Shibuya is a lot of things: vibrant and brilliant and terrible, utterly and shockingly alive in the messiest possible way. It is also, thankfully, the kind of place where when Neku wakes up in the middle of the Scramble Crossing and starts screaming his head off, no one bats an eye. It’s Shibuya. They’ve seen it all. He gets a couple looks when he starts cursing up a storm, but he doesn’t get what he wants: Joshua’s laughter, or maybe his anger, or at least his condescending voice saying, “Neku, are the theatrics really necessary?”
Neku gets nothing. Radio silence. That day and the next, the whole week as he goes through the process of piecing together his life. No explanation for any of it, for why he’s here, why Shibuya is here, or what exactly he lost when he lost that final game.
Not when Neku says hi to his mom the first time, while she fusses with the faulty stove in their kitchenette and distractedly waves at him over her shoulder, happy to see him but careless with it, as if he’d never been dead at all. Not when Neku digs out last year’s yearbook and finds Shiki’s photo there, eyes almost hidden behind her bangs—he could’ve passed her in the hallway a million times and never noticed. Not when he gets her number from an acquaintance of an acquaintance who has class with Eri, and realizes once he opens his phone that she beat him to it, and there’s already a text waiting for him.
Seven days, and nothing. It’s not like Neku doesn’t have other stuff going on. He has friends now. He has a groupchat. He has his sketchbook, the one his mom got him for his birthday a few years ago that he’d ignored, figuring he’d never be as good as CAT, so why bother?
Now he knows just what Mr. H would have to say about that. So he bothers. He writes it all down in the sketchbook, all the things he has to say to Joshua, right next to the drawing of him that Neku can’t help but put down in fast, angry lines. The version of him that Neku saw a second before it all went white.
After everyone meets up at Hachiko, they all go get burgers at Sunshine, and try to work out how exactly everything went down over ketchup packets and fries.
Joshua’s the Composer. He was the Composer the whole time. That’s what Neku can’t get his head around, the one piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit. It’s hard to explain to everyone else what that means, because none of them really met him. None of them knew him the way Neku did. Sure, the kid he knew was mostly fake, but—Neku saw him. He knows he did. There was something real underneath, moments of paradoxical clarity. When Joshua agreed with him that people could never truly understand each other. When they realized they had the same coffee order—black—and it made Mr. H shake his head and laugh. When Joshua turned to Neku for what he thought would be the last time, and talked about not giving up on the world.
It’s hard to explain to himself what it even means, why it makes him want to yell like he did in the Scramble Crossing. He spent a week on edge around Joshua, sure he was up to something. Is it really so terrible to be proven right?
“He was my partner,” Neku tells them finally, at a loss for what else to say. No, they weren’t friends. Neku could barely stand him, and he spent half the week thinking Joshua had killed him, and he was right. Joshua died for him and it wasn’t even real. He made Neku feel like shit, and he used him, and, “He won’t even fucking show his face, what kind of coward does that? After everything?”
“Yeah! You tell him!” Beat says, incredibly sincere for the fact that he doesn’t really have a clue what the deal with Joshua is, anyway.
Neku sighs, dropping his forehead down against the table with a dull thunk. “Whatever. Let’s just keep going.”
They’re taking stock of their lives. No one remembers them dying; the closest anyone’s come is Eri, who called Shiki in the middle of their first night back with a shaking voice, wanting to make sure that she was okay. She’d had a bad dream, was all.
They all got their original entry fees back, except for Rhyme, so at least Joshua didn’t cheat them out of that. And Beat’s already promised to help her find a new dream.
“It’s gonna be great,” Rhyme says, smiling up at all of them. “We’ll both find something to live for! Next weekend we’re going skateboarding.” She pokes Beat in the side. “I can’t believe you told me you wanted to become the world’s best skater! I really believed you!”
“Hey!” Beat says, waving his arms. “Maybe it’ll turn out to be the truth! You don’t know!”
“I think that still counts as lying,” Shiki says.
Rhyme laughs. “I’ll let it slide this time,” she says. “White lies are okay. I know you just wanted to make me feel better.”
So it’s almost like they never died, except for how it’s not the same at all. They’re different, all of them. Neku wonders how everyone else can’t see it. He knows his mom has noticed, but she’s probably worried that if she says anything, it’ll all evaporate: the new lightness in Neku’s step, the fact that he actually gets texts now, his sketchpad left open on the kitchen table.
“So, you in, Phones?”
“Dream Quest 2.0 next weekend! C’mon, I wanna see you wipe out a few times!”
“Beat,” Rhyme says reproachfully, and Shiki giggles behind her hand.
“I’ll think about it,” Neku says, but even he knows he means yes.
Rhyme’s the only one who really lost anything at all, the only one of them who isn’t, ultimately, the better for what happened, and she seems cheerful enough. So why—and that’s Joshua’s voice, Neku can hear exactly how he’d say it—why, Neku, are you still so mad?
Two bullets to the head is why. And he’d be a lot less mad if Joshua would show his smug face so Neku would have the chance to say it. Neku did invite him, after all. He keeps looking over his shoulder, out the window of Sunshine and back at the statue of Hachiko. Just in case. But of course, even after it’s been hours, Joshua still doesn’t show.
Neku left the sketchbook at home. When he gets back, the page with his note and his invitation and his drawing of Joshua has been ripped out with unnatural neatness. If Neku didn’t know any better, he’d think he just imagined that there was anything missing. Just like his death. You can only see the absence if you know what you’re looking for.
“Don’t fucking touch my stuff,” he says to the empty air. “What is wrong with you?”
No answer to that, either. It’s infuriating. Typical Joshua. Just taking, and leaving nothing behind.
Still. Running his finger over the tiny paper ridges left by the torn out page, Neku’s glad to know that he hasn’t been forgotten.
“You should talk to him.”
