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That one memorable incident with the potato, the drawing and the vending machine

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Neku frowned at his sketchpad.

Something in his drawing was not quite right, but he was not sure what, exactly. Or, well, maybe it would be more accurate to say that he was not satisfied with it, because he was not trying to depict anything realistic, so there was no right nor wrong in the strictest sense but…

"My my my, what do we have here?"

Neku didn't jump, but it was only a testament to how used he was to Joshua sneaking up on him.

"Hello to you too," he greeted halfheartedly.
"What are you drawing?"

Neku turned a bit on his seat to glare at Joshua.

"I don't remember asking for your opinion."
"And I'm not offering it," Joshua smirked. "I merely asked a question."

Neku looked down at his drawing. Turned it a bit so the light of the sun filtering through the leaves of Miyashita Park's trees could hit it at another angle.

Nope. Still not quite right.

And then a hand sneaked around him to grab the sketchpad before he could react.

"Joshua, for fuck's sake…"
"Oooooh interesting," Joshua cut him without a care in the world.
"Give it back," Neku ordered.

Joshua tutted.

"I don't think so. I'd rather have you paying attention to me, right now."
"And I'd rather have you not paying attention to that drawing thank you very much."
"Oh? You don't like me admiring your artistic talent?"

Neku's fingers clenched down on the cloth of his pants and he let his head down, hiding into his cowl defensively.

"That's not artistic."
"I beg to differ."
“Joshua…”
“Not trusting me, Neku?”

Neku rolled his eyes.

“You know perfectly well that it’s not the point, you jerk.”
“And what, the Composer of Shibuya, God of Imagination and Creation, is not enough to make you believe you did something good here?”
“That’s not…”
“Oh but I know you would rather have CAT say it, hmm?”

Neku froze. He knew Joshua well enough to have a whole series of alarm bells ringing in the back of his brain right now. He wasn’t sure what for, but Joshua was definitely going to say or do something he would not like.

“What do you mean?” he asked, waiting for the bomb to drop.

Joshua stood up, brushing (absent) dust from his pants. Still holding the drawing.

A whole new batch of alarms joined the others.

“Well, it would be easy enough to get Sanae’s opinion on this, you know. We have maybe, hmm, two or three minutes of walking tops to get to his shop.”

Here it was, that feeling of dread and certainty that came with Joshua.

“Oh no you don’t,” Neku said, hoping against all odds that Joshua would listen for once.

Joshua grinned, and Neku knew he was doomed.

He leapt at Joshua, who only took two steps back, laughing, and managed to avoid Neku’s desperate grab for his sketchpad.

“I don’t want him to see it!” he pleaded.
“And why not?” Joshua asked, all bored curiosity.
“... because!” Neku said.
“Eloquent as always, I see.”

The familiar urge to wipe that smug expression from Joshua’s face came back like it never left.

“Anyway, it’s my drawing, you have no right to keep it,” Neku tried, firmer.
“Hmm, I don’t think you could get it back, you know?” Joshua mused.

Neku glared. Joshua smirked.

Joshua was not that far from Neku, if he could just jump on him fast enough it should do the trick… He just had to take him by surprise (well, as much as “surprise” was still a thing when what could only be called a challenge hung in the air). Neku tensed. Joshua stared, an eyebrow slightly raised, clearly spelling “well, I’m waiting”.

Neku pounced.

Joshua… well, technically that was a dodge… but most importantly, it was utterly, completely cheating.

“What the…”

Instead of going back, or sideways, Joshua was going up. Gravity ain’t an excuse when you’re a kind of deity apparently.

“Josh!”

Neku could stretch his arm out as much as he wanted, Joshua was just a little bit too high to reach. And when Neku tried to jump he merely blocked him with his feet.

“That’s totally unfair!” Neku complained, still trying to catch his sketchpad, or Joshua, whatever would come first.

Joshua giggled. Of course he did.

“Neku, I’m only trying to help you here,” Joshua said as if Neku was being unreasonable. “Work with me won’t you?”
“You’re not helping!”

Joshua sighed theatrically; a kind of… of shimmer, for lack of a better world, began to cover him. Neku knew this well. It was more a feeling deep in his bones than a visible change, and it announced Joshua switching Frequency. When he didn’t do it fast enough to simply disappear, of course.

“Don’t you dare go into the UG for this!”
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot you could feel that,” Joshua blatantly lied.

He was clearly toying with Neku, and maybe going to see Hanekoma was a good idea after all because Neku could feel the impulse to strangle the little shit intensify, and Hanekoma was good at making him not strangle people.

Neku suddenly realised that he could hear steps coming closer. Joshua was still floating, and still shimmering, which… meant he was what, half into the RG and half into the UG? Neku didn’t know, but if he could see him, whoever was coming could too, and wouldn’t that be a prob…

“Phones?”

Or maybe not.

“Pinky? What are you…”
“Leave my hair out of this!”
“Hey,” Joshua intervened, “could the two of you keep my dear Neku busy for a moment?”
“What?!” Neku exclaimed.
“Why?” Pinky questioned.
“Well, because I asked, obviously,” Joshua said, calmly avoiding another attempt from Neku to catch the Drawing of Doom. “Also, I’ll treat you to ramens for a whole week if you buy me enough time.”
“Consider it done, boss!”
“Perfect, I was not in the mood to run.”

As if he ever was.

“Don’t listen to him!” Neku protested.
“Well, he is our boss,” Lollipop pointed from where he was watching the scene, a few steps behind his friend.

