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Don't Get Lost In Heaven

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It shouldn't be all that surprising to Neku how much time he spends with his friends now. Those first couple of days of constant hangouts and exchanged messages left him somewhat dazed. And despite how nice being able to connect after a week of distance after going through hell together, there was always that nagging suspicion their camaraderie wouldn't last.

And he was right, but not in the way he expected.

Over a month later and their meetups don't happen every day anymore. Now it's more of a once a week thing when they all have time to get together. It works just as well.

He spends most of his time with Shiki and Eri. Unfortunately, this also includes more fashion excursions than he is used to. With it comes a primal fear of Eri's passion and inspiration, especially since she considered him one of her muses. Both she and Shiki now know his measurements by heart, but he's sappy enough now that he can't help to find it a little endearing.

Beat and Rhyme live farther away, so the most he sees them is at the meet-ups. There'd only been once where Beat and he could hang out, just the two of them, for ramen at Ken Doi's. They talk about school and music and all those things that teenagers are supposed to. And Rhyme is... well, Rhyme. Still cheerful and optimistic as always. However, there had been little he'd learned about her personally in their short time spent during the Game.

The Game. That was a touchy subject both externally and internally.

For a time, that's was all he could think about. He would run the events over in his head frequently during those weeks. So much so, he wasn't sure anything he remembers was real. Sometimes he would wake in a cold sweat and the Game would feel like a nightmare he only remembered too well.

It took a gentle intervention from Shiki on behalf of her and everyone else that they were able to confide in each other about their experiences. It was the validation Neku needed after dwelling on it for so long.

Neku's feelings were real. Gaining his friends had been real. The change he'd had within himself was real.

He comes to suspect it when they don't ask him about how they had succeeded when they talk about the Game, that he's the only one who remembers how they'd gotten back.

“I don't really remember what happened after the fight,” Shiki told him when he'd asked, “I thought we won, but after... I don't know, I woke up in my room and I was alive.”

“Pretty much same for me, man,” Beat added in, “me n' Rhyme woke up 'nside our rooms too.”

The words are like a cold chill down his spine. He's not sure why he's surprised since he had already suspected from the moment he wasn't bombarded with questions and concerns, but he'd also hoped that was because his friends were waiting for him to express it himself. Apparently not.

He tries one more thing.

“Hey, did I ever introduce you to Joshua at all?”

He gets what he expected from Shiki, a puzzled look as she shakes her head. Beats response is much different as he looks to Shiki and then his gaze lingers on Neku and it's one of those looks where he can tell the blonde is trying to dig deep. Although his answer ends up being a brief “nah man.”

And that's that on that, Neku supposes, trying not to visibly deflate.

However, at the end of the day, he's surprised when Beat takes him aside with a hand of his shoulder, a look of real concern etched on his friend's features.

“Look Phones.” Beat says, but pauses, avoiding eye contact and rubbing the back of his neck. His nervous habits make Neku nervous and he has to stop from fidgeting himself.

“I just want ya to know,” he continues, “s'not your fault, y'know. So don't go beatin' yourself up 'bout it.”

“What are you talking about?” Neku blurts because at this point he is thoroughly confused.

“About that prissy kid you was with. Joshua,” Beat says, “I don't want ya blamin' yourself 'bout him.”

Oh. Neku's mind struggles to compute. Oh.

“Oh...” he says out loud, rather unhelpfully,” Yeah, thanks, I'm not – I just –”

“S'okay man, I get it,” Beat says with a reassuring pat on the back. And Neku doesn't have the heart to tell him that, no, he really doesn't. That he's mistaking Neku's loss for words for emotional pain rather than the inability to fully comprehend having this conversation.

But, “Thanks, Beat,” is what he concedes to. It's easier than the alternative.

He supposes he should find it rather comforting that he's not the only one who still has some semblance that Joshua was a real entity.

So then why does he feel so angry?

 
 
 

Neku tells himself he shouldn't concern himself with Joshua. Shiki and Rhyme have no memory of him and Beat thinks he was erased. And WildKat hasn't been open since Neku came back. Although Mr. H's presence would have caused a whole other cascade of questions he may or may not want the answers to. It still would have been something.

But as it stands, Neku is alone in the knowledge that Joshua is the Composer and the reason they are back.

Same streets, same crowds too. Yeah, Shibuya hasn’t changed a bit.

But still, I don’t think I can forgive you yet. You don’t see it, but... those few weeks were very hard for me. Learning to trust people, having that trust broken... Finding out the town I pegged as small and stifling, and empty... wasn’t any of those things.

"Trust your partner." And I do.

I can’t forgive you...but I trust you. You took care of things, right? Otherwise, Shibuya would be gone... and my world with it.

Hey, did I mention? I’ve got friends now! We’re getting together for the first time in a week!

See you there...?

Neku never speaks the words. He speaks them into thin air in his mind, sometimes imagining he's hooked up to an amplifier because maybe then they'll reach out far enough.

They weren't always that eloquent, however. Or kind –

So you're dead again, is that it? What about me? Why do I get to remember?

Dammit... Say something. I know you can hear me, you asshole!

– but Neku wasn't about to sugarcoat his frustration.

No matter how he might want to ignore it, the thought of Joshua having forgotten him or ignoring him was painful. That what had impacted Neku and his friend's so thoroughly was less than a blip on the Composer's radar made Neku's stomach twist. Maybe Joshua was not even out there at all. Maybe Neku is only mentally screaming into the void, being swallowed up by the crowd's of Shibuya, or lost and swept up high above Pork City. He should accept that Joshua's not listening and not coming back.

But he can't bring himself to.

He would still find himself wondering – when he was with his friends when he was wandering in Udagawa, even when he was in school – if Joshua would see him or catch his thoughts. If he even cared enough to try.

He hoped at least. He wished.

However, as days passed, those musings became less and less frequent. It became less of him dwelling on them purposefully and more them popping in on his other stream of thoughts until he almost couldn't remember the last time he felt them linger.

Because despite his confusion and his frustration and his anger and newfound happiness, he still meant those words he's said that first week back.

 
 
 

Neku was close to giving up.

He doesn't want to abandon Joshua or the answers the other embodies, but as the only person reaching out, he doesn't have a choice.

 
 
 

He figures Shiki might have picked up on his sour mood lately. She doesn't say anything, but for the last three days, she's invited him out with her to Eri's house.

And Eri's house is one of the best spots for hangouts they have. Not only is it nice on the inside, but during her Junior high years, she'd gotten her parent to let her convert their empty basement into a miniature studio. When Neku had first seen the space, it had floored him.

Most of the space is taken up with shelves and plastic cabinets overflowing with fabric, buttons, and string as well as a table that stretched along one wall that held a sewing machine and the other side cluttered with sketchbooks or scraps of paper containing designs. Sometimes a current project is strewn on any available space or the only mannequin was in the corner near where the regular house storage was placed.

But part of the studio, Eri had also reserved for him.

When there was nothing to do while Shiki and Eri worked together on their own fashion projects, Neku usually pulled out his sketchbook and began sketching. Eri had been nice enough to lend him one of hers at the time and later gifted it to him once he had filled up over half the pages.

He'd had his own sketchbooks before, but he doesn't even really want to linger on those. They give him a weird impression when he looks at them or sometimes even when he thinks about them. They have now been moved to a pile underneath his bed.

And he'd never really had the desire to share his art before. It was more of something to keep to himself. Though there hadn't been many to show anyway. But Shiki, Beat, and Rhyme had admired his style when he hesitantly revealed to them the sketches and certain designs he'd been experimenting with. Eri too had been impressed.

Considering their relationship now, it seemed silly he'd had doubts about whether he and Eri would get along enough to be friends. Besides the surrealness of still associating her appearance with Shiki herself, he didn't anticipate they'd share much in common. However, besides Beat, Eri was the one who'd invested the most in his “art career.” Her words, not his.

The designs he'd completed for Beat's skateboard had gotten him compliments, but upon first sharing his sketches for the first time, Eri had taken it upon herself to become the biggest encourager to his work. She supplied him with leftover sketchbooks when he ran out of space, lent him pens and pencils she said she could spare. She even managed to get paint markers for him, the kind you shouldn't be able to purchase when you're their age. How she managed that, he will never know.

But Eri really was a person passionate in support of creativity of all kinds, and that aspect about her was something Neku really admired and respected. He could see why she and Shiki worked so well together.

And he thinks Eri has also picked up on his mood as well. There was talk last time he was over of him trying something on for measurement (an experience Neku never really found pleasant), but when they arrive and make their way down the steps, Shiki and Eri begin on a new project and leave Neku to his own corner.

And he fell willingly into it, pulled out the sketchbook he'd been working through lately.

Unfortunately, with his sour mood also came a sort of art block. He still puts lines to paper, but none of them he felt satisfied with.

He doesn't want to be bitter about it and he doesn't feel it's fair to blame everything entirely on Josh, but it's hard to ignore how this period how this period of art block has coincided with his recent slew of irritation and confusion at the other.

He just wants to know why? Why anything? Why everything? Why does he remember? Why is he receiving nothing but radio silence? Why is he forced to face this all alone? Why why why why –

“What are you working on?”

Shiki's voice floats in so suddenly that Neku almost jolts out of his seat.

“Nothing,” he says quickly and looks back at his blank page except where the blot of ink in the corner where he'd been pressing his pen down rather hard.

“Are you sure? You seemed really... focused,” Eri comments.

“Yeah,” he agrees, though non-committally, “It's nothing..”He doesn't see Shiki or Eri exchange a look, but Eri bounces back much quicker.

“So,” she starts, making her way closer to Neku's corner, “have you thought up any more ideas about that project we talked about?” She smirks.

And for a second, all Neku's other emotions are forgotten when cold panic clenches in his chest.

“No, I haven't.” It comes out grumpier than intended, but he hopes it gets across his mood of “not now.”

“Oh, come on, don't make that face,” Eri chides him, “I know you'd do great at it.”

Yes, he may have respected and admired Eri's passion for creativity, but this... this was an entirely different experience for him.

“What are you talking about?” Shiki asked curiously.

Neku cringed. It had been Eri who had first proposed the idea to him. He really didn't want to make light of the project to anyone else until he was sure he had a good design. And enough resolve.

Thankfully, Eri cut in before he could say anything. “That's a confidential secret between Neku and me for the moment, dear Shiki,” she says playfully.

Shiki still seems confused, looking to Neku to make sure he's comfortable before her expression softens and she smiles. “Well, with you two, whatever it is, I know it will be great.” Neku smiles then, grateful for her support.

“Oh, Neku, what about the patch designs we talked about?” she then asks.

“Oh right,” he says. Neku disregards his blank page in favor of designs he has been working on and that are mostly finished. He tried to make them interesting yet simple as both Shiki and Eri are learning on how to make sown patches and he figured he could try to help them out with some practice examples.

And for a moment, all that matters is the excitement in Shiki and Eri's faces as he shows them what he's designed so far.

 
 
 

It's late when they all finish up. Shiki's home is the farthest and she has to take the train. Neku and Eri walk her to the station like they normally do. And after Shiki said her goodbyes to them that Neku waited with Eri for his bus near to her house. Rarely does he walk home, especially since he'd lost his headphones.

And it was these moments where Eri would ambush him with her ideas to help further his “art career.”

“So, what's holding you back?”

The question is sudden that Neku almost feels like he may have spaced out in their casual conversation.

“Um, what?”

And Eri gave him this look he knew meant she was expecting him to keep up.

“I meant about the project! I think it could be good for you. And I'm sure you'd have fun doing it,” she told him.

“I'm not denying that... it's just...” Neku said, “I just don't have the inspiration right now, Eri, and besides, I don't have the kind of tools for that.”

“Let me worry about that,” Eri giggled.

They were almost to the bus stop when Neku heard his phone ring. He dug in his pocket for it before it could finish ringing, but when he looked he didn't recognize the number and ignored it.

“Who was that?”

“Dunno.”

“Well, like I was telling you –”

Eri was interrupted when Neku's phone rang again. He dug it out of his pocket again and sighed in annoyance at the same unknown number staring back at him. He ignored it again and shoved it back in his pocket.

“Are you sure you don't want to get that?” Eri asked him.

“No. I don't even know who –”

He then felt his phone vibrate with a text notification. For a second he thought about ignoring that too. Oh, what the hell, he thought, maybe I can ask them what the hell they want from me.

He pulls it out to look and his whole body freezes in place.

Unknown Number: You might want to answer that, Nekky dear.

Neku stared. His mouth might have been hanging open too.

And he didn't really know what to think. He only knew that he was sure of who it was on the other end of this number, more certain than he was of most other things in his life.

“Neku?”

Neku nearly jolted as Eri placed her hand on his shoulder. Her face held concern, possibly sensing the imminent oncoming crisis he was about to experience.

“I'm fine,” he said a little too quickly, a little too roughly, “I do... I do have to take this.”

He could tell Eri was still concerned and confused and he is feeling all that as well. Except for the fact that his feel like they've been plugged into an amplifier.

“Okay,” she concedes, “Text me when you get home, yeah?” She says that every time he goes home and it's comforting, especially at this moment.

“I will,” he assures her, with a smile he hopes is as well.

Eri returns it with a small smile of her own, then turns and leaves, only turning around once to observe him before making her way down the street and turned the corner.

He stands there, still, on the sidewalk. He knows a part of himself is still trying to catch up to the present. That's when his phone rings again.

There's nothing he thinks to do except to answer.

How were you even supposed to answer something like this? There's no way to start this with a “hello” or a “how ya doing?”

“Joshua,” he says.

And he cringes a bit at how uncertain he sounds, but it doesn't last long when he hears the voice on the other end.

“You know, Neku, normal people usually say hello by way of greeting.”

Yeah, that's definitely Josh, even if he sounds a tad different over the phone. And hearing it makes him boil over

.“Yeah? Well, normal people don't go around” – shooting other people, his mind supplies, but “– erasing other people's memories,” is what comes out. Neku almost curses in frustration.

And then there's Joshua's insufferable giggle on the other end. “Hmm, you make a fair point,” he says, “Although, I suppose it's good that I'm not normal people.”

“Neither am I,” Neku counters.

Joshua laughs again. “Noted.”

There a beat of silence and Neku remembers how he's upset at Josh, at the situation he's been put in against his will. And not for the first time.“I –” But what was he supposed to ask? Hey Josh, how's life? How's the game? You're the Composer, huh? Kind of fucked up isn't how you lead me on?

“Why did you call me?”

Because there has to be a reason. That Joshua has been the one to call him, the one to reach out to him. Now. After ignoring all Neku's attempts. After he'd almost decided to give up. Was it maybe because of that?

But he shouldn't have expected Joshua to make it so easy.

“Not the talkative sort tonight?” the other chides over the phone, “Unfortunately, there are circumstances keeping me at bay from speaking to you face-to-face, but I thought I should offer reciprocation to your charming words.”

Fuck. It's all Neku can really think as his heart pounds and his face warms in embarrassment.

So you did hear me. Then I hope you fucking hear this you asshole. “Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised considering what you've put me through.”

“Hmm, well Neku, in answer to your earlier complaint, it's not really necessary for your friends to know about my identity, is it?” 

And Neku sighs, although somewhat interested in the way Joshua has no retort to his own comment.

“Whatever.” He knows there's any point in trying to argue why it pisses him off.

“I guess it's just easier to have them think you're dead,” he bites back.

“Technically... I wasn't responsible for imprinting that particular theory.”

“That's because I –!” He stops as his throat nearly closes up.

Neku grits his teeth. He's angry. He feels – no, he knows – he's getting nowhere. Honestly, he shouldn't have expected anything different.

“Whatever,” he says again, wishing his voice didn't sound rough, “good to see you haven't changed all that much, Josh.”

He's expecting another laugh or some other teasing comment about how he can't take a joke or lighten up, but it never comes. On the other end, it's completely silent.

“Josh?”

There's still no answer.

“Hello?” Neku tries again. There's still no answer.

“Joshua, I swear to God if you –”

“I'm here.” He hears Joshua say, but his tone is different now. It's harder and sounds maybe a little distracted. Despite still being upset, Neku can't help the concern.

“Are you –”

But Joshua cuts him off again. “Sorry, Nekky dear, but it seems I must cut this exchange short,” Joshua sing-songs almost, as if trying to mask the slip up of
 his earlier tone.

“Wait!" And Neku grips his phone with two hands as if the physical force of that will keep Joshua on the line.

“I still...” he pauses, swallows, “I still wanna talk so... just... don't disappear again, alright?”

It makes him embarrassed and vulnerable to admit this, but Neku can't care about how he may sound in this moment. All he knows is that he has a chance and he doesn't want any more regrets.

“Just like, I don't know, text me or something. Just –”

“Neku, I'll text you.”

Neku is almost speechless by how easily the other complies. “Okay. Bye,” he manages.

There's no returned farewell before the call ends.

And Neku stands there on the sidewalk even after the call is over.

His bus may have already come and gone and he wouldn't have known.

Chapter Text

Shibuya is far from quiet.

There should be no surprise there. Shibuya had always been turbulent and unique in its brand of Music even before Joshua.

It was hard to understand just what about it made it so different from others. The difference in tempo or harmony was too limiting a description. The best most accurate would be polyphonic—many simultaneous melodies—rather than a more heterophonic music parameter.

Shibuya was dense. It was full.

It stood in stark contrast to when, recently, the whole city had resonated only a single note. Since it's restoration, Joshua almost regretted it.

It had once been hard for him to remember what had drawn him to the Music of this city. The notes that had once seemed so new and exciting grew sour in his ears. Compared to that, a single monotonous chord was almost a relief. Almost.

However, Joshua wants to avoid the Music nowadays for a different reason. Mostly due to its changes.
Joshua is still discovering the consequences of entangling himself with Neku Sakuraba. And the latest of these discoveries is the effect on Shibuya's music.

There should be no surprise. It was an inevitability. Any soul returned from the UG, even in such an unconventional way as Neku Sakuraba and his friends, was to spread their influence and fuel imagination and creativity.

And Neku Sakuraba, even before the Long Game, was never an individual to lack imagination. But it is still surprising how clear that influence is.

Sweeping, crystal-clear chords that rose high, almost above all else, but rather than dominate, intertwined with the very core of Shibuya's music.

It was arguable that Neku Sakuraba was more in tuned to the soul of Shibuya than its own Composer.

Well, that's all well and good, Joshua can only think.

It's good the former proxy is in tuned to Shibuya. It is good he can expand himself creatively. It's good he's found others he can befriend and relate to. It's good that Neku Sakuraba has grown.

Joshua cannot say the same.

What did the Higher Plane call it? Probation?

It's admittedly a surprise, especially since that means they also suspended the Game for the time being. However, that means the Higher Plane will have to decide soon, before the Reapers begin fading or, more importantly for them, Shibuya stagnates.

But Joshua doesn't let that stop him. If he's to remain imprisoned until his sentence is given, he's going to go wherever he can even if it is only in the RG. Sanae can stay locked up in his cafe if he'd like, but that doesn't mean Joshua has to be confined. Even after all he's experienced, the city still holds some amusement.

And it's easier in the RG. The handicap had been an equalizer for the Long Game and had served its purpose. Now it's just a chance to muffle the racket.

The Music filters in slower almost as if from another room. Thoughts still swarm, no longer as loud as they are in the UG but also not fully formed, more snippets. Joshua will catch some—

Wish I could get air like that...

Did I lock the door this morning?

Aw, geez, fired again...

It's probably time to redo my lipstick...

What about me? Why do I get to remember?

—and they'll disperse just as rapidly as they appear.

And that's fine with him.

 
 
 

Being in WildKat has not been a very pleasant experience as of late. Perhaps even longer if Joshua would care to recall that far back.

But even though to the RG the cafe looked empty, Joshua knew better. And he still entered as he had so many times before despite the closed sign hanging on the doorknob.

He's never seen another person in the cafe. It makes sense now, seeing as it has been closed indefinitely, but even when he first found himself here so long ago, there's never been anyone else. That was a constant. That and the smell of coffee.

Joshua slides on to a stool at the counter and folds his hands.

“When are you thinking about opening up shop again?”

Sanae only looks at him from the corner of his eye behind the counter as he ties a black apron around his waist.

“Dunno boss,” he replies when he's finished, “depends on how things play out.”

Joshua watches as the other pulls a mug from off of the shelf at the back wall and promptly wipes it down with a small cloth. “Coffee?” he asks.

“Yes. Black.”

“Of course,” Sanae says with a nod.

Joshua sits, smells the coffee brewing, and almost wants to laugh.

There appears to be an unspoken agreement between them that they won't address the tension tangible in their interactions.

Joshua is well aware of Sanae's actions during the Long Game. He'd had his inklings in the beginning; although he found Minamimoto amusing, he had to admit his plan seemed too polished for someone so brash. And his suspicions were harshly spelled out to him as true by the Higher Plane not long after.
But Joshua doesn't let himself dwell on it. He doesn't let himself feel bitter. He doesn't let himself feel hurt. He ignores it.

Sanae knows this. He knows Joshua won't give him the time of day if he tries to bring it up. He knows Joshua isn't looking for an apology whether or not the Producer will mean it. And Joshua is well aware that he knows this. Thus this tension-riddled charade between them. The only thing Joshua will concede to is that it is rather pitiful.

He comes out of his thoughts when the cup of coffee is set in front of him. “Thank you.”

“So, have you talked to him yet?”

Joshua sips his coffee before answering. “Talked to who now?” he asks, a faux naivety purposefully creeping into his tone.

But Sanae doesn't have to clarify. “He's been trying to contact you.”

If you can call that contacting.

Yet another reason to remain in the RG where the effect isn't as loud, but still noticeable as the thoughts are rather loud and are directly for him.

“Mentally shouting thoughts into the city does not count as an attempt to contact someone,” Joshua counters.

Sanae shrugs, “Perhaps. S'not like you made it easy on him.”

That implies that Joshua has a choice. There's no way he's provoking the Higher Plane. He's at least smart enough to know contacting his former proxy will not work either in any of their favors. Or perhaps he's wrong. Direct action would have been the most logical course of action for the Higher plane, but instead, they've stuck them in a sort of limbo.

The coffee is getting colder. And Sanae leans down to pull something out of the cupboard and places it on the counter.

It's a pair of headphones. A pair of all too familiar headphones.

“What are these for?”

Sanae doesn't meet his gaze. “I figured he'd want them back.” He then picks up the headphones, inspecting them fondly, “They are limited edition, after all.”

Joshua resists the urge to roll his eyes and sets his cup down with a little more force than necessary. “And what, exactly, do you want me to do with them?”

Sanae places them back down on the counter and gives him a hardened look. Joshua just returns it with a pout of his own.

He knows what Sanae is trying to do. It's a blatant excuse for him to contact his former proxy, but there's nothing stopping him from taking them and just leaving them somewhere Neku could find them. But even though he's stated it before, his Producer doesn't seem to accept that he doesn't want to see Neku Sakuraba and he doesn't need an excuse to do so.

He leans back with a huff in his seat, arms crossed. “If he abandoned them in the street, I don't think he'll appreciate them being dropped back on his doorstep.”

Sanae leans back from the counter. “Perhaps,” he concedes, “but that's a little narrowminded of you, J.”

As if it's that easy, Joshua thinks to himself, thoughts as bitter as the coffee.

“Shouldn't I be trying to stay out of trouble?”

And Sanae has the nerve to laugh at that, full-throated and hearty. Fair enough, it's just a hollow excuse, after all, Joshua deserved it. Doesn't mean he still can't be irritated by it.

“I don't remember that ever stopping you before.”

“Your hive mind won't appreciate it.”

Sanae doesn't have an answer and Joshua takes a long sip of coffee. It's gone cold.

There's a silence that follows. Joshua watches Sanae pull down cups from their shelves and begins to wipe them with the cloth he had slung over his shoulder. They are, in fact, clean. And Joshua knows they are. Barely any dust should have collected on them as Sanae had washed them and put them back up just yesterday.

“So,” Sanae says while wiping down the last cup, “what are you going to do?” His tone is much softer than before and that subtle shift leads to another in the atmosphere.

“What do you mean?” Joshua asks, but he can feel himself tense.

Sanae places the cup back on the shelf. “Well, you're out quite a few Reapers, not to mention a Conductor. Maybe even soon a Producer–”

“That last one is not my doing,” Joshua snaps.

It comes out harsher than intended, so much so Joshua can sense the calm facade shatter.

Sanae doesn't manage to say anything before Joshua is already out of his seat.

“Thanks for the coffee. Put it on my tab,” he says.

He leaves the coffee half finished and cold. He takes the headphones.

 
 
 

Joshua shouldn't have taken the headphones.

He turns them over in his hands. Observing closer, it's easy to catch the signs of use like the light scratches and some fading on the band. Charming.

Then there's the question of what he should do with them now that he has them.

As he told his Producer, there's nothing stopping him from just placing them somewhere the other could find them. Or he could be that asshole and just leave them in the street again as it's former owner had.

Selling it is also an option too. If what Sanae said about it being limited edition was true, it would probably fetch quite a price on or offline.

It was a tempting idea.

But even as Joshua let himself entertain the idea, he already knew there was no going through with it.

Too much effort.

 
 
 

Joshua has had many ideas throughout the course of his existence. Whether they are good or bad is all in perspective and hindsight.

Although, objectively, the idea to call Neku all around has no upside.

“Joshua.”

“You know, Neku, normal people usually say hello by way of greeting.”

But Joshua finds it easy to slip into this persona, now that he has Neku's attention. He tells himself he enjoys the teasing, but it's most likely because Neku is the only person he can pull this with and the other will take it at face value.

“Yeah? Well, normal people don't go around erasing other people's memories.”

Oh someone's bitter, Joshua almost says, but continues with, “Hmm, you make a fair point. Although, I suppose it's good that I'm not normal people.”

Joshua doesn't resist the subtle jab, but perhaps that has more to do with the fact that it irks Joshua to be reminded of his failure to remove Neku's memories.

“Neither am I,” Neku retorts, and oh, how Joshua already knows. And damn, does that fact also not fail to piss him off.

“Noted,” he replies cooly.

There's a beat of silence, and even where Joshua is—perched on the roof of an average house—only a few houses down from where Neku is standing still on the sidewalk, he can feel the uncomfortableness roll off of Neku in waves.

Then there's the question, “Why did you call me?”

For a moment, it surprises Joshua. There are many things he can think of himself that Neku could demand answers to, but finds it unexpected that Neku would cut right to the point. Or perhaps it surprises him because he himself has no real answer to the question.

But Joshua could use this to end the conversation quickly, tell Neku where he is, leave the headphones and disappear out of his former proxy's life at least in the physical sense.

However, he doesn't, because even if Neku is going to be passive in his questions, Joshua doesn't think he will be.

“Not the talkative sort tonight? Unfortunately, there are circumstances keeping me at bay from speaking to you face-to-face, but I thought I should offer reciprocation to your charming words.”

So you did hear me. Then I hope you hear this you asshole.

And Joshua does hear it, only because he's paying attention and almost giggles in amusement.

“Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised considering what you've put me through.

It's meant to sting.

It doesn't.

It does.

Joshua hums, “Hmm, well Neku, in answer to your earlier complaint, it's not really necessary for your friends to know about my identity, is it?”

Neku sighs on the other end of the phone. “Whatever. I guess it's just easier to have them think you're dead.”

“Technically... I wasn't responsible for imprinting that particular theory,” Joshua replies.

“That's because I–” but Neku doesn't finish, cuts himself off quickly. Joshua remains silent.

“Whatever,” Neku says again, seeming to have given up on articulating any further. “Good to see you haven't changed all that much, Josh.”

That's true. Joshua hasn't really changed, has he? The only thing that had changed was as his Producer had said, he was out almost half his personnel, maybe even soon said Producer unless the Higher Plane decided to be merciful.

“Josh?”

And then where would he be? Even after he had "set things right", he was still just himself, loathing and barely able to bring himself to enter the UG.

“Hello?”

But hadn't that been true even before the Long Game?

“Joshua, I swear to God if you–”

Joshua blinks, his phone almost slipping from his hand where it's hot against his ear.

“I'm here,” he answers quickly, too quickly in fact that he's cursing himself because even he can detect the roughness in his own voice.

“Are you–”

Are you okay? Joshua catches the concern before Neku even finishes and knows he doesn't want it.

Or deserve it.

“Sorry, Nekky dear,” Joshua says, putting on that sickly sweet tone he knows his former proxy will hate, “but it seems I must cut this exchange short.”

“Wait!”

Joshua wants to hang up the phone, wants to exit this conversation, however, he holds off.

“I still... I still wanna talk so... just... don't disappear again, alright.”

Joshua doesn't answer.

“Just like, I don't know, text me or something. Just–”

“Neku,” Joshua says firmly, “I'll text you.” And he hangs up.

Always giving yourself an out, Joshua thinks, but it sounds suspiciously like Sanae.

Joshua pockets his phone. He watches as Neku stands still on the sidewalk for before breaking into a run, like any average anime character, to catch his oncoming bus.

Shibuya is far from quiet.

And it's become almost overwhelming.

Joshua removes the headphones from around his neck—so much for giving them back, he supposes—and puts them on.

Finally, silence.

Chapter Text

Neku wakes up to drool on his hand and his phone nearly dead. When he pushes himself into an upright position, his head lightly throbs. Oh wonderful, he thinks.

He plugs his phone into the charger and heads to the bathroom.

He hates how tired he is, but he can't control it. Sleeping hadn't always been the easiest task for him—he was a night owl practically by nature—but ever since the call from Joshua, falling asleep had become considerably more difficult.

If he'd thought Joshua was on his mind a lot after the Long Game, the feeling seems worse now. The anxiousness prevents him from falling into unconsciousness, his nerves on edge as he waits for a phone that most likely won't ring. He feels unable to be still, much less lay down in his bed, so he spends those nights sketching till his eyes ache in those times. And he forgets to charge his phone.

When he leaves the bathroom, he heads towards the kitchen. No school today, so Neku makes an attempt at making coffee with the hot water dispenser. It's more of a messy process than he'd have liked, but it pays off.

When he's finished, he notices how quiet the house is. It makes sense considering it is only him alone in the quaint two-bedroom house he calls his home. He doesn't dwell on it.

He brings his phone and charger into the kitchen and plugs it into the only outlet before flipping through his notifications.

There's some alerting him of promotional emails he has no interest in.

There's a few for the Twitter Eri made him set up and he hardly ever checks it.

(“Having a platform is important for an artist. A way to share your work and get contacted,” she'd said, “At least follow our clothing account with it to support us, Mr. Grumpy.”)

But the notification that draws his attention the most comes from a text from Eri he'd received almost twenty minutes ago.

Eri: I'm coming by in about a half hour. Warning you so you can make sure to put on pants.

Neku has to read the text a couple of times before it finally registers.

A small dose of panic courses through him as he quickly makes his way to his room. He decides to leave the shirt he'd slept in on while he pulls a pair of wrinkled shorts up and over his boxers.

Neku isn't sure why Eri's invited herself over, but he has a sneaking suspicion it's about “their” project that he's been dodging inquiries about since his talk with Josh. Not that he had been too keen on it, to begin with. But if Eri was making the trip all the way to his house, her time of giving him space was about to come to an end.

But if he didn't have the motivation before then he doubts he does now with all that's on his mind.

He makes it back to the kitchen now with shorts and also his sketchbook. He sits at the small table in the middle of the room and sips his coffee as he looks through the sketches from last night.

Most are half finished. Sketches don't seem an appropriate word for them either, they're more like scribbles, half-formed ideas barely given life. He'd inked some of them, but most were lined out in pencil. They are also small.

He feels the bitterness well up inside him. He knows he's his harshest critic and not having the best concentration as of late hasn't helped dampen his souring mood towards his own work. If he'd let himself dwell on it, he'd find he'd been feeling this way for quite a while.

It's less than ten minutes later that Neku gets a knock on his door. He leaves his sketchbook and coffee on the table to answer it.

It takes him a second, but when he opens he finds Eri, furiously texting on her phone.

Her look of intense concentration disappears when she sees him at the door.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she says, “I'm sorry if I woke you up with my text. I didn't even think about how you might want to sleep in on a Sunday morning and just invited myself over.”

Neku shakes his head. “You didn't. I just saw it not that long ago,” he explains, “Besides, it's almost ten, anyway.” He motions for her to come in.

He thinks she must be cold without her hat and in such a short dress without a jacket, but maybe that's what the jeans and boots are for. But he is in shorts practically all the time, so he's not one to judge.

