Whenever Beat is in the area he demands Neku meet up at Sunshine because the girl behind the counter always gives Neku double fries and a bright smile and Neku knows it's wrong to take advantage of her, but having to listen to Beat complain about it is even worse.
And yes, he is kind of half-worried that if he pays too much attention to her that Joshua might go and drop a car on her or something. Or maybe not, it's been a week and a half since their little trip out of Shibuya and Joshua hasn't come around since, even when Neku goes to the fishpad and talks to the air for a while. He'd been so quiet, so inoffensive and that's definitely not right. Maybe Neku had done something he shouldn't have, without even knowing, or hadn't figured out what should have been glaringly obvious.
Yeah and maybe you're just a total girl.
Neku makes a face at the fries he's not eating, shoves them over to Beat, who's practically shoveling them down with both hands as he describes whatever game he was watching last night, something bone-crunching. Rhyme is at one of her lessons, dance or piano or volleyball, Beat grabbing lunch before he goes to pick her up. He still doesn't seem to have much of a plan for himself, but it doesn't seem to bother him, and Neku's sure he'll figure it out, or maybe not, and that's ok too. He'll probably end up as a vice president in his sister's company, at the rate Rhyme is going.
Neku shouldn't have an empty day, was supposed to be discussing the particulars of another assignment but the call came in late yesterday that they'd decided to go a different route, call him back if they needed some new business cards, still thought he was great, etc. No problem, it happened, but Neku had happened to walk by the installation they'd gone with, to see Minami-freaking-moto chatting with the owner next to one of his piles of junk. He beamed brightly when he saw Neku, absurdly proud of himself. Apparently, if he couldn't manage to jack Shibuya properly, he was going to spend his time up Neku's ass in the RG instead.
Joshua's greatest power – obviously - is dumping all his problems onto Neku. So, really, trying to keep an eye on him is as much a matter of self-preservation as friendship, or whatever the hell it is what they have is called. Let the bastard Composer have too much free time to think and Neku's sure he'll just get shot again.
He splits up with Beat after lunch, going to Hanekoma's, and turns the street in front of the record store to see it clear and ugly as a neon sign. Has the brief flickering memory of trapped and constant fear, remembering the strange, too-easy goal. Hearing Shiki gasp and watching Rhyme disappear.
The damn Noise is back, lurking just beneath the stones, couldn't be the same one but just like it. Neku frowns, can't see any Players nearby, and makes his way over. Stands directly on top of it, since there's nothing it can do to him in the RG, and fakes tying his shoe to crouch down, pressing a hand against the street.
Not sure what he thinks he's doing, but Neku isn't going to let some poor Player get caught again by such a stupid trap. He focuses on the city, the way it talks to him, the same way as when he's sketching, or when he could use his pins. Trying to use that to push the Noise away, move it somewhere else - and the shock when the city answers is like a lightning bolt, rushing through him, and Neku is glad he's already down on his knees or else he'd be flat on his back, the world muted and his head swimming, a spike of pain through his right eye and the Noise is gone. Neku feels almost bad for a moment, he'd meant to nudge it out of the way, not vaporize it.
"Hey! Hey hey!"
He's had a migraine once or twice in his life, and this pretty much feels like that, the world wobbly at the edges with strange shadows swimming in and out of his vision, hearing everything through a thick layer of glass. At least it's only Pinky, so really he'd rather deal with her with half his mind preoccupied. She looks pissed, as usual, Kariya a few steps behind, laid-back and barely interested as usual. And Neku couldn't care less, as usual, so everything is square.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, RG? That was my trap!"
He guesses they're still UG, since they still have their wings, and Neku wonders what it looks like, watching him converse with empty air. Maybe they'll think just has one of those freaky phones on his ear.
"Please tell me you're not sad enough to use the same trap twice." Neku says, and Pinky looks slightly mortified for just a moment before she scowls again – she's definitely used it a lot more than twice. Neku shakes his head, ignoring the way it makes everything slosh unsteadily around him. "You're Harriers... go, I don't know, harry. If you sit around waiting for Players to come to you, you'll just get fat."
Neku's not great with the female mind, but he knows saying 'fat' anywhere near the pink-haired Reaper is bound to get a hell of a reaction, and she does indeed scream like a cockatiel crammed in a garbage disposal, lunging for his head, barely held back by her partner. Kariya is as calm and inscrutable as ever and really, if Joshua had to pick a Conductor he could do way worse, and god just don't let him get stupid and pick Minamimoto, please, because Neku will really have to kill them both.
