Eri and Shiki take up a lot of his free time now, and Neku is starting to recognize and fear the particular spark that passes between them, the one that means 'yay, free life-size boy model!' Also, they don't always honor the 'boy' part. Eri is terrifyingly mercenary when it comes to fashion, just as willing to deck him in lace and ribbons and pretty bows when she needs to adjust an outfit as Shiki ever was to make him strip in the street.
He sees Rhyme and Beat a little less frequently, as they live further away, but Beat is... well, still Beat and Rhyme is as happy as he remembered her, and if she doesn't seem to know him very well at first, it's not like they were all that well-acquainted even when they were playing the Game.
The Game. That's... that's its own problem, really, even if it's all supposed to be over, and one Neku doesn't have a clue what to do about it now.
He doesn't say anything right away, because there doesn't seem to be any reason he should. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, those three weeks never happened, they were never gone at all, even the red pins just a passing craze, not worth remembering. It's not the kind of thing he can just bring up in casual conversation anyway – hey Beat, remember that time you were a Reaper and your sister was Noise and we were all dead? Yeah, good times.
He remembers, though, and can only assume the same for everyone else, and that they just don't talk about it because there's nothing new to say. It's only when they're all walking through Spain Hill and he watches the two ghostly boys run right past them, right through Beat, and turns to watch them go that he realizes he's the only one who stopped, the only one staring. Shiki is watching him however, frowning a little, worried.
"Is something wrong, Neku?"
Yes. Quite possibly everything.
"No," he lies, counting on his history of occasional moodiness to cover for him. "I just... never mind. Thought I saw something."
It worries at him, though, hovering at the edge of his thoughts, and he can't leave it alone. Perfectly free and clear to go on with the rest of his life like the Game never happened, and maybe that's what he's supposed to do even if he's still seeing – what, ghosts? Aftershocks? Neku can't do it, can't walk away even if he's been blatantly given the out, and when he meets Shiki and Eri for lunch the next day he's fighting to keep his voice casual, focusing on the flavorless burger in his hand.
"You know Shiki, just yesterday, I was trying to remember – did I bump into you in the record store? The first time we met?"
Hachiko's statue, it was Hachiko's statue and he still doesn't like going there, watching more than one ghostly, frantic face searching the crowd for a partner. Seeing the bright, blinding jolt of light that binds them together, just as dazzling from the outside as it had been to stand in it. - and then there'd been a girl, one time, desperately looking, panicked, and Neku had looked too, but hadn't seen anyone nearby.
He'd been walking towards her, no idea what good it could do but unable to stop himself. Halfway across, the crowd surged, and she disappeared from sight. By the time Neku had gotten clear, pushed to the other side, there was no sign of her, nothing at all, and he'd sat by the statue for a while trying not to feel miserable.
"Oh, wow." Shiki frowns, honestly thinking back, before she shrugs and smiles. "You know, I don't even remember. It's been so long."
Which is total crap, he didn't know her a month ago and even then for barely a week, but Neku only shrugs and changes the subject. He asks a few more questions here and there, if Beat's ever heard of Reapers – "what, man, like that stupid fortune telling thing people used to play?" – or what happened to Def March – "there was some fight and I heard they all split up" – and there's his answer, and he can stop whenever he wants. No one remembers the Game, no one remembers what happened, and Neku feels something sour twist in his stomach but he can't help asking the last question, has to hear the answer.
"Hey, did I ever introduce you to Joshua?"
He's not that surprised, that neither Beat nor Shiki have any idea what he's talking about, but he is surprised by the sudden, sharp rush of anger, so violent it leaves his hands shaking. How could the prissy bastard do something so stupid, and selfish? Yank himself out of everyone's memories, like they didn't have the right to know him, like he wasn't worth remembering? Some kind of gift, to forget him. An old ache there, from even before the game, and Neku shoves it to the side, not willing to give Joshua more than he's earned.
"Neku?" Shiki, worried again, and Neku has to force his hands out of fists, to manage a smile that doesn't really fit, but if Shiki suspects anything she doesn't push him – and what could he tell her, anyway? They've moved on, obviously, and he's sure as hell not going to ruin their second chance.
