“Alright.” Joseph rocks forward in his chair and folds his hands under his chin to support his head before he turns a stern eye on the group crowded around the dice and character sheets spread over the table. “DIO is free of his retreat. The sun has sunk below the horizon. He will have his run of the city in a matter of minutes, if you do not stand in his way. What will you do?”
“You’re all going to die,” Avdol calls from the floor, where he set himself the task of feeding Polnareff’s dog treats after ceremoniously tearing through his own character sheet upon his recent demise. “He’s not going to pull his punches this time.”
“You think we don’t know that?” Polnareff snaps, turning his head to glare at Avdol instead of frowning at his character sheet, where he’s been summing up his health points over and over again for the last five minutes. “You’re the one who got a miraculous recovery last time, anyway.”
“It was a critical failure,” Avdol says with the absolute calm that comes of a player who no longer has anything to fear from a vicious DM. “And you kept dragging me out here with you when I didn’t have anyone to play. It’s not as if you could have added a new character out of nowhere, that doesn’t make any sense for the story.”
Polnareff snorts. “Like the story made sense in the first place. I got turned into a baby just a few weeks ago.”
“Polnareff,” Noriaki says with such perfect calm that he doesn’t even look up from the attention he’s turning to his character sheet. “Shut up.”
Polnareff bristles visibly at this. “Who gave you the right--”
“It’s his turn,” Jotaro finally cuts in, speaking loudly so he can be heard over the rising edge of Polnareff’s tone. “You could think about yours instead.” Polnareff scowls at the rebuke, looking so out-of-sorts that for a moment Jotaro thinks he’s going to give up on dignity outright and stick his tongue out, but when Avdol says “Pol,” in a tone that serves as warning and comfort at once the other subsides to lean over his own character sheet and frown instead of reading the information written across it.
Noriaki looks to Joseph. “I’m closest, right?” He looks perfectly calm, like he’s as truly distant from his character as if it’s no more than a sheet of paper before him instead of the role he’s been playing in these sessions for the last several weeks as Joseph laid out the structure of the adventure he designed for them. Jotaro’s impressed; his own heart is pounding as hard as if any of them are in real danger, and tonight isn’t even the first time Polnareff has been reduced to tears over the death of Avdol’s player character. But Noriaki is always calm, pulled-together in his approach and ready with an answer whenever his action comes back around, until Jotaro likes watching the other take his turn almost as much as he relishes the opportunity that his own offers. “Where is DIO now?”
“He’s right in front of you,” Joseph says, intoning the words with the weight he always grants his descriptions, that always makes Jotaro feel like he’s hearing the pounding of distant drums to add to the intensity of the moment. “Several feet away but still close enough that you could cross the distance to him in one motion, if you wanted to.” He folds his hands on the table and lifts his gaze to fix Noriaki with his full attention. “Do you want to?”
Noriaki considers the play mat laid out in front of them, filled with the outlines of buildings and models that Jotaro himself has meticulously hand-painted into representations of their group of players, his grandfather their DM, and the supernatural enemy that has been their target all this time. Then he takes a breath through his nose and lifts his chin before shaking his head. “No, I don’t.”
“What?!” Polnareff yelps, apparently brought back to the present moment by this development. “You can’t be serious, after all this time chasing after him you’re just going to turn tail and run?”
“Polnareff,” Jotaro growls. “Shut up.”
“I’m not,” Noriaki says, without even looking up from the attention he’s turning to the play mat. Polnareff is the one of them most likely to flare Noriaki’s temper to the sudden, startling anger that always leaves Jotaro silent and a little more breathless than is entirely comfortable, but there’s no trace of that now; it’s as if Noriaki hardly hears him at all for the focus he’s turning on the model of himself and their sworn enemy before him. “Can I use my Stand ability this turn?”
Joseph inclines his head. “You can.”
Noriaki nods. “Right,” he says, and then he lifts his hand from the sheet before him so he can lean forward over the play mat instead. “I’d like to cast Mystic Trap, centered on DIO in front of me.”
Joseph’s eyebrows go up. “Interesting,” he says. “Remind me what that does?”
