopped its relentless attacks to leer down at his face. Looking pale, the teen didn't want to step outside, as it would mean certain death. Explaining the situation to Yoji would only label Chris as a lunatic. "I-I feel fine," he lied to Yoji. "I just…tripped on the sidewalk while coming over here! I was…uh…" He looked around the store, finding many shelved CDs. "…I came over to check out some music… Yes!"

"You…serious?" Yoji asked. As if the monster outside understood the conversation, having actually listened with its excellent hearing, it stomped the ground with one foot and bared its drooling fangs towards Chris's way. Yoji saw the teen yelping a bit, and the clerk looked outside to see visible public walking by and ignoring the invisible juggernaut waiting for Chris to come out for the beating of his life. "Are you being chased by somebody?" he asked, blinking at the outside scenery.

"(YES! A BEAST THAT MAKES ALL OTHER BEASTS PISS THEMSELVES!) N-no…" Chris stuttered in fear, seeing the very visible Noise throwing fist after fist at the decal's barrier.

"…Huh, that's odd," Yoji exclaimed, looking back at Chris. "Well, you're free to browse our cool selection of music tracks. Just…don't drop any blood on the cases…" He remained silent until he sighed and said, "You don't look like you want to leave now, and I don't want to make a bad name to the store for refusing to sell to a customer. Business's been pretty bad this last week… I think we have a first aid kit somewhere in the back." He stood up from his chair and walked to the back of the store.

Music stops

Sighing with the aid of the clerk, Chris looked back at the Lucario Noise. He backed away when he saw it punching the barrier angrily, but then the barrier got fed up by the constant punching that it pushed the Noise back to the street. Chris looked serious and stuck his tongue out, seeing the beast pushing his feet up and rushing back to beat on the barrier.

Yoji came back with a first aid kit. Thankful, Chris was nursed by putting a bandage over the side of his head with the bleeding bruise. When Yoji was done putting it, he forced a smile and said, "The bleeding ain't so bad. You can use the headphones to listen to the music you want to purchase over there."

Chris looked to the right side of the counter where several chairs and headphones waited customers to be used. When Chris looked outside, the Lucario Noise stopped attacking the barrier to intently leer his way. Shuddering in fear, Chris told Yoji that he was going to stay in the store for some time while browsing and listening to music. With the reminder that a bloody monster was waiting for him, the Black Mage walked to a chair with a headphone set. Relieved to find a shelter in the store, Chris proceeded to remove his Black Mage hat to put the headp-

His Black Mage hat was gone.

Looking up at the empty space of air, Chris noticed that his trademark hat was gone. He looked behind to the spot where he dropped when entering the store and the hat wasn't there. A quick glance behind the wary Lucario Noise told him that his hat was visibly lying down on the sidewalk, stuck in a hand rail by the wind. "My hat…" Chris muttered. "(…That's the least of my problems right now,)" he thought as he sat down on the chair and put the headphones on to avoid making Yoji think that he was crazy or something. The Black Mage pressed a button on the wall to play whatever CD was already inserted in the slot. As the CD was read, Chris lowered his face. "(I'm trapped inside a music store with the image of my Pokémon trying to erase me brutally… Worst yet, Fox and the others aren't around to save me…)"

As he wondered what to do now, the song The One Star played in his ears. After listening to the track for a little while, Chris started bobbing his head a bit.

"…This track doesn't sound too bad," Chris said, forcing a smile and letting the track vanquish his sorrows.

Molco

From behind a pillar, Fox stuck out his head and looked around the area. When he woke up close to the mall where the Tin Pin Slammer was held, he felt disheartened to know that Chris and the others weren't around. Thinking that his rather strong attachment to the human was his new entry fee, Fox beat himself up for it. If Chris was sacrificed, Fox was prepared to deliver a rousing speech to make it up for the consequence, though he was thinking about doing something good for Chris in return.

When Fox woke up and tried leaving the barricaded area, he saw a very ominous sight in his surroundings. His heart beat too fast when he spotted the Noise form of his failed love Krystal surveying the area, prompting him to hide inside the mall to gain protection from the decal. Recalling the monster's vivid image in his mind, Fox saw the blue vixen donning her tribe's attire, except the attire was heavily altered to make it look like she was part of a demonic cult that worshipped demons. The staff looked more like a spear, but Fox couldn't recall more than that, other than the fact the overall evil look was very provocative to many…and obscenely erotic to his eyes only.

"It's true what they say… Evil is sexy," Fox muttered until he realized what he just said. "Get it together, idiot! Not need to drool over a monster taking her form now! That monster isn't her and you know it!"

"(You'd totally hit her, though,)" his guilty conscience called out.

"Shut up!" Fox hissed to himself. "…And now I'm talking to myself." He blamed his previous fits of blind rage to Kitaniji. When he thought about that name, his blood boiled for a brief second. There he was, in his third Game. At this rate, he was never going to get out alive, even less so without a partner and his weapons.

Unlike Chris, Fox at least had very good physical prowess. He didn't rely on his weapons too much in close combat, so that was a good point. Though fighting a Noise in the middle of the street without backup would prove to be a waste of time. For all he knew, the Krystal Noise would pull out some kind of trick the original never had.

A shadow passed by and Fox hid behind the pillar. It was the Krystal Noise, looking for her prey. Peeking, Fox carefully watched her movements. Along with the previous descriptions, he noticed that her tail was encased with light blue curved pieces, and her toes had small sharp nails. If the Noise hadn't been the image of his failed love, then his heart wouldn't be beating fast. Otherwise, he would just sweat.

"(Hit her!)"

"No!" Fox shouted. He hid back just in time to avoid the empty blue eyes of the vixen. Hearing the footsteps in the strangely lonely area, Fox saw her shadow walking to the east. Noticing the entrance to the Molco mall next to him, he entered the double doors for a shelter. Perhaps the decal prevented Noise from entering. "(I'm going insane,)" Fox thought as he tried to restrain the newly-gained conscience. "I need to rest inside… Maybe a Player will pass by and…I'll have to join forces with someone else… Hmm, I remember there was a fast food restaurant in here. I've got some bucks to spare."

Fox failed to notice the "Furry Convention Today!" banner outside the mall. Some of the worst wolf whistles ever resounded in his ears.

Shibu Dept Store – Bel Airplane

Ike looked down from the second floor at the scene below. A Mist Noise seemed to be leading a group of feral Noise that was made up of a rhino, two wolves, and three porcupines. The monsters were all surveying the area for Players. The mercenary had caught their sight from afar and thought about taking them on for a moment there until he noticed that Ragnell was gone from his sheath. Cursing his luck, Ike found out that he was boxed in the area with the monsters. If only the Mist Noise was alone, he would take her on without a sword, but she was accompanied by monsters.

Having entered one of the most expensive stores of Shibuya, Ike noticed that the gaudy setting he stepped inside was filled with very fashionable accessories with the most unbelievable price tags ever conceived. The yen count easily reached the hundred-thousand mark; a mark that scared the hell out of customers with the thinnest of wallets. Ike didn't care about the prices much. He was glad the store was a safe haven for him to hide from the monsters outside.

The silver-haired woman who kept tapping her nails on the glass counter wasn't fond of people who entered the store and didn't purchase a thing. She'd be lucky and very impressed if only one customer would buy even one piece of jewelry in a month. There was no way anybody in Shibuya could afford to buy the items in her shop. Her boss told her not to voice out frustration, which was something her boss was not proud of. "Please have a look around," May Kurokawa said, trying hard not to hiss. "(Another customer, another poor sap. Man, running this store is boring.)"

Ike then turned around and looked at her somewhat dull look. Remembering that he was a weirdo in the living's eyes, the mercenary felt awkward. He wasn't a person to do shopping unless his sister would nag him to get souvenirs from exotic places in Tellius. Soren was the one in charge of finances, not Ike. Seeing that everyone in Shibuya liked to shop a lot, Ike needed to blend with the public for now or else the clerk would probably demand him to leave, essentially pitting him to the monsters outside. "Uh, yeah, I'll do that," he said.

She cocked an eyebrow, but she wasn't getting her hopes up. The anime fanboy she had inside the floor didn't look like a rich person. The cape with the torn end suggested as much.

Because Ike had amassed a large quantity of yens from fighting Noise battles, he could at least afford the three most expensive items in the store or even more than that if the prices were a tad lower. He grabbed a genuine gold chain necklace from a stand and showed it to her. "I'd like to buy this, please…"

May shot him with a look of surprise. The accessory he just picked was one of the most expensive items for sale, and the gold was actually genuine. Not that the other prices were dwarfed by the extra zero, but damn, this guy was very brave. "Okay," she managed to say as she proceeded to process his purchase. "(Holy damn, what just happened?)" she thought, a mix of being impressed and shocked.

Ike just blinked, unfazed about what he just did. What was he going to do with an accessory? It looked too precious to him, and he hated looking like a noble unless he needed to look like one. He wasn't into the whole fashion thing, but he had to do it so that nobody would kick him out to his death. When she gave him his purchase in a small bag, Ike felt…odd just holding a shopping bag.

"Uh… I'll be waiting for your next visit! (This man is unbelievable! He just shelled a quarter million yen without wincing!)" she thought alarmed as Ike started looking around the store while stealing glances from the Noise looking for him outside. As he did so, the woman at the counter kept stealing glances of his back.

Soon enough…she fawned that the weirdly-dressed young man was the hottest stud she had ever seen before. So much bravery to buy gold in the store convinced her that she had a crush on him.

The oblivious Ike suddenly winced in pain, his eyes shrinking when he saw a horrendous sight on his left palm.

It was a timer. One hour till he was erased.

104 Building

A deadpan Ness blinked behind the automatic doors of the second largest building in Shibuya as he and a Paula Noise stared intently at each other. When the boy woke up and caught the attention of the Noise, he tried using his psychic power to throw her, but it didn't come off and he was tossed instead. After a small while of getting the occasional bruise from dodging her murderous blows, Ness ran into the building, where he found out that the Paula Noise couldn't get past the entrance, despite the fact happy people kept entering the building. He felt dismayed when he learned that his yo-yo and bat were gone from his arsenal, even more when the timer showed up on his palm without warning.

Without Pichu, he thought his entry fee was his powers and his partner, though he had his doubts.

"I'm guessing you're not going to leave me alone," he told the quiet Noise outside. She shook her head. "You know, the real Paula isn't a brat unlike you."

A clerk of the store in the first floor approached Ness from behind. It was a lady named Aily Ueno, a friendly kind of clerk. "Hey, little boy. Are you lost?" she asked. "(Look at that head!)"

Ness looked up at her. "Nope," he said. "I'm just standing here to wait for my mom. She's veeeeery busy hunting down deals in the third floor. It's really boring to wait for her so I'm walking around to kill some time."

That made no sense whatsoever, but the clerk looked confused. "Alright… If you say so…" she walked away, wondering how children today were getting big-headed.

Ness sighed and stared back at the Paula Noise. "Tell your boss he's the biggest jerk for taking my powers and weapons away, would you?" he asked, looking peeved. "There's no way I'm winning the Game without a partner or a pair of Players protecting me."

Ness didn't want to go into the store and lose time buying something. He needed to focus on the outside area to spot a solitary Player and make a pact. He looked sad when he thought about Pichu. The Electric type would be brave around others, but by himself he had very low self-esteem. With no way to contact someone else, Ness looked to the south towards the scramble crossing…where he spotted a familiar face touching the invisible wall that boxed him in the area within two more walls.

"What in the… Oh, holy god!" Ness rejoiced as he spotted Mr. Hanekoma grinning up at the wall. Making sure he was within the barrier, Ness stepped out while the Paula Noise eerily stared his way, waiting for him to come out fully to burn his fingers. "Mr. H! OVER HERE!"

"Hmm?" Sanae blinked and looked to the entrance of the store. He grinned and waved at the boy. "Oh! Hey there, Bigheads!"

Ness's right eye twitched at the nickname. "Call me like that again and I'll-!" He shook his head. "N-never mind that! I'm so glad to see you!"

"Me too!" Sanae said before turning around and walking away.

"…HEY, STOP!" Ness called out, stopping the barista in his tracks. The loud people were drowning his voice. "I need your help here! See this weird-butt monster next to me?" he said while motioning to the Paula Noise. "I don't have a partner and they took my abilities away to fight back! Can you act like my guardian and get rid of her? Dear god, her red eyes are unnerving!"

The barista chuckled and scratched his head, turning around to face the boy. "Er, I kinda don't have that much authority," he said.

Ness's face fell. "W-what?!" he yelled.

"I said tha-!"

"I KNOW!"

Sanae laughed to the sky. "As I was sayin', I can't help Players if rules ain't bein' broken!" he pointed out. Ness opened his mouth in shock. "Sorry, but you gotta solve this problem by yourself! That's how the Game works!"

"Don't you think I tried?!" Ness asked, sounding enraged. "I got turned into a helpless child! I tried leaving the area to find the others but all the paths were blocked by walls! In fact, I'M FREAKING TRAPPED WITH A MONSTER RIGHT NEXT TO ME IN HERE! How the hell am I supposed to get anything done like this?!"

Sanae rubbed his half-shaved chin. "Ya don't say…" he trailed off. "Hey, I just remembered! Whatcha doing in the Game still? Didn't ya win?"

Ness's body shook just remembering the fact. "STUPID KITANIJI PENALIZED US BECAUSE JOSHUA WAS AN ILLEGAL PLAYER!" When he remembered that Joshua and Sanae were best friends for life, he said, "Wait a second! You two are best friends and you were helping him to find the damned Shibuya Water or whatever! In a way, you owe us for this so HELP ME OUT HERE! I'm losing it!"

Sanae looked deadpan all of a sudden. "Hey, hold your horses there," he said. "I didn't think Joshua was an illegal Player. How else would I know that? Whatever the little guy was doing was none of my concern. I was just givin' him his toys to play."

Ness wanted to overturn the fact to his favor. "O-okay, maybe you're telling the truth. You're not evil enough to tease us like Joshua… By the way, Joshua got erased!" He could see Sanae's glasses shining for a brief second. "…I saw that scary glint in your glasses! Did I strike a nerve?"

"…Sorta," Sanae said. "That's…too bad. Here I thought he'd make it through…" Burrowing his hands in his pockets…he turned around and walked away, much to Ness's dismay.

"WHAT THE HELL, MAN?!" Ness yelled. "D-don't leave me here! Help me, damn you!"

He saw Sanae raising a lazy hand. "Don't ya worry!" he called out without looking back. "Things'll get better if you wait a little more, little guy! Godspeed and all that!" Ness then saw the barista's frame disappear within the rows of the public, vanishing in the direction of the scramble.