He still has a few nightmares about the Game at first, but they're mostly disjointed, just panic and running and the vague dark halos of Noise, and they fade as soon as he's awake. Neku doesn't dream about the showdown, not either of them – remembers the gun, remembers Joshua's demand, but not what came afterward. It obviously should have all been over but just as obviously – no.
He remembers the cool indifference in Joshua's eyes, and there had been no indecision, no doubt there that he could see. The bastard had made his point perfectly clear. So why did they get to come back?
Hanekoma's café has been closed lately and even then Neku isn't sure exactly, if he wants to talk or not, to find out why the Composer – why Joshua changed his mind – if he'd seemed so certain then. It aches, no matter how he tries to ignore it, to think that he's out there somewhere, not at all interested in what Neku is doing. Moved on, one Game rolling into the next, and maybe what Neku thought was so special wasn't so important, just another day in the Composer's busy schedule. Joshua's not watching and not coming back, and it makes no sense but it hurts nearly as bad as when Neku thought he was dead.
It's not that he should be lonely, and he spends as much time with Shiki and the rest of them as he can, but there's a distance there, a not-quite belonging, especially now with his world divided the way it is. Neku does his best to stay focused, tries not to feel alone, even with the occasional glimpses of ghosts in the crowd, and red-hooded Reapers he pretends he doesn't see.
"I'm going to be a pilot." Rhyme chirps, interrupting his thoughts, balancing on the low wall they're walking beside, both arms out.
"Yesterday, it was Olympic ice hockey. Or maybe astronaut." Beat grumbles, but Neku can tell he's gauging the distance between the top of the wall and the ground, and if Rhyme were to fall he'd catch her, always. If she didn't remember her dreams, Neku was sure that Beat did, and she seemed to come up with new ones every hour or so, anyway.
As terrible as the Game had been, Neku remembers what Beat had said during that third week, realizes this wouldn't be happening now, if they hadn't gone through all that they'd done. Beat would still be distant, and his sister would be unhappy. Shiki and Eri wouldn't be chatting busily together on his other side, might not be friends at all. He wouldn't have any of them, wouldn't have this new life, and how could he say that wasn't worth fighting for?
Neku had only valued his memories so much, that first time through, for reminding him why trusting other people was so dangerous, why it was better to be alone. That bitterness, that ugly, small world had been his most valued freaking possession – and that was just pathetic, "man found dead, eaten by own cats" pathetic. Getting taken down by the Noise would almost be a mercy, compared to spending his whole life that way.
He and Shiki are standing outside the art store, Eri inside at the counter, using a fake ID to buy him – of all things - the paint markers he needs for his latest job.
"We are the saddest, dorkiest people in existence." He sighs, and Shiki laughs, only turning every now and again to watch Eri flirt with the guy at the counter, a little bit of longing in her eyes still, even the Game only able to do so much. Neku reaches out, puts his arms around her shoulders, a quiet reminder and he really doesn't care what people think, hard to care after nearly a month of being invisible. She squeaks, blushes, and it's still there, Neku can feel the light, that connection between them, and after a moment she seems to realize that he's not holding on to tease, and leans back against him, and it's quiet for a while.
"I can come back, if I'm interrupting the floor show." Eri says dryly, handing over a bag full of markers, and he doubts she even had to show the ID. He can almost hear Joshua snarking something about him and Lapin Angelique bloomers and the way to art supply victory but Eri's already moving, tangling one of Shiki's hands in hers, and Neku follows, because he likes it when Shiki laughs like that and he'll owe Eri lunch for her subterfuge.
Once he'd come back from the Game, it didn't take long to realize that something came back with him, and as much as he still wants to shove Joshua's head in a toilet for freaking shooting him – twice! - and just generally being impossible, Neku knows there's a lot of people who would happily go through all that he'd done to feel what he feels now. It's art, it's the city, and a good part of everything he'd felt he was missing.
