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It Takes 21 Days to Form a Routine

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Neku spent the first week after he finally escaped the game jumping at shadows, and expecting to run face-first into a wall every time he walked anywhere for more than two blocks at a time. He skipped half the week of school without even realizing it until his homeroom teacher called about his truancy; he'd never cared all that much about school to begin with, and it had been pushed out of his mind by more important things for so long that he'd completely forgotten he'd be expected to go again after he was brought back to life. He spent most of his time huddled on a chair in Mr. H's cafe, chugging down cups of too-strong coffee as an excuse to stay in the one place where he felt anything at all close to safe.

His third week out of the UG he still had trouble remembering that other people could see him when he wasn't in a shop marked by the Reapers, so he really should watch what he did in public more closely. He was still too full almost all of the time, as he'd been ever since he stumbled home after the game and had to gawk at his fridge stuffed with food; he was still stuck in the mental state that told him he needed to cram down grub every chance he got, because he never knew when he'd be stuck somewhere without a restaurant or need to spend so much on new threads that he wouldn't be able afford so much as a small pack of fries the very next day. He still found himself reaching out to try and touch the mind of anyone who looked like they were deep in thought or to imprint a suggestion on anyone who obviously needed help making decision even though the RG had stripped both talents from him. He still dressed in a crazy mismatch of styles that made Shiki and Eri roll their eyes and despair at the sight of him, each stitch of clothing picked based on what made him feel most defended instead of on whatever small scrap of fashion sense he had.

At a month spent in safety he could almost believe that the entire game had been some crazy dream, if he didn't spend all his afternoons with some combination of Shiki and Beat and Eri and Rhyme, or hovering, fascinated, over the counter at the WildKat watching CAT sketch out new designs when nobody else was at the cafe. But he still kept his most powerful pins fixed to his clothing at all times, ready to use them at a moment's notice if the city or Josh or whatever it was that gave them their psychs ever decided to return a spark of power to them if he ever got into a jam.

And then, just one week later, he was passing through the Scramble on his way from grabbing a burger at Sunshine Stationside and the moment he took a step into the area of the 104 building he knew that he had his leg sticking through a wall.

He stopped in midstep and stared down at his leg before very slowly pulling it fully back into Scramble Crossing, unable to shake the feeling that at any instant the wall would suddenly turn solid around him and chop his leg off at the thigh. It was only once he was standing safe and whole on solid ground that he stopped and looked around himself. There wasn't a bright red jacket or scarf to be seen, so he stood up straight and, ignoring the looks he got from all the ordinary people passing by around him, said to the thin air, "Okay, I know you're there. Could you maybe bump yourself up a level so I can see you?"

It really wasn't fair that he got looked at like he was crazy for talking to the Reaper, but when the guy actually showed up out of nowhere nobody even seemed to notice. Neku thought that he recognized him; seeing people around for three weeks was more than enough time to start making out distinguishing features under the identical uniforms. He was the guy who always ordered him to fetch his lunch, only to take one bite out of it then toss it back. Gross though it was to take food someone else had already slobbered over, and annoying though it had been to put up with Josh's teasing about getting a second-hand kiss from a Reaper during their week together, Neku had kind of appreciated the guy. Food was food in the game, and not needing to waste a whole meal on getting a wall taken down wasn't a bad thing.

He tilted his head back far enough for Neku to actually see his eyes peering down at him from beneath the rim of his hat. "Good job there, Phones," he said, a note of grudging respect in his voice. "Most folks who get out of the game could walk straight into us and never notice they're pushing up against the UG again."

"Most folks don't spend most of a month stuck in there," Neku replied, scowling a little at the old nickname and rubbing at the side of his head where his headphones used to rest. He'd given up on using his music to cut out the rest of the world, but it looked like people wouldn't soon forget that period of his life. At least 'Phones' was better than Eri's chosen nickname for him; 'Fashion Victim'. Then he scowled even more deeply as he forced his hand to drop and gave into the urge to say, "Look, do you want something to eat?"