Ness begrudgingly raised his hand with the timer. "I'M ON A TIMER! I CAN'T WAIT ANY LONGER THAN FIFTY-FIVE MINUTES! W-wait, don't you go now! No, no, no! Noooooooooooo!" He dropped to his knees and sobbed on the floor. Feeling bewildered that his only option for survival ditched him behind, Ness blinked and looked to the Paula Noise, still standing there and staring directly at his face. "…Don't you have anything better to do than mocking me with that blank look?" The Paula Noise shook her head, much to his dismay.

Statue of Hachiko

Pichu wasn't having his best day. He was panting heavily as he had entered the Sunshine restaurant to the left side of the statue. After waking up there, he was immediately attacked by a Pikander. Unlike the other human-looking Smashers (with Fox having the excuse of being a furry person in disguise), Pichu needed to avoid human contact as much as he could, so he hid behind a chair that faced the outside. Having outrun the Pikander, Pichu stared out from his hiding spot to the outside.

Finding out that he couldn't let a single spark from his cheeks was just the tip of the iceberg. He was truly defenseless. Were all of them his entry fee? That didn't make sense…

"Ooooooh…" he groaned. "This is sooooo bad… Waking up without Ness and the others is the worst thing that could happen to me…" He sniffed, looking outside for any signs of the monster hunting him down. "…Where did it go? I was sure he was right behind my little tail… Hey, isn't this an important meeting spot?" he wondered to himself, seeing no distraught Players around the area. He got confused with all the living people walking by; it was hard to tell who was a Player. But because there was no panic, none of the people he saw was part of the Game.

His ears drooped in a sad fashion, sitting down and sniffing to himself. He was stuck there staring out into the open. Pichu hadn't actually touched any of the two walls leading to the central bus station and the scramble crossing. The Pikachu Noise pretty much told him that he wasn't allowed to go out lest he wanted to get erased. If the others were, by any chance, in the same situation, they were definitely screwed.

Right before Pichu lost hope, he saw someone running from the direction of the scramble. It was a Player since he ran through the living's bodies. Pichu's little eyes widened with surprise as he saw Neku running into the scene with an exasperated look on his face. "Neku!" he squeaked in delight, hopping from his spot. "Yay, I'm not alone! I need to get his attention an-" He gulped, quickly recalling the Pikander. "I-I need to get his attention without luring that beast out from its spot! U-um… What should I do?!"

Neku stopped running right in front of the statue. Panting heavily, he stood up and yelled, "Hey! Somebody! Holler back if you haven't made a pact yet!" He frantically looked around for any Players. Looking behind the statue, there wasn't a douchebag bent on teasing him nonstop for a whole week, which was arguably worst than nothing. "Anybody!?" he yelled back, but no reply answered back. The area was oddly quiet. "Huh? Where are all the Players?"

His phone suddenly beeped. Neku had already received a mission mail, which was to make it to 104 with a partner. But now, he received another mail to his phone. Wondering what it was, he took out his phone and read the mail…

"P.S. This Game only has one Player. Best of luck."

The world suddenly felt like the worst place to live. "What!?" yelled a shocked Neku at his phone screen. He pocketed his phone and looked around, hoping that it was a lie. "I'm the only one? Then I can't make a pact! I can't fight the Noise!" As he walked west with tons of negative thoughts filling his mind, Neku stared out into space until he saw a little yellow body waving its little arms at him from Sunshine. Blinking, Neku gasped at the smiling Pichu. "Pichu!" he said with huge relief washing over his contrived mind. He quickly entered the restaurant and knelt down where the Pokémon was, only to be pushed back a bit when Pichu lunged at his neck with a big hug. "H-hey!"

"Oh, goodness! I'm so happy to see you!" Pichu cried out, Neku involuntarily placing a hand on the Electric-type's back. "I thought I was the only Player left behind! Bwaaaaaaaaaaaah!"

"What?" Neku said, until Pichu's cries started to hurt his ears. "S-shut up! Get a grip on yourself!"

Pichu took a few seconds to clear his tears quickly. Smiling a little bit (which made Pichu shudder just looking at his sincere smile), the lone Player placed him on top of an empty table. "Okay… I-I feel a little better now… No, much, MUCH better!" Pichu rejoiced.

"But…this can't be," Neku said, making Pichu blink twice confused. "I was just told that I was the only Player left…"

"Wh-what?" Pichu replied, his eyes shrinking. "B-b-but I'm here! I'm a Player! U-um… Here!" He showed him his Player Pin. "This should prove it, shouldn't it?"

"Yes…" Neku shook his head later, however, which made Pichu look even more confused. "…Thing is, I just received a P.S. mail saying I was the only Player left… How, then, are you here?"

"…" Pichu looked left and right until looking up at Neku. "You really are wasting your time asking that to me, you know," he said in a dull tone.

"…Fair enough," Neku sighed. "This is weird. What's going on around here? For a moment, I thought that my entry fee was…the other Players." He looked down at Pichu. "But you're here."

"Yes, I am…" He shivered and hopped to Neku's right shoulder. "L-look, I'm worried about the others. If I made it, doesn't that mean they're somewhere in Shibuya?"

Neku looked serious and nodded. "Yes," he said. "I have a feeling they're all okay somewhere…which means we gotta search for them ASAP." With renewed hope, the two exited the restaurant, away from the decal's protection.

It then hit Pichu that they hadn't made a pact.

Gasping, Pichu told the walking Neku, "N-Neku, we need to make a pact quick or-!" before a lightning bolt struck them both down. Pichu managed to resist the blow, being an Electric-type, but Neku screamed louder than he did. Wobbling to the sides, Neku fell down in one knee, letting Pichu roll forward by accident. "Owie…"

"G-gah…" Neku shuddered, a few sparks jumping out from his body. Looking up, his eyes froze when he stared down at a feral Pikander standing between him and Pichu. His whole body then froze next. The damned rat was separating both pact-less Players from forming a last minute pact to fight back. "Oh, just perfect," he said.

Pichu stood up and looked frightened at the monster's back. It looked behind and hissed at Pichu, making him shiver. Neku took the little distraction to stand up, but he was very close to finishing his move when the Noise darted its face at him, its pouch cheeks sparking with electricity. Sweating, Neku kept his gaze fixed on the Pikander while Pichu remained there without moving an inch.

"W-what do we do?" Pichu asked, his calling not enraging their predator.

"Ugh…" Neku grunted, making fists to his sides. "(One small step and this rat is gonna fry me to death with electricity… I still feel weak after that blow I got a second ago… Grr, damn! Where are the others?! If Pichu made it, then where's everyone else?! I… We need them here!)"

"Yoo hoo!"

The girly voice made Neku wince. He avoided moving his head, only moving his eyes to see Koki and Uzuki standing right behind the frightened Pichu. "Oh, just great. Reapers!" he complained.

Uzuki smiled sadistically. "You're still here! Well, aren't you the sweetest? Sticking around juuust for me!" she said, giggling a bit. Both Neku and Pichu started to fear for their lives. They haven't made a pact, which meant that the Harrier Reapers could do anything to them. They wanted to escape, but the Pikander heeded the Harrier Reapers by warily looking at both of them. "Sowwy, our little pet here won't let you go."

"Y-you crazy bitch!" Neku swore harshly.

Uzuki's right eye twitched as Koki snickered at her. "Now…how about a little countdown until the ball drops? 10!"

Pichu began crying tears as his ears picked the sound of a gun being loaded with bullets. Neku saw the whole thing from his position, but he wasn't going to escape. With the Pikander keeping them from escaping and the two Harrier Reapers blocking the way, Neku lost hope for real. "It's all over."

"It…it is…" Pichu sniffed. "It's…over… N-no…"

Uzuki, pleased, continued her countdown. "9! Kariya! You owe me ramen for this. 8!"

Koki sighed, frowning at her statement. "Yes, ma'am," he drawled. "Just pay attention. 'This' isn't done yet. For all I know, you'll screw up big time before you reach the countdown."

She blinked twice and shot him a look. 7! Like you know anything! ...Ugh, fine. Zero!" She raised her gun at Neku's face. The Player gasped and backed off, only making the Pikander hiss and lung at him with its body covered in yellow electricity. Pichu looked up and cried out, shutting his eyes to avoid looking at the gruesome scene in front of him… Uzuki puckered her lips out as she said, "Buh-bye! Muah."

As Neku fell back from the two threats, he closed his eyes in resignation and lowered his face. "(Shiki... Joshua... I'm sorry,)" he thought solemnly, waiting for his demise…

A skateboard whizzed right in front of Neku right when he heard a shot being fired his way. Pichu quickly opened his eyes and saw the skateboard reflecting the shot back to Uzuki's puckered lips. The girly Reaper's eyes widened as the shot connected with her face, pushing her back to the floor. Koki blinked several times at the development until he saw the skateboard crashing down upon the Pikander, grinding the helpless monster against the ground. Screeching and growling loudly as its body became a bloody mess, the disfigured Pikander then vanished into static. The skateboard then pulled back and landed next to an astonished Neku.

"Yo yo yo, not so fast, yo!" Beat said with a dark glare at his comrades, the Reapers.

Neku's jaw fell down, and so did Pichu's. "B-Beat?!" Pichu said, then he let out a small yelp and went over to Neku's side. Sighing with relief, the small Smasher looked back at Koki and the fallen Uzuki.

She was not very pleased, and this was an understatement. The Harrier Reaper grunted loudly and gritted her teeth with rage as she stood back up, Koki simply looking down at her priceless expression. "WHAT THE HELL?!" she called out to Beat. "Tell me why you're here before I slice that punky face of yours!"

Beat scoffed, his Noise pet shaking its whiskers. "The hell you doin'? Quit playin' dirty!" he complained to the two. "You can't have a Game with jus' one Player! Maybe the Composer's down widdat, but I ain't him!"

"Huh?" was all Neku could say until he stood back up, keeping his distance from Beat in case he was actually planning to strike him with his guard down.

The punk Reaper raised four fingers. "First you gimme some lame special op and make me snipe my friends, and now you gonna take down a defenseless Player?" he asked, though Koki was tempted to point out that there wasn't a fourth item in his speech. "Ain't you Reapers got any honor? Now you got me all kinds a' pissed! Y'all goin' down, yo!

Kariya grinned jovially. "Oh, to be young and foolish again!" he said. "Try switching on your brain, Freshmeat. If you fight us, you die." He used his lollipop to point directly at Beat's face. "Right now you're treadin' on thin ice."

Uzuki calmed down a bit, rolling her eyes at the rebel Reaper. "Yeah. I mean, what kind of IDIOT chooses the Players over the Reapers?" she asked.

Beat grinned. "Ha! You're the idiots, yo. I ain't treadin' on thin ice!" he said.

Uzuki was confused at the reply. "Huh? You got some plan i-"

"Shibuya ain't cold enough for ice, stupid!"

As silence settled in, a rustling wind pushed an empty soda can between the two parties, rolling all the way to the front of the statue of Hachiko. Neku and Pichu exchanged deadpan glances until the loner teen muttered, "Um..."

Beat obliviously thought that he had outsmarted the two Harrier Reapers. Satisfied, he looked at Neku. "Yo, Phones! You an' me is gonna pact. Aight?"

Neku and Pichu gasped, and so did Uzuki, though Koki cocked an eyebrow at the suggestion. "(…Well, crap, I don't know what's going on here,)" Neku thought as he stared at Beat's stretched hand. "(But he said pact, and I need one so badly!)" He nodded confidently and grabbed Beat's hand. "...OK. Let's do it!"

Immediately, their souls felt united in a white flash, as their senses suddenly became one for a brief moment. Pichu looked up in surprise, only then noticing that Beat's Reaper wings disappeared the moment the pact started its show. After the wings disappeared, the two newly-partnered Players glared daggers at the Harrier Reapers. "Awright!" Beat said. "Feels so good to be back, yo!"

Koki smiled amused, though Uzuki was just about to tear her hair off at the betrayal. "Snotty little worm! The gloves are off! TAKE THIS!" she yelled loudly, calling more Noise from thin air. Pichu screamed and jumped to Neku's shoulder for protection.

Beat had a different idea than fighting Noise. He grabbed Neku's hand and started running east to the scramble. "Hey, Phones! We gotta bounce, now! This way!" Distraught, Neku and Pichu were dragged away from the Reapers and the Noise. Uzuki and Koki were taken off-guard, having been outrun by the punk.

"You little... You dare run?" Uzuki called out as the Noise grew restless. "Come BACK HEEERE!"

Kariya then grabbed her shoulder to stop her from chasing them down. "Whoooa, Uzuki! Stop, stop," he said, getting a demand from his partner. "We gotta report to the brass. You know how this works."

Uzuki's eyes twitched with rage. "But, but-"

Koki frowned before winking once at her. "You'll enjoy punishing them more if you take it slow," he advised.

Uzuki stared at him for a long while until she frowned with disgust. "Yeah... Good point," she agreed while taking out her phone to call the higher ups about the grave deed Beat committed. "Hey, this is Yashiro, Route 3. We have an emergency. A Reaper-"

Koki chuckled, staring the way where the three Players had run off to. "Hoo boy... Now the real party starts," he said. "(We were told only one Player was playing the Game. Ignoring the freshmeat, that little yellow mouse managed to bypass the rule… How did that happen now?)" he questioned. "(Wow, is HQ gonna get confused now…)"

Scramble Crossing

Neku kept yelling at Beat to stop dragging him around because the punk was putting an unnecessarily strong grip on his grip. Grunting, Neku pulled his hand back and stopped running, making Beat grin at him. "Booyaka! We made it," he said.

"Yay, we did!" Pichu cheered, until looking confused at Beat. "But why? Why did you help us?" he asked. "Weren't we enemies three minutes ago?"

The punk chuckled, looking at Neku as he caught his breath. "'Cause Neku was hung out to dry, man. I wasn't about to leave his sorry ass to die."

Neku managed to get all the air he needed to talk. "Right... My hero," he cheered with a dull tone.

Beat nodded a few times, feeling proud. "Tha's right! Wait, you're makin' fun a' me!" he said until shaking his head. "Hey, look, yo, I owed you. Tha's all."

"For what?" Neku questioned.

"Rhyme's pendant." The punk showed them the special trinket. The Noise pet on his shoulder chirped a happy sound as it looked at the accessory.

"Big deal. It was yours, so I returned it," Neku said. "Wait... That's the only reason you helped me?" Beat nodded with a grin. "Geez, man! You're a Reaper! They'll kill you for partnering with a Player."

Beat pocketed the pendant. "Aww...quit bitchin'! Leas' you and the little mouse still alive," he pointed out, to which Pichu pouted for being called a mouse.

