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.
Neku doesn't have even to look at his wardrobe, barely has to think about it to realize he's got nothing, the Game's reset taking what he'd managed to piece together with it, along with whatever vague hints of fashion sense he'd picked up out of necessity, not that he can bring himself to care much. Being trendy is just not his thing, right up there with bouillabaisse, heavy crowds and – it seems – self-preservation.
If he's going to come up with this outfit Joshua's expecting, he definitely needs help. Though with the way Shiki and Eri are staring at him, he'd probably be better off just going to a store. Or faking a seizure and running when they go to look for the phone.
"Saturday?!" Shiki's eyes are nearly as wide and round as her glasses. Eri grins, her voice wry. "Wow, Neku, why not give us a challenge."
The stuffed cat is propped up against the sewing machine – when Shiki's not using him to telekinetically battle on the spirit plane, he makes an excellent spur-of-the-moment pincushion. She's hardly so sentimental as to ignore the pragmatic. Neku tries not to feel a sudden, quiet kinship with the poor, bedraggled plushie.
Just you and me, Mr. Mew. Just you and me.
"So where is it?"
"Business or casual?"
"Like, dinner night or dancing night? Clubbing night?"
Shiki lets out a little huff, glancing up at Eri, who has her hands on her hips, looking him over as if he's a particularly fussy seam, or a pattern that refuses to match up. The last time Neku saw this look, it ended in him being half-naked on one of the busiest streets in Tokyo.
"Okay, well then, what's she wearing?"
"Um... he didn't tell me."
Maybe it's just his imagination, the way one little word can drop out of his mouth and hit the floor like a brick, and he swears they're all staring at it. It shouldn't have been a big deal – it's not a big deal, not anything - and Neku wants a five-minute break and an entire conversational do-over. Shiki coughs politely, not looking at him. Wait, is she blushing?
"Okay okay, so you're going to an event – maybe – with someone who may or may not be wearing clothes," and at this point, Shiki elbows Eri but it only makes her laugh, "Yes, okay, and at this special event you have no idea what you'll be doing. Or where it is."
It's rhetorical, there's no reason for him to answer. Shiki and Eri stare at each other for a long minute and that seizure is looking like a better and better option.
Eri sighs, shrugging. "Well, when in doubt, go metrosexual."
Shiki nods, patting his hand in what she must think is comforting. "Neku, it really is the only way."
They've been using him as a design template so often that they don't even need to take his measurements, and it's not long before he's shoved out the door with plenty of confident reassurances, Eri already with a gleam in her eye, and so there's nothing left for Neku to do for a week but try and focus on his work. Two decks, one a longboard, and he should maybe get some kind of webpage together at some point, and there's school and cram and before he knows it, it's Saturday afternoon and there's a knock at the door.
Neku half expects it to be Joshua, too early by far but certainly on time to mock him for his total lack of an acceptable outfit for... whatever it is they're doing. He doesn't expect to be all but bowled over by a procession of girls, Shiki at front and apologizing profusely for the intrusion – he 'reminded' her where he lived weeks ago now – or maybe she's just providing cover for the rest of them to come in and take over his house.
"Ugh, Neku. You have to let some light in, hikikomori." Eri says, carefully but determinedly clearing a space and thankfully he keeps the small place mostly clean, although the girls have brought a lot of gear between them, packs and boxes and two long garment bags that Shiki carefully hangs up over his bedroom door.
Neku thinks he vaguely recognizes the crowd – Ai and Mina, introducing themselves with a chirp and a smile, the Reaper Creeper girls – and the other girl he thinks is definitely from the 104, one of the salespeople, winking at him as she clears a few boxes of ramen off the table.
"This? This is nothing," she says. "After my mom and dad split, he could barely keep himself mobile. You did not want to see what was growing in his rice cooker. Ugh."
"I'm sorry, in advance," Shiki murmurs, a hand on his arm, and isn't that a vote of confidence. "We get a little carried away sometimes."
"Um." he says, aware he doesn't really want to focus their attention on him but equally aware he's got no choice. "Hi."
"We decided we kind of had to do it here. It's easiest," Eri says, grabbing his arm, dragging him to the side as Shiki sets up a small radio – pop idol stuff, not great but unapologetically cheerful, and the girl from the 104 is spreading out boxes and plastic bags and god only knows what while Mina dumps her own bag near the fridge.
"Hey-" Neku says, because he's at least got to try.
"It's okay. Mina's a great cook. We even brought stuff for lunch." Ai says, grabbing his other arm, and for a moment it's kind of a tug-of-war between them until Eri says something and Ai shrugs and lets go. Neku knows he should probably be paying attention but he's too busy watching Mina dig through his kitchen like a surgeon doing triage and then Eri is spinning him around as Shiki carefully pulls the outfit away from the bag.
"Wait," is the first thing he says, not trying to be impolite but it's just – wow, he's not fashion forward but even he can tell when little expense was spared, and this is too much for him. He's not going to be able to live up to this suit. Shiki is watching him carefully, and apparently what's on his face is better than a smile - she is suddenly, absolutely radiant and he wonders how many nights this past week she's spent up late, worrying and planning and stitching those careful, invisible stitches of hers.
"You had me a little worried, for a while." Eri says quietly, and she's watching Shiki too. "I was afraid we'd have to do battle."
And she's smiling, but her eyes aren't quite a match, and Neku realizes she's totally not joking.
The pants are a dark blue, not quite black, with pale blue pinstripes in three different widths, and the fabric is as fine and soft as he expected when he rubs it slightly between his fingers, and he looks up but Eri anticipates the question.
"It was a gift, somebody passed it along. I needed to make something out of it, and this seemed as good a moment as any." The jacket is different, the material fading into the lighter blue at the shoulders and the pinstripes doing seriously weird things across the right sleeve and shoulder, and she flips it over and it's this extraordinary abstract collage of strange, skyscraper shapes mixed with feathers and twisting vines and Neku thinks the whole maximalist, ornate thing is kind of over but it's still gorgeous when it's done well and this is expert.
"You can't even get it in the stores yet. A friend of a friend of a guy I know says it's going to be one of the fabrics in someone's winter show. Don't know if it's true but, hey, still cool?"
The sound of cheap metal hitting the floor behind them isn't really a surprise, the pots and pans stacked haphazardly wherever he could stick them, and Mina is actually excavating a shabu-shabu set from the back of one of the cupboards. Neku vaguely remembers it, a gift for his father from some well-meaning relative, received in gratitude and then immediately shelved for the ages.
Chatter rising up all around him, and music, and light – when's the last time he's even had someone over? Ever?
"Neku?" Shiki says, and even if she hadn't asked he'd still be smiling.
"Yeah. It's very cool."
"All right then," Eri claps her hands together, "Now, strip!"
"Eri!" Shiki yelps, and the other girls laugh. At least this time, they let him go in the bathroom to change.
