In the beginning, there was only him.
Joshua always sat alone in the classroom, surrounded by children, but never included. It had been that way ever since the first day of school and he said something he shouldn't have said. Children had surprisingly long emotional memories, and didn't let it go even after they'd grown older. Joshua stopped trying to involve himself with them years ago; children never quite grow up out of isolating those who are too different. He grew used to it over time, grew apathetic to the endless, meaningless noise around him.
He stared out the window to the streets outside, wishing he out there, where things would surely be more interesting. But, as he rested his chin against a palm, he knew that things wouldn't be any different whether he was indoors in school, or outdoors on the cacophonic streets. People were the same everywhere. Shallow, indifferent, self-absorbed.
Unwilling to talk about death.
It was the accident that truly solidified that he was different from the other children his age. When people backed away from the broken, bleeding body strewn across the street, Joshua approached it, fascinated by the way the body had caved in with blood pooling and solidifying on and around it. His then small hands reached to touch the body and see if it felt any different from living limbs, but was pulled back by a stranger. "Hey, kiddo! Careful there. You don't want to be getting into trouble, so step away right now."
Joshua had turned around to see who was talking to him, and widened his eyes and snatched his hand away from the stranger; he'd been taught never to talk to strangers. But what was he supposed to do now? An awkward silence punctuated by the noise of surrounding people stretched between them, and Joshua's gaze had slid towards the strange animals tearing after pairs of people through the streets. When he looked back, Joshua saw stranger's gaze was still following the animals and people. Naively, Joshua had asked, "Can you see them, too?" and the stranger's response after a moment of surprise was, "Let's keep that a secret between you and me, aight? People don't like to talk about things they can't see."
Joshua knew that all too well. The stranger stopped being a stranger after a while, but although Joshua appreciated Mr. H's company and the ability to talk about things he simply couldn't around his family and around the children his age, there was still a distance between Mr. H and himself. Mr. H was an adult, and Joshua had grown up under the thumb of adults who drilled into him the belief children should be seen and not heard. He hadn't been able to make nice with the children when it was apparent there was too much difference between them. Gaps between himself and the people around him were not so easy to bridge.
So it was only with vague interest that he straightened slightly in his seat to watch a new girl walk into the classroom escorted by the teacher. She was tall for their age and her hair was short and neat, her bag dangling from her fingers in front of her. Joshua noted, with some amusement, that she had a pikachu keychain attached to her bag.
"Alright class!" the teacher barked out into the noisy classroom, idly scratching his back at the same time. "We've got a new kid here. Her name's Haruka something or other, ahhh I don't really care." He gestured vaguely in Joshua's direction, and Joshua realised after a moment that the only spare seat was next to him. Fantastic. He'd have to put up with introductory pleasantries before she went to join the rest of the giggling masses in this school. "Go say hello and sit next to Kiryu over there."
"Pleased to meet you," the other student said with a clear, confident voice, making a short bow. "I sure we'll get along."
Joshua made only a minimal effort to turn his head in order to see the newcomer as she approached. Giving him a bright smile, she said, "Treat me well, Kiryu-kun."
He felt himself force a smile. "Joshua will do." He was tired of hearing his last name all the time. Kiryu this and Kiryu that. The last time his parents had called him Joshua was a long time ago. A time that no longer existed. "I'll only treat you as well as you treat me."
The newcomer laughed before taking the seat next to Joshua, taking her pencil case and books out of her bag and arranging them neatly on her table. "That's okay. I play nice."
Joshua found he didn't mind her company. Haruka stuck around, even when the other children tried to convince her not to associate with him with tales of the past. He took some measure of satisfaction that she ignored their gossipy talk and was willing to listen to him, but Joshua still took care to never speak of death and the other world that no one else in this school could see.
On the morning of the third day, Megumi greeted Joshua with a fist to his face before grabbing him by the lapels of his shirt. "What are you fighting for?" he demanded.
Joshua didn't reply immediately, instead, numbly bringing a hand to where his partner had hit him on his cheek. It had been too long since he'd felt pain like this. Pain. It meant, that even though he was dead, he was alive, and Joshua smiled a smile wider than he'd ever done. He sidestepped the question he didn't want to answer, the same way he'd had years of practice of doing at home and at social visits. "What are you fighting for?"