Neku noticed the absence of Beat's Reaper wings on his back. "Hey, your wings are gone!" he said.

The punk looked over his shoulder at the empty space behind his back. "Huh? Oh yeah. Guess they are," he said. "Lame, the power boost's gone. I won't beat up some Noise outside fights now…but, meh, what can ya do?"

Neku and Pichu blinked. "You don't care?"

"About what? That Reaper crap was lame, yo," the blond punk said. "I was gettin' sick a' how they ran things. The good guys suit me better." Proud of his new alliance, he smiled at Neku. "But forget me, man. Why you and the little guy in the Game again? What happened to the prissy kid you was with? Hey…" He looked down at Pichu, and then he surveyed the area. "…Where the others? They go to their anime convention?"

Neku saw his timer. It was at forty-five minutes. Knowing full well that he had time, he and Pichu explained everything to Beat: from the point Joshua sacrificed his life to allow them to continue to the point where they woke up alone in the UG. "That sucks, man," Beat commented, looking peeved. "How can Shades be such a sneaky bastard? Takin' all the Players as an entry fee!"

Neku frowned. "Doesn't matter. I was forced into this either way. Shiki's still gone..." He lowered his face, feeling guilty for dragging Shiki into another week. The loner teen then saw Pichu climbing his shoulder.

"I still miss her a lot, too," Pichu said. "And the others… They're somewhere out there… They're waiting for us to finish the game!"

The loner teen nodded. "What choice do I have? Just one: win," he clarified. "Joshua bought me this chance. I'm not gonna waste it. I have to stay alive."

Beat was pumped up to make their wishes come true until a familiar barista waltzed by next to them. "Huh? Hey, it's coffee man!" Beat said. Neku and Pichu looked to their left and gasped, spotting Hanekoma whistling to himself.

"Mr. H!" Neku said, and the barista stopped in his tracks to look at them.

"Oh, hey there, Boss!" Hanekoma said with a deadpan look coupled with a friendly smile. "Whatcha doing now? Got yourselves tangled in another Game? The poor lady is stuck for even longer, huh…" He lamented for a brief moment.

Neku kept his fanboy urges under bay from demanding an autograph to CAT. He didn't distract himself on their situation. "Mr. H, I'm so glad to see you," Neku said, wishing that he wasn't going to squee. "Yeah, we got ourselves into another week, which will be my last…at last."

The barista nodded, looking at Beat and Pichu. "So you say," he said. "Eh, you'll do just fine, Phones. You're the only Player who's managed to get this far two weeks in a row. The Game never saw somebody this dedicated, y'know!" he then laughed, but Neku felt proud to be congratulated by CAT himself. Such praise was golden.

"(Keep your damned fanboy urges under control, you dolt!)" Neku screamed. "Thanks," he said coolly, hoping he didn't sound so forced.

Beat mumbled a few things as CAT kept laughing. "Hey, yo! We kinda busy here," he said. Neku shot him with a subtle glare. "You busy with your coffee shop?"

Sanae stopped laughing. "Today's kinda my day off," he said. "I'm doin' some guardian duties around the place."

Neku crossed his arms. "Guardian duties? How?" he questioned.

Pichu nodded. "B-but there aren't any other Players other than us!" he pointed out. "How can you be busy when we're the only Players in the UG?"

Sanae grinned and pointed at 104. "You're the only Players? But I just saw Big Head inside the store ovather!" he pointed out.

"Big Head…?" Pichu's face fell until he pieced the weird nickname together to one person that could be called that. "…Ness! Ness is there?!"

Sanae nodded. "Yup. He's inside the store getting protection from a weird Noise thingy," he said, to which Neku and Pichu gasped. "I warrant he won't make it if somebody doesn't finish the mission first. Why dontcha head there now? He was screaming his head off as I was walking away." Pichu gave him a weird look.

"(Uh… What?)" Neku's mind stopped to think about the fact. "(You just…walked out on him?) N-not to sound rude or anything, but isn't it your job to…you know…keep Players safe?"

Hanekoma lazily scratched his head. "Um, being a guardian doesn't mean I protect Players like a shield." He chuckled. "I don't make the rules. I merely enforce them."

"…Right…" Neku trailed off. "(…Holy crap, he's so…so…cool,)" his mind thought with complete adoration. He even fawned a little. "(Gah! Here I go again…)"

Pichu yelped and budged Neku's head. "We gotta save Ness from the Noise!" he said. "He won't last too long by himself if we don't head over there fast!"

Neku looked at the direction of 104 with the others. "If Ness is there…then…maybe the others are somewhere in Shibuya, too!" he said. Hanekoma grinned. "We're not totally alone, then! If we can make it there, we'll finish the mission too!" He then looked distraught. "But…last I checked, there was a wall over at 104."

Beat suddenly chuckled and flexed an arm. "eavitt a me!" he said. "I can use my secret weapon on those damned walls!" The other two Players blinked in confusion, exchanging glances.

"Seems you three have everything under control!" Sanae said, turning around to leave for his establishment. "I'll leave ya now. Don't want those Reapers to think I'm givin' ya too much help… Good luck in this week, Phones! You'll proooooooobably need it." He walked away to Shibu Dept. Store, laughing to the sky.

As Neku grinned at his idol, Beat raised an eyebrow. "Wow, man," he said. "That guy's a bit nuts."

Neku looked blankly at him. "Oh, I'll tell you what I know about him later," he said. "It'll blow your mind away."

"Wha…?" Beat trailed off confused until Neku and Pichu went over to the wall blocking their path. The blond punk caught up with them and looked up at the invisible block…just as he was running smack-dab into it. "AUGH!" he recoiled back. "Stupid %*)$)#%)$T$$#^%$ ^ $%#$^ !" he swore harshly at the top of his lungs, impressing Neku and Pichu at the gravity of the swears.

Pichu covered his ears. "Eugh! T-those swears!" he whimpered. "T-they were so…so harsh!"

Neku kept staring for a little longer until he noticed that the red Reaper guarding the wall was nowhere in sight. "Strange. Where's the Reaper of this wall?" he wondered aloud. "But this is the way to finish the mission…"

"I ain't got no time for this!" Beat bellowed, pulling his fist back.

Neku arched an eyebrow. "What are you going to do? Break the wall with you-"

Beat's fist passed through the wall, shattering the invisible fabric into shards that vanished in thin air. The headstrong Player pulled his fist back and stared at the bewildered Players. "C'mon!" he said, ignoring their impressed looks.

"…Did he just… Whoa…" Pichu trailed off, unable to find the words.

"Yeah… He just smashed the wall like it was nothing!" Neku said. When Beat shouted for them, the two continued to 104…

Towa Records

Chris was sick. The timer that had appeared on his left palm eighteen minutes ago meant that he wasn't long for the world in less than an hour. He was oblivious to the fact his team was separated across Shibuya at singular points. He wanted to escape from the store, but the stubborn Lucario Noise kept a close watch on him, guarding the entrance with crossed arms and keeping a watchful red eye on his prey.

The World Traveler had been bobbing his head nonstop for long periods of time, even after the timer manifested on his palm. The catchy music helped to ease his worries a bit, but then it felt like he was listening to an over-the-top requiem before his last breath approached. Mindlessly bringing his open palms to eye level, he gasped when he saw that the hideous timer was gone. The mission of the today was cleared. "Oh my goodness… The timer's gone!" he said, taking his headphones off from his head. "Which means…there are Players besides me in the Game!"

A wave of relief washed on Chris, sighing at the news. There was still hope to survive the Game for another week. He wiped a single tear from his eye and turned to look at the exit where Yoji was busy reading a magazine on the counter…

Most important, the Lucario Noise was gone from sight.

"(H-he's gone!)" Chris thought. "(T-things are starting to look up! I better make my way out and…)"

But then realization hit him. There was no way things would be so easy, he thought. The possibility that the Lucario Noise surely went to take a hiding spot to ambush him the moment he would step outside the store wasn't a farfetched idea. The mission was done, so there was no need for Chris to risk himself and let a monster beat him to death… What about the other Players? The finished mission proved that he wasn't truly alone in the third week, but he needed to send a message that he was partnerless.

Then he noticed his mage hat was still stuck in the handrail.

"(If my group is out there… Can they recognize the hat?)" Chris wondered. "(I'm the only one who wears something that peculiar… Oh wait, I'm in Shibuya. The hellhole of cosplayers.)" He sighed. "(They could just brush it off like that… No! I need to be hopeful!)" He looked serious, completely ignoring the odd looks Yoji was giving him from the counter. "(Fox has sharp eyes. He can tell right away that I'm in the area! If…he's still here…)"

104 Building

Ness wanted to cry, except he didn't want to cry because he was sad. Rather, he wanted to cry because he was very happy to see his friends coming to his rescue. The Blushieblack had suddenly turned around and initiated a Noise fight, leaving Pichu behind as Neku and Beat fended the monster by themselves. When the partners stepped into the area, the mission was cleared, though the threat of being erased by Noise was still a reality.

The troubling thoughts didn't faze Ness. He was happy to see Pichu rushing inside the store and lunging to his face with open paws. "Ness!" Pichu rejoiced.

"The first time I'm so happy to see a Pokémon in my life again," Ness muttered under Pichu's body. The two separated and stared at one another. "What a relief! Here I thought I was the only one alive…"

Pichu sniffed, but then he held out a paw. "Let's make a pact again!" he suggested. "We're screwed if the Noise get to us without a pact!"

Ness nodded and grabbed Pichu's little paw, waiting for the feeling of reunion combine their souls in some spectacular way… However, such a feeling never came to be after mindlessly holding hands for ten seconds. "…Pichu, I think you forgot to say the magic words," Ness said.

Pichu looked apprehensive. "W-what magic words? Um, I said pact and all that!" he said. "…Wait, do we even need to say magic words for this to work?"

"Well, how else would you explain this?" Ness asked. "When I first found you, we made the pact without saying anythi-" His eyes shook in fear. "…We didn't do a thing to make a pact when we grabbed hands before," he said in a deadpan tone. Pichu similarly copied the same expression. "Why we'd need to say words right now is beyond me…"

"…" Pichu's hand lifelessly slipped down Ness's hand, and the two stared into space as they digested the horrible implications that it meant not to have a partner to fight the Noise. "…Ness…I'm super scared…"

As realization hit in like four trucks running over them, the Onett boy gulped, trying to calm himself down. "…DAMMIT!" Ness complained loudly. "Our weapons are gone and now this? HOW CAN YOU EVEN WIN THE GAME WITHOUT A PARTNER?! There's no snowball chance in hell we'll survive an entire week without fighting Noise! We're their bait as soon as we step out from here!" Pichu whimpered a bit, noticing that many people inside the busy store were staring down at them. Getting looks made Pichu feel sick, so he suggested Ness to calm down. "Ugh, sorry… I'm just pretty irate now, okay? I have a good reason."

Pichu sighed. "Look…I'm just glad you're okay," he said. "I don't want to think about what's going on until we find the others…"

Ness sighed in defeat next. "…Yeah, I don't want to bust my head over this while we can go out and find the others…IF they're still there," Ness said. "But dammit! Another stinking week in this?! This better be the last time!"

After hearing his complain, Pichu looked back outside where Neku and Beat reappeared in the UG. He went outside, followed by a confused Ness. The two duos gathered in front of the building. "Oh, you're still here," Neku said, looking down at Ness. "That's a relief."

"I've got a bigger relief than you did for sure," Ness said, until slowly looking up at Beat and his Noise pet. The punk scratched his back and looked away. "…What is Mr. Rebel Reaper doing with you?"

Neku didn't feel like explaining it himself. He bumped a shoulder to Beat to get him to talk. "Uh, yeah, yo," he said, forcing a smile and looking back at the two. "I'mma good guy now. The bad guy side stinks."

Ness grimaced. "Just like that you joined our cause?"

"Yeah!" Beat said with more emphasis. "Them Reapers were playin' tricks on Phones. I couldn't just stan' it no more," he explained. "'Sides, he gave Rhyme's pendant back to me. That was a done deal in mah eyes!"

"…But you were…" Ness frowned. "Ah, forget about it. Anything to keep Neku safe from erasure. With you on the team the week shouldn't be that worrisome…except that Pichu and I CAN'T make a pact!"

Neku and Beat gasped in unison. "What do you mean you two can't make a pact? That's ridiculous," Neku said. "Are you sure you're not doing it wrong?"

"How can you even mess up a pact?" Ness asked, looking confused. "We tried with words and without them. Nothing happened at all!"

Pichu shivered. "I feel alone just thinking Ness and I can't partner up!" he complained. "This is so bad… We also don't have our powers to begin with! We're defenseless against everything in this hell!"

"Dang, dudes," Beat muttered, smacking his left palm. "I smell Reapers. They musta done this, yo. Can't stop playin' dirty!"

Neku grunted, rubbing his head. "What sick joke is this?" he asked. "Not being able to make a pact will severely reduce your odds to win the last Game. How is anybody going to win besides me?"

Ness pointed at Neku. "You ARE our salvation," he pointed out. "Aren't we still locked with that challenge they put on us? As long as you're alive, so are we?"

"…Oh, crud," Neku muttered, his bangs obscuring his face. "Now I feel more pressured to win this… I gotta take you guys to the winning circle no matter what." He looked up from his collar. "That talk about other bad guys trying to take over the worlds, including Shibuya… It scares me to think the universe's done for should I fail this round."

Beat looked at Neku. "No problem, Phones!" he said with a cocky grin. "Ya gots me for this run. You can't go wrong with my Reaper knowledge! I DID study for once in my life!" He was very proud of the last statement.

Ness crossed his arms and nodded a few times. "You were with them! That's right!" he said. "Don't you have some secret Reaper intel now that you joined us?"

Beat grinned. "I do!" he said. "I kinda quit at the last minute, but I made off with a few presents. Heheheheh…" He took out a black pin from his pocket. It was a pin with a black background behind a white key. "Check this out: a key to open up those damn walls all over the place! It's a Lvl. 1 Keypin."

Neku was surprised to know Beat had smuggled a key in the first place. He looked down at it with Ness and Pichu. "A key?" he wondered. "This can open up the walls?"

"Yup!" Beat said, feeling proud and pocketing it. "You saw me breaking that wall back there? I used this baby for it. Nothin' can stop us now! …'Cept for the walls that can't be opened up with this." He frowned. "…But don't fret, my men! We can go almost anywhere!"

The three Players felt relieved that there was a way to bypass the walls, but that made Neku worry about something else. "Wait… Won't your ex-leaders get angry at you for doing all this for us?" he asked. Beat looked lost. "You said you helped me so you could repay a favor."