Eri overstated the need for nudity just a bit, he's wearing the pants now and standing stock still, Shiki making adjustments, pins sticking out of her mouth, as focused as he's ever seen her, as much as she ever was in the Game. Eri keeps holding up two separate dress shirts, one in an almost glittery silver and the other in a sleeker, pale gray and she's saying glitter and he's adamant against looking like a holiday decoration and thankfully gray wins the group consensus.
"We played twenty hours of "hat, no hat" during the week, so be grateful you missed that." Eri mutters, mildly defeated and, thankfully, there's no hat in sight.
After that it's time for lunch, everyone bumping elbows around the small table and somewhat overfilling the pot and half the time Neku's sure he's eating somebody else's vegetables but it's a very happy, generous kind of insanity, and he can't remember the last time anyone laughed in the apartment either.
The jacket comes next, less to tailor, Eri insistent on a baggy fit and this time Neku catches Shiki's eye while she's checking the collar, she smiles, pulling a pin out of her mouth.
"It looks good. I didn't have time to – some of it's machine stitched but I'm not couture by a long shot anyway."
Neku makes the mistake of asking, and spends the next ten minutes learning all about the official requirements of French couture which, apparently, mean that if you dare use the word incorrectly, Interpol comes for you in the night. Or something.
He thinks he's done, when Shiki helps him out of the jacket, but before he can relax the 104 girl – Miki, he's finally found out - grabs him by the arm, dragging him to the sink Mina's cleaned spotless.
"Yeah, and you can tell us about this mystery date."
"What?!" Neku yelps, more than shocked enough that he gets firmly soaked, head shoved under the faucet, and then he's dropped on a chair, Miki's hands expertly sectioning his hair off, a pile of foil wraps disappearing off the table like potato chips.
"Who said it was - it's not a date. It's not a... noooo. No no no." Still so distracted, he lets Ai take his hand, realizes too late that he's fallen into another trap – a bear trap, her grip like steel when he tries to get away. She tisks at his hand, reaching in her bag for a file and buffer cloth.
"What the hell?"
"Executives manicure, Neku. Professionals manicure."
"Eiji Oji definitely manicures." Shiki chirps, not helping at all, and Ai nods sagely.
"You've got to have the body to match the outfit. You have to earn it, if you're going to wear Eri and Shiki's clothes."
Neku can't begin to think of a safe answer to that, and finally gives up, handing his future over to the multi-handed hydra hell-bent on making him fabulous.
"So what's he like?" Eri says, somewhere beyond the madness that is his makeover. "Mr. Not-A-Date?"
Shiki is watching him carefully all of a sudden, something serious and almost sad in her eyes, though he can't understand why. She doesn't remember – never really met Joshua to begin with, so what is it?
"Well, he's..." Try to sum up Joshua in a few words. Just try it. "It's kind of complicated."
"Always is." Ai sighs, Mina commiserating with a sigh of her own and a nod. "Is it a long distance thing?"
Neku ignores the insinuation. "Usually as far away as I can get."
The giggles are as girly as anything he's ever heard, but Miki will still happily decapitate him if he doesn't keep his head still while she's working, he's certain of that.
"He's an ass." Neku sighs, shaken up enough by the day that talking actually seems like a good idea. "This thing? This 'not telling where or what or when but you'd better dress to impress' thing? This is all he's capable of, ever. I'd tell you everything that's wrong with him, but it would take half a month and I'd need graphs."
"Always does," Ai sighs, and Eri snickers and Neku can feel himself blushing, tries to pretend he is shutting up in a manly way and not, not pouting and then he feels something cool and wet on his fingertips.
"No nail polish! No!" He tries to squirm away but a hand tugs lightly at his hair in warning. "I am drawing a line! I am very loudly drawing a line!"
Neku grimaces, flicking at the dark polish on his fingertips, almost gunmetal gray, and he'd be able to do something about it if Ai hadn't scowled at him, hiding the bottle of acetone quickly behind her back. It's actually kind of hard to care about, compared to the way the rest of the outfit looks, right down to the super-shiny shoes Eri got from 'somewhere, Neku, don't worry about it.' He stares at himself in the mirror that usually hangs on the back of his door for a long moment, barely recognizing the person he's looking at, bleached-out tips of his hair not quite dangling into his eyes.
"I look like a yakuza."
"A sexy yakuza." Eri says, and Shiki elbows her – and Neku watches them glance at each other, Eri reaching up in what seems an entirely casual gesture, catching Shiki's chin for an instant with one knuckle – but the look in their eyes is pride and love and Neku swears he can see it in the air between them, a glimmering ribbon or maybe it's more like a sound, a chiming, soft kind of...
Neku reaches for it without thinking, only to jerk away fast, as if he'd been burned. He is burning, heart hammering, certain he's blushing, reeling from the sudden influx of desire and warmth and joy enough to rip his breath out of his lungs. His whole body is shaking, and that was definitely, definitely an invasion of privacy, even if they don't seem to notice and he doesn't know how-
"Neku?" Shiki is looking at him, worried, and Neku fights to recover quickly, not wanting to have to explain.
"I'm ok. I'm fine."
It still amazes him, when it's not just what he says, not a cover or a polite sidestep, but, even now, the actual truth.
Near dinner time when they finally pack up, Neku taking great pains not to wrinkle his suit when he moves or breathes, Eri adjusting his collar repeatedly, until Shiki pokes her on the shoulder, shooing them all toward the door, and he can hear them moving down the stairs, and then it's just him and Shiki, left behind. Neku feels worn out, wonders how in the hell he's going to make it through Joshua's Stupid Mystery Night. If all this ends up being over a movie, or ramen, Neku's going to get that egg bomb pin working again and Joshua is going to eat it.
"You're thinking about him again, aren't you?" Shiki says, laughing a little. "I can tell. You get all serious and frowny."
Does he? Does Joshua notice? Please god, no. Dignity should not be an entry fee. "Sorry."
"It's okay." Shiki is shy, but it suits her, and he couldn't have made it through the day without some quiet amidst the chaos. It must have been hard for her, forcing herself to be Eri that first week, and he sure as hell hadn't helped.
It's true that Joshua killed him – a couple of times - but he is the Composer, and as much as Neku doesn't want to admit it, as much as it still matters, death means something different to him, and that's just a fact. As much of a fact as that, when he nearly murdered Shiki, it wasn't part of any great plan, it didn't mean anything ... and she doesn't even remember, she can't even choose not to forgive him.
He was afraid. He was desperate and afraid and stupid, and he'd almost killed her for it.
"You know, Neku... you can tell me things." The look in her eye, from earlier. The serious one. "I wouldn't... I wouldn't judge you. Or tell you to change. I'm your friend."
Oh hell, Shiki.
"I know that. It's not – I wasn't trying to keep it a secret from you. He's not... it's really not anything. He's just a friend."
"A friend who's pulling your pigtails." Shiki murmurs quietly.
"Nevermind." She reaches out, smoothing out the already perfect collar, brushing off a bit of invisible dust from his shoulder. Neku takes a step forward, she still looks a little concerned, but she backs up just as fast.
"No no no! No affection! You'll wrinkle it!" And they both laugh.