Megumi has that serious expression that Mr. H sometimes wore when he thought Joshua was coming dangerously close to crossing the line, and Joshua couldn't help but laugh in Megumi's face. The other's expression twisted -- in what? Disgust? Anger? -- before abruptly letting go of Joshua, hand going to the shades hanging off his necklace. "What everyone else is: life. Shibuya is too wonderful to leave like this!" His voice grew a little harsher. "But you... you don't seem to have the same goal in mind. Do you even want to go back?"
It was true; Joshua wasn't fighting for his life. There wasn't any point fighting for the 'life' the other players searched for. No, Joshua was after something bigger. He had an incredible advantage over the other Players from years of observing the Game. It was so much easier to plan his next move even though he was restricted to the same time limit as every other Player; he knew how the Game worked, and could plan for what came after those 7 days. And now that he was in the Game, he could feel it stronger than ever, that call from the world he could only observe but not be a part of until now. There wasn't much in the RG for him to go back to, but there was far more in the UG, where he could feel the hum of Shibuya's song through his whole body.
But instead of answering the implied question Megumi had left behind with his words, Joshua turned his head to the side and grinned. "Here's a thought for you, Megumi. If everyone has a common goal, why does everyone only fight in pairs?"
Joshua could see Megumi's eyes narrow as he sidestepped the question with one of his own. "Can I trust you?"
Joshua's smirk grew wider. "Can you afford not to?"
Joshua idly picked out the dirt from underneath a fingernail and flicked it before he yawned. First day on the job and he was already bored. Well, that wasn't entirely accurate; there was plenty for him to observe and keep his head down and listen to Shibuya's song and figure out his next step. But he was getting a little restless just standing in the same spot all day and for some reason, he hadn't been able to place a call to Haruka even though he could call other numbers. He'd fiddled with some of the games on his cellphone, but quickly lost interest. Joshua wanted to walk around, move a bit, and frankly even though his legs were used to being used hours on end, standing still on the same spot was making them really sore. He was considering bringing a chair, next time.
So when he finally spotted a pair of Players making their way to him, Joshua stood a little straighter. Finally! Maybe they could hurry up and accomplish his task and then he could get out of here. "Hello, Players. This wall must be quite troublesome for you, but if-" and abruptly cut off when he hastily dodged a punch aimed at his face.
"This is all your fault!"
What was with the people trying to punch him in the face in the UG? He was sure that somewhere in the Games' rules stated it was illegal to hit a Support Reaper. And if it wasn't, he'd make sure there was one. Joshua made a show of checking his nails before looking up at his attacker. "... Who are you again?"
The angry Player gave an incoherent cry of rage before swinging her fist at him again. Joshua dodged nimbly out of the way, laughing. He remembered who she was, of course. Naomi was her name, if he recalled correctly. Joshua could also spot a guy with a shock of orange hair lazily following behind his partner with a lollipop in his mouth, as Joshua danced out of the way of the other Player's attacks. When he caught his eye, the carrot head gave Joshua a helpless shrug.
It wasn't long until her fist connected with the mostly invisible wall, and she snapped her hand back with a hiss of pain. But she did, at least, stop trying to beat Joshua up. However, she replaced that with yelling. "You're the reason we're playing again!"
That was hardly his fault; he didn't expect their Game to be considered 'improper'. Joshua made a show of plugging his ears at her loud voice before replying, "Really, now? I recall that Reaper giving all of us a choice about the matter. I decided to give up my entry fee." He was doing so much better without it, anyway. "You didn't. That's why you're a Player again and I'm not."
Naomi ground her teeth before growling, "I shouldn't even be playing a second time! I knew we shouldn't have followed your plan!"
Joshua gave his nails one last lookover. Buyer's regret, huh. Naomi hadn't liked him from the beginning, and now he was just a convenience to vent her frustrations out on. He was used to it. Others' failures were all too often blamed on him. It disappointed him that now he was a part of the UG, in some ways, Players were no different from the people in the RG. "By the way, don't you have a mission to attend to?" He gave the Player pair his sweetest smile, brushing his hair back from his face and giving it a little flick. "It really wouldn't do for you to fail, would it? Now, a bowl of shio ramen, if you please. Your timers are ticking ♪~"
There was something about dance that Joshua loved.
