1. "It's So Wonderful"
Never before in his life did Neku think he would miss his headphones. He had used them to cover his ears, to block out the rest of the world, and to keep his ideas in his own head. Over the last three months, he had learned a lot about himself, and other people, and had realized that he didn't need them. Why block out the world when you had become such a big part of it? He had begun leaving them at home two months ago, after he started school again, and hadn't been wearing them since. Of course, it felt awkward without them after he had grown so accustomed to them, but wearing them had actually turned out to be good. His hearing was better than ever, and he was picking up all kinds of new sounds.
Right now, however, he wanted to block out everything, especially the scene in front of him. Part of him wanted to scream, to collapse on the ground and cry, and another part of him wanted to run, far away, where the image before him could be lost, but he couldn't. Not with his friends there beside him, stuck watching the same events.
This wasn't a current event: nothing could be done to stop it. It was a vision of the past. Neku's past; a past he wanted to put behind him.
"No…"he muttered, covering his ears and shaking his head. "Not this. Not this. Why!? I though this was behind me."
Beside him, Shiki reached out to touch his shoulder, to comfort him, but she pulled her hand back and wrapped it back around her stuffed animal, Mr. Mew the cat. Her glasses were slowly sliding their way down her nose, but she didn't notice. On his other side, Beat was watching the scene carefully; his younger sister, Rhyme, clinging to his arm.
The scene before them was one of Neku's darkest secrets, from a time he kept locked away in his memories. Two children were walking down a street, the sunlight fading in the distance. One was a boy, no older than seven, with bright orange hair that stuck out over his forehead and back over his neck. He was wearing a pair of casual, faded jeans and simple white t-shirt. He was dragging a girl, who looked only a year younger than him, with the same blindingly orange hair, by the hand, ignoring as she struggled to keep up with him. She was dressed in a long light blue skirt and black t-shirt, and she tripped over her sneakers with ever few steps.
"Brother, where are we going?" she squeaked, breathing heavy as she tried to keep up with the boy's longer stride. "Mom and Dad'll get worried if we stay out too long."
The boy grunted angrily. "I don't care," he snapped. "They can worry all they like. I'm not going back just yet."
"Can't you at least tell me what happened?" his sister asked quietly.
The boy pulled to as stop, staring at his feet. "No."
"Why not?" she frowned, looking like a spoiled child who didn't get what she asked for. "Mom and dada were yelling for all that time, and then you come out and drag me off to nowhere. I wanna know what's going on!"
Startled, he let go of his sister's hand. "Sorry, Rika, but not now. I'll tell you on the way back. I promise. But right now, there's something I want to show you, and if we don't keep going, we'll miss it. Okay?"
Rika deliberated for a moment. "Alright. But only because I trust you, brother."
"Let's go, then!" he shouted, taking off down the street again.
She frowned. "Neku, wait for me!" she yelled after him, and then took off, doing her best too keep up.
Rhyme stared as the two children ran off. "Neku… that's you and your sister?"
Neku nodded, eyes glued to the ground. "Yeah, when we were little."
"Yo, I had no clue you have a sister!" Beat said, surprised.
"HAD," Neku corrected, "Not after this."
They watched carefully as the two children stopped in a local park, and the younger Neku started climbing a tree. After a few minutes hesitation, his sister followed, taking each branch with a little more care than he was. Finally, as they neared the top, he stopped and perched himself on a branch with a good view out into the sky. She came and sat on the branch with him, but favored a spot closer to the trunk than his.
"Why are we here?" she mumbled a minute later, still not seeing why they were there. "It's getting cold."
"Just give it a minute. It's gonna start soon, so just watch, or you'll miss it," he replied shortly, staring out into the sky.
The sun sank lower and lower into the sky, casting longer shadows and turning the sky a dark pinkish red. One after another, the street lights began to turn on, the harsh shadows mixing in with the soft ones of the natural light. Finally, as the last rays of light from the sun began to fade, the light softened and suddenly, as if a light had been switched off, the sun was gone behind the buildings on the horizon.
Rika stared in awe. "That was… pretty cool, actually."
"Yeah, I come out here all the time," Neku smiled. "It's nice and quiet out here. No parents to yell at you, no one to tell you what to do. It's perfect."
"Now will you tell me what happened? You seem so angry with Mom and Dad… especially at Dad. I don't see how you can be so mad at them," she mumbled.
"Of course I'm mad!" Neku shouted back, anger snapping back into place. "I can't trust them ever again. Neither of them! Especially not him! Not after what he said… about me! About us! I can't forgive them!"
With his sudden burst of anger, he twisted around on the branch. Finished with his rant, he tried to swing back around, but the branch tipped under the sudden shift of weight. It tipped, tipping Neku with it, bringing him dangerously close to falling. Rika grabbed his arm to steady him, pulling him closer to the trunk.
"Thanks," he muttered, anger deflated, "You saved me."
She giggled. "What kind of sister would I be if I didn't look out for my hasty older brother?"
Neku frowned, obviously not happy about being looked after, but didn't reply.
"Are we going home now?" she asked after a moment.
"Yeah," he nodded, "It's about time."
The two children climbed down from the tree slowly, watching carefully where they stepped in the dim lamplight. It took them a good five minutes to get down from their spot. Then they slowly began to head back in the direction they had come from.
"Here's where things went wrong…" Neku muttered, closing his eyes.
As they neared the intersection, Rika dashed ahead, walking backwards when she was a few feet in front of her brother.
Neku sighed. "Slow down, Rika. We're not racing back. You're gonna hurt yourself if you're not careful."
"No worries," she laughed back, "I'll be fine. Really, what could happen?"
Screeching tires filled the sudden silence, growing louder and closer with each second. Out around the corner, two cars speed past, windows rolled down. Each one had a gun sticking out of the window, spraying bullets left and right. One of the drivers was hit and accidentally swerved, throwing off the aim of the shooters. Bullets cracked and shattered against the pavement. At an almost invisible speed, one of them hit Rika in the back, passing directly through her, and hit Neku in the leg. Both of them dropped to the ground, Neku screaming in pain.
Shiki gasped, gripping onto Mr. Mew even tighter. Rhyme buried her face into Beat's side, and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, averting his eyes. Neku stared, fists shaking.
He watched as his memory played out, watching everyone happen in front of him as he remembered it. He watched as his younger self reached out for her, fighting the pain and pressing unconsciousness to try to save her, even though he knew in his heart that it was too late. Even though he knew it was too late. He watched as he passed out on the ground, and the memory went black, finally finished.
"And that was it," Neku whispered, closing his eyes, trying to push the threatening tears away. "She died, and I couldn't stop it."
Shiki was still staring into the blackness where the vision had played, a look of intense through on her face. "Now I remember!" she declared, snapping her fingers. "I've seen her before."
"Bwaaah! Whatchu talking 'bout!?" Beat shouted, startled. "Ain't she dead or something!?"
"Exactly," Shiki replied, "I saw her in a store in Shibuya on the weekend. She was wearing a Player Pin. I watched her until she left the building, but she disappeared outside. I'm positive it was her! She looked exactly the same, just older."
"But how…?" Neku mumbled in disbelief. "She... she's in the Game?"