Beat shrugged. "Yeah. So?"

Neku raised an eyebrow. "Is that the only reason?" he asked. "I can't afford any surprises in this Game. Why put yourself in jeopardy?"

The blond punk scratched his head, mumbling a few things. "…What's a 'jeppardy'?" he asked. Ignoring their deadpan looks, he said next, "Look, man. I dunno your big words. But I do got another reason."

"You've got another reason to help us out?" Ness asked. "Something else besides saving Rhyme?"

Beat winced, feeling guilty for remembering Rhyme. The Noise pet looked sad at him, exchanging worried looks. He quickly regained his confidence and shook a fist. "I wanna set Shibuya up widda new Composer," he said before pointing at himself with a thumb. "Me!"

Neku, Ness, and Pichu blinked several times after hearing the other reason for Beat to join them. It took ten full seconds for the others to understand exactly what Beat had said before the Smashers promptly laughed out loud and Neku just kept staring at Beat's jovial look. Truthfully, Beat couldn't tell many things apart. He really did think Ness and Pichu were laughing with him instead. "…Pardon?" Neku finally asked.

Beat grinned confidently. "Smart plan right there, huh?" he said. "I'm awesome!"

"…" Neku shook his head. "No, you're suicidal. Seriously, what?"

His third partner blinked. "Hey, whatsdamader?"

"Uh, Beat…" Neku trailed off, looking down at Ness and Pichu in their laughing fit. They were now rolling on the floor, clutching their stomachs with both hands. The teen then looked back at Beat. "…Why do you even want to…become the new Composer?"

"'Cause!" Beat said. The laughs intensified in volume. "The Reapers are doin' their job really bad. I can fix it up easily!" The laughs became louder.

Ness regained some composure to talk. "Oh man, that's good," he said. Beat smiled obliviously. "What makes you think you can do a good job running this place?" Even if the question sounded clearly like a jab, Beat felt like a president.

"Oh, yo'll see!" Beat said. "Jus' lemme get to the end of the week! I'll show ya all my experisouseci!"

It was blatantly obvious that letting Beat become the omnipotent Composer was perhaps the biggest boneheaded decision to end them all. Neku could remember the days when Beat was babied by Rhyme to avoid doing rash things. Challenging Ike to a Hamburger Off at Sunshine came to mind, which ended up with Beat being defeated after the sixth Double Burger disagreed with being digested into his stomach. Ike, surprisingly but not so much to Soren, was spared from Beat's fate. "(…That's not even a word. Don't you mean 'expertise'?)" Neku thought, looking dismayed at the whole thing. "Ugh, okay, you two. Stop laughing. We need to find the others ASAP before the day ends."

Ness and Pichu tried hard to stop laughing. "O-okay," Pichu said, sighing as he stood back up. "Y-yeah, let's go back to rounding up everyone! The Noise could get to them if we don't hurry!"

"But where should we go?" Ness asked. "Shibuya is a pretty big place to look for one single person! Let's not forget the walls and the Reapers. Where could they be?"

Neku grunted. "…Like you, they could be hiding inside the stores," he said. "I found Pichu inside Sunshine. He told me the Noise didn't get to him while he was in there. If they're not outside in the streets, they must be in the stores."

"And each area of Shibuya has a store!" Pichu pointed out. "Okay, where should we start?"

And Beat suddenly ran off south to the scramble. "Yo, follow me!" he called out. The other three gasped at the sudden head start he got that they followed him. "C'mon!"

"Hey!" Neku yelled. "You're my partner! Don't go running off too far! Where are you taking us, anyway?"

"I know where they are!"

Shibu Dept. Store – Herbal Remedies

Ike was freaked out by May up there in Bel Airplane after noticing the weird looks she shot him from her work space. Very oblivious to the crush she had on him, he moved down, aware that the Noise were looking for him outside. The mercenary went down one level of the building to enter the first floor, which had a radically different establishment. The gruff-looking, gray-haired man wearing traditional Japanese robes sitting next to a table full of special herbs and remedies that cost a pretty yen shot him with a wary look; a look that was just as unsettling as May's. The man surely expected the youngster to buy something, but that was a rare thing to see because nobody dared ingest the costly herbs. The shop was arranged with tables displaying expensive food like jumbo chicken, extra fine noodles, cordyceps, and the like. Compared to Bel Airplane, Mind & Body Foods had some reasonable prices that, in the long run, accumulated pretty fast should somebody happened to buy more than one item.

"…" The man, known as Banzai Ayanikoji, stared long at Ike, spotting him looking out the store's doors. "…Ahem." Ike looked back at him. "I'm not quite fond of window shoppers."

"Oh, um…" Ike randomly picked a something: Curious Mushrooms. "Here, I'll have this."

"…" Banzai's eyes widened. The mushrooms Ike had picked were the most dreadfully expensive stuff in the whole store. It was nearly more than half a million yen. Said mushrooms were told to bring guaranteed fortune to whoever that ate them, besides just giving the owner of the store a month worth of vacations.

"Is something wrong, sir?" Ike asked, showing him the hefty amount of yen.

"…What? Uh, nothing, son!" Banzai said, his tone filled with less venom. Suddenly, he was smiling wide, proud of Ike for going with the deal. Ike didn't care about what he was doing, as long as he was kept inside the store from the horrible monsters outside. "You're quite the odd one, but the good kind of odd."

"Uh, thanks," Ike said. He felt awkward as he got the mushrooms from Banzai.

"Ah, those clothes you're wearing. Are you perhaps one of those crazy anime cosplayers I've heard about from my son?" Banzai asked, his tone sounding friendly. "My son Shuto likes to talk about them a lot every day and night. Maybe you know him?"

Ike constantly stole glances from the outside. The Mist Noise riding the rhino Noise was still hot on his trail. "I don't think I do, sir," he said.

"Hmm? Oh right. My son likes to take on crazy nicknames to blend in with the crowd he likes to hang out," Banzai said. "Maybe you've heard of…Shooter?"

The nickname sounded familiar to Ike. Telling himself that nickname over and over yielded an answer in his mind: the sharp man running the herbal store was the father of the biggest Tin Pin fanatic they met during the Tin Pin Slammer tourney: Shuto "Shooter" Dan. "Oh…now I remember that guy," Ike said. "Yeah…I've met him once. Quite energetic, isn't he?"

"Is he ever?" Banzai chuckled.

Ike wasn't a friend to the odd boy. He thought Shooter was not normal. He could stand people like Pichu and Fox, but oddly the human side was in more ways terrifying outside his world. When he thought back about his world, Ike immediately picked names from people in his army that were just as weird as Shooter, namely the rather scatterbrained Marcia and her lazy bum brother Makalov, Kieran, and the poetic Bastian to an extent. True, those people were weird, but they were his close friends. Just the thought of seeing them all again helped Ike with the struggle against the Reapers' Game.

Only Ike's ears heard the rumbling from the outside. Looking out, he gasped when he saw Beat and Neku showing up outside in the street, engaging in a Noise fight against the monsters. Once they were gone, he felt relief when he spotted Ness and Pichu running into the scene next. Saying his good bye to Banzai, Ike approached the entrance of the building to get the two's attention. They quickly noticed his presence as soon as he opened the glass doors. "Over here!" Ike called out.

Ness and Pichu rejoined with the mercenary successfully and explained everything that was going on. Once Neku and Beat returned from the Noise fight, the mercenary wasn't too happy to see Beat among their ranks.

"It's because of you that Rhyme is a pin," Ike said. "You could've joined us last week instead of trying to rip us a new one."

Beat grunted, grabbing his left shoulder. "Ugh…"

Neku stepped between the two, holding a palm to each one of them. "This isn't the time to reflect on the past," he said. "We found you, Ike. You can be safe with us from now on."

The mercenary nodded, smiling a bit at Neku. "Yes. I feel much better knowing we're back together. Well, at least half of us…" He looked worried. "We still need to find Chris, Fox, and…Soren."

Ness nodded. "Beat said he knows where they are," he pointed out. "He took us here because he knew you were tossed into this place."

Ike looked back at the sulking Beat. "Really now? That's useful," he said. "How do you know?"

Beat merely grunted and sprinted towards Cadoi City. There was a wall blocking the path and no Reaper guarding it. Screaming, Beat pulled his fist back and punched right through the wall, lowering it down with the key he was entrusted. He rushed eastwards, prompting the others to follow him. "Would it hurt you to hold your horses?!" Neku shouted.

"I ain't have no horses!" Beat yelled back. "Whaddah hell are ya talkin' 'bout, Phones?"

"Oh boy…" Ike trailed off.

Molco

A very horrified Fox ran out from the Molco building after finding out too late that there was a furry convention today. Being constantly asked about how he made his "costume" far too real and cool and the weird marriage proposals from some people he couldn't tell their genders apart (luckily, these were far rare to spot) made him feel utterly sick of himself, even more with the ones that touched him in places he wanted to forget and the ones who grew desperate and tried prying his clothes and "mask" off. Suddenly, the thought about Joshua chuckling to himself came to mind, and he shrugged it off quickly.

Once he came out several feet away from the entrance where he saw the glaring banner hanging up behind his head, Fox rested his hands on his knees. "Dear god," he muttered, panting heavily. "What is wrong with these people? Why can't these generic humans be normal for once?" he pondered, making it a rule of thumb to check for convention banners before entering any large buildings in the area. "…Scratch that. What is right with them?"

He could've pondered the scarring questions a little more, but the sound of rushing feet made his ears perk up. Turning to the right and stepping back quickly, he dodged a pointy lance burrowing its tip into the concrete. He forgot all about what he went through in the building once he glared at the Krystal Noise that was hunting him down. Known as a Vixenance, the Noise was very athletic and deadly with her staff that she used like a lance.

"I'm happy you look like her," Fox told the monster. "…But you're not her. That pretty much makes you uninteresting. Since you're Noise, I have an excuse to beat you up." He wasn't going to retreat, as he already knew he was trapped within the walls of Molco. Despite not having weapons, Fox was good at some martial arts and defense. Quickly thinking on stealing the staff from the Noise to use it as his weapon, he had everything he needed to make his stand. "C'mon!"

The Vixenance charged with her staff trailing behind. Fox was fixed on getting the staff more than anything, as it would probably disable her from inflicting a lot of damage. When she came close and brought her staff above her head, Fox swiftly stepped aside and let the staff fall down. Quickly, he grabbed it with both hands and took it off from her hands.

The vulpine stepped back and grinned at her. "I didn't think it'd be this easy to disarm you," he said. "You monsters can't just copy the real deals very good, can you?"

The Vixenance didn't move. She just snapped her fingers.

The staff Fox held suddenly caught ablaze, making him yelp and let go of it. As he was distracted flailing his hands, his enemy kicked him on his stomach and pushed him away. She grabbed her blazing staff without getting burned, letting the flames rage on the frame of her weapon. Regaining his stance, Fox grunted at her. "Of course… That was oddly too easy," he said. "Dammit… Well, no sweat. I don't need your weapon to kick you hard." He motioned at her to come at him.

The fight resumed. With the staff on fire, Fox needed to be more careful. He was a professional when fighting one-on-one as there were no other people to worry about, though the unaware people walking by the scene in the RG made the scene look weird. Fox brushed it off and focused on the battle. He was swifter than he looked, as evidenced once the Vixenance started throwing blows with her staff. Low sweeps were jumped over, medium-leveled smacks missed hitting his head, and vertical blows were stepped aside. When Fox saw an opening once her staff brushed on the floor quite suddenly, he neared her and pulled off a roundhouse kick on her face.

His foot went through her without feeling physical contact.

Fox's green irises shrunk in surprise until she saw his hesitation and smacked his snout sideward with the hard end of her flaming staff. Fox got knocked back down to the floor and gasped for breath. Quickly regaining senses, he rolled aside and stood on one knee, avoiding a quick downward smack. "How… Why…?" He shook his head, glaring at her. "What the hell? My foot just passed right through you! That shouldn't happen! (Oh man, this is the worst. If I can't hurt her, how am I supposed to defend myself? Only thing I can do is keep running away from her…)"

Fortunately, he was swift on his feet. With the Noise guarding the way to the Molco building, Fox risked it by going south, knowing full well that there was a wall there. He was thinking about luring the Vixenance away so that he could have more space to make a run for it to the building, the only area that provided him with shelter... When he remembered there was a not-so good event inside there, Fox quickly considered his options: stay outside with a Noise he couldn't hurt literally, or go inside and risk his fur getting skinned off by rabid people. He chose the second, much to his dismay, as he reached the wall to Cadoi City and jerked around to see the Vixenance rushing towards him like he predicted.

He backed off against the wall and glared at the not-Krystal. "I don't have time for you," he said. "Now this has become a survival of the fittest."

"There you are!"

Fox blinked and looked over his shoulder. He sighed loudly when he saw Neku standing on the other side of the wall. He was probably the reason why the timer vanished in the first place. "Neku!" Fox said. "Thank god you're still here!"

Neku gasped. "Duck!"

Fox ducked down and avoided his right eye getting stabbed by the fiery lance. With the Vixenance looming over him, Fox heard a loud crash from behind. The wall shattered into intangible pieces as Beat's fist went through it. The Vixenance seemed to look surprised at the event, and so did Fox, mainly because he didn't see Beat coming into this at all. With the wall shattered, Neku and Beat engaged in a Noise fight against the Vixenance, leaving an astonished Fox behind as he stared into space.

He then heard rushing footsteps coming from behind. Quickly standing up, Fox saw his other comrades coming into the scene. "It's you guys," the vulpine muttered, smiling a bit. "Whew, I thought I was the only one left…"

Ness looked dull. "Sorry, but you're not the definite main character of this story," he said. "That aside, you're okay as well. That's good."

"I'm just as glad to see you again," Ike said. "The Reapers separated each one of us by tossing us into different areas around Shibuya."

Fox counted the three of them, noticing that Chris and Soren were missing. "Wait… Where are Chris and your partner?" he asked. The three of them looked away, indifferent to the question. "…Don't tell me you haven't found them yet."

Pichu shook his head. "We're looking for them, too," he said. "…Neku started finding all of us one by one…and Beat became his partner for this Game!"

Confused at the news, Fox waited for Neku and Beat to return from the battle. Half a minute later, the two partners reappeared, looking a bit exhausted. "Darn it," Neku said. "These Noise they're using act differently than the rest. It's like they're more aware of our fighting style."

"Please don't say that," Ness said. "When you put it like that, I can't help but think the Noise styled after our friends are trying to become a little more human themselves…"

"They're monsters, regardless," Ike said. "I won't go easy against that bastardized version of my sister. She's alive and well in my world. She's not here to cut my head off."