He twisted, throwing his hands up in the air before landing lightly and turning, one leg trailing to lead into the next step in the choreography. There was something about the way dance could take him away from the person he was expected to be, and allowed him to be the person he wanted to be.
It had become something of a habit to come to Udagawa and practice in front of an audience comprised of concrete steps with the occasional Haruka. Joshua didn't know why he felt drawn to that sprawling CAT mural painted across one of the walls there. There was something strangely inspiring about it, and Joshua found he was calmer and more focused when he was practising near the mural. Perhaps he also came to Udagawa because he rarely saw those people and animals -- Players and Noise, Mr. H had called them -- in these backstreets. A rare moment he could pretend he wasn't different from the people around him.
Often, between her own after class activities, Haruka would accompany him, sometimes doing her own thing -- she was the artistic sort, and he'd seen the fantastical drawings in her sketchbook -- but usually watching him practice and offering critique. Thankfully, she didn't feel the need to fill the gaps between their conversations with unnecessary chatter, so her presence wasn't a distraction.
Haruka leaned back and swung her legs, unusually animated today. Joshua didn't pay her any mind and concentrated on his practice, focusing on getting a sense of power in his movements. Even though he carried no music player, Joshua could hear music in his mind, and did his best to imitate it, feet moving in time to the beat. When the shadows grew long and the sun began to sink, Joshua decided to call it quits for the day. He leaned against a railing across from Haruka, taking a drink from his bottle of water.
"Hey, Joshua," Haruka suddenly said, legs going still as she looked up at the sliver of sky between the buildings that stretched upwards. "Have you ever wondered if there's anything after you die? What happens after it's over?"
... He knew. Of course he knew. But after every conversation that had turned against him when he spoke of what he knew, he was wary. For a moment, Joshua thought that maybe it would be okay to talk about these things with Haruka. That maybe he'd be able to talk about that other world with someone his age. That maybe he could trust Haruka with the secret he's kept for years. But Mr. H's words were like an unwanted reminder in his head, "Let's keep that a secret between you and me, aight? People don't like to talk about things they can't see," and Joshua discarded the notion of continuing this conversation with Haruka; he'd been burned too many times by doing so. Even with the open invitation from Haruka, the only response he felt safe giving was, "No, never."
Haruka seemed disappointed at his response. Joshua turned away so he didn't have to look at her expression. Something inside him twisted, and the opportunity was gone.
It was clear from the very beginning, even before the other Players had (mostly) agreed to Joshua's plan, that Megumi was their natural leader. Joshua couldn't take that from him; the other Players never could quite be comfortable around Joshua, whether it was from his slippery demeanor, his way of thinking, or both. But Joshua didn't want to be their leader anyway; his agenda wasn't the same as theirs. Megumi's was. His sincerity and genuine dedication to the things he loved was something the other Players could see and admire, and they followed Megumi's example. Joshua was merely suggesting their next course of action that was mutually beneficial to all parties involved. Joshua needed Megumi to herd the Players.
However, the Players were restless. It was hard not to be, when they were so close, yet so far from winning. But with completion of their sixth mission, there was little to do besides using some of that restless energy to vent some of their frustrations before they blacked out and the day ended. Joshua stood slightly apart from them all, skirting the edges of the group as he planned ahead. And, as expected, Megumi approached him once he was done speaking with the other Players who wanted his attention.
"My dear Megumi. Have you ever wondered what the point of the Game is?" Joshua said once the man in question had come close enough to hear him. "Players are offered a prize, but the Reapers... what do the Reapers gain from this?"
Megumi appeared to think for a moment, bringing a hand to his chin. "They certainly appear to take pleasure with every erasure. Perhaps they are like their namesake?"
Joshua gave a short laugh. He liked Megumi well enough, but he knew his partner could be remarkably short sighted. "Really, now? I was hoping for a better answer than that, Megumi. What do the Reapers in charge of the walls gain from playing besides the occasional bowl of free food?"
Megumi had no answer for him, but did appear to consider his words. Just as he thought. Joshua sighed and took a deep breath, closing his eyes and taking in that thin melody that he could make out at the edge of his senses. "The Game is tied to Shibuya," he said, keeping his eyes closed, "You can feel it too, can't you?"