“Thank you,” she tells him, getting inside and begins taking off her boots. He then that he notices the hefty canvas bag she has slung over her shoulder. Hefty and rather bulky.

“What's that?”

Eri looks to where he's motioning once she lines her boots against the wall near the door. She grins. “All in good time.”

Neku rolls his eyes, but it's affectionate.

They make their way down the hall and back into the kitchen. Eri sets the bag down by one of the chairs and seats herself at the table.

“Do you want anything?” Neku asks, “I have, uh, water, instant cocoa, or I can try to make you coffee, maybe?”

“I'll take cocoa if you're offering, please,” she says.

He nods. It's easy to make, so he doesn't mind. He opens a package and adds hot water from the dispenser, hearing the sounds of Eri texting on her phone. He'd just finished stirring the contents when Eri chirps, “Oh? What are these? You holding out on me?”

At first, Neku isn't sure what she's talking about until he turns around and Eri is leaning to look at his sketchbook he'd left open on the table.

The first thing he feels is dread and his heart beat spikes with a swell of useless panic. But Eri looks at him she gives him a reassuring smile. “Are you okay with me looking?”

He nods.

Eri picks up the sketchbook and brings it closer to observe while Neku places the cocoa next to her and grabs his own cup of coffee.

Neku hates to admit that he's watching to gage Eri's reaction closely as her eyes roam over the two pages he'd scribbled in last night. He's not sure if she realizes how much he values her input.

Eri seems to pick up on his agitation (Both she and Shiki were scarily good at reading him) and says, “Don't define your artistic ability by three a.m. doodles, Neku.”

How Eri knows he'd done them in the early hours of the morning is beyond him. Perhaps it's the sloppiness.

But she's teasing him, he realizes, and chuckles, “Sorry.”

“There's no need to apologize,” she tells him. She pushes the sketchbook back towards him and picks up the mug of cocoa he'd placed for her.

“Mm, thank you,” she says after taking a sip.

“No problem.”

“You really do have talent, Neku.”

Eri says it so soft and sincere that Neku is taken aback, to the point where he can't even muster up the humor to make a joke about that talent includes mastering the art of instant cocoa.

“Why do you seem so surprised?” she laughs.

“I don't know...” is Neku's half-assed answer.

Compliments on his art kind of make him self-conscious is the short explanation he guesses. It feels as if his whole essence is being observed and criticized under a microscope. However, he knows he doesn't feel very talented, especially looking at his—as Eri put it— “three a.m. doodles.”

“I understand,” she says, “I've been restless some of my designs myself. I'm sure Shiki can say the same.”

“Yeah,” Neku says noncommittally as he rubs the back of his head, “I don't know. I just... couldn't sleep.” He shrugs.

Eri finished another sip from her mug and her eyebrows knit together in concern.

“Are you okay?” she asks. When he shrugs again, she continues, “Is something bothering you?”

Oh if only you knew, Neku thinks to himself bitterly.

“Isn't there something bothering everyone?” He means it as a joke, but even he can tell how hollow it sounds.

Eri gives him one of her signature looks—the kind that's usually reserved for Beat, but perhaps a little more serious this time—the kind that expresses annoyance in more facets than Neku could ever hope to achieve.

“I'm serious. Is there?”

Neku resists the urge to shrug again and just says, “Yeah, I guess.”

There's a moment of silence between them and it stretches for a time that a shiver of anxiety runs through him. But eventually, Eri hums, something he hears more at times when he knows she's parsing out a design.

Then she asks him, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Honestly, yes, Neku would love to talk about it, despite all the anxiety it is also likely to cause him. The only problem is that the only one who would understand had disappeared from the face of the earth. Or so he'd thought. And now that he knows communication with Joshua may be possible is scrambling his brain. Not to mention all the other thoughts and experiences having to do with the Game that linger with him that he can't delve into with his friends.

And he wishes he could tell Eri this. Or Shiki. Or Beat. Or even Rhyme. But at the moment, he feels he's stuck between a rock and a hard place.

He doesn't really know how to explain all this to Eri in words, so in response, he shakes his head.

Eri gives another thoughtful hum and taps a finger to her chin. “How about be distracted from it instead?” she asks.

Neku almost laughs. Her words are nice in a way he didn't even know he wanted and gives a smile he hopes doesn't look as tired as it feels on his face.

“That sounds good.”

And Eri grins. “Is it okay to bring up the project?”

Oh, what the hell. “Yeah, why not,” he grants her.

Eri seems to be vibrating with excitement now. “Really? Are you sure?”

“Yeah, yeah, you have my permission.”

“So you're really gonna do it?”

“Sure, I mean, I'll try. I can't promise it will be any good, but–”

“Stop it,” Eri interrupts, a firmness rooted in her voice, “Don't say stuff like that. You'll only set yourself up for failure.

“You can try, but whether it's deemed "good" is kind of subjective. But as an artist, it's important to use what you create to see what you can and want to improve. And that's how you get better. So, either way, you should be proud of what you accomplish.”

“Wow,” Neku breathed, somewhat speechless, “you really know how to give a pep talk.” He chuckles.

Eri laughs with him. “I don't know if pep is quite the right word, but, yeah. Had to give and receive them quite a bit myself. Shiki and I have definitely had our own struggles with projects.”

It makes sense. Neku's seen the lines of frustration on both Eri and Shiki's faces, temporary exasperation at needle-pricked fingers, and not to mention Shiki's pet-peeve of loose buttons or Eri's disdain for jagged stitching.

“You're right.”

Then Eri grabs his hand that had been resting on top of the table. Her eyes are gleaming and she's giving him the biggest grin he's ever seen.

“Oh Neku, it's gonna be great,” she tells him, “You're gonna be great!”

Neku can't even say thank you, or much less anything else before Eri is rattling off words at a fast pace.

“We gotta plan now. You probably want to plan out a design. We have to tell Shiki and Beat and Rhyme! Oh, this is so exciting! And we'll have to find a spot in Udagawa–”

“Ud-Udagawa?” Neku chokes.

Eri pauses then says, “Yes, obviously.”

Why?

It's a stupid question to ask, but it slips out anyway in his befuddlement.

“Why not?” Eri pulls her hands back, “You have somewhere else in mind?”

“No,” Neku admits, “but I thought it'd be on the side of some abandoned building or the underside of a bridge. Not–”

“–Somewhere people will actually see it?” Eri finishes, something close to a smirk playing on her lips.

“That's not what I meant.”

But in actuality, it kind of was.

“So you want me to just walk up and tag something in Udagawa?”

Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying,” Eri states matter-of-factly, “Is Udagawa really that intimidating?”

Kinda,” Neku admits, “wouldn't it to you?”

Eri goes quiet at that. “Yeah... that's understandable.” But she perks up a second later. “Well, I'll give you that. You can decide where you want to put it, but you're already committed.”

“Yes, of course,” Neku chuckles.

His attention then focuses back to the canvas bag Eri had set down on the floor beside her.

“I can only guess what's in there,” he says, nodding towards the canvas bag.

Eri seems to only then remember the bag exists herself. She nods and looks almost sheepishly. “Can't deny it. These were here to bribe you.”

She picks the bag up off the floor and sets it up on the table. Neku can hear the distinct clink of metal on metal from inside when she does.

“Please don't be spending all your money on me,” Neku tells her, but, even as he says it, can't stop the grin spreading across his face.

Eri laughs. “Alright. As long as you promise to do your best.”

 
 
 

Eri left not long after with the promise to “find whatever other colors you might need” if he had any. And when she'd left, he'd quickly spilled the contents of the bag onto his small kitchen table.

There were twelve cans of paint. They were basic colors—red, blue, orange, green, etc.—with some others like teal and purple, and of course black and white. He looked them over with shaking hands.

Despite the anxiousness, Neku felt—well, still did—about the project, he threw himself into it with full force.

He wants to do it. Even if his confidence in his abilities were lacking, the want to do it was overwhelming now that he had the tools to achieve it within his grasp.

And focusing on the project also gave him enough purpose to distract from the wandering thoughts the phone call from Joshua had brought back.

Now when he stayed up in the late hours of the night, it was nice to have the motivation of the project at the forefront of his mind rather than being reminded he was only doing something because he was too stressed to let his mind wander.

But, again, it's not that he didn't enjoy the prep.

Testing the paint was his first priority after acquiring it. And, thankfully, a canvas, tarp, and procedure masks were something he could afford to buy himself.

The cans weren't as hard to get the hang of as he'd expected.

It took a bit of getting used to, but he soon was able to translate his motions from drawing to the new medium. There may have been a few more of those iconic graffiti drips than he'd like, but with some experimenting and the use of various different tips, he was able to remedy that.

It was only after he'd grasped the technique that his inspiration high crashed.

Neku was sure it was nervousness that caused it. At least not entirely, he was sure. It was probably a multitude of things. However, what matter was that, even if he was adept at using the paint cans, he could not decide on what to paint.

No matter how much he experimented with color or how late he stayed up, studying references and sketching, nothing he looked at felt worthwhile enough to throw up onto a wall.

He was so desperate for something satisfying he even dug his old sketchbooks out from underneath his bed to flip through.

But nothing was gained from that except an increase in self-loathing and lingering regret.

He began bringing his current sketchbook to school with him, half-heartedly taking notes while sketching, and heading to the library to do the same thing during lunch.

And Neku shouldn't be surprised at his burn out. He'd pushed himself and as a result, the past few weeks have flown by and also left him exhausted.

He drops his bag on the floor by his door on a Saturday after school. Again, the house is empty save for him.

He doesn't bring out his sketchbook or touch his paint. Instead, he lets himself fall atop his bed and promptly passes out.

 
 
 

Neku jolts awake when he hears his phone ring.

Although his mind is racing at being suddenly woken up, his body hasn't caught up yet from being asleep.

Because of that, it takes him a second to reach for his phone, which is, incidentally, in the pocket of his pants.

At first, he wonders if it's even worth it when he could still fall back asleep. A second later he remembers the possibility of it being Joshua and quickly fumbles for it.

He doesn't even glance at the screen when he answers “Hello?” clearly enough but with the roughness of sleep still present.

“Neku! Geez, where have you been?”

“Shiki?”

“Uh, yeah, who do you think has been texting you for the last hour?”

It's a bit of relief and a bit of disappointment that falls over him, but mostly it's confusion. He keeps the phone pressed to his ear as he rolls over on his back.

It's only then that he registers what Shiki's said, “Huh? What?”

“I said, I've been trying to text you for the last hour,” she reiterates.

“Oh...” is Neku's limited reply. He pulls back the phone to check his notifications and, sure enough, there are several unread text messages, mostly from Shiki, but one from Beat and also Eri.

Beat: Yo Phones u ther? Shiki's mad freakin

Neku smiles at the message despite himself. Beat always did have a way with words.

He checks the one from Eri next.

Eri: Hey, Shiki told me you might be stressing over the project. I hope you don't think I'm pressuring you. I never meant to give you that impression. I'm so sorry if that was the case.

Shit. This was turning into a mess.

The last string of notifications were Shiki's.

Shiki: Hey Neku, are you doing alright?

Shiki: How's the project going?

Shiki: Seriously Neku can we talk?

Shiki: Sakuraba. I swear if you don't pick up your phone I'm coming over

“Neku?”

Shiki's voice reminds him he hasn't spoken since trailing off.

“Sorry,” he says, “I didn't mean to ignore them. I was sleeping.”

“Oh,” Shiki says, the frustration previously present in her voice now dimmed, “Oh, I didn't know.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I'm glad you did. You've been looking dreadful lately,” she tells him matter-of-factly.

By lately, he assumes Shiki means almost four days ago when they last saw each other while at Eri's. Perhaps the circles under his eyes had become too noticeable.

He chuckles, “Wow, thanks.”

“I'm serious,” she states, indignant, “I was about to head over if I didn't hear from you. I was practically out the door–”

“You aren't at the station are you?” Neku quickly asks, guilt and panic suddenly welling in him.

“No,” Shiki assures him, “but I was about to. It seems like you've been holed up in your room for days. I get that you're working on the project and everything, but I'm just hoping it's because you want to. I know Eri can be a little pushy even with the best of intentions or without meaning to. And I don't want you to feel like you're being forced.”

Neku is kind of stunned, but then again, he has been pushing himself with manic energy.

“What? No, of course not,” Neku assures her.

“I guess... I guess I've just been struggling,” he admits, “But Eri has nothing to do with it. It's all me. She's been nothing but supportive.”

“Struggling? How so?”

“I don't know...”

He can't even come up with words to cover half of what he's experiencing. It is a loss of inspiration, but there seemed to be so many other factors he can't quiet coral them all into an explanation easily understood.

“I just lost inspiration. And I've been pushing myself to find it again, but I guess I've tired myself out.”

Shiki hums thoughtfully on the other end of the line, “You know, Neku. I believe they call that art block.” He can hear the laughter in her voice.

He laughs along with her, “You don't say.”

“Yes,” she continues, “and I can assure you, anyone who has produced creatively, artist or not, has experienced something similar.”

“Really?” Neku asked.

“Really,” Shiki assures him.

It's such simple reassurance, but Shiki's sincerity made him believe it in a way he knew wouldn't be the same if he just assured himself with the same sentiment.

“Okay. Thank you.”

“You're welcome,” Shiki replies sweetly, “Feel better?”

“Yeah, I do,” he says as he yawns and rubs at his eyes, “especially since I slept for a bit.”

“Good. Maybe try to take a break from the project too. Might help to come back to it later with fresh eyes.”

“Oh!” Shiki exclaims, “If you're up for it, wanna meet up tomorrow, maybe? I know Beat and Rhyme are available.”

“Yeah, that sounds great,” he agrees.

“Perfect!” Shiki chirps, and then, "And Neku, if something is bothering you, you can always talk to me or any one of us, right?"

“Yeah, I know,” Neku says because he's supposed to, though not because he doubted it.

'Yeah, I know,'” Shiki repeats back in a lower, exaggerated tone meant to mock him.

“Ha, cute.”

“Thank you,” she says sweetly, not playing into his sarcasm. “Well, I'll let you get back to sleep or whatever you decide to do.”

“Will do,” he says, “Take care of yourself.”

“I should be saying that to you,” she says, “but you too. Bye.”

“Bye.”

She hangs up. But not long after he gets a text message.

Shiki: Sorry about thos messages btw lol

He types back.

Neku: Its alright.

He then lays in bed after. He wonders if going back to sleep is still an option, but the more he mulls he realizes that was probably not gonna happen. And he also realized he was hungry, having barely eaten anything since this morning.

But before he does, his mind lingers on an idea that he had while talking to Shiki.

In the end, he makes up his mind and scrolls back through his messages.

Neku: Hey, I have an idea. Got a sec?

Chapter Text

“Please be careful with those,” Neku warns as Beat picks up one of the cans out of the bag, “Make sure the opening is pointed away from you or anyone else.”

“Aight, Neku, I got it, I got it,” Beat acknowledges him without looking, instead turning the can over in his hands and inspecting it.

Whatever happens, happens, Neku tells himself.

There's a pat on his arm and he looks to see Rhyme smiling at him.

“He'll be careful,” she assures him, “He knows if he's not he'll have to go back to school with a face full of red.”

They both laugh.

“So how's school?” he asks, “Find any friends to replace us with yet?”

She giggles at his teasing. “No, of course not,” she says, “but some of my classmates and I have had good conversations. And school is good. I really enjoy my English class.”

“That's good,” Neku tells her.

And it is. He's glad she seems to be doing well and Beat hasn't said anything to contradict this.

But he still remembers how Beat had come to him and Shiki not long after they'd all started meeting up. He'd been almost sobbing, telling them something was wrong with Rhyme. How there were days when she'd keep to her room, refuse to eat, and avoid the things she used to enjoy doing.

He'd asked her what was wrong, but all she said was she was unable to explain it and just didn't feel like doing those things sometimes. It had been at the point where even their parents were worried.

Both Neku and Shiki had assured him it would be all right and promised to keep an eye on her. He thinks Shiki had more success in cheering Rhyme up than he did, however, even though there was a time when he remembered he'd experienced similar feelings himself.

But he hoped everything was as good with Rhyme as she made it seem.

“How about Beat? He, uh, having any luck?” Neku asks.

Rhyme glances over at her brother, who is still fidgeting with the paint cans, and gives a fond smile.

“He's doing his best,” she tells him, “and I think mom and dad can tell that too.”

It goes unspoken, but Neku can pick up on how big of a thing that is, especially considering what Beat had once told him.

Then she adds, “I'm proud of him.”

“We all are.”

“Are Shiki and Eri almost here?” Rhyme then asks him.

Neku looks back to his phone. There are no new messages, only the one from Shiki he'd received over fifteen minutes ago.

“Yeah,” he says, “Shiki got off the train and met up with Eri, so they should be here any minute.”

“Cool,” Rhyme says, “So, are you excited? Eri mentioned you'd been working very hard on your project.”

Neku feels himself fidget, painfully aware as he rubs the back of his neck sheepishly.

“Well, yeah, I guess excited is one way to put it,” he answers, “but I was having trouble figuring out what to paint, so I figured I'd just go and maybe... maybe something will come to me.”

Rhyme doesn't even get a chance to speak before Beat is giving him a friendly, but also rather hard, pat on the back.

“Good on ya, Phones,” Beat gushes, “being extraneous is definitely inspirational.”

Although the enthusiasm and compliment are appreciated, Neku winces a bit at the pain in his back. “Extraneous?” he questions.

“Beat I think you meant spontaneous,” Rhyme pipes up.

“Oh, for real? Probably,” Beat admits, “y'know 'm not good with big words.”

“And, uh, Neku? I think I busted your can, man,” his friend says, and Neku looks down to where Beat holds out the can, still intact, in one hand and in the other is the tip.

Rhyme peaks around from behind Neku. “Beat! You said you'd be careful.”

“I was!”

“Guys, it's fine,” Neku interrupts, potentially extinguishing a sibling argument, “it's just the tip. It comes off sometimes. It's not broken.”

“Oh,” Rhyme exclaims.

“Oh shit,” Beat exclaims and Neku hands him back the can, “Tha's actually pretty tight though, not gonna lie.”

Neku can't help it and he finds himself laughing.

“What are you guys doing?”

 It's Shiki's voice that asks as she and Eri approach them. Rhyme grins and doesn't waste any time running towards them and wrapping her arms around Shiki.

“Beat thought he broke one of Neku's paint cans,” Rhyme chirps, breaking away from the hug. Next to Neku, Beat splutters in protest.

Eri snaps her head toward Beat with raised eyebrows. “You didn't actually.”

“'Course not!”

“The tip just came off,” Neku explains. “So, are you guys ready to go?” he asks.

His friends all give him their agreement and they head out.

 
 
 

The first thing Neku notices is the mural has faded.

The realization is more startling than it probably should be, mostly because the mural has been up for so long and Neku can't ever remember a time it looked so dim. And it isn't surprising to think Mr. H—CAT—would come back to touch it up, but considering how much wear and tear is visible, an uneasiness lingers in the back of Neku's thoughts.

But he doesn't let himself dwell on it. He can't.

“Impressive as ever,” he hears Shiki say.

Neither she nor the others make a comment about the mural looking any different, so maybe he is just over-analyzing it. After all, nothing can stay the same forever.

Beat parts from the group, saying he wants to check out the Wild Boar. Neku is tempted to walk into Cyco Records himself, but resists for the moment.

Eri, Shiki and Rhyme are staring at the graffiti with him. But his mind is continuing to skip over memories and fragmented thoughts as he continues to gaze up at the street art.

He remembers seeing the mural for the first time and the pull he'd always felt towards it afterwards. How he continued to be inspired by it and the rest of CAT's art and other media, and those feelings leading to the filled sketchbooks he now has shoved back underneath his bed.

But he also remembers this is where he died, right here is where he first saw Joshua, and he doesn't even need to be reminded of what happened after how many times the memory has already played through his head before.

It doesn't help that he still has the raw memory of Joshua abandoning their phone call over a week ago with only the verbal promise of a future response. And Neku doesn't have a lot of reason to believe him.

“Find anything interesting. Neku?”

Neku looks away from the wall and Rhyme is approaching him, hands casually gripping the straps of her backpack.

“Kind of,” he says.

“You seemed really concentrated,” Rhyme told him.

“Yeah, just thinking.”

Rhyme hums in acknowledgment and looks down at the wall where it continues on a ways. “Are you still thinking about finding a place to put your art up?”

Neku nods. “If I can find a place that is.”

“I can help you look if you want to,” she says, bouncing on her heels.

“Sure, I'd like that.” He gives her a fond smile that she returns as they start walking.

Even if Rhyme was the younger of the group and a little softer on the outside, Neku has found, much like Beat, their tastes are very similar. And he values her opinion.

They don't stray too far. They're further down, close enough Shiki and Eri still in view, but far enough they begin finding blank spaces and faded to near non-existent graffiti. Rhyme would sometimes point out a piece that did something they liked or perhaps didn't. However, most of it was just simple tagging.

And Neku is reminded of how happy he is to have a chance to interact with Rhyme and get to know her better. He's glad he gets to see her smile and laugh. He's glad he gets to know that she doesn't like to wear her beanie at all times the way Beat does and her fondness for baggy sweaters. He's glad she's here. Neku can't imagine how they all would be without her, even if she has her own struggles.

But then again who doesn't?

“This is a good spot right,” Rhyme asks him when she stops.

She was right. It was more or less a blank spot in the vast amounts of artwork. Although the faded remains of something can be barely seen in the spot.

However, Neku feels some reservation in potentially putting up something over someone else's work, no matter how faded. But he didn't know if that would make any sense to Rhyme.

He settles for a lame, “Yeah, seems like.”

Rhyme either doesn't notice or decides not to call him out on his non-committal answer. Instead, she asks him, “Have you decided what you're gonna put up yet?”

“Nah,” Neku says, and kicks at the ground, “I haven't decided if I'm gonna put up anything today.”

Rhyme tilts her head. “How come?”

Neku just shrugs, hands now in the pockets of his shorts. “Dunno. Just not sure if I have anything worth putting up yet.”

“That's understandable,” Rhyme says, and Neku is a bit surprised. “It can be daunting trying to create something you know will be worth your time, but also leave an impression.”

Neku nods and Rhyme continues, “But I think it's important to find something you want to say as a way to find inspiration in your work. Like finding what inspired you in the first place and using that feeling to create something not only for others but for yourself. No matter how simple it may be.”

Neku doesn't know what it is about Rhymes words, but it's after he hears them he has an idea. He knows what he's going to do.

“Rhyme,” Neku says, “I need to get my paint. I think I have an idea.”

“Right!” Rhyme exclaims, and she takes off back towards Shiki and Eri who have his bag.

Neku watches her go for a second before turning back towards the wall. He reaches out and presses his palm against the cold stone but feels the warmth of possibilities like he hasn't felt in a long time, and smiles.

 
 
 

“What do you think?”

Neku stands back. His hands, arms, and possibly his face, littered in paint smudges.

He downs the rest of his Pokari Sweat Rhyme had given him from her backpack. None of his friends say anything for a moment and he shifts on his feet.

“It's simpler than I was expecting, but–”

“No, Neku,” Shiki says, an almost breathless quality to her voice, “it's amazing.”

“I don't think I'd go that far...” Neku starts.

“Nah Phones, she's right,” Beat interjects, “it's rad as hell.”

“I agree,” Rhyme chimes in.

Even Eri, who never seems to run out of enthusiasm, always bubbly Eri, appears awestruck as well.

“I guess I did a good job then,” Neku teases.

“Neku...” Eri then says, looking away from the wall and towards him. And Neku is a little taken aback by how serious her tone is.

But when he meets her eyes, they light up and she squeals.

“This is so great!” she exclaims and wraps her arms around the nearest person—which just so happens to be Shiki—and bounces up and down.

Neku can't deny that seeing such a reaction assures him he'd done something right.

He looks back at the words he's made on the wall and, even if it's simple, he feels pride well up inside him. His technique and coloring has definitely developed since he'd first started. Although he can already feel how his muscles are going to ache tomorrow.

“Well, nothing to do but let it finish drying and hope no one paints over it by tomorrow,” he says.

“Oh don't be so pessimistic,” Eri chides, “I think others are more understanding than that.”

“Yeah, it's almost dark,” Beat says, hand shading his eyes as he looks to where the sun is lower in the distance, “Rhyme an' me gotta bounce.”

“And we have to catch the train,” Shiki reminds Eri.

They're all in agreement to leave and it's only a few minutes before they're all packed up. Although Neku is left with the realization that there's no way to get the paint off of him till he gets home. He needs to take a shower anyway.

But he looks back one more time at what he's written on the Udagawa wall, an echo of affirmation.

Expand your world.

 
 
 

It only takes Eri a moment to throw out a quick line of forgetting something and taking off before her friends can follower her so she can make her way back towards Neku's mural.

She doesn't have time to compose the best shot possible, but she finds a decent angle where the sun hits the top of the wall. She finds it ethereal enough.

Neku's art won't promote itself, after all.

 
 
 

There's something satisfying about cooking, and Sanae had come to that realization long ago.

Coffee was his favorite. Although you could argue it wasn't, in fact, cooking. But the process of grinding the beans by hand, watching the grounds foam and bubble over the first splash of boiling water, and the slow drip down of the coffee was satisfying nonetheless.

But he's had a little too much coffee lately, he sad to say. Not just that, but beans have begun to run low and being unsure (at least the way he's tethered now) whether there will be a need to stock up again.

However, he still has the time and ingredients to make his second favorite: pancakes.

He casts a brief looks over his shoulder.

Joshua is sitting just behind him, elbows on the counter, tapping away on his phone. His expression is neutral, the kind you can find on most teenagers that tells you they're staring at nothing.

It actually surprised him that Joshua had returned to WildKat as one look at the headphones around his neck told Sanae everything he needed to know about how his attempted nudge went. But Joshua was never one to make things easy.

After flipping the pancakes onto a plate, he turned off the griddle. Unfortunately he doesn't have any fruit around, but whipped cream is not in short supply. And neither is the cinnamon.

Joshua still hasn't looked up from his phone.

It feels so much more tangible, here as Sanae arranges pancakes and makes them look ornate for no other reason than he has the time, how useless he is. As much as it pains him to admit, he can't help Joshua.

At one time, he could. He was probably the only one for a long time. But that ability had waned with time. Even now, with the other only right across from him, the space between them had never felt more gaping.

But it's not as if he can blame the current state of their relationship solely on Joshua.

No, if Joshua was to get better, he needed someone else. Someone who could help him grow and nurture that note of change Sanae could feel buried in the song of Shibuya.

Sanae sets the stack of pancakes in front of Joshua, the butter and whipped cream already melting and dripping around the sides.

“Syrup?” he asks.

It's then that Joshua looks up, first at the pancakes, regarding them almost suspiciously, and then to where Sanae is holding up the small pitcher of syrup.

But the other ignores the question and asks, “Is this some kind of bribe?”

Sanae decides to take that as a yes and pours the syrup over the pancakes. Neither of them break eye contact.

“So what is the purpose of this?” Joshua then asks, setting his phone down and placing his chin in his hands.

“Just looking for some honest feedback,” Sanae answered him, putting down the syrup.

Joshua blinks down at the pancakes. There's a moment of hesitation, but he soon picks up the fork and takes a bite.

The fact that Joshua doesn't criticize it and continues chewing is the only positive feedback Sanae expects to get, but he'll take it.

Sanae had just begun on starting to clean up the dishes he'd dirtied while making the pancakes when Joshua speaks up.

“Has the Higher Plane been in contact?”

At that moment, Sanae isn't facing Joshua, but he can feel the other's stare on his back.
“No,” he answers, tone neutral.

When he turns around, Joshua has a considerate look on his face, before he shrugs and hums, “Hmm. Shame.” He doesn't even try to hide the distaste in his voice.

It's not technically a lie. The Higher Plane maybe haven't been in direct contact, but since being allowed back at his cafe he'd been tasked with completing his secret reports. They are the reason that, when Joshua departs, he'll return to the stack of papers he has tucked away in the back.

The Higher Plane won't summon him until that task is complete. And it will be only him they summon. He hasn't told Joshua that.

It's not a decision he'd made lightly. But he can't risk Joshua attempting to prevent the Higher Planes judgement of him whatever it may be. The kid is in enough hot water as it is.

Instead, before that time comes, he can try to push Joshua in a different direction.

“But they might if you continue to neglect your responsibilities,” Sanae says.

And in a way it's true. Joshua's skill at running the Game had never been called into question, unlike his attitude. And until the Long Game, the Higher Plane's consensus was that, despite his unwelcome nature, he was adept at prioritizing Shibuya's well-being over his own personal issues. However, it was becoming clearer that most of the Games' past smoothness should be credited to Kitaniji. A sentiment Sanae doesn't completely disagree with.

“Yes...” Joshua takes another bite of the pancake, chews it, then swallows, “because the Game is so interesting at the moment,” he drawls.

Sanae rubs the back of his neck and pretends to be picking something from underneath his fingernails with his free hand. “Well the fact is, Shibuya's still recovering.”

It's an obvious statement, one he shouldn't have to point out to Josh. The UG is still so unstable as it is, and its Composer dancing around, trying not to get caught up in the Music, is only slowing down the process.

“And you avoiding her isn't gonna solve anything,” he finishes.

Again, another half truth. Although Joshua being absent isn't going to make the UG as fractured as it became during the Long Game, it's still a strain despite the Higher Plane suspending the Game and other... influences.

Even with Shibuya's reset, she won't thrive without regular maintenance.

Or an active Conductor.

Sanae looks back up to meet Joshua's eyes again. The other is now ignoring the pancakes and glaring at him. With it comes a crackle of tension.

He tries to soothe it. “I'm not trying to start a fight with you, J–”

“Then stop talking.”

Joshua's voice is cold and direct in that way that Sanae knows there is no continuing with this topic of conversation.

“... alright,” he concedes.

He takes the hand towel he forgot was on his shoulder and begins wiping down the counter.

An uneasy silence lingers between them. They've been having far too many of those lately.

He half expects Joshua's visit to end there, for Joshua to get up and walk out the door. But Joshua continues to sit there, gaze lingering on the countertop.

Then after a few moments, Joshua speaks up, voice now soft, “... Tell them I'll get back to it soon.”

It's a meek olive branch extended to him and Sanae wishes he could leave it at that.

“Soon is a little vague,” he points out, “besides, I think they'd be more interested in how the UG is being influenced from the RG.”

Joshua looks at him, head tilted slightly to the side, brows furrowed in confusion.

He really doesn't seem to know, and Sanae realizes Josh isn't just ignoring the Music of Shibuya, but has cut himself off from it.

The other is waiting for an explanation, but Sanae believes more in the show don't tell.

He pulls out his phone, and it takes him only a few button taps before his Twitter is open.

Sanae had made the account a while ago to promote CAT. (He'd also thought about making one for WildKat but never put in the time to.) Of course it hasn't been very active as of late, his most recent posts promoting his latest album and a photo of his mural in Udagawa when he'd revamped it last. And he never retweeted other posts until recently.

Now Shiki Misaki was someone he knew could be capable of amazing feats. Sanae had known there was potential in her from the first moment he'd met her as he had with Neku. So out of true curiosity he'd found her and her friend's fashion account showcasing their efforts and followed it.

And it was through the retweet from their account that he'd found the photo of the mural.

Although he never would have pegged Phones as a social media type. And the fact that one
of the few followers on his account was the young lady gives him some insight as to how it even happened.

Nevertheless, he was impressed and retweeted the photo.

So it doesn't take him long to find the page and when he does, he shows it to Josh, who has been uncharacteristically silent and waiting.

“The kid's got talent,” is all he says.

Joshua stares. Sanae notices his fingers twitch.

And without a word Joshua gets up. He doesn't even put on the headphones before he leaves, but still dramatic as ever.

Sanae sighs and picks up the half-eaten plate of pancakes, knowing it's time to get back to work as soon as he finishes cleaning.

He may not be able to help Joshua anymore, but he can at least point him toward someone else who might be able to.

 
 
 

Joshua knows he'll curse himself later for playing right into Sanae's hands yet again, but the thought of his proxy's influence gaining any more interest with the Higher Plane wasn't one that sat well with him.

Perhaps it is time for him to stop trying to cut himself off from Shibuya's Music. However, that decision also creates an uneasy feeling that settles inside him. There is no winning.

But he'll have to decide later. Right now, he's on a mission of his own. He wants to see his dear proxy's work with his own eyes and not just through a screen.