The thrill is addictive, figuring out where and how to drop lines – knowing, when he's really lucky, how the picture will look even with the page still blank. Which is good, because it isn't something he can stop or even turn away from half the time, like the whole city's talking to him now, Shibuya just falling into him, wanting him to speak for it, and he's not perfect yet but he's practicing all the time, getting better.
The work he does on Beat's board gets noticed fast, and soon he has to space them out, one a week, just to have time to work on other things. A few tattoo designs, up on the web, and the first time someone sends him a picture of his ink on their skin, he can't stop grinning for the rest of the day. He sketches Rhyme's squirrel-Noise, because nobody remembers and she thinks it's cute, and Shiki as a butterfly, wide pale wings rising up from her back, everything about her that is beautiful to him. She blushes all the way down to her toes when she sees it, and Eri pays him for it even when he tries to call it a gift, ripping it out of his sketchbook then and there.
At first, Neku didn't think it was possible to have a bad day, when having more days at all is worth being grateful for. He's kind of sort of something like an artist more and more as the days roll by - and once he does enough commissions, once there's a bit of a buzz and the guy from the Pegaso store – unexpectedly – catches him as he's going past and asks to borrow his sketchbook, Neku finds himself doing the front window art at the newest department store boutique.
A chance for his work to be seen on a much wider scale, not quite the big murals in town but he's getting there, it's the goal, and that's what he has to keep telling himself as the owner mumbles and mutters and doesn't quite tell him what he's going to get paid, and the owner's wife screams at the new clerks setting up and the phone and quite possibly the walls and the air conditioning doesn't cool off where he is, with the sun coming in through the window and baking him to a crisp, Shibuya sticky and hot like the inside of a pair of track shoes and no good for anyone today.
Has he mentioned the dog? A small, yappy black ridiculous puff of a thing that nips at him with needley teeth whenever he dares to step out of the window to try and cool down.
"You know, I've been looking at your sketches, and they're good. Very good, but I just don't think..."
Neku's known the owner for a little less than an hour and can't imagine him ever thinking about a painting in his life. He's starting to realize the only reason he's here is entirely because of the recommendation, and now the guy is just trying to fake competence and this is exactly why Neku had his headphones spot-welded to his ears for the better part of a year. Still keeps them close by. He's nowhere near good enough to get around without some kind of armor.
"I'm looking for something a bit more... you know, like that mural in – you know the one."
"You mean CAT." He's sure the other man doesn't know CAT from a half-finished paint job, but the man nods, agreeing with his certainty, and Neku tries not to look impatient. "Yeah, I'm pretty inspired by him. Most artists I know are."
He still needs to tell Hanekoma as much, fanboy on him a little bit – okay, a lot. But Joshua might be there, and what then?
"Yes. Great. Perfect. So you can do that?"
Neku blinks, surprised at the sinking sensation in his stomach, not thinking he'd been drawing long enough or was that proud of it, that it would hit him as hard as it did.
"So what you're saying is, you want CAT art without paying for it?" Copycat, Neku thinks, trying hard not to put his head through the wall. He keeps his voice disinterested, level enough that the man seems to think it's a perfectly reasonable request, and not at all insulting.
"You can do that? Great. He was sure right about you."
Neku considers his options. The amount he's already paid for materials, and the time wasted if he walks, along with the loss to his rather fragile credibility - though what kind of cred will he get from copying? The guy at Pegaso isn't a jerk, really, and doesn't deserve to get screwed over like this.
Hanekoma did make him overpay for the coffee, like every single time. And could have said something, perhaps, just the tiniest hint about Joshua literally being the god of total assholes.
"Yeah, I can do that."
By a little past midday Neku is soaked through with sweat, glad the Jupiter line has the fake-athletic thing happening because at least nylon breathes a little, a makeshift bandanna around his head to keep from dripping on the work. He has a killer headache from the heat and the bright sun, the fumes from the paint and the markers. The owner's wife is frowning at him every time he dares to come up for air – he can practically hear her docking his pay in her head – and he's desperately wishing he could introduce the yappy dog to his lightning-flinging Pegaso pin. God, if only a few of those still worked in the RG.