That discordant sound surrounding the Noise whenever they drew close. That constant buzz originating from the people in the RG. That rhythm in every battle he moved to, dancing out of the Noise's attack range and eliminating the Noise in one fell swoop.
That slow heartbeat that lay underneath it all.
Opening his eyes, Joshua didn't bother finding out whether Megumi felt the same way; he'd known for too much of his life that he was different from everyone else. He really shouldn't expect them to understand. Instead, Joshua made eye contact with Megumi and said frankly, "The question is how the Game is tied to Shibuya. Don't you want to find out?" He kept the words 'for the sake of Shibuya' unsaid, but feeling behind them hovering in his expression. Glancing up at the sky, painted in brilliant orange from the setting sun and framed by the towering buildings of Shibuya, Joshua voice turned quiet.
"... If we survive tomorrow, that is."
It was the first time Joshua had been able to set foot in Shibuya's RG in three years and forty nine days. In the UG, the cold and the heat wasn't an issue, when the body was more incorporeal than people often gave it credit. There was something electrifying being back on home pavements, something in his heart that seemed to hum in harmony when it had been in discord ever since he'd left. Even the sting of the cool, night breeze wasn't enough to keep the smile from Joshua's face.
He meant to make good on a meeting he'd been planning before he was thrown into the Game. Unfortunately, Joshua hadn't been able to call Haruka in the last two weeks to organise an exact day, but maybe she had dropped her phone and broken it. It wasn't such a big set back; he could just drop by to say hello in person and organise a time then. As much as he'd enjoyed their conversations over the phone and late night texts, they weren't quite the same as the long hours they'd spent in each other's presence in the past.
When he arrived outside the door of Haruka's home, Joshua brought his hand up to give a sharp rap on the door. He didn't have to wait long before Haruka's mother opened the door.
Joshua gave her his best smile. "Good evening, Mrs. Suzuki. I hope you don't mind if I talk to Haruka?"
She frowned suspiciously, and Joshua tilted his head slightly, inwardly curious at the reaction. Had he changed that much in three years? He was sure he didn't look that different. "I'm sorry, what was your name?"
"Joshua." An uneasy feeling settled in the pit of his stomach when he didn't see a flicker of recognition in her eyes at his name. He'd been here so many times! Was he really that forgettable? "A friend from school," he added after a moments awkward pause.
She eyed Joshua, looking him up and down, as if she was assessing him. Joshua calmly waited under her gaze, outwardly unfazed by her actions but inwardly slightly off balance. He wasn't used to people forgetting him. After a long moment, she slowly nodded and half turned, though her eyes were still firmly fixed on Joshua. She shouted into the next room, "Haruka! Someone is here to see you!" Joshua noted she hadn't invited him in like she usually would.
"Give me a minute!" Joshua could hear some thumps before Haruka appeared at the door. Her mother stepped back into their home out of sight, but Joshua noted that her footsteps hadn't gone far enough to take her out of hearing range. Regardless, he'd be able to speak to Haruka face to face for the first time in-
"Who are you?"
Joshua searched Haruka's face for any sign of humour. No, he couldn't see any sign of amusement. Was she... did she seriously not know who he was? "Joshua Kiryu?" When he saw there was no sign of recognition, Joshua continued, "You sat next to me in class seven years ago?" Nothing. "You used to watch me practice in front of the Udagawa mural."
There was still nothing. Just a confused, blank look on her face as he spoke. Joshua suddenly felt sick. Haruka gave him an apologetic bow. "I'm sorry, I think you've mistaken me for someone else."
No no no.
He refused to believe it. That damn Reaper! Had he been tricked? Was this his real entry fee?
Joshua lost some of his calmness to agitation. "We're friends!" The word was so unfamiliar on his tongue, but it felt right. That was what they were... no, are. He ploughed on. "You used to listen to me when no one else would."
Haruka shook her head. "No, I don't-"
"Two weeks ago!" Joshua raised his voice over hers. "I called you to tell you I was arriving in Shibuya. You said you couldn't meet me at the station, but you said to drop by any time this week."
Her brow creased. "I didn't receive any calls at the time. I turned off my phone because I had exams to study for. I'm sorry, but I'm not the girl you're looking for. Good night." And she turned to step back inside.