"It's beautiful work." Neku says, and gets one of her best smiles, shy, sweet and perfect.
"I know." Shiki tips her head a little, pushing her glasses up on her nose. "If he's mean to you, you tell me, promise?"
"Of course I will."
The easiest lie he's ever told. Hell no, she's never going to know, not if Joshua yanks the stars out of the sky. He's going to protect Shiki, still ashamed that she was ever his entry fee in the first place. She's always going to be a part of his life, but never a part of anything dangerous, never. He owes her nothing less.
Neku doesn't know when or where Joshua is even planning on meeting him, but he can't risk doing anything to the suit, doesn't want to get out of it in case he can't get back into it and quite possibly Eri installed some sort of shock collar to keep him in it, so he spends the next hour sitting very still with the A/C up trying not to sweat.
Finally, there's a knock at the door, and Neku doesn't know how he knows it's Joshua – the silence, maybe, he always brings a certain sort of silence with him. Perhaps he should be a little nervous about having the Composer here, where he lives, but this place is just a house with some stuff in it, nothing important.
He opens the door. Joshua is in mostly black, a white shirt with narrow stripes and jet buttons, open collared. An easygoing sort of pure evil, and he endures a long, judging look, refuses to move or even look away, working hard for bored and barely interested by the time he meets those ever-amused violet eyes.
"I should have come over earlier, we could have dressed to match."
"... and the fun begins." Joshua turns, heading back down the stairs. Neku takes a steadying breath, not sure for all the world if he's ever going to get back here again, not sure of anything, and then he's walking, the door clicking shut behind him and he's following the Composer out into the beginnings of twilight.
He won't ask. Neku won't ask, because Joshua expects him to ask and it's far more important to potentially annoy him than to figure out where they're going. During the game, Joshua mostly let him lead, which seems more and more the backhanded insult the longer he thinks about it, but now he's the one walking ahead. Not any taller than Neku but his stride is weird and Neku has to pay attention, move quickly, or else jump a half step every ten just to keep from falling too far behind, and Joshua knows exactly what he's doing. Jerk.
"Hold on, Neku." As if he's not the one in front, but before he can say so Joshua has him by the shoulder, the lightest touch but the world blurs and shudders around him, twisting sharply and it is a miracle that he manages to stagger to the trash can and even more so that he throws up his lunch without getting any on the suit.
Neku braces himself against the edge of the bin, waiting for the world to stop spinning. A water bottle appears, Neku taking a shaky sip, rinsing his mouth out.
"You're welcome." Joshua says, "It's not like it would have changed anything to tell you."
"I could have aimed for your shoes."
The world finally stops trying to throw him off of it, and Neku straightens up – but this isn't his world, the city still as bright as ever but all the stars visible, wheeling above them, a handful of light scattered across the dark, and Neku knows Joshua's amused by his awe but that doesn't stop him from staring.
"I had to raise your Frequency considerably, for where we're going." He says, moving again. Neku follows him, increasingly confused and still snatching glances at the sky.
Joshua laughs. "Yes, Neku, the subway."
His phone rings, and Joshua flips it open, only to shut it off instead of answering. A few steps later, and Neku's phone rings, but Joshua jerks him down the stairs before he can even get it out of his pocket, and he's not going to bother trying for a signal.
Obviously not the usual train, no other passengers, and when it pulls away from the station and everything goes pitch black it stays pitch black, long after Neku knows the tunnel should end. He can't pretend to be looking at anything in the darkness, but the only other thing to look at is Joshua, who's watching him already. Smirking meaningfully, although that's as much one of his default expressions as anything.
"She did a good job on you."
Neku tenses before he can stop himself. "Yeah."
Joshua rolls his eyes, as if Neku is being entirely irrational, being at all protective for the friend who'd been stuck in limbo for two damn weeks, waiting for him to rescue her – and what if he hadn't? What then?
"It's not supposed to be a punishment, Neku."
"It was a nightmare. You put me through hell." He cuts himself off, suddenly too upset to be clever, pulling his phone out just to have something else to think about. It was Hanekoma who called. No surprise, that he can't dial out, no service in wherever it is they are now. Joshua is still watching him.
"... and yet you survived, didn't you? You're stronger now. Better than you were before."
"Yeah, I survived, just in time for you to shoot me again. Glad I bothered." Well damn, here it is, Neku might as well ask. It's not like Joshua's ever expected him to mince words. "Why did we come back, anyway? Why did you change your mind?"
"It was easier." Joshua replies, raising an eyebrow at his dumbfounded expression. "I didn't do it to be nice, if that's what you mean. You were still technically in a pact with all your old partners, and with me. Destroying any of them would eliminate the rest, and it would eventually prove... irritating. It was just less paperwork this way." He pauses. "Why, what were you thinking? You know, maybe I like that better - just assume whatever gives the best impression of me."
Neku has no answer to that. If he could pry up a good length of the subway railing and start swinging, that might be close to what he wants to say, but at the moment staring slack-jawed is about all he's capable of.
"You're the devil."
Joshua's innocent expression is instantly done in by the laughter in his eyes. "But maybe if I work really, really hard, someday I can become a real boy."
Neku growls, resisting the urge to beat his head against the window by the barest of margins. "God, can I pay you to shut up?"
"Depends on what you're offering."
At least he can ignore that, the constant, overbearing flirtation Joshua's preferred tactic for getting under his skin, maximum results for minimum effort, but Neku's not going to bother playing this time, still too frustrated.
"Are there any actual rules you have to follow in your job, Captain Shiny? Guidelines? Suggestions?" The Game had been full of laws and orders, though they'd all seemed singularly designed for screwing him over.
Joshua's brows knit together in a moment of absolute disdain. "Rules are for people who need them, Neku."
And this conversation could go on and on and on, in ever increasing circles until the end of time, but just as he's about ready to give up, Neku feels the cars start to slow. Wherever it is, they've arrived.
The lobby of the building is huge, marble and columns and shiny stone obelisks, perfectly smooth and nothing soft, no windows. His shoes click against the floor, following Joshua toward a set of brushed metal doors that remind Neku far too much of the doorway to the Composer's chamber, cold and ominous. A single desk, a younger man there, quietly typing. He looks up as they approach, surprised to see them.
"Shibuya." Joshua says, and it obviously means a hell of a lot more than Neku understands, as the man nods and lets them pass, watching Neku for an extra moment, still looking at him when the doors close.
The elevator goes up. No floors, no buttons, but Neku's been in ones this fast before, fifty stories with the car barely moving, and they're just going up, and up – and then the car breaks through the clouds – what Neku thought was the wall was only so uniform he couldn't see the glass surrounding them, and they are higher than any building, the brilliant sky mirrored by the endless points of light that spread out in front of him, not just one city, maybe not even a real city, Joshua had said something about Frequencies –
"Where did you say we were again?"
Joshua doesn't answer, and the elevator slows, stops. Neku can feel the music shaking the door before the it even opens.