He's refrained from yanking off his headphones and beating the owner to death with them, twice, and the only relief has been from pillaging a nearby vending machine, can after can of iced coffee that's just left him jittery on top of hot, headachey and annoyed.
At least he's making progress, fairly quickly but apparently not fast enough for the owner – big surprise – and there's some problem in the back, and the sound of power tools eventually leaves him with no other choice. Neku cranks up the music to drown the world out, a mix that Shiki and Eri made for him – the CD scribbled in two different styles of handwriting, 'Neku's Do Your Best Mix' with little hearts and stars - all heavy House and dance that builds like a symphony around him, cocooning him from the world.
He pulls his headphones down tight and lets everything drop down to the steady lines under his hands, breathing out as he lays each one down to keep from shaking, focusing on nothing else. The city is leaning over his shoulder, talking to him so fast he can barely keep up, telling him its stories, a thousand different wants and needs and dreams.
"Slow down, slow down," he whispers back, laughing slightly, and falls into it.
The sun is going down by the time he's done, his eyes hurting so bad it's hard to blink, and Neku stretches, shakes himself down for enough change from the machine, a can he holds against his closed eyes rather than drinking, the chill fading way too fast. The dog is tugging on his sock, growling. He refrains, somehow, from kicking it into orbit.
Neku still doesn't know how to judge his own work – it talks to him or it doesn't, and he can't imagine anything more than that, only sure of what he's done when other people react to it. Which is probably not how to art, but it's what he's got to work with.
"Yeah, it's good. You worked hard, but I'm not sure-" and then the owner really looks, really sees it, and actually shuts up for a minute. So Neku thinks maybe he did a little better than just a copy job, even though when the guy shakes himself out of his concentration he's frowning and looks a little nervous and Neku is sure that means he's not going to get paid for what it's worth.
His artist sense runs true if too late to do any good, and he walks out with barely half of what he swore they'd mentioned at the start. It will cover supplies, at least, and get him some more attention – that's what the owner's wife is saying, obviously annoyed they have to pay him anything at all and Neku's too tired to argue, hurting too much.
He doesn't feel at all bad when he accidentally bumps the edge of a display, a limited edition Pavo Real barely hitting the ground before the dog pounces, zeros falling from the price tag with every tooth mark in the leather strap as it takes off running, the owner's wife screeching after it and Neku ducks out the door and makes his escape.
He finds pins at the oddest times, tucked in the corners of his pockets at random, even clothes he swore he checked. Neku holds on to the few he'd favored – because you never freaking know – and leaves the rest on walls in crowded areas, set in obvious spots, because maybe it will help, somehow.
Never expects to find them, one hand in his pocket counting out change for maybe one more iced coffee, and he feels the rounded edge of the pin just as the boy and girl skitter into view, and this time when he stares they stare back. Watching him warily, even though Neku can't imagine he looks threatening, paint marks on his hands and arms and his hair and clothes a sodden mess. It seems a little late to be playing the Game, but time probably doesn't run the same on the other side, or maybe they do pick up nights here and there, just to throw off the players. It seems like a dick thing to do, so it's probably true.
"Either of you use pins?"
The girl lifts her hand gingerly, and Neku tosses her the Lightning Pawn, not so surprised when she catches it, although he's sure he could walk through them if he tried. He hopes she can use it, one of his stronger pins, it will probably help them out. They look at him strangely for another moment, and Neku wonders what day it is for them, what the seventh day looks like when the game isn't rigged.
"Go on. You should get moving."
It probably isn't safe to stay in one spot for long – Neku never thought so, and that finally makes the decision for them. Still watching him, wide-eyed as they back up, and then they turn the corner and are gone. Neku glances further down the street, just as the pink-haired Reaper steps into view – Pinky, someone had said, and it's the only thing he can think of now. She sees him too, after a moment, and he watches her expression divebomb from surprise straight to furious anger and can't help laughing, can barely keep from pointing and laughing.
Maybe it's against the rules, what he's doing. As if that ever stopped Joshua. Maybe he should buy a button maker and see if he can really piss them off.