“If I wanted your opinion, Sanae, I would ask for it.” Joshua squints down at the sketch, smoothing it against the table. It’s rough and unpolished and a perfect example of Neku’s raw talent, the Imagination he can’t help but put into everything he does. It practically vibrates under Joshua’s fingers, harmonizing perfectly. His work reaches out and wraps its fingers around Joshua’s throat far more effectively than any trite mural CAT has ever produced. There is no crashing symphony, no cacophony of colors. Only Neku’s steady melody, the scratch of his pencil against the paper and the beat of his thoughts, frustratingly out of Joshua’s reach now. Except in how he’s lain them out here, in clean black and white strokes.
In Neku’s eyes, in Neku’s hand, Joshua does not look as he expected: cold, or calculating, or smugly clever. He looks utterly vulnerable, in the curve of his neck and the wavering lines of his mouth, his eyes gone just a tad wide as he looks at—Neku, he supposes. He was looking at Neku.
Sanae snatches the paper away from him. Or he would, if Joshua didn’t rapidly send his frequency down several notches, so that instead of taking hold of the paper Sanae grasps uselessly at nothing. “Now that’s not playing fair.”
“When have I ever done that?”
“Whatever you say, boss. Why’d you let Phones win, then?”
“I won. Or didn’t you notice? You were there.”
Sanae spreads his arms wide, his vibe ticking back up to match Joshua’s, the air moving to compensate for the new melody. “Okay. So you won, sure, but Shibuya is still here in all her glory. What’s the deal with that? Not that I’m complaining, to be clear.”
Joshua peers back down at the sketch, at the scrawled words beside it. Friends, Neku says. He has friends now. What a quaint notion.
This sketch isn’t what Joshua really looks like. Neku has never truly seen him, not to his soul; but somehow he still managed to capture something essential. Reliable Neku, always doing the impossible. Even Megumi couldn’t change Joshua’s mind. But Joshua was telling the truth, just before their last game began: he’d already decided Shibuya’s fate.
“You don’t know, do you,” Sanae says.
“Don’t you have duties to attend to?” Sanae laughs his obnoxious laugh, and is gone in an untidy cloud of feathers. More fool him; it’s his shop, and Joshua certainly won’t be cleaning up.
Joshua doesn’t show up at Hachiko that week or the next or the next. Time used to drag Neku down. It felt like nothing would ever happen, nothing would ever change. Now, it rushes by him until his ears are ringing. He goes to class and then spends his afternoons sketching designs with Shiki and Eri, or running around town with Beat and Rhyme, or wandering Shibuya alone, getting a feel for the pulse of it.
The year after Jun died, after Neku’s world crumbled, that felt like a lifetime. This year goes by so fast that Neku hardly notices.
Shiki’s the one who remembers; she’s good with details like that. Neku doesn’t realize what day it is until he shows up at Hachiko and Shiki’s got flowers, four bouquet’s she’s doing a bad job of juggling on her own. It’s not the day they died. It’s the day they all met up here again. The day they really started living. “I just thought—I don’t know. Maybe it’s stupid,” she says.
“Yo, it’s not stupid!” Beat declares, looking ready to fight anyone who would dare suggest it was. They all go together after that, leaving the flowers at Miyashita Underpass and next to the tracks in a secluded corner of Shibuya Station and at the base of the Udagawa mural.
It’s not a solemn occasion. They chat along the way, like this is something that friends can do together, if they want: leave flowers for themselves at the graves that never were.
“How can I be sad?” Shiki says, as she sets her flowers down. “I mean. It’s a little sad. But if all of this didn’t happen, how would I have ever met you guys?”
“Damn right,” says Beat. Neku doesn’t say anything, other than throwing Shiki a reassuring smile: he’s too busy sizing up the wall of the station, wondering what time of night he might be able to get away with putting up some new art here. Flowers done all in green, because green’s not just jealousy—it’s growth, and newness, and living.
After they’ve parted ways for the evening, Neku walks all the way back to Udagawa, letting the nighttime rush of people flow past him. There are times when he misses being able to hear what they’re thinking. He never would have thought that before. Before, he would’ve just been happy that he didn’t need headphones to block out other people’s thoughts. But now he can’t help but watch and wonder about all the worlds he’ll never be privy to. But he can still reach for them.
By the time he gets to Wild Boar, the crowd has mostly thinned out. The street’s entirely silent by the time he arrives at CAT’s mural.
Neku’s flowers are still there. He kind of figured someone might have snatched them; it wasn’t even clear they were meant to be a memorial. Turns out he was half right. Joshua’s picked them up. He’s turning the bouquet over in his hands from where he’s still sitting at the base of the mural, squinting at the flowers like they’ve got something to tell him. He sneezes, once, and then he looks up to meet Neku’s eyes.
“Hello, Neku,” he says. “How long the days without you have felt.”
Yup. Lilting voice that makes everything sound like a leading question: that’s Joshua, through and through. “Cut the crap, Joshua. You could’ve come and talked to me literally anytime you wanted.” Neku doesn’t mean to tense up as he says it, but he can’t help it. He died here. Joshua killed him here.
He can tell Joshua notices. It’s the way he cuts his eyes to Neku and then smirks, but there’s something hollow in it. Serves the bastard right. If he doesn’t want people to be scared of him, he should try cooling it with the murder.
Joshua shrugs expansively. “Oh, you know how it is. Things come up.”
“No, I don’t.”
Joshua stands up, brushing off his pants. He’s still holding the flowers. “Well, if you want to catch up, let’s at least go somewhere a little more comfortable.”
Neku crosses his arms. “And why should I go anywhere with you?”
“Trust me. Trust your partner, right? You said you still believed that, even after everything.”
“So you were listening.”
“Of course, Neku. I’m always listening.”