Even if he didn't already know where it was located, it wouldn't have been hard to find. As with Neku Sakuraba himself, the chords it gave out were among the loudest and clearest in all of Shibuya.

He touches down in Udagawa and already hates being here.

Sanae's mural still stands, more faded than Joshua remembers it being, meaning the other really hasn't left the cafe at all, not even when Joshua has left. He doesn't linger near it long. Instead, he follows the pull from further down the wall.

After cutting himself off from the Music for as long as he did, it's almost overwhelming in an area where so many melodies are converging. He nearly reaches for the headphones around his neck just on impulse, but soon adjusts.

When he reaches the mural it looks exactly as it did in the tweet Sanae showed him, but this close the vibe rolling off of it is nearly tangible.

Although he'd been in such a rush to see it he didn't really know what he was supposed to do now.

Joshua thinks about attempting to neutralize it. It wouldn't be an easy task, but it might be for the best. It was only a mere half-thought, but that is why he stretched his hand out to press flat against the paint covered stone wall.

It's startling the way the chords burst into even more crystal clarity and swell as the overwhelming feeling of unrestrained creativity and passion role off the mural in waves. And even buried underneath all the layers, a message rings out, laced in each chord.

Expand your world, it echoes with a pull of inspiration, the urgency of a lesson learned first-hand, and a countless amount of other sensations he can barely comprehend.

Joshua comes back to himself, slower and more dazed than he'd like to admit. But when he does, he snatches his hand away from the wall as if it had burned him.

He shouldn't have come here.

 
 
 

Joshua doesn't go back to WildKat. He doesn't think he has the strength to face Sanae with his comments and his questions and his knowing. At least if he doesn't see him he can pretend he's keeping secrets.

The Dead God's Pad is empty. Joshua barely used the room, it was mainly for the meetings of Reapers during a Game. And since there were no Games now, he'd had it closed off. He had a feeling the Reapers preferred their nights on the town anyway. And if not, oh well.

He was hoping the sounds of the Pad would be able to keep him tethered. The low music of the jukebox, the hum of the aquarium filter and the soft trickle of water emanating from beneath the glass floor. He even tracked his eyes along with the school of fish beneath his feet. But none of it helps.

He tried latching onto anything to keep himself in the moment, but nothing would ground him for long, and his mind would seep into nothingness. It was as if his very being would detach from his body and float away.

It was a feeling of altogether restlessness and yet being completely devoid of energy, and Joshua chose to just stretch himself across the couch against the wall.

At first Joshua thought it was imprinting. His proxy had the power and certainly had the influence. And although there was always a sort of imprinting at work with art, what he'd felt wasn't anything like that.

No, it was simply the fact that the burst of vibrancy he'd experienced has thrown into sharp contrast how much Joshua was lacking.

It reminded him of how new and exhilarating Shibuya used to seem to him, which felt like a lifetime ago. Yet he hadn't been able to enjoy it. Or many things anymore.

When had he become so apathetic, so empty?

The thought makes panic swell inside him and he can't really let himself think about what he's doing.
He pulls out his phone from his pocket, but once he flicks it open, he hesitates.

Neku, I'll text you.

Joshua bites his lip and lets out a shaky sigh. He shouldn't be doing this, he knows, but at the moment he ignores all logic.

He lingers on the message he'd sent to Neku before contemplating his message.

Joshua: You never told me you did such good work partner.

He feels like he's conjuring a different person while typing the message, but he sends it. He knows he should probably feel more worried, but in sending it, an eerie calm settles over him. Not relief, more resignation.

Joshua's not expecting a response. He doesn't need one. It's also late, so that's why it's so surprising when his phone vibrates against his chest.

Neku: what?

Joshua almost laughs, mostly out of bewilderment that his proxy has actually responded, and he decides to continue playing along.

Joshua: Your art silly. Sanae thinks so too.

After a few minutes he then adds–

Joshua: I don't know why you're so hesitant.

Neku: oh. thanks i guess

Neku: wait have you been fucking spying on me??

No, I felt it. Joshua smiles despite himself.

Joshua: It was just a hunch.

Joshua: Well, I guess it's not anymore.

Again, Joshua feels himself falling back into that same old persona—confident and snarky. It's so easy to do, even though he's not sure he has the energy to keep it up for long.

But it always works on Neku.

Neku: y'know i always forget how infuriating you are

Joshua: Only for you, dear.

There's no immediate response and Joshua waits a few minutes for the answering notification, but it feels almost like hours. The pause may be awkward for another test but he sends it anyway.

Joshua: So how's school Neku? How about your friends? Is everything going well?

The text reeks of desperation, but Neku's response this time is fast.

Neku: fine

Joshua snorts and rolls his eyes.

Joshua: Very informative.

Neku: i doubt you really just texted me to compliment my art and ask me how my life is

Joshua: True. I did because you asked me to.

Neku: i would have preferred to talk in person

Joshua: Sorry to disappoint, but I believe I mentioned I am currently unavailable

Then Neku sends another text and Joshua reads it, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

Neku: okay, but do you not realize how fucking weird this is?

He just stares at it, the sinking sensation now firmly settled and is aware of how stiff his body is.

Then another text comes through, this time even longer.

Neku: you say you're unavailable. but you call me out of nowhere and you hang up just as quickly. and now you're texting me like everything is normal as if you didn't put me through 3 weeks of hell and then just disappear without a word. I just don't understand whats going through your head

He reads the message. He reads it again. It really is unacceptable how tone is nonexistent through text message.

And Joshua feels a wave of weariness fall over him and his fingers move by themselves.

Joshua: I don't think I understand either.

Neku: what?

Although Joshua had sent the text, he recoils at his proxy's concern. Instead, he gets irritated.

Joshua: You know Neku, I wish you would stop beating around the bush and just say what it is you want to say.

Neku: what are you talking about?

Always asking questions, but never quite the right ones it seems, Joshua thinks to himself, somewhat bitterly.

Joshua: Really? You didn't seem to have a problem expressing yourself before.

Neku: you sound like you're trying to pick a fight. but whatever

Neku: so tell me, why did I get to remember?

Joshua admits Neku's directness levels his smugness down a peg. Perhaps his proxy is not always as dim as he appears to be.

However, his dilemma now appears to him in sharp focus.

But, it doesn't matter anymore, does it? Joshua has already gone back on his original decision to not interact with his proxy and been avoiding his duties as Composer and the Higher plan hasn't lifted a finger. What's one more strike against him? What does he care?

Joshua: Hmm... well, I'll try to put it into simple terms you can understand.

Joshua: If you weren't aware, your soul went through quite the ordeal while in the UG, but still managed to stabilize itself. Even more so when you regained your entry fee after the first week.

Joshua: Removing crucial memories made during those weeks could have caused a regression and by extension, destabilization of your soul once you returned to the RG. And we wouldn't want that would we?

Neku: you mean removing them again

Despite being a text, the tone of that comment definitely comes through.

Neku: and i can't believe thats all there is to it since you sound like you were considering it

Neku: and why only me? what about my friends?

Well that's all the information Joshua will give. His opinion in the matter is of no importance. But he resents the suspicion since it was partially true and when he'd relayed it to the Higher Plane, they'd deemed it acceptable.

Joshua: I suppose nothing would seem that simple, but here we are. And your friends were under no risk with a missing memory or two. Especially since my little secret is one I can't have too many knowing about.

Joshua: But I assure you I acted on the best possible outcome for everyone involved. But if you think I'm lying, I can't do anything about that.

He's expecting more text coming to demand more information, but it doesn't come.

Neku: no.

Neku: you've lied about a lot of things, but i think you're right even if i don't like it

Joshua's stomach twists a bit when he reads it as a pause lingers before Neku's other messages come in.

Neku: without my memories of the game, about you, i don't know if i would have changed

Neku: besides you've changed too

There's a bubbling of emotion, a tightness in his chest as he reads the text, that Joshua struggles to tap down.

Good to see you haven't changed all that much

You've changed too

Had he? Had he really?

I'm surprised you think that after everything I've done —

He stops, deletes the last bit and tries again.

Joshua: I'm surprised you think that after everything that's happened.

Joshua sighs, feels himself sink deeper into the interior of the couch. He lets the hand clutching his phone fall over the side. This whole situation is starting to feel unnatural, surreal.

His phone then notifies him of another text. He stares up at the ceiling of the Dead God's Pad, his senses zeroing back on the sounds of the music and the water beneath him in an attempt to distract himself from the inevitable. He soon lifts the phone back up to his face when he hears another notification come through.

Neku: i probably wouldn't be texting you if i didn't

Neku: and i trust you.

Joshua stares at the words on the screen. He reads them over and over again.

I trust you.

I trust you.

I trust you.

I can't forgive you but I trust you.

Joshua feels his body start to curl into itself, his phone snapping closed as it falls and clatters against the glass floor.

This time he doesn't try to stop the emotions as they surface, and, alone, he cries.

Chapter Text

Neku wakes up to his alarm and a heavy body.

He looks at his phone, which thankfully he'd plugged in before he'd passed out, and there's the small ache of deja vu when he looks at his notifications and there are no new text messages.

The boy sighs, rolls over, and struggles to persuade himself to get out of bed.

He never received a response for his text, but he hadn't really expected one, anyway. He already considered it a miracle Joshua gave him a somewhat straight-forward answer without much of a fight. Although, he hadn't been able to ask all the questions he'd wanted to. Neku doubted he'd ever get a chance to. But he'd berate himself about that later because school was, unfortunately, waiting.

He gets himself dressed and ready fairly quickly, eats a small breakfast of egg over rice, and is out the door not long after.

The bus ride is uneventful. He has one of those moments where he misses old headphones as he uses the replacements that had cost him thirty-five hundred yen. But even as he plays music through them, his thoughts drift back to last nights events.

If it wasn't for the fact he could look back at the messages now, he might have believed it was only a figment of his imagination.

First, it had been out of nowhere (again.) and too late on a school night for Neku to even be up. However, he had been and, seeing the text, it had only partly registered with him that this was Joshua. But being half-awake passed the a.m. fucked up your common sense.

And Neku feels his exhaustion had shown in the texts with his short answers and just a stream of unfiltered comments, it surprised him Joshua hadn't called him out on it.

Although even now he wasn't sure how to feel and that was beyond frustrating. Now that he's no longer as physically tired, the whole situation just makes him more emotionally tired. At one point the conversation had seemed to be progressing, but then Joshua had stopped responding and the opportunity had ended.

But Joshua had also seemed sort of... off too. In fact, this time and the last they'd spoken were so abrupt on Joshua's end and it was just strange.

The more Neku thinks about it, a more obvious answer emerges, but not one he can wrap his head around. It feels weird, thinking of Joshua as vulnerable.

But what also irked him about their conversation was how Joshua had approached him. About his art.

Neku's not as upset as he probably should have been. Or as much as Shiki thought he would be.

He'd never checked the Twitter Eri had set up for him passed the day she'd first made it for him. He couldn't bring himself to advertise on it. It was hard enough to share his art with his friends much less try to promote it to faceless individuals. The compliments he got on painting Beat's skateboard were different, it was just word of mouth. But social media really wasn't for him, he thought.

It wasn't until he started receiving more notifications than usual on his phone and an eventual call from Shiki that he was informed of the details.

He admits it is quite jarring knowing quite a few people have seen and even liked his work, however, he still had a strange feeling.

(He also changed the password after finding out.)

Because it wasn't just that Eri had retweeted the post she'd made onto her and Shiki's joined account trying to gain it some traction, but that the official CAT Twitter had retweeted it from them and nearly overnight it had reached so many.

Now he was getting messages praising his work and asking about his affiliation with CAT and Neku found it so overwhelming he didn't know how to respond. And it was because he was unsure of his own affiliation to CAT. Or, as he knew him, Mr. H.

And he never doubted Mr. H was CAT. Even if it had been Joshua who told him. Neku was sure. He could just... feel it.

Neku falls so deep in thought he nearly misses his stop. Man, he really was out of it today, but he makes it on time to class without incident.

And class is just as uneventful as the bus ride there, but it was particularly hellish the last couple of days because Neku felt like he was being watched every time he thought about pulling out his sketchbook.

Realistically, he knows that's bullshit and maybe even a bit egotistical as it was only one tweet and no one had even confronted him about it let alone his own classmates. So the sketchbook remains buried in his bag.

He settles for doodling on the side of his paper instead.

 
 
 

Neku doesn't know why he thought he could do it.

He'd had the idea when his mind was wandering during class, and it hadn't left him since. So when class ended for the day, Neku took an alternate route.

He bypasses Towa Records, knowing if he goes in, it will only just be an excuse. His palms start sweating as he makes his way through the Underpass. He really feels like a walking ball of nerves and anxiety.

Neku makes it to the edge of Miyashita Park, near the beginning of Cat Street. WildKat peaks out just in the distance.

He can't do it.

He turns around and walks away.

 
 
 

Of course, Neku doesn't tell his friends about his failed plans (and even if he could he wouldn't) and just tries to push it out of his mind.

Perhaps he should learn from last time and move on from the situation before he makes himself anymore upset.

He makes plans to meet up with Beat and Rhyme the next day. He'd asked Shiki and Eri to tag along too, but Shiki had cram school to attend that day and Eri politely declined, saying she was busy.

(In retrospect, he hoped this had nothing to do with him or what happened with the mural and Twitter. He'll have to talk to her later.)

They decided to meet at Ramen Don. Neku arrives a little later than his friends and they were the only ones there, so he it's easy to spot Beat ordering and Rhyme already sitting at a booth. She waves to him.
He waves back and then walks over to Beat. Ken Doi greets him and he responds in kind before him and Beat step off to the side.

“You order already?” he asked.

“Only for Rhyme,” Beat admits.

“But what about you?”

“Haven't decided yet, man.” Beat then shifts on his feet from side to side, hands in the pockets of his shorts. “lotta options,” he adds.

“You can always order more than one thing,” Neku reminds me.

“Money's kinda tight right now,” is his friend's response.

Neku's mouth twists at that. He then digs into his back pockets until he grasps his wallet.
“How much did you have?”

Beat seems to consider this and then counts on his fingers. “I had sixteen hundred yen, but now 'm down to... nine twenty.”

Neku takes out two thousand yen bills and hands them to his friend. “Here's two thousand,” he says, “you can keep it if you order for me.”

“For sure man. Whaddya want?”

“Just the Shoyu.”

Neku was just about to turn and head over to the table, but a hand on his arm stops him. It's Beat, giving him a more serious look than usual. He then leans in a bit and speaks in a lower voice.

“I think Rhyme's been havin' one of those days today, ya know?”

It takes him a second, but soon Neku nods in understanding, and starts making his way over to where Rhyme is sitting.

After what Beat had told him, he tries to take a good look at Rhyme. Outwardly, there doesn't seem to be anything off about her and she's still just staring out the window as he slides into the booth across from her.

She doesn't acknowledge his presence and continues to stare. However, it's not the listless daydreaming stare. It's wide-eyed and anxious, and her lips are pulled so thin they're pale, almost white. She looks scared.

And Neku follows her gaze outside. He doesn't know what he expected to see out the window that would irk her so much, but it's not a man in a semi-casual suit, yelling angrily into a cell phone. The man is far away enough that he can't make out the words being said, but his tone comes through clear enough.

Neku looks back at Rhyme, who still hasn't taken her eyes off him.

“Rhyme?”

She doesn't move.

“Hey. Rhyme?” he tries, a little louder.

And this time, Rhyme jumps, her eyes still wide when they turn to him. She then blinks and her gaze softens.

He searches her face. “Are you okay?”

She nods immediately, and says, “Yeah, I'm okay,” just as quickly, but Neku notices as she reaches for her necklace, clutches the small bell charm and begins running her thumb over it. A self-soothing gesture, Neku knew.

“Did you, uh.... know that guy?” he asks her.

Rhyme shakes her head. Her thumb continues to worry over the charm.

“Do you wanna talk about it?”

Rhyme seems to hesitate for a second, but shakes her head again. “No,” she whispers, and then, “I'm sorry.”

“There's nothing to be sorry about,” Neku assures her.

“Okay,” she says and gives him a small smile. He tries his best to return it, but his thoughts are all over the place.

But Beat soon arrives at the table and their hangout continues normally after that. Neku doesn't bring up his concerns as he doesn't want to make Rhyme uncomfortable. Plus she soon let go of her charm and was laughing along with Beat's jokes. He figures for now everything is all right.

He only barely finishes his Shoyu and Rhyme her Miso, while Beat downed his Tonkotsu and one and a half bowls of Miso.

Neku lets him keep the change.

 
 
 

Neku decides to text Beat later that night. He figures that's the quickest and easiest approach to bringing up the topic. He could also just let it go, but that doesn't feel like a real option.

Neku: Hey

Beat doesn't answer back immediately. That's fine. Neku is busying himself with homework anyway, but soon he hears his phone notification go off.

Beat: hey man whas up?

Neku: I know you said rhyme was having a tough time but did you know that guy that was yelling on the phone outside Ramen Don?

Beat: dunno. she didn't say anythin about it. why u ask?

Neku: idk she just seemed really shaken up today

Beat: yeah.... its probs the nightmares again

The 'again' is the key indicator here that Neku gets exactly what his friend is referring too because he's been there. They've all been there.

Neku: oh... that's shitty

Beat: she hasn't been sleepin good. comes into my room lately at nite and i think its been rubbin off on me too

Neku: i'm sorry man. take care of yourselves

Beat: always man. gotta get to bed soon before the rents start complainin

Neku: alright. good night

Beat: nite

 
 
 

Neku doesn't want to make a big deal of it, but there's something about it that nags at him. He knows reoccurring nightmares aren't that unusual. He's had his fair share of them after all.

But it bothers him enough that he's not in the best mood by the end of the next day, barely focusing on his homework. And it's then that he gets a text from Eri.

Eri: Are you able to meet me at Sunshine?

Neku reads it. He gives a brief glance towards his homework and makes a decision.

Neku: which one?

Eri: Across from Hachiko

Neku: be there in a second

Neku then checks the battery life on his phone, which isn't the best, but should get him through a couple of hours until he makes it back home. He contemplates taking his headphones, but decides not to and heads out the door.

It doesn't take him long. There are quite a few people out near Hachiko, but it's still very early in the evening, so Neku isn't surprised.

He's headed towards Sunshine, but then he spots Eri sitting on one of the benches surrounding Hachiko. She has a soda in one hand and a paper bag rested next to her.

“I thought you wanted to meet at Sunshine?” he asks as he approaches her.

Eri finished a sip of her drink before answering. “That was the plan, but it started getting a bit too crowded in there,” she explains and pat the seat next to her and he sits down.

When he does, she passes him the paper bag. “I got you nuggets if you want them.”

“Thanks,” he says, and he means it, as he takes the bag.

And for a moment there is silence between them as they watch people go by in front of them.

(Sometimes he wonders if there are Players here, running right in front of him that he can't see, frantic to find a partner or fighting for their lives.

He wonders. He can't dwell on it.)

“So...” he starts after finishing the nuggets and throwing away the trash, “why d'you call me out here? It's not another project is it?” he jokes.

Eri smiles around the straw in her mouth. “No, not this time,” she says.

“Oh okay,” Neku snorts.

“I thought hanging out might be a make-up for being unavailable yesterday, but I also was wondering if you'd noticed anything going on with Shiki. Or if it's just me.”

Shiki? Neku wants to say no, that she seemed fine, but he hasn't really talked to her much as of late. He just figured she was busy with school like she told him. But he admits he's not always the most emotionally aware person.

“Why? Is school getting to her?” is all Neku can think to ask.

“I'm not sure,” Eri admits, “but it just... seems like something more is up.”

Eri really seems to believe it, and if anyone would know it would be Eri.

“How so?”

She sighs, looking down at her now empty paper cup, “I just have a feeling, and it reminds me of... of when we had that one fight.”

A chill snakes down Neku's spine because there's no doubt what fight Eri is talking about.

“And I don't know if I'm just overthinking, or just need to give her time,” Eri goes on, “and I'm worried, and we have commissions that I wouldn't dream of doing without her–”

It's not that Neku tunes out Eri confiding in him, but it's near the latter half of her concerns that his phone rings. And he just takes it out to check the caller ID, but when he sees it his heart races.

It's the number he recognizes as Joshua's.

Chapter Text

For the first few seconds, Neku is frozen, tense. The next he's on his feet, launching up off his seat like a too-tightly coiled spring with the spike of adrenaline that courses around him. Next to him, he knows Eri is calling to him, but it feels far away compared to the ringing of his phone.

He answers it.

“He-hello?” Neku says, ignoring the noticeable crack in his voice.

There's silence on the other end, so long that Neku almost panics, but then he hears an audible sigh come through.

“Hey there, partner.”

It's definitely Joshua's voice he hears, but there's something... off about it. And it makes Neku feel cold all over.

“Joshua, what is going on?” he asks firmly. He hears Joshua chuckle on the other end, although there is a sardonic tone laced over it.

“It's not easily explained over the phone,” Joshua says, and Neku is about to snap back, but the other finishes with, “but WildKat is open right now.”

Neku receives the message loud and clear.

“I'll be there in ten minutes,” he says without thinking.

“See you then,” is Joshua's response, and then the line goes dead. Neku drops the hand with the phone at his side.

“Neku...” Eri's hand finds his wrist, and he turns to see the concerned look on her face. “Are... are you okay?” He's so keyed up the concern in her voice nearly makes him cry.

“Eri, I'm sorry but I have to go,” he says, voice rough. It's not really an answer to the question she'd just asked though. “Please understand.”

“You're not in trouble are you?” she asks.

I really have no idea anymore. “No... I just have to be there for someone,” is his attempt at explaining, “I'm sorry I'm abandoning you to do it.”

It's then that Eri hugs him, perhaps picking up on the mood better than Neku expected. And it's good, it's reassuring. It makes Neku want to cry again.

“Do what you have to do,” Eri tells him, pulling back. Her words are even more assuring than the hug.

“Thank you,” he says, “Be safe on your way home.” She nods.

And with that, he takes off. After all, he has less than ten minutes.

 
 
 

If Neku was in a less frantic mindset, he might have laughed at the irony of running to Cat Street on a non-existent timer.

His body screams at him to slow down. If he wasn't moving, he's sure his body would be shaking. But his mind is arguing that he can't stop. He's panting by the time he's crossing into Cat Street, realizing that just a few days ago he'd been incapable of doing so.

He slows down outside of WildKat and his shoes hit the ground hard and echo down the empty street. Although Joshua said it was open, it's rather dark inside. He cups his hands to the window to peek inside. It's still dark, but he's now able to see a faint light emanating from the back. Neku then tests the door handle.

It's open.

He hesitates for a brief second, anxiety welling up in his throat, but he swallows it down and steps through the door.

A little bell near the top of the door dings and Neku flinches at how loud it is in the cafe's silence.

It's warm inside, which wasn't the most comfortable due to his sweat-damp skin. The air is filled with the scent of coffee. And everything seems in place, which must have been a bitch to accomplish considering how it looked the last time Neku had seen it. He tries to take everything in as his steps are near deafening, heading toward the dim light.

And it's there, among one of the few booths, is Joshua.

There's an unusual relief that washes over him seeing the other there. Of all the emotions stewing inside him, that wasn't what he was expecting to feel predominantly as memories of the other bubble up to the forefront of his mind. The good and the bad.

Or perhaps it's more relief knowing that the other doesn't seem to be in any immediate danger as that was one of the troubling thoughts in his head as he was running over.

But that relief fades as Neku approaches and the other doesn't even acknowledge him, head bent over a mug of coffee.

He's practically right next to him, unable to see the other's expression from the way his hair is framing his face and reaches his hand out tentatively.

“Joshua–?”

Joshua whips his head up so quickly, Neku almost yelps, drawing his hand back.

And Joshua is looking at him. But not really.

There's something empty in his gaze that Neku's never seen before. It wasn't the usual haughtiness nor even the steadfast coldness that Neku remembers. There's just... nothing. And it scares the shit out of him.

“... are you all right?” he asks softly.

Joshua seems to blink away the look after a second and Neku watches his shoulders drop from a more tense position.

“Ah, Neku...” he says, kind of lagging a bit, as if he's still processing Neku's presence here, “Please, sit down.” He gestures to the seat across from him.

Neku eyes him for a second. The nagging feeling of something wrong is still eating at him, but standing up is already awkward enough as it is. While he takes a seat, Joshua takes the mug of coffee and takes a long sip from it. There's no steam, Neku notices when the other puts it back down.

This really wasn't the reunion Neku may or may not have imagined.

He watches Joshua from his seat, the other's cheek now resting against his hand as he just stares into the coffee mug. The only sound is from Neku's jittering leg under the table.

“You didn't answer my question,” Neku then says, speaking into the silence.

Joshua then brings his gaze back to Neku and his mouth stretches into that condescending smirk of his.

“Oh, I'm sorry, what was it again?” he asks, the familiar tone Neku knows creeping back into his speech. However, it still doesn't mask the strain underneath.

He's doing this on purpose, Neku realizes.

And it annoys him. But there's something fragile hanging in the balances that getting angry, Neku knows, will shatter it.

“Are you okay?” he asks again, careful.

“Yes,” Joshua says, “as you can see, I'm still in one piece.”

“Then why did you call me here?” Neku presses, perhaps a little too quick, a little too urgent.

And Joshua seems to consider this, his other hand fidgeting with a lock of his hair between his fingers.

“Hmm, I wonder that myself...” he then says. It's so soft, said more under his breath than anything.

“Joshua, just tell me what the hell is going on.” He's frustrated and can feel it starting to show through.

And just like that, Joshua sighs, leaves his hair hanging and then sitting back against the booth. His smile is gone.

“You remember I am the Composer, right Neku?”

He says it low and his gaze sharper than before. For a moment, Neku feels a flash of the same fear that he felt the first time he'd stared down the barrel of the Composer's gun.

He swallows hard before answering, “Yes.”

“I thought so,” the other says, smiling again now, amusedly. “Well,” he continued, “it may surprise you to know I am not the end all be all authority of the UG.”

Joshua's right, it does surprise him. “What?”

“Shocking, isn't it?” Joshua says, “Although they rarely interfere with anything directly. They prefer the more watch-and-wait approach than the hands-on one, but it's still important they're informed of the goings-on here.”

Neku is silent for a beat considering. “Why are you telling me this?” he then asks.

Because there's no reason Joshua would call him here and tell him trivia about the UG after weeks with only random instances of contact.

“Because, Neku dear,” Joshua sighs, his gaze dropping to the table, “actions–even my actions–have consequences. And attempting to erase an entire city from the UG has pretty damning consequences, and I wasn't planning on living to see them.”

His words make Neku feel a sinking feeling in his chest.

“You didn't...” Neku trails off as the meaning really dawns on him, “You mean you would have been–”

“Potentially,” Joshua says, way too casual for the topic of conversation, “However, not by the Higher-ups. They seemed to have decided that was too extreme considering Shibuya's still here. But they have their hands quite full since I wasn't the only one breaking rules.”

Neku looks at the other, confused. He can't mean him, can he? Or Pi-face? Konishi? Shades? All of them were erased. And then–

“Mr. H,” he realizes, “he was helping you.”

And then Joshua does something that catches Neku off-guard. He laughs.

“Actually, it was the opposite,” Joshua tells him. His tone is darkly amused.

“He tried to stop you?”

But that can't be right. It was, after all, Mr. H who hid the key to the Shibuya River for Neku to find, who added the tracker to Joshua's phone. And it was Mr. H standing next to Joshua after he'd shot him for the second time.

“More or less,” Joshua says, tapping his fingers on the table. His casual tone seems to have slipped a bit. “And he broke quite a few rules to do so, some more serious than my own. Not that I gave him much choice.”

There's a vulnerability in Joshua's self-depreciation that surprises Neku.

“Where is he now?” Neku asks.

“He was summoned,” Joshua tells him, “by the Higher-ups.” He's trying to sound flippant, and it's not working. “And he decided not to tell me because he knew...”

“He knew you would try to stop him.” is Neku's conclusion, and, given the glare he receives, he knows he's right.

“It's idiotic,” Joshua scoffs, “thinking I would go against the Higher Plane's judgement.”

Yeah, I can't imagine why he would think that, Neku thinks to himself dryly. “Do you know when he's coming back?”

Another bout of silence follows, this time less awkward and more uneasy before Joshua seems to retreat into himself and swallows harshly.

“No,” and his voice comes out rough, almost wet, “It could be never. They could choose to spare him or they could choose to erase him. And I wouldn't even know until it happened.”

And it all seems to click into place for Neku then. “Josh...”

But the other doesn't give him a chance to speak before continuing. “He's so insufferable. Always taking his own path for what he thinks is best without even consulting me. Trying to keep me in the dark isn't going to protect me.” With every sentence, his voice increases in volume and frustration. “But I'm not some child that just threw a tantrum and didn't think about the consequences.”

Neku is shell-shocked in his seat, almost not wanting to breathe too loudly or it could shatter the fragile atmosphere between them.

Because unshed tears are clinging to Joshua's lashes as if he's about to cry like the child he's claiming he's not.

And Neku doesn't know what he should do.

He's not the most emotionally intelligent person, admittedly, but Joshua called him here. And despite their messy history and turbulent emotions, Joshua had reached out to him even if neither of them knew why.

But it's something.

“Josh...” He reaches his hand across the table, a gesture of comfort, “... it's okay.” Lame. His words are lame, but he hopes the sentiment comes through.

He can't tell if it does because, while Joshua looks at his hand stretched halfway, he looks away just as quickly, still looking small and compacted into the booth's seat.

Neku tried not to feel too awkward as they sit in silence and Neku attempting to determine what he should do now. But then a strange sensation creeps up his spine.

He shivers. The hairs on the back of his neck and arms stand up and he feels altogether energized and sluggish in a matter of seconds. He must not be the only one feeling it as Joshua sits up straight and his eyes go wide.

And then he sees Mr. H, barely visible in the dim lighting, in the space behind the booth.

Even with the lack of lighting, Neku can see that he looks, just by how he carries himself, more worn out than before. They lock eyes for a second, both seeming to express the same surprise at the other's presence.

But then it's broken when, without a word, Joshua gets up from the booth. His steps careful towards the other, whose gaze has left Neku and is now on Joshua. Then Mr. H's gives the most sheepish look Neku thinks he's ever seen. And then Joshua is hugging him, arms wrapped around his middle and face buried in his chest.

And Mr. H hugs him back.

After a moment, Neku has to look away back down at the table. It's too intimate for him to be here. He feels like he's intruding on a private moment.

But he still can't help glancing up. He sees them pull away, Mr. H's hands still on Joshua's shoulders. He says something softly that Neku can't hear (annoyingly) before then glancing at where he sits.

They're talking about him, is the only conclusion his mind can come to.

He's still sitting there when both Joshua and Mr. H turn towards him. Joshua now standing a considerate amount away from the other, arms crossed. But Mr. H is looking almost as tired as Neku feels.

“Nice to see you again, Phones,” Mr. H says.

Despite everything that Neku's been through, Neku is glad to see the other again too, although he doesn't really think he could express that properly right now. It also makes him a bit self-conscious as he'd lost his so nicknamed headphones.

Thankfully, he doesn't need to as Mr. H continues. “How long were you planning on stayin'?”

“Neku was just leaving.”

Joshua's voice comes stern and cold from where he stands.

“J...” he hears Mr. H say warily.

Neku then glares at Joshua who, to his surprise, doesn't try to match his look.

But Neku is not leaving. Joshua has put a sudden halt on all of their previous conversations, but those had been over the phone and through text, easy for the other to retreat at a moments notice. But not this time. Joshua is here in front of him and Neku's not going to allow him to just walk away this time.

“Like hell I am,” he says, probably too loud in the quiet cafe.

He wants to argue but even with his outburst, Joshua doesn't look at him or say anything more.

“I think it's a little late for you to go wandering around,” Mr. H then says. He seems considerate as he rubs the back of his neck. “There's a spare room in the back you can stay.”

 
 
 

Neku's phone is almost dead.

Neku didn't look at it till he was sitting on a couch across from a cushioned chair in a semi-barren room in the back of WildKat. There's just the couch and chair as furniture, but under the one large window in the room, the floor is covered in spray cans and other art tools atop a tarp speckled in paint. There's also an easel, although with no canvas.

The atmosphere all echoed familiar when he first stepped into the room, but judging by the staleness of the toom, it hasn't been used in quite a while.

He doesn't see an outlet anywhere though, so it's probably not likely Joshua or Mr. H has a charger.

He also wonders if Joshua is planning to come back after showing Neku to the room and then leaving again without another word.