It's a party. It's the party, and Neku blinks and blinks again, even with the Frequency shift it takes his eyes a moment to get used to what he's seeing. Looking down the middle of an interconnected set of rooms that quite possibly go on forever, ornate candelabra and centerpieces and chairs and everything gilded that can be, some of it twice. Shiki and Eri watched that 'Marie Antoinette' movie for like an entire weekend, just so they could squee over the costumes, and this reminds him of that, a very sort of Welcome-to-Versailles feel except that the thumping bass of a very familiar hip-hop track is shaking everything, and there aren't quite so many ruffled dresses as crop-tops and strapped raver pants and expensive suits and saris, enough variety to make Harajuku at its best day look like a backwater wasteland.
Neku keeps catching glimmers of light from the corner of his eye, coronas of power – the room is saturated with it, layers on layers of that strange city music he's just started to see, and he has to keep reminding himself the room is not actively on fire, just maybe the people in it.
It's a Composer party. Joshua, in his effortless and total insanity, has brought him to a Composer party.
Neku's knees lock up, four paces in the room, and it's only Joshua's hand on his back that keeps him moving forward, his other hand grabbing something from a passing tray – the waiters and waitresses are like shadows, blurry and not as well defined as the trays they are carrying and Neku thinks they could very well be Noise, put together for convenience's sake.
"I shouldn't be here." He hisses, trying very hard not to panic.
"Drink it." Joshua presses the glass in his hand and Neku downs it in one go, without thinking, and the sharp, clear feeling of swallowing lemon-tinged lighter fluid does actually take his mind off the situation for a moment. Joshua takes the glass away – he's not worried, not even watching Neku, looking through the room instead – and Neku can feel the eyes on them, though no one actually seems to be watching. Composers. Hundreds of them. Conductors, too, he can see – can hear the differences in power, the notes that twine them together.
"In my mind, in my mind I am so setting you on fire." Neku says quietly, certain Joshua acts no differently toward his fellow Composers than he does to anyone else, and so the number of people who probably want to destroy him them to be hovering around the mid-to-high everyone. "Is this because I made you leave Shibuya for an afternoon?"
"This is because you'll like it."
Joshua is calm, not at all worried and of course he's not, he's supposed to be here, and he's brought Neku along as some kind of placeholder or something. Destroyed his old Conductor before the party – oops, bad timing, huh? - and needed some kind of spare and like it, Josh?! Like it?!
"Play nice, now." Joshua says, almost absently, uncurling his fingers from Neku's shoulder and Neku's already looking back but the Composer is gone, vanished just like that, leaving him alone in a room full of minor gods.
Neku goes ahead and gives himself a good five-minute mental breakdown, pretending to be engrossed with his phone settings although he's still getting no reception. Which seems odd, as half this room and a good third of the next seem to be glued to their mobiles, the glow of laptop screens just as prevalent. One man, right off his elbow – Conductor, if Neku had to guess – is showing off his new phone to a Composer in an old, faded Che Guevara t-shirt and jeans with holes at the knees.
He always wondered, if being such a fastidious bastard was a Composer-thing, or a Joshua-thing, and probably there's his answer.
He takes another flute of something clear and hideous-tasting from a passing tray, downs it one go, amazed at how little it does to dull the edge of panic. Hopes it's his imagination, that with Joshua gone more and more people are staring at him openly, a girl with a shaved head and a wine colored dress sprawled out on a couch, watching him as if his head will pop off if she looks hard enough.
Neku sets the glass down, not all that surprised when it just disappears, and half-creeps into the next room, thankful there's a larger crowd to get lost in. If anything, it drags him along, until Neku has no idea where he's come from and hell, as far as he knows the rooms are switching behind him, nothing sane to this place, just drinks and laughing and dancing – so much power in them, so much life, and Neku's head spins for a while as he tries to distinguish the chime of the Composers and Conductors from the actual music. It sounds like everyone's speaking Japanese, though he doubts that's true, probably the least amazing thing about this place.
Two young, black men in long hoodies and baggy jeans are holding court behind an old-school set of turn tables, as serious as scholars as they flip records back and forth, talking quietly to each other - spinning, scratching, laying down beats, one of them rapping quietly to himself, like a monk reciting koans. The other man looks up, pulls down his sunglasses, giving Neku a long look over.
Neku freezes, finally remembers Joshua in the lobby. "Shibuya."
The man nods, thumbs his glasses back up and continues with his work – and Neku is half-knocked into another room by a group of hopping punks, amped up on whatever they're listening to in their iPods, and he scrambles his way out of the orbiting mosh pit, barely reaching escape velocity.
He mostly plasters himself to the wall after that, feeling like a barnacle, watching the tide sweep in and out, squeals of welcome from across the room as people walk in, mixed with scowls, angry looks shot back and forth, challenging or arrogant or just plain unimpressed. Everyone with an opinion about everyone – and two Conductors are barely visible in the far corner, hidden behind a curtain and a large vase full of peacock feathers, wrapped up in each other as if there's no one else in the room, and Neku turns away, before they see him looking.
Neku takes a step back, a tall man in a black suit moving past him, tiny, shiny lines silkscreened like snakeskin across the fabric – Shiki would love that - followed by a woman jotting down something on her arm, elegant and poised in a high-collared, backless dress, blazing red hair piled high on her head, and they disappear into a room Neku hadn't even noticed, the door set to match the wall – and he wonders how many secret rooms there are here, and which one Joshua is in.
Maybe he's... meeting someone. Maybe that's why he's here.
It must be difficult for the Composers to be so alone, with only their Conductors for regular company. Joshua isn't Neku's age, and he really should try to remember that, isn't even close no matter what he chooses to look like, and Neku has been quite aware, thanks, that the few stupid thoughts he's had about Joshua are stupid for all kinds of reasons, not just because they could probably get him killed again.
Did Joshua and his Conductor, were they...? – and the thought would make him blush if Neku hadn't been there to see it all end.
Erased. Just like that. Because of the stupid Game, because of a stupid bet. Gone, like he didn't matter at all.
It's easy to stand here and watch, to think that this is just another party, the rich and the beautiful – but these people all kill people like him and his friends. Kill each other, for no real reason at all, and they don't hesitate or even care.
A mass of people shove through the room, and Neku's glad he's off to the side, but at the inner edge he sees a girl trip, go flying, hitting the edge of the centerpiece table hard, papers spilling as she goes down to her knees. No one else seems to notice, or care, but Neku's crouching down before he can wonder if it's a bad idea or not.
She's not Japanese – maybe American, maybe European - but she reminds him of Shiki a little anyway, oval rimmed glasses framing a small, pale face, long, dark hair pulled back, tidy and professional, as if she's here straight from a meeting. He can only guess she's a Conductor, and Neku gathers up her papers quickly, without looking at them – and she's watching him, confusion and wary surprise and he hopes he hasn't just made some horrible mistake.
"Thank you," she finally says, hesitantly, but before Neku can think of a good bridge to actual conversation, she's gone, gathered up disappearing into the next room. Still no sign of Joshua, and Neku wonders why he was brought here, just how much fun it can possibly be to watch him stand nervously in a corner and try not to breathe too loud.