He says it like he means it to be sincere and not at all creepy. The terrible thing is, Neku takes it in the spirit in which it was given. It’s not great to know an all-powerful being is listening in on him; it’d be worse to know that he’d said all that crap to no one, to know that he was being ignored.
He used to think the universe was uncaring and cold and pointless. It’s good to know that the universe might be a bitch, but at least it cares. Even if it’s in the most annoying way possible. “Speaking of which. You ever going to give me that drawing back? I should charge you. It’s a Neku Sakuraba original.”
Joshua blinks at him. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Just for that, Neku makes Joshua take him to Sunshine instead of Ramen Don.
They order. They eat. It’s weird. There’s so much to say, but they both just...keep not saying it.
If neither of them talk, they can both pretend that this is just a normal part of Neku’s life. Having lunch with a friend who never lied to him, never tricked him, certainly never killed him. That he and Joshua met some other way, any other way, and had that moment Neku is still getting used to, a year later: a genuine connection. Neku doesn’t forgive Joshua, but he was telling the truth. He does trust him.
And Neku does get Joshua, as much as he hates him too. That place he was in, ready to tear the whole city down and himself along with it? Yeah. Neku understands that.
“Hey.” Joshua looks up from scowling down at his burger and fries. “Why’d you pick me? Out of everyone in Shibuya?”
Joshua smiles, the sideways fake one that makes Neku want to wipe it off his smug face. “Fishing for compliments, Neku?”
“From you? Not a chance.”
“Whatever you say.” Joshua tucks his hair behind his ear with a laugh.
“Answer the question, Joshua.”
The smile slides right off his face like it was never there. It’s unsettling. Joshua stares down into his coffee. Not as good as the stuff at WildKat, but certainly cheaper. It’s the only part of his lunch he seems to be enjoying. “I picked you because I thought we were the same. That we believed the same things about the world. That we understood what needed to be done. Clearly, I was wrong.”
“Nah,” Neku says. He leans his chair back on two legs.
“You were right. We are kind of the same. I figured it out in all the time you’ve been ignoring me.”
“I told you,” Joshua says, hilariously offended for a kid who’s shot Neku twice, “I was listening.”
“Doesn’t really count if you don’t answer.”
“Regardless,” says Joshua. “I thought we agreed. I thought you would understand the need for Shibuya’s destruction; you didn’t, and here we are. Thus: my initial assessment of you was incorrect. For better or for worse.” Joshua looks around the cafe, the vibrancy of all the conversations. Neku can feel, a little, what he must be seeing: the music of it all, coming to a hundred crashing crescendos, all in harmony. They shouldn’t all work together—the clashing sounds should be unbearable. But it works. Shibuya’s always been a paradox.
“I can’t believe you still don’t get it,” Neku says. “You picked me because I thought Shibuya was worthless. I changed my mind. Shiki and Beat and Rhyme—even you—all of you showed me that I was wrong. And I showed you that you were wrong. We’re not the same—no one is the same. I know that now. But we needed the same things.”
Joshua wrinkles his nose. “What makes you think I changed my mind?”
“We’re still here, aren’t we?” Neku spreads his arms. “We’re still here, and none of us are the same. Not like what Shades wanted.”
“Yes,” Joshua says. “For now.”
Neku’s chair slams back down onto all fours. “No,” he says. “No way, Joshua. You don’t get to treat Shibuya like your toy, like some sort of hostage you can hold over my head.”
“Shibuya is mine. I can do with it what I like.”
“Shibuya is? Or me?” Neku stands up, furious more with himself than with Joshua—why, why, why would he think he’d really changed? Maybe Neku read him all wrong. Maybe keeping Shibuya around was all just some stupid whim of his. Maybe the connection Neku wants so badly is just a stupid dream he can never have.
He has his friends. He doesn’t need Joshua. He shouldn’t.
“In case you were wondering,” Joshua says, calling after him as he storms out, “this is why we haven’t talked.”
It’s a miscalculation on Joshua’s part. He always thinks he can do things in moderation when it comes to Neku. Once, he thought that he’d be nothing more than a simple proxy, a means to an end. Neku is many things. Simple will never be one of them.
Take his Music: it soars above Shibuya’s typical melody, multifaceted as it is these days, harmonizing at odd moments as its inhabitants interact, the usual fractious song. But Joshua never has any problem picking out Neku’s particular notes. It’s an easy enough path to follow.
Putting the pieces of Shibuya back together is far from easy work. That part of what he told Neku was true, at least: he’s been busy. Much too busy to go slumming it in the RG whenever he wants to.
He always wants to.
Not busy enough not to wonder about it, though. Neku doesn’t think they’re that different; Neku doesn’t know what he’s talking about, not really. But Joshua thinks, often, of when they spoke about gardens, about individuality, about impermeability. It was refreshing, to be understood about the impossibility of understanding. And it is infuriating to have that taken away from him. To not even be able to trace the paths of how or why it happened. Death changed Neku. Nothing should have been able to change Joshua. He’s been dead for years and years. He thought he was done changing.
He keeps busy for as long as he can, and then he goes looking for answers the best place he knows.
Neku’s dreams are noisy, both in the traditional sense and in the one peculiar to the UG. Joshua sends the Noise to their fate with a crash of vending machines—they’re not strong enough to warrant anything more. He dusts his hands off, pleased with his handiwork. In his true form, this sort of thing really is too easy.
He’s in front of 104. Not the most adventurous of venues, but Joshua supposes Neku spent a lot of time here. He spends plenty of time here now, still letting Shiki drag him along shopping and pretending like he minds. Neku can be quite transparent when he isn’t paying attention.
Well, there’s nothing for it: Joshua goes shopping. Neku’s dream is vast, which isn’t surprising. He’s got plenty of Imagination to go around. Joshua looks for him, in D+B and Mus Rattus and Edoga the Shop, and all he gets for his trouble is a very nice new shirt.