Ness mumbled a few words. "(Maybe it's because I'm younger, but I don't feel so good either way…)"

Beat grinned. "Yeah! One more good man joins the team!" he said, pleased to have saved Fox. When he stared at Fox, he noticed the rather grim look he was giving him. "…Uh, you okay, yo?"

Fox's grim look turned into a glare. "I still remember how Rhyme got turned into a stupid pin and you decided to side with the Reapers over us," he said. Beat gulped and looked away. "How dare you even come back to us like everything's okay and stuff? Do I need to remind you that you wanted to erase us a few days ago?"

Neku wasn't going to let an argument start right now. He stepped between both, briefly recalling he did the same with Ike a few minutes ago. "Fox, I know you're just as pissed to Beat as everyone else here," Neku said, getting Fox's glare. "…But he did save me and Pichu when Uzuki and her Reaper partner tried to off us both."

"…" Fox sighed. "Well, he's lucky you two were in trouble…but I still have my doubts," he told Beat. "I can't trust you after you came back from the Reapers. I gotta play it safe with you." He suddenly noticed the presence of the Noise pet perched on Beat's right shoulder. "I mean, you even have one of those monsters following you!"

Beat grunted. "This ain't no monster, fox man!" he shouted back, shaking a fist. The Noise pet shivered in fear.

Neku blinked, remembering the Noise pet. "Wait a sec. How is it that you still have that Noise pet around?" he questioned.

"Argh!" Beat rubbed his head quickly. "We ain't got no time to waste, Phones! Someone else's close to here! Um, I remember that weird shy kid with the infinite wardrobe was dropped off nearby! C'mon, time's a wastin'!"

Fox's eyes looked shocked, quickly forgetting his problems with Beat. "Chris!" he realized first. Beat took off south with a head start, the others following him from behind. "H-hey, hold your horses! We need to stay together!"

"Why can't ya guys stop bringin' that up?!" Beat yelled, his Noise pet hanging tightly to his shirt. "I ain't have no horses with me!"

"Oh, brother…" Fox muttered duly.

Towa Records

Several minutes ago…

Around the time Neku and Beat had found Ike, Chris was starting to grow impatient in the music store. He didn't know how much longer he'd have to pretend he was there to buy a CD. From time to time, he looked outside to see if there any signs of any familiar faces. The Aura Hunter was nowhere to be seen, but Chris couldn't risk it. The predator was surely waiting for the right moment to emerge from somewhere and murder his victim. It had been angered so much when the decal's barrier blocked it from reaching out, or at least that's what Chris thought.

As the clock ticked, the World Traveler wondered why the next day hasn't started yet. Morbid as it was, fainting in the middle of the street to advance the clock was the common thing to do. A week felt like two days or less because of how the Reapers' Game worked, but not it felt like the normal passage of time was weird just being itself. Something was definitely wrong if the day's mission was completed yet nothing else happened, Chris thought.

Looking out the glass doors, Chris's waiting finally came to an end when he spotted a familiar face lazily walking down the street, bobbing his head while recalling a nice tune in his head. Even if Mr. Hanekoma wasn't a Player, he was everything Chris needed. Foregoing the fact there was a Noise outside, Chris waved good bye to the clerk in the store and came out, rushing towards Mr. Hanekoma. "M-Mr. Hanekoma, wait!" Chris called out to the lazy barista. The teen forgot to pick up his mage hat stuck on the handrail.

"…Hmm?" Sanae stopped in his tracks and turned around, meeting a very relieved Chris. The teen stopped running and greeted him. "Oh, it's you, Chris senpai! Hose it goin'?"

"B-bad," Chris shivered. "I've trapped inside this area. I can't move out to look for anybody else…and I don't even know if there's anybody else in the game!" He looked at his palm that used to house the timer. "Well…there are people playing the Game. The timer disappeared so suddenly. That should mean there are, right?"

Sanae nodded. "A-yup, there are," he said. "Fact is, I met up with Phones and that punky friend of his. They're playin' the Game together."

Chris looked confused, his relief replaced by the neutral emotion. "Neku's here? And…what punky friend are you talking about?"

"The guy who has a megaphone inside his mouth and likes to scream bwah-something?" The teen blinked, falling silent. "Oh, um, his name was Beat."

"…Beat?" Chris said. "But Beat turned into a Reaper bent on erasing us! Good thing we defeated him all the times he tried to do that… Still though, Beat betrayed the Reapers by joining Neku? I thought he couldn't do that, or anybody else in the evil team for that matter."

Hanekoma chuckled. "Oh, that's possible, alright," he said until looking dead serious. "…Though that's a lethal chess move to do, senpai. The Reapers are a hasty bunch, I tell ya." He scratched the back of his neck. "You turn your back on them, they'll stab that back slooowly…then they'll twist the dagger 'til you're done for."

Chris shuddered. "…I would've liked another kind of description, but does Beat even know this?"

The barista laughed loudly. "Eh, who knows?! He should! Reapers are told everythin' about the Game and their tasks to do," Sanae said. "Would be nasty not to listen to 'em!"

Thinking back, Chris was glad Neku was around. But when he learned that Beat was with him, he brainstormed some possibilities. "Beat betrayed the Reapers and now he's with Neku, and the Reapers don't like being betrayed…" he trailed off. "…Is Neku going to be affected?"

Sanae nodded. "No way he's gettin' off dah hook either, senpai," he said. "If one Player is planning some dark stuff that threatens to destroy the existence of the UG or a Reaper leaves their team behind, the Reapers are told to take drastic measures against that Player and their partner." He looked up to the sky. "In a way, the partner that's not doing anything ends up suffering because their lives are tied with one another."

Chris felt sick. "W-what do you mean threaten the existence of the UG?" he asked. "Beat is pretty scatterbrained as it is! How can h-"

"Surely 'cuz, when he was a Reaper, he was taught about how they work," Sanae interrupted. "Now, it's like they gave Phones an exploitable tool to bypass several rules altogether! They had their chance to strip Beat from their ranks, but he quit during the Game's transition. The Composer can't directly affect Players until they are erased or they win the week. A little birdy told me that this was your last week, though, so if you win…you win, and they can't go back on their word. In doing so, whatever Beat got his 'ands on has the potential to disrupt everything to hell and they can't do anythin' abou'it if Neku wins. Beat got a sure ticket to victory!" He sighed. "…But anybody under the Conductor's command can do whatever they please before they finish all seven days. The fingerless gloves are off, senpai! No one's safe in this week!"

"Oh… Oh man," Chris grabbed his stomach. With all the information given to him, he thought he was told there was no way things were going to stay as easy a day ago.

"Furthermore…"

The teen groaned. "Oh, come on! There's more?!"

Sanae nodded, not flinching at the reaction. "Nah, actually, this has to do more with you as much as it does with Phones," he said. "If they erase Neku, all of you guys are done for, too. You're still tied to that condition of protecting him. Did you forget?"

Chris looked deadpan at the older man. "…Why don't you just tell me we're essentially screwed and be done with it?!" he demanded. "Honestly now! How can we win with all those odds stacked against us?!"

The barista chuckled. "They could have erased you during the awards ceremony but they didn't," he said. "Well, Beat betrayin' them was outta the blue, but you're here, ain't ya! You can make a big difference if you believe, senpai! Clap those hands with enthusiasm!"

"There is absolutely NO logic in what you just said…" Chris shook his head. "…Well…you're a guardian of the sorts, so maybe you're giving me an unneeded riddle I have to figure out soon enough."

Sanae rolled his eyes. "Sure, senpai, sure," he said, nodding a few times.

Chris looked around. "Maybe there's a chance to win this…but not like this," he said. "Mr. Hanekoma, like I told you before, I'm trapped in this place. Is there any way for me to escape and meet up with Neku?"

"Aw…" Sanae chuckled. "Sorry, senpai. Can't help ya out that much."

The teen wanted to cry so badly. "Y-you suck!" he complained. "T-there's this demented Noise who looks like my best Pokémon that's hunting me down in here! I don't have Fox with me so it makes things really hard for me to survive! Also, my weapons and magic don't work on it!" He grabbed the older man's shoulders. "Please, you need to help me!"

Hanekoma sighed and looked around. "Alright, senpai… 'spose I can at least do this for ya," he said with a small wink. He raised his right hand and snapped his fingers loudly.

The southern wall suddenly flickered with light until it shattered into pieces. Chris saw in shock as the intangible shards fell apart into nothingness, disappearing in thin air. With the wall gone, Chris was allowed to go forth. "Oh…oh god, thank you!" Chris hugged Hanekoma, the latter feeling very uncomfortable. "Sorry for saying you suck! You're awesome and all that!" He let go of the barista and walked a few steps away towards the open path. Stopping in his tracks, Chris blinked and turned back to him. "T-there's one more thing I need to ask… Do you know why I don't have my weapons and… What the…"

The barista disappeared from his spot. Chris could only see living people walking by the street, but Hanekoma was nowhere to be seen.

Feeling alone, the World Traveler sighed. "Maybe I was relying too much on him… He can't just go around helping Players that much," he muttered, looking up from the floor. "…That's enough moping around for one day. I need to look for Neku! As long as I'm with him and Beat, I'll be much safer." He looked to his right where his mage hat was flung south. "Oh, I forgot my hat got stuck there…"

Turning to walk south as his gaze followed the mage hat, his eyes eventually found themselves focusing on someone after the mage hat flew by the person that was staring at Chris. The individual was clearly looking straight at him and no one else, so he felt some company… When Chris fully scanned the person, though, it became a major problem.

The Aura Hunter stood between him and the way to Cadoi City. The monster growled menacingly as it started stepping forward, one crushing step at a time. The teen started breathing heavily while grabbing his chest and feeling his heart beat madly. The wound he had gotten on his head acted up by the sudden rush of sweat, but he tolerated the slight pain. He really wasn't going to tolerate the incoming world of hurt that was coming his way from the monster. "I-I knew you were around here, waiting for me to get happy AND TOTALLY RUIN MY GOOD LUCK!" Chris complained. "(He HAD to appear right between me and my only way out! I don't have good reflexes to dodge his blows! …Oh, screw it! I have to pass, even if he punches blood out of my mouth!)"

Perhaps he could fly away to gain more space to dodge. Quickly thinking of that, Chris changed to his Moogle Knight job. Noticing the absence of his small sword, the Moogle shrugged and was relieved to know he could at least fly in midair. Bracing himself and hearing the monster roar violently, Chris took off as fast as he could, flying upwards.

The Aura Hunter growled and jumped quite quickly to the direction Chris was going to. Gasping and gulping, Chris swirled right and barely avoided a Force Palm on his face. Briefly thanking himself for dodging the blow, the Lucario Noise used his free hand, grabbed the small fighter's backside and slammed him down back to the concrete.

Chris screamed loudly as his frailer body bounced off from the street, landing hard once more after the forceful pull back to earth. Grunting and slowly pushing himself off, a fierce kick coupled with ExtremeSpeed sent him crashing swiftly against the wall of the large CD emporium. Screaming louder, the Moogle bounced back to the street, barely feeling good enough to stand up without hurting himself. His wings had been damaged so badly by the impacts that flying was not an option any longer. His entire body was just in a similar shape, but all of his limbs hurting like hell made it near impossible to try to stand back up.

The rushing feet echoed, overcoming the sound of the living people's feet. Because the Moogle Knight wasn't exactly a job with a lot of stamina against larger and tougher foes, Chris indirectly doomed himself. His concentration was constantly being lost as he tried to change jobs. No doubt the Lucario Noise was going to erase him. After having survived the first mission of the third week, it felt so unfair to him that he was going to die either way. Hearing the monster's loud panting sounds, Chris could only whimper and cry, trying to see his entire life flash through his worn eyes. When the large shadow loomed over him, Chris unwillingly embraced death to get it over with…

Perhaps, out of desperation, he thought about moving. His body was getting into so much pain, but escaping from the monster was the best thing that could happen to him. Summoning his energy, the Aura Hunter's hand failed to grab the Moogle as he suddenly scurried away and stood up. With some focus, Chris changed to a job where he was turned back into a human: the Black Mage job. His legs hurt badly with the pain having moved to equal portions of his body, but it didn't matter. He was gaining distance away from the Aura Hunter, who then roared in protest and chased after him.

As Chris forced himself to run, he felt liquid on his lips. With a quick swipe of a finger, he found out he was bleeding. It wasn't enough blood for him to lose it, so he kept running south with everything he got to avoid being reduced to a bloody corpse on the street. Looking down the street among the living people, he spotted his mage hat being swept westwards to Cadoi City. He was going there as well.

The sight of a fierce-looking punk and his entourage of misfits gave Chris a lot of hope as they rounded the corner of the two areas. "E-everyone!" Chris yelled in relief, getting their attention. The mage hat bumped quietly against Fox, who probably looked the most relieved of them all.

The small smiles and grins were short-lived as soon as Chris saw Ike's s horrified look. "CHRIS, LOOK OUT!"

A fierce palm collided hard against his back and he was blasted off into the air, spinning madly and sending small drops of blood around. The Force Palm applied on his back was the last thing he needed. His body was almost out of commission, and landing hard on the sidewalk didn't help things. It was really it right now and there, because he was steadily losing energy to control even the slightest motion with a finger. Destiny played a cruel trick on him by letting him get so close to his comrades just to be pushed to the verge of death. His hearing becoming deaf by the second, Chris could only hear a multitude of rushing feet coming from all directions. He whimpered, not having enough force to cry anymore.

"You BASTARD!" Was all Chris could hear from a bewildered Neku, as a shadow lunged at his limp body lying down on the sidewalk just for two more shadows – Neku and Beat – making their stand against the demented Lucario and initiating a Noise fight.

Kingdom Hearts: BBS – Ventus Theme

With the threat seemingly gone, the other four Smashers immediately circled around Chris and checked up on him. The World Traveler had been beaten up so badly that his body was starting to look like a corpse. His pants were dirty, but his mage robe was dirtier with ripped portions and missing pieces. On his back, a large hole on the clothing where the last Force Palm came into contact left a large, red-swollen lump that was close to bleeding. His face was all jacked up due to his nasty falls from high altitudes. The bandage on his head gave up, reviving the previous wound he had gotten earlier in the day.

"No… No!" Ike yelled as they examined the teen. He quickly went over to check his heart beat. The beats inside were beating still, but they were gradually becoming slower. "Damn, his heart rate is too slow!"

"Y-you can't be serious!" Ness said, shaking his head. "H-he can't die here, not after all we've been through in this stupid challenge!"

