The first thing Shiki realizes when the game is over and she's looking at her own face in the mirror again is that this is going to be harder than she thought.

It's amazing really, how quickly a human's mind can acclimate to an unfamiliar situation, and she acclimated to wearing her best friend's face fast. There were other things to be worrying about, after all, things like survival and winning and the unresponsive lump (for those first days, at least, if she thinks about it unkindly) that was her partner in survival.

Shiki Misaki inspects herself in the mirror. She hasn't changed much outwardly; her eyes are still grey and slightly anxious, her mouth still small, her hair still sleek and dark and short. Eri always told her that she had beautiful skin and now she presses her fingers against her cheeks, full and healthy, a little paler than what's in style, flushed with life.

Girls used to congregate in the bathrooms at school for just this kind of ritual, checking make up, reapplying gloss or mascara with their eyes wide and their lashes sweeping like the slender tail feathers of a tern. Even with Eri serving as her escort Shiki remembers feeling out of place there, hovering awkwardly at the edge of the mirror while Eri blotted her lips and made sure her hair was falling just so.

She remembers how right Eri could make her feel then too, turning to her with a smile and an open hand, the way she'd say something totally normal - "Want to borrow my lip gloss?" and how Shiki would find herself smiling without even thinking about it for a second, yes, please, Eri, thanks and then sweeping the stuff over her own mouth. The way that little gesture would carry her, buoyant, for the rest of the day, as though by sweeping on some gloss over the modest pink of her own mouth she'd acquired a bit of Eri's verve and charm, bolstering her against fading into her best friend's shadow. That fate she was always aware of, being lonely, shut away, just being left as Shiki when she knew without a doubt that there was so much more waiting for her -

"Welcome back," she says to herself, watching her own mouth move in the mirror, her own tongue touching her own teeth and palate.

She tries on a smile next. It's wobbly and a little unsure, but Shiki thinks that finally it might touch her eyes.

---

She and Eri put their desks together for lunch. Shiki is so glad to see her best friend again, to look again at the face that belonged to her for three dangerous weeks. And she feels so clean, looking into Eri's eyes and really looking at her, not resenting her smile or how pretty she is, not mostly glancing over Eri's gaze and looking shyly away. Now that Shiki is looking closer too, she can see a worried curve to Eri's brows, how her friend turns her head and looks at her just a bit beseechingly, how the gold-minted maiden might not be as sure as she looks at first glance. Eri needs her too. They are best friends, after all, partners, a two-woman team.

Eri keeps asking, anxiously, if she's all right. "I mean, even after that day…" She smiles and Shiki wonders how she didn't notice her own best friend's worry before, Eri's own anxiety for Shiki to stick with her. Best friends, right? How much hell could anyone else put you through and you'd still love them at the end?

Shiki squeezes Eri's hand and ignores everyone else, Eri rolling on, still talking. "I mean, when you left, I just had a bad feeling, you know? And when you didn't come to school the next day…" Eri drums her fingers on the edge of her desk for a moment and Shiki seizes the opportunity to insert a word.

"Of course I'm all right! I'm really all right. I was upset for a while, but…" When you die and have to fight for a life at the side of a stranger in a game that lasts a week, and your partner almost kills you, and you're never sure if the next day will be your last one… "I needed a breather, I guess? And I'm all right now. I have a lot to tell you."

She can't tell the whole story to Eri. Not yet. It has to be a little more private; Eri deserves something gentler than this. Shiki has never claimed to be the sharpest crayon in the box, but she does know (and she knows better now) the right way to treat a friend, and that's not it.

"But you weren't at school," Eri says, and to Shiki's horror she catches Eri's lower lip in a tremor, Eri the unshakeable, unflappable, unmissible and invincible. "For that whole week, and then…"

There's a missing chunk in everyone's memories, in Shiki's too, that she only knows about because Neku and Beat told her in that confused jumble of joy and relief. She doesn't press her friend, but she takes both of Eri's hands tightly in hers, the other girl's nails painted clear and filed into smooth ovals. Even Eri's hands are perfect, and it's a relief to have this. Someone sane and familiar outside of those weeks that Shiki stepped into the UG, someone Shiki knows like a sister, someone she can comfort again. Shiki is finding out that she's strong when people lean on her. It's a strength that surprises her; a(nother) fringe benefit of the game, maybe.