Maybe it's for the best. Neku is still trying to process everything that has happened. It reminds him it wasn't just him and his friends that had gone through hell those three weeks.

The time on his phone showed that it was later than he'd thought, and it continued to lose battery life as he looks through the two new messages he has, one from Beat and one from Eri.

The one from Beat was asking him about his availability tomorrow. Neku reads it there's no way to know for certain at the moment. The one from Eri he's more apprehensive about.

Eri: Neku please tell me when you get home and be safe <3

While he appreciates her concern, he's not making it home tonight, but he should probably reassure her even if it's untrue.

But at that moment the door to the room opens and Joshua walks in, a small plate with a muffin on it in his hand. Neku forgets all about the message and pockets his phone.

“Here,” is all Joshua says as he hands him the plate.

Neku takes the plate pretty much on instinct, but he eyes the muffin warily.

“You don't have to eat it,” Joshua, he thinks attempts to remind him, seeming to note Neku's distaste.

Neku doesn't get why he's been given it and he's not a fan of muffins, but he picks a piece off and chews it. It's stale.

Joshua seems satisfied with his attempt. Either that or he doesn't care, which is more likely. And then he turns back to the door.

“You're leaving.” It's not a question.

Joshua remains silent, but he also doesn't move further.

And there's probably nothing Neku can say that would convince Joshua to talk to him. He'd have to bite and kick and fight just to get the other to listen to him.

“Actually,” Joshua then says, “I was going to shut the door.”

Neku blinks in surprise, although now unsure.

But Joshua does just that, closes the door so only the dim light of the lamp in the corner illuminates them. Neku's eyes follow him as he walks back from the door and sits in the cushioned chair. He doesn't look comfortable.

“So Neku, ask me.”

Neku eyes him suspiciously. “Ask you what?”

“Whatever it is I know you're dying to, silly,” Joshua says, chuckling.

Neku is still wary. This feels like a trap.

And he's kind of sick of Joshua acting as if it's a privilege he's allowing Neku to talk to him. It's condescending as hell. But then again, when has Joshua been anything but?

A few minutes ago, he reminds himself.

But as long as the other is offering, he may as well.

“What was Mr. H doing that had you so worried?”

Joshua seems to lose some of that smug confidence he's started with. What, did he think Neku wasn't going to bring it up?

But then Joshua straightens a bit in his chairs and rakes some of his hair out of his face. “From what he told me, reporting to the Higher Plane,” he says rather matter-of-factly but with a hard swallow, “Apparently, he still has to go back, but his judgement, for now, is to remain in Shibuya. But I thought...”

He trails off, looks down towards his hands and Neku realizes he's not going to continue.

“What is the Higher Plane?” Neku pressed.

“That's the higher authority.”

“The one you answer to.”

“Yes. Just as I am the higher authority in this plane, the UG, those in the Higher Plane are the authority in their plane which sees all other planes. And they make it their business to oversee it all.”

Joshua doesn't sound very pleased about it at all, but Neku is too distracted by processing what he's been told.

Joshua seemed to see him struggling and chuckled. “Don't you believe in Angels, Neku?”

“Angels?”

Neku never thought he did. Although with his experience he now knew that there was a survival game in the afterlife, so angels shouldn't be such a stretch.

“Are you telling me they're angels... and the Higher Plane is like... what, Heaven?”

It would explain why the UG is hell.

But Joshua sighs and shakes his head. “That's a little... narrow-minded. Even for you.”

“Hey–”

“But, sure, I guess.”

Neku rolls his eyes. This was getting him nowhere. And off-track from what he really wanted to know, anyway.

“But... you thought they would erase Mr. H. You said he broke rules.”

His question is more implied because Joshua's eyes meet his and sharpen dangerously as if this is what he was waiting for Neku to ask.

“That he did,” Joshua says, voice low. He then becomes occupied by something underneath his fingernail.

“I broke rules too,” he admits, “but mostly everything got put back to normal. Shibuya's heart still beats. The UG is no longer in a state of emergency.”

He then looks at Neku and gestures at him, “You and your friends' lives are intact.” Although that is kind of true, Neku still resents that comment.

“And ultimately,” the other continues, “I am only really at fault for disposing of my Conductor. But even then all that amounted to was a temporary probation.”

Joshua says it so casually, barely a falter in his voice, but Neku still feels a slight twinge of guilt.

“But Sanae tried to stop me, and to do that, he helped Minamimoto.

“Pi-Face?” Neku blurts out, shocked.

“The same. To ensure that Shibuya remained, his back-up plan was to tell Minamimoto of my identity.”
Neku feels dizzy. He can't believe that. He can't believe that Mr. H had betrayed Joshua even before Neku had even entered the UG.

“Damn,” he mumbles, “Shit.

“Yes, quite a predicament isn't it?” Joshua says. He sounds like he meant it to be teasing, but it sounds resigned. It only makes Neku feel more distressed.

“Yeah, he tried to kill you,” Neku hissed, “isn't that like treason or something?”

Joshua looks at him so sympathetically it's infuriating.

“I'm a big Composer, Neku, I can take care of myself,” he tells him, “Besides, I don't think a coup is what the Higher Plane was particularly worried about.”

“What? But–”

But Joshua interrupts him. “Don't you remember what your lovely, previously a Reaper friend told you? Whoever defeats the old Composer gets to take over the role.”

Yeah, Neku remembers. He and Beat had been relying on that rule as their ticket back to life all of that last week before... yeah that.

Joshua then shrugs. “That was all Minamimoto wanted. And Sanae just used that in an attempt to keep the UG from getting razed. Cost of the job, I'm afraid.”

Neku is quiet for a long moment. The question aches in his throat.

“Did you...” he starts and floundering because there's not a real delicate way to phrase it. Turns out, he doesn't have to.

“Yes, I did,” Joshua says without hesitation. Neku doesn't even doubt that the other knows what he was trying to ask.

And Joshua gives him a look as if asking does that bother you?

But Neku doesn't know.

Instead, he changes the subject. “Okay, then why did you think that the Higher-ups would punish Mr. H?”

“Because for good measure he taught Minamimoto how to summon and harness the Taboo Noise. And they're, well, taboo for a reason.”

Neku is sure Joshua is continuing to speak, but he's tuned out by this point.

He can't believe it. Mr. H had been helping Joshua. Mr. H had helped him. And Beat, and Rhyme, and Shiki. Yet he'd been helping the Grim Heaper, making him an even bigger pain in the ass than he already had been. And the Taboo Noise had erased so many Players, so many Reapers...

Then Neku remembers Udagawa with Beat and the Taboo Noise sigil. His phone had shown Mr. H there, and it makes much more sense than it had before.

Neku had been so lost in thought that he only catches the tail-end of what Joshua says.

“... I suspect they were expecting him to use my actions as an excuse for his own. But he didn't. It probably would have been better if he did.”

“But then they would have erased you,” Neku protests. Even the thought makes something in him turn to panic.

“Perhaps,” Joshua muses, “but then who would be Composer?”

It doesn't sound as cocky as the words might imply. He sounds wistful.

It makes Neku worry, but his thoughts are interrupted by a yawn and a sudden wave of exhaustion. He hasn't checked the time since they started talking, but his body knows it's late.

“You're tired,” Joshua states, “You should sleep.”

Neku wants to protest. His mind is still racing with all the new information he's been given, he doesn't know how he still has room to be tired.

“Are you going to–?” Another yawn cuts off his question.

“I'm staying,” Joshua assures him. He then shifts in the chair till his legs are hanging over one of its arms and his back against the other. Once he's hunkered down, he takes out his phone.

Neku takes this as a signifier that their conversation is over.

He sets down the small plate with the barely eaten muffin (even if it wasn't stale, he's not a fan) on the floor and kicks off his shoes next to it before stretching out on the couch.

But he ends up looking at the ceiling. Then at his sock covered feet. The lamp in the corner is still on, but he doesn't really mind.

“Hey Josh?” he asks softly toward the ceiling.

“Hmm?”

“Why did you wait so long to... to contact me?”

There's no immediate response, but Neku is aware of how he is practically holding his breath in anticipation.

“Your thoughts are one thing, Neku,” Joshua then says then, “but your actions are quite another. I didn't think I'd be forgiven. I wasn't prepared to hear you hated me.”

Neku takes that in. It's true, he does do stuff without thinking it through sometimes. And yeah, his thoughts weren't always the kindest, or perhaps could be too kind.

And there was also the fact that Joshua is right about one thing, Neku doesn't forgive him.

He doesn't forgive him for using or lying to him. He doesn't forgive him for the three weeks he suffered through even if Neku appreciates the life he has now. And he doesn't forgive him for shooting him. Twice.

But–

“I meant what I said before. Or, uh, texted. I trust you.” He means what he says, but it still feels lame when he does. “And I don't hate you.”

There's no answer, but Neku doesn't need one because he knows Joshua heard him. So he turns over on the couch, facing its back and tries, what feels like a long time, to fall asleep.

 
 
 

Neku already knew it would not be a pleasant experience when he woke up as soon as he attempted to fall asleep on the couch.

And he was right. When he woke up, he could feel his entire body ache in protest. His mouth was dry and his jaw felt tight until he relaxed it. He had a bad habit of grinding his teeth in his sleep.

Bright morning sunlight streamed in through the uncovered window, making it hard for him to open his eyes. But when he did, the first thing he noticed was that Joshua was gone. The cushioned chair where he's last seen the other sat empty, and without a trace he'd ever been there.

It's not that Neku panics. No, Neku calmly picks himself up off the couch and makes his way towards the door and turns the knob.

But when he opens the door, it's even brighter inside WildKat, and both Mr. H and Joshua stare back at him.

Mr. H is at the counter, a white rag over one shoulder, pouring hot water over what he presumes is coffee given the smell of it is stronger than yesterday. Joshua is sitting across the room from him, at one of the two-chaired tables, his phone in his hand.

They both sort of regard Neku as if he's a wandering, stray dog that's just entered the cafe. The sad thing is he kind of feels like one himself.

But Joshua is quick and doesn't miss a Beat. “Good morning, Sunshine,” he calls sweetly, getting up from the table.

Neku wonders if his greeting is a specific callback or if Sunshine is just going to be one on an ever-growing list of nicknames he has. He manages a half-hearted wave. Mr. H has said nothing, but he's put the coffee down, watching Joshua.

But Joshua is making his way towards Neku. “Why don't we get your stuff, hmm?” he says and begins ushering him back into the room.

Neku's a little more confused than anything, but Joshua tells him to grab his shoes and makes sure he has everything he came with. The other seems kind of distracted and Neku is too newly awoken to protest. When he gets them on, he follows Joshua out of the room and through the cafe.

“I'm taking Neku home,” Joshua says. He's talking to Mr. H, Neku realizes but doesn't even look at him and his tone is flat. He was right, there's some weird tension happening between them.

But there's nothing Neku can do about it. However, he lingers long enough to say, “Thanks for letting me stay,” to Mr. H.

Mr. H smiles back at him, but even his eyes tell Neku that he's thinking about something else. “No problem, Phones,” he says, “You're always welcome here.”

Neku nods before following Joshua out the door. He was glad for the verbal acknowledgment he could return. Hopefully, it wouldn't be so painfully awkward next time.

Joshua is waiting for him outside, giving him an expectant look.

“So... you're talking me home?”

Joshua nods. “Do you not want me too?”

“No, nothing like that,” Neku is quick to assure him, “Let's just go.”

They walk in a silence that makes Neku feel like he should say something. But maybe nothing needs to be said. At least not right now.

Even if everything hasn't been discussed and talked over between them, Neku feels comforted because they had talked. And Joshua had been open with him and straight-forward. Moments like that were few. Joshua also had stuck around this time, to assure him, Neku would like to think since their last few conversations before the other hadn't before.

He felt oddly reassured.

So, yeah, even if it was an awkward silence that hung between them, he felt like they'd gotten somewhere. A positive step forward in their.... friendship.

And Neku would probably feel even better when he got home to a shower and changed into a different pair of clothes. Maybe even take a nap in his own bed.

However, once they make it out from the Underpass, Neku's phone rings.

Oh shit, Eri, Neku thinks as he remembers he hadn't answered her message the night before like he planned.

His phone is dangerously low on battery and he hoped it doesn't die on him while he answers the call. He looks at the caller ID expecting Eri, but to his surprise, it's not. It's Shiki. That means he's really in deep shit.

“Hello?” he answers, tentative.

“Neku!” Shiki exclaims before her voice gets interrupted by a bit of commotion on the other end. He catches her voice again mid-sentence "–yes, he answered. Hang on... Neku, you there?”

“Still here.”

“Where are you? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I'm fine,” he tries to sound confident.

There's a pause as if Shiki is trying to determine if his assurance is genuine. Then she says, “Neku, I hope you're not upset, but Eri told me what happened yesterday. Please don't be mad at her, she seemed pretty worried.”

Neku shifts uncomfortably. “No, it's okay. It's my fault. I should have let her know.”

“So where are you?”

“Uh, near Towa Records,” he says since he can see it in the distance.

“Oh! We're not far, in Molco. Eri's still wandering around D+B. Beat and Rhyme are here too. We can meet you if you're not busy.”

Neku thinks for a second, biting his lip. He knows his clothes are rumpled and wrinkled and he would still really like a shower before being in anyone's company. Beat and Rhyme wouldn't care what he looked like, but Shiki and Eri might be horrified.

But he feels like he owes it to them. Definitely to Eri for forgetting to respond to her.

“Okay. I'll see you in a little bit.”

“Okay,” Shiki agrees, and he hangs up.

“Quite popular today, aren't we?”

Neku almost jolts because he'd forgotten Joshua was standing just a ways in front of him, now leaning against the side of the Underpass.

There's something challenging to his gaze that makes Neku balk, “Uh, yeah. I guess.”

“Should we get going again then?” Joshua suggests.

“Actually...”

Man, Neku feels like an asshole. He doesn't really want to say that he doesn't want Joshua around when he meets his friends, but... that's exactly what he doesn't want. He knows he and Joshua have more to figure out, but not right now. And adding his friends to the mix will not make it any easier.

“Look, I told my friends I would meet up with them for a second,” he says lamely, “They'll make sure I get home okay.”

Joshua just stares at him, expression unreadable.

“I promise we can talk later, okay. Please understand.” He shouldn't feel as guilty as he does, should he?

But then Joshua just smiles, stuffs his hands into his pockets. “I understand, Neku,” he says, but his tone is frustratingly unreadable.

Neku feels another pang of guilt, but he still leaves.

“Sorry,” is all he can think to say, and runs off, promising himself that he'll fix everything. Eventually.

 
 
 

Neku wasn't planning to stay with his friends for long. He would see them for a few minutes and then go home. Even so, he knew he'd handled things with Joshua badly. But after everything the other had put him through, he deserved to set his own boundaries when it came to his friends.

They ended up meeting in Cadoi City.

Rhyme is the one who sees him first. She looks better than she had the last time Neku had seen her, which he's glad for. However, it's Eri who makes it to him first, eyebrows knit in determination. She punches him in the arm and he yelps in pain.

“You had me worried you jerk,” she chastises him, but her glare soon melts into concern. “You look...” she stops, and Neku has the suspicion she was going to say awful, but says, “... tired.”

He can't help but laugh. “Yeah, you could say that.”

Shiki, Beat, and Rhyme are not far behind. Shiki greets him but more scolds Eri for punching him, which is still tender but he's been through worse.

Beat brought his skateboard with him. Some designs Neku had painted on them had become scuffed and more faded than before. And then their whole conversation devolved into ideas for designs Neku could do over them.

“So, Neku,” Shiki then asked, “Where were you last night?”

Neku shifts uncomfortably as all his friends look at him, but attempts to laugh it off. “It's nothing serious.”

“Neku, dear.”

And then Neku isn't trying to smile anymore as cold realization fills him. It's only confirmed when he realizes his friends are looking in the same direction, expressions ranging from curiosity to confusion. Neku turns around.

Joshua is there, a smirk on his face, and once again Neku is reminded of that grating irritation that seemed to plague him those first few days he'd had the other as a partner.

When he's right in front of Neku, who has been too stunned to say or do anything other than stare at him, Joshua shoves something against his chest. Neku catches it and looks down.

It's a pair of familiar blue headphones. His old headphones.

“I believe these are yours,” Joshua says, not even trying to hide the faux civility in his voice, before turning and walking away.

Chapter Text

Joshua had a knack for making arguably bad decisions, and he seemed to be making those, again arguably, bad decisions more frequently in the past few months.

But the one he'd made as he watched Neku run down towards Towa Records, even he could agree was bad and wouldn't end well.

When Neku had abandoned him just outside of the Underpass, he felt more than a little miffed. He'd been planning to talk more with Neku, about the events of last night. He didn't know how much Sanae knew he'd told Neku, about the behind-the-scenes of the Game, about the Angel himself, or how much of Neku's memory remained intact (although considering how loud Neku's thoughts could be it was safe to assume Joshua had an accurate idea) because it wasn't the fact that Neku knew that was a problem. It was more about how he knew and what action the Higher Plane would take if they knew of it.

And Sanae had already proven he valued the state of Shibuya over its Composer and even Neku. Besides, whatever the Angel knew, the Higher Plane would as well. He didn't have a choice in that.

Granted, he hadn't told his former proxy this information when they started walking, but he would have once he felt they were far enough from the cafe.

But Neku had decided his friends were more important and didn't appreciate the risk Joshua had taken with the information he'd shared.

Liar, his thoughts whisper to him, you know how much he admires CAT. You wanted to get back at Sanae. You're just using Neku again.

He scowls.

Not only that, but he knew uncertainty when he saw it. For all of Neku's declarations of trust, he didn't mean it when it came to his friends.

Can you blame him? You erased their memories. He thinks you'll alienate them from him again.

He trudges back to WildKat with heavy steps and a worse mood than before, but with his bad decision already made.

Sanae picks up on it, but Joshua is too focused on the task at hand to let him stop him.

He goes to the booth where he'd sat last night to grab what he'd forgotten to give Neku last night. Once he has it he leaves just as quickly.

Sanae just has enough time to say, “Josh...” but he's out the door before any more words can be said that will convince him to stop.

Neku is indeed with his friends. He looks as tired as he did before, but now smiling as Joshua walks toward him. Shiki Misaki sees him first and then her friend. They look more confused than Daisukenojo Bito, whose expression is more of recognition and realization. He doesn't look towards Raimu Bito.

Neku sees him last. Joshua can admit it's satisfying, albeit, in a rather petty way, the others shocked expression when he shoves the headphones into his hands, turns, and walks away.

 
 
 

Needless to say, Neku is pissed.

He can't remember another time at that moment when he had ever been angrier, but he supposed that it didn't matter.

Behind him, Eri whispered to Shiki, “Based on your guys' reactions, should I know him?”

He also hears Shiki say his name, but he's already moving forward to catch up with Joshua, not even looking back at his friends when he says, “I'll be right back.”

It doesn't take long for him to catch up as Joshua is still walking when he confronts him.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he demands.

Joshua has stopped walking and is leaning against the wall of the alley he stopped in, arms folded, and smirking like he's daring Neku to challenge him.

“Whatever do you mean, Neku?” he asks, all faux innocence as if he hadn't just done something that Neku found the equivalent to a slap in the face.

(or maybe it would have been more appropriate to say a bullet through his head)

“You...” Neku growls in frustration, so angry he doesn't think there are words enough to encapsulate the feeling.

He's just upset. Just upset at this whole situation. At Joshua for putting him into this now ugly web of a problem he'd have to untangle with his friends. And he's upset with himself because he should have known—he should have known Joshua would be irritated with him and pulls some shit like this to make Neku regret running off with his friends after... yesterday.

He then sighs angrily, in what feels like an act of defeat. He's so much more tired than he was before.

“Okay, congratulations, you did it,” Neku states dryly, “You made me look like an idiot in front of my friends. Any other ways you'd like to embarrass me before you go?”

Joshua seemed to be amused by his sarcasm since he giggles as if it is truly a wonderful idea. Neku supposes that shouldn't surprise him.

“Actually,” Joshua purrs, “I think I would very much like to meet your friends.”

Neku swears his ears are ringing. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“No. No way!”

“What's with your reaction?” Joshua asks sounding irritated and half-way annoyed. He then gives a rather exaggerated pout. “You almost sound like you're ashamed of me.”

Neku knows it's supposed to appear joking, but he hears the truth in the way the other’s voice falters a bit.

“I'm not ashamed of you,” Neku tells him firmly, “but you erased their memories. And Beat thinks you're dead. What am I supposed to tell them?”

“Just say I'm a long lost acquaintance. And if Beat asks, tell him I somehow survived the Game, and you were unaware. My goodness Neku, it's like you've never lied before.”

“I don't make a habit of lying to my friends,” Neku counters, the 'unlike you' he leaves unsaid, “Whatever. Just.... don't be a dick. Please.”

He couldn't believe he was agreeing to this, but if it meant he could at least smooth over the situation with his friends, he'd do it. Then maybe he'd be able to go home.

“You think so little of me?” Joshua asks.

Neku looks at him and then shakes his head. “I just don't understand you.”

Joshua then laughs softly, pushing himself up from against the wall. “I told you, Neku—understanding people is impossible.”

But Neku gives him a hard stare, unfazed. “No,” he says, “understanding people is difficult. But you, on the other hand, are impossible.”

 
 
 

It's painfully awkward and horrible from the beginning and it only goes down from there.

Joshua is good at acting natural—or at least confident enough that it makes it seem like nothing phases him.

(And once upon a time, Neku might have believed it, that the other was that confident. But in their last few interactions, he'd started seeing the cracks in the facade. Not to say the other wasn't confident, it's just now he didn't seem inhumanely so.)

Neku, however, can't really manage a poker face. He's always been that way, wearing his emotions out in the open to a bit of an embarrassing degree. So he knows that, despite how calm and collected Joshua appears beside him, his friends can see how upset he still is.

Shiki's looks is more concerned, although she eyes Joshua a little suspiciously. But Beat's is absolutely confounded. Neku gives him a look he hoped said, I'll explain later.

However, he was still faced with the fact that Joshua felt like an active time bomb counting down amongst his friends. The tension present between them all suggested his friends felt something similar.

"It's nice to meet you all," Joshua says, the pleasantness feeling more than a little foreign to Neku's perception of him.

Eri seems the most curious of Josh, which, Neku has to admit, makes him nervous. But what's more is Rhyme, whose polite demeanor hasn't changed, but her gaze toward Joshua is intense.

“Neku's talked about you quite a bit,” the other also adds on. Dread prickles at the back of Neku's neck.

This is going to end horribly.

And he was right.

Neku didn't know how, but they indirectly split into groups, Shiki pulling him aside as Eri followed them, leaving Joshua, Beat, and Rhyme together, much to his dismay. But then Shiki mumbles softly, an attempt to be discreet, “Neku, what is—who is he?”

He's surprised by the edge in her voice that sounds like fear. He also notices the hand Eri has at Shiki's wrist gives a comforting squeeze. It seems Eri has also noticed their friend's agitation, but she's still surprisingly quiet.

Also, what a loaded question. It's not Shiki's fault, but Neku didn't have a simple, watered-down answer prepared.

Behind him, he also catches a bit of the conversation between Beat and Josh.

“So you made it outta the Game?”

“Seems that way, doesn't it?”

Neku tries not to panic and stay collected. “Uh, well...” He's not succeeding at all under Shiki's gaze.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the conversation between Beat and Joshua continues.

“You seem to have something else you wish to say.”

“Nah. I ain't tryna fight.”

“Really? You had no problem engaging in combat before.”

The sirens in Neku's head start to go off erratically. He then looks over his shoulder without even thinking and without even answering Shiki's questioning frown.

“Is it because you claimed that was only for your sister's sake?” Joshua continues. He hasn't moved from where he was once standing with Neku, except he has a hand now in his back pocket. “But it wasn't even you who brought her back, was it?”

Across from him, Beat casts a nervous look in Rhyme's direction.

“Or was it just to try to prove you could succeed at something, Daisukenojo Bito?”

Everything happens at once. Beat yelps and back away, like Neku remembers him doing before when they were getting jumped by Reapers who used his full name. Rhyme is still at her brother's side, trying to calm him down. Shiki and Eri both seem a little stunned, but Neku still turns to them, determined, "You guys go on without me." He then marches back towards Joshua, now looking a bit bored examining his nails, grabs his arm and starts dragging him away from his friends. Hopefully forever.

“Seriously? Are you doing this on purpose?” Neku growls. He doesn't even look back towards him, just continues far enough to get some distance between both parties.

Joshua's not trying to stop him either. “Actually, it was your Reaper friend who seemed to want to pick a fight.”

Neku stops, turns around to face Josh. “He's not a Reaper anymore.”

“Former Reaper then. Make you feel better?” Neku continues to glare at him. “I guess not.”

Joshua then sighs. “You'd think he'd be more grateful if he knew what I did for his sister, considering what it cost her.”

For a moment, Neku forgets his anger and just stares at the other. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, you didn't realize?”

“Realize what?”

“My powers as Composer are limited as I might have mentioned before. But bringing you and your other friends back was easy. Technically, you'd won the Game. It was simply a matter of transferring back what was already yours. However, Raimu Bito was different.”

Neku remembers that, how easily Shades had returned his memories at the end of the first week. If it were that easy for him, it made sense to think it was that easy for Joshua. But Rhyme...

“She was erased. She lost the Game. Her entry fee was non-refundable. If it wasn't for Sanae's pin there would have been nothing I could have done for her, and even then, I can't return what's not there anymore.”

Neku feels his stomach turn. He remembers recently thinking how happy he was to have a chance to know Rhyme now that they were all back. There was no way he could imagine not having that chance. Or how Beat would have felt waking up and discovering Rhyme didn't make it back with them. He refused to.

“Okay,” he says, although his voice is a little rough, “so it was only through your good grace that Rhyme is alive. Alright. Thank you.” Joshua smirks. “But don't expect me to be exploding with gratefulness for bringing back the rest of us. We all won, and I wouldn't have been in the Game if it wasn't for you in the first place. So forgive me if I don't fall over in gratitude.”

“Fair enough I suppose,” Joshua murmurs, crossing his arms over his arms again, looking away from him. “By the way, I think your friends have gone on without us.”

Neku rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I told them to.”

“Without saying goodbye? That's rather rude.”

“Quit it, Josh. I'm going home. By myself this time.”

He didn't feel like Joshua understood just how mad he was at him, or how upset he was about what Joshua just revealed about Rhyme. It was also hard to believe how just hours ago he'd been so optimistic about his and Joshua's relationship. He thinks he may have been happy for a moment. Now he couldn't stand him again.

Or perhaps Joshua did get it because he frowns and glares in Neku's direction. “Fine,” Neku hears him mutter before he steps back. His form shimmers like a glitch on a computer screen and then he vanishes within a small flash and dull pop that leaves Neku's ears ringing, regardless. The air left behind tastes electric and the hairs on his arms and back of his neck are standing up. It's the same feeling that he remembers before Mr. H had appeared last night.

Right. Composer powers. The thought irritates him all over again.

He's about to make good on his word and finally head home when he realizes his old headphones are still around his neck where he'd put them reflexively.

He contemplates throwing them in the street again.

 
 
 

Neku was right, he feels much better after a shower and some sleep in his own bed.

Unfortunately, his sleep hadn't been as deep as he'd wanted. His head was swimming with the events of the morning, making his first attempt at sleep restless despite his body's weariness. And even then he'd been up, late at night to grab something to eat. He hadn't eaten since Sunshine with Eri. The muffin didn't count. After, he'd promptly gone back to sleep.

The only downside was he still had class in the morning, a fact he forgot until he opened his eyes and realizes its late morning and he'd slept through homeroom. Since it is so late, he resigns himself to missing the rest of class. He tries going back to sleep but only ends up dozing for half an hour before he knows there's no way he'll fall back asleep again.

Although he is still tired.

He takes another shower. Just for good measure and the fact that he'd been bedridden since his last one.

And since he's awake, he's thinking. He thinks about Joshua. Joshua calling him, Joshua texting him, confiding in him that for at least a moment, Neku felt like he had really understood him.

He thinks about what his friends must think of him and his reaction and the mysterious individual that made him so uncomfortable. Except for Beat. He can't imagine what he's thinking.

And then he thinks about Rhyme, who he now knows came back without her entry fee. She was the only one of them Joshua claimed shouldn't have been brought back. That her very existence was a struggle to build her personal desire again because she'd lost it and would never get it back. That the loss of it caused her pain every day.

Neku is still upset when he shuts off the water. Now that it's morning, he's still not too hungry and just has a protein bar pulled from the cabinet. Neku also doesn't look at his phone. He's checked it for the time, but if there are only text notifications they're ignored for now. It's otherwise another quiet morning.

The other thing he pointedly ignores is the headphones. They'd been tossed onto his desk as soon as he'd come home.

He'd tried to avoid looking at them or even thinking about them, but it wasn't working out. The only reason he's kept them was rather petty. He didn't want to give Joshua the satisfaction. He didn't want to admit that he's still scared of what they represent.

But after he's finished his protein bar and put on some regular clothes, he knows what he's going to do.

Neku takes the train since he's just going straight into Shibuya. He's not as nervous this time as he walks up Miyashita Park towards Cat Street. It's different this time.

Plus it's a little less daunting during the day.

Neku also hopes WildKat is open since it still seems as dark inside as it was the night before. But as he approaches the door, he can see Mr. H behind the counter, so he pushes the door open.

Again the cafe is empty except for its owner. And again Neku wonders how the barista can afford to keep it open. But still, the smell of coffee is pleasant and Mr. H is wiping out a white ceramic mug and Joshua is nowhere to be seen.

“Hey there, Phones,” Mr. H says as the bell over the door announces his presence.

Neku manages a little awkward wave, “Hey.”

“Didn't expect you back so soon.” Mr. H is smiling, but as Neku gets closer, he notices his eyes appear elsewhere. Even after he sets down the cup, his fingers tap away at the counter. He seems distracted and a little like he's had too much coffee. Still, when he gestures to it, Neku seats himself at the counter and lays his backpack on the chair next to him.

“Can I getcha somethin'?” Mr. H asks him.

“Um, no I think I'm...” but Mr. H picks up a thermal carafe and pouring its contents into the recently cleaned cup on the counter. Neku guesses the question was rhetorical.

Once Mr. H has finished pouring, he places a container of sugar and a small pitcher of cream next to it. Neku accepts them without protest and a thank you. It's after both Neku and Mr. H settle with their own cup of coffee that the other recalls the reason he'd come here. "Is Joshua here?"

It's not blatant. More of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment as Mr. H's body language takes on a stiff edge.

And then, Neku thinks, of course Joshua isn't here. After what he'd learned, he can't believe he'd forgotten about the sharp tension that must be between them.

It dawns on Neku then that this might not have been such a good idea. Not only because it put him in the middle of such a sensitive situation, but he still had his own problems he was trying to resolve.

“No,” Mr. H then says, a sigh present in his voice somewhat, “I haven't since yesterday. But judging by that look on your face I'm guessing he's upset you.”

Neku chuckles dryly, “That's putting it mildly.” He takes a sip of his coffee.

Mr. H takes a sip of his at pause in the conversation, looking out towards the open windows of the cafe. “He did seem... upset when he left here.”

“Yeah, and then he showed up in front of me and my friends.”

Neku is expecting some kind of reaction from the other, but there's nothing. He doesn't seem shocked or upset, not even particularly sympathetic either. And that's fine. Neku's not even asking for anything like that, anyway. He should do what he came to do, even if Josh isn't here.

“You don't seem surprised,” he points out as he grabs his backpack and begins rummaging through it. It's only then that he realizes he didn't take the headphones with him at all. How he could have forgotten them when his intention was to bring them here and rid himself of them, he couldn't fathom.

“Oh no, sounds like something Josh would do,” Mr. H says, seemingly oblivious to Neku's disappointment, and puts down his coffee, “How did your friends react?”

Neku drops his backpack on the floor, taping down his bitterness, and folds his arms and leans onto the counter. “Confused. Mostly. Beat was the only one who recognized him from when... when we were partners. And then they got in an argument.”

“And I'm guessing you did too?”

“He makes it impossible not to!” Neku can't help how his voice raises a bit in frustration, “I just... I was willing to give him a chance and then he just threw it back in my face.”

Mr. H's expression is unreadable to Neku as he listened, but then he speaks up, “Any idea why he'd maybe think otherwise?”

And that stops Neku's fire a bit because he knows why the other would.