A sharp twist in the railroad spike burrowing into his brain, and he has to shut his eyes entirely, grits his teeth and swears he can feel something slip off his back even though he's not even carrying his gear bag and he notices that he can't hear Pinky yelling anymore.
"No way. No way." She says into the silence, her voice a mix of disbelief, anger and something else that he can't place. At least it doesn't sound like she's about to go after him again – not that he's afraid, he's still RG and not in the Game and something is pressing against his shoulders. Neku reaches back, hears a strange shift in the air, but there's nothing he can reach or feel so he lets his hand fall.
"C'mon, Uzuki. Can't do any more with our trap sprung. Later, kid."
By the time Neku can get his eyes open again, they're gone.
"Hey there, Neku." Hanekoma frowns slightly, he can hear it in the man's voice more than see it. "You look a little off."
"Yeah. Little bit." It felt like circling half the globe, just trying to make it to CAT street. Neku drags himself up to the counter, unceremoniously drops his face against the tabletop. It's cool and steady, and the world finally resettles itself a little, Hanekoma's cafe kind of like the fishpad that way, a quiet, easy feeling. Safe, and Neku relaxes a little, listening to nothing until Hanekoma sets something down next to him.
"Try it. It's an iced caramel mocha."
Neku sighs, takes a sip off the straw, stirs the ice cubes around in the plastic cup.
"Tastes like crap."
Hanekoma grimaces, one hand on the back of his neck. "Yeah. I know. Been trying to get it right all week."
Neku snorts. "How much do I owe you?"
"Highway freaking robbery." He mutters, fumbling with his wallet. At least by the time he gets the right amount down on the table, he feels slightly better, and he keeps drinking the watery, syrupy excuse for a drink because at least it's cold. He might as well ask, they both know he's going to ask, so he might as well ask.
"Has Joshua been by?"
"Not recently. You two have a fight?"
Neku snorts. "There's something else to do?"
Now the interesting thing is, Mr. H knows everything about everything, and Neku knows what Joshua is but he has no idea what Mr. H is – besides CAT, of course – but there's definitely something else, but he's already decided he's not going to ask. Hanekoma would tell him, if he needed to know, entitled to his secrets.
Neku exhales, and it finally hits him, what he did to the Noise, how easy it was – how it went further than he'd expected. What does it mean? He should be avoiding the UG, there's no reason not to, but it keeps creeping in to the edges of his life, demanding his attention. So far, Joshua hasn't said a thing, but Neku is aware he's trusting him against a considerable portion of the supporting evidence.
"You ok, Neku?"
"Yeah. It was an interesting afternoon." Neku grins to himself. Probably overthinking this, and that never works. "You know, Joshua told me once he just wanted a job where he could be lazy."
Hanekoma laughs a little. "Yeah, that sounds like him."
"You really knew him... back then?"
The café owner nods. "You're gonna want to take it easy on him, Neku. The city's doing fine, but all this... it was hard on him, too."
If it had been Joshua saying that, Neku would have had to throw something, but Hanekoma always says things in the right way, to make him think instead of just reacting. Even if it's still a point that sticks in him, hurts like the wound he doesn't have.
"Him? No way. He had it all played right from the start. He was..." Neku lowers his voice, even though they're the only ones there. "He was the Composer, right? He wasn't risking anything."
Hanekoma shakes his head.
"Not exactly, Phones. He had to give up a lot of his power, to play the Game as your partner. If you'd failed that week, he'd have been erased right along with you."
Neku shakes his head, not used to disbelieving Hanekoma, but it makes no sense. "No way. He had some plan. Use his enormous ego as a shield, or something."
Hanekoma's not answering, and it just – why do it, then? If the Composer has such tremendous power, why would he ever play around like that, place a bet, to risk his life for a city he didn't even want to save? Why not just destroy it all in the first place? And why in hell had Joshua changed his mind? Neku stops thinking about it, or it will start making his head hurt again.
Mental. Mental mental mental.
"Listen, if you see him, can - you know..."
"You got it, Phones."
Hanekoma watches Neku leave, his Frequency snapping back to the RG as he steps out the door, because that's where Neku assumes he should be. Still no idea of what he is, even when his wings have been tracing hazy charcoal patterns in the air behind him for the last fifteen minutes.