“My Hierophant Green forms a web in the air around the target,” Noriaki says without looking to check his character sheet. “No saving throw and no damage. It lets me tell where they’re moving as they do it.” He looks up at Joseph, taking his focus away from the board before him for the first time since his turn began. “Can I cast it?”
“Sure can.” Joseph reaches out to draw a wide circle around the figure of DIO set on the play mat before them; the radius of it just skims the edge of Noriaki’s character model turned to face towards the menace on the board before him. “Like that?”
Noriaki nods. “And then I’d like to attack with Emerald Splash.” He rolls a die against the table; it rattles to a stop at the corner of the play mat. “Twenty-six to hit.”
Joseph finishes drawing the circle and caps the pens against with a click. “Is that the end of your attack?”
Noriaki looks up to frown at this unexpected reply. Jotaro can see his hand curl into a fist against the damage die he was reaching for but he doesn’t protest, just straightens in his seat on the other side of the table. “It is.”
Joseph ducks his head in a nod. “Alright.” There’s a weight to his voice, depth enough to bring even Avdol looking up from where he’s playfighting with Iggy over one of the pull toys, but there’s enough tension in the moment that not even Polnareff has anything to say to break the silence. Joseph reaches for a handful of dice; Jotaro can’t see what he picks up but when he shakes them together there’s the clear sound of multiple shapes clattering against each other. Noriaki’s face goes pale as the blood drains out of it but he doesn’t speak, just straightens his shoulders to draw himself into deliberate composure at the edge of the table.
Joseph rolls. The sound of the dice hitting the table makes Polnareff jump and Jotaro flinch but Noriaki doesn’t even blink. Joseph leans over the table, his mouth pressed together as he tallies the result of his roll, and then he looks up and Jotaro can feel his stomach drop just at the look on his grandfather’s face.
Joseph takes a breath and lifts his hands to fold at the edge of the table in front of him. “Kakyoin--”
“What happens?” Noriaki says. His face is still painfully pale, without any of the flush of excitement that usually crests over his cheekbones, but he doesn’t look away. “Do I have a chance to see anything?”
Joseph lifts his head and clears his throat. “You make an attack with Emerald Splash,” he says, and then he lifts his hand to reach out and pick up Noriaki’s character model to push him back by several squares on the playmat. “Almost before you can take your action you find yourself flying backwards, so fast you’re moving in a straight line before you hit the side of a water tower.” The room is entirely silent as Joseph sets the model down in the space directly before the shape of the structure thus indicated; it stays that way as Joseph returns to his position at the edge of the table.
“In the shock of the impact it takes you a minute to notice the wound,” Joseph says, and from the end of the table Polnareff whimpers before Avdol shushes him fiercely. “It must have been from whatever forced you backwards, though you have no idea what it could have been. Whatever it was it went right through you.” Joseph clears his throat. “Take fifty points aggravated damage.”
Noriaki ducks his head down. The long curl of his hair falls in front of his face; Jotaro badly wants to reach out and stroke it back behind his ear, to offer what comfort his touch can bring. But he’s on the wrong side of the table, with the mess of the play materials spread out between them, and it’s only a moment, anyway, before Noriaki takes a breath and lifts his head to the light again, still looking pale but with his mouth set hard instead of quivering with emotion as Jotaro feared.
“I’m in the negatives,” he says. “How long do I have?”
Joseph ducks his head. “Make a Constitution save.” Noriaki rolls; Joseph lets a breath of something like relief go. “You can hold on for another turn.”
“Good,” Noriaki says, and leans in over the table. “I didn’t see anything? Can I make a Perception check?”
“No,” Joseph says. “You didn’t have the chance. You were in the middle of your attack.”
“Did my attack land?”
“It went off,” Joseph says without really answering.
Noriaki’s forehead creases. “Can I see DIO?” Joseph shakes his head and reaches out to remove the DIO figure from the board. Noriaki looks back to the play mat, frowning hard. “What about my Mystic Trap? Is that still up?”