“I left him the other day to meet up with my friends and I could've handled it better. He thinks I'm ashamed of him.”

“Are you?”

“No,” Neku says quickly, but it comes out false even to his own ears, and Mr. H looks at him over the rim of his glasses. “No, I don't think of him like that, but...”

It's hard to put into words the complicated emotions that he has with Joshua. He's mulled it over too much in his mind that it feels like he's going in circles. And he wants to stay as far away from the cliché of saying “it's complicated” even though that's about as close an explanation he can get. But he'd thought he'd seen something in Joshua, a change, some growth, and after finding out about the whole situation with him and Pi-Face and Mr. H and the Higher ups, whoever they were, had given him an insight and an intimacy they hadn't shared before. Neku had thought their friendship could work.

But then there were his friends, his other friends that he cared about and had to take care of and then Joshua seemed to revert right back to his petty ways.

“I don't know,” Neku admits, “I didn't know how it could work. They don't know him—Beat doesn't count—but I can't tell them anything. It's too messy.”

“Friendship is messy, Phones. You know that,” Mr. H points out to him. That's true, none of the friendships he had now had been gained by normal means. “But I know J, and I know he can make things... difficult. Even so, I don't think that's your main problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you want your relationships to work, you can't keep them separate. And if you try to, you're still the connection between them and they'll eventually bump into each other again just like they did yesterday.”

Neku thinks about that for a second. “So you're saying I have to bring them together?”

Mr. H shrugs. “Or choose one. That's up to you. But attempting to live in both while also trying to keep them apart is not healthy or realistic, Neku. Talk to your friends. They're a part of your life now. And making a decision without them is likely to leave more than just your relationship with Josh strained.”

He's right. Neku knows he is right. However, saying it is one thing, but putting it into practice is always another.

But Mr. H then smiles at him and takes the mug of half-full coffee that's gone lukewarm. “Don't look so down, boss,” he says, “I believe in you. You'll make the right choice.”

Even if Neku can't deny that he's right, Neku is tired of making choices. He just wants a little smooth sailing in his life, but the fact is he will have to confront his friends eventually.

“Yeah...”

And then Neku remembers his conversation with Joshua about Rhyme and he has to ask.

“Mr. H, what happened with Rhyme... Josh said her entry fee was... non-refundable. He said without your help he wouldn't have been able to bring her back.”

He looks towards the barista for any kind of assurance but finds none. Instead, Mr. H sighs and shakes his head.

“I wish it wasn't true, Phones, but as with the rules of the Game, her entry fee was gone the moment she was erased, And losing that which one holds most dear... that's a hard path. I'm sure Beat has noticed.”

Neku nods solemnly. “He was so worried about her when we got back. He said she'd been different.”

Mr. H is quiet.

“But Joshua said it was only because of you he was able to bring her back. So thanks,” Neku says.

Mr. H rubs the back of his neck again. “As much as I'm flattered boss, I can't take all the credit.”

Neku gives him a questioning look.

The other then continues. “I may have helped get the pin to Beat, but only because...” and at this moment, Neku doesn't think he's ever seen Mr. H look as... the only way he can think to describe it is embarrassed. “I admired his passion for what he cared about. He was the one that brought her as far as she needed. But also, Rhyme has made it this far, and she's proven herself a tough individual. Her strength in this shouldn't be forgotten.”

“And,” Mr. H says as he meets Neku's gaze, “Joshua has downplayed his role as it was his jurisdiction and his decision to bring her back.”

Neku can hear the unspoken implication.

You'd think he'd be more grateful if he knew what I did for his sister, considering what it cost her.

He remembers Joshua had said that to him. He'd thought it was just hyperbole. Either way, he thinks he's had the conversation with Mr. H he needed to for now.

“Thanks Mr. H,” he says, although it comes out rougher than he intends, and shoulders his empty backpack, “for the coffee, and, uh, everything else.” He reaches into his pocket for his wallet he hopes he still has money in, but Mr. H stops him.

“It's on the house.” Mr. H tells him, “And, uh, you don't have to be shy about visiting. I know things seem kinda... sticky, right now. But whether or not you believe it, you're good for Josh. And you're always welcome here.”

But is he good for me? Or my friends? That's what Neku needs to figure out.

There's more he wants to talk to Mr. H about, especially if Joshua is avoiding him again. But, he realizes, he may have to be more cautious, knowing what he knows now. Because he can't help but think at one time Mr. H might have thought sending the Grim Heaper after Joshua was also “good” for him.

But all Neku says is, “Thanks,” again even though it feels lame, and, “See ya,” as he heads out the door.

And as he walks down Cat Street, he pulls out his phone, scrolling till he gets to Shiki's text inbox. She's still in school now, but she'll see his message when she has a chance. He sends one to Beat as well.

Because one thing is for sure, Mr. H was right, he can't keep his worlds separate. He owes it to his friends, his partners, to be honest with them. Consequences and Joshua be damned.

 
 
 

It's ridiculous for Neku to feel nervous about Shiki coming over. On his train ride back, he'd received her answer that she'd be over as soon as her classes were over. There had been no answer from Beat.

Neku busies himself with a few chores or his phone and tries to not feel like it's not an agonizingly long time before there's a knock at his door.

It's Shiki. She's still in her school uniform shirt and skirt with her bag over her shoulder. She gives him a tentative smile.

“Hey...” he says.

“Hi...”

They linger in silence for a few seconds before Neku beckons her in. They still don't talk as Shiki takes off her shoes and they make their way to the kitchen and sit at the table. Again, it feels stupid to be this awkward with Shiki when he knows and trusts her, but he still isn't confident in doing... what it is he's about to do.

Shiki is the first one to speak up, her hands folded on the table, “So...” and there's a lot of caution packed into that one moment of hesitation, “what did you want to talk about?”

Neku can feel his leg bouncing under the table and tries to stop it. “Uh, well, I was hoping Beat would be here too...”

Beat still hadn't answered his text. In normal circumstances Neku wouldn't worry since neither Beat nor Rhyme used their phones often, but Neku had hoped he'd be able to talk with both of them. He wasn't sure if he'd be able to do this a second time.

Neku then realizes he'd trailed off into silence. But Shiki, being her patient self, has just been waiting for him.

“I—uh...”

He still is floundering on where to start and Shiki then reaches over to place a hand on his. “Neku,” she says softly, her expression tinged with sympathy and concern, “this is about yesterday, isn't it?”

He stays silent and nods, a little embarrassed.

“Well, no matter what it is you need to tell me, I'll listen,” she assures him and then pulls her hand back.

He nods again because he knows it's true. “Thanks Shiki. It's just—it's all kind of hard to explain,” he admits.

There's another short pause between them before Shiki speaks up again.

“That boy, from yesterday.... you knew him. From the Game.”

Neku stiffens, swallows hard and nods again solemnly. He's really carrying this conversation.

“And he...” Her eyebrows knit in frustration and she frowns as if she's thinking rather hard about something and then—“he was there at the end, wasn't he?”

If Neku's anxiety wasn't bad before, it certainly is now. He feels cold all over his body and his leg begins bouncing again.

“You... how do–?” It's difficult to get the question out, but Shiki doesn't seem to have an answer. Only an apologetic countenance. “You remember?”

“Well... it's kind of hard to explain,” she says, echoing his phrasing from earlier.

“It started around the time you finished your mural,” Shiki continues, “Not long after, I started having these dreams near the end of... the end of the Game. At least I thought they were dreams because I started to see things I hadn't before. I thought my mind was just making it all up. But then I talked to Beat, and we realized we were seeing similar things which wouldn't be possible if they were just dreams. And we started getting, hmm... flashbacks? Sort of. Memories we didn't know we had.”

Neku notes how Shiki says nothing in detail about what she or Beat saw and experienced, but he's able to guess as she has trouble meeting his gaze and is worrying her lip.

“Why—Why didn't you guys tell me?” His voice comes out thick, but he doesn't care. Because he's floundering again. This was supposed to be him trying to explain yesterday to Shiki, but now he's been thrown a curveball. He'd thought he was here to explain memories Joshua had erased, but it appears not.

“We weren't sure how or even if we should,” Shiki tells him, “We didn't want to upset you. And with you working on your artwork... I don't know. It seems silly now to think that, but–”

It's then Neku's turn to cover one of her hands with his. “No, no it's okay,” he promises her, “I can understand that.” But he then sighs. “But what you saw, yeah, it was true.”

Neku then explains everything. Everything. Everything he can think of that Shiki needs to understand and might have seen. He fills her in on the week she missed. The week he hadn't discussed with anyone, not even Beat who had been there for some of it. (And the last time he tried had led to an awkward conversation.) He goes over week three with possessed Reapers and Taboo Grim Heaper and Ms. Iron Maiden herself.

She listens patiently, asking a clarifying question now and then. However, Neku can see how much it is for her to take in. And when he spoke of their final battles together, Shiki's face becomes noticeably paler and when he mentions his standoff with Joshua, it only becomes worse.

When he finishes, Shiki swallows hard before she speaks. “I think I remember,” but as she says it, Neku can see her expression go cloudy, “It's just. It feels fuzzy. But the boy—Joshua—he really...?”

Pointed a gun at me and went BANG? Neku just nods again in confirmation.

“Is that why he was there?” Shiki then asks him urgently, her eyes wide, “Was he there to–?”

“No, nothing like that,” Neku blurts. Although now that she asks, he feels more unsure when before it had never crossed his mind. “I was with him beforehand. That's why, the other day with Eri, I left. I got a call from him. He sounded... different, so I agreed to meet him.”

“He called you? He contacted you?”

“Yeah. He called. And he called me first almost two months after the Game and then again texted not long after I threw my mural up. But having him show up yesterday wasn't part of the plan though. Neither was his argument with Beat.”

“But Neku, he shot you, he shot you dead. And from what you're telling me, more than once.” How could I forget, Neku thinks bitterly. “You weren't even a little hesitant about all this?”

“Of course I was. I still am, but...” Neku pauses and then grimaces, “it's complicated.” There he is, settling back into that lame cliché.

Then Shiki asks him the one question that he's been asking himself for some time now, “Do you consider him a friend?”

He doesn't mean to shrug, but it happens reflexively. “I want to think so. Despite everything Shiki, he brought us back. You, me, Beat and—and Rhyme.” Again, he hasn't mentioned what he knew now about Rhyme, and he doesn't think he can unless Beat is also here. Plus Rhyme hasn't even mentioned anything herself, so even then perhaps it's not his place. “I know it seems crazy for me to talk to him. He's still an inconsiderate asshole, but we were partners once. I still trust him.”

He worries Shiki will be upset with him for being an idiot, but he finds no frustration in her expression. Instead, she huffs a small laugh.

“Well, our relationship didn't start out the easiest either, so I suppose I can see where you're coming from.”

Neku can feel the tips of his ears grow warm and resists the urge to hide his face in his hands or the collar of his shirt. He wants to stay as far away from that image of himself those early days with Shiki as he can.

Please don't mention that,” he begs her.

She laughs, still a little strained, but warmer than before. Then she says, “But this seems important to you, Neku. And I may not understand what's between you two, but I can see the toll it's taking on you. So I support you. And I'll back you up with Beat if I have to. But I'm sure he'd say the same. As would Rhyme. And... even Eri if she could. Just please, please, promise me you'll be careful Neku.”

Neku looks at her, then away and blinks his eyes rapidly as he can feel them watering. “I promise, Shiki,” he manages. I don't deserve you.

“And if you have any more of those dreams or memories or whatever, tell me. Okay?” Shiki nods in agreement.

However, now that means Neku will have to talk to Joshua again, dammit. Because he has the suspicion his friends returning memories aren't the Composer's doing. In a way, he's relieved now that he isn't the only one burdened with these memories or feel like he's lying to his friends. But he's sure as hell not gonna let the other take them again.

The tense atmosphere between them has at least lessened by then. They remain in silence, still taking in the conversation in at their own pace. Eventually, Shiki asks him about school and he admits he's ditched. He doesn't mention his trip to WildKat or Mr. H at all. That whole topic he hasn't fully processed all that himself, he doesn't think he could try to explain to another.

Shiki leaves soon after, though. Homework, she says. Neku has his doubts she'll be able to focus. He lets her be and tries not to worry about tomorrow.

 
 
 

The first thing Shiki does when she gets to her room is hug Mr. Mew.

She doesn't cry, thank goodness, just squeezes his handmade body and feels comfort in the well-worn softness of his texture. After a few minutes, she feels better. More grounded.

It's just as relieving to know that the things she's been seeing the past few weeks were real as it is horrifying. And Mr. Mew, despite his cute looks, isn't enough to help Shiki process everything she's feeling.

She sets him aside as she pulls from her backpack pocket her phone along with its many dangling charms. Even as she texts she blinks and rubs her eyes.

Shiki: Eri we have to talk ASAP. It's about the Game.

Chapter Text

“I told him.”

Shiki rubs her arm as Eri is silent on the other end for what feels like quite a significant stretch of time before she asks, “Everything? Even... what I told you?”

“No...” Shiki said, biting her lip, “not that.”

“Oh,” is Eri's response.

“But I told him about what I've been seeing and what Beat was seeing.”

“So you still haven't mentioned that you told me, have you?”

Shiki pulled her knees up closer to her from her spot on her bed and adjusted the phone at her ear. She never regretted her decision to tell Eri about the Game. Even if she'd given herself more time to contemplate, the conclusion would have been the same. It just didn't seem right to keep something so important and life-changing from one of her best friends.

She remembered how the words tumbled out of her mouth so fast like a dam had broken within her. She remembered her eyes filling with tears until she was full on sobbing into the hug Eri had given her then. Shiki didn't think she'd ever cried harder than that in her life.

Afterwards, she'd asked Eri if she'd believed her. And Eri had said yes, like a good friend, of course she believed Shiki. But despite that Shiki'd had her doubts.

Until now.

“No, I haven't,” Shiki then answers softly, “Are you upset?”

“I'm not upset,” Eri assures her, “I just think if you told them, y'know, it would be a cool bonding moment for all of us.”

Despite the previous heavy atmosphere, Shiki chuckles. Eri was probably right. They all got along well, not that Shiki had doubted that Neku, Beat or Rhyme would dislike her. It was more that Shiki felt selfish confiding about the Game to someone outside of it when her own friends didn't have someone like that other than each other.

Still—

“Eventually, Eri,” she said, a promise not only to her friend, but to herself. “I don't think Neku can take another bombardment of info right now.”

“So he confirmed it?” Eri asked, “Everything that we–well you–were seeing?”
Shiki gave a hum of acknowledgment.

She supposed she should thank Eri for the fact they even figured out what was happening in the first place.

Shiki hadn't known what to think of her dreams at first. After something so traumatizing, she rationalized reliving it through her subconscious was typical. However, the one dream she hadn't understood was being in a dim room, unable to move her body, and watching as an unknown figure shot Neku (although now not unknown anymore). Despite the unfamiliar clarity of these dreams she'd thought they were just that. Dreams. That was until Eri came to her, shaken up and nearly in tears. She explained to Shiki she'd remembered something and said she was having dreams and recalling memories of that nonexistent week of Shiki's accident.

Through sharing their experiences, although keeping more specific details to herself, Shiki realized what she was seeing was not just her subconscious warping her memories while she slept. It was Eri who recommended asking Beat, Neku, and Rhyme. Shiki talked with Beat confirming he was experiencing the same. Rhyme said she had memories but mentioned nothing else. Little did she know, Eri had tried to talk to Neku about it, but due to what Neku had told her about leaving Eri near Sunshine, she never really got the chance.

“Does he know why?” Eri then asked, her voice popping into Shiki's thoughts, “Why we're all remembering these things now?”

The most likely possibility was Shibuya's Composer. Why shouldn't he have that power to repress memories if he could bring others back to life? And as for Eri... well, she was connected to all this in a way that was hard to comprehend.

“No... he doesn't,” Shiki says. Or he doesn't want to say, Shiki thinks, if her hypothesis is correct. “We'll just have to wait and see what happens.”

“I guess you're right,” Eri concedes, “But did you find out what was up yesterday? Like, what was up with Neku and that other guy?”

Shiki fiddles with the charms dangling from her phone. “... sort of?”

Eri seems to note the hesitancy in her tone. “Can't talk about it?”

“Its... It's a lot. But the short of it...” Shiki then sits up more and takes a breath, trying to choose her words carefully. “His name is Joshua. Neku met him in during the Game. They were partners.”

“What? But I thought you and Neku were partners?”

“This was after that. And before he was partnered with Beat.”

“Right... damn,” Eri swears softly, “But they didn't look like they were very friendly the other day. So there's more to it then, isn't there?”

You have no idea. But Shiki didn't feel she knew enough to tell and felt it wasn't her place, anyway. Plus, trying to elaborate on the Game a second time would only prove more confusing.

She keeps it vague. “Well they... they were close, but then Joshua... hurt Neku. Emotionally,” she added on quickly, “So they haven't, uh, been hanging out much recently and I think Neku was hesitant to tell us.”

Eri is quiet on the other end for a second before she says, “Oh...” Then another brief pause where Shiki can practically hear her thoughtful pout. Then, “Oh. That's tough. Poor Neku.”

Shiki doesn't know what conclusion Eri seems to have come to, but goes on. “I don't think Neku was planning on telling us, ever.”

“And you're not sure how to feel about it?”

Shiki nods, remembers Eri can't see her and mumbles, “Yeah... but I mean I understand why he wouldn't. It's very personal.” And it's not like I haven't kept things from my friends.

“That's true,” Eri says, “Does he... are they still, like, friends?”

“Neku told me he still considers him a friend. Says he doesn't hate him for what happened between them.” He says he trusts him.

“You sound unsure?”

Shiki worries her lip again. “I trust Neku. But I think he's still hurt. And I don't know Joshua, I'm worried something back might happening between them again.” And then she added, “I just don't know anything about him.” That last part was more to herself than to Eri.

“Hmm... he certainly does seem like an interesting character,” Eri muses, “Is that why you were so cautious around him?” she questions.

“Sort of...” she says, since she can't say it was more of she recognized the person who'd shot one of her best friends. “I also could tell Neku was panicking,” she explains, “He said he wasn't expecting Joshua to show up in front of us.”

“Well, maybe you should just talk to Joshua.”

Shiki is quiet as she tries to process what her friend is suggesting.

“Me?”

“Yeah, why not?” Eri goes on, “I mean, that should help you get your own perspective, right? If Neku still thinks of him as a friend, he'd want all of us to get along, right?”

Shiki mulled it over because it was an idea. But—

“I guess... But Eri, it's more complicated than that. Besides, I don't think Neku will just give me his number.

That was assuming he had a phone. Neku had said Joshua called him, but was it really possible an all-powerful person in charge of a city owned a cell phone? Then again, when Shiki had seen him, he didn't look much older than her.

“You're right. It was just an idea,” Eri admitted. She then makes another thoughtful hum. “Well, does Beat at least know about him? It seems like they weren't getting along either.”

“Beat...” Shiki ponders, “Neku texted him, but he hasn't answered back yet.”

Beat, Shiki thinks, of course. He knows–or well, at least interacted with–Joshua. Eri your a genius.

“But you're right, Eri. Beat needs to know. Hopefully, Neku and me will get to talk to him soon.”

“Mm, I hope so,” Eri agrees. She then sighs, “I hope Neku is coping okay... Are you coping okay?”

“I'm–” I don't know. There's so much in my head to sort through and I don't even know where to start. “I'm fine. I'm glad I get to talk to you, Eri.”

“Well, I'm glad you trusted me enough to tell me. And take care of yourself, okay? I'll help you in any way I can.”

Eri's voice is warm, assuring and despite the tangle Shiki's thoughts are in, she finds comfort in her words. “Thanks Eri.”

They hang up a little while later after discussing some of their projects and commissions and leaving her phone's charge low. But before the night ends, a course of action must be planned.

 
 
 

“Beat, it's fine. We don't have to continue right now. We can take a break,” Shiki tries to console her friend.

“S'okay. I'm okay,” Beat tells her. However, Shiki wasn't fooled. She can tell he's frustrated and understands.

She then pats him on the arm. “Still. I think we should take a break,” she says and that convinces Beat and he nods in agreement.

It surprised Shiki their tutoring session went as well as it did considering they haven't had one in weeks. Usually Rhyme was the one to help her brother out with his studying, but when she was invested in extra curriculars Shiki offered to help since Beat had trouble on his own.

“But I wanted to know if you were okay. You seemed pretty agitated a few days ago. And Neku said he tried texting you,” Shiki voices tentatively.

“Yeah. I jus' hadn't responded yet,” Beat mumbles after a second. He looks down to where he's twiddling his thumbs.

“He's not upset with you.”

“I know,” he says, “I was jus'... what Priss said got to me. When I chose to be a Reaper, I was doin' it for Rhyme. N' I didn't care what it took. And even though I did it for her, I did wanna prove I could do somethin' right for once. That I could do somethin' without fuckin' it up.”

“Beat...” Shiki doesn't quite know what else to say.

“But, you know, that day Rhyme told me she was proud of me. She thanked me. And she told me not to be mad at Priss since we didn't know what he's goin' through.”

Shiki stays silent, taking in what Beat said and mulling over her next words.

“Well...” she starts, “I talked to Neku the other day. He messaged me too, and I told him about what we've been seeing.”

“For real? How'd he take it?”

Shiki then explains to him only the details she feels comfortable with since she knows Neku will want to have his own talk with him, but doesn't leave out the stuff about Joshua since Beat already knows and he's the one she needs information on.

But once she confirms what they've been seeing, Beat lets out some very creative curses and threats. Shiki's grateful no one else is home and hopes the neighbors can't hear as he continues to outline what he'd do to Joshua if he saw him again.

“No, no,” Shiki reigns him in, “we'll not be doing anything of the sort.”

“Why not? Yo, that deserves some serious ass whoopin'.”

Despite not being as gung-ho about it as Beat, Shiki understood where he was coming from. Her time in the Game had made her realize, among other things, that she wasn't as passive as she had once believed. She was a fighter, and she too was as upset on Neku's behalf. But, they weren't in the Game anymore, so fighting would not solve this.

Because that's not going to help Neku. He told me yesterday, and he would have told you if you could make it, but Joshua is still his friend. And he said Joshua is the reason we are alive again. So... I'm willing to trust Neku on this."

Beat seems to consider that and calms down. “You're right,” he concedes. Then he shakes his head. “Damn. I still can't believe it was Priss-kid when I thought it was King a' Coffee.”

Shiki blinks. “King a' Coffee?”

“Yeah. I thought since Neku said he made the pins turnin' everyone into zombies. An' even though he helped me out with Rhyme–” Beat pauses and she can understand why. “His cafe smelled really good though, which I always thought that place was closed cause Cat Street can get busy but nobody was there,” he then adds on.

It's then that everything clicks for Shiki. “You... You're talking about Mr. Hanekoma?”

“Yeah.”

Through all of her experiences in the Game, Shiki had nearly forgotten about Mr. Hanekoma. He had been a mysterious figure, but helpful with his advice and saving them that first week. So she's surprised that this is the first time she's heard of this, especially now from Beat and not the other day from Neku.

“Why did you think Mr. Hanekoma was the Composer?” she then questions.

“Uh...” Beat frowns in concentration, “I don't really remember. It was all confusin'. Somethin' about his art or somethin'.”

“Okay..?” Shiki can't lie, she's still a little confused herself.

“But Phones said it wasn't him 'cause Priss was lookin' for the Composer,” Beat continues and then frowns again. “Wait. If he was the Composer then why was–”

“Wait, wait, wait. Beat. You're saying Mr. Hanekoma knows Joshua?”

“Yeah. He like, hooked up Neku's phone with some sorta future camera.”

Shiki doesn't know what Beat means by 'future camera' but can't bring herself to ask anymore questions at this new revelation. The rest of their study session goes well, however it feels like she's trying to focus just as much of tutoring as Beat is on the questions. She leaves not long after Rhyme comes home and asks for a raincheck on the invitation to stay for dinner.

As Shiki makes her way home, she realizes just how out of the loop she is. Except for perhaps Rhyme, she feels that she doesn't grasp everything that had happened to the others during the Game. And she also decides to take Eri's suggestion. She will talk to Joshua. And she now has a place to start.

And she's not looking for a fight, but if worse comes to worse, she'll at least makes sure he doesn't hurt Neku again.

 
 
 

Shiki bites her lip (she's been doing that a lot) and pulls up her knee-high socks. She was still in her school uniform. She thought finding WildKat would be harder, but when she stepped onto Cat Street since Beat had mentioned it, but it wasn't as she saw it right at the end of the street.

And she now understood why it would be empty. From the outside, it looks like it's closed.

But Shiki was determined. To cover her bases, her alibi at cram school was confirmed, and she made sure to have at least a thousand yen in coins in her pocket.

When she pushed open the door (which, thankfully, did open) and entered through the door. Beat was right, the cafe smelled good. As she entered, she saw Mr. Hanekoma, walking from somewhere near the back of the room and towards the front counter. He then noticed her as she still stood near the entrance.

“Hey there, young lady. What can I do for you?” he asks.

Shiki approaches the counter, feeling embarrassed. “Mr. Hanekoma... hi, it's me. Shiki Misaki. From the Game. I don't know if you remember me, but, uh, I was partnered with Neku and you helped us. I know I look different from before–”

“'Course I remember,” he says, eyes glittering. She thinks he can see how nervous she is and beckons her forward towards the counter. “Let me getcha something and you can make yourself comfortable. For a price, of course.” He winks at her and she chuckles, seating herself.

“Um, well, I was actually wondering if you wouldn't mind me asking you a favor,” she says when his back is to her.

“Oh yeah?”

It's now or never Shiki, she thinks to herself. But she has to be prepared for the snafu that might ensue at her poking and prodding.

“Mr. Hanekoma, I was hoping you could tell me where to find Joshua.”

Chapter Text

Shiki notices the way Mr. H's posture goes from casual to stiff and straight. The sound of liquid poured over ice stops too, but begins again shortly after.

“Joshua, huh?” he says with his back still to her.

She nods but then pipes up, “Yes.”

Mr. H turns around and faces her. The casual vibe that had once radiated from him disappeared. He hands her an iced latte that she thanks him for in return and takes a sip as Mr. H wipes his hands on the rag pulled from his apron.

“So why're you looking for him?” It's direct and to the point which kind of overrides the attempted casualness of the inquiry.

Good question, Shiki thinks as she sips her drink, “I need to talk to him.” She meant to add an explanation but one escaped her.

There's a pause and then Mr. H asks, “Does this have something to do with his sudden appearance a few days ago?”

Shiki looks up at him. “You know about that?”

Despite his seriousness, Mr. H cracks a small, corner mouth smile. “Neku came by.”

So he did. He did come here and not tell me. “Oh.”

Mr. H seems to realize this the same time she does. “I'm guessin' he didn't tell you that.” She shakes her head. There's another awkward pause as the barista appears to be deliberating.

“Listen...” he starts and one of his hands reaches up to rub the back of his neck, “Joshua is a little... prickly. He's not the easiest person to get along with.”

Shiki swirls her drink in its container. “Neither was Neku,” she mumbles meaning it more to herself but Mr. H does hear her.

They lock eyes before both bursting into laughter.

Shiki stifles hers by snorting into her drink, and Mr. H shakes his head. “It's not a knock against ya, young lady,” he assures her, “But I dunno if there's much I can do for you. Joshua's also not the easiest person to get ahold of either.”

“Because he's the Composer?”

If Shiki thought Mr. H's reaction to Joshua's name had been drastic, it was nothing compared to the atmosphere shift that took place as her words tumbled out, incidentally. The temperature in the cafe drops several degrees in an instant as if the warmth has left along with her words. Her heart pounds fast against her chest.

She avoids Mr. H's gaze as his words come low and firm, “You know.”
It's not a question, but Shiki nods. She considers bolting out the door.

But she doesn't and watches the barista's now contemplative expression he's giving the counter, hand on his chin. But then he gives her a reassuring smile. “It's okay, you're not in trouble,” he says and the words calm a little of Shiki's anxiety. “But best if we don't mention that little detail to anyone else.”

Shiki can feel a blush across her cheeks and tingle at the back of her neck. “Right. Sorry.”

“And I can't guarantee Josh'll show up, but I can try an' contact him to get him here.”

Shiki blinks. I was thinking more of a phone number or even an email, but—“Okay. Thank you.”

Mr. H nods, “You're welcome.” He takes a phone out of his pocket, eyeing it as he types away on it while she finishes the rest of her drink.

“So, how's business going? Boomin'?” he asks without looking up but going back to that more friendly tone.

And it takes Shiki a second to realize he's talking her and Eri's commissions. She's not sure how he knows about that (Did Neku tell him?), but welcomes the change in topic and dives into it headlong so much so she almost misses the sound of the bell near the top of the door.

She turns in her seat, Mr. H looks up, and Joshua's there in the entrance. He barely has one foot in the cafe, hand pressed against the still-open door. His eyes meet with Mr. H's and then Shiki's briefly before he retreats.

“Wait! Please wait!” Shiki springs off her seat, her bag bumps at her hip and she nearly spills the coins on the counter onto the floor. In her hurry, she says nothing to Mr. H, not a thank you nor a goodbye, she regrets later. But Mr. H doesn't say anything either as she rushes out of the cafe.

Cat Street is still strangely quiet other than those lingering outside the surrounding department stores. She doesn't see Joshua anywhere, making her way toward the Underpass. If he headed toward Harajuku, she had no hope of catching him. But still, there's no sight of him. He'd disappeared. She'd lost her chance.

“So Neku's sending his companions after me now.”

Shiki jolts and turns to see Joshua standing behind her, arms crossed. He still looks the same as she'd seen him the other day (and in her memories), only this time he wasn't smiling. It's not exactly a glare, but it's close enough that Shiki can tell he's wary.

“Oh...” she breathes, then catches herself and struggles to regain her composure. “Oh no. Neku didn't send me. He doesn't know I'm here.”

Some hostility fades from Joshua's expression, an eyebrow raised before giving Shiki a quick once over.

Self-consciousness creeps up on her, but she forces it down. “I'm Shiki. Shiki Misaki,” she tries.

“We've met,” he says tersely.

Shiki can't help but chuckle nervously, “I guess we have.” So this is what Mr. H meant by prickly.

“So why are you here?” Joshua asks, “If Neku doesn't know.” There's a strange note in his voice, almost challenging.

He doesn't believe her, Shiki realizes. She supposes that's understandable.

“I–I know this must seem strange,” she begins, really selling it, “but I was hoping to... just talk to you.”
“About?” Right to the point.

“It's just–” she pauses, struggling to find the right words. “It's rather hard to explain.”

Joshua sighs. “Well maybe come back when you figure it out,” he snaps, his voice cold.

Shiki is somewhat taken aback and frowns. “Well maybe you should let me finish,” she snaps back, irritably.

Joshua looks at her somewhat surprised but soon returns to his rather icy expression. “Some of us are busy.”

Shiki can feel her jaw clench. Neku had already explained to her how Joshua had the unique ability to exasperate whoever he was in contact with, but she'd considered herself more patient, especially after being able to befriend Neku.

But that had been different, hadn't it? With Neku, they had to get along to survive, but even then she was met with push back.

“Okay, this wasn't how I planned this to go,” she muttered to herself. But what had she expected? Perhaps it was unfair to force Joshua into a situation like this.

“Listen, I know you don't have any obligation to talk to me or trust me–” At her words, Joshua's eyes narrow slightly. “–but here's my number.” And she pulls a piece of paper out of her pocket wherein her phone number was written.

For a second, Shiki was unsure if he'd even take it and then where would she be, but he took it, eyeing the numbers with confusion and caution. She'd leave the decision to talk up to him.

“I always have my phone on me. And I think it would benefit us both to talk, me as Neku's friend and you... as Shibuya's Composer.”

She expects some sort of reaction or atmospheric shift as in WildKat. But Joshua just stares at her, silent, and if it's a stunned silence, he didn't show it.

As words can do no good anymore, Shiki manages only a weak smile and heads towards Miyashita Park.

She doesn't look back.

And she hopes that everything will be all right.

 
 
 

Joshua enters WildKat—the hand in his right pocket brushing against the small piece of paper resting there—and for once Sanae isn't pretending to be casual by cleaning dishes or wiping down the counter. But now he's standing rigidly behind it, gaze intent.

“Well... that was something,” Joshua comments, meeting Sanae's stern stare. “A little warning next time perhaps,” he scoffs.

However, Sanae is quick to the point. “What did she want?” he asks. He's so serious.