Hanekoma can only hope Joshua is paying attention, wherever he's tucked himself away, is taking this a little bit more seriously, will probably want to say something before Neku goes and figures it all out for himself. Hard to tell as ever with the Composer, the difference between Joshua not caring because he doesn't have to, already a plan in place, or because he doesn't want to, and damn the consequences.
Hanekoma can do next to nothing either way, not after everything that happened. Everything he'd done, and the Angel knows he's still lucky just to be here, they'd threatened to take that away as well, permanently. More than enough justification for it, too, except that would leave the brightest Soul in Shibuya completely at the mercy of a Composer they considered to be only slightly less deranged than Hanekoma was.
It had been a long and interesting discussion, to keep the higher ups from getting rid of both of them, installing an entirely new Producer and Composer in their place, or just handing Neku the position.
... and he comes to you for help.
Joshua had never needed that much assistance, all business from the start, enjoying the Game on every level, all the facets and details and power plays. He'd crushed quite a few upstarts over the years, allowing cunning and devious Reapers to rise freely up the chain of command, fighting each other, giving them all but free reign in the game. Usually feeding them to Konishi in the end, most of them never getting far enough to even challenge the Conductor. In a way, it had become as much of a Game for the Reapers as the Players, and Hanekoma should have caught it much sooner than he had, when the balance had shifted so badly, the Composer's ennui suddenly threatening everything.
It's the distance that's the issue, all perspectives skewing as the years turn into centuries. Artists maybe aren't the best for this to begin with and if Hanekoma told Neku all that he knew, the kid probably wouldn't like him anymore than he did the Composer.
So much power there, to stand up to Kitaniji as he had – dangerous, or it would be, but Neku cares about his friends and the people in Shibuya and that's really about it. No grasping for power, no secret strategies, no plots. It's not even about liking the rest of Shibuya, not really – he just cares enough to let them be, to give them the chance to grow on their own.
It's easier to care for cities than people, ideals and concepts rather than flesh and blood. People are difficult, an unsteady foundation to build on, easily able to fall beneath even the lowest expectations – and Hanekoma was the one who set that path for Neku and damn if the kid isn't determined to walk it.
The second bullet had done Joshua no favors, for more than one reason. Three weeks in the Game, even for a Soul of Neku's ability, was no easy feat.
It's difficult to keep secrets from the Composer, even when he'd prefer to, but Hanekoma's certain that Joshua doesn't know what they told him, alone, before they started handing out penalties and sanctions that were far less than they should have been, only relaxed due to the overwhelming success of the results.
Joshua had been an interesting if unpredictable possibility at the start, but he'd lost most of his original interest and much of his credibility – taking Neku as his proxy had certainly not gone without notice, even if Hanekoma's original logic had proved true. If the situation in Shibuya deteriorated again, if the Composer considered his responsibility to correct the course as beneath him, drastic steps would be taken to salvage what was least corrupted, what was most valuable.
Fail again, and Neku Sakuraba would Ascend, high enough that even if he remembered he'd forgotten them, he wouldn't care.
Neku pushes his lunch aside as an idea hits him, a sort of play off the Hokusai print but the colors are pure modern, something more Chiho Aoshima, some crazy sirens playing in the waves. Maybe too much, but really of all people he shouldn't be afraid to bring in the fantastical element -
"Naughty, naughty Neku. Someone's been playing the Game while breathing."
Joshua stands just inside the door of the ramen shop, and for a moment Neku can feel the whole world freeze, a little hiccup of light and sound and his heart. It's fear he's feeling, but still, he doesn't want to run.
"... and this stopped you how?" Neku mutters indifferently, but he's tense, listening to light footsteps crossing the distance and he's not going to turn, not going to give Joshua the satisfaction. It won't save him, every conversation just as likely to end in some apocalyptic reshuffling of his entire life.
"Oh, Neku, I'm sorry." Joshua says, not sounding sorry at all, and Neku's stomach flip-flops, mouth dry. "It's the rules. I'm afraid you'll have to be punished."
... and then Joshua reaches out and takes his lunch.
"Oi!" Neku lunges, much too slow, ends up knocking his knee against the empty seat Joshua has put between them, and falling in a controlled yet idiotic fashion, ending up flat on his back with Joshua looming over him.
"Wow, I am so on the floor."
"Is everything all right?" Mr. Doi comes out of the back, looks from him to Joshua as Neku gets up. "Huh, I could have sworn..."
"He's with me." Neku mutters, because even when Joshua was a perfectly normal boy he highly doubts he ever paid for his own meals. Joshua smiles benignly at him, and Neku has to fight not to make a face back.