“Do you seriously only wear button downs?”
Joshua, as a being from a higher plane of existence, does not jump. He turns around slowly, smiling brightly. “Neku! I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Yeah, and I’ve been avoiding you.” The store around them shifts, and instead of the lovely interior of D+B, they’re standing in the Shibuya River, just before the bridge across the Rubicon. Joshua’s lovely shirt disintegrates in his hands. He’ll have to go back for it in reality. “Are we seriously only doing this once a year now?”
“Doing what, Neku?”
Neku throws up his hands, as adorable as always when Joshua gets under his skin. “Talking! Yelling! Doing anything! I see you one time and then you disappear again for another goddamn year—are you even actually here? If this is just my subconscious being a dick, instead of you being one, I am going to be so pissed.”
Joshua flutters his eyelashes. “Dream about me often?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Neku says darkly. “And don’t change the subject. Is this your shitty way of trying to apologize?”
“This may come as a shock to you,” Joshua says, “but most Composers aren’t in the habit of apologizing for anything.”
“Big fucking surprise.”
“To your earlier question: I’m here, Neku.”
Neku squints at him, and then he sighs. His headphones have appeared around his neck. They weren’t there before. “I know. I can feel it. You’re like...a new note. I could tell the minute you showed up.”
“You’re really becoming quite good at detecting Shibuya’s Music,” Joshua says. He can’t help but sound approving.
The Shibuya River melts again, until they’re standing at the very top of Pork City. He hasn’t been on this particular roof in awhile. The breeze catches his hair. Neku stumbles, for a moment, and then he walks straight up to the edge, peering down. “Nice view,” he says. Joshua can tell he means it.
“I used to come here all the time,” Joshua says. “To watch Shibuya. Keep tabs on it. It was my favorite spot.” He’d brought Megumi up here a time or two, trying to show his Conductor the rot that was so obvious in Joshua’s eyes. But Megumi could never see the things that Joshua saw. That was, he supposes, his downfall in the end.
He comes up beside Neku and looks down with him. This isn’t really Shibuya. This is Shibuya as Neku sees it, the city that lives in his soul.
Joshua turns from the city to Neku’s intent face. He wonders about the difference.
“So you came here and looked down from on high to decide if Shibuya was worth saving?”
“Well?” Neku asks, turning his head. Here they are, shoulder to shoulder. Close enough that Joshua could reach out and touch Neku’s face, draw him close or push him over the edge. He never thought he’d be this close to Neku again. It’s just a dream. It doesn’t matter what Joshua does. Kiss him or kill him; would Neku really have any room to complain?
Time was, Joshua would pick one and then brace for the inevitable entertaining reaction. But messing with Neku has lost its charm recently.
Joshua looks away, down at the sprawl of Shibuya below them. It’s only just dusk, so it’s a mix of students headed out and businessmen headed home and artists scoping out the best spots to display their work, because of course that’s what Neku would pick out above all else. Neku’s Shibuya will always be full of art and life and change. Not one person down there is standing still.
“You love Shibuya,” Joshua says.
“Once upon a time, you hated it.”
“I never hated it. I just—everyone was so exhausting. I thought it would be better without them. I didn’t get it. I thought you could have a city without the people, that Shibuya would still be the place I wanted it to be if it was just me, standing there alone. Doing my own thing.” He steps back from the edge, crossing his arms. “Why are you here, Joshua? You can see the city whenever you want.”
Not like this, he can’t. Not with its beauty filtered through Neku’s eyes. The bright colors people are wearing, a few of Eri’s designs scattered here and there. The conversations they’re having, tumultuous disagreements that never quite roll over into true arguments, just the tidal push and pull of friends talking honestly. The way that people look around, the brightness in their eyes, actually seeing the world around them. The Neku that Joshua first met didn’t live in this world. He didn’t even know it existed. Joshua didn’t either.
All Joshua wants to know is precisely how Neku left the dull and drab Shibuya that he and Joshua shared, and dragged himself into this place, Shibuya thriving. How he brought Joshua with him. If they were friends, Joshua could ask him. But they aren’t friends.
Joshua tucks his hands into his pockets. It is a dream, after all. He can afford a little bit of honesty. He’s already bending the rules to be here. Frankly, he’s breaking the rules every time he’s in Neku’s presence, every second he spends pretending that there’s anything between them but history. “Is it so hard to believe that I missed you?”
Neku looks at him with utterly unnerving steadiness. “No,” he says. “It’s not.”
Joshua sucks in a breath. And Neku can’t ever again complain about Joshua being annoying, because he chooses that moment to wake up.
Joshua stays away again after that. Another too-fast year as Neku hurtles towards high school graduation faster than he thought possible back when he was a dour first year sure that he’d never escape. He has his friends and his art and the vaguest outlines of a future.
He tries pinning Joshua down to paper again—might as well pin him down somehow—but he thinks that first pencil sketch might have been the best he’s ever gonna get it. He tries paints and pastels and ink, and they’re each wrong in a different way: the paint is too much color, the pastels are too soft, the ink is too definite. Joshua, as ever, refuses to be caught.
Neku starts to wonder if he just imagined it, the cool certainty he’d felt that it was Joshua there with him in the dream. He’d never admit this to Joshua, not even at gunpoint, but it’s not like he doesn’t dream about him from time to time.
“I mean, it makes sense,” Rhyme says, chewing on the straw of her milkshake. “It was a pretty traumatic experience for all of us, right?”
“I guess.” Beat was supposed to meet them here half an hour ago, but this amount of late is frankly pretty normal for him. And it gives Neku the chance to talk to the person who is, honestly, the most level-headed when it comes to Joshua. Probably because she’s never had to be in the same room with him. “It’d be easier if I could just forget about it.”
“Aw, and forget about us?”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
“I know! But every cloud has a silver lining. That’s all.”