It seems like it takes forever to get home, but by the time Neku stands at the bottom of his street - quiet and as dark as things can ever get in the city - his gear bag is heavy on his shoulder, and his eyes and head ache, and he can't do it. He can imagine every step past this, every second for the rest of the night, and he can't make himself move.
His father was out lecturing, somewhere in Europe, coming in as a research specialist on a few different projects. Time had shifted for them, when they all came back to life, but even if it hadn't there wouldn't have been anyone at home, Neku dead for three weeks and who knew if his dad had even found out about it, before the reset?
Yeah, and he'd noticed that there were no flowers for him at the mural. He hadn't said anything, but he'd noticed.
It's always been okay with him, taking care of himself, and the small place they have because nobody's ever home to use it anyway. His father's not a bad guy, makes sure he has decent clothes and the cleaning lady's number and enough of an allowance that he doesn't need to ask for anything. The damn apartment is still going to be an oven, though, the building always like a heat sink and this night still so bad even their A/C won't be able to cut through it.
If he goes home now he's eating instant ramen for dinner and the thought turns his stomach, just as much as the thought of laying in the dark alone, sweating and stuffy and staring at the ceiling, and there's only going to be one way to not do that, and it's probably just the stupidest thing he's ever done.
The heat breaks like a cresting wave the moment he's in the underpass, and Neku sighs, rubbing his hand across his hair, shaking a few drops of sweat free. The air is still soupy here, but it's still far better than it was, cooler with each step he takes and it's a sewer and seriously, Joshua, no one's impressed with your secret hideout being in a place no one in their right mind would ever want to go. There's a fine line between super cunning and super brain-damaged.
It looked ominous once, terrible and menacing. Still nothing very welcoming – but it doesn't bother him anymore or maybe that's just the headache making him not care. Nothing and no one around him, just shadows and concrete, piles of random debris and what looks like a solid RG wall and a tangle of Noise in the UG and yes, Neku can see them both and isn't that interesting, and yes he reaches out anyway. The barrier buzzes beneath his hand like pins and needles, like he's cut off the flow of blood to his whole arm and he pushes against it, the buzzing reaching up to rattle him, bone and brain, and then he's on the other side.
The room – the fishpad, the only thing Neku can think to call it – still doesn't look anything like Joshua, even knowing what he knows now. He wonders if it was inherited with the position, or was set up the way Joshua thought it was supposed to look, for his position. All clean lines and shiny surfaces - very contemporary. Half game-room and half bar, but not much inviting either way. Designed to intimidate, and that part, at least, is familiar Joshua territory.
He completely ignores the bottles on the back wall, something about not eating food in the underworld, and it's probably not smart to just show up here either, but the room is arctic enough to make him shiver, and Neku revels in it. Silent save for the white noise of water from the manmade falls, and it takes a minute for his thoughts to fill in the gap, why it seems so strange, what's missing. He blinks slowly, realizes the city has finally stopped talking, whispering and chattering beneath all his thoughts all this time but it's silent now, and it's a relief to be alone in his own head.
Neku drops his bag, exhausted, wobbling a bit on his feet. He should probably check the room out further, likely the only chance he's going to get, but he doubts he could make it to one end and back again without breaking something – everything looks vaguely fragile and half of it made of glass - and there's no reason to give Joshua the satisfaction.
If he's coming. But no, Joshua – the Composer, he should remember that - would be here if he was here and he's probably not coming or just going to wait for Neku to get bored and leave again and yeah, okay. Fine.
Neku stretches slowly, yawns as he crouches down, the fish crowding up toward him, right beneath his feet. Dark scales and gasping mouths and he has the feeling they'd talk to him if he tried to listen but he does and nothing happens.
He toes his shoes off, kicks them back toward the door – he is not being more polite than that, not for Joshua, even if he's not here to get offended – and leather sofas aren't very comfortable and Neku's still hot, surprised he's not steaming as he stretches out, but after a few minutes he curls up and it's not really that bad and then he's asleep.