But Joshua doesn't feel like playing along. He shrugs. “She didn't name specifics.” And it's not like it's a lie either.

“J...” Sanae sighs, “she knew you were–”

“I know,” Joshua says shortly.

The logical conclusion would be that Neku had told her, but one look at her music proved that wasn't the case. He could hear himself there among the notes, although faint, it still shouldn't be possible as Joshua remembered removing that section from her and the rest of Neku's companions. So that means someone, somehow, had slotted it back into place albeit clumsily. And it wouldn't even take three guesses who.

“You realize what this means...” Joshua doesn't like his Producer's grave tone of voice. It makes it all feel a little too real. “His influence is strong. Stronger than expected.” And then he looks over his shades, “But still reversible.”

“I'm aware,” Joshua bites out through gritted teeth. “But you never protested when I let him keep his memories. And you agreed taking them could destabilize his soul.”

“I doubt you would've listened to me even if I had,” Sanae says, and unfortunately, he is probably right.

Joshua glares at him, hands now on his hip. “Did she tell you why she wanted to talk to me?” he asks, changing the subject.

Sanae shakes his head. “No. Although I think it has something to do with that stunt you pulled in front them the other day.”

Joshua can't help that his eyes widen a bit. He wonders if it makes him seem like a small child who's been caught disobeying, as he feels it does.

And then he says the words that confirm Joshua's fears. “Neku came in.”

The realization that he'd made a terrible mistake creeps up on Joshua again. “So he told you,” Joshua muses, his voice steely, “and what did you tell him?”

Sanae is silent, but his gaze slips from Joshua's, not sliding down but out the window of the cafe. It's enough of an answer.

Joshua feels cold all over. “I don't know what I expected.” He wishes it sounded more scathing, but there's no malice in it. He feels too empty for it.

“Josh...” Sanae says in that tone Joshua resents now, half scolding, half resignation. A pseudo-warning that tells him his Producer isn't even going to try—or doesn't even care enough—to stop him. It's enough to make his blood go from icy to boiling.

“No!”

It's only after that he realizes it's a shout, the word echoing off the walls of the cafe. Sanae seems as surprised by his outburst as he is, but he's also too riled up to take much satisfaction in it.

“You don't get to reprimand me after what you did,” he continues, snarling.

He's going there, he realizes, shattering their unspoken agreement.

“And you don't get to talk about me to others. You have no right to after your failure with Minamimoto. I would have thought you'd learned that lesson.”

His Producer's stare remains stoic, not betraying any trace of emotion, but Joshua hopes it stings. He hopes it scars. He tries to steady his breathing and turns to leave, his hand on the door when the other finally speaks.

“Don't take this out on them.”

Joshua shouldn't be surprised. He avoids his reflection against the glass door as he pushes it open. He doesn't remember if he slams the cafe door or not. If he didn't, he'd meant to, childish as it was. Had he been expecting an apology? No, and he didn't want one either. But as much as he's been trying to twist the verbal knife into him, his Producer might have outdone him in even fewer words.

But, most unfortunately, he thinks about calling Neku.

His phone is in his hand, flipped open and grasped so tight he's sure only a bit more pressure would cause it to shatter.

However, he squashes that impulse almost immediately. Instead, he feels for the piece of paper in his pocket again.

Chapter Text

Music is a funny thing.

Being the Composer, it's much easier now to differentiate between the Music of individuals and Shibuya as a whole than it was when his Producer explained it to him so long ago. Now it's often reflexive to tune in.

And it's partly this that leads him to examine Shiki Misaki.

The piece of paper once in his pocket has was thrown away and ripped up for good measure, but the number on it saved in his phone. Not called, but saved.

Joshua was still suspicious of Shiki Misaki. His suspicions have lessened since her departure, but her intentions and even if Neku was aware of their interaction, Joshua found it hard to believe.

He supposed it could be easier to peak at her thoughts. And he'd considered it. However, the drawbacks outweighed the advantages in his opinion considering even with his Composer powers and despite the slight overlap, shifting through past thoughts was not as possible as memories. He's also never enjoyed the process. He might even say it was his least favorite part of being Composer. There was no way for him to completely stifle the constant flow of free-form thoughts just like with Music. At least Music was more interesting.

(He wonders if that's why he'd once felt Megumi and him balanced out so well. His late Conductor had always taken an interest in Shibuya's ocean of thoughts. Music had been Composer business.)

And Shiki Misaki's Music is interesting in a way that almost makes Joshua regret having attempted to filter Music out for so long.

(Or perhaps it was Shibuya's way of chastising him for avoiding them for so long.)

Not since Neku had he tuned in to one's song so close and though it was unfair to compare hers with his former proxy's, it couldn't be helped.

What surprised him the most, though, was her sense of individuality. It sounded clear, even more than Neku's. But Neku was present in her Music too, unsurprising considering their friendship. Although it's not that his melody directly influenced hers, rather they intertwined seamlessly as did her other companions, some more distinct than others.

And among them was another melody. Just as he had searched through her music once before to locate the memories he'd tweaked, but now in its place now was a torrent of familiar chords he himself had experienced from the mural of his own ex-proxy.

And he understood.

 
 
 

The next time Joshua talks to Shiki Misaki, it's on his own terms.

He drops in on her (Hey, it's only fair, right?) by following her Music. There's no one in the immediate vicinity where she sits at a table at a tea shop or so he thinks (He didn't pay attention and it doesn't matter, does it?).

She's extremely focused, not even knowing he's in the seat across from her, pouring over a scattering of papers laid out on the table in front of her.

As amusing as it was, Joshua makes his presence known, “Hello.”

Shiki Misaki jolts so hard, he feels kind of bad for surprising her.

“Sorry to startle you.”

Her eyes are wide behind her round glasses, but she blurts, “Ah, that's alright,” and her voice is high and wavers near the end. Joshua watches her shuffle the papers on the table into a semi-neat stack. “It was just, uh, surprising.”

“I apologize,” he says. He's still watching her as she attempts to fix her papers, realigns her glasses on the bridge of her nose, and tucks some hair that had come loose from her hair clips behind her ear.

“If you're too preoccupied, I can return another time,” he suggests.

“Oh no, um, I was just fiddling with some... stuff,” she says.

The papers are now collected in a nice little pile, but Joshua notices Shiki now has her cellphone out just underneath the table, texting, he presumes.

“What are you working on?”

It's just polite conversation. Joshua knows a little of what she does. Shiki Misaki is not an enigma and her passion for what she does was stitched into her Music as much as her designs.

“Uh... just some just some clothing designs and some, uh, requests,” and he can hear the soft clap of her phone closing. “My friend and I do clothing commissions. We're planning to start our own clothing line someday with the money we don't use for supplies.”

“That's admirable.”

Joshua was no stranger to small talk, but he didn't understand why he was going along with it or why Shiki Misaki was indulging him considering he didn't need to read her thoughts to feel the nervous and wary vibes radiating from her.

“May I see?” he asks, “A design, I mean.”

Perhaps that was the wrong thing to ask as she visibly hesitates.

“Uh... yeah. I do,” she says and begins sifting through the stack of papers until she finds the one she's been looking fr and passes it across to him. “My friend designed this one.”

He looks at the picture. It's a simple sketch of a jacket, leather most likely, although it trailed longer in the back. The primary part of the design, however, was a sewn patch planned for the back. The patch's sketch, he could tell, was by his former proxy.

(He can see why Shiki Misaki was hesitant to show him.)

“It's very good,” he still says as he hands the paper back. Shiki Misaki manages a smile and thanks him.

“So is this what the kids in Shibuya are up to nowadays?”

He means it as light teasing, but wonders if it came out harsher in the way the other's eyes widen and she looks surprised and then a bit embarrassed.

“Did I say something wrong?”

Shiki Misaki seems to fidget for a second in her seat before speaking. “I, um, didn't mean to offend you. Like, I don't know. You look my age so I didn't even think...”

At first, Joshua doesn't understand, but then he does and he can't help himself from laughing. Shiki Misaki seems even more embarrassed and looks down at the table.

“I can assure you,” he says, once he'd stopped laughing, “no offense is taken.”

She blinks, “So are you...” and she then trails off as he stares at her, amused.

“I'm sorry, that's rude. Forget it,” she determines quickly.

“Like I said, no offense. However, if you're still curious, I have been around here for at least a few decades. But I'm still young at heart, I assure you.”

Shiki Misaki actually cracks a slight smile at that, albeit still looking a bit pale.

It feels like she's quieter after that. Eventually, Joshua remembers they're in an establishment as she orders a drink, an offer he politely declines, and they say little until it arrives.

“As much as I appreciate this,” she says when she finally speaks up, “if you have something to ask me then I don't mind answering.”

Apparently, Joshua had mistaken her contemplation for nervousness. He's thinking, not for the first time, that he might have to give Shiki Misaki more credit. She surprised him by snapping back the other day. She is one of Neku's friends after all, he muses.

“You wanted to talk,” he reminds her, “I'm here. We can talk.”

He waits for her response, curious if nothing else because there were quite a few topics she could want to discuss.

Shiki Misaki's hands tap lightly on the table and she stirs the ice in her drink with her straw.

“Do you–” She hesitates. “Do you think of Neku as a friend?”

Her voice is soft, but his body reacts as if she'd screamed it. The back of his neck prickles hot and his shoulders tense. He'd never thought this was what she wanted to talk about. He'd thought this would be about her memories, or perhaps something concerning their previous meeting, not–

“I'm sorry,” she then says, cutting into his racing thoughts. “That was unfair of me,” she continues, “You don't need to answer that.”

Joshua would be lying if he said he wasn't relieved.

“Is that what you want to talk about? Neku?” he asks coolly.

“It's just...” And she pauses, biting her lip and looking down at her drink. “After, my memories starting coming back–” her eyes meet his at this for a fleeting moment—“he told me about your week together as partners. How he made it out.”

And this time when she peers at him over the top of her round-rimmed glasses, she holds it. “How he got into the Game in the first place.”

Joshua says nothing.

“And I know Neku cares about you and I think he'd want us to get along, so I thought–”

But Joshua's own thoughts are straying far away from her explanation. He struggles to believe this is happening. He thinks he could do without another surprise like this for at least another decade.

He shakes his head, a mirthless smile on his lips. “So you're saying you want to become friends with the person who shot your best friend.”

She winces. A fact that Joshua finds some satisfaction and also some relief as at least he feels that he's being taken seriously. However, it's only for a moment and then the other's eyebrows furrow in determination.

“I don't pretend to understand completely. And I won't say what you did doesn't upset me. But Neku told me he trusts you. And if he does, I'm willing to as well. If you'll let me.”

“Plus, without Neku, without...” She stares off to the side. “Without the Game. I don't think I would have realized important things about myself. So, thank you for that.”

“You don't need to thank me,” he says quickly, somewhat surprising himself.

She doesn't even ask him why and simply says, “Okay, forget I said anything.”

Joshua doesn't smile, but he feels that he's more understanding of why Neku is fond of her. And Shiki... well, he thinks, she's one of those reasons he had the Game for.

But he still has to ask. “Are you going to tell Neku about this?”

“I won't if you don't want me to,” she says easily, which is the answer he wants but not the one he was expecting.

“Why?”

She looks at him. It's not quite a look of pity, but more of sympathy. He's not sure if that's worse.

“I think it would be rude without permission. Besides, it's a lot to ask of someone I've only recently met.”

“Then I'd rather you not.”

She nods. “I understand.”

Shiki then looks down at her phone she'd pulled from her pocket and checked the time that flashed on the front.

“I do have to leave soon,” she admits to him, “I promised to meet up with someone. Business talk.”

“Of course” he says, but there's a pause between them as they both stand up from the table at the same time. Shiki moves first, putting the stack of papers into a folder pulled from her bag.

“I would enjoy seeing more of your designs,” Joshua tells her, “Another time perhaps?”

Shiki grins then, shouldering her now packed up bag. “I'd like that,” she says, “I'm usually here often. Or you have my number.”

She says the last sentence more like a question, and considering how he's dropped in on her, he can't blame her.

But he nods, “That I do.”

 
 
 

“What did he say about this one?”

“I haven't shown him that one yet,” Shiki said, a little exasperated. Eri's mouth twist into a bit of a pout.
Eri was, of course, the only one who knew about her and Joshua's... meetings? Hang-outs? Neither descriptor seemed to encapsulate it. She hadn't revealed to Beat and especially not Neku at Joshua's request about what she'd been up to. Great. Another thing she has to feel guilty about hiding from them.
And Eri was always passionate, but she had been especially excited at the prospect of Joshua looking at her designs ever since Shiki had passed along some revision suggestions he'd given her on one design. Shiki supposed she should have known as Eri was always ready to pounce on an ounce of creative input she agreed with. Not only that, but her best friend had been itching to talk to him herself.

“Please,” Eri says, “you have to invite him over. Please, Shiki, you have to. Please? Even if he says no, it's worth a shot." She's begging with the puppy-eyes she knows Shiki is weak for.

“Okay, okay,” she relents, “I'll ask him.”

Eri grins and claps her hands together, but Shiki was more cautiously optimistic.

 
 
 

Joshua accepts the invitation.

Shiki supposes she shouldn't be as surprised as she is. Their interactions have gone smoother since their first two. Less awkward pauses. They mention neither Neku nor the Game. And Shiki herself can almost never pass up an opportunity to discuss designs.

However, she was a little more surprised by how well Eri and Joshua interacted which, again, she shouldn't be.

Eri didn't leave room for awkward pauses in a conversation and carried herself with her usual self-confidence Shiki admired. Perhaps a little overbearing but Eri's enthusiasm could charm the pants off of anyone (sometimes literally if it involved alterations) Shiki was sure. And she was glad to see Joshua was not an exception.

It was actually Eri who had invited him to see their studio (after they'd discussed everything from design sketches to fabric texture to the current state of Shibuya trends) and Joshua, who had been all polite smiles and glittering eyes, agreed.

Neither of Eri's parents were home, which Shiki found a relief. One introduction was enough for Joshua in one day, she thought.

It was also clear that Eri had cleaned up. Half-used fabrics were folded neatly and stacked either on the bench or in their respective drawers. Needles were pushed into their cushions. Markers, pens, and pencils were in their holder. And most of their bigger projects were put away except for the patches Shiki had been sewing or gluing. They were still on the workbench next to their biggest sewing machine. Shiki doesn't think she's seen it this clean since they first set it up.

And Shiki doesn't know if it's on purpose or not, but Eri skipped the corner where Neku would sometimes sit at with his sketchbooks. She hadn't explained to Eri how much of a touchy subject Neku seemed to be for Joshua, but she was grateful.

“I'm impressed,” Joshua said after Eri and she had walked him through it.

“Thank you,” she says. It was still nice to get a compliment after she and Eri worked hard on it.

“Y'know...” Eri cuts in, grinning, “everyone we've ever had here, we usually take their measurements.”

Shiki feels an immediate need to protest, not wanting to make the other uncomfortable, but Joshua speaks up before she can, “I'd love to.”

Eri squeals and her grin widens. She gestures for Shiki to grab the measuring tape and she does.

“Okay. First, just relax,” Eri instructs Joshua, “and make sure your feet are hips length apart.”

With the measuring tape in her hands, she can feel how stiff and awkward she is when her friend says the word 'relax'.

“Are your clothes thin?” Eri then asks him.

“My shirt is. Pants not so much,” Joshua replies.

Shiki prays this will not lead to a request for him to take them off. She has a mini montage flashback to Neku's measurement experience and other incidents.

“Will I have to undress?” he then asks, totally casual as if he's just asking for the time.

“I mean, if you're comfortable–”

“No!” Shiki interjects quickly, a little too loud and a little less steady than she intended, “No, you don't.”

Eri just seems to shrug it off while Joshua appears thoroughly amused.

Maybe Shiki is perpetuating her own anxieties. She's sure Eri doesn't mean to give her a near heart-attack with every action she fears might too casual. She just doesn't want to make Joshua uncomfortable. And she wants even less for an argument to break out or, worst-case scenario, more memory erasing.

Eri asks for the measurer and Shiki hands it to her and she gets to work and Shiki scribbles down the numbers her friends give her.

“Have you ever been measured before?” Eri asks, not looking up from her actions.

“Not that I remember.”

Shiki wonders if he's pulling from the several decades he's been alive when answering. He seems to know what he's thinking as he meets eyes with her and winks as Eri measures across his back. She snorts and shakes her head slightly, relaxing a little.

Not long after, she feels her phone vibrate in her pocket. She pulls it out to check it. It's a text message. From Neku. She glances at it before shoving the phone back in her pocket.

It's enough to distract her for the rest of the time. She's not ignoring the text, she tells herself, she's just waiting till it's a better time.

Eventually, as it gets later, Eri explains she had an upcoming test to study for and maybe some new inspiration to work off of. Because of this, Shiki assures her friend she's able to make her way to the train station fine.

And Joshua also adds on, assuring Eri, “I'll accompany her.”

Other than their goodbyes to Eri, they're quiet. But perhaps that isn't such a terrible thing to be, Shiki contemplates, as Joshua appears relaxed and comfortable, shoulders slack and a hand resting in his back pocket.

“I enjoyed your friend,” he then speaks up as they're almost a block away from Er's house, “she's quite an interesting individual. And talented.”

“Yeah, she is,” Shiki agrees.

A brief pause between them before Joshua then says, “Was that Neku who contacted you earlier?”

Shiki finds that's she's not surprised that he knows. Although neither the thought of her being fairly obvious with her phone or Joshua having some Composer-y powers at work was fun to think about.

“Yeah, it was,” she admits to him, “He was asking how I was doing.” That's summarizing a bit, but it was good enough.

She can hear the hum Joshua makes in response. He's not looking at her, but his gaze is focused straight ahead.

“He's been trying to contact me too.”

“Oh,” is all she says, not sure how else to respond.

“He wants to meet up to discuss things.”

The way he says it tells her he's doubtful, but Shiki remembers Neku mentioning sorting out things regarding her and Beat's memories with Joshua. Wouldn't he be surprised.

“Did you want me to tell him to forget about it? I can try,” she offers.

“Actually,” Joshua says, not looking at her, “I was hoping you'd go with me if we talk.”

“Me?” she asks in disbelief.

“Yes.”

“I don't think I'll be much help, especially since... he might be upset with me.” She doubted Neku would explode, but she was fairly certain he wouldn't be happy.

“You're his friend. I think that counts for something,” Joshua says, and she smiles a little.

“And,” he continues, “our last discussion didn't end on the friendliest of terms, so I was hoping you could help it from escalating.”

Ah, so he wanted her to play mediator.

“I don't know,” she said, skeptical, “I think I'd just be in the way.”

Joshua then took the hand out of his pocket and raised it to twist a bit of his hair between his fingers. “You said Neku told you he trusts me, and you were willing to, but do you trust me?”

Shiki was silent for a moment, but still met Joshua's gaze. “Somewhat.”

Joshua laughs at that, which shocks her a bit. “Alright, well can you somewhat trust me it would be better with you there?”

She takes in a breath, quirking her mouth in thought before agreeing. “Okay. I'll somewhat trust you on that.”

“That's all I ask.”

They spend the rest of the walk planning how to proceed, promising to meet up soon as Shiki remembers her cram school appointments.

Joshua walks her all the way to the platform and stays until she boards her train. She looks out the window once she's managed a seat, but he's gone.

She then takes out her phone.

Chapter Text

Neku soon comes to realize he isn't coping well.

The night Shiki left, there had been little more he could do, and he was quite exhausted, so he slept. It felt like he'd been doing that a lot lately. But it works until he has to get up for school.

School takes up the focus for the next few days, an affliction that offers some relief. He knows he's been falling behind and the opportunity to throw himself into his work allows him a break from thinking of what he should do.

But, eventually, he scrunches up enough nerve to text Joshua.

He does it in the morning before he leaves for school, but there is still no answer by the end of the day. Neku's miffed, but not too surprised. He tries again.

By the third and fourth text, Neku goes from miffed to pissed and is beginning to think this is pointless. He can't be sure if Joshua is even looking at them. Yet he'd rather not call him. He seems to always fall short in their verbal conversations.

(He can't believe at an earlier time he thought face to face was better.)

Although he's becoming desperate enough, he thinks of going back to WildKat to see if Mr. H can help him contact Joshua. He entertains it around in his head a few times before he decides it's a waste of time as the cons outweigh the pros.

(And he also doesn't want to look like he's groveling again in front of Mr. H.)

Neku knows he's full-on frustrated. His homework sits half-finished, he can't remember the last time he looked at his sketchbook, and although he'd been wanting to talk to Beat, he'd missed a call from him and had been avoiding calling back even when a text arrived. He had texted Shiki just to see how she'd been, but by the time she'd texted him back he felt guilty for trying to pull her into this again. He'd promised he'd fix this memory problem and so far he'd had shit luck.

He just doesn't know what to do.

But he's almost one-hundred percent sure Joshua is fucking with him when he gets a message late into the evening.

Joshua: Hello, Neku.

Of course, Neku thinks, of fucking course.

Then another text.

Joshua: Apologies for not answering sooner.

Immediately, Neku knows something is up because apologies and Joshua don't mix. Unless he's just being condescending.

There's a lot to say as well (yelling, cursing, and a varying array of insults come to mind), but he keeps his cool. This isn't just about him, he has to remind himself.

Neku: hey. do you have a moment to talk?

Joshua: I do.

He wasn't expecting Joshua to be compliant. Flippant and antagonizing maybe, but not so agreeable.

Neku had been planning on what he would write and how to explain things except at that moment it failed him. He still tries though, feeling much more inelegant with his words while also trying not to give too much detail on his friends' situation.

Joshua makes no attempt to message him in between his texts and even after the last one is sent, there is no reply for several minutes.

Neku: can you please say something

He feels restless and antsy, but he only waits about a minute before the response comes through.

Joshua: Neku, it's obvious you've been worrying over this a while.

Joshua: I don't mean to minimize your distress but I must inform you I'm already aware of the situation.

Neku reads the text. Then rereads it again as the panic settles in.

Neku: how long have you known

Joshua: Not long. Perhaps about as long as you have.

What is that supposed to mean?

Joshua: As it seems we have a bit to discuss I think a meeting is in order

Neku rolls his eyes. He's about to type a message along the lines of 'Hell no' and 'Fuck you' but, again, he has to remind himself that's counter-productive.

Neku: fine.

Joshua: Great! Are you free this Sunday?

Neku: yeah i am

Joshua: Will see you then

Neku: wait where are we meeting?

Neku: hello??

Neku sits there, checking his phone for over ten minutes for a response, but none comes.

He really hates this. But he might hate himself more for knowing he'll go along with it.

 
 
 

Shiki can tell by the minute how Beat does not look happy, but he remains quiet as she talks.

Rhyme, seated next to her on her own bed, appears more thoughtful. However, she wasn't the one Shiki was worried about.

A moments pause before Beat speaks up, “Shiki... I dunno about this.”

Beat had his arms crossed, leaning against Rhyme's bedroom wall, looking between Shiki and Rhyme from their spot on his sibling's bed.

“Whadda you think Rhyme?” he then asks. Shiki turns to her too.

Rhyme brushes her hair away from her eyes as she considers. She then asks Shiki, “What does Neku think about this?”

Shiki's shoulders droop. “I haven't told him yet,” she admits. They both exclaim surprise until she continues, “but I'm going to.”

“If Neku doesn't wanna go,” Beat states, “you gotta give him an out.”

And Rhyme nods her head in agreement. “Beat is right. It's not right to make Neku feel cornered.”

“I know,” Shiki says, “I was going to see him after I talked to you two.”

“Would you like us to go with you?” Rhyme offers.

“No... no this is something I've gotta do.”

There's not much left for Shiki to do and she leaves, makes her way to the end of the block where her companion awaits.

Joshua leans against a street sign pole, fiddling on his bright orange cell phone.

“How'd it go?” he asks, not looking up.

“Well, I think,” she says, although it doesn't sound very assuring, she's sure. “Ready to go?”

“Always,” Joshua says, snapping his phone closed. He then stands up straight, giving her an easy smile and gesturing at the road ahead of them.

“Shall we?”

 
 
 

Needless to say, Neku went to bed Saturday night, fully prepared to wake up with Joshua looming over him, maybe with a gun to his temple, or, if the other is going for real unpredictable, a knife to his throat.

Logically he knows he's being ridiculous and is only exaggerating his fears. It's that little piece of anxiety he can't stifle. However, another part of him finds it hard to be reassured where Joshua is concerned.

And by the early afternoon, he's on edge, a tangled knot of worry just wandering around his kitchen, until there's a knock at his door.

But when he opens the door, it's Shiki's face that greets him.

“Oh, Shiki,” he says, surprised, “I wasn't expecting you to...”

He trails off as his gaze falls passed Shiki and to the figure standing just behind her with his smug smile and casual posture, is Joshua.

Neku's pulse skyrockets and he's sure his face must reflect how upset he is and in his head is a continuous loop of what the hell.

He looks at Shiki and says as calmly as he can, “Are you all right?”

He doesn't know what Joshua's done to her to get her here, but it's a low blow, nonetheless.

“Yes, I'm fine,” Shiki says, and she sounds surprisingly neutral.

Neku then glares at Josh. “And I thought you couldn't sink any lower,” he spits.

“I can assure you, Neku,” Joshua starts, but Neku feels anything but assured no matter the amount of times Joshua keeps prefacing his excuses with it, “it's not what you think.”

Bullshit. “I don't believe you.”

The other shrugs. “Not much I can do about that, unfortunately.”

Neku continues to glare at Joshua. Shiki seems to be looking between them both, hesitant.

“Anyway,” Joshua continues, “can we come in? I believe we have an appointment.”

Neku looks between the two and then steps aside for Shiki to enter, but, as Joshua attempts to brush passed, he steps back in front of him.

“This is so not funny, Josh,” he says darkly, “What did you do to her? Did you harass her or something?”

Despite his attempt to make known how deadly serious he is, Joshua still appears annoyingly unphased.
“Funny story,” he says, “but she approached me.”

Neku can feel his glare slack a little, but still eyes him suspiciously. “I feel like you're fucking with me.”

He can tell Joshua wants to laugh when he replies, “I'm not. Apparently, your little talk made her interested to meet me.”

Shit.

Joshua then shifts on his feet. “Are you going to let me in?”

Neku says nothing, but steps aside and Joshua enters. Neku follows close behind after closing the door.

Shiki's in his kitchen, silent and tapping at his kitchen counter. She's usually not this quiet, which doesn't help his suspicions about Joshua pressuring her.

Joshua helps himself to a seat at the small kitchen table. For this being the first time in Neku's home, he'd expected more off-hand comments, good or bad. But much like Shiki, Joshua is suspiciously quiet. Despite the awkward situation, Neku decides to at least try to be a suitable host.

“You want anything to drink?” he asks Shiki. He side-eyes Joshua, who, again, isn't saying anything weird like he'd expect.

“Sure,” is Shiki's response.

“Do you want me to–”

“I got it.”

Shiki knows her way around his place enough that he leaves her to it, although still concerned.

Neku then takes a seat at the kitchen table too, facing Joshua. The other still hasn't said anything, which disturbs him, but is unsubtle about looking around the room. Thank god, Neku's bedroom isn't visible from here.

“So,” Neku starts, breaking the silence, “can you give me some straight answers now?”

Joshua turns his attention on him, a slight smirk on his lips. “In regard to the situation you mentioned previously, I've concluded it is nothing to worry about for now. Everything structurally seems to be keeping together. So I'm certain, Neku, I think Shiki and your other companions will be fine.”

“And so that's why you brought her into this?” Neku asks pointedly.

But before Joshua can reply, it's Shiki who speaks up first.

“No, Neku–” They both turn to look at her—“I was already a part of this.”

She steps closer. The water she had gotten while Neku wasn't looking sits on the counter.

“And Joshua's telling the truth. I initiated things first and asked to meet up with him.”

“Hold on, hold on,” Neku says, trying to catch up with the conversation, “have you guys been hanging out?”

The two then share a look at that and Neku doesn't even need any more confirmation.

“Yes... we have,” Shiki admits.

“I can understand this is a lot for you to take in,” Joshua then says, a sentiment that Neku could never take genuinely from him so he doesn't know why he bothered.

Neku still gives him a pointed glare, thinking, Do you? Do you really? I don't think so.

“Oh really? That makes me feel so much better,” Neku snaps, “that I was apparently freaking out over nothing because you're a raging hypocrite.”

Joshua doesn't say anything to that nor does Shiki. So Neku continues.

“You said that my friends wouldn't mind 'missing a memory or two' Or that you couldn't have too many knowing about your secret. So tell me, Josh.” He crosses his arms and leans forward on the table, “What's really in this for you?”

The brief silence that follows is deafening. Joshua's expression has gone from smug to neutral and he's meeting Neku's gaze head-on. But Neku's not backing down. He has the right to be upset.

When the other finally answers, it's as he leans back in his seat. “I also told you I acted on the best probable outcome for everyone at the time. Which I still stand by.”

“But,” he sighs, “it seems I was wrong in my assumptions or in my technique.” Neku doesn't recall Joshua ever expressing a genuine mistake, so as much as it may be to convince him, he isn't swayed. “However, when I told you that, you told me you understood. And I believed you.”

Damn it, that makes some fire in Neku die, but not completely.

“What's important now,” Shiki then cuts in, “is that we all understand the situation we're in now. Right?”

Neku gives a soft mutter of agreement and Joshua nods.

“Do you mind if I speak to Neku alone?” Shiki then asks Josh.

Joshua blinks, smiles, and inclines his head before getting up from his chair. He leans over and says something to Shiki soft enough that Neku doesn't catch. Joshua then looks briefly over his shoulder at Neku before he leaves and they hear the door close.

“Shiki, what is going on?” Neku asks, confused, and exasperated.

“I'm sorry, Neku,” Shiki says as she twists her hands in her lap, “I didn't want you to get so upset.”

“I'm just... I'm just trying to grasp this. You and Joshua. You've been hanging out? Did he.. pressure you or something?”

“No!” she interjects, “No, it really was me who reached out.”

“But... how did you find him?” Especially when Neku wasn't able to do that himself.

Shiki doesn't look at him though and her teeth are worrying at her lip. He feels like his heart has sunk into his stomach.

“I went to see Mr. H,” she breathes, “Beat mentioned they knew each other so.”

Neku lets that sink in for a moment. He's sure his distress can show on his face because Shiki then asks him, “Why didn't you tell me you went to see him?”

"Because–!" Neku snaps, although he didn't mean to.

He hadn't been able to untangle the mess that was his thoughts and feelings about Mr. H, so he doesn't know how he could explain it all to Shiki.

“Because... I wasn't sure I could trust him,” is what he finally admits.

“What do you mean?” Shiki presses.

Neku lets out a sigh. Keeping this all to himself is what got him into the mess he's in now, so he should just spill everything now, even if it is uncomfortable. There's more at stake now than just his own feelings.

“Remember how I mentioned before that the Grim Heaper was after Joshua when we were partners?”
Shiki nods.

“He only knew of Joshua's identity, that he was the Composer, because of Mr. H. Mr. H was the one that told him. And he also helped his come back to life and taught him how to create the Noise that possessed and killed all those Reapers and Players.” Neku swallows, his throat tight. “That's why I didn't tell you.”

“Neku... I'm sorry.”

“But why didn't you tell me about seeing Joshua?” he demands, “And why did you think that was a good idea after everything I told you?”

“You're upset,” Shiki says bluntly, frowning.

“Yeah, I am.” He's more than upset, he thinks. He's definitely mad.

“Neku, I'm sorry that I hurt you,” she tells him, still frowning, “but I didn't want to wait around doing nothing like I was before.”

Neku notices how she hesitates in her speech and begins fidgeting with her hands again.

“I knew you were really upset last time we talked.” She locks eyes with him, pausing as if waiting to see if he'd protest. And he wanted to. “So I thought... I thought it would be easier for me to talk to Joshua. I didn't know how it would go, but–I was worried about you. And if I had to stand up to him for you, I was prepared to. I didn't want you to get hurt again.”

Neku finds himself speechless. As mad as he is, he can't help but be touched at her sentiment.

“I suppose I did that anyway, didn't I? I promise I didn't have any malicious intent keeping this from you and I told Joshua I would keep the discussions we had private, but I think he wants to be on better terms with you. I at least believe that much.”

Neku thinks about that. What Shiki said resonates with him. He wants to believe it too. Joshua's actions since he'd reentered Neku's life had appeared contradicting in a way that made the other second-guess himself, but Shiki's opinion he had more faith in.