“Yeah,” Neku says. “Just wish I knew which of those Joshua is.”
“It really bothers you, huh.” Rhyme doesn’t sound judgemental. She never sounds judgemental, probably wouldn’t know how to if she tried. But she’s right, isn’t she? It’s been three years. By pretty much any standards, Neku should be over—whatever this is.
“Well,” Rhyme says, “what is it you want to say to him? Try saying it to me. That might help.”
Neku gapes at her. Rhyme is like this, more and more as she grows up: honing in on the heart of every problem like it’s nothing, and offering a solution that’s deceptive in its simplicity. Her new dream, she’d cautiously told them all last month, was to help people, however I can, and Neku knows she’s going to be great at it.
“It’s not really anything I want to say to him,” Neku says, slowly, unpicking it as he goes. “I mean—if I have something to say, I know how to make him hear. I wish he would just—tell me what’s going on with him. If he doesn’t want to be a part of my life, fine, but if he’s going to talk to me, I wish he would just talk. Make a clean break or don’t, but this wishy-washy bullshit is driving me nuts. That’s all.” And he probably heard all that too. Bastard.
Rhyme nods slowly, slurping up the rest of her milkshake. “You can’t change what Joshua does,” she says finally, after she’s gotten the last of it. “Only how you respond to it.”
Neku snorts. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I know I’ve got no hope of changing him.” Well—that’s not quite right. He thinks of Joshua, so sure that all of Shibuya’s vivid, contradictory, annoying complexity should be consigned to the cosmic garbage heap. Until something changed.
Neku wonders, sometimes, when it was. Whether it was before Neku lowered his gun.
“It goes both ways,” Rhyme says. “He can’t take away how you feel, no matter what.”
“Thanks, Rhyme.” Weirdly enough, it does help. Joshua might joke about pulling Shibuya out from under Neku’s feet again, but—Neku trusts him. He believes that he won’t do it again. And maybe that’s what bothers him: the idea that his trust could be misplaced. That he’ll have to relive that crushing moment of vertigo again, the creeping realization of who Joshua’d been all along.
But if Neku wants to trust him, Joshua can’t stop him. It’s not his decision to make.
Rhyme’s phone chimes, and she squints down at it. “Looks like Beat got sidetracked,” she says. “He needs my help with something—sorry, I’ve gotta bounce.”
Neku waves her off. He gets another coffee and sticks around. This cafe isn’t as good as WildKat was, while it was still in operation, but they make a decent latte.
He gets up to pick up his order, and when he returns, Rhyme’s seat is occupied.
“What are you doing here, Joshua?”
“Well,” Joshua says, “as you oh-so-elegantly put it, you wanted to know what’s going on with me. I thought I’d indulge you.” He reaches out to snag Neku’s mug. Neku grabs his wrist.
“Get your own.”
“You’re no fun, Neku.” He doesn’t try to pull out of Neku’s grip. “And after I came all this way to see you.”
“We’re like three blocks away from your weird apartment.” Neku lets go of Joshua, and drags his coffee back out of stealing range. He takes a long drink as the silence stretches out between them.
Joshua cracks first. Of course he does. How had Neku never noticed that before? “Well. What is it you want to know?”
The obvious question is why: why me, why Shibuya, why did everything happen the way it did. But Neku knows the answer to all that. It’s sitting across from him, pouting down at the table.
“So. Our last game. What exactly was my entry fee?”
Joshua frowns. “That would be telling.”
“If I’m never gonna get it back, I think I deserve to know.” It itches, that Neku lost something essential to himself, and he doesn’t even get to know what it was. Rhyme knows what she lost. She understands it, she can work to fill in the gaps, to realize that she can live without a dream, but Neku—whatever it was, it must have been important. But there’s nothing obvious missing. How could he lose something that important and not even be bothered?
“If you insist.” Joshua waves his hand imperiously. Six bullets clatter down onto the cafe table. One rolls onto the floor. Joshua ignores it; Neku scrambles to pick it up before they catch the attention of the waitress and have to explain, oh, any of this bullshit. Joshua might be good at his don’t-notice-me trick, but there are limits.
“Are you for real right now?” Neku demands. Typical fucking Joshua. “You took my bullets? The game was rigged?”
“As it happens, you didn’t shoot, so I don’t see why it matters. And I gave you the gun. A wiser player might have checked to see if it was loaded before we began.”
“I was a little busy at the time!” Busy accepting the fact that his jackass partner who was maybe his jackass friend was actually, turns out, the jackass Composer of all of Shibuya.
Ugh. Of course. Asshole. “You’re lying.”
Neku flicks one of the bullets at him, pissed enough now that he’ll just leave it in Joshua’s hands to keep them from getting kicked out. “You’re lying to me. Again.”
Joshua laughs. He crosses his arms, dipping his head. “Very clever, Neku.”
“Would it really kill you to be honest with me for one single second?”
“Technically, Neku, I’m already dead.”
Neku shakes his head. Stupid of him to expect this to go any differently than it always has. “Just tell me. If you can’t answer one simple question, I’m out. I actually have better things to do than listen to you try to play me.” He stands up.
Joshua waves a hand, and the bullets vanish just as Neku goes crashing back into his seat. “You really want to know that badly, don’t you? Fine. It was this,” Joshua says, sweeping his arm out in a wide arc, his face gone cold and imperious. It makes Neku wonder what he’s trying to hide. “This. Us, sitting here like we’re friends. We aren’t friends, Neku. That was your entry fee. That’s what mattered the most to you in that moment. A friend who could understand you, who saw your potential. And you lost it. You won’t be getting it back. You can’t.”
Neku stares at him. He’s not sure he’s ever seen Joshua this honestly worked up. He wants to say that Joshua’s lying again, but he’s not. Obviously he’s not.