"You're lucky they're used to you by now." Hanekoma says, dropping his Frequency, stepping into the room. The Composer doesn't look glad, of course, he looks preoccupied, and they both know why even if they aren't talking about it. Distant, all through the fun little meeting with the higher-ups, and at least he had enough precedent for it, that no one thought it was strange.
"I'm the one who's lucky?" The Composer says, and he shrugs. Either Hanekoma's violation hasn't become public knowledge, or they were willing to overlook it for the sake of the results – or perhaps, there's a price he'll have to pay somewhere down the line. No matter how high the level, there's always the matter of favors traded and debts called in.
"So, now, I suppose there's the matter of–"
He stops suddenly, and Hanekoma pauses, follows his gaze, to where Neku is curled up on one of the couches, sacked out. It's been a long time, since he's seen the Composer at even a momentary loss for words.
"… I didn't feel him come in."
Hanekoma grins. "He's your pick, boss. Can't say I'm all that surprised."
Neku is out cold, oblivious to the world, and oddly blurry around the edges. The kid has managed to knock himself slightly out of Frequency somehow – and Hanekoma sees the smears of color on his fingertips a second later, and smiles. Jumping levels all on his own, probably by accident, and Hanekoma hopes it's as clear to Joshua as it's been to him all along, that it's far more than a single decision that changed.
"You know you're not doing him any favors, boss."
"I'm not capable of doing him any favors." The Composer says tonelessly, but hasn't taken his eyes off the sleeping boy since they entered the room. Poor Josh, so good at playing, so used to being ten steps ahead that when the piece beneath his hand surprises him, all he can think to do is walk away from the board.
Hanekoma's always thrown his lot in with the chaotic element, when it comes down to it. Nothing much comes of routine but apathy and stagnation, and he can only see now how much even he'd let his own self-confidence get the better of him, as responsible for Shibuya's near-destruction as anyone. Of course, little tremors don't move mountains. Maybe nothing less would have worked, to change what needed to be changed. What was still changing. Hanekoma smiles to himself, giving Neku a last glance, not quite sure if it would help more to wish him luck or patience.
"I'll just let myself out," he says, already aware the Composer isn't listening.
Joshua turns toward the door as soon as Hanekoma disappears, frowning, the barrier at the other end of the River almost seeming to hum in apology, though it's still solid, didn't do anything it wasn't supposed to but Neku shouldn't have –
… and why not?
It was supposed to be easy. Everything else had been, so far, for almost as long as he could remember. He'd picked exactly the right tool for the job, and it was going to be fun, and if anyone could give him a challenge it was Megumi, and he had been looking forward to the distraction. It had even been interesting to go back, to remember what was Realground and what was Underground and keep in the right one, both of them nearly the same compared to where he spent most of his time. Neku was interesting too, harmless but entertaining, certainly nothing to worry about – and hadn't that been his biggest mistake, and every time he thinks he's got it under control, Neku does something like wake up while his back is turned.
He's still laying down. his gaze quiet and tired and unnervingly steady for seeing Joshua in his true form for the first time.
"So, you glow."
Joshua snaps down to his RG form in an instant, ignoring the strange, momentary feeling of vulnerability, no reason to feel it, nothing Neku can have here that he can't take away. Entirely his world, and he doesn't have to pretend that brash, naive foolhardiness is any kind of threat.
"Now pull a rabbit out of your hat." Neku mutters, rubbing a hand over his eyes.
Joshua frowns. "You know, I could..."
"Yeah, I know" He interrupts, still sounding amused, though it's leavened heavily with weariness. "I was there, remember? Twice. I suppose you could buy me a puppy this time, and shoot that."
He's about to answer, something arch about dead puppies, when Neku's phone rings from inside his bag. Joshua snaps it into his hand in an instant, and Neku makes a noise of protest, sitting up quickly, Joshua ignoring him to answer the call.
"Hello? No, no I'm afraid he's indisposed. I'd be happy to take a message for him, though."
Neku is watching, badly hiding his nervousness – not for himself, for whoever's on the other end of the phone. Probably hoping it's not the girl, his first partner and second entry fee, still worried about her even with the Game over and Joshua smirks just to watch him scowl, to watch Neku try to plan how to leap up and grab the phone even as he finishes the conversation.