"Well then, no problem, I'll just get you another bowl."
"Shoyu, please." Neku says, maybe enough of a deterrent to keep Joshua from stealing it as well. He taps his pencil on the blank sheet of paper, willing any idea to present itself, so he doesn't have to listen to Joshua slurping noodles, but nothing comes.
"You know, that's what I like about you, Neku."
"What, that you're eating my lunch?"
A giggle, and it grates, certainly something Joshua should have given up, not the sound any self-respecting whatever-he-is would make and Neku is grateful when a second bowl of ramen shows up and he can focus on that instead of trying to look Joshua in the eye.
"Relax, Neku." he says, "I'm relaxed."
"Of course you're relaxed. You're a sociopath." Neku stirs his ramen, takes a bite, might as well have a last meal. "So how much trouble am I in?"
"Neku." Joshua chides, "Shibuya belongs to me. I make the rules. Besides, if the Reapers get soft, they'll never meet quota-"
"... and they disappear." Neku scoops up another handful of noodles, no longer quite so hungry, but damned if he'll let Joshua get to him that easily.
"Now see, Neku, that's what I like about you." Joshua's voice is low, amused and intimate and someday, someday Neku's going to be old enough to buy beer so he can throw the bottle. "You can't save everyone, not both the Players and the Reapers."
"It can't be that easy." Neku mutters, grateful when Joshua lets it go. He knows why he's being teased. He watches the news, murders and wars and there's always pain in the world, RG or UG. It's childish to expect things to be easy, or be angry at Joshua for not fixing the whole damn world, but that doesn't mean he has to resign himself to it, or learn to... god, enjoy it? Hell no.
"Your ramen's getting cold, Neku." Joshua saya, just enough of a croon in his voice to set Neku's teeth on edge, and he digs back into his meal, aware that Joshua is watching him as much as he's nibbling at the meal he stole and Neku rolls his eyes, staring at the ceiling.
"If I don't ask, maybe you won't tell me."
Joshua smiles graciously. "Well, I didn't want you to forget about me."
Neku makes a face. "I can't forget about you. You never go away."
"How sweet." Joshua tips his head back slightly, slim expanse of the pale throat fully visible, pale, messy hair curling down softly – it's always when he's not trying, not paying attention that he catches Neku off guard the worst, and damn, but damn if it's the last thing Joshua needs to know, and Neku quickly glances away.
The bastard. It is good to see him.
"Hanekoma said you were looking, so I thought I'd stop by."
Neku makes a mental note, some how, some way, to stiff the man next time he's in the café. Or steal as many pastries as humanly possible. He might recruit Beat on that, and get Rhyme to be cute and run interference.
"I want you to come somewhere with me, Neku."
Oh, and there's a smile in Joshua's voice and he is definitely not talking about the beach. Neku barely keeps from asking where, letting the nervous moment rise and fall without looking up from his lunch.
"I think you owe me."
"I owe you."
Neku can take a moment of satisfaction from it, Joshua's honestly surprised to hear him agree, although he smirks just as quickly, enough to make him regret being so honest.
"I've got school, and commitments," he says, but Joshua makes a dismissive gesture.
"It's only one night. It won't interfere, but you'll need to wear something a bit less..."
"Oh, go die in a fire." Neku snaps, not his fault his laundry pile is taller than he is at the moment - and the other boy goes suddenly, completely still, expressionless and grim and oh shit...
Joshua smirks. "Just kidding, Neku. Wow, the look on your face."
Neku won't strangle him, will not, because it would give him too much satisfaction.
"Next Saturday, then. You should have plenty of time." Joshua says, and doesn't wait for his reply, already on his feet and moving to the door by the time Neku has the chance to look up. A boy and a girl are coming inside, Neku watches them flicker as they step through the doorway – Players - and Joshua grins at him from over the top of the girl's head and then he's out of sight.
Dangerous for him, to come to the RG. That was what Hanekoma said. It had been a fake out, Joshua's sacrifice, his 'death', but it could have just as easily been real. He's in real danger, when he's not the Composer, and yet he went away with Neku, came here to make the offer when he could as easily have waited, or left a note with Hanekoma. He doesn't need to be so reckless.
Neku reaches in his pocket to pay for the meal, separating his change from the pins he's going to throw to the Players wolfing down ramen as if it's trying to run away. It's the middle of the week, they've probably got a long way to go.