I reiterate: This contains spoilers for everything ever.
On the first day, there were twenty-six: thirteen pairs of partners all fighting for their right to exist. Neku only found this out because Joshua seemed like his mind was somewhere completely different; even then, all he could get out of the Composer was that there was a Game that week. He had to ask Mr. H for the specifics.
"Who's the GM?" Neku asked, confused. Joshua had as good as told him that while he hadn't wiped out very much of the Reaper force in general, there were basically no high-level Reapers left after the ex-Player's three-week run.
"Don't know," said Mr. H. "But Josh never has all his Reapers going at any one time, so it isn't anyone you would recognize. …Probably."
"You can't say you haven't run into a Reaper or two in a shop sometime. They're part of Shibuya, too, so you'll see them around."
Mr. H had a point, Neku knew. It had been a month after his Game, and he'd already seen Uzuki and Kariya in Ramen Don more times than he could count.
"Don't know why you're so interested anyway, Phones," Mr. H continued, stretching. "Thought you were done with the Game."
Mr. H had a point, Neku knew. And Neku had no response for it. He bought a cup of coffee before he left the café.
On the second day, there were twenty: six lives already gone, never to return.
"It's a little different now," said Shiki at lunch. Neku had never noticed before then, but she had been sitting next to him for the whole year. "When I go into a store, I can't help but wonder how many people there are Players."
Beat, who was in the classroom across the hall but visiting theirs for lunch, added, "They ain't hard to spot at restaurants. Jus' look for the ones packin' it away."
Neku had to agree with both of them. Mr. H had said that Neku was done with the Game, but that didn't mean that the Game wasn't still affecting him. That morning he had run into a pair of people he was sure were Players at Sunshine Burger (all he had wanted was some OJ, really, because he had left the house with only a bagel) and had offered to pay for their meal. They refused, of course, and probably thought he was a little weird. But Neku felt that he had to do something. He would have jumped at the chance for any help at all during his Games… would I? Would I really?
Suddenly the rice ball he had been eating didn't taste quite so good. Neku forced himself to swallow down the rest of it before the bell.
On the third day, there were fourteen: half the Players Erased already.
"This is the price we pay," said Rhyme. They were at Hachiko; Beat and Shiki had gone to get ice cream for everyone. "We have a second chance, and to make sure that we do things right this time, we can never forget what might have happened to us."
"It's cruel and unnecessary," said Neku. Only Joshua would do something like this.
"It's cruel," Rhyme agreed, "but not unnecessary. If Players don't remember how they've changed, who's to say that they won't just keep doing things the way they did before? Look at Shiki. Look at Beat."
She didn't say, "Look at you," but Neku knew it was there. And when he thought about it… she was right.
Neku would not forgive Joshua for shooting him in Udagawa, but he thought he might be starting to understand why.
On the fourth day, there were twelve: a break, but also a sign that things were about to get much harder.
"Phones, you worry too much. The Game does what it wants."
"You mean the Reapers do what they want."
Mr. H shrugged. "It's part of the way Shibuya works," he said. "This world runs on Imagination, and the Game cultivates Imagination. That's what it's always done."
"It's different when you know about it," said Neku quietly.
"That's the price you gotta pay," Mr. H told him.
The bells on the door jingled, and two people came in. The boy and the girl could probably have been twins, and were definitely younger than Neku. More than anything, they were tired and afraid: it showed in the way the hood of her bunny parka flopped over her eyes, in the way his slumped shoulders ruined the line of his negative polo, and in the way they breathed heavily in both exhaustion and relief.
"Welcome to WildKat," said Mr. H, his voice almost comforting to both Neku and the Players. "What can I get you?"
The pair approached the counter and looked over the menu. "I'll take a muffin set," said the boy, a little hesitantly, "and…" He looked to his partner.
"Um… two donuts, please," she said, a little meekly.
"Coming right up," Mr. H said, smiling warmly.
Neku stuck his hand in a pocket and was surprised to find a pin. He pulled it out, looked at it; it was an Innocence Beam. He recalled how it had saved his ass more than once, and without thinking…
"Do either of you use pins?" he asked abruptly. The two looked up at him, startled, before the boy slowly nodded. Neku tossed him the pin. "Hope it helps," he said.
The boy nodded again, shyly saying, "…Thanks." Then he and his partner began to eat. They bolted down the food, exactly the way Neku remembered doing himself.
It had been only five minutes after they walked in when they went to leave. The door opened almost right as they got to it. Shiki walked in, reminding Neku that they'd agreed to meet there. She looked at Mr. H, still smiling warmly and a little sadly, and then at Neku, whose smile was mostly just sad. As the girl passed her on the way out, Shiki touched her arm and said quietly, "Good luck."
Though he and Shiki didn't talk about the Game that day, Neku knew that they both might have learned how to cope with it.
On the fifth day, there were ten: four more souls lost to the abyss.
Neku went to Ramen Don after school; he'd been craving ramen, and he wanted someplace quiet to do his homework. Even though Dogenzaka was noisy as usual, the shop was as empty as ever. Only two other people were there: more Players, different ones from the day before. He silently left a Konohana on their table as he passed by.
He was well into his ramen and halfway through his chemistry homework when someone approached him.
"Handing out free pins, Phones?" asked a voice that managed to sound both bored and amused.
Neku looked up, only slightly annoyed at the interruption, to see Kariya standing over his table. Uzuki wasn't far behind, carrying two steaming bowls of ramen.
"It's cute that you care," she said, "but we don't like interference."