"Ah. Mm-hm? Yes, I'll let him know. Good night."
He thinks about holding off with an explanation, takes his time, letting Neku fidget a bit, enjoying the way he's glowering, obviously wishing for something to throw.
"You know, if you just added a few ringtones, Neku, you wouldn't have to worry about who called."
"If you weren't such a jerk, I wouldn't have to worry. You going to tell me who it was?"
"Since you asked so politely." Joshua shrugs, snapping the phone closed, throwing it on top of Neku's bag. "He said his name was Yoshi. He wanted to apologize for what happened with the job."
Neku looks surprised for a moment, and then smiles a little, like he's surprised to be satisfied, leaning his head against the back of the couch. Joshua drops down next to him, just to get the scowl back.
A loud snort is his only answer, and Joshua is just about to ask again when Neku kicks his feet up, stretches back out and puts his head in Joshua's lap like it's nothing. Eyes closed, like it's the most natural thing in the world. Whatever acid comment Joshua was going to make dies before it ever reaches anything like a proper noun.
Joshua watches his outline shiver and sharpen, slipping down into a steady RG vibration, matching to his own, stronger frequency, and Neku lets out a little sigh of relief. It's tempting to experiment a little, to see what he can do - as if you need to know, as if he's not already here, and you don't already know what he is - but when he raises his Frequency even slightly he can see Neku wince, already pushed past his limits for the day.
Of course, or he wouldn't be here. Just like Megumi would come, when a game had gone well south of orders and he'd had to claw it back into shape – and they had been close, shared more for much longer, but the Conductor had never touched him, had he? Never this casualness that somehow feels so alarmingly intimate.
"How's it going?" Neku finally says, the most loaded of casual questions ever, and Joshua can't help but rise to the bait, take careful aim and-
"I think Minamimoto would complain more about his demotion if he hadn't misplaced his hat."
It takes a minute. Longer than he expected, and then Neku's eyes snap open.
"Are you mental?" Neku splutters, looking up at him in shock. "God, didn't you kill him already? You killed him already! Am I the only person you ever feel like murdering?"
"Well, you did do a number on my support staff, Neku, but besides Megumi's retirement, the only real loss was your kill, not mine."
Neku's eyes go quiet and cold but he doesn't flinch. "Can't say I regret that much."
"Who expected you to?" He sighs, twirling a piece of Neku's hair around one finger just to watch him fidget and glare, though he still – inexplicably - doesn't move away. "He was quite a bit more tractable, once he got out from under the vending machine. You see, Neku, some of us see assassination attempts as a sign of an unchallenged mind."
"... and some of us are mental." He winces slightly. "Please just tell me you didn't make him the new Conductor."
"Wall Reaper, for now." Neku tries and fails at keeping his expression blank, obviously trying to imagine it, and really he is the grumpiest red hood in history. Picks as many fights with other Reapers as he does with Players, and always asks for the weirdest tolls. "Either he'll work his way back up, or he'll make another grab for Composer, eventually. Either way it should be interesting."
"You sure work hard for your entertainment." Neku says, the edge back in his voice, tired and holding back on a question. Joshua rolls his eyes.
"You know, being clairvoyant can really mess with the conversation flow."
A glare. If Neku was a girl, he'd have to paint his eyebrows into a permanent scowl. Maybe he should do it anyway. "You made everyone forget, you ass."
"Did you really want them to remember?"
A flicker in his eyes, a little less stubbornness and a little more like Neku pointing a gun at him before letting it fall, anger and confusion and despair.
"You. Screw the Game, you made them forget you."
"No, I didn't."
It seemed like such a small, unimportant price to pay, when Hanekoma had laid out the rules. To give the orders and rule over all but – in return – to never touch again, to view the world through a looking glass, never more than pieces on the board. Joshua shifts his arm, until his hand is on Neku's shirt, just below where he could touch skin, the slight shadow and curve of the collarbone visible if he wants to look. The world was full of idiots, both unwitting and deliberate. He'd never thought, of all the possible outcomes in every possible world, that he could ever come to regret the choice.
