"...alright. We find the exit first." Neku said, at last. The silence was getting to be deafening, and he really didn't feel like hanging around in pitch darkness with a Noise that would likely force him to restart this day in short order if they didn't move.
"Exit's good, yo. I like exits. Yeah, le's bounce..." Beat seemed to be just as nervous as he was, if not more.
More silence met Beat's words, with only the timer burned onto Neku's hand to remind him that time was, in fact, still moving. And it had taken exactly 108 seconds (not that Neku was particularly interested in the number) for Shiki to finally declare (a bit more loudly than might have been necessary) that she had found the exit.
None of them seemed particularly interested in hanging around, and so they were gone in very short order.
The dual Reaper/musician known by most as simply "777" (pronounced 'triple seven,' not 'seven-seven-seven' because that was significantly less cool) was annoyed.
When he'd reported for his Harrier Reaper duties in the morning, six hours before the Players were to be woken up, he hadn't been pleased that A-East was going to be the location for the Day 3 Mission, but he could deal.
When it turned out that a key part of that mission involved a Noise that generated darkness, he hadn't been pleased, but with a bit of vocal exercise, he could deal.
When it was made apparent that this darkness was going to wreak havoc upon the lighting circuitry in the Realground, he'd been quite displeased, but with that vocal exercise and the wonderful work of his techie, he could probably deal.
But when he'd sent his techie out for parts with a no-limit credit card (tied to the band's coffers which were one of the few 'Reapers in the Realground' expense accounts that were periodically filled with money that came from the Powers That Be) no less than four hours ago and he hadn't seen hide or hair of the man since, The Line had officially been Crossed. He could no longer deal. The Players were going to be waking up soon, and that meant his rehearsal time had just taken a crippling shot, courtesy Reaper top brass.
Well, at least I'm on wall duty. I get to hang around here, stopping Players from getting into the hall before its showdown time. They could've just as easily put me on the runaround like Team Lollipop...
It was a little-known fact amongst most Reapers, but among the lower-echelon Support Reapers whose business was mechanics and maintenance it was an infamous fact that the 'barricade psych' (or wall-maker, as it was more commonly known) was designed by someone with a very... interesting sense of style. Everything he did was a testament to Spartan or Minimalist as a higher art-form, and as a result, walls were implicitly 'one-sided' - they could keep someone out easy, but they were as effective as a shōji screen for keeping people in. To this day, nobody had managed to correct that 'design flaw.' Most chose to treat that drawback as irrelevant, anyway - who puts up walls to keep people in somewhere, anyway?
Apparently, whatever power was responsible for moving the Players to their daily starting positions had it out for 777 - he nearly jumped a foot in the air when his invisible wall shattered like invisible glass and four Players came practically running out of the concert hall.
Yo, do you have any idea how annoying it is for me to make those!? And my band-mates are too far away to throw another one up for me! Now I'm really annoyed- wait... I can make this work for me. Was planning on making 'find the tech' the terms anyway... "Perfect timing!" 777 didn't bother to hide his smirk as the group of Players jumped. Karma dispenses justice swiftly. Yeaaaaah! "You four!"
"Us!?" The four chorused in response, varying emotions coloring each Player's voice - worry from Shiki, confusion from Rhyme, and open hostility from Beat and Neku.
"Yeah, you guys. Since you just busted down the wall I was supposed to be guarding by coming through on the wrong side of it, you kind of owe me."
"You're a Reaper, then." Rhyme declared. "Why haven't you summoned Noise on us?"
"Well, I'm not too big on the cliché 'toss out noise like Pokémon' M.O. that some of my coworkers are fond of. I mean, there's more than one way to earn a paycheck, not that you guys would know... anyway. So! Think you could help a guy out as an apology for busting down my wall?"
Neku was torn. For a Reaper, this guy was being pretty affable. He hadn't sicced Noise on them, and had somewhat politely requested their help. On the other hand, he was still a Reaper, and they had no guarantee it wouldn't be Uzuki all over again when he was done with them. Worse still, Shiki (still holding firm on her theory that he was psychic) was staring at him like the answer to all her questions was tattooed on his face, Rhyme didn't seem like she was willing to take up the mantle of decision maker for their newly enlarged group, and Beat was only interested in following Rhyme's lead. Do I have to drop the shoe? Really? I'm not leader material! Nngh... I'll regret this... "...we're listening. No promises, though."