Joshua kept going, unable to stop. "You keep a sketchbook full of drawings of people, because you wanted to become a manga artist when you were older. You used to have a pikachu keychain, but it broke off one day, and you replaced it with a suicune." When it became clear she'd close the door, he reached to grab her trailing arm, a desperate move. "Haruka, I know you."
The slap was painfully loud.
Joshua numbly brought his hand to his cheek. Haruka lowered hers, returning her hand stiffly to her side. "Please stop. I don't know you, and it looks like you don't know me either. Maybe you've been stalking the wrong person all this time. I don't really care; I would be happier if I never see you again."
She met his hurtconfusedbetrayed gaze with her own cold stare, and even though it shamed him to do so, Joshua was the first to break eye contact. He gave her a mechanical bow. "I apologise for the intrusion," he said, the familiar but long unused words like sandpaper in his mouth, and stepped back into the shadows, and the UG, trying to block out the voices of Haruka and her mother beyond the walls.
And just like that, one of his precious few links with the world outside of himself was severed. Before tonight, there had only been two times Haruka had ever touched him; Haruka, like her namesake, always maintained distance. It wasn't the pain of the slap that hurt the most; it was the sting of a friendship that was forgotten and ended. That was alright. Haruka didn't matter; he'd been alone in the beginning. He could do things on his own again, the way he always had. He just had to move on like she had apparently moved on from him. He just had to accept things weren't like they used to be. But that didn't make it hurt any less.
For the first time, Joshua regretted not making the effort of playing the Game again.
"Nothing." The word was easy to say. Perhaps too easy. But that was what was expected from him, all the time. No complaints. No say. Joshua bitterly flicked his wrist, and the fan in his hand extended with a snap before his feet touched the ground, shoes grinding against the pavement. For some reason, practicing wasn't calming him down. He'd been hoping it would, along with the usually soothing presence of the Udagawa mural. Figures.
Haruka sighed and stood up, dusting her skirt. "You usually move like this," she said, and mimicked his leap, down to the flick of the wrist. "But today, it's more like this," and she repeated the movement, exaggerated with the stiffness, and her harsh landing that made a crunch of shoes against ground made Joshua wince.
However, Joshua didn't want to pursue this topic of conversation, and looked away from her to her bag. He frowned. The bag was missing the little splash of yellow he'd become used to seeing. Cocking his head to the side, he asked Haruka, "Did you lose your pikachu?"
She stared at him for a moment, before slowly shaking her head. "I did, but it's not important. I'll get a new one later."
Haruka didn't ask him what was wrong again, but sat down, her hands folded over her lap and her eyes on him, the very model of attentiveness. But Joshua refused to speak the words she wanted to hear. Instead, he thought of all the little things. All the tiny annoyances that had eventually built up to become a large frustration. The way he was supposed to agree to everything his parents, no, any adult his parents associated with. The way they didn't listen to him, just told him what to do. The way his parents used him to forward their own social standing. He was sick and tired of it all. No matter where he turned, everything in this world was restricted by rules that didn't matter. People were too dense to realise it, but maybe he was the worst of them all; he knew better, yet still toed the line and played by their rules. It was like something in his mind physically stopped him from breaking them all. Joshua'd had enough.
He turned away. "I wish I was dead."
He was stopped by an iron grip on his arm, and he turned to see a grim earnestness on Haruka's face.
"Watch out. Support are the most vulnerable in this situation."
Joshua smiled and waved off Megumi's concerns. "I'll keep that in mind. Have fun Noise hunting."
He watched Megumi's retreating back, turning over new piece of information his old partner had given him over in his head. Rumour had it that Noise was attacking Reapers. Megumi had heard it from Kariya; a new kind of Noise that was more powerful than normal Noise, distinct in their steely limbs and dark colouring. According to Megumi, the higher ups were calling them Taboo Noise. Joshua hadn't personally seen them, but he had heard about the first Reaper erasure during a non-Game week, though at the time, the cause was unknown.
However, he'd already felt the erasure before the news had even hit the grapevine. Hours before the supposed erasure, Joshua could feel a change run through Shibuya, a discordant jangle akin to nails down a blackboard. And at the time of the erasure, he'd heard a shrill keening, not unlike a banshee's wail. He knew the Taboo Noise wasn't just a problem that would cause the erasure of a few Reapers; they were a problem that was messing up the underlying song of Shibuya that everything was built upon.