All at once, Neku's swung around, until he's facing the wall and the person who grabbed his arm is facing him, grinning brightly. A kid around his age, maybe a year or two older, much less formal in a tank top and baggy pants, braided shell necklace tight against his throat. Crouching a bit, and taking nervous glances over Neku's shoulder.
"What? We're just having a perfectly normal conversation, not hiding from anybody. Or anything. Not hiding or being secretive and god, would it have killed you to be an inch or two taller?"
No answer, and Neku doesn't turn because it's obvious he's being used as a blind, and though the dark-haired, dark-eyed boy doesn't look a thing like Beat, there's a certain strange resemblance regardless. Something in the smile, but his eyes – if you could turn a smile into a person, all the light Joshua's composer form ever had, shove it behind his eyes it would look like this. Neku can hear him so clearly, his city's song, has to struggle to turn it down somehow, to not listen so close before he goes completely deaf.
The boy glances over Neku's shoulder a few more times, and sags against the wall, relaxing.
"False alarm." The full focus of that bright stare for a moment, looking him over. "Hey, I don't know you."
"Ibiza. I'm Ibiza." He says, nearly shaking Neku's arm out of the socket.
"Shibuya? No way, you actually showed!" The boy grabs him in something between a hug and an armbar, and Neku has seen what they tell foreigners about Japanese standards of politeness but he doubts this is all that standard in Spain, either. Especially the excited hopping part.
"Man, I heard some shit went down over there. What happened?"
"Shit... went down." It's pretty accurate, at least for the parts Neku's actually figured out.
"So, this is your first time?" Ibiza throws a hand around his shoulder, dragging him along, stopping only to grab a drink from a passing tray. "I can give you the tour. You picked a good night – usually it's just an excuse to get the small-towns up out of their barns, or meatpacking plants, or wherever the hell it is they call home."
"Yah, the Angels don't like them to get too twitchy and isolated. Otherwise, even in Nowhere, population five, it starts jerking the Game around, you know-"
"Angels." Ibiza looks at him for a moment, and Neku wonders what it is he's supposed to be knowing, why the boy is obviously waiting for him to catch up.
"Oh, shit – Tokyo. Duh. You sure don't work out of your basement." Sewer, actually, but Neku doesn't clarify. "Tokyo's Game is ridiculous-size, right? The Angels are probably up your ass all the time. The rest of us, though, we tend to get overlooked. It's what this is supposed to be about. The tiny town meet-and-greet." he gestures vaguely toward the party, "Except that someone important decided to show up this time, and once one of the big-city Composers shows, they all have to show, just to see what the fuss is about."
Neku's having one of those thoughts again, the ones that stick in him, the kind that mean his world's about to open up a little wider whether he wants it or not and god, Mr. H, maybe he'd be a little happier about the whole process if it ever made anything easier. CAT wasn't a liar, Neku still knew he was right – but what sounded as simple as opening up was much more complicated, messier than he'd ever thought it would be before he died.
Before he died the first time.
His life is really, absurdly complicated.
"How often do you talk to them? The... Angels?"
"My Producer?" Ibiza shrugs. "Not so often, I guess. I'm not really a big, crazy, shake-em-up kind of – and whatever my Conductor says, I do not make a habit of breaking the Game. Sleeping in late is not breaking the Game. Neither is waking up on the beach and not being, you know, quite sure how I got there. She's there, though - she's always there, our UG is pretty friendly. She spins in one of the clubs."
... and if Shibuya has one of these Angels too, one of these Producers – well let's think, Neku, who else is it gonna be? Who did Joshua go to for help? Who knew all about the Game – and damn it, Mr. H! He's expecting this kind of shit from Joshua, hell it's the foundation on which their mutual contempt is built, but it would be nice if someone with some actual answers ever felt like even pinch hitting for his team once in a while.
"Hey, you okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm good."
He doesn't know what it means, if these Angels are above the Composers, watching and regulating, what the hell did it mean for what he went through? No way that could have all been to plan, no way. Why would Mr. Hanekoma let it happen, let Neku work with Josh all that time if he knew what the Composer was and what he was planning.
He trusts Joshua, even if it almost feels like a moral failing to admit it. Neku's still not going to let anything happen to Shibuya, though, his fingers rubbing lightly at the sleeve of the coat that Shiki and Eri made special for him. He's going to protect them, and Rhyme and Beat and everyone, and adding Producers to Composers just gives him another level of ass to kick if he has to – and Neku nearly laughs at his own ego, but it's true. Three weeks gave him a long time to think about what was worth dying for.
He didn't take the shot, when Joshua had forced his hand, but Neku hadn't felt the music then either, not like he does now. Shibuya had still been spared, for reasons only the Composer knew... but if it happened again, if this was all some big setup, some danger he should have seen coming?
"Ooh, ooh – hot chick tutorial! Very most important get-to-know-your-Composer activities." Ibiza drags him into another room, with a long bar and another one of those blurry figures standing in for bartender.
"Ok, the one in the black dress is St. Germian, that's one of the Parisians. Those three over there are the Venetian triplets, two of them are Conductors for the third, at least I think that's the way it works. Advice, do not even bother trying, they will shut you down hard and slam your junk in a door. Metaphorical like. Vegas - Vegas is the one in the leather pants who will be dancing on a table by the middle of the night, guaranteed."
... and it goes on like that for a while, Ibiza familiar with pretty much every hot Composer and Conductor in every room, from the Conductor from Reykjavik who throws her glass at Ibiza when she sees them watching to the Composer from somewhere in the middle of the United States, perched on the edge of a sofa and reading a book and not half as powerful as the Conductor from Lan Kwai Fong sitting right next to her. Neku stares at them for a moment, Ibiza fist-bumping with the Composer from Leblon as he passes by.
"I thought everyone would be the same." Neku says, a weak explanation when Ibiza gives him a curious look.
It seems stupid now, a whole planet and all kinds of people on it to be Conductors and Composers, not just uptight bastards – and Ibiza jerks him out of he way just before he's trampled by an unexpected rush. The Composer moves, radiant and serene in the center of the mob, surrounded by an entourage of young men and women in suits talking and typing madly on their phones, obviously jostling for position.
"Hollywood." Ibiza mutters. "They call them 'Directors' there, and 'Assistants', and that's the last you'll see of any of them, they'll all be gone by the next party. Which is okay, because you can't tell them apart anyway. It's a hard Game there."
Neku suddenly wants to see the kind of Game Ibiza is responsible for, can't imagine it would look anything like what he went through, can't imagine anyone like Konishi on his team.
It's Bollywood musicals blaring in the next room, a girl with a gold, spangly belt at her hips shimmying a bit past an entire couch piled high with Conductors and Composers, and Neku can't even tell them apart, one blazing furnace of light and sound as they crouch around the laptop, completely engrossed in a rugby match.