"Yo, Phones! What the hell!? He's a Reaper!" Beat protested. "Ain't they the enemy!?"
"They're also the people handing out the missions, Beat. And we did bust down his wall... we should hear him out, like Neku said. He could be part of the mission!" Rhyme countered. Neku breathed a silent sigh of relief. The last thing they needed was a dramatic fight right in front of an enemy capable of picking them off in the midst of their squabbling.
"Great!" 777 grinned, seeing that the group had (wisely) decided to help him out. They look like capable Players, too. I'm feeling better already. "Okay, here's how it is. My band's got a gig here in a few hours, and the lighting's busted, so we can't rehearse. Sent the techie out for parts a while back, but he's been AWOL ever since. Could you go look for him, see if you can't get him back here somehow? I'd do it myself, but Reaper brass has me camped out here all day. They'll have my head if I bail on this post. 'sides, I gotta work on rebuilding the Wall you guys broke. and knowing my luck with 'em, that's gonna kill so much time."
"We'd love to help," Shiki began, "but..."
"We're invisible to everyone put other Players and Reapers. How do you expect us to even communicate with the guy?"
"Good point. Tell you what. Since you're being so willing to help, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: blackout."
As though the word was some sort of hidden trigger, their phones suddenly went off in unison for the second time that day.
Beat's reaction was, at least to Neku, predictable. "BWAH! Whatchu just do, yo!?"
"Judging by the reaction, I'd guess that's your first meme."
"...like futaba channel?" Shiki asked, hesitantly, before ducking her head in response to the strange looks everyone present gave her. "Um, forget I said anything!"
"Memes," 777 continued, as though Shiki hadn't just publically humiliated herself, "are words or ideas prominent in a society. You should've already discovered a few in your phone." A dramatic sigh. "Are they telling new players anything these days? Well... that aside, when scanning someone with your Player Pin, you can imprint a meme on them and it'll jump into their heads. Can't guarantee instant success though, memes aren't mind control and they're open to recepient interpretation. Anyway, that one I just gave you should be helpful in reminding the techie what he's supposed to be doing... but what he is doing, I've got no clue."
"Well, that's useful." Neku muttered, mostly to himself. "Alright, we'll go collect your man."
"Thanks for the tip!" Rhyme called out in earnest, as they were leaving. "We'll be back as soon as we can!"
...is it even possible for this girl to hate people?
In hindsight, he really should've been expecting this.
Brand new day, same old routine...
"Want past this wall?" The Reaper began, before making a wild gesture to the surrounding area. "Then take down these Noise!"
The four players braced themselves, waiting for the flash of light that would move them into the combat zones...
...but nothing happened. The Reaper sighed. "Or so they have me say, day in, day out. No matter the Player, just another set of Noise, and when the Noise are all gone, it's 'Wall Clear!' and off they go. Same shit, different day... it just all blends together, y'know? Into a never ending morass of tediousness."
What the hell? Is this guy high or something?
"You know what?" he asked at last, and without waiting for a response, "it is time for a change. Enough with the same old, same old! ...YOU! Skulls!"
"BWAH!" Beat reacted instantly. "Me!?"
"No, other Skulls."
"...me?" Rhyme asked, curiously, stepping forward to the front of the group.
"Yeah. You. Come back wearing all Lapin Angelique threads. Do that, and I'll let you guys pass."
Rhyme hoped she wasn't blushing and that there was no trace of nervousness or embarrassment in her voice when she put on her brightest smile, nodded and (before she or anyone else could object and talk her out of it) proclaimed "Sure! That's no problem. Just hang on, okay?" Once finished speaking, she (again, before any protest could occur) spun on her heel and headed off towards the Lapin Angelique store up the street.
"Yo, what kind of a stupid demand is... that..." Beat had begun to protest before noticing that Rhyme had already cleared half the distance to the store and that Neku and Shiki had followed, likely out of morbid curiosity. After all, there was almost no chance of this ending well or without incident. "BWAH! W-wait up, yo! Rhyme!!" He sped off quickly to catch up with the other Players, not noticing the Reaper grin behind him.
"Oh yeah, this is going to be entertaining."
Though to anyone who might have been observing at the time, Rhyme looked entirely too pleased at the demand of the wall-managing Reaper, this was hardly the case.