Neku groaned. One second later, Joshua was disappearing into nothing while Pinky giddily threw herself at Neku, trying to get a hold on him. Neku dodged, saw Joshua reappearing two meters farther, feet back on the ground, and then Lollipop came between them.

“Sorry Phones, duty calls,” Lollipop said.
“He’s just being a jerk, that’s not duty!”
“I still hear you!” Joshua called, not stopping his calm walk toward the exit of the park.
“And you’re still a jerk!” Neku called back.

He tried to feint to get past Lollipop, but only managed to avoid getting grabbed by Pinky, which was a total accident but hey, he was not complaining. Well, not about that anyway.

“Stop moving, I want my ramens!” Pinky demanded.
“And I want my drawing, so get lost!”

Dammit, he had not spent three freaking weeks running away from Noise to get stopped by two Reapers now. He wouldn’t define himself as “athletic”, but running, escaping? That he could do.

And so began an angry game of tag punctuated by invectives. Joshua had left the park by now, but Neku was slowly making his way to the exit and he was sure he could still catch up to him (if he managed to ditch the Reapers, that is).

Suddenly, Neku saw something thrown in his direction. He caught it by pure reflex, threw it at Pinky, and only then realised it had been a sweet potato.

His brain stopped for half a second, stuck on a giant question mark.

“Hey, what do you want me to do with this?” Pinky protested.
“Cook it?” Lollipop suggested.

Neku’s ears finally registered that somewhere in the background, a young child was crying.

“Mamaaaaaa, they took my potatooooo!”
“I didn’t take anything, it’s him!” Pinky screamed.
“It came flying into my face!”
“Lynne,” the mother sighed, “I already told you we are not going to roast your potato here.”
“Buuuuuut…”

Neku tuned the child out. It was his opportunity to escape his pursuers. He dived behind the mother, using her as a shield. There was the confused sound of two people colliding, and then Neku sprinted to the exit.

(He tried not to feel too bad for the woman. At least the child was going to get her potato back, which should count for something, right?)

He was now in Cat Street, and Joshua was in sight, far too close to WildKat but still reachable. Neku ran. Joshua threw a glance in his direction, smiled and went on walking. He pushed the door of the café open, Neku jumped at him…

… and hit the vending machine that had just materialized on the doorstep.

Neku swore and, of course, Joshua laughed. Neku took half a step back, assessing the new situation while massaging his hand that had taken the brunt of the collision. The vending machine was the main item blocking him, but not the only one. There was a microwave, a chair, and half a table. It only had two legs.

Neku hoped that Hanekoma would at least make Joshua clean his mess.

He frowned. The chair was on the bottom of the stack, and he could probably crawl under it to reach the door. He just had to pray that the rest of the pile would not collapse on him.

“Come back here!” Pinky yelled somewhere behind him.

Well. Now or never, apparently. He crouched and got under the chair. He pushed on the door, which didn’t move, because of fucking course Joshua had closed it behind him. Neku twisted himself and managed to pass an arm between the vending machine and the door, reached the handle, and finally fell into the café more than entered it.

Hanekoma was looking at him, perplexed, his arm extended above the counter. Joshua gleefully placed Neku’s drawing in Hanekoma’s hand and threw a victorious, smug smile at Neku.

Neku opened his mouth to speak, realised he didn’t know what to say and let his head fall, his forehead meeting the ground with a muted sound.

“... you okay Phones?” Hanekoma asked.
“He’s just really eager to get your opinion,” Joshua said before Neku could find something to answer.

Neku suddenly wondered if it would not be better to crawl back outside and let Pinky catch him.

“Come on Neku, don’t stay on the floor, that’s ridiculous,” Joshua commented.
“... I wouldn’t even be there if not for you,” Neku grumbled.
“What did you say? I didn’t quite catch it, given you’re talking to the ground, you know,” Joshua answered innocently.

Neku sighed and got up. He had lost. Joshua had had his way (like always) and now Neku just had to wait for this bad moment to end. He walked to the counter and took the seat Joshua pointed without even trying to protest.

“You know,” Hanekoma said, “next time you want to be alone in WildKat you can just turn the sign to ‘closed’ instead of dropping junk on my doorstep.”
“Consider it an artistic performance.”
“That’s not artistic.”
“See,” Neku said, “that’s exactly what I told you earlier!”
“He’s not talking about your drawing, dear.”

Oh. Whoops.

“So you are worried about this, Phones? I thought J was pulling my leg.”

Neku tried to disappear in his cowl. Hanekoma walked around the counter, stopped next to Neku and put the drawing in front of them.

“You created something real good here Phones,” he said kindly.
“I… did?” Neku asked.
“Yes. It’s bold, it’s sharp, and you did a pretty good job at drawing the attention to that part.”

And Hanekoma went on, listing without fail what Neku had indeed be trying to do.

“I… still feel it’s not quite right,” Neku shyly admitted.
“Hmm, I wouldn’t say not right, but I suppose you could try different things to see if it’s a better fit to your vision of the piece? Like… hmm, wait.”

Hanekoma reached around the countertop and pulled up a sketchbook, then a pen.

“For example, you could make this part here stand out more if you tried something like this…”

Neku, fascinated, found himself in an impromptu art class. Joshua was radiating smugness behind him, Neku didn’t even need to look at him to know it, but it was alright. Hanekoma was not only a great artist, but also an awesome teacher, it turned out.

Neku would totally not thank Joshua out loud, but in the (very relative) safety of his mind, he could admit that he was grateful. This was really the best.