Pichu noticed the dirty bandage and quickly put in on the teen's bleeding head. "W-what can we do now?!" he cried. "Chris will die if we don't heal him somehow!" Ike picked the downed teen from the floor to give him some support.

Fox gritted his teeth as he shook his previous partner a bit. "D-dammit! Don't you die on us now!" he complained. "Say something; anything! Please, don't die!" No response came from the teen. With the unneeded silence making itself clear, some started shedding tears as they looked on at the fainted comrade. "…Respond, DAMMIT, RESPOND!" The vulpine shook him harder, but Ike told him to stop.

There were coughs coming from Chris. They quickly gasped in unison, seeing him cough out blood. His eyes completely filled with tears, the teen whimpered and cried to himself. Pichu forced a smile. "Y-you're okay!" he said. "O-oh, I thought you were…"

"I…I…" Chris sniffed, and Ike felt how the teen's body shook in fear. "I-I don't…don't w-want to…d-die… F-feel…s-so…w-w-weak…"

Ness gasped, looking horrified. "D-don't say that now! You've got to hang in there!" he said.

Ike felt utterly sick just thinking about having a friend die on his arms, but he didn't want to let go either way. He gulped as he said, "If you've got energy to talk, don't talk! You need to conserve your energy!"

Chris's vision gradually became blurrier, seeing static cover the world through his tearful eyes. "T-this…t-t-this…i-i-is…the…w-worst…" he coughed, only then he felt the other three grab his left hand. He tried to take a grip on theirs too, but he couldn't even do that. Just knowing he felt weaker made him pant heavily, desperate to cling to his life. "I-I…am…s-so…s-scared… D-don't…le…a…ve…me…"

Fox grunted loudly. "Stop talking, you moron!" he yelled. "Hang on to your life! You can't give up now!" He hung his head down. "P-please…" he sniffed, something he was surprised to do. "…Don't die…"

His breathing became faster by the second, terrifying the others with the worst outcomes. "…S-so…scared… D-don't…w-w-want…to…d-die…a-a…lo…ne… U-uh…" His head lifelessly looked aside, his eyes closing with tears still falling down his face, mixing with the blood coming from his head.

In a flash, Chris's existence was no more, and Ike felt the weight being taken off his arms. The others' grips on his hand balled their hands into fists, looking up in dismay at the spot where Chris once stood. Completely mortified at the event, they fell in silence for about ten seconds, breathless and trying to understand what had happened. It was impossible to hold back the tears that were welling up in their eyes, and so the tears were set free. Pichu started whimpering, clutching his face against Ness. The Onett boy slowly put his hands to the sides of his face, his small cries turning louder by the second. Ike was frozen there, hoping that his arms weren't playing a trick on his mind by getting rid of the weight. As for Fox, he dropped on his knees and supported himself on his hands, staring down at the floor, feeling guilty as his tears fell down.

Chris has been erased…

As they kept sniffing under their breaths, the vulpine grabbed his head with both hands and screamed at the top of his lungs, "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!"

"W-why did this happen…?" Ness cried. "W-why did he have to die first again?! Why does he always die?! I don't get this!" He hugged Pichu for support. "Does destiny hate his guts or what?! It's so unfair!"

"I-I always thought I'd be the first one to die!" Pichu cried. "S-so unfair…s-so unfair… W-waaaaaaaaah!"

Ike kicked the air and started cursing himself. "I always try so hard to keep all the members of my company alive by the end of the day… I'd never thought…this could happen eventually…" he trailed off, trying to come to terms with the event. "…Were we too late?"

"Of course we were too late!" Fox yelled, standing up and glaring at them through his eyes. They noticed how he was crying. Even with a tough look, his eyes were watery. "We were separated because those imbeciles wanted to dispose of us without any help! And they were good enough to kill Chris of all people?!" He tightened his fists even harder. "He's gone through far more shit than we have individually! This was completely uncalled for!"

Pichu stopped his crying to look up at him. "W-what else can we do now?" he asked, sniffing. "Chris is gone forever…"

It pained so much to hear the statement. "N-no…no way, he's not gone!" Fox said, his glare turning into a saddened look. "I won't accept this that easily! H-he could still be somewhere, waiting for us to rescue him from death itself! W-who's not to say that's possible around here, huh?"

Ike looked away, though his eyes looked down at the street. "Well… I do have to…um…admit that anything is possible by now…" He didn't want to be delusional, but Ike had to admit that staying hopeful was better than moping around as long as insanity didn't take over. "…But how can Death itself be defied once you're erased in the Reapers' Game?"

Ness bit his lip, trying to suppress his cries. "Those b-bastards never explained everything in full to us…not even to Shiki," he pointed out. "T-they could be hiding something like that… I don't know, you guys, b-but… Chris is gone…"

Fox lowered his head. "…Stop saying that," he muttered. "STOP SAYING HE'S GONE FOREVER!" he demanded loudly.

As they felt silent, Neku and Beat returned from the Noise fight. They had arrived looking exhausted, even more tired than when they fought the Vixenance. "D-damn… That weird dog Noise was harder to erase…" Neku trailed off, until he noticed the saddened looks from the team. "Wait, what's going on? Why are you…" His eyes widened. "…Oh no… N-no! Don't tell me…!"

Beat and his Noise pet looked down at the bloody spot on the street. He grunted loudly and yelled. "STUPID (%$(# %$( %($## #$#!" he swore harshly. "We didn't 'ake it!"

The loner teen shook his head. "How could we be so slow getting here?!" he asked rhetorically. "Damn those Reapers! Yet another life snuffed out because of this sickening Game!"

Ike held himself together to stay sane. Pichu and Ness were hanging down their heads, and Fox was possibly far worse than the two children. Neku and Beat were taking it just as hard, though they held back their tears until Beat himself looked up and tried to keep his own tears from flowing down his face, his Noise pet looking remorseful. "…If we keep mourning," he began, "we're going to lose valuable time, guys… It…it can't be helped…"

Fox glared nastily at him, after picking up the mage hat that Chris had been chasing. "Then what the fuck do you propose, smart guy?!" he demanded. "We don't have any leads as to what to do now!"

Ike glared back. "You need to calm down, especially!" he shot back. Fox grunted as a response. "Don't you understand we haven't found Soren? He's out there alone with those monsters roaming the streets! We…were too late to save Chris…" He swallowed his breath, feeling guilty just remembering the lost life. "…But I'm not planning to waste any more time knowing Soren doesn't have a partner to survive alone. Chris was special to all of us in some way… Would you want to see another life get lost?"

Ness rubbed his eyes with one hand, his other hand patting Pichu on the back. "No… N-no, I don't want to see another one of us dying again," he said. "Soren needs our help… I can't afford another loss… Not now!"

"…" Neku lowered his face. "We're not on a clock for the rest of the day. We've got all the time until they decide to knock us out like they always do." He looked back at Beat. "Hey, Beat. Do you know where Soren is?"

Music stops

Beat's Day 2 - Style

Scramble Crossing

It was incredibly quick to feel the sense of drowsiness come at full force. They didn't even get a chance to see the world falling down. Waking up in the middle of the scramble, the six Players gasped and stood back up. "T-the next day?" Pichu wondered aloud.

"Yeah… Looks like it," Neku said. "Damn…"

Ike started looking around for any signs of Soren in the perimeter, but he didn't find the Branded anywhere. "Soren isn't here! He's somewhere else still!" he said, the most alarmed of the group. "We must look for him!"

Neku decided to ask Beat about information. "Beat, you know where he is? Thanks to you, we manage to locate Ike, Fox, and…Chris yesterday," he asked.

Beat chuckled nervously.

There was an unsettling feeling that everyone got once they heard the punk chuckling like that. "Beat, what's wrong?" Ness asked.

"Ah… Well…" Beat chuckled again. "…I was jus' guessin'."

"…What does that even mean?" Neku asked.

"Yeah… I didn't know where they was," Beat said, looking at Ike and Fox, ignoring the fact the latter looked very disheartened. "…So yeah!"

Neku closed his eyes in frustration. "So…you're saying that you just…ran around Shibuya like a headless chicken looking for people because you thought they were there?" he asked.

Beat mumbled to himself. "Whaaaa…? Hey, Phones," he began, forcing a small grin, "headless chicken can't run! They're dead like that! Dontchu know that?" He was confused when he saw Neku face-palming.

"Geez!" Neku grunted. "And here I thought you know what you were doing! That was pretty risky back there!" He looked back at the others. "…But we're lucky we found them."

The punk grunted next, looking down at his fist. "Yeahs, but what 'bout Chris? I failed, yo…" he trailed off, his Noise pet copying his facial expression. "They gots him… I shoulda run faster!"

Fox looked sorrowful. With the fact they haven't gotten a mission yet, he wanted to believe Chris wasn't gone. He tried to think of alternatives to defy death within the Reapers' Game, until he noticed he was still gripping the mage hat he had picked up yesterday and came to a reasonable conclusion he thought was reasonable at all. "…Everyone," he spoke, looking serious and storing the hat away, "…I think…there's a way to get Chris back."

The other five stared at his direction. "How?" Neku asked, crossing his arms. "What are you thinking? He's nobody's entry fee like Shiki is for me. How can we possibly bring the erased back?"

The vulpine thought back when Joshua was planning to meet the Composer to take his throne for himself. It was a good answer than any other. "…We're gonna go to the Composer," he said, tightening a fist to his side. "It's about time we meet him in person."

The Smashers and Neku gasped, but Beat grinned confidently. "That was my plan from the beginnin', yo!" he said. "That guy in white clothes should screw reality and what not! He can bring back dead people fosho!"

Hearing the news, the others smiled. "Wait, really?" Fox asked. "I was bringing some random answers, but… He can bring dead people back? Chris can be saved?!" He felt very relieved with the possibility actually existing.

Beat smiled wide. "…Not sure, yo!" Immediately, the others groaned. Fox wondered why he wasn't choking him.

"Beat…" Neku sighed mid-sentence, "…what did you even get to see when you were a Reaper? Did you even get to meet the Composer?"

The punk twisted his lips. "Hmm, nope," he said. "I wanted to, but Shades said no every damn time I asked. Like tryin' to meet a celebrity!" he complained. "But twas good, Phones! After all, I'm gonna become the Composer and change everythin'!"

While Ness and Pichu chuckled mentally, Ike and Fox exchanged odd looks. "Wait… You want to become the Composer?" Ike asked. "Why?"

"'Cuz!" Beat said. "Yo, the rules are screwed up, the Reapers don't gots the balls to play fair, the Noise make me sick… I hate everything they do!" he stated. "Also…that's the only way for Rhyme to come back!"

Fox wanted to laugh, but when Beat brought Rhyme into the discussion, he glared. "You idiot! How can you be so sure that winning the Game isn't enough to bring her back?" he asked.

Beat looked miffed. "'Cuz the Reapers are cheaters! They've been cheatin' ya to death, literally! I wanna change that and make the Reapers' Game a paradise!" he said determined. "I gonna get my hands dirty just for her!"

"…Holy crap, you are crazy," Fox said, looking duly.

"Crazy enough to work! Glad you're with me on this, Foxy!"

"When did I ever…? You know what, screw you, and please don't call me Foxy," the vulpine muttered the last part, seeing as Beat was at the top of the world in his own world. "What matters to me is to get Chris back from the dead while also getting Rhyme as well." Beat was happy to know he had his unconditional help, even if Fox wanted to rip him a new one.

Pichu shivered, embracing. "Um, guys? How are we going to fight Noise if we can't make a pact?" he asked. "…Ness and I can't make a pact for some reason, and our weapons and skills are gone this week."

Fox sighed. "You three, too?" he asked. "I thought I could at least fight that bastardized Krystal with my physical attacks, but all of my kicks went through her without hurting her… What do you mean you can't make a pact with him?" he asked, looking at Ness.

"We just can't," Ness said. "We tried several things to make it work, but it didn't."

Pichu nodded, climbing Fox's right left to get a hold of his hand to show him what he meant. "What can we do if we can't make a pact with the partner we hav-"

As much as how Fox and Pichu were completely unrelated in terms of being even friends, the pact didn't fail to work as soon as they grabbed hands. Vertigo took a hold of them as their souls resonated with one another. The two stared into space, briefly exchanging their singular visual range before going back to their bodies. Whatever had happened was already done, and they fully knew that they made a pact by accident.

Chris was decent and enough for Fox to work with. Pichu was very used to Ness that their teamwork was above passable. When each lost their chance to remain with their respective partners, it only meant one thing: insecurity. Fox looked down at his new unlikely partner and summed it all up with a well-placed, "…Oh, fuck."

Pichu was clearly offended, clinging to the side of his waistline. "W-what do you mean with that swear?! Am I not good enough to you?" He sniffed. "Y-you're horrible! What does Chris see in you?"

Fox grunted. "Hey! I have never. EVER paired up with you of all people! Which is incredible because I have been paired with Jigglypuff…once in a random match!"

Pichu grunted next. "Then you're out of luck! We're partners in this last run, and you're going to like it!" he shot back.

The vulpine turned to Neku. "Can't you swap partners with…" After giving Beat a look, he took it all back. Pichu pouted. "Never mind. He's all yours."

Neku rolled his eyes. "Yaaay," he said out of boredom, but Beat felt proud.

Ness got annoyed. "Get a grip on yourself, you big kid," he told Fox. "It's important that you don't have a reason to get hunted down by Noise now that you're with Pichu… Which reminds me…" he trailed off as he looked at the partnerless Ike.

Ike stared down at the boy and quickly caught on. "…No, absolutely not," he said.

Ness groaned slightly. "Why not?" he asked. "You need a partner, I need a partner, you know where this is going! Don't make this any harder than it is!"

"I must find Soren first!" Ike said. "He doesn't have a partner either! I can't let him go around without any means to fight!"

"You'd rather risk your life and lure Noise to us?" Ness asked. "They've been getting stronger every day! I've noticed that from the beginning of this long ordeal! Here, give me your hand!" He tried to reach out for Ike's hand, but the mercenary put them over his head. "No fair! I'm not that tall! Get those hands down here!"

"Stay away from them!" Ike demanded.

Ness sighed. "Well, this calls for desperate measures…" He strongly kicked Ike right on his left knee, making the mercenary grab his area and yell. Taking advantage, Ness grabbed one of his hands, making a pact with Ike. After the sense of vertigo was gone, Ike continued to rub his knee multiple times. "There! We're guaranteed to stay safe."

Ike glared at him amidst his pain. "W-what have you done?!" he asked. "Soren doesn't have a free partner for real!"