"I'm all right," she says, swallowing hard, but hearing her own voice even, steady and true. "I'm really all right. I have a lot to tell you - not all at once, but I have so much to tell you. I'm really all right."

And she's going to be. She is.

---

She sees Neku outside of all the others, near the end of the week. Floundering back into their lives, finding that some time passed by with them absent and some mysteriously didn't (or seemed not to - how much of what she perceives can really be believed? Shiki knows, now, there's a whole world above or adjacent to theirs, her beloved, careworn cat plushie can fight like a demon possessed, how much strangeness can be ignored before you have to admit your universe is a unique and unusual place?)… They've really had so little time. Texting and e-mail notwithstanding, there's nothing like seeing Neku's tired face, the way his feet stick out when he sits and how he still slouches a little with his elbows resting on his knees while he waits for her.

Neku, who tried to kill her, and then who had her as his price for the second week. Shiki's heart still does a funny twist when she thinks about that too closely. It's not like trading pins or hooking a lock on a chain-link fence together, but that has to mean something, doesn't it? Being his price, even if at that time he remembered so little else.

He has the same tired, slightly shell-shocked demeanor she does, Shiki realizes. Someone else is still getting used to being alive and secure again. It's a relief again, to realize she's not alone, that she has three good friends who went through the same thing she did, and hundreds more that she doesn't know but that are the same as her and Neku. Survivors.

They get coffee together. Not on Cat Street; Neku's mumbled stories to her about the place, Mr. H the proprietor and his identity as CAT, of all the people. Somehow it doesn't surprise her all that much, and she's looking forward in a shy kind of way to seeing that man again and thanking him for all that he did for Neku and the big favor he did her, both of them really, early on in the Game. But she won't go to see him yet; she'll do it when she's steadier, with Neku, maybe, when they're both ready.

Neku takes his coffee with a bit of cream and a packet of sugar. Shiki orders a mocha frapucinno and enjoys the sugary drink in sips, not worrying about how all of this kind of stuff always goes straight to her butt without fail. It's sort of their victory toast, after all, and she makes him stop at the Scramble Crossing and taps her plastic cup with the dome lid (she sprung for whipped cream this time, even - a real celebration) against his paper cup. "Welcome back."

"Likewise." He gives her that little smile, the one she didn't know he even had, for such a long time, it felt. She offers him a sip and he declines.

"Let's walk," he says instead, and Shiki nods. They go side by side down the sidewalk, a little slower than everyone else, an inconvenience that nets them some dirty looks from pedestrians in more of a hurry than they are. It's a little strange, not to be panting after Neku, stepping on his heels, but that's a relic from the Game when there was always a place to be and she's glad not to have to run. Not to mention she's aware of his arm brushing against hers now and again, even when he's looking ahead. She was his second week's price, and she has to wonder what that means now - they were in a tight situation then, and who knows if it'll stick, if it will come to mean anything at all?

He still doesn't talk much, and Shiki is content to walk with him silently, drinking her coffee and stirring occasionally at the slushy mix as she works her way towards the bottom of the cup. Neku sips at his coffee sporadically, but she catches him glancing at her now and again, checking if she's right there, maybe.

"Isn't that too hot for today?" she asks him eventually. The sun-drenched Shibuyan streets reflect the heat, smelling of hot pavement and exhaust and frying food, and the chatter of people even gives her a bit of a headache.

He shrugs a bit. "I'm good." Shiki touches his elbow and smiles at him, teasing; she trusts him, after all, he's had her back long enough but Shiki knows best and he Iis/I still wearing those J to the M threads. She supposes there are some things that you can't just give up, after all; Mr. Mew is stuffed in the bottom of her backpack, with all her schoolbooks squashing him. You never know when you might need a weapon, after all. With her stuffed cat at hand Shiki feels armed and dangerous, and Mr. Mew is the one thing he has to recognize of her anyway, with her new-old face and her comfortable sea green dress and her glasses.