“No,” Joseph says. “It’s been torn to pieces. You can’t tell what caused it but it’s in tatters.”
Noriaki reels back in his chair. Some of the color is coming back to his face as he frowns confusion at this. “I have no idea at all? Was it still up when I fired Emerald Splash?”
Joseph inclines his head in a nod. “It was.”
“Was it torn through while I was flying backwards?”
“Roll Perception.” Noriaki does. “It was already torn by the time you were moving.” Noriaki’s forehead creases deeper; Joseph clears his throat. “Make another Constitution save.”
Noriaki rolls. “Natural nineteen,” he says, but he’s clearly barely paying attention. “I can feel anything that tears through my Mystic Trap as soon as it moves. I didn’t notice anything?”
“Nothing.” Noriaki looks back down at the board again, still frowning. Joseph shifts in his chair. “Do you want to roll for Insight?”
Noriaki shakes his head sharply without looking up. “No,” he says, sounding distracted. “No, I think I--”
Jotaro can see epiphany break over Noriaki’s face. His eyes go wide, his lips part on a soundless gasp; for a moment all the tension in his features evaporates into the immediate starburst pleasure of realization.
“Oh,” he says, looking up to Joseph at the end of the table. “Is it--” Joseph’s grinning, when Jotaro looks up at him; apparently the expression is enough answer for Noriaki, as he looks back to stare at the play mat before them. “That’s brilliant.”
“What is?” Polnareff, there, from the end of the table; he’s leaning all the way over the surface, squinting at the layout of the mat as if to pry meaning from the models set out over it. “What is it?”
“I know what DIO’s ability is,” Noriaki breathes, sounding awestruck; then, as awe tightens into alarm and he looks up to Joseph again: “How long do I have left?”
“You’re out of time for this round,” Joseph says. Noriaki picks up the die next to him to roll again before Jotaro reaches out across the distance of the play mat to grab at his hand before he drops the die to the table.
“You--” His voice is strange in his throat; he presses his lips together and grimaces through a swallow before he tries again. “You can only Constitution save three times.”
Noriaki’s lashes dip, his jaw sets, and he ducks his head into a nod. “I know,” he says, softly enough that Jotaro isn’t sure Avdol can hear it at the other end of the table, and draws his hand back and away from Jotaro’s. Jotaro retreats to the other side, returning to his original position as he lifts his arms to fold tight over his chest and focus his gaze on the mat in front of them instead of on Noriaki rolling his last die on the other side of the table. There’s a pause of quiet, so tense Jotaro thinks everyone in the room is holding their breath, and then a clatter of the die hitting the table and rolling to a halt.
Noriaki lets a breath go, and Jotaro can feel some of the strain leave his shoulders just at the audible relief on the sound. “Made it.”
“You have the turn,” Joseph says, more softly than Jotaro has ever heard him. “What do you want to do?”
Noriaki stares at the play mat for another minute. There’s a ring of buildings around the figure painted precisely in his image, right down to the long curl of red hair alongside his face; they look like a wall, now, an impenetrable barrier to any action he might be able to take. “I don’t have any movement, do I?” Joseph shakes his head. “There’s no one in range of a shout?”
“Not that you can see.”
Noriaki frowns at the mat in front of him before he lifts a hand to gesture at the setting. “What are these buildings?”
Joseph rocks forward so he can lean over and point. “The water tower. This is a department store. An office building. A clock tower. A bank, you think.”
“Ah,” Noriaki breathes, and then he smiles, the expression startlingly bright in the tension around the table. “Excellent.” He reaches to touch a fingertip to the top of the tallest building Joseph indicated. “I’m going to fire Emerald Splash at the face of the clock tower.”
Joseph heaves a sigh as if Noriaki has just passed some test. “Anything else?” Noriaki shakes his head and Joseph straightens his shoulders and clears his throat. “You fire Emerald Splash,” he says, his voice dropping to the low, resonant tone he puts on whenever he’s describing a scene. “It’s a large enough target that you hit even at the disadvantage from your injuries. The glass at the front of the face shatters as the impact stalls the workings of the clock. A large piece falls from the clock tower towards the street below.” A pause, a breath of intensity. “You don’t hear it hit the ground.” And he reaches out to tip Noriaki’s figure over face-down on the play mat.