"Well shit, this is officially the big time." Ibiza murmurs, his voice different, flat and cheerless, and that is enough to pull Neku's attention back, looking through to the next room, and he feels a cold pit underneath his heart, a twisting, whimpering thing, and winces slightly. The whisper of static grates at the edge of his hearing, the music strange and off-key.
"Who is that?"
"Manhattan." Ibiza says, as if it explains everything. She is very tall, towering over most of the rest of the room, with long, straight auburn hair that falls down to her hips, burnished nearly champagne gold in the light, a glittery dress one shade darker wrapped around her perfect curves. Obviously disinterested in talking to anyone, she strides quickly along the border of the crowd, another secret door opening up to admit her – and Neku wonders why the music seems louder when the door shuts, why it feels as if everyone finally takes the breath they were holding.
Ibiza shakes his head, speaking quietly. "Madrid was bad, we lost a Conductor there, and I heard Bali lost some officers, but Manhattan... it was way bad. As bad as the last big war. At least when they see those coming, the Angels can Ascend the Composers, move the rest out of the way until they can go in for cleanup – but nobody saw it coming, that time. Nobody knew." He glances over, sees that Neku still doesn't understand.
"The Noise that got kicked up, when they were hit - it ate their UG, Composer and all. It was too big, too much pain, threw everything out of whack. I hear upper management was this close to cutting off the entire city – shutting down everything, just to keep from losing the whole coast if it went down. Manhattan's one of the ones who went in – there were more then her, but she's the only one who held the line. I don't know if she was crazy before, but now... they say you can still see them, in the UG, you know. The towers," and Ibiza fakes a shiver, but he isn't really joking.
"So... if a UG collapses, what happens then?"
Neku's learned about it, growing up, in school - everyone knows about the subway Sarin incident - people hurt, people dead, everyone afraid. What had something like that done, then, to the soul of Tokyo? To the Composer who'd been closest to it? He knows Joshua isn't invincible, but in a way he seems terribly vulnerable now, the Composer as much a part of his city as its controller. What had Joshua seen in Shibuya, what could have been that wrong, that he'd felt compelled to destroy it?
"It's pretty damn rare that they do - I've never seen one fall. The only one I've heard of now is over in the U.S. too - the state that looks like a hand, not a wang." Ibiza shrugs. "The Conductor and Composer got into it, and then the Angels stepped in when the dust cleared. Being all experimental, they decided to run a UG on their own, figured maybe the Composers were the problem, not 'enlightened' enough – but you need the nitpicky artist shit to make it work, right? We might all have a big attitude, but without us... it all fell apart. Without the Composer, the whole UG just died."
Ibiza shrugs. "A city without a UG, without a Composer... it's a dead zone. No art. No inspiration. If you're at all creative, you get the hell out as soon as you can. Even the people who don't tweak to it, they still feel it. Nothing grows, it's just... barren, and if nobody steps in, walls it off, it'll spread. I hear most of the state got hit, before they could contain it."
Imagine a Shibuya with no heart, no passion. A place people just moved through, instead of living in. A place nobody wanted to be. As an abstract idea it was troubling, but now that Neku could feel Shibuya, the vibrant pulse of it – it was horrifying. No wonder Kitanji had sacrificed himself. How could you watch that happen to the place you loved? Living through it would be worse than death.
... but you didn't take the shot. You didn't, to save Shibuya, and it still got saved.
"I didn't know it could be dangerous. Not like that."
Ibiza shrugs again, obviously not as disturbed by the abstracts as he is. "I wouldn't worry about it. You're way more likely to be bumped by someone in the UG than anything from the RG."
"Now that's the understatement of the century," a voice mutters sharply from behind them.
Ibiza freezes, the spitting image of Beat in a moment of pure panic. The girl behind him looks nothing like Rhyme, much older, with long, dark ringlets and a fierce glare, her outfit all business - but Neku's catching a similar sort of vibe, especially as she glances over at him for a moment before flaying the Composer alive in Spanish, so fast that even if Neku could understand the language, he knows he'd never be able to keep up.
"Si. Si, I know. I know. I didn't- I'm being good! I swear!" Ibiza says, cringing and glancing over, trying desperately to bring Neku into the conversation. "Shibuya, this is my Conductor, Ilana. Also, my warden and my grandmother."
She smacks him hard with the planner she's holding, and Neku figures she probably hasn't gone digital just for that reason.
"Nice to meet you. I hope he's been showing you something besides the most popular breasts at the party."
"Oh that's not fair," Ibiza says, grinning, "I appreciate all breasts equally, regardless of status."
She hits him again, and he whines, Neku quietly amazed as he watches them interact. It was clear, even from the very little he'd seen, that Kitanji believed the Composer's will was absolute, that he never would have spoken out of line without apologizing for it first, let alone thought of smacking Joshua around like a truant puppy.
Too bad. It might have done us all some good.
He fondly considers the image, as Ibiza finds and helps him devour the better part of an appetizer cart, his Conductor only rolling her eyes at the carnage, jotting something down in her planner. Neku feels a little hot and wobbly, the drinking finally starting to get to him, and he eats to compensate, even if he's not really hungry and he'll probably lose it all again when he changes Frequencies. There is no way he's going to risk ending up face-down here, even if he's found a friend.
A woman steps up, grabs his arm – his sleeve, running her thumb and forefinger along the edge of the fabric. She is very thin, very chic, and radiates wealth right alongside her power.
"Where did you find that suit?"
He needs to ask next time, if Shiki and Eri have a name picked out. "I... uh, private label. I don't think you'd know them."
The woman says nothing, does nothing besides sniff slightly, but as she turns and walks away and Ibiza's laughing Neku thinks that maybe he's probably offended her somehow.
"That was Milan. She was impressed."
He makes a note to pass it along to Shiki somehow. "She looked constipated."
It finally gains him a real laugh from Ilana, and she's proper and serious but it's even more than that – she's wary of him. Protecting her Composer, as if Neku would have any reason or even – what, take him down, become the Composer of Ibiza? Maybe things like that actually happen here, or maybe she can't help it, this is just part of her job, and Joshua doesn't have a Conductor at all, doesn't have protection and maybe Neku should find him even if he's not anything but it's kind of hard when he's freaking disappeared.
"Banksy, bitch! Banksy! You useless little nothing!"
And suddenly, just like that, the tide has turned again and Neku's standing in the line of fire, being pelted by dumplings. It's the girl in the wine-colored dress from earlier, but she's completely ignoring him now, grabbing at a tray of mini-quiches instead, hurling them at a boy in a long, black coat and way too many piercings. He's throwing dumplings back, though her aim is better. They're both horrifically drunk.
"Spice Girls! Spice Girls, you delusional cow!"
Neku's pretty sure it's the Conductors moving to intercept, though what he thought would have had to be a grand display of Composer power looks as if it's not much more than hair-pulling and biting, the two Composers lunging for each other even as their support staff drags them into different rooms. A few people applaud lightly, obviously wishing they'd been allowed to continue. Ibiza is snickering.