“I do believe you,” Neku tells her, “and I want to believe you're right about Josh.”

“But you're still upset.”

“Yes.” There's no denying that. A part of him is still miffed. “But I'll get over it. You're my friend. I can't be mad at you for long.”

He then grins at her. “And you were gonna stand up to Joshua for me. I have to respect that.”

She snorts. “Only if I felt I had to,” she says, pushing hair behind her ears and fixing her hair clips. Her hair is much longer now than he remembers, so much so in the back he's sure she could manage a small ponytail.

“I should have told you,” Neku finds himself saying, “about Mr. H and Joshua way earlier.”

He then thinks about Rhyme. And... oh god, Beat.

He puts his face in his hands. “I didn't even answer Beat,” he groans. That was really shitty of him.

“I know...” Shiki murmurs.

Neku looks up at her. “Is he pissed?”

“No... I don't think he's 'pissed',” she says, but her eyes slide away and down towards the table.

“I gotta talk to him.”

“Well that's great because I know where he'll be.” Shiki says it almost sheepishly. “I saw him and Rhyme before I came here. And I invited him to meet up with us, if you want to go...”

Neku assumes that when she says “us” Joshua is also included in there, meaning this might devolve into catastrophe.

However, he huffs a sigh and scratches the back of his neck. “Okay. Give me ten minutes.”

 
 
 

Neku didn't need much physical preparation. Most of the time he spent in his room and bathroom is running through scenarios in case he has to deescalate the situation.

It's only when he and Shiki are on their way to the train station that he even thinks to ask where they're going. Shiki tells him they're going to Miyashita Park, which cool, a nice public area, Neku can deal with that.

Neku still wants to ask about Shiki and Joshua's hangouts. He tries to ease into it, but Shiki claims they weren't that interesting and they were mostly just discussing designs and small talk. They then get onto the train and with it being fairly crowded, prevents them from talking much, so he lets it go.

Thankfully, Neku no longer feels the intense nervousness he had that morning. Now it's just the occasional flip of his stomach and a few brief flashbacks to the last time Joshua met up with his friends. But the sight that greets him and Shiki as they make their way into the park, while not looking so to an outside observer, is bizarre.

 Eri and Joshua are playing Tin Pin.

Joshua looks much the same as he did leaving Neku's place. Eri is stylish as always and her hair up into twin tails on either side of her head. They haven't gotten close enough for Neku to hear their conversation, but he can see Eri laugh after something Joshua says.

(Neku doesn't like that his immediate thought is that they're making fun of him, but he quickly brushes it aside.)

It's then that Eri notices him and Shiki approaching and her grin is turned on them and she waves. She says something to Joshua before getting up and coming over and Joshua follows slowly behind her.

“Hey!” she greets and gives Neku a hug that he gladly accepts and returns, realizing it has been a while since they'd seen each other. She then hugs Shiki.

“Joshua's been showing me how to play Tin Pin,” she says.

She looks more to Neku when she says it, gauging his reaction. He realizes a little too late it's because she mentioned Joshua and not because she could hear his thoughts of “oh god no...” at the mention of Tin Pin.

“Have you guys ever played at all?”

“Unfortunately more than I cared to,” Neku admits. After his first few experiences with Tin Pin, it didn't exactly scream fun to him like it might others.

“Um... I've heard of it?” Shiki says tentatively.

“I'll show you!” Eri assures her enthusiastically, grabbing her friend's hand and leading her back to where the setup was, leaving Neku alone.

Well, not entirely as he finds himself next to Joshua.

Neku realizes he has a decision to make, and he really doesn't feel like having any more fights.

“Tin Pin?” he decides to ask.

And Joshua gives a small, amused smile still looking towards where the girls are sitting. “It's part of Shibuya culture, Neku. And the people are still clamoring for a season two of the animation after all.”

Neku snorts. “Oh yeah. Don't know how I forgot how much of a giant nerd you are.”

“Hmph. Some of us can just appreciate an excellent story.”

Neku may roll his eyes, but he likes this. Why couldn't interactions with Joshua always be this laid-back, easy, and just... dumb.

But then just like that, Joshua gives him conversation whiplash. “Did you and Shiki smooth things over?”

“We did,” Neku answers tersely.

Joshua seems to nod his head in approval. “Good. She's very interesting–”

Neku does not like how that sounds, but says, “I owe her a lot.”

“–and, by the way, I was already aware of where you lived. So you don't have to be upset with her for that.”

“Wait. What?” Neku had never even considered that, but appreciates the clarification?

“So, not going to play?”

And there he goes, switching the topic again. However, Neku allows it. “Well, I didn't know, so I don't have any pins on me.”

“Oh don't be like that,” Joshua chides, “In the spirit of sportsmanship, I'm willing to lend you some.”

“I'll pass,” Neku deadpans, “I don't trust you haven't made any kind of adjustments to them.”

“Are you still hung up on that? That was a completely different situation.”

Neku wants to laugh. Perhaps it was a different situation, but it's so funny (and by that he means kinda depressing) that even early in their partnership, Joshua decides that he could be behind the scenes manipulating things without Neku knowing and everything would be fine. The mission was cleared. Shibuya wasn't destroyed.

Yet he'd given Joshua another chance, believing he was capable of change. And it wasn't even the first second chance Neku had given him, but he would have to make it the other's last.

“I wonder what Shooter's up to there days–”

Neku's words are interrupted as Beat's voice calls out behind him, “Yo Phones!” and he turns around to see Beat and Rhyme walking in his direction.

“Hey,” he greets both of them with a brief wave.

Rhyme waves back at him, but Beat's eyes seem to follow just behind Neku. It's then he realizes Joshua is no longer next to him, but he's making his way back to where Shiki and Eri are still playing Tin Pin. Neku's not very surprised.

“How have you been?” Neku then asks when the two get close.

“Good,” Rhyme chirps with a smile. She's wearing a little backpack again and another soft sweater. Her eyes then wander over towards Shiki, Eri, and now Joshua.

“Oh! Tin Pin!” she exclaims. She then shrugs off the straps of the backpack and turns it around to reveal the handful of pins pinned to it. It's just enough for a full set. “I play with my classmates sometimes.”

“Yeah, you should join in. Crush 'em,” Neku says, and by that, he really hopes it's Joshua.

Rhyme nods and runs off in the group's direction. So far so good, Neku thinks.

He then looks at Beat. “Hey man.”

“Sup,” Beat responds.

An awkward silence follows between them as Neku reasons neither of them knows how to continue. After several seconds, Beat speaks up.

“Do ya think we can talk?”

“Yeah. 'course man.”

They both linger there among the sparse trees of the park, Neku's hand on his hip and Beat's shoved into the pockets of his shorts.

“So–”

“Beat–”

Another pause as they realize the other had spoken at the same time.

“Can you let me go first?” Neku asks.

Beat nods, “Sure.”

“I'm so sorry. It was really shitty of me to ignore your message and.... and not tell you anything.”

“Ah,” Beat mumbles, rubbing his neck, “it ain't that big a deal.”

“It is. It was important stuff, and I got too caught up in myself instead of you, Rhyme or Shiki. So...” He doesn't know much else he can say and Beat seems to mull that over in his lead for a moment.

“Aight Neku,” he says, “I forgive you. Don't worry 'bout it anymore.”

It's more than Neku deserves, but Beat is a nice guy. “Thanks, man.”

“How're you though?” Beat asks and then glances briefly where the girls are exclaiming over Tin Pin as Joshua hangs back from them, “Shiki told me what was goin' on. How're you holdin' up?”

“I'm here,” is all Neku can think to say then, “but to be honest... I don't know.”

“Are you mad?”

Neku shrugs. “A little. I don't wanna be though. Everything is going smoothly right now.”

Beat's eyebrows furrow. “If you're mad, you're mad,” he says.

“True,” Neku concedes.

“But what's up that you were gonna tell me?”

Oh right.

He doesn't have to explain as much as he did with Shiki. He confirms the details Shiki had shared with him, and since he'd already explained to her about Mr. H, he does the same with Beat to which the other freaks out.

“Nah man, no way!” Beat exclaims, “I thought Coffee Man and Priss were cool. You said they were like good friends.”

“That's what Joshua certainly implied... I guess Mr. H just had his own agenda for the Game.”

Neku feels bile rising in his throat at the thought and what role he had been supposed to play in that.

“Do you think Rhyme was a part of that?” Beat asks him and his tone is serious.

Neku thinks about that. Mr. H's reaction didn't leave him thinking so and he couldn't see how helping Beat or Rhyme in her Noise form factored into it. Unless there was something he wasn't seeing.

“I don't think so. When I talked to him, he mentioned helping you because he admired your passion. And he said you were able to get her where she needed to be.”

Beat smiles a bit at his words.

“But he also said... Rhyme never got her entry fee back. When she was erased. Since she lost.” It still makes him sad to say it.

There's a solemn silence for a beat until the other says, “I had a feelin'.”

“You did?”

“Well, I knew somethin' wasn't right... an' before she was always makin' goals and makin' plans. She was always tellin' me about 'em, but not so much anymore.”

Neku wants to say how sorry he is but, “Y'know, Mr. H also said Rhyme was strong enough to make it back, I think she's strong enough to overcome it.” He hesitates for a moment and then continues, “And... he said that while he made the pin and you held onto her, only the Composer—only Joshua could've brought her back. Even though she'd lost her entry fee.”

Beat seems to pout and scratches his head underneath his beanie. And then he says decidedly, “Aight, I made up my mind. I won't kick his ass today.”

“Wh-what?” Neku splutters. He can't have heard right.

“Rhyme also asked me not to,” Beat continues on casually, “but after Shiki told me what happened with you and Priss, I said I'd make sure he felt it next time I saw him.”

Neku can't really explain his thoughts then, but he would classify his feelings as a strange struggle between relieved and disappointed. And he mental image Beat's words invoke is too inconceivable.

“But it doesn't feel right now,” Beat then concludes.

“Well that's... good,” Neku mumbles. Although he wouldn't say Joshua didn't deserve it, at least a little.

“Also, he was kinda right.”

“What do you mean?” Neku asks.

His friend sighs. “I was tryna pick a fight back then, an' I know I wasn't the one to really save Rhyme, so what he said hit.”

“Yeah... he has a way of doing that,” Neku acknowledges, “But you still did so much–”

“But in the worst way possible!” his friend argues, “I was a Reaper. And even if I didn't erase any Players, it was a shitty thing to do to you an' Shiki.”

Beat seems to be tearing up a bit. Neku had only seen the other cry a handful of times since their friendship, as early as their first Hachiko meeting.

Neku pats his friend's arm in a comforting gesture. “Beat listen... Even if it was shitty or whatever at that moment, without that, I never would have made it—we never would have made it out of the Game. Let alone that third week. So, don't sell yourself short, okay? I promise neither Shiki nor I are upset at you now.”

Beat nods and then pulls Neku into a hug he chuckles and accepts.

“I won't go pickin' fights with Priss, alright?” Beat says when they pull away, “Shiki said you trusted him, so I will too. But if you need me to, y'know, just lemme know.”

He knows Beat means it as a reassuring gesture and in good faith, but Neku just then seems to realize the full weight of responsibility for Joshua, but he still says, “Thanks Beat.”

They look back towards the group. Shiki and Eri are now the only two playing Tin Pin. Rhyme is sitting next to Joshua, talking. It kills Neku that he can't see Joshua's face as he seems to be staring at his hands.

“Do you want me to tell Rhyme about what happened to her?” Neku asks.

“Dunno,” Beat admits, “I'll wait till she lets me know, I guess. I don't wanna push her.”

Neku doesn't push further because he understands.

 
 
 

Joshua manages to pull out of the Tin Pin match to allow Rhyme, Shiki, and Eri to duke it out while he hangs back, which leads to him sitting down on the long stretch of bench hooked into the nearby concrete wall.

He takes out his phone, fiddling with it since there's no one to text, no one to call. He also glances over to where Neku and his former Reaper friend converse. He can feel the tension radiating off of both of them even without peaking into their thoughts.

Because of that, he's not paying attention to his surroundings till he realizes someone is sitting down next to him.

Joshua tries not to appear too startled as he sits back and Rhyme is there smiling at him politely.

“Lost?” Joshua going for casual.

Rhyme shakes her head. “I let them win,” she admits in a tone as if they're conspirators.

“That doesn't seem fair.”

“It wasn't when you did it either,” she points out.

He has really no defense for that, especially since what she said was true.

However, Joshua then says, “Would you believe in another world I was a Tin Pin championship finalist?”

Rhyme giggles as she's supposed to, “I can see it.”

He hopes that might be enough to keep the conversation light, but he is unsuccessful.

“You don't have to be afraid to talk to me,” Rhyme tells him, calmly in fact, “I'm not upset with you.”

Joshua doesn't say anything. He glances to where Shiki and Eri are. They haven't seemed to notice anything. He can't look back at Neku and his companion since he's sure Rhyme is watching him.

“In fact,” Rhyme then continues, “I wanted to thank you.” She swings her legs, her shoes barely scraping the ground as she does it.

And Joshua very much does not feel any better at her reassurance. He doesn't understand how she, or even Shiki who'd said something similar, can be thankful to him of all people.

“You did what you could for me. I know that.” Although Joshua can't think how she could be certain of that.

He then listens in again to her Music where familiar chords echo back at him.

“It has been an adjustment,” Rhyme continues to exposit, “Some days have been better than others, but Beat has been very supportive.”

She says his name with such warmth, Joshua is almost jealous.

“It makes me feel a little guilty that I forgot about him, even if it wasn't for very long.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Joshua asks her.

Rhyme tilts her head, considering. “Maybe I was wrong in assuming that you avoided me due to feeling guilty, but I wanted to reassure you.”

She shrugs again and stares out over the park. “It hasn't been that bad. Seeing them. There haven't been very many, and it's not like I really remember being one.”

“It's been a slow week.”

“Oh. I see.”

There's a pause as Joshua leans forward, staring down at his laced hands.

“It's unfortunate,” he then says, “I never would have wished that on anyone.”

“I can handle it,” Rhyme says, not missing a beat, “And I am grateful. I just wanted you to know that.”
Joshua can only say, “Thanks,” but it sounds rather numb.

“You're welcome,” Rhyme still replies warmly, chipper as she had been when first approaching.

She then gets up from her seat and he watches her as she heads toward Shiki and Eri, but meets with her brother part of the way there and Eri cheers at her victory. He then sits up, and it's Neku that's standing in front of him.

He can feel the concern yet cautiousness within the other's stare. “You okay?” he asks.

Joshua could answer that honestly. He also could just leave, never look back at all. But what's becoming more concerning to him is that he doesn't want to despite knowing he should.

He meets Neku gaze and smirks even though his talk with Rhyme has resurfaced memories of the cool, smooth surface of a pin and a fragmented melody only able to be sampled and remixed to become semi-recognizable again.

“Yes, of course,” Joshua says as he stands up from the bench, “I'm fine.”

Chapter Text

Joshua finds it difficult to pin down his feelings about Neku's friends.

Shiki and Eri are amiable and are the only ones he agrees to share his number with. Although Rhyme is also, and he can appreciate an excellent match at Tin Pin she's turned out to be as long as he can put their first conversation out of his head. He hasn't talked too much to Neku's former Reaper friend Beat, but he seems nice enough.

He might conclude from this that having other companions—that having friends, is nice.

However, there still is the nagging feeling that weasels its way into his mind of being out of place.

The dynamic of the group was already established before Joshua even showed up, and he feels he is only observing but not melding.

Even when he goes off on a shopping spree with Shiki. It's nice, it's casual. But sometimes she would grab his arm to lead him around and, in the back of his mind, he's startled by her physical affection. It's just so... casual and a little funny for someone who had said they only 'somewhat' trusted him.

It's rather unusual and the more Joshua spends around Neku and his companions, he realizes how remarkable they each are in their own way.

Joshua had already been aware of Neku's remarkability. It was one reason he'd been... selected, although it wasn't till the end of the Long Game that Joshua understood there was more to Neku than his high Imagination and all-inclusive Soul composition.

But Shiki's growth during her time in the Game was what assured him of his proxy's success during their partnership, but much like Neku, he hadn't understood until he spent time around her.

And though he can't say he connects to Beat himself, he can grasp his Producer's admiration of the other's earnestness that led him to help him despite the rules. And, even though he'd been significantly limited in his powers, he could admit Beat was a tough opponent when pitted against and made him break a sweat. He respects him for that.

Besides, that had worked in Joshua's favor, hadn't it?

Rhyme too is interesting. An individual who shouldn't have come back at all yet has adjusted so well despite her Soul's many transformations.

He couldn't have predicted each of them, let alone one, and all of them coming together at the same time is unprecedented. Perhaps the cards were stacked against him from the beginning.

As such, he pays attention to their Music.

Much like with Shiki before, it comes from curiosity and having intimate knowledge of hers and Neku's he's interested in the influences he'll discover. They prove his theory right. Becoming familiar with Beat's, Rhyme's, and Eri's Music allows him to dissect their melodies, amongst each of them.

Their individual melodies carry like motifs among each other until it's undecipherable almost where those aspects began and where they end, giving each piece a warm and rich sound. It's not too surprising since Joshua was already aware of this, but it is fascinating to witness it in action.

And yet he finds that however much their Music has affected each other, it has also been affected by him. It's subtle. A little here, a little there, except with Rhyme's where it is most pronounced, he can hear his own melody beginning to take shape. And he wonders how his own Music has changed.

He once told Neku that only by allowing others in can you find new ways to be yourself, but he might not have truly understood that himself...

Well, despite all his contemplation, he's also texting Eri.

She might be the most interesting of all, given how she doesn't have the same background of the Game as the others do. Although Joshua suspects that she knows more about the situation than she lets on. She doesn't strike him as the type to be left behind. Either that or she is deftly capable in the art of socialization, which is a fair possibility from what he's observed. But that doesn't matter to him as she's enjoyable and very easy to talk to in the same way Neku is easy to tease.

If there's anything troubling about her, it's her level of observation. Apparently it's not only put to use in her keen eye for fashion.

Eri: So how've you been?

Joshua: So far, so good.

Eri: That's good

There's a significant pause between this text and the next one.

Eri: Hey. I hope this isn't too forward, but are you okay?

And she's not shy about expressing her concerns either. Joshua might find it more charming if it didn't make him so unnerved.

Joshua: No. I'm fine.

Joshua: It might be I haven't had such a busy week in a while.

Perhaps more of a lie by omission, but he feels it's justified.

Eri: oh yeah that's understandable

Although he might be unsure if she'll push it farther, however, he isn't worried. He's fine.

Joshua: Didn't you say you had school today?

Eri: It has to end at some point right lol

Joshua: Very true

Eri: Plus I still have a part-time job to get to since pestering Neku on my way there won't get me any money

Joshua: Need any help with that?

But Joshua smiles to himself, not waiting for an answer, already following familiar chords.

 
 
 

It surprised Neku how normal the second meet up with Joshua and his friends was, and the subsequent times after.

He decided not to press on what Joshua and Rhyme had been discussing even as curious. His trust in Rhyme's decisions and the lack of fallout after their conversation leads him to believe it only casual. Rhyme is also not one to stir things up, anyway.

But with each iteration that Neku either takes part in or hears about, he worries less and less.

Neku knows how to handle Josh, even if he may seem hot-blooded and prone to the other's riling, and he finds his companions can do the same.

They are, after all, quite curious about Joshua. He doesn't think Beat has warmed up to him entirely as neither of them seems to know how to approach the other. Rhyme and Shiki get along just fine, though. Eri seems to have gravitated towards Josh scaringly well, but then again he was mysterious and interesting and despite all his smugness and snottiness, he could be charming when he wants to be.

That's not to say Joshua has been actively an asshole. He still makes the occasional snarky comment (usually at Neku's expense), but snark and sass, Neku can deal and the others can handle and even deal it back themselves.

And however much Neku wants to attribute Joshua's lack of assholery to him having the tact to behave himself, he can't help to think there's something the other isn't telling him.

But as things felt they were maybe going okay, Neku considers trying to sketch again.

He tells Eri since he thinks he could use the validity of her enthusiasm. And that's what she does as he discusses with her after school. Though he fears just how much enthusiasm she can have for any given project, the worst he thinks could happen now is she might put him in another dress, excusing it as a collaboration. He hopes it's at least one that's his style.

Their conversation winds down as they get closer to Eri's destination. He's also noted her texting on her phone, worrying at her lip with her teeth as he's known Shiki's prone to do.

Then she speaks up, “Hey Neku, can I ask you something?”

“What's up?”

She taps her phone against her palm, making the dangling charms jingle.

“You know Joshua better than I do.” Neku was bracing himself as nothing about this set up is assuring. “Has he seemed... off lately, to you?”

Neku doesn't know how to put it. He has had some concern that Joshua has been so quiet, but they have spent little time alone. It's always been with the buffer of one other person.

He doesn't answer right away, wonders if that gives Eri as much confirmation as she needs, but says, “I've had a feelin'. I don't know why, but there's something going on, I think.”

Actually, Neku had a sneaking suspicion as to what. He doesn't want to admit he gets worried about Josh since it feels stupid as he's more than capable of taking care of himself, but that doesn't mean the information about Mr. H's betrayal has just slipped his mind.

However, that's Composer stuff and it shouldn't concern him anymore, should it? Yet if they were to have any relationship—any kind of friendship, it technically should be his responsibility to know. For himself and his other friends.

“Are you going to talk to him?” Eri questions.

“He's insufferable,” Neku blurts without thinking and Eri bursts out laughing, “He's not gonna want to talk, anyway. I doubt he'll be very forthcoming.”

“Hmm. That sounds about right,” she admits, “You'll never know until you try though. Even just some reassurance from you might be the opening for more conversation.”

Neku mulls that over for consideration. “I guess you're right,” he concedes, “Although, I still doubt Josh would make it that easy.”

“Make what easy?” And, of course, it's Joshua who pipes up as he appears next to Eri. She seems as surprised as Neku.

And Neku doesn't bother keeping his thoughts to himself, “Why am I not surprised that you're here.”

“You should always know, Neku, that I'm in the area,” he replies knowingly. He might as well just wink while he's at it.

Joshua then greets Eri and they chat as Neku stews over the words Eri had said regarding talking to him. Because of this he misses the beats of his companion's conversation.

“–Neku's art is fantastic.”

“Huh?” he says dumbly, realizing he is the subject of the conversation.

“I'm well aware,” Joshua responds, smirking at him. Neku can feel the tips of his ears grow hot.

“Well, I don't want to be late...” Eri says. She readjusts her schoolbag and gives Neku an encouraging look. “Bye! See ya later.”

And then it's just him and Joshua.

“Do you have anywhere to be?” he asks.

Joshua shrugs, a little unusual for him. “Not really,” he says, “Are you asking for my company?”

Obviously. Neku nods, “If you want.”

“Did you have a particular activity in mind?”

“We can just talk. And walk,” Neku answers kind of lamely. He knows he's not making the most compelling case, but wary of how coy Joshua is trying to be with him.

“Oh? And did you have a particular topic of conversation?”

“Not really,” Neku lied, but he has the suspicion if he is direct in addressing his concerns, Joshua will bolt. Or retreat behind smug indifference.

They've already started walking, slowly but aimlessly, which is fine. Joshua makes a show of tapping his chin in contemplation. Neku wonders if he's being annoying on purpose or just stalling. Maybe both. He contemplates himself on how to edge his concerns into the conversation.

“Eri mentioned you're working on your art again,” Joshua then pipes up. His eyes glitter in a way that makes Neku sure he's trying to fluster him.

“Yeah,” he confirms, “I am.”

It's a very noncommital answer to which Joshua presses, “Time consuming?”

“Not as much as coloring would be. Mostly it's just sketching.”

The other makes a humming noise in the back of his throat. “Are you still creating designs for Shiki and Eri to use?”

Neku raises his eyebrows in surprise. Joshua notices and chuckles. “They showed me some work you did on their clothing sketches.”

“Oh,” is all Neku says. It makes sense, so he doesn't know why he's surprised. “Well, yeah. If they still want me to. I'm thinking of starting another extensive project though.”

The reaction was good the last time and Neku would have been lying if, after all that hard work he had put into it, he didn't feel satisfaction or a desire to do better this time.

“Like your work in Udagawa.” It's not a question, Neku notices.

“Yeah, or something like it,” he says, but notices the strange expression on Joshua's face. “Do you think it's a bad idea?” Neku asks, half teasing, half curious.

“Not at all,” Joshua replies, “Sanae says you have talent.”

Neku stumbles, nearly face-planting on the concrete. Whatever warmth or casualness their conversation had evaporated, replaced by a stony silence despite the crowd surrounding them.

And Neku realizes he's at a turning point.

“Josh–”

“Do you mind if we go this way?” Joshua interjects, cutting him off.

He is already heading in the direction he indicated and is in the thick of the Scramble. Neku doesn't have a choice but to follow if he wants to continue this conversation. He nearly jogs to keep up with the other as they crossover to 104.

“Joshua, can you please talk to me,” Neku pleads when he can get a word in without feeling out of breath.

“There's nothing for us to discuss,” Joshua says, petulant. He doesn't even look back at him.

“Obviously there's something wrong or you wouldn't be acting like this,” Neku counters. His frustration is overcoming his worry. And he knows an argument surfacing when he sees one.

Joshua doesn't offer any more clarification, so Neku asks about the most pressing suspicion on his mind.
“Did something happen with Mr. H?”

“No,” Joshua snaps, a response Neku wants to call bullshit on, until the other continues, “I haven't seen him since the day Shiki visited WildKat.”

They're on Dogenzaka now, almost about to pass Ramen Don, and as he follows him, Neku realizes Joshua is heading toward Pork City, and his stomach drops.

He has to be doing this on purpose, Neku concludes. There can't be another explanation for it, can there? Because the other must know how uncomfortable this would be for him. And yes, as he thought, Joshua heads inside. After a moment's hesitation, Neku makes up his mind and follows after him.
It appears not to have changed much from what Neku remembers, but he doesn't get to look around much as Joshua is making a beeline for the elevator.

As they get into the elevator, side by side, Joshua doesn't stop him, but it's then that Neku gets a good look at his face for the first since the strain in their conversation. And he can see it now that he's looking for it. A shadow of the same haunted look Joshua displayed at WildKat not so long ago. It concerns him as much as it terrifies him.

Joshua presses the button for the roof. Neku's not surprised. Attention seekers tend to favor high places. Perhaps Joshua might have more in common with Pi-face than he realizes.

Their exit from the elevator is as silent as the ride up had been, but now that they're on the roof and alone, Neku speaks up.

“Did you come up here for a reason?”

Joshua doesn't have an answer for that, it seems.

Neku then gives a small, humorless laugh and shakes his head. “You really don't trust me, do you?”

It's a conclusion Neku has wanted to deny for a while. He'd thought that night at WildKat he was being trusted, and he had seen a side of Joshua he hadn't before. However, could that have all been just words? He didn't want to think so. But Josh seemed determined to lash out at him. And he could only guess at how the other was coping, but he shouldn't have to guess.

“We're doing this now, are we?” Joshua asks, his voice hard as he turns to face him.

“Damn right we are!” he yells, perhaps a touch too loud. However, he remembers Eri's words to him and he gathers himself together with a deep breath.

“Look, I'm sorry to press you. If you don't want to talk about it, you don't have to. But I can see you're upset, so let me help you instead of running away from me.” Joshua crosses his arms, unconvinced. “Maybe you don't want sympathy, but I'm here because I care about you. And so does everyone else.”

Joshua laughs. It's an icy and indifferent laugh that Neku has heard before, and his body goes cold.

Then Joshua speaks in that same tone, “You think that just because I accompanied you for one week during my own Game that makes us friends? That you know me? You don't.”

“Joshua, what are you doing?”

Neku hates that his voice trembled slightly. It's easy to parse that Joshua is mad, and that means this is turning into a fight. “Is this really what's been bothering you? That I consider us friends, even after all the shit you put me through.”

“Oh, how kind of you to forgive me of my transgressions,” Joshua sneers.

“I don't!” Neku admits to him. That was one reason he'd had so many reservations about Joshua he'd tried to put aside. So much for trusting him, it seems. “But I'm willing to throw out everything from the Game because you brought us back. You spared Shibuya. You revived Rhyme even though you didn't have to. And I never even asked you for an apology or why you had to choose me.”

“Hmph. So what?” Joshua says, “Did you ever consider it was because it was easier for me? That I could spare myself the headache of the consequences erasing all of you would give me?”

Neku just stares at him, dumbfounded.

“And as for why I chose you, it was because you were everything I hated about Shibuya. So yeah, don't expect an apology.”

While Joshua is talking Neku's mind is doing a speed-run through his memories. Did he miss something? He can't process any of what Joshua is truly saying. The world is going a million miles an hour and at a snail's pace.

However, Joshua won't meet his eyes.

It's a small thing. But Joshua didn't even look away when he ended his life. He's lying, Neku realizes, dizzyingly, at least to some degree. It doesn't make it hurt any less though.

Tears sting the corners of Neku's eyes and his throat is tight as he says, “You're so full of shit, Joshua. But I think I'm starting to understand.”

Joshua looks at him then, violet eyes challenging.

“It's easier for you, isn't it? To push people away.”

An angry, icy silence follows between them. It feels like their last standoff, except the only weapons they have now are their words.

“I don't need you projecting your abandonment issues onto me, Neku,” Joshua spits back, “Or your guilt. I'm not you.”

Neku decides, no matter if these are lies or not, he can't do this anymore.

“You're right,” he says, stale and emotionless, “You don't deserve it. Because even if I had every single reason to, I never pulled the trigger.”

It's a last-ditch attempt at a jab and Neku feels a twisted satisfaction as Joshua doesn't seem to have a retort for that one, even as any hope of friendship is crumbling in front of him.

“Fine,” Neku mutters, more to himself than the other, but there's a finality to it even if the other doesn't hear.

Neku turns away towards the elevator as he knows Joshua has vanished because of the familiar ringing in his ears and the electric taste on his tongue. He quickly wipes away the tears that have leaked from his eyes. Neku's already wasted enough tears on Joshua before. He doesn't deserve any more.

Chapter Text

“Hello?”

“Shiki–” Neku's voice is still too rough, and he stops, but not without his friend taking notice.

“Neku? What's wrong?”

“We had a fight. Joshua and I.”

“What happened?”

“I don't know,” Neku states, exasperated.  Going through the whole turn of events in his head on the way home until collapsing on his bed and calling Shiki was all he'd been able to do.

“He'd seemed off,” he continues. “I thought something happened with Mr. H and him or something again, and he didn't want to talk about it, but I confronted him. He got angry, said some things. I did too. It's all fucked up.”

Shiki asks him for more details and he tells her.

“Neku, I'm so sorry,” she says when he goes quiet, “This is my fault, isn't it?”

“No. No, it's not,” Neku tells her.

“But if I hadn't–”

“Shiki, listen to me. It's not your fault. And it's not Eri's or Beat's or Rhyme's. Whatever's happening, it's between me and Josh.”

Shiki lets out a soft sigh on the other end, and he knows she understands. “What are you going to do?” she asks.

Neku parses that. He is still angry. At Joshua's words, for being impossible, for lashing out at him, and making him rethink their entire relationship (Again.). But he's also mad at himself, for giving in and lashing back. Yet he can't say he isn't still worried. But didn't he decide he wouldn't give Joshua another chance? That he wouldn't chase after him again?

“I don't know.”

 
 
 

Neku doesn't attempt to contact Joshua and, as far as he knows, neither do his friends. By now they're all informed by Shiki, as he'd preferred not to do it himself. And they've all messaged him about it.

Shiki: How are you?

She's keen to check up on him, even though it's barely been two days since he'd called her. He thinks she might still feel a little guilty about what happened between him and Joshua, but she shouldn't be.

Neku: i'm doing okay

Neku: or as good as i can be

Eri does the same sort of checking up on him too.

Eri: I know everyone else is probably blowing up your phone, but I want to make sure you're doing alright

Eri: Let me know if there's anything I can do

Neku gives her the same assurance he did Shiki.

Then there's Beat.

Beat: yo neku im sorry about what happened between you and priss

Beat: i can still kick his ass if you want

That at least gets Neku to laugh, and no matter how satisfying it might appear as an option, it wouldn't solve anything. He thanks Beat anyway.

Rhyme, to his surprise, doesn't text him, but calls him.

“Hi, Neku,” she says when he picks up, “I was hoping you had a moment to talk.”

“I do.”

“I heard you and Joshua got into an argument,” she says, her tone a tad cautious.