Is that really what he wanted? Friendship with a guy who’d done about one nice thing for him, and even that had been a lie?
Yeah. Sounds about right. He still wants it, is the terrible thing. “What, you’d rather that I’d shot you?”
“Some days,” Joshua says, “I really, really wonder. It would certainly have been simpler.”
“Joshua. Did you really want to lose?”
Joshua smiles at him, neon bright and artificial. “You should know by now that I never lose. Goodbye, Neku.”
“Wait—dammit,” Neku says, as Joshua’s wrist goes insubstantial when he tries to grab it again. Joshua’s vanished. “I know you’re still here, asshole.”
He doesn’t get an answer.
There is something about Neku. It doesn’t have anything to do with Imagination, with how he sees the world, any of the things that should matter to the Composer. Aside from all of that, he’s still completely unique. He has a particular way of getting under Joshua’s skin.
The tin pin world, as always, is a welcome respite. His own Shibuya, at the moment, is an utterly intolerable place to be. Joshua knows; he’s been back a few times, waiting to see if it will have blown over. It hasn’t. Neku isn’t the new CAT, no—he let that dream go a long time ago. Neku is different than CAT. Neku is better. His art speaks louder and more eloquently than any university student should be able to. It’s the talk of Shibuya no matter where Joshua goes, from Hachiko to Cadoi to Udagawa. He’s inescapable.
All of this is, theoretically, according to plan. This is what the Game is for, to refine worthy souls and bring them back better and brighter, to allow their influence to spread to all of humanity. And yet.
Neku doesn’t use imprinting in his work, but it speaks to Joshua just as clearly as if he had: hey, asshole. come back.
He wishes Neku would give it up with the feather motif already. It’s painfully transparent.
Here, it’s the opposite problem entirely. He enjoys this Neku—he is Neku, after all—but there’s something off about him. His vibe is infinitesimally wrong. He should be a hell of a lot easier to deal with than Joshua’s Neku. He’s far better at quelling his so-called emo urges, even without the benefit of a death or two to give him some perspective. He’s much better at tin pin. And he doesn’t glare daggers at Joshua every time they hang out.
Of course, when they hang out, he usually thinks that Joshua is his Joshua, but if he’s going to make assumptions, who is Joshua to correct him?
“Get your own,” the other Joshua tells him helpfully, when Joshua relays his gripes. “Actually, you have your own, which really does beg the question of what, exactly, you’ve been doing here the past few months. Don’t you have a Game to run?”
“I’m sure Sanae is doing just fine handling it in my absence.” It’s probably driving Uzuki crazy. Sanae has a particularly lackadaisical approach to running his Games. Maybe she’ll finally get riled up enough to try to assassinate Joshua when he gets back. The thought cheers him up. That would certainly be a fun ambition to crush.
Letting Sanae conduct the game—even through a proxy, as is his wont—isn’t strictly above-board, but Joshua’s already in the bad books with the higher plane. What’s one more sin to add to the list?
He expects the other Joshua to comment on it. If he’s being honest, he’s hoping to pick a fight—with Neku unavailable, there’s no one more satisfying to argue with than himself, after all. But this world’s Joshua barely reacts, his expression going so neutral so quickly as to be obviously studied. He stills for just a moment before returning to normal movement, and most tellingly, normal breath. Focusing so hard on acting unbothered that he forgets he doesn’t need to put on certain airs around himself.
“What is it?” Joshua asks, voice going cold. He skips the play-acting. There’s no point.
The other Joshua eyes him, and then gives up and shrugs. “So you really don’t know, do you. I was wondering.”
“If you’re privy to information I should know, Yoshiya, then I’d appreciate it if you’d tell me. Now.”
“Ouch,” he says. “There’s no need to be rude. I thought maybe you didn’t want to talk about it, but I guess your boy problems really are taking precedence.”
The other Joshua rolls his eyes—a tad too ostentatiously, if Joshua says so himself. Sloppy work. “It’s about Hanekoma.”
He shoots Joshua a pitying look. “Don’t you know he’s betrayed you? All of us, really. He’s Fallen. That business a few years back, with that Game of yours that got so out of hand—remember those pesky Taboo Noise? Hanekoma’s the one who fixed up the sigil your version of Minamimoto got so much destructive mileage out of. I thought perhaps you were in on it.”
The problem of the Taboo Noise has fallen entirely out of Joshua’s mind. He’s had other things to worry about, since the Game returned to normal. And Sanae said he was taking care of it.
“No,” Joshua says, going still himself. “I was not.”
“Makes sense. It didn’t quite track—my version said he was probably doing it because he didn’t trust you not to crush your city into bits, after all. There’s an order out to apprehend on sight. My Sanae’s quite upset about it. Not too interested in fighting himself, you see, but he’s nothing if not loyal.”
“I’m sure he is.” Joshua stands up. “Excuse me. It seems I have some business to attend to.”
“Joshua.” His face is serious. It isn’t the best look for them. “Can I give you some advice?”
“Can I stop you?”
“Maybe you should spend some time thinking about who you trust with the important things. And I don’t just mean the Game.”
It’s funny. Of course it is. Wasn’t it Sanae, after all, who spent all that time knocking it into Neku’s head, the importance of trust?
“I’ll take it under advisement,” Joshua says, tightly, and he goes to find this world’s Neku. Now that’s a guy who’ll know where to find some paint.
Neku comes to the Udagawa mural a lot around this time every year. Habit, mostly. And he likes to prod at the memory of a gun in his face, to feel every year how it’s starting to scar over.
It’s not like Joshua has ever come back here after that first time. That would be too easy, or too obvious, or just too convenient for everyone involved.
Except this time he’s here, back turned to Neku, a can of spray paint in his hand. His hair’s longer, tied back in an uncharacteristically messy ponytail, and he’s taller than Neku remembers him. He’s still wearing the same clothes as always. At least some things never change.