"I guess I'd be pissed too, living on the same island with somebody that famous."
"Oh god, not this again. It's not the same island, and please, please stop talking." Ilana groans, grinding the heel of her palm into her forehead. Neku is confused, while Ibiza looks utterly delighted with himself.
"The Composer, in Dublin? It's totally Bono, duh."
"Wait," Neku says, "wait, like from that rock band? The humanitarian guy?"
"No." Ilana says. "Please ignore him. He's high."
"Yeah, exactly." Ibiza says, ignoring her instead. "His Conductor is his guitarist. You know, the one with the hat."
Neku remembers some news story – he's pretty sure they both have hats, actually. Also that they're still, you know, making albums and on tour and kind of still alive.
"You don't have to pretend to care." Ilana says, shaking her head. "He's been talking out of his ass about this for ages."
Ibiza glares back, stubbornly. "I've been coming to these parties for three years now, and nobody knows who's got Dublin. I don't think anyone's even seen an Irish composer at all in like, fifty years. Because they're all keeping a low profile, because it's Bono in charge, because I'm totally right."
The Conductor growls, throwing her arms up in defeat. "It only goes against a dozen or so of the highest celestial laws, but hey, what could that possibly have to do with anything?"
Neku grins - maybe all Composers are just kind of insufferable in their own special way. An odd thought hits him, and he blurts it out before he can stop himself.
"What about Daft Punk?"
"You know, from France. I mean, there are two of them, and they're always in disguise. You never see their faces or anything."
Ibiza's eyes widen, and he lights up. Ilana gives him a very dark look, and Neku carefully tries to edge out of her swing radius.
The line is obvious, invisible but there, a space in the rooms between the younger Composers and those of the more powerful cities. A bit of a buffer zone, as the party grows and finally puts down some roots in a larger space, or the room just grows to accommodate them, Neku can't tell anymore.
Maybe he should be out with the serenely contemplative elder powers, but Neku's seen the Composer of Gion pass by and she's wearing this unbelievable indigo kimono and looks at him in this tranquil, untouchable way that makes him feel like he's maybe half an inch tall and covered in bugs and no. No, there's still no sign of Joshua so Neku feels no need to do anything impressive, stupid or uncomfortable on his behalf.
A table has been cleared or perhaps simply created, and at the moment there's a blonde boy in a cowboy hat, white tank top and a skirt made from a red-bordered flag that Neku doesn't recognize, drinking an enormous bottle of vodka with one hand and mixing with the other. He's got a small, square board in his hand, little flashing lights that follow the flow of the music, giving the beat a visual life, and Neku kind of wishes he had his sketchbook, though he wonders just what he thinks he could accomplish, the room full of dancing bodies, no space to do much more than just hop in place. A drink in his hand, Neku can't remember exactly where it came – Ibiza, most likely - from but it's not bad and he might as well enjoy it while he can.
A flash of black and white walking by, Akibahara's Conductor at the edge of the room, decked out in the frilliest French Maid outfit he's ever seen, with a webcam around her neck – her Composer doesn't leave his room ever apparently, and all right, so that makes Joshua the second most annoying Composer in the universe, though he's quietly thankful they'll never meet to exchange fashion tips – that shit with the black bikini was more than bad enough.
"Give me a beat so I can get naked!"
Ibiza was right – Vegas is indeed dancing on the bar, currently in the middle of a Composer sandwich with two other girls Neku can't place, doing her best to medal in shameless exhibitionism. One of the girls has a bottle of champagne, dribbling it over her body as Vegas arches back, laughing, the other girl leaning down to lick at her throat.
"It is good to be alive!" Ibiza howls, barely audible over the music, Ilana grabbing his arm, yanking him back as he tries to get closer, but he's laughing, reaches out, thumping Neku hard across the shoulders.
"You know," he says, as low of a confidential tone as there is in this loud of a room, "before we got here, I heard the Shibuya Composer was kind of a tool, but you're fine by me!"
Neku has to fight to keep from spitting his drink out, staring, already spluttering for an answer, but Ibiza's turned away and Ilana's followed him, and there's no one to hear him say he's sure as hell not the Composer, not really anything at all.
It goes on and on and on, one DJ following the next, all the music different but all of it great, the room packed and hot and eventually Neku has to call for a strategic retreat, retreating to a mostly empty room where a few other people are sprawled out, some on their cell phones, one Conductor quietly puking into an ornamental vase.
Ibiza's words have been rattling around in his brain for what feels like hours, refusing to let go. Neku figures he's made some mistakes, but he can tell by power who is what, and Ibiza may not be a master tactician but he must be able to see what Neku is, too, and to still make that mistake. Neku stares down at his hands, wonders what the rest of them hear, what they see when they look at him.
Two pieces of dark twine suddenly in his hand, the girl scooting over beside him, a bracelet half-knotted, taped to her leg, and he's holding two of the rather large number of strands she's braiding together. A dark bandanna is tied around her black hair, and she's frowning in concentration, but smiles at him when she sees him watching. He thinks maybe she's Chinese, though most of those Composers have been in their own meetings, disinterested in the rest of the party.
"Shibuya." Neku says, automatically, even though he probably shouldn't anymore, but she doesn't seem to care much, and there's something restful in watching her, her movements swift and spiderlike, and there's a tattoo winding its way around her arm, a few letters, he really should work on his English a little.
"Omnia mutantur, nihil interit." She cocks her head, grins. "It's Latin. 'Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost.'"
Neku laughs, a little bitterly. "It doesn't feel like that when you're playing."
Her eyes are like stones under water, green and cool. "You didn't like it."
He stares, amazed that she'd even need to ask, and she looks away.
"I'm sorry. I forget that it's different, in different places, the Game."
Neku frowns. "People die in your Game too, right? People fight, and they die, and even if there's some reason for it-"
"Who would you be, if you hadn't played?"
He's aware, yes, that he's probably out of line, using this total stranger as an outlet, finally getting a bit of his frustration, a little of that worry out. Three weeks of his life like a rat in a cage, and Neku hasn't been able to talk about it with anyone, didn't think he needed to until now - but she only nods, watching, and there's compassion there, not distance. It reminds him a little of Hanekoma, that he can just say what he's thinking and she'll understand.
"She died, and that wasn't better. Even if I'm - even if she came back, there were still people who died, and I almost lost Shiki and I don't know..." He should probably stop, but the words come on their own. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do, now."
Vancouver smiles. "Yes, you do."
Neku inhales, suddenly shaky. "You know, it would be really nice to be whoever you think I am."
She shrugs. "What is this life for? How is the Game so different, from the rest of what we do, everyday? We play, we learn, we fail and succeed – we change. What else is there?"
"So what's the point? Where does it end?"
She laughs, and points up, and Neku's seen the gesture in a painting somewhere - the suggestion of greatness, of truth and beauty, but not security – that is the entry fee, the price of enlightenment. He hadn't been living, before the Game, he gets that, but this, this anxiety, this uncertainty...
"It's not a problem to solve," Vancouver says, gently. "It's not something you're doing wrong, that you don't have all the answers. It's just life."