Polnareff whimpers at the end of the table, a sound of sympathy too much to be restrained. At the floor Avdol ducks his head in silent acknowledgment as even Iggy ceases his usual whining. And Jotaro looks down, frowning hard at the table to keep his mouth under control while he pulls the brim of his hat low over his face.
They’re all silent for a moment. Jotaro doesn’t know how long they might linger like that around the table, locked in place by their individual experiences of grief, but for Noriaki clearing his throat sharply from the other side of the table and drawing all eyes to him.
“Well,” he says, in a clearer voice than Jotaro thinks he would be able to muster himself at the moment. “That’s not a bad way to go, at least.”
“What’s DIO’s ability?” Polnareff asks. He sounds somewhat damper than Noriaki but his eyes are bright with curiosity when Jotaro glances at him. “You said you figured it out, what is it?”
Noriaki tosses his head to sweep his hair back from his face. “You’ll have to work it out yourselves,” he declares. “I gave you more than enough to work with.” He braces against the edge of the table and pushes back to get to his feet. “I’m just the audience, now.”
“Well done,” Avdol says from the end of the table. Noriaki looks to him and flickers a smile, but when he moves it’s to come around the other side, behind Joseph and towards where Jotaro is sitting on the bench that runs along that edge. Jotaro moves to the side as Noriaki approaches, shifting to the left by a handful of inches without looking up, and Noriaki slides in to fit into the space next to him. He lifts his arm to wind around Jotaro’s waist with offhand familiarity; it’s only because he’s wearing the jacket, Jotaro thinks, that he notices the way Noriaki’s fingers curl into a fist at the edge of the coat hanging open over his chest.
Joseph sits up straight at the end of the table and claps his hands together. “Alright!” he says with deliberate energy. “Let’s not let Kakyoin’s sacrifice go to waste. Whose initiative comes next?” He looks at his notes. “Polnareff, what are you going to do?”
“What?” Polnareff blurts, caught utterly off-guard by this demand. He turns to shuffle through the papers before him with frantic speed. “I’m not ready! Where am I?”
“Pol,” Avdol sighs. “You really have to pay more attention to what you’re doing. This is why you keep almost dying and we all have to save you.”
“I never asked you to save me!” Polnareff says. “Just because you…” but Jotaro isn’t really paying attention to their bickering, not when Noriaki is leaning in hard against the support of his shoulder and his own eyes are still hot with the threat of emotion. Jotaro shifts his weight against the bench, adjusting to a more comfortable position against the support before he lifts his own arm from between himself and Noriaki and brings it up to drape over the other’s shoulders. When he turns his head to the side his mouth is almost touching Noriaki’s hair, his words tangling into the crimson strands pressed against his shoulder.
“We’ll figure it out,” he says, speaking softly so no one but Noriaki will hear him. “I’ll beat him for you.”
Jotaro can’t see Noriaki’s smile, but the huff of sound in the other’s throat is clear even without the warmth of the exhale that spills against his shirt or the tightening in the arm looped around his waist. “I know you will,” Noriaki says, very quietly. “You’re how we’re going to win the campaign.”
There’s nothing Jotaro really needs to say to that, not when everything is understood anyway. He still glances around the table, looking from under the shadow of his hat at his grandfather raising an impatient eyebrow at Polnareff, who is in the process of dropping his papers all over the floor to be collected by Avdol and leapt on by Iggy. No one’s watching him, or Noriaki pressing his face in against his shoulder, and in the lull Jotaro takes the opportunity to duck in to touch his mouth against Noriaki’s hair, just at the top curl of the lock against his face. Noriaki huffs a breath against Jotaro’s jacket of acknowledgment more than protest, and Jotaro lifts his head and lifts his hand to pull his hat straight over his hair as he holds Noriaki in against his side.
It might be just a game they’re playing, but games can be won, and Jotaro has every intention of claiming victory over this one in Noriaki’s honor.