"It's good to see you," she says, and Neku glances over at her again. "Likewise."

His short responses don't seem terse, and he feels receptive. Shiki keeps going. "It still seems crazy," she tells him. "I didn't think we'd ever see Hatchiko. I gotta admit, it was a relief really being there, the four of us…" Neku, Beat, Shiki and Rhyme - Shiki watches Neku's gaze turn inwards though and winces a little at her own stupid faux pas. Four, when Neku was counting on five. Daring, she reaches out for his hand, then loses her nerve partway and gives his wrist a squeeze instead. "We'll keep looking."

She's not sure what entirely happened with Neku and his second week's partner; Beat doesn't have much to say about the other boy, she doesn't have much memory of him, even in that instant when they were all blitzing light, finally thinking they were free (before the last challenge) and standing together like action heroes. There's still pain in Neku's eyes that's persisting, that just won't go away.

Neku shakes his head anyway. "We'll see him when he wants to be seen."

"I trust you," she nods. "You would know."

"I don't know about that." His smile is small and heartbreaking. "It's all still a mystery even to me. So much wasn't explained… all I know is Shibuya is full of crazy bastards and stalkers." Harsh words, but he's still smiling, and Shiki's heart does a little spasm and she just has to laugh.

"You don't mind, do you?" She realizes how beseeching she sounds after hearing the nervous little upwards lilt at the end of her sentence, and smiles a little ashamedly, turning her eyes down. "I mean… I'm glad that we did this. I'm glad that we're - just us. Right now."

"Shiki," he says, for a moment sounding just as questioning as she did, and raw and young besides. She looks at him and he's doing that awkward gesture that she got to know pretty well, looking away, digging his fingers into his spiky hair. He glances at her while she's looking at him, and his face scrunches up a little bit, and then they both look away and Shiki can tell that she's blushing. It feels trite and a little laughable, like a drama on TV, but also meaningful - maybe that's just the way it is sometimes.

Neku seems to have frozen up there, anyway. Shiki realizes that she's still holding onto his wrist, that his skin is dry and warm, and lets him go.

"I can't imagine that's the last time I'd see him, anyway," Neku mutters. "Bastard will probably turn up just when we don't want him to. That's how he'd do it."

Shiki laughs at him a little bit, Neku turning back to her, looking apologetic and sheepish. Then she surprises herself with sniffling. "Neku -"

She's never seen her partner look so panicked, not even when threatened with Erasure. "Shiki, what is it? We can fix it, don't cry -"

Her throat clenches. She bites her lower lip and doesn't blink; the tears just sit in big wet pools on her eyes, not falling. It sort of even works, Neku standing near her with his hands hovering awkwardly, clearly at a loss for what to do. Shiki closes her eyes and smiles. He's such a boy, really, he's just a kid, they're both just kids -

"It's okay," she gulps, and sniffles, Neku watching her anxiously, a few people passing them, not looking their way at all. "It's okay. I'm okay. I'm just glad." It's a hot tight knot of emotion inside her, that gladness, mixed with hurting - all those other people who didn't make it the way they did - and relief and joy and still that fear. "I'm glad. I'm just scared." They're both so scared, they're both just kids, they both just have so much to live up to. Shiki pushes up her glasses and rubs her eyes and tries to breath. Neku finally touches her, lightly, on her shoulders, and Shiki jostles that much closer to give him a shy hug.

Her forehead rests on his shoulder. Neku is still before he puts his arms carefully around her back and hugs her too. Shiki feels him taking deep breaths and fancies she can hear the rapid, reliable beat of his heart. It's such a relief, this freedom to hang on to him for a little while. Neku

She can't do it for too long. Eventually she lets him go and slips a bit away from him, looking at his exhausted face, wiping her eyes hard, pulling herself back together. She's free now, to be this scared, and to be strong too - both of them are.

"Why are you scared?" Neku asks, tiredness threading in his voice now too. "We're here… we're alive. We don't have to be scared anymore."

Shiki shakes her head and tries to finds the words. Neku just watches her, his shoulders caved in, leaning towards her, protective and needing protecting, supportive and in need of her support.