But... at the same time, Joshua saw this as an opportunity. As he listened to Shibuya, he could hear, feel, the damage being painstakingly repaired by Shibuya's Composer. The one who could change everything.
Joshua wanted to be able to that.
Joshua slammed his hands on the table, ignoring the sharp sting in his hands from doing so. "I don't want to leave Shibuya! Especially when it's because of some stupid social mistake made by my parents! They haven't done anything but control my life!"
Mr. H calmly met Joshua's furious stare and set down his cup of coffee, an oddly serious look on his face. "Calm down and listen to yourself, J. Getting all pissy isn't going to make things better. Remember, it's not-"
Joshua stormed out into the streets of Shibuya before the barista could finish.
Final day. And all that stood between them and victory was a single GM. Joshua looked at the twenty plus Player pairs near him. This mission should be easy enough, right? After Megumi had talked to the other Players, Joshua snapped shut his cellphone and strode to stand beside his partner. "I hope they're ready."
Megumi game him a low chuckle. "As ready as any of us will be," he said before leading the way to the Scramble Crossing, the remaining Players in tow.
They were greeted by the GM, encircled by Noise they hadn't seen before. Noise that had their very sharp looking horns pointed outward. The GM laughed before extending his black Reaper wings and joining the circle of wildebeest as one of them. "Game on."
Joshua came to a stop before the entrance to Shibuya River. If Pork City was where all things ended, Shibuya River was where all things began. Here he could feel the calling from beyond the seal barring entrance. Honestly, he didn't have much of a plan from here to the seat, just knew the Composer's attention was on the Taboo Noise. But as he had, from the very moment he'd left behind his hesitations and joined the Game and its runnings, he followed Shibuya's song. Followed the origin of the rush. Followed the strains of music that had never lead him astray yet.
He closed his eyes and reached out with a hand, hearing the polyphony in the seal and slowly unravelling it into individual melodies. The seal easily slid undone, disappearing into static and funk. The path was open. All he had to do was step forward.
He did exactly that.
Joshua had no idea where he was headed. He just let his feet do the walking as he wandered around Shibuya in a half-daze. This was his home. For all its flaws, this was his Shibuya. His Shibuya that was full of interesting ideas and another hidden world.
It wasn't until a sudden, vibrant splash of colour that Joshua was startled out of his thoughts. He managed a tiniest of smiles, putting his hand up to touch the familiar CAT mural, and realised that his feet had taken him to Udagawa, and he'd be leaving this behind, too. Joshua didn't know how much time had passed as he kept thinking about how angry the prospect of leaving Shibuya made him, and remembering every single time something his parents had said or something they had done had frustrated him. He wasn't feeling better, even after he attempted venting his frustration by kicking the handrails near the mural. If anything, Joshua was feeling worse, and he eventually settled for sitting on some nearby steps, sulking until the shadows of Shibuya grew long. And even as the day fled and the cold of night settled down, he didn't want to go home. He didn't want to go back, knowing that the next day, he'd be saying goodbye to all this.
Joshua sidestepped one of the wildebeest Noise's charge, bringing it to a screeching halt from a line of barbed wire materialising before it. He cast an eye over the rest of the scene at the Scramble, shaking his head at the disarray the other Players were showing. Wildebeest. What a fantastic way to show the difference between the way the GM and the summoned Noise functioned compared to this motley group of Players, and Joshua shielded himself from the attack of another of the Noise, managing to hold the shield against impact. A split second later, Megumi smashed into the side of the Noise, the heavy hit powerful enough to erase it.
As a conglomerate of Players, they didn't function as one. They'd panicked, splitting back into their pairs. Thought it wasn't necessarily a bad thing, they were not thinking clearly, and didn't recall their role. They were scattered, easy for the GM, whose herd of Noise now acted more like predators than prey, to pick off. And Joshua could feel every erasure -- a jangle of discords followed by a beautiful cadence that spelled their end -- in the core of his body. How annoying.
"Change of plans," he said to Megumi when they drew close enough to speak. "The others are only being a distraction. Let's use them as one."
Joshua wasn't much of a believer in destiny, but he could hear echoes of it, and the echoes all said the same thing. This was where he was supposed to be. This was where everything would change. At first he'd believed it rather strange for the Composer's seat to be in Shibuya River, but as he felt the melodies and harmonies sweep past him to flow into Shibuya, it was obvious why. Everything that originated from here would go on to influence the rest of Shibuya.