She'd cleared the distance between the wall and the Lapin Angelique store in seconds (it was hardly a long walk), but had stopped dead just short of the actual entrance. Despite her best efforts, she'd lost her confidence somewhere along the very short path and was left staring with trepidation at the building.
Okay, Rhyme, you can do this. The worst that'll happen is a little embarrassment, and that's nothing compared to being in the Reaper's Game.
"Having second thoughts?" Shiki asked.
"NO!" Whoops, that was a bit too loud. "I mean... its just... well, I always used to walk by this place. And every time I'd look inside, and see a dress or something on display. And I'd think 'that's so beautiful!' I'd always wanted to actually try it on, but it was always that I'd be short on yen, or if I had the yen, I couldn't ever work up the nerve to actually walk into the store. 'What would my parents think?' or 'What if it looks horrible on me?' or 'What if people stop and stare...?' In the end, I always promised the part of me that loved the attire 'Another day, perhaps' and called it off."
This is getting us nowhere... Neku thought.
"Well, how are you going to know if it looks bad if you don't try it on? We're invisible outside of stores anyway! And besides, all you need to do is wear it to the wall! It's not like this is a permanent makeover! And I promise we won't laugh at you!"
Is that your idea of encouragement?
"You're right... and it's now or never, anyway. Alright, I can do this. Just two steps forward..."
"Welcome to Lapin Ange...lique..." 'Princess K' began, before stopping to actually look at the young girl who had wandered into her store, hopefully for a new look because her old one was hardly doing her any favors. "Oh my. You've come for a new look, yes? Princess K will assist you! Come, with no delay! We have much work to do and so little time with which to create a new you!"
From the other side of the doorway (where they were, thankfully, still invisible) Shiki, Neku, and Beat turned to stare at each other.
"We've..." Neku began,
"Made a horrible..." Shiki continued,
"Mistake, yo!" Beat finished, despair coloring his voice.
Sadly, as Rhyme had made them agree to wait outside (for she didn't need a reason to get cold feet and back out yet again) before confiscating their wallets (Makeovers were hardly cheap), the three Players had no choice but to watch the proceedings from the doorway.
"Umm... at least... she takes her job seriously?" Shiki suggested, more to try and break the awkward silence than anything else.
"Yo, that's what I was afraid of!" Beat moaned.
Eighteen minutes and six seconds later (if Neku were to believe his timer), Rhyme emerged from the store with an outfit that likely contained enough lace to cover A-East's stage.
"Oh, man! Talk about a payoff! Keep that outfit, girl, you are positively adorable! Wall clear, and good luck with the boys! You'll need to beat 'em back. Ha." was the Reaper's comment on Rhyme's new look.
"......Pervert." was Neku's rather clipped response, one final parting shot before they left to find the tech.
The moment they were a fair distance away from the deviant (in more than one sense of the word) Reaper, Beat spun to face Rhyme. "Aight, yo. We're clear. You can go change, we'll wait."
"I dunno..." Rhyme began, adjusting her bonnet and twirling experimentally. "I kind of like this dress. It'd be a waste to toss it after one use, wouldn't it?"
Can you even fight in that ridiculous getup? We're not exactly on a leisurely afternoon stroll, here.
"Relax, Beat. I'll find something more appropriate later. Besides, all work and no play..."
"B-but Rhyme..." He sighed. "I'm not goin' ta win this, am I?"
That Reaper seriously needs to reconsider his choice in tech staff... Neku grimaced.
"The lighting should be back on, now... we got the guy back here with the replacement part. What gives?"
"Betchu anything its that master, yo..." Beat began, but his usual energy had been drained by the events of the day.
Rhyme seemed to be the only one unaffected by the general downturn in mood. Choosing to ignore the "bad vibes" from the rest of her group, she focused on scanning the area - eventually locating a small golden bat. "Do you think that's the master?" She asked, before pointing into the rafters.
"Let's kill it, then, before this mission gets any more complicated!"
As though prompted by Shiki's declaration, the bat Noise dropped down to hover in front of the group of Players, and fixed them with its best menacing stare.
And then it screeched. A horrible, high-pitched screech that summoned the real cause of the darkness - a swarm of much smaller black bats.
Neku dropped into a combat stance and pulled out his Pyrokinesis pin. "Figures the stupid master would have minions... Rhyme! Are you going to be able to fight in that thing!?"