It makes Neku want to roll his eyes. Either it’s intentional or it isn’t, and he isn’t sure which is worse, but Joshua’s copying him. Following the trend Neku’s set by growing out his hair a little and shooting up half a foot in the past few years.
“What are you doing?” Neku asks.
“I think that should be obvious.” Joshua tilts his head from side to side, and raises the can of paint. CAT’s mural is halfway covered already in irregular jagged swathes of blue and purple. Cool colors, sure, but the anger in them is clear in the application. Joshua’s switched to white, and seems to be stuck deciding what to do with it.
“Hey,” Neku says, grabbing his shoulder and yanking Joshua around to face him. “That’s CAT’s mural! Isn’t Mr. H your friend? You’re just going to disrespect his work like that?”
“His work, if you can call it that, was just an elaborate ruse,” Joshua says, shrugging out of Neku’s grip. “Surely you knew? He was just trying to send a message to all of Shibuya. He imprinted words into his art. That’s the only reason he ever did any of it.”
Neku shakes his head. “Wow, he made art because he wanted to speak to people? Color me shocked. What’s gotten into you?”
“Sanae Hanekoma isn’t who you think he is. He’s the Producer. It’s his job to keep an eye on the Game.”
“I knew that. He told us that, because unlike some people, he knows how to be honest every once in a awhile!”
“He isn’t human.”
“Yeah, Joshua. I kind of figured he might not be, since he was always hanging around with you.”
“He’s an Angel, and he’s Fallen,” Joshua snarls. “Remember all those times Minamimoto so charmingly tried to kill us? Sanae helped him do that. He’s the one who fixed up that Taboo Noise sigil so that it worked. He betrayed me.”
“How are you just finding this out now?”
“Believe me,” Joshua says darkly. “I have a reliable source.”
Neku stares at Joshua, and then back at the half-covered mural behind him. He can’t reconcile his idea of Mr. H--of CAT--with the terror of the Taboo Noise, all the times they almost died. Then again, it’s been hard to reconcile the Joshua he spent a week being annoyed at with the Composer of Shibuya. “Why would he ever do that?”
“Because he didn’t trust me to save Shibuya. He had a contingency plan in case I wanted to go through with it.”
“Well,” Neku says slowly, “can you blame him?”
“I trusted him,” Joshua says. “I understand that he wanted what was best for Shibuya. I know that I wasn’t—I’m glad that I didn’t destroy it. But I thought he was on my side. It’s been years, and he never even told me. I’m the Composer. This city shouldn’t have secrets from me.”
“Wow,” Neku says. “You trusted him and he betrayed you, huh? Sounds rough. Can’t imagine what that feels like.”
“Rub it in all you like,” Joshua says. “He could’ve killed you too. Apparently he thought that was an acceptable cost.”
“Look who’s talking.”
Joshua drops the can of paint, and he starts to laugh. “Oh, Neku,” he says. “I was never going to let you be Erased. For better or for worse, once I chose you as my proxy, your fate was set. In the Game or out of it, you were going to thrive.”
“No,” Neku says. “I was going to do whatever Shibuya did. This is my city, Joshua. I live here. If you destroyed it, I’d be gone.”
Joshua closes his eyes. “I suppose that’s true,” he says. “So you’re on Sanae’s side, I see.”
“That is not what I said,” Neku snaps. “Look. I don’t understand your world. I don’t know what Mr. H did or didn’t do, and I’m sorry if he hurt you. That sucks. But that doesn’t change all the things he did for me, and it doesn’t change whatever he’s done for you. You should find him and talk it out.”
“Oh, don’t worry, we’ve spoken.”
“Yeah, and I know what conversations with you are like, so I think you need to go back and try again.”
“Is that what you want?” Joshua asks, his voice oddly detached. “With me? To talk it out? I told you, Neku. We aren’t friends.”
“If you’re not going to talk to me, then talk to someone. Expand your world, Joshua. Clearly spending time with no one but yourself isn’t doing you any favors.”
For some reason, that makes Joshua smile, but it vanishes as soon as it appears. “You should listen less to Sanae. The man has no idea what he’s talking about. Clearly.”
Neku rolls his eyes. “Just because he said it doesn’t make it not true. The world—”
“Don’t say it,” Joshua snaps. “You think I want to go around befriending every idiot on the streets of this town? My world ends with you, Neku. That’s why this city is still here, isn’t it? You dragged me past the limits of my world, and here we are.” He throws his hands out, encompassing the mural, Udagawa, all of Shibuya.
“Then fucking act like it,” Neku says. “How did an idiot like you get to be the Composer of Shibuya?”
“You keep blowing me off because of a stupid game that you decided the rules of?”
“Rules are important, Neku. Just look what happened when Sanae decided it was his prerogative to go around breaking them.”
“Screw that,” Neku says. “I changed your mind. I proved it to you, that Shibuya was more than what you thought it was—than what I thought it was.” He tips his head back. “I never would have seen it if you hadn’t done what you did. I can’t forgive you all of it. But you changed me, and that matters.”
“Believe me,” Joshua says, “it wasn’t my intention.”
“You’re such a fucking liar,” Neku says. “You wanted someone to prove you wrong. I didn’t shoot you, and you gave Shibuya back anyway. I didn’t lose your stupid game, Joshua, and that’s what you don’t get. I won.” He gives Joshua one last push, until he’s backed up against the mural. “So actually, you owe me my entry fee back. With interest.”
Neku’s not sure he’s been this close to Joshua since he came back to life. In the dream, maybe, or in all the dreams that weren’t really Joshua, the ones that ended like this. He isn’t breathing. Probably doesn’t need to. Joshua’s always let more of the truth of himself slip than he should, when Neku’s around.
Some of Joshua’s hair has fallen out of his ridiculous ponytail. Neku pushes it back behind his ear. “You think I don’t know what it feels like to be lonely? Like there’s no one you can trust?”