"Pins are everywhere," Neku replied coolly, turning back to his chemistry. "You can even find them in the street, if you look hard enough.
"But they're just Players!" Uzuki went on. "Why do you even care?!"
Kariya, however, just shrugged. "We were all Players, once," he said. Then he grinned. "Careful, Pinky, or I might just eat your egg…!"
"Don't you dare!" Uzuki yelled. She hurried to a table, one that just so happened to be on the other side of the restaurant. Kariya followed lazily, and Neku thought he saw the Reaper wink at him.
He listened to the two of them arguing over some kind of bet as he finished his chemistry homework, pausing occasionally to slurp some broth or eat some noodles. They were really in the same position as the Players, when he thought about it. Maybe it really wasn't anything personal. Maybe they were just doing what they had to; maybe they were just trying to survive, too.
Neku worked on his Creative Writing composition next. He wrote about a jerk who never did anything straight when he could do it twisted, and was entirely too good at living life as if he were orchestrating a gigantic game of chess.
On the sixth day, there were six: somewhere, a math freak guarding an invisible wall was amused by the pun.
Neku was at Ten-Four, shopping with Eri. It felt a little surreal, as she was dressed in the same outfit Shiki had worn in the Game.
"I'm really sorry," Eri said. "I wouldn't have asked you to do this, but Shiki's working on a project and I needed a second opinion."
"Are you sure you didn't just want someone to carry your bags?" asked Neku jokingly, as he was rather laden down with shopping bags.
Eri laughed. "That's just a bonus," she said. More seriously, she added, "But I also wanted to talk to you."
"About what?" asked Neku.
"About Shiki," answered Eri.
Neku was sure all the blood had drained from his face, but Eri continued, "I remember three weeks where Shiki was dead, Neku. It's hazy, but I remember. And I remember three weeks, the same three weeks, where she just wasn't there – she told me she was on vacation. I don't know which one of those is real."
Neku swallowed nervously. He didn't really know what happened in the RG when a person came back to life after winning the Game, but he was sure that people weren't supposed to have two sets of memories for the same time. What was he supposed to do? Was he supposed to lie, to say that yes, Shiki really had been on vacation? Surely he wasn't supposed to tell the truth, but Eri was–
"But what I do know," she continued, saving Neku from having to respond, "is that she changed. When Shiki came back, she was more confident, more open. She told me that she'd been jealous of me, but that she wasn't anymore. She told me that she was more than happy to sew the clothes I designed, because we were partners." Trust your partner, Neku remembered. "And… she started hanging out with you, too. I think… I think you were the cause of that change in Shiki, Neku."
Neku knew he was the cause of that change in Shiki, but it wasn't as if he could really tell Eri that; he certainly couldn't tell her what had happened. She'd never believe him. Instead, he nodded; choked out a, "Yeah…"
Eri smiled. "Thank you," she said. "For helping Shiki to realize that she's worth something."
The awkward in the air was suffocating… well, suffocating Neku; Eri didn't seem to notice it at all. He managed to stammer, "You're… welcome."
Eri giggled. "You know, Neku, I think Shiki changed you, too."
He blushed. He couldn't help it. Eri giggled louder because of it. And Neku thought that sometimes the Game affected even people who never played it.
On the seventh day, there were two: one pair that, even then, wasn't guaranteed to win.
That was the second time Neku had seen Joshua all week.
"It's the end of another week, dear," said Joshua, appearing out of nowhere as Neku walked home.
"How many people did you kill this week?" Neku asked. For some reason, whatever high he was on always instantly deflated whenever Joshua showed up.
"None, of course," Joshua replied. "You know you're the only one I'd ever kill, Neku."
Neku scowled. "You know that's not what I meant."
Joshua shrugged. "And you know that I don't interact directly with the Players." Neku opened his mouth to contradict that, but Joshua added, "You're simply special, Neku. How does that make you feel?"
"Like choking you," Neku answered honestly. "But I always feel like that when you're around."
Joshua giggled his annoying giggle. "Oh Neku," he said, "it's so nice that you can be so open with me!"
Neku chose to be silent rather than feed Joshua's ego, but there was something he had to know. Finally, he asked, "How many Players are left?"
"Now, now," Joshua smirked. "The Game isn't over yet, you know."
So at least there are Players left, Neku thought, relieved. "Who do they have to fight?"
Joshua sighed. "Minatsuki, though I don't see why you want to know. You don't know him."
"Maybe I remember what it was like to play the Game, Josh," Neku said, more than a little annoyed. "Maybe I would have liked to know that someone cared."
Joshua was silent, lost in thought. Finally, he laughed: not a giggle, but a real laugh. "Shibuya cares, my dear proxy," he said – Probably just to annoy me. – "We can't have any but the best, after all." With annoyance, though Neku couldn't tell if it was real or not, he added, "But care, if you want. Hand out your pins, if you think it will help." He smiled.
"You're part of Shibuya, too," said Joshua, "so I cannot deny you that right."
Josh vanished after that. It was more or less what Neku expected; after all, he was fairly certain that he'd just beaten the Composer at his own game.
Neku wouldn't forgive Joshua for shooting him the first time, in Udagawa, and he couldn't forgive Joshua for shooting him the second time, in their last Game. But sometimes people had to do what they could, for whatever reasons they had, and maybe that was all Joshua was doing. Maybe that was all Joshua had ever done.
Maybe that was what Neku would do, too.
I guess this is the part where I mention I'm feeling awkward about the Eri bit. It feels awkward.