As he walked through the sewer with more confidence than he ever had to the lilting melody in the background, it felt like he had the backing of Shibuya behind him. It felt like something in him had become that much lighter.
It felt overwhelmingly right.
It was Haruka who found him, sitting on the steps in front of that Udagawa mural. Joshua could hear her footsteps before she sat down beside him on the steps, setting down her flashlight. He raised her head to look at her, and he could see her hands fisted over her knees and the sombre expression on her face. Perhaps she'd heard. From Mr. H, maybe. Her next words only confirmed it.
"Look, it's not forever, right? We..." Haruka abruptly looked away, but Joshua could still hear the slight tremble in her voice, "...We can still keep in touch. You can still come back here later. We... we can..."
Before he could react, she was hugging him tightly. Joshua couldn't see her face at all, but it was clear from the stifled sniffs that she was crying. It took him a moment before he followed her example and buried his face into her shoulder to hide his tears.
Fifteen years old, and this one time, he'd shaken off years of strictly following rules and orders. He'd taken this train out of Shibuya, and now he was riding the same train back into Shibuya. There had been many times in the past three years he stood at a station, wanting more than anything to step on board, but never being able to. As he drew closer to crossing into Shibuya, he could hear that song that had been missing in his life ever since he left.
Joshua shifted in his seat before closing his eyes, lulled to a half-sleep by the soft strains of a lullaby from a city that never sleeps.
Joshua danced easily out of the wildebeest's path. As he fought with Megumi at his side, he felt everything becoming easier. It was like he could feel the thrum of every movement within him. This was just like the endless practice sessions of his childhood. The GM's hoof came down in a shockwave along the ground, but Joshua knew Megumi could feel the rhythm in him too, as they both jumped over it; Megumi's line of fire came exactly on the beat, followed by the final cadence in the form of a great beam of light from Joshua.
In this moment, Joshua felt more alive than he ever had.
It had taken Joshua a while to notice, but as he walked, he couldn't hear a thing. He couldn't hear the scuff of his shoes against the concrete, he couldn't hear his phone when he experimentally dropped it, he couldn't hear the sound of his own breath. All he could feel was Shibuya's song running through him, a low hum that kept him energized. Even though all his instincts were screaming at him to turn back, the song kept urging him forward, beyond the point of no return.
However, Joshua didn't have long to savour Shibuya's lullaby in his half-doze on the train; the screech of metal against metal and concrete drowned out all song, and before Joshua could even stand, the walls and floor and ceiling of the train warped and crushed its occupants. "Is this what it is to die?" Joshua would have laughed if his lungs weren't collapsing, so he grinned instead; he knew what would come next.
The GM gave one final roar before disintegrating into a burst of static. Joshua closed his eyes and felt fluttering notes join Shibuya, little pieces of articulation that only sweetened Shibuya's song. What came next after the week of survival was a calming white light that bathed the remaining five Player pairs. The Players looked to Megumi for a decision, and Megumi looked to Joshua. Joshua slowly let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding, and stepped into the light.
Joshua passed by a mural, and knew without even looking closely at it that it was a CAT mural. The calming feeling he received from the mural in Udagawa was exactly the same as the one here. For the first time, he thought there was something even bigger going on that he had missed. But he couldn't turn back now, so he held his head up high as he opened the door to the seat he so desired, and stepped into the light.
The Reaper who had introduced the Players to the Game 7 days ago gave them a slow clap and a smile as he spoke.
All Joshua saw was ghostly hair floating around him and the palest of white smiles before She spoke.
"Congratulations. You won the Game."
Notes: This was originally supposed to be a much longer story. A multi-chapter story, in fact. However, a combination of me having a hard time filling certain parts of the trio of timelines with content and I couldn't come up with satisfactory scenarios for certain events meant I eventually axed the story to become a one-shot after sitting on it for over 6 months. Even now, I'm still not entirely happy with it.
It'd be a bit of a shame if all the previous writing I did went to waste, though, so I'll link it here. Debating if I should link the less refined parts that are still sitting on my .txt file for it. Maybe later. Note that most of these things were done over 6 months ago orz.
Chapter covers for the Prologue and Chapter 01