“We talked about this, once,” Joshua says. He smiles, not as insincere as he means it to be. “Inviting me into your garden, Neku?”
“Well?” he demands. “Gonna push me away again?”
Joshua tips his head back against the wall, shaking faintly with laughter under Neku’s hands. “Leave it to you to turn everything on its head at the very last moment. You’ve gotten quite good at it. You really did change this city.”
“No,” Neku says, “I changed you.” It’s the most satisfying thing Neku’s ever felt, probably, the way Joshua gasps and freezes when Neku kisses him, like finally this is what’s surprised him. He really had no idea, did he.
When Neku thought about it—because yeah, it’s been years, he can admit that he thought about it—he thought this would be more like a fight. Like all the conversations he and Joshua seem to have these days, pointed and dangerous. But it’s not. It’s like all the conversations Neku wants to have with Joshua but never seems to get to, like knowing and being known. Neku shoves a hand into Joshua’s hair and Joshua wraps his arm around Neku’s neck, pulling when Neku pushes, matching him beat for beat as they both lean up against the mural. It’s so quiet around them that it’s deafening, Shibuya’s Music holding its breath until Joshua pulls away, a hand at the nape of Neku’s neck keeping him from going far.
“Well? Was your entry fee worth the trouble after all?”
“It got you to shut up, so clearly it’s worth a miracle.”
Joshua rolls his eyes. “Cute.”
“Look. I’m not running away if you’re not. Next time you want to drop in for coffee, stick around awhile. That’s all I’m asking.”
“Well, you clearly know how to show a guy a good time,” Joshua says. “Making out in an alley is a little high school, don’t you think?”
“And how old are you, exactly?”
Joshua doesn’t answer, of course. Can’t ever make anything too easy. He reaches up to touch his hair, a good chunk of which is currently a startling shade of blue. “And you got paint in my hair.”
“That a complaint?”
Joshua looks down at the paint smudged against his fingers, and then back up at Neku. “No,” he says. And then he smiles, a smile that Neku has never once seen on his face, because it’s not scheming or dissembling or anything but honest. He wonders when exactly it was, the last time that Joshua felt free.
Neku drags Joshua by the wrist all the way back to the tiny apartment he shares with two other art students. Joshua lets him. With great force of will, he doesn’t reach up to touch his lips, the place where they’re still warm.
He still wants to strangle Sanae, a little, but oddly, he’s more interested in where Neku is leading him. He dredges up his most charming smile for Neku’s roommates, who are too wrapped up in a game of Super Smash Bros to even deign to look up at him.
“Charming company you’ve been keeping, Neku.”
“Yeah, just look at you,” Neku says. He snags a chair from the kitchen and tows both it and Joshua to the bathroom. He sets the chair down in front of the sink. “Sit.”
Joshua flutters his eyelashes at him. Neku just rolls his eyes and pushes him into it.
“Bossy,” Joshua tells him, just because he knows how Neku will respond:
“You’re one to talk,” he says, utterly predictable, a familiar chord struck just right. Joshua, five years ago or so, would’ve laughed at this. He used to complain at length to Megumi and Sanae and anyone who would listen about how rote it all was, this whole city so completely easy to know. How boring.
Neku is in truth fairly predictable. Joshua knows what will happen when he pushes this button or that, knows how to piss him off or make him smile. He knows the things that are important to him, the things that were worth taking away.
And yet Joshua doesn’t understand him at all, because Neku is predictable until he isn’t: until the moment he befriends a stranger, lowers a gun, kisses his murderer in the middle of Udagawa.
If Neku can change, anyone can; if Neku can reach out and take what he wants, what’s stopping Joshua?
“Yeah?” Neku turns, busy digging around in the bathroom cabinet. “Do you want Aiko’s shampoo or Daisuke’s? Mine’s expensive, like hell you’re using that.”
“Don’t worry, I have a lot of experience getting paint out of stuff way fancier than you,” Neku says. But when he turns back to the cabinet, he’s smiling. He’s gotten very good at hearing what lies underneath Joshua’s words. He’s has a good sense for Shibuya’s music these days, and that could be the reason. It’s a much less terrifying prospect than the truth, which is that better than he knows Shibuya, Neku knows Joshua, with the kind of understanding they both used to dismiss as a fairytale.
“You asked me a few years ago why I picked you.”
“I gave you the reason I gave to Sanae: that I thought you and I were the same. But that wasn’t the whole reason.”
“So you were lying. Big surprise.”
“I wasn’t lying,” Joshua says primly. “Merely obscuring the truth, maybe.”
“Someday, you and I are gonna have a talk about what a load of bullshit that is.”
“I can’t wait,” Joshua says. “The other reason was that I liked you. I didn’t realize it, but I did. That’s all.”
“Wow,” Neku says. “Only took you a couple years to admit it, huh?”
Joshua, with great drama, drapes himself back across the chair and the sink. “You wound me, Neku. Here I am, baring my soul—”
Neku turns the sink on in his face.
After the resulting splashfight is resolved—in Joshua’s favor, if Neku’s de-spiked hair is anything to go by—Neku fills the sink with water and tells Joshua to soak his hair in it. “For how long, exactly?”
Neku shrugs. “I dunno. A while.”
“You made the mistake of getting good paint. That stuff sticks.”
“You realize this isn’t necessary,” Joshua says. “I could snap my fingers and be clean with less than a moment’s thought.”
“I’m aware,” Neku says. He snorts. “Guess you must like it here with me then, huh?”
Joshua doesn’t disagree. He doesn’t stop Neku from washing his hair, either, complaining about how long it’s gotten the whole time, even as his fingers are gentle on Joshua’s scalp. It’s quiet like Udagawa was quiet. Their own little world. Not a garden yet, but a place where something might grow.