This time the Reaper actually pushed his hat up, all the better to raise his eyebrows incredulously at Neku. "It's not that I'm not flattered, kid, and I know we all owe you big time, but scrawny boys aren't my type. And even if they were, the boss would erase me for taking off in the middle of a mission."

"Wait, no!" Neku exclaimed, holding up his hands as if he could physically ward off unwelcome assumptions and backing up a few steps. "No way! Forget about your type, man; you aren't my type." Then he frowned a little, and looked down at himself. "And who are you calling 'scrawny'?"

The Reaper laughed and leaned back against a street post. "Look in a mirror for the answer to that one, Phones."

Neku scowled at him, but just said, "Look, do you want something or not? I've got things to do."

The Reaper examined him closely, as if looking for any signs of a trick, then shrugged. "I could go for a soda, since you're offering."

"Right. Back in a minute," Neku told him, before turning to dash back to Sunshine. He was just glad that the guy had asked for something cheap, and didn't try sending him off to Mind & Body Foods or somewhere to test just how far his sudden generosity would stretch (the answer to that was not that far, and he would have just accepted that he'd have to annoy Shiki by being a few minutes late and waited for a Player to bring the wall down). But a drink was cheap, and fast, and he managed to beat anyone actually in the game back to the road to the 104 with ease.

"So," he said as he watched the Reaper take a sip of his drink, "could you drop that wall now? Just long enough for me to get through."

The Reaper tried to laugh, only for it to turn into a hacking cough when some of his cola got gasped down his air pipe. Neku didn't feel at all compelled to help as he watched him hack away, waiting impatiently until he finally regained enough control to speak. "That's what this is all about?"

"Oh, shut up," Neku said, glaring at the ground in front of him. "You must have been a player once; you should see how easy it is for you to just walk through a wall without going through stupid errands."

The Reaper took a long step backwards, straight through where the wall must be, and spread his arms wide with a smirk. Thankfully he only spent a moment showing off before he gestured at the seemingly empty space then waved Neku through. "All right, kid. It's clear. Now get through before a player comes by."

Sure enough, the air was clear when Neku tried stepping through it again, although the moment he was past he could feel something snapping back into place behind him. He wanted to hurry straight on to the warmth of Shiki's apartment, where they could do their homework together the way they'd planned and he could try to forget that there were more kids out there fighting for their lives just the way they had, but he hesitated. "Thanks," he told the Reaper grudgingly, then added, "Hey, could you do one more thing for me?"

The Reaper quirked up an eyebrow at him. "Another favor? I think I've already done enough to make up for one drink, Phones."

"It's not a big thing," Neku assured him, digging through his backpack. Down at the very bottom, under all his school books, class work, and assorted junk, were all the pins which were too weak for him to bother keeping them constantly at the ready but which he still didn't want to get rid of, just in case. After a minute of sorting through them he finally picked one out, one that showed up early enough in the game that he didn't think the Reaper's would give a damn if a player got their hands on it early. "Could you pass this Love Me Tether on to whichever team gets here first? You guys give out pins to whoever brings down a wall anyway sometimes..."

The Reaper plucked the pin out of Neku's hands and began rolling it quickly back and forth across his knuckles like a coin, staring at it thoughtfully all the while. Finally he flipped it into the air and snatched it back out again as it began to fall, stashing it in his pocket. "You're one weird former player, you know that? When people get out they forget, or at least they try as hard as they can to do it. They don't try messing with the game again."

"The game messed with me first. I wouldn't be doing any anything if I couldn't tell that wall was there." He turned and began to walk away at last, not seeing any point in trying to explain things to a reaper of all people. "Look, just do it or don't do. Whatever. It's not like it'll be a big loss to me if that pin stays in your pocket forever."

"Never said I wouldn't do it for you!" the Reaper called after him, then laughed again. "Hey, if you feel like passing any more presents on to this group, I'll be working by A-East tomorrow afternoon. Bring lunch to get through!"

As he walked away Neku swore to himself that instead he'd do his best to avoid the game route completely for the next seven days.

But he was already mentally going over what items would be most useful for a brand new player, and wondering if the Reaper might be happier with the ramen from Shadow Ramen than he'd been with the stuff from the Ramen Don the one time he'd brought it to him.