"You'd rather put me in jeopardy over him? I know you two are very close because that guy has never smiled to any other person other than you in a few occasions," Ness said, eyes suspicious. "Yeah, I noticed. He was always the smart one so it was hard for me not to see that."

Ike was pushed to a corner. "U-uh… You'd find some way to make it work by yourself?" he suggested.

Ness's glare intensified. "Screw you. We're working together until we win the Game."

"Then what about Soren? If we find him, what can he do by himself?"

"We can stuff him inside a shop each day of the week at the expense of his extreme dislike with people so the Noise don't get to him," Ness suggested. Ike wondered why Ness himself didn't come up with that when he asked to find another way. "Don't give me that look! It can work out! Let's just not say this out loud to the higher ups."

"I'd rather you do that…" Ike muttered.

"What was that?"

"I wish Ike was my partner," Fox muttered.

Pichu hissed. "So I'm not good enough for you? You've got a big ego!"

And then they were off. Neku watched helplessly as the broken team of Smashers started arguing to each other for petty reasons. One argument was about how there were some rules as to who should give orders during a fight, another was about how there should be good synchronization to exploit the light puck even if such self-imposed rule was never there to remind them about it, and another argument was a pointless complaint about how one partner needed to do something else other than doing their own thing (Fox and Ike tried so hard to take leadership roles in their pairs to no avail). It became worse when they started complaining about other stuff that didn't even have anything to do with the Game but their mannerisms and even looks. Fox was offended when Pichu said he wasn't buff but just plain-looking, and Ike didn't take it too well that his knowledge of technology was poor compared to Ness.

As they went on and on, Neku visualized their odds in clearing the Game without a fourth pair of Players and the most vital thing of all known as perfect sync. When he himself looked at Beat, who then in return flashed a grin, the chances to win became clear: slim to none and then to nonexistent. "(Oh yeah, we're fucked,)" he thought to himself, since he was the life that was chained to theirs. "(How did these guys even manage to make it this far without going at each other's throats?)" Staring at them all for a little while and knowing that their arguments were never going to end, Neku turned into the voice of reason, a very rare trait he found fascination with. "Okay, stop it!" he yelled. They didn't listen. "SHUT THE HELL UP!" They finally stopped arguing mid-sentenced, looking startled. "You people are insane, complaining about stupid things right when we're in danger in this last week! Did you forget the meaning behind partners? Trust! Even Joshua…even Joshua knew that when we were busy talking behind his back!"

"…" Each pair of partners exchanged worried glances with each other.

Neku gave them a few seconds to do something. When they didn't, he continued. "It's been hard on us," he said. "With all these weird, infuriating events happening to us every day, they're breaking us apart little by little. They…even took Chris down." Remembering that name made the Smashers look away, saddened. "That was when we were separated, though. We're back together…and you guys can only complain with your new partners? Do I need to remind you I've gone through that two times already because I technically didn't have any other choice? Why can't you accept the change? We're talking about our lives here."

"…Things really have changed if you're suddenly turning into the voice of reason," Ike admitted.

"That's because I learned to open my world so that strangers enter it… Joshua tried to diverge that from me, but it didn't work. Shiki had showed me how messed up I was when I needed her…" He lowered his face with guilt. "…Trust and teamwork can only help us to pull through this hell, didn't you learn that? Guess your worlds are closed off to even yourselves..."

Fox sighed. "I really hate to admit it, but he's completely right," he said. "…I'm so riled up for what happened yesterday… I can't stop thinking that Chris can be really gone."

"I have the same thoughts," Neku said, looking up. "Maybe it is time we meet the Composer himself. We gotta do it by playing fair. The Reapers put a lot of traps the weeks before, yet here we are, aren't we?" He held out a hand. "The Composer should have the power to make wishes come true, even, if this creepy-ass dimension exists under Shibuya. I…I think being in denial about such a thing can help us stay sane, only because we're fighting for something that we want to get back."

Ness sighed next. "We lost a lot of good people on the way here," he pointed out. "…It's all up to us to hold a meeting with the boss in charge. I-I don't want to think we're gonna face off against a God, but what else can we do?"

Pichu gulped, still clinging to Fox's leg. "Besides, we're soooooo death if we tell Lucario that we couldn't protect Chris," he simply said. "…He'll snap…and then he'll snap us."

"…Oh, crap," the other three Smashers said in unison. Neku and Beat blinked.

"Huh? I dunno how that guy can truly… Oh wait, wrist spikes. I get it," Neku said. "…So, what do you guys say? Can you endure this week with your new partners just for the sake to win? Who knows, maybe we can finish this early if we go to the Shibuya River right away."

Beat nodded. "The Shibuya River! I wanted to crash there yesterday!" he said, smacking a palm. "The enemy base is deep under the city, yo. We should go there right now and stop wastin' time!"

Suddenly, Neku's and Beat's phone beeped in unison. "And there's the mission," Neku said. "We're back on the clock, but we must infiltrate the river and ignore the mission."

"Go where? You haven't even read the mission."

Gasping, the six looked around after hearing a new female voice coming from somewhere. Hearing heels walking delicately on the street, Pichu turned west to spot a blond woman wearing glasses and refined clothing fixing her gaze on them. He told them to look his way, spotting her sight. "Who are you?" Ike asked.

It was Mitsuki Konishi, Megumi's right-hand woman and secretary of sorts. "Greetings. I am this week's Game Master, Mitsuki Konishi," she introduced herself with a stoic look.

Ness examined the woman from heels to head. "Doesn't look demonic, crazy, creepy, insane, punk-looking…" he trailed off. "…Oh, finally! We meet somebody who doesn't look odd!"

Konishi chuckled. "That is because I do not fancy myself with looks," she said. "I only focus on what is most important: my job as a Reaper."

Fox had to glare at her. "In other words, we shouldn't take you too lightly," he said.

"Yes, that is the most eloquent answer I was expecting," she said, fixing her glasses. "I must apologize in advance for you having to deal with the rebel Mr. Minamimoto. He was completely out of our hands when he was the Game Master." There was a glint on her glasses that everyone spotted quickly. "However, I am warning you that I do not overlook any small trivialities like he did."

Neku thought, "(Damn! They sent us a professional who takes her job seriously!)"

Beat scoffed at her. "Tsk... This is the Iron Maiden?" he asked. "Move, yo! I ain't got time for you!"

Konishi – the Iron Maiden - looked at Beat, her expression turning a bit cold. "So primitive," she commented. "You think I can't see what you're up to? You were going to ignore the mission and cause some kind of trouble. After all the trouble Mr. Minamimoto had set up for us with the Taboo Noise we can't get rid of, we have our hands full as is."

"So what, yo?! I'm a Reaper. I don't gotta do some stupid mission!" Beat shot back, though the others knew that he wasn't a Reaper anymore.

She wasn't amused in the slightest. "...As I thought," she muttered. "Well, I regret to inform you that you were officially expelled from the Reapers yesterday. As of today, you are just a Player."

Beat rolled his eyes. "Pfft. Whatever. You can't fire me, 'cause I quit, yo!" he said.

The Iron Maiden rolled her own eyes. "Oh, don't act like a child," she said.

"You think I'm actin'!?" he asked, shaking a fist.

Konishi shook her head in disapproval. "...No, I can see it comes quite naturally to you."

Beat chuckled, proud of himself. "Heh heh. Damn right!" The others could tell right away that she was clearly making fun of him, given that they were looking ashamed his way. Neku, in particular, briefly looked at the sky in annoyance. Even the Noise pet was ashamed, but Beat never noticed their dull looks.

"Uh, dude..." Neku trailed off, looking back at Beat. "She's making fun of you."

Beat's brain slowly processed the statement. "WHAT!?" he finally realized, much to their collective dismay.

Konishi frowned at this while sighing loudly. "Since I can't reverse evolution and speak your language, I'll keep this brief," she said. The seriousness of the situation came back once they looked at her again. "You may be a Player now, but you still broke Reaper rules. Which means you have a penalty coming." She smiled knowingly in a subtle, devious way. "They explained to you that a Reaper's points determine his or her lifespan?"

Beat nodded. "Yeah, so? Big deal, yo."

She fought the necessity to sigh. "You've earned 0 points," she pointed out, her eyes half-way open. "Not a very hard worker, I see."

The punk grunted at her. "You was gonna make me sic Noise on the Players!" he called out to her. "That ain't what I signed up for."

Ike looked annoyed. "That is pretty much how the Reapers like that woman who held Soren work, you dolt," he said.

Konishi nodded in agreement. "Then I can't fathom why he did," she told them. "One person's success is built on another's sacrifice. And besides... If I'm not mistaken," she looked at the Noise pet sitting on Beat's shoulder, as it then shivered at the sight of her eyes fixed on itself, "your only motive for becoming a Reaper is sitting perched on your shoulder. One little Noise?" she frowned. "Talk about petty."

As everyone else looked confused at the Noise pet, Beat gasped and covered the Noise with a hand. "Shut up!" he hissed at her. "What do YOU know?"

The Iron Maiden was growing steadily annoyed with the rebel. "As you wish," she said with a serious look. "0 points. That leaves you with about five days to live, including today."

"…Five days to live?!" Neku shouted, as Beat BWAA'd at the fact.

As Beat looked like he was about to let his jaw fall down between his feet, the others had to face-palm in unison. It was needed, as it was yet another thing they weren't warned about. Since Beat was Neku's partner, his defeat would mark the end of it all. "Great going, genius," Fox said through gritted fangs. "None of this would've happened if you didn't side with them at all!"

Beat composed himself. "Then I ain't gonna last the Game..." he muttered.

"Including us, because that rule of keeping Neku safe is surely still on play," Ness said. "Is it?" he asked Konishi. She nodded. "Dammit!"

The Game Master turned to Beat. "The Reapers' wings are not license to do whatever you please. Ponder that during the time you have left," she suggested him. "Now then, Player, in honor of your fall from grace, why don't I claim your entry fee?" With a snap of her fingers, the Noise pet sitting on Beat's shoulder was forcefully warped to her hand, being clutched in her fingers.

Beat looked sick when he noticed the shrieks of the Noise. "What!? NO!" he yelled. He was just about to lunge himself at her, but Ike and Neku held him back to avoid making a fatal mistake. "LEMME GO! I AIN'T LETTIN' HER TAKE HER AWAY!"

Konishi narrowed her devious eyes. "I wonder what you hold dearest. Could it be...this Noise?" she wondered with a small, sadistic smile. "It is, isn't it?"

Beat broke off from their grip on his arms, but he held himself back. "Give her back, you Iron Witch!" he demanded.

The Game Master shook her head, ignoring the shrieks from the Noise trying to escape from her clutches. "Hmph. I have a better idea," she said as she then applied pressure on her grip. The Noise pet started squeaking in fear. "Since this seems to be distracting you..."

"NO! Don't you do it, yo!"

The squeaking sounds from the Noise got louder as the grip that held it tightened so much that it burst into black and white static. To Beat's horror, the squirrel Noise left a pin on Konishi's palm. The pit itself was a black background with the image of the Noise as a white body, stretching its white, thin wings to the sides as it if was crawling on the pin itself. Unlike Beat's outburst, the others didn't know how to react, their looks confused. They just stared at the pin on her hand and tried to keep Beat from causing a scene.

"…" Pichu blinked twice as he stared at the pin. There was something oddly, eerily familiar about it that kept bugging him to remember where he saw it before. With the palm pulling back to Konishi's side, he couldn't identify any further than that.

"There," Konishi said, keeping the pin in her hand. "Much more manageable. Now you can focus on my mission."

Beat growled at her. "Why you... Gimme that pin!" he demanded loudly, but the others kept holding him back by his shoulders. "Youse guys dunno what she's doing! Lemme go!"

"Would you please calm down for a sec?!" Neku yelled. "We're in the presence of the Game Master! We can't allow any more mistakes from our part. It's bad as it is!"

The Game Master nodded with a know-it-all look. "Correct. It'd be unwise to provoke me right now, as I haven't issued the mission yet." When she looked at the Smasher team, there was something in her gaze that didn't quite make them feel right. "There is one last issue I must address before we even start…"

"…And that issue has to do with us?" Ike asked.

"Oh, it has to do plenty with the whole lot of you," Konishi said, her eyes narrowing. "For instance, Neku Sakuraba's entry fee was all the Players beside him." She shot Beat with a dull look. "That was before one of our Reapers decided to 'quit' during this week's transition, of course. It was the only problem beyond our control that we couldn't properly manipulate." She looked back at them. "That other issue aside, as I've said before, you shouldn't even be here in this very day… I wonder, how did you break the rule? I'm very perplexed as to how this even happened. Care to explain yourselves?"

"Wait, what?" Fox asked. "We weren't supposed to be playing right now?"

Mitsuki sighed, knowing the answer to his response. "With a response like that, I assume you're saying you don't know how you got in? Inconceivable," she commented, adjusting her glasses with one finger. "This is not an easy transgression you can just shrug off, you know. Breaking into the Reapers' Game against the Composer's wishes is the highest crime you can commit."

Ness was at a loss of words, and so were the others, until he asked, "How in the heck do you think we managed to break into this week's Game if we didn't know how?! How are we suddenly breaking a ton of rules just playing this damned thing?! You guys never explain the whole thing! Of course this was bound to happen!"

She narrowed her eyes. "As it stands, we do explain the rules in every single detail," she said. "Every Reaper stationed at every route kindly explains the rules to you. If they mention what you're supposed to be doing, it means anything else you think is right might be judged, depending on what it is."

"Bullshit!" Fox complained, pointing a finger at her face. "We could spit during the day and you'd erase us for contaminating the UG's environment without telling us!"

"As far as I know, there is no such silly rule. Still, don't spit. It's gross in my presence," Konishi said in a deadpan tone. "But I do understand the point you're getting at. However, you're rule-breakers like your new partner friend. The punishment for this is very severe."

Pichu groaned. "I know… You took our powers and weapons away, and we can't hurt the Noise outside a Noise fight…"

"No," Konishi said. They stared. "Those little conditions were set after we've witnessed how you defended yourselves from a Reaper on duty. Mr. Kitaniji put those conditions in effect after the last week was over, as to keep the likes of you from making your run easy. Take in mind that we did not expect you to escape your fate from Neku Sakuraba's entry fee, so it's not like we knew you were going to participate again." She cleared her throat. "Also, that is not the only condition. There is one more." Ness silently groaned. "You cannot use your innate skills in Noise fights either. Now you must use pins to fight accordingly like all other Players have done before."

Ike closed his eyes in annoyance. "I've got a gut feeling that's telling me you haven't finished with your facts yet," he said. "There's no way this is the end of it."