Neku hadn't heard her response over the cacophony of one thousand bat Noise's wings all beating in unison, and he was far more focused on how the thing seemed to be absorbing them and transforming - but the ensuing massacre gave him the answer he wanted.
She wasn't going to be able to fight in that outfit at all.
Back so soon, dear?
Neku forced his eyes open to find himself in the same place he had been sent to when he was erased before.
You really must learn to take better of yourself.
The annoying voice was here, too. Just like last time.
We really must learn to stop meeting each other like this.
If Neku had his way, this would be the last time he'd deal with this messed up place and the messed up voice that seemed to exist solely to spite him.
And back you go, dear! Please try to improve on your combat ability, this time...
When he next regained consciousness, Neku's vision stubbornly refused to come back into focus.
That soon proved to be the least of his worries, however, as (with enough force to make his head snap backwards as though he'd been punched) his memories of this day flooded into his mind. Oh god... he silently moaned, here we go again... damn giant bat...
SECRET REPORT 3 – Version 2
As I suspected, the temporal shifts occur around the proxy.
Initial observation provides several pieces of vital information.
Firstly, the event seems to be involuntary, a reflex of his Soul which still clings to life; occurring only as a last-ditch measure, in order to prevent physical erasure.
Secondly, the effects of being at the center of the event do not transfer to his Partner.
Thirdly, as the origin point of the temporal shifts, the proxy remembers events as they originally transpired.
Finally, and most importantly, the ability to generate these events is an integral part of the proxy's Soul code.
Taking these facts into consideration along with his all-inclusive Soul leads me to only one possible explanation.
Neku Sakuraba's Soul code has been drastically restructured without his knowledge or consent.
Among Our kind, this is a capital offense.
The actions of the responsible party are tantamount to treason.
I will continue to observe and report, and attempt to isolate the Imagination of the guilty party.
Before I go any further, I apologize terribly for the awkward scene splicing. I couldn't figure out what to include in the first version of the day as opposed to the second version - and I didn't want to force a large block of copy-pasted scene repetition down your throats. Forgive me!
And yes, I shamelessly admit that I was killed by the giant bat noise at least once.
Not to mention Secret Report 3 - Version 2... seems Mr. H's caught whiff of some, how we say, 'dirty dealings.' I wonder if this'll evolve into those drastic changes some of you are hoping for, down the road?
Special thanks to Korean Boron-Paper Stars, Inspiration of Imagination, Silvaria, Alone-by-the-Waterlilies, Enigmatic Igor, and 2percent for leaving reviews and tossing their two cents into my vote that I'd presented in the last note, as well the 5 people who voted in the poll I managed to put up. Woo! I can make polls! Aren't you all so very proud of me? (Thanks as well to Amarr and Materant who reviewed but did not leave an opinion on Rhyme's outfit.)
Anyway, the results are in! Natural Puppy and Lapin Angelique kept switching between first and second place, Sheep Heavenly is barely getting any love at all but still a third place finisher, and Mus Rattus gets a special mention for not only having zero votes, but also for being the only brand to consistently earn down-votes/negative-votes/hate-votes. Seems like the public at large has no love for the mouse. Fortunately, I don't either and that option was there just for the sake of completeness.
But, you know... when I had first decided upon the poll, I had honestly expected there to be a clear front-runner. And that... didn't happen! Not by a long shot! I was actually at a loss for what to do... until I realized something. This is Rhyme we're talking about - a million reasons to live, a million different thoughts and hopes and dreams (maybe not so much on that last one at the moment). So I decided to take the overall progression of this poll in the most literal way possible - this chapter has Rhyme in Lapin Angelique thanks to a rather... interesting choice of wall clear terms.
However, don't expect this to be the case for the entire story though, as Rhyme is rather... indecisive, a trait which is only encouraged to the nth degree by Shibuya's ever-changing trends. The poll is going to remain open indefinitely and you all can continue to vote. Rhyme's outfit for the chapter will change accordingly! (Next chapter is Natural Puppy unless a load of you vote Sheep Heavenly between now and then.)
To the drive-by readers: Time and again, you continue to appear as ticks in my visitors counter, and for that I thank you. Unfortunately, I seem to have misplaced my Player Pin and so cannot divine your names to thank you personally. Still, I appreciate that you spend valuable time to read my story.