"There's so much out there," she whispers eventually. "There are probably people fighting right now - we made it, but it's not the end, is it? We've got to keep fighting. There's so many places where we could fail."

"It's not easy," Neku says. A little soft, a little hollow. "I don't know. I lost the last game… how we're even still here at all…"

"I guess sometimes you can win even if you lose," Shiki suggests, and Neku closes his eyes and laughs a little, in a fractured little stutter. "I guess. Maybe."

"We're still here," she points out, and Neku shakes his head a little. Any way you look, well… there's no denying that fact.

"We were lucky."

"We're not done," Shiki sighs, turning her eyes down. "We won't ever be done."

"I guess… we were never promised anything easy." Shiki looks up at her old partner again, and Neku shrugs one shoulder, uncomfortable. "There were no guarantees."

A chance was all they got. It was more than granted to some people.

"It's not going to get easier, is it?"

"Is being good easy?" Neku rubs the back of his head. "Is being curious easy, is being brave easy, is being generous easy…"

Sometimes, she guesses. And even more important to try to be good, when it's hard.

She wants to touch him again, but she keeps herself back this time, watching him, thinking about him, about them, about that quick self-destruction and how quickly they picked themselves up again. Could she have done that before? They're running kids, now. Quick-witted kids, survivors, doing what they have to do, fighting as long as they have to, looking outwards, watchful, attentive…

"Would you fight it all again?" she asks him, and Neku gives her a look.

"I couldn't do anything else," he says, eventually, when she doesn't let him off the hook by moving on.

"You could've," Shiki shakes her head. "There was always… we had choices. We weren't zombies or anything. We didn't get our brains sucked out."

They both laugh, uncomfortably, then, because there's more nuance there than either of them is really comfortable with.

Anyway… "It's getting late," she says, tucking one knuckle up against her face, looking towards the sun and how long the shadows are getting. "I should get home - I have homework, and there's a project…"

"Me too," he nods. "I'll walk you to your bus stop."

Shiki has a feeling that they're in the middle of a conversation that they'll have a lot, now - but it's enough for one sunny afternoon. It's still tender, it's not a wound they need to dig their fingers into. They can be gentler than that, because there's time to be gentle, and they both deserve that, at least in Shiki's opinion. It's hard enough getting on without friends being unkind to friends, anyway.

"We'll be okay," Neky says to her while they walk, and Shiki nods. They will be. She's not discouraged, even if she is afraid, even if the life she's just beginning to grasp again is hers (for now) and not something she struggles to keep. At least the struggle isn't so obvious, at the moment. Moving forward, growing more into who she is and the kind of person (compassionate, hopeful, and strong) that she wants to Ibe/I - that's a battle that's still ahead of her. One that she and Neku, Beat and Rhyme, maybe that other boy too, are all growing towards, in their own ways, with Shibuya still moving around them, robust, colorful and unstoppable.

The future she wants to find doesn't seem easy, but even so, she believes it's worthwhile, and when something is that important, it's worth struggling and stumbling towards it however long it takes, right?

After she thinks the question, she isn't sure who she's asking, or if it's necessary after all. It's just her and Neku and their slice of the city, after all, their sunny afternoon-into-evening and the smell of fast food and exhaust.

"I'll call you," he tells her, waving a little when she turns around on the bus steps to smile goodbye. It must still be a stretch for him, that kind of reaching-out to another person, and Shiki would walk off the bus and into his arms but people are crowding and looking impatient, and it's not quite the right time yet. Not yet -

"I'll see you soon," she says, and that's all the moment they get before she has to find a seat because the crowd can only wait on her for so long. She waves to him anyway as the bus pulls away from the sidewalk, until his lean figure is swallowed up by the crowds and she can't see him anymore.

So maybe he'll call her, but maybe she'll call him. The future is huge, frightening, full of precariousness and possibilities, some of them with handholds low enough for her to reach.

Shiki slides her glasses up and rubs at the bridge of her nose a little. She feels like her heart could rise out through her chest off to heaven, she feels like she can hear Shibuya's strong heart beating, comforting, omnipresent, and real.

(She might feel too just that tiny, negligible, important bit less afraid).