"And you are correct, Ike," Konishi said with a smug smile. "I haven't mentioned the punishment for your crime. No matter if you didn't know about it, we can't let Players like you spread the word and threaten the existence of the UG by bypassing entry fees of all things. You could do another crime like this and…that would be disastrous."

"WE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WE BROKE ANOTHER RULE," Ness emphasized through gritted teeth. "Gosh!"

"Alas, you must be more careful, or else your whole existence shall be erased for good," Konishi continued. "…By which I mean, literally."

Pichu cocked his head to the side. "What do you mean?" he asked. "Getting erased is just that, right?"

"Normally, yes," Konishi said. "But you've been given the Complete Existence Failure entry fee for causing the ruckus in the first place." She smiled cynically. "What this entails is that anybody who knows your name and history will forget about you, as if you were never there in their lives from the beginning. Any events where each one of you achieved a significant development shall be overwritten, hence why your existence is gone forever, along with your names… Your close friends won't even get to feel weird trying to remember something that never happened," She chuckled. "That is to say, this is the ultimate punishment."

Most of their irises shrunk in horror at the lethal entry fee. "…Y-you can't be serious!" Ness said. "T-that's way too much for us to take in!"

"Oh, please, as if playing for your lives wasn't enough incentive," Konishi added. "You are just merely being…pushed to do better and avoid doing useless tasks that shouldn't be conceived. If you can follow the rules accordingly, you won't suffer this fate."

When Fox recalled Chris had been erased, he was very close to having a mental breakdown. "C-Chris got erased before knowing this, damn you!" he yelled at her. She stared back. "Is he done for, then?!"

"Not entirely done for, mind you," the Game Master said. "You still remember his name and his emotional value to you."

The group exchanged glances, indirectly saying that they remembered him. "A-ah… I do remember him…" Pichu trailed off. "B-but…why? I thought he was completely gone from our memories!"

"The entry fees are collected at the end of the week," Konishi pointed out. "Hence why your memories of him haven't been overwritten. Once you win the Game…or get erased, whichever comes first, none of you will remember the name Chris. You will bask in happiness once you get your lives back, not even aware of the sacrifices done by that person…"

Ike glared at her. "That is the most unfair fact I've ever heard," he hissed. He wasn't going to let things go the way they were, seeing as the others were looking hopeless, though Fox kept looking sharp. "We need to meet the Composer and demand him to give Chris back to us!"

Konishi's glasses became foggy. "What is this scheme of yours?" she asked. "Are you really going to try to defy the definition of death in this dimension? My, you are just as boneheaded as Mr. Beat here." She smiled deviously, her eyes looking professional. "Do you want to make things less painful for you? Then start forgetting about him right now. He has become dead weight in your minds."

Fox was steadily getting furious by her insults towards the teen that he felt his blood boiling. "Okay, you better shut your mouth now," he warned her. She raised an eyebrow at him. "There is no freaking way I'll forget about Chris just because you're telling us to do it."

Konishi frowned at the statement, seeing the others looking as serious as he was. "Fine. Suffer, and let that feeling drag you down to defeat during this week," she said.

Before she could continue, Fox interjected. "Stop trying to make him feel like trash, you tramp!" he shouted with a fist to his side. Her right eye twitched at the curse, but he didn't care about pissing her off a bit. "We're going to meet your damned boss and beat him down if necessary!" he yelled. "Somewhere in this dimension, Chris is waiting for us. You guys have some incredible reality-bending powers to do just about anything. You can manipulate the death of people, for instance. Who's not to say this Composer guy can do miracles? Have you even met him yourself?"

She looked away, falling silent for a brief moment. "…Why even ask about me meeting him?" she questioned. "That is irrelevant."

Neku blinked. "Wait, you don't even know if he can do this for us?" he asked.

Konishi stifled a small grunt. "What people I have met before does not concern you all in the slightest," she muttered. "Enough about these questions. First, your mission." Fox wanted to press her on the matter, but she was focused on the mission. He couldn't afford to insult her a little more and cause the end of their run. "How about... 'Defeat me. You have 6 days,'" she said with a small smile, though the condition surprised them a lot.

"That's a veeeeeeeery odd advantage you're giving us for once…" Ness said. "Hmm, are you doing this out of consolation of your heart?"

"I never took consolation into consideration for this," Konishi pointed out.

"Darn, you are a cold."

Beat scoffed at her. "Yo, I don't need no six days," he stated. "I'm gonna finish this right here an' now!"

Konishi disapproved the thought. "A predictably hasty response," she said. "...Let me finish. Keep jumping the gun like the unmannered ape of a fox you have in your ranks (Fox: Hey!) and you're going to fail. Don't you care what becomes of this pin?" she asked, showing them the pin once more. Again, Pichu couldn't shake the fact he saw that pin before.

"Dammit!" Beat cursed. "That ain't fair..."

"So what?" Fox asked, still glaring fiercely. "Do we just take you down right here? That'd be too easy…"

Konishi chuckled. "Of course not. We haven't even started yet, so let me continue… At this point, I am going to move to a certain place. I will stay in that place for the next six days. You need to find me."

Neku nodded. "So it's like hide-and-seek," he said.

Beat grinned confidently. "We just gotta find you? Tha's easy, yo."

"Correct," she said. "We call this Reaper Sport 2: 'Hide-and-Seek.' I picked something at your age level," she added with a small chuckle, offending the older teammates. "Best of luck to you." She turned to Beat and dropped a Player Pin in front of his feet. "Oh, and here. You'll need this. I'm looking forward to watching you squirm and choke, powerless to find me...powerless to stop death from finding you," she turned to the Smashers, "weak to even secure your entire existences… Take care." With an echoing chuckle, the Game Master stepped back towards the direction of 104 and vanished in thin air. Beat ran forward to stop her, but he was too slow to reach out for her.

"Yo, get back here, dammit!" he shouted angrily, only for their palms to react painfully at the same time. "Nngh!"

Neku flinched and stared down at his palm. "The timer," he said. "We're back in the Game."

"We can't waste any more time!" Ness suddenly said. "She put things easy for us! We just need to give her a beating and we'll be set to meet the Composer before the week even ends!"

Ike grimaced. "It sounds way too easy to me," he said. "We only need to find her and then defeat her? Somehow, finding her seems harder than it sounds. I smell some sort of nasty trap."

Neku shook his head. "Regardless, it's the only lead we have. She went to 104," he said, looking to the popular venue. "We gotta get there and wrap things up."

Beat grunted and tightened a fist. "I need that pin!" he declared. "Otherwise bein' the Composer means nothin'."

"Wait, why?" Neku asked, not being able to tell that Beat didn't want to hear any more questions. "That Noise that was with you. What wa-"

"That ain't no Noise, Phones!" he interrupted quickly, making the others stare his way. "Le's bounce!" He started running north with a head start. Again, the rest felt like they were being dragged around, except with more pressure unlike the times they had with Joshua. Ike tried to ask Beat about the non-Noise, but the punk kept interrupting his questions and demanded him to focus.

Without having to hide anything from Beat, talking while running was going to become their usual routine from the next days. As they ran, Pichu climbed to Fox's shoulder, feeling strange being the unlikely partner. He shuddered as he thought about the horrible implications that would happen after winning. "After hearing her saying our existences will disappear from everyone's minds… What's going to happen to Chris?" he wondered. "Not getting beaten up by Lucario over nothing is worse than getting beaten up now…"

Fox kept looking forward. "Stop it, you," he muttered. "Chris isn't done for yet."

"I don't know myself," Neku said. "So much is in play now. It's hard to follow what's even possible."

"Perhaps if we find Soren, he could figure something out of all this," Ike suggested. "He's very good at discerning ambiguous answers more than I do."

"I'd love to hear what answer he has regarding Chris's situation," Fox said.

Ness winced. "Wow, you're the most preoccupied out of all of us for him," he said. When Fox gave him a stern look, he added, "I know, I know, you two had an episode a week ago and you feel it's right to be so concerned."

"That's not all of it," the vulpine said, looking guilty. "…He is a true friend. It's like Falco without the jackass attitude except without the courage and brilliant expertise."

The others shifted their looks a bit. "You know, comparing Chris to Falco is like comparing cereal with meat," Ness said in a deadpan tone. "Worst. Comparison. Ever."

"Y-you get what I mean!" barked Fox. "I'm not letting him disappear forever. Those Reapers are getting their collective asses kicked for messing around with us. They want us to play fair while they're being unfair."

Ike recalled the crime they had broken unwillingly. "That reminds me… She said we weren't supposed to be playing the Game at all," he brought up as they neared 104. "But here we are. How did this happen?"

Pichu shrugged as Neku and Beat looked their way. "I dunno," he said. "If we didn't do it, someone else did it for us…right?" he was very unsure of what he said for last. "…Did someone do it?"

"Hmm, you bring a good point," the mercenary said. "I mean, sure, we have…HAD skills to fight outside Noise fights before they confiscated them all. But bypassing entry fees altogether is a bit of stretch. You don't suppose we have powers we're not aware of?"

"Ike, this isn't a cheap anime," Ness commented, hearing the inevitable, "What's an anime?" question from his recipient. Beat made a funny look. "We don't have death-bending powers… So…someone did it," he said, sounding sure about his theory. "Someone had to drag us out from the entry fee they put on Neku."

"But she didn't mention anybody," Neku said. "She doesn't want us to find out how you did it, though. Why would she babble the details to us? Besides, we can't trust the Reapers with higher ranks…or the rest of them."

Ike pressed the matter a little more. "But why even call us back?" he asked. "Who gains from this? I don't see how it works for them. With us around, Neku has more chances to win the Game, if he was meant to be the last Player."

Fox frowned. "Well, that someone has to pay for what happened to Chris," he said. "If they wanted to have Neku win, at least try to keep us together so we wouldn't lose our lives! Ugh, this is the worst…"

"You goin' in circles, man," Beat spoke up, scratching his head. "Keep sayin' a buncha weird stuff and mah brain's gonna blow! Jus' be glad you're okay and dat's that!"

As silence settled in, Neku recalled the Smashers couldn't fight using their skills anymore. "You guys need to gear up with some pins," he said. The others winced at the idea, relying solely on healing pins and mostly ignoring the rest of their badly-customized decks. Because Neku was the one holding all the pins for himself, he took out a large bunch of them with two hands. "Take your picks. We're gonna be fighting some weak Noise to find out which pins work for you."

Pichu sighed, looking down at the pins as they started picking at random for something good. "The universe is practically depending on us to set everything right… This stinks," he commented.

They were entering the 104 area, but the others were at a loss. The mysteries surrounding them were getting more complicated, as they faced their own dilemmas. The Reapers' Game had one last challenge for them to face, but winning would be pointless if they wouldn't manage to save Chris. Their desire to bring him back turned into delusion, or that was what they thought it was. Out of everyone, Fox took it harder upon himself for being Chris's partner. Feeling like it was his fault somehow, the vulpine felt guilty but wanted to rectify the event.

"Let's make a new start to make things right this time. Until then…I don't want to hear you agree to be my big brother."

"…Okay, it's a done deal."

Those particular words were the ones that burned themselves into his mind the most and when coupled with the saddening scene when he witnessed Chris crying for life, Fox yelled multiple times inside his mind that it was completely unfair. Determined to bring about a happy ending, Fox steeled himself and moved on with the rest. He felt sympathy for Ike, who was just as determined to find Soren.

Only the Composer could change things for the better. For now, though, they needed to defeat Mitsuki Konishi and get an audience with the main boss.

Dogenzaka

The four Smashers had been equipped with pins to fight. After a lot of trial and error, they managed to find some good pins that worked for them. As they got to Dogenzaka looking for Konishi, Beat cursed their luck, until they were met up by a black Reaper. Till that point, they thought things couldn't get any worse than they were, but the Reaper brought bad news to them: things got even worse.

"The UG's on Emergency Call," the Reaper said, looking as if he wanted to fight them. "When the UG's continued existence is threatened, neutralization of the malignant factors takes priority."

The statement made the others feel sick, but Beat was oblivious. "Sorry, man, but I don't speak geek," he said.

The Reaper shook his head with dismay. "It means the ban on attacking Players has been lifted. You're just a bounty to me now. I'll make officer if I erase you."

"Wait, what?" Ike asked.

"…" Fox noticed that the Reaper was accompanied by two more Reapers from behind. Like their partner, they looked like they wanted to fight them as well. Since the Reapers never fought them head on, it only meant that they had all turned into bounties to claim, essentially making everything harder than it was. It was made clear that Konishi had lied to them: they weren't told in full about the "little" details. "…Fuck my life," Fox added with a lot of venom, eyes half-closed. Ness wanted to point out how awfully bad-mouthed he had gotten but decided not to, only because he felt the same way and allowed the vulpine to vent it off. Wherever Chris was, the team swore to save him from an imminent fate.

TO BE CONTINUED…


Next Chapter's Title:

Beat's Week – Uzuki & Kariya's Playtime


Do you want to save your data?

Yes

Overwrite file?

Yes

-Dogenzaka-

Fox – Pichu, Ike – Ness, Neku – Beat, Soren(?)


References:

- The Ventus Theme track plays whenever Ventus is the main focus in BBS. Something that I noticed is that almost all playable characters have very sorrowful themes that makes somebody (like me) feel sad…up until Sora Theme comes out. Seriously, he gets the cheerful theme while everyone else get themes that make them feel like crap? It's like power-up music in his case.

When I said there was going to be drama, I meant it. With Chris off the map, a lot is being risked. Oh, his erasure is not the only thing you should be concerned with. Try to wonder why the Smashers even got off from the entry fee imposed on Neku… A lot has been changed for how this week is developing towards the end. One of those things is more development…for Rhyme, for instance. She might not show up, but one can exploit flashbacks to get some good results.

The next chapter will deal with Beat's own development, including the many traps set for the Smashers and how they try to defy the impossible and rescue Chris…if he can even be rescued, that is. While it looks like Fox has taken the spotlight, he hasn't. The others are getting development because of…how indifferent they are as unlikely partners. Yeah, they can't magically be perfect fighting friends just like that.

Two last bits: For those who haven't played the game, I'm keeping that "?" title to keep Beat's identity a secret outside the actual chapters…unless you people read the manual. It spoils a LOT of stuff if you think hard about it. Also, my profile has been updated with everyone's profiles. I also went out of my way to give everyone birthday dates, which will or will not become an important thing down the line. Try to guess why those dates are important because those aren't random at all.

I encourage all readers to review, or else Aura Hunters will haunt your sleep.

Fox: Hey, I should probably beat the author for making us go through this!

*Several lightning bolts fall upon Fox, knocking him out char black*

Ness: And that's why you're never supposed to take the easy way out… Idiot.