“Yeah, we did...”

“If you're comfortable, do you mind telling me what it was about?”

Neku is surprised, but after considering it, he realizes that Shiki or even Beat or Eri wouldn't have gone into excruciating detail when talking with each other. He then details the events to Rhyme in a few sentences, much like he did with Shiki.

“Oh, I see.” Rhyme muses.

“Yeah...” Neku says again, “It's pretty messed up.”

Rhyme makes an affirming noise on the other end and then asks, “Neku, do you mind if I give you some advice? Just something to think over?”

“Sure go for it.” He's definitely interested in what she has to say.

“I think if you have the chance, you need to be entirely honest with Joshua about how you feel.”

Neku blinks. “What do you mean?”

He hears some rustling on the other end he infers is Rhyme moving around. “As much as you want to be friends, or even if you don't anymore, I don't think it's understated to say your relationship is complicated, right?”

Unfortunately, it's true.

“But I assume you're still going to talk to him?”

That same line of thought has been running through his mind, he has to admit. He hadn't decided yet, but—

“I don't know,” he says, “I don't even know where he is.”

Rhyme is quiet for a moment before asking, “Are you going to look for him?”

“I shouldn't.”

“But will you?”

“... I haven't decided yet.”

“Well, if you do,” Rhyme continues, “I think you should make it known how you truly feel. Hopefully, it will leave him no room for mistaken intention. And try to get the answers you want, otherwise it might continue to complicate and fester things between you.

“If that happens, perhaps that will give him the chance to be honest with you in turn instead of lashing out.”

A silence stretches on as Neku is both contemplating Rhyme's words and in awe of them.

Then there’s an embarrassed chuckle from Rhyme. “Does that make sense?”

“It does,” Neku assures her. “Thank you. You sure you're only in Junior High?”

Rhyme laughs. “You're welcome.”

They end the conversation not long after, but it gives Neku something to think over. He's still angry. But Rhyme brought up a point that Neku had needling at him, and he doesn't think he can shake it off.

When he decides to contact Joshua, it goes as he expected. The other doesn't answer his two calls—although that is something of a relief—or after a text. Neku did not expect him to answer. He knew Joshua wouldn't let it be that easy.

However, Joshua is not the only one he wants answers from.

He informs Shiki and Beat of where he's going and why, before heading to WildKat. He doesn't know if he'll find Joshua there— he doubts it, as according to Joshua, he and Mr. H haven't seen each other in a while.

Neku's trip appears to be for nothing though, as it is later in the day and the cafe is dark inside. He cups his hands over the windows to look inside but sees no one. He also tries the door. No luck.

Damn it,” Neku curses and impulsively bangs his fist on the door.

“It's more polite to knock.”

Neku almost jumps out of his skin and turns to see Mr. H standing behind him, a supermarket bag hanging off his arm.

“Sorry...” Neku mumbles, “I didn't think—” He stops, feeling the mood from before shift and leave him dissolving in embarrassment.

“Don't worry about it, Phones,” the barista says, and moves to unlock the cafe door. “Ya comin' in?”

Neku hesitates, then nods and follows him in.

 
 
 

Sanae flips on the lights after he sets the supermarket bag on the counter.

Neku has followed him into the cafe but hasn't spoken or sat down since he entered. If he doesn't want to that's fine, Sanae already knows why he's here. Neku’s thoughts had been blasting all the way down Cat Street.

“In answer to what I assume you're gonna ask, I don't know where Josh is,” he speaks up before Neku could ask him. He's behind the counter now.

The other seems to deflate. “Are you able to contact him?”

Sanae is doubtful, especially after what happened with the young lady. “If he hasn't responded to you, he won't respond to me,” he answers.

But Neku seems to have expected this, as he shakes his head. “I figured,” he murmurs.

Sanae feels bad for the kid. “Lemme guess, another fight?”

“Pretty much.”

Sanae assumed as much. He pulls out the groceries from the supermarket onto the counter. It wasn't much. Some sugar, coffee filters (he'd run out), and also some coffee bags (he'd just wanted to try them). It isn’t much, but that’s because the shop isn’t open at the moment, so there was no need to brew much or fill the cases. And cooking had lost most of its appeal as of late.

Neku is quiet as he does this. He hasn't left and has taken a seat now, so Sanae's sure there's more he wants to discuss. “You look like ya got something else on your mind.”

Neku in his seat, hunched over the counter, doesn't look up as he asks, “If Joshua hadn't brought us back...” He pauses and Sanae waits. “Did he do it just because it was easier for him?”

Ah, so that was it. “Did he tell you that?”

Neku nods, still with his head down.

Sanae rubs the back of his head. “It's more complicated than that, Phones,” he says, perhaps unconvincingly, “But the short answer is no.”

Sanae knows his statement could be considered a non-answer. However, he knows what Neku fears with his question, though it is unfounded.

“Once he brought you into it—” And even before that, Sanae thinks, “—there was never going to be an 'easy' way out. I think you doubt if you've influenced Joshua, but no matter what you may think or what he says, you have.”

And no matter how much Joshua wants to deny it.

Neku is now staring at him, but his persistent frown leads Sanae to believe he's not convinced.

However, it is near impossible for Sanae to impart to him how Shibuya had changed and, thereby, so had its Composer. Although said Composer appeared hell-bent on undoing it. But he has no other way (imprinting would be in poor taste) of informing Neku except for him to trust his words, which Sanae knows would be a tall order.

“Mr. H,” Neku then says, “you've known Joshua for a long time, right? He told me you'd been saving his ass for a long time.”

Sanae does chuckle at that, a little surprised, but can't deny an edge creeps in. “I guess you could put it that way,” he concedes.

“Then why did you sell him out to Pi-Face?”

Sanae realizes this is not just about Joshua anymore. Neku was looking for his own answers about him. And who could blame him?

He looks down at the items he pulled from his bag he'd forgotten about, and he sighs. “It's complicated, Phones.”

Silence follows and Neku meets his eyes expectantly.

“Joshua may or may not tell me,” he says, “but I don't want to hear it from him. I want to hear it from you. Please.”

Sanae drums his fingers on the countertop. Eventually, he nods his head and rubs at his chin. “Alright,” he agrees, “but it might take a second.”

“I'm in no rush.”

“Well then, we'd have to go back, I think.”

Sanae then puts away the groceries on his countertops other than the filters. He'll have to experiment with the coffee bags later. And then he reaches down among his devices until he finds the hand grinder hiding in the back.

“I've had this place for a while, not long after I started my other work you're more familiar with.” He finds himself half-smiling at the recollection.

“It was just a coincidence me an' Josh met,” he continues as he was rummaging for coffee beans, “Believe it or not he was pretty quiet back then. Anyway, we got to chattin' and eventually I found out about his, uh, abilities—bein' able to see the UG while alive and in the RG. And talking seemed to help him perk up.”

Even if these details aren't the newest to him, Neku still seems rapt in attention.

“When we first met,” Sanae says, now addressing Neku, “I told you I was a kind of guardian for the Game, a rule keeper of sorts.”

“I remember,” Neku confirms.

“And I'm sure you've guessed it's a little more than that. I'm not supposed to reveal it to anyone. I'm only tellin' ya this much 'cause you're a special case.” He turns the handle of the grinder. “Even so, I've bent the rules here and there—”

And more than that—broken them entirely.

“—but I explained things to Joshua as he was struggling to understand what he was seeing. Help him out. And I had never encountered someone in the RG who could experience the UG. He had questions and I had answers. So he kept coming back, and we ended up enjoying each other's company.”

Sanae then sighs and stops cranking the handle of the grinder to flex his hand. “Maybe I gave him a little too much information, said more than I should've, because he soon decided to become Composer.”

Neku looks a little surprised but says nothing. Sanae takes out the grounds from the grinder and into a separate container before refilling it and beginning the rotation again.

“Shibuya was a little... different from nowadays,” he goes on, “Different rules. But that was the position he wanted and was determined to get.”

“And you helped him,” Neku concludes, speaking up again.

Sanae nods. “I did,” he admits, “Not immediately, but eventually, yes.”

“Why not immediately?”

“Pickin' sides isn't exactly in the job description. But the Composer position has always been one of opportunity. It's an influential position, and arguably the easiest to attain.”

Although it was true the role was easy to attain, it was still a role that could not be taken lightly. The rewriting of rules with each Composer was unavoidable and replacing them lest stagnation occur for a city was necessary if the Composer could not adapt and change. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case most of the time. The job itself wasn't easy. And Sanae hadn't wanted that for Josh.

“I admit, I thought Joshua had potential, but I didn't agree with his reasoning,” Sanae tells Neku, “He was hasty.”

He had known why Joshua wanted to be Composer, and he knew it wouldn't make him happy. As a Producer, he could see his potential. But as a friend, it wouldn't be right.

“He was caught between those two worlds that he could see and he chose the UG, and I could not convince him otherwise.” Not to mention the new weight their friendship held afterward.

“But if Joshua wanted to be Composer. Why did he... why did he want to destroy it?” Neku asked.

Sanae knew this question was going to come up, but he could only reveal what he suspected as Joshua hadn’t confided in him much during that time.

He can feel his expression deepen into more of a frown. “Being Composer is a hard task. I think you understand when I say the city of Shibuya is alive. And the Composer's job on top of other things is to channel the city's energy. And embodying a city can make it feel like a prison.

“Joshua was devoted to the city, but I think it got to him. And soon, he became willing to let Shibuya, and himself, die.”

“But didn't you talk to him?” Neku demands. He sounds quite upset. “If you guys talked before, why didn't you then? You just decided killing and replacing him was the only option.”

Sanae stops his actions again. “Believe me, Phones. I tried. It wasn't as if it was overnight. But I think you and I both know how J can be when he retreats inside himself. It's a fight to engage him.

“And once Joshua was the Composer, our relationship could never be as it used to be. I don't intend it to be an excuse, but he became more than just a friend I was chattin' with, and I engaged with Minamimoto after our communication had all but disintegrated. I had a duty to ensure Shibuya survived.”

Sanae can tell by the look on Neku's face that he's not convinced as he clasps his hands together and looks at the counter. But trying to convince Neku of his reasoning wasn't one of his goals.

“But that's why you're so important, Neku.” As he said this, the other's head snaps up. “You may not think it, but you're something I don't think I can be for Joshua anymore.”

A true friend.

Neku is quiet for a moment before he says, “I think he's gone. I can't prove something to him if he refuses to let me.”

“You've already proved it,” he tells him, “Your only decision now is if you're going to continue to pursue him. Which I wouldn't blame ya for deciding not to.”

Neku appears to mull over his words for what feels like several minutes before he decides, “I still have my own answers I need from him.”

He leaves with little more said, but Sanae doesn't mind as he feels there is an understanding between them. He wishes there was more he could do. As he pours out the rest of the coffee grounds and caps their container, he flexes his fingers again.

His hands ache.

 
 
 

Neku doesn't think about where he's running to. He's more occupied by the snippets of thoughts running through his head.

Attempting to erase an entire city from the UG has pretty damning consequences, and I wasn't planning on living to see them.

Neku understood what he meant, but Mr. H's words reminded him and made it even more real. He doesn’t even know where Joshua is, but he’s filled with a sort of panic now, sure he has to find him.

I didn't think I'd be forgiven. I wasn't prepared to hear you hated me.

He's upset with himself for going after Joshua and for planning to let him in again so easily.

Before he knows it he's run all the way to Udagawa, which if he was thinking about it was kind of strange, and not far off from his own mural. He has to stop to catch his breath and maybe come to his senses on how ridiculous he's being right now. And he thinks, Joshua, please...

“You don't give up, do you?”

Neku turns around. There's no one there. Then he looks up. Joshua is perched on top of the wall, legs crossed, looking down at him. He then pushes himself off the end and lands on his feet with such an impact Neku feels it in his teeth.

Joshua smiles at him, but it's such a small, hollow thing. Neku swears he looks thinner if that's even possible and like he hasn't slept since he last saw him. He looks human.

Neku says nothing as he steps forward, and when Joshua doesn't back away from him, he reaches out to touch the other's shoulder. He stiffens but makes no move to run.

“Stop trying to get me to give up on you,” Neku tells him. Joshua's eyes seem to go wide, but Neku ignores it as he grasps through the thin layer of the other's shirt and pulls him into a hug.

Mr. H was right, Neku wasn't him, and he wasn't Joshua either. Although Joshua annoyed him, got under his skin, and had put him through more than any human being could handle, the feelings he'd held from that first week after the Game had not changed.

“Come on,” Neku then says, pulling away, but also not quite letting go, “We have to talk.”

Chapter Text

Neku can't tell what Joshua is thinking as he pulls him along by the wrist. He's said nothing, nor tried to stop him since they started heading toward Neku's home. Neku was grateful since walking there from Udagawa wasn't ideal like the bus or train would be. Wouldn't that be a sight? Yet it still surprised him, the lack of resistance he was met with.

Perhaps Joshua didn't want to fight anymore. Perhaps he was just as exhausted as Neku was.

Still, Neku doesn't let go. Not even as he fumbles to open the front door, or leads the other down the hall and passes his kitchen. It's only until they're both in his room and he's shut the door behind them that he sighs and drops Joshua’s hand.

“What–” Joshua attempts to speak first, but Neku raises a hand to stop him.

“Wait.” He then gestures towards his unmade bed with pillows wrinkled and covers pushed to the side. “You can sit here.”

“I thought you wanted to talk.”

“We will. Just give me some space, then we'll talk,” Neku says, not even apologetic. He sounds harsh.

His room is just as messy as his bed, which never bothered him before, but trying to gather himself together he can't help but focus on the messy details of it.

Joshua is doing as he's told and remains silent as he sits, straight-backed, watching Neku gather himself by pacing back and forth, fixing things here and there, and kicking clothes across the floor and out of the way.

Within a few minutes, he stops in front of Joshua and takes a deep breath.

“I wanted to talk to you because I need to know...” He trails off. Trying to keep his voice steady is more difficult than he expected. “I need to know if I'm just wasting my time.”

Joshua says nothing to that. He won't even meet Neku's gaze.

Neku then sits next to him on his bed. “I know we said some things–I said some things,” he continues, “but I still want us to be friends. If you don't, that's fine, but you need to be honest with me. Please.”

They'll never have a healthy relationship if they don't address their baggage, Neku has come to realize. They'll never be able to move on. However, that means Neku also has to be honest.

“But I guess I'm gonna have to go first. So you're going to listen, and at the end, whether or not we're friends, you owe me answers. Can you give me that?”

Joshua's turned his head now, blinks owlishly at him, but nods his head.

Neku swallows. He's not sure where to start now that he's gotten this far. His eyes wander to the floor as he takes a seat on his bed next to Joshua, fingers laced and a little hunched over. Then, tentatively, he says, “You might think I hate you. But I don't. Even now I don't.”

“But I'm starting to think you hate me.”

He'd like to hear the point refuted, but Joshua remains silent.

“And if you do, well... that sucks because no matter how grating you are, and before all the shit at the end of the Game,” Neku swallows again, feeling the lump forming in his throat. “I felt like I'd finally found someone I could relate to.”

“You might already be aware, but that last week was really hard for me,” he continues, “when I thought you were erased.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Neku can see Joshua swallow too.

“I lost someone once... and sometimes—” He stops as the knot in his throat becomes unbearable to talk over.

Joshua speaks up. “I know,” he says, in a tone that might almost be reassuring, “You don't have to say it.”

Neku is surprised but realizes he'd forgotten Joshua would've already known, considering he'd been in his head to remove certain memories before. But he still feels he has to say it, even if it's like digging into a wound that hadn't yet healed. “I do,” he insists.

“When I lost them... I felt like I killed them. And when I thought you were erased–” Neku shrugs despite himself, “Well. It felt like that all over again. Like I got you killed.”

It's silly to think of this now, and the hurt that still lingers there. He remembers that same sadness with Rhyme and Shiki. Of course, he found out later that Beat had a plan to bring Rhyme back, and at least he'd known Shiki was relatively safe, only erased if Neku was. And even if it was proven false later, the memory of that guilt he felt when thinking Joshua had died for him gave him a heaviness in his chest.

“I don't think I need to tell you that seeing you again after that was, uh, something.”

Neku still remembers the shock, the brief relief, and then the sinking feeling as his mind started piecing things together. Followed by the betrayal, the anger, and other twisted emotions he never wanted to feel again.

“And then you wanted me to shoot you. You wanted me to kill you for real. But what I really want to know is why?”

That was the big question nagging at Neku that he tried to ignore but could no longer.

“Why did you shoot me? Not just then, but before, to be your pawn in your little game. Why did you choose me?”

His words hang in the air, contributing to the tense atmosphere.

Joshua's eyes are still uncharacteristically wide, boring into him like he's searching for something, but Neku is unsure what. But then he huffs a laugh to go with the mirthless smile that spreads across his lips.

“Are you sure you want me to answer that?” he asks.

“Yes,” Neku answers without hesitating.

Joshua seems to have expected that, as he shakes his head and folds his arms. “Well, I chose you mostly because I saw myself in you.”

Neku is surprised by this admission, as it was the last thing he expected Joshua to say.

“So if you suspected you were just a random selection,” Joshua continues, “you weren't. But you were partially right, in that I didn't like you very much to begin with.”

That sends Neku from surprised to cold. “Oh,” he says dumbly. What else could he say to that?

Joshua carries on as if his previous statement was inconsequential, “Your Soul Composition and Imagination possessed much potential, and also aligned closely with my own.”

“I don't–” Neku starts before Joshua realizes he's confused.

He sighs. “Very few Players have such a versatile range in psychs, Neku. Much less the ability to make the most of a partnership, let alone three. Not to mention my vibe is rather grating, it's a wonder you withstood it.”

Neku thinks he's supposed to be flattered, and maybe he would be under different circumstances. It brings to mind how Shiki had referred to him as a psych genius at the beginning of their partnership. However, he has the suspicion Joshua is veering off-topic on purpose.

“It had nothing to do with your abilities. Those were exceptional. But one of the last things I wanted to do was connect with you,” Joshua admits to him.

Again, Neku doesn't know what to say. He does, however, find it an amusing thought to imagine his frustration with Joshua had been mutual. It was true that he had lost his patience a little with Neku at times, become increasingly quiet when they ran from battles, and become more introverted the more Neku tried to pry, never giving a straight answer.

“Although you were interesting, as my proxy, you were only supposed to be a pawn and not someone to find kinship with.”

Joshua sighs and leans back on his hands, looking up towards the ceiling and pointedly not at Neku.

“Before I picked you as my proxy, and before I proposed my Game with Megumi, I felt for a while that Shibuya had become beyond saving. It was stagnant, suffocating.” He gives a little shrug. “And I had given up on it.”

Give up on yourself, and you give up on the world. From what Mr. H had told him, Shibuya was Joshua's world if he embodied it. Meaning not only had Josh given up on Shibuya, but he'd also given up on himself.

“Don't get me wrong, being in control of an entire city has its perks,” Joshua says around a tired laugh. “But given that it felt like the work I'd done was spoiling, I thought it would be better to just do away with it.”

There's a moment of silence between them before Neku speaks up again. “Did you hate me because I really was everything you hated about Shibuya?” he asked.

Joshua's expression flickers and he sits back up. “Not in the way you think I meant it,” he says, but that doesn't assure Neku.

“As much as I didn't want to, I found myself enjoying your company. You are so easy to tease.”

“Gee, thanks,” Neku mutters.

“And as I said, I saw a bit of myself in you, but not only in ability, but my worldview–the dislike of humanity, isolation from others. It was one I could not break from. And it seemed poetic, having someone with the views that led to my dislike of the city would help rid me of it.”

Neku flexes his fingers, feeling antsy. It stings to hear these things about himself.

Joshua's voice seems to sink lower with each sentence. “Yet as I watched you-because I saw myself in you-it forced me to see my own flaws and watch as you overcame them. You had a drive that I didn't. You were fighting for something and what mattered to you, your friends. But... nothing mattered to me.”

He swallows. It looks painful. “You were everything I hated about myself and everything I wasn't,” he says honestly, “If you could change, why couldn't I? But during our week together, I'd already pulled the trigger on you, so what could I have done at that point?”

Neku recalls how much he'd suspected Joshua, who didn't even try not to be suspicious and had wanted to confront him and eventually did. He can't fathom it if Joshua had decided to come clean, admitting to killing him and being the very Composer he claimed he was searching for. Neku may have believed him, but he also might have assumed he was fucking with him.

“Before our showdown,” Joshua cuts into Neku's thoughts, “I felt that dislike for you once again. So I decided to tell you everything. I decided I wanted you to hate me for it. And I thought I couldn't lose.”

Joshua's expression has become stony, and there's a steadiness to his voice, despite how soft it's gone. “I knew the repercussions of the wager I proposed. And I admitted I wasn't planning on being around for its aftermath. Either you would dethrone me or I could erase the city.”

He doesn't seem interested in Neku's reaction, just stares down at his hands in his lap. Neku wonders what he might be imagining.

Neku feels his pulse quicken, although he is only sitting as Joshua now meets his gaze again.

“I thought you would do it too. I didn't give you much of a choice.” Joshua huffs that empty laugh again. “But you didn't.”

Neither of them speaks for a moment. Neku wants to say something, but he feels incapable.

“I suppose I can see why now, but after everyone else put Shibuya first, I suspected you to as well.”

I had a duty to ensure Shibuya survived.

Who else will protect Shibuya?

“But I don't have to tell you that you changed everything. You exceeded my expectations and threw me for a loop without meaning to.” He chuckles awkwardly, an echo of discomfort, of voicing this vulnerability. “I didn't believe the city could change, as I didn't believe anyone in it could. But you did. And perhaps I'm deluding myself, but I want to believe I have too.”

“I trusted you,” Neku says, his voice rough from disuse, “I'd hoped you'd do the right thing.”

And I was right.

“I was right...” Neku murmurs before he's grinning and bursts into laughter.

In retrospect, he thinks it appeared rather rude, yet he couldn't help it. Perhaps it's exhaustion or relief, but he continues to laugh until he falls back on his bed. Joshua is looking at him like he's lost his mind. It's a possibility.

“What are you laughing at?” Joshua asks, sounding irritated. Bitter maybe.

Neku manages to stop laughing and all he can do is grin up at him. “Because I was right. I was right to trust you and I knew you'd changed even if you didn't want to admit it. But you did, and I was right. I'm just happy I was right about trusting you.”

Joshua blinks down at him for a beat but then looks away. “That's stupid,” he says, but it comes out more croaky than harsh, “You shouldn't–” His voice wobbles and breaks before Neku realizes he's crying.

Joshua is crying.

“Whoa. Are you–?”

“I'm not!” Joshua opposes quickly, but it only makes it more apparent that he is.

Neku can't help laughing again in disbelief.

“You're infuriating, Neku Sakuraba,” Joshua says, trying to glare at him through dewy eyelashes, but it looks more like a pout.

“So are you,” Neku retorts. “But we are similar after all, aren't we?”

He places a hand on the other's shoulder, hoping it's comforting, till Josh stops crying, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand and looking away from Neku, like something is fascinating about the wall across from them though they both know there isn't.

And Neku is probably an asshole for thinking the sight is a relief, see what he'd suspected–that Joshua is not as much of an inhuman entity like he wants others to believe he is. But he'd wanted Joshua to trust him, especially with something deeper than the surface of his emotions. He isn't always as strong as he tries to be. He has a tipping point. Neku had seen some of it before, at WildKat, but by the next day, it had evaporated. Neku felt it would be different this time, however.

“My bathroom is down the hall if you want to use it,” Neku tells him.

Joshua shakes his head, “I'm fine.” It sounds only half-true, but Neku decides not to push it. And then Joshua mutters, “How embarrassing...”

“You don't have anything to be embarrassed about.”

“Don't I?” Joshua tucks some of his hair behind his ear, a wry smile curled on his lips. “Well, Neku?”

“What?” he asks.

“Do you still, at the end now, wish to pursue a friendship with me?” The 'after everything I told you' isn't voiced.

But Neku asks him, “Do you still dislike me?”

“No.”

“Okay, then yes.” And Joshua stares at him like he can't believe it. “I already told you, didn't I? How many times do I have to say it before you get it? I trust my partner. Alright?”

He watches as Joshua swallows, thinking he might cry again, but he says, “Alright.”

 
 
 

Joshua is unsure if he'd slept.

“Do you... do you even sleep?” Neku had asked him.

“I do, I suppose, but I don't necessarily need to,” he'd answered. If he'd been particularly talkative, he would have compared it to the way Neku had woken up on each day of the Game. One second you're awake and then in the blink of an eye, the time has passed, and that's how Joshua found himself watching streams of early morning light hit the wall.

His mind shies away from the memories of their discussion last night, hoping to keep up whatever pretense of dignity he may have left. It's even more embarrassing in hindsight, but he admits that what they discussed needed–deserved to be said.

It all feels much more real now in the daylight.

But all Joshua allows himself to be aware of is being tucked in the covers of Neku's bed, facing the wall. He's unsure of how long he's been awake before there's a sleepy grumble of, “You're hogging all the blankets,” at his back.

Joshua says nothing, even as there's a tugging on the covers behind him. He lets them be pulled off him without resistance. Lays there, still, but there's no other movement from Neku. Slowly, he sits up and makes his way off the bed, mindful not to stir him. The bedroom door opens with little sound and Joshua closes it just the same.

He makes his way down the hallway. It's much quieter than he expected of someone with so boisterous a song. While Neku's room is unabashedly his own, Joshua realizes the rest of his home has less of his personality draped over it.

If Joshua's honest with himself, he knows he didn't exit Neku's room to snoop through his home or pity his ex-proxy's lonely living situation, and he eyes the front door.

When he goes back into Neku's room, just as quiet as before, Neku is sitting up in his bed. He, too, is still in the clothes he'd worn the day before, now just significantly more wrinkled.

“Good morning,” he says, stretching his arms over his head, “What were you doing?”

“Oh, just looking around some,” Joshua says, casual, “Did you know we use similar shampoo?”

Neku gives him a somewhat withering look. “Trustworthy, Joshua,” he reminds him.

“Right, right. My apologies,” Joshua says, waving a hand. Neku appears to accept that and gets out of the bed, yawning.

It's a quiet morning as they say little to each other. It's not an awkward silence, however, but a peaceful one. There's no real discussion about the night's previous events.

That is somewhat surprising. Joshua had expected Neku to ask for some kind of explanation as to why he'd cried or some further elaboration on anything he said, but the other didn't. Yet he hadn't expected the hand on his shoulder as he cried, thinking Neku would keep his distance, pity him politely. He'd just been quiet but comforting.

And Neku still said he wanted to be friends, even though Joshua thought he would have run out of excuses for him by now.

“Are you busy today at all?” Neku asks him.

“No.”

“You still wanna stick around?”

“Sure,” is Joshua's tentative response. It feels strange being casual. Not bad. Just unusual.

“Neku,” he finds himself saying, surprising himself, as Neku opens his bedroom door. “I want to tell you I am sorry. And as troublesome as it felt, I'm glad we had that talk.”

Neku opens his mouth to say something, but Joshua cuts him off. “You don't have to say anything.” I'd prefer it if you didn't. “You don't have to accept it and you don't have to forgive me.”

“I know,” Neku tells him, “Thank you.” And it's his turn to smile, looking smug too, like he's won.

Joshua supposes he has, once again.

Chapter Text

Joshua walks through Shibuya. He didn't need to, but he wanted to.

He remembers when that very thought alone would have repulsed him. Yet even though it's crystal clear in memory, it feels a lifetime away. Shibuya has changed, and he has with it. He finds he can now admit it without being terrified.

But what does give him pause is his goal for the afternoon.

Facing his problems is not something Joshua does, being an escapist at heart. He'd let others do work for him where he could and lets himself get distracted playing games. He'd let Neku take charge of battles in their partnership and Megumi had been soloing Games long before their wager.

Maybe he's not over all of it, but he thinks this is a necessary step in the right direction. He flexed his grip on the headphones in his hand. It's just a very troublesome and difficult step.

WildKat looks as empty as always, considering Joshua is usually it's only other occupant. He opens the door and Sanae looks at him from his usual spot behind the counter. Joshua is unsure of his expression.

“Hey. Josh.” Joshua thinks he may have intended that to sound like one statement instead of two, but it's hard to tell with the neutrality in his voice. Considering how things concluded between them before, it shouldn't be a surprise.

Joshua is still standing in the doorway. It's silly to ask, but he still does. “Can I come in?”

“O'course,” Sanae says. His gaze drops to the headphones–Neku's old headphones–in his grip.

Joshua sits down at the counter as he has many times before, placing the headphone on the seat next to him as he does. He then laces empty fingers together on the counter's icy surface.

“What brings ya here?” His Producer has offered no sampling from his cafe, so he assumes they’re forgoing the formalities as it were, which he prefers. It means Joshua doesn't have to sidestep them. He doesn't have the stomach for it either.

“I believe you already know,” Joshua replies. Though he suspects it’s only half-true.

Sanae nods. “Phones dropped by again. The other day.”

Joshua did already know this. Neku had informed him, which he appreciates. However, it still doesn't stop him from the slight internal wince he gets hearing it from Sanae. He deserves it though, he'd gone AWOL. He doesn't blame Neku, or his Producer for that matter. They weren't given much of a choice.

He never gives anyone much of a choice.

“I'm assuming he talked to you too?”

“He did,” Joshua admits, but he's already decided to spare Sanae the gory details. “We talked. And I'm here because it made me realize I have something to talk to you about.”

Joshua has already broken their unspoken agreement with his outburst not long ago. So any further pretense is a waste of time.

“You tried to dethrone me,” he states, “You gave Minamimoto the tools to assassinate me. You–” He swallows. This is a little more difficult than expected. “You betrayed me.”

Sanae’s expression has faded from neutral to grave, but he doesn't attempt any justification in response. “I did,” he says, though it doesn't make it hurt less. “Are you asking me why I did?”

Maybe Joshua could take a page out of Neku's book, say that's exactly it, and head down a further line of questioning. He may even be lucky enough to get a few tears out Sanae even. But that's not what he wants. He doesn't need to know why. He already knows why. Is painfully aware of it, in fact.

“No,” Joshua murmurs, “I wanted to acknowledge it. I'm tired of running away.” He thinks Sanae would be proud of him in any other circumstance.

He continues. “I didn't make it easy on you, I know, I fought against you at every turn. I pushed you away. It's a wonder you didn't give up on me sooner.

“I wasn't a good friend, and you are still the best friend I've ever had.” That probably says a lot about my fucked up relationships, doesn't it? “And I'm sorry I put you in the position I did.”

While he cares about Neku and their relationship is the best it's ever been, their track record has more misses than it does hits and that's not Neku's fault.

But there's too much he and his Producer have been through, too much they've risked, and although the betrayal throws that into contrast, it can't erase it. If Joshua was angrier, he might want it to.

“But I can't say I'm not affected.”

Hindsight tells him he should have expected it. Sanae had put his job on the line and broken rules before to help him become Composer. But, well, Joshua had thought it was out of affection for him. He thought he was, nauseating as it may seem now, special.

But perhaps that sentiment could still be applied considering what the Long Game had cost his Producer. Sanae had done even worse this time around. This time he hadn't gotten out of it unscathed. He is Fallen. Though that could be more of a testament of Minamimoto's worth than Joshua's.

This train of thought isn't doing him any favors.

Sanae has said nothing before this point. His eyes appear shadowed by his shades more than usual. “Joshua, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have...” His voice is tinged with something that sounds like guilt, but it seems to die with the rest of the sentence. Perhaps he doesn't mean it. Maybe he realizes an apology isn't enough, just like Joshua's isn't.

Joshua smiles at his Producer sadly. “It's funny, I find I can forgive you,” he says, “But I can't trust you.”

And that's all there is to say.

“These are yours,” Joshua then speaks up after their moment of silence. He takes the headphones off the seat to place them on the counter. “Neku said he didn't need them anymore.” He pushes them a little ways. “And neither do I.”

Joshua then gets up to leave when Sanae speaks again to only tell him, “We set the date.”

The so-called repercussions upstairs, Joshua thinks sourly. That's fine. He's ready to get it over with. Games have been postponed long enough as it is. But just another thing to scratch at bleeding wounds.

“Hmm. So be it,” he parses, “See you then, Sanae.”

“... Take care, J.”

And he leaves with no fanfare and steps out into Shibuya once again. Joshua is going to meet his friends. They're alive. The future is a possibility for all of them.

And now that includes Joshua, too.