"The Composer can't reveal himself, even if he wishes to. No one is... allowed to remember me."
Minamimoto had help, the threats to his position would always find a way. Joshua himself had the same assistance from Hanekoma, when he'd originally taken the position, the Angel's loyalty to the city above all else. But the rest of them, the Reapers, the Game Master, all the people in the RG, he could tell as many of them as he wanted, and it wouldn't stay. Maybe days, weeks at most, but for all his power his identity is etched in sand, washed away by the wind and the tide. He doesn't exist, he never has.
Only one person, only one is able to know who he is. So much had happened so fast, he wonders if Neku remembers that part. Understands what it means, that he can still see the Game, or that he's here now.
Neku's been angry for so long, the hurt going deeper than even he thought it had, that at first, Joshua's words don't make any sense. Especially because he's not gloating, or proud, and always at his least trustworthy when he's stating simple facts. The anger fades, the ebb of it leaving him even more tired, the stab of pain behind his eyes that much fiercer. It's hard enough to keep up with Commander Bitchpants even when he is thinking clearly.
All alone. Like he doesn't know what that can do.
Joshua's eyes are startlingly violet, staring down at him, which has to be some Composer bullshit, but they're also kind of striking and Neku can't quite blame him for doing what he can get away with. It's clear he's waiting for... something, and even by their standards, this hasn't been one of their better conversations.
"So, how's it going?"
His own question, lobbed back at him, and Neku smiles for no real reason, remembers the shrieking woman and the dog and god help him, if his art brings them any new business they'll probably ask him to come back.
"I had a day."
He can't think of anything worthwhile to add, though Joshua's probably still docking points from the beginning of the conversation. Neku freezes for a moment, when slender fingers tentatively comb through his hair, but obeys as a hand nudges him a little more onto his back, so Joshua can get to both of his temples at once. He's very gentle, rubbing light little circles and it feels remarkably good, the pain finally getting a clue and easing off a little bit. Neku sighs, willing to eat more than a little of his pride for not having to open his eyes, not having to do anything but lay where he is and relax, enjoy the quiet. Joshua's slight, indulgent chuckle sparks a little irritation, but Neku can't be bothered to follow it to an actual complaint.
It doesn't take long and he's half asleep again, but Neku can still feel the shift, a rustling buzz, like a vague echo of the barrier he'd crossed through at the start of the River. Joshua's up to something, but his whole body feels heavy and unresponsive when he tries to react, not interested in doing any more moving.
"What are you doing?" He wants to ask, but his body's not all that interested in that idea either and it comes out as 'whngdngn' if even that, and there's no response.
He has a sudden, sharp moment of indignation, near panic, that Joshua will take it all away. Make him forget, as he did with the rest of them, and he doesn't want that, won't let it happen. Can't lose this, and end up back where he started. It would hurt, badly, even if he didn't know why.
"Relax, Neku. I'm just making it a little easier for you to get here the next time, since you insist on showing up anyway." Joshua's Composer voice is ageless, a strange echo in it, but it's still just him, whatever power he might have. The Conductor was a fool, Neku thinks, to ever bow and scrape to him. Joshua is still Joshua, yeah maybe kind of a demigod too but still an irritating jackass demigod, and Neku feels him snort and has the distinct feeling the Composer is reading his thoughts and hey, quit that.
The usual laugh – no apology, Joshua really doesn't do apologies, but he's here and solid and that's something. Neku should probably be a lot more bothered, that this, of all things, is what's been missing, what's been gnawing at him all this time, but he'll worry about it tomorrow, since he's got another tomorrow coming anyway.
"Really, I never imagined you'd be so interested in returning, Neku." Joshua finally says, all smooth confidence. "I must admit, things haven't been that exciting since you left. The Reapers are all getting lazy."
"Can't put me back in the Game." Neku yawns. "They said so... well, somebody said so. Besides, if you took my entry fee, who knows if you could watch me play?"
Joshua's smart, has always been smart, but Neku's still asleep before he gets it.