Scary and dangerous, and it's not going to stop. Neku hasn't been allowed to go back, to be that person he was before, and he can't pretend that he'd jump at the chance now even if it was offered. He sighs, resists the urge to just bury his head in his hands.
"Here." Vancouver ties off the bracelet, hands it to him. "Consolation prize, for being pitched off the cliff – but for what it's worth, I think you'll build your wings just fine."
Neku nods, pockets it, and probably even manages to say thank you, before he feels the familiar melody cut through the din of room. A surprise when it calls to him, a light in the dark – even if Joshua isn't looking at him at all, walking out from the hidden antechamber across the hall and shoulder-to-shoulder with Manhattan.
Or at least, as close as he can - she's got a foot-and-a-half on him, easy. The anger is building around them like a storm cloud and Neku's stomach drops and of course, of course this is what Joshua would do. What the hell else does he live for?
Yeah, let's go poke the rabid bear with a stick, Josh. Let's see what that gets us.
Whatever they're fighting about, it's very ugly, just beneath the surface of their calm, fixed expressions. Deliberately not looking at each other, Manhattan's eyes glittering with fury, and lesser Composers and Conductors scatter as they pass by.
Neku's breath catches, the world going slow-motion as Joshua's expression falls into that perfect mix of pity and bored disinterest. She asks a question and he replies, and Neku can't tell what he's saying but he knows, he sees the exact moment when Joshua calmly goes for the jugular.
Manhattan stops, not even anger on her face, just the needle jerked off the record, blank with shock – and Joshua's still walking, Neku realizing what's about to happen even as she reaches out, no effort at all, a snap of power like a lightning strike that backhands the Composer across the room, sends him hard into the wall. Joshua crumples, falls, doesn't move.
Neku always thought it would be really satisfying to see Joshua get knocked the fuck out, but all he can feel now is cold, not even anger, just ice in his blood, static whispering in his ears. Later, he'll wonder if he'd teleported – he must have - but there's no time to think, no time to do anything but step forward, surprising Manhattan enough that she takes a single step back, but no more. All he can feel is his own anger, and it's actually kind of nice after the night he's had. A pure and breathtaking clarity, and Neku looks up at her and smiles.
"Hi there. You're never doing that again."
The anger in her is like a sun boiling over, stinging at his eyes, and Manhattan pitches her voice past him, to wherever Joshua has landed. Neku doesn't dare to look, can't afford to take his eyes off her. He can't hear the music, he can't hear anything.
"You might want to get this Conductor out of my way, before you're cleaning him out of the carpets."
Okay, and really, Neku should have seen that coming. should have figured out what he was, Joshua probably expecting it weeks ago, but there's no thinking about it now, and when she takes another step forward he doesn't move and seriously, Joshua, now would be a good time to show off some of that Shibuya Composer power and kick her ass.
Any time now, Josh. Any time.
Manhattan smiles slightly, a little mercy for the know-nothing newbie Conductor, trying to do him a favor.
"You don't want to die for him."
Neku laughs, can't help it. "What I want never seems to come up."
The more her anger builds, the less interested Manhattan seems, and in a moment her voice is flat, distant and timeless, the sound of stars colliding, the end of time.
"Get out of my way, little boy."
... and because this may very well be the last thing he ever does, Neku decides why not, let's go for badass. He steadies himself, squares his shoulders, lifts a hand to beckon her closer.
The world goes white, and for a moment Neku thinks she's killed him, Manhattan's just combusted his ass in one shot and really, Neku, excellent job - and then he realizes that if he was a pile of ash he probably wouldn't be thinking so much. He blinks away the flash, trying to see. His shoulders are aching, shifting, and Neku glances back to see the rising expanse of orange – wings? Claws? Tail?
He's a dragon!?
Manhattan is laughing, and it's pretty easy to guess why. Kitanji had been a dragon too, as Shibuya's Conductor, but he'd been the size of a skyscraper, while Neku thinks maybe he might be able to intimidate a small dog if he worked at it, and hey so at least Shiki's not going to kill him for damaging all her hard work but what the hell? Seriously, tiny dragon what the freaking hell?
The bolt of energy fries the air just in front of his nose, Neku can feel the heat of it wash over him, tiny sparks snapping across his skin, and he jerks his wings down, pushing himself up, arcing his body over the second blast, and then Manhattan is throwing bolt after bolt and it's all he can do to dive and weave and be thankful he seems to know how to use this new body or else he'd already be dead.
He thought Manhattan would keep laughing, would taunt as Konishi had but she isn't, she hasn't said a word and he can feel her anger, her rage and amazingly, it has absolutely nothing to do with him at all. She needs to kill him, to prove that she still can, that there's some part of her world she can control and there's so much sorrow in the air that it's hard to breathe around it. She is grieving so hard for what was lost, so much more than just the buildings, maybe even the people - Neku can feel it, as powerful as any attack, and maybe that's why he doesn't notice the strike that comes from in front, only the blast of pain that takes everything away, until he's laying on the ground, crumpled and dazed, and she hooks a corner of his wing with a thought, jerks her wrist and he goes flying up into her hand.
Burning so bright he can barely see her outline, the hands that close around him shapeless and blazing, but he can feel her fingers twisting, pulling. Manhattan's going to crush him, to tear him in two, and Neku struggles, trying to break free, trying to gain any purchase with his claws as she squeezes and he opens his mouth to scream.
The flames catch her full in the face, and Manhattan howls, throws him away as she stumbles backward and okay, so he breathes fire now, good times.
Neku gets his wings open, catches the ground with the tips of his claws before springing up, feeling the ground burn beneath him as Manhattan sets everything alight, flinging lightning madly, back to her human form, all her power concentrated into blasts that would incinerate him instantly if he stopped or slowed down but Neku's feeling focused now, he's fast and she's angry, she's hurting and Neku knows how to use it.
He sees the glimmer in the air, twists his body and pushes away from the suddenly solid surface, a moment before another blast shatters the barrier – and that was how she had him before, turning the air solid, the glittering shiver the only warning he'll get and the air is full of angles now, Neku dodging, turning, flipping, springing from point to point in midair as she flings everything she has at him. He might be dodging now but Neku knows he'll tire out before she does, has to find an opening – springs up and dives in close, not even time to hope he's right as she throws a wall in his face and he throws fire back – and the barrier breaks, and Neku tucks his wings in tight, reaches out with a claw as he swoops by, ripping out the gold loop glittering in her ear.
Manhattan screams, furious, but her unfocused rage gives him an extra moment and that's all Neku needs, springing off the shards of solid air she's thrown up and launching himself at her again. Ricocheting between the barriers that surround her, slashing at her with his claws and he's too fast for her to get a shot off, energy flashing wildly but nowhere near him and Neku hits her again and again, feels his claws sticky and dripping. He's broken her concentration, she can't recover long enough to shield herself, and he hits the wall again and spins and she's looking up at him in shocked disbelief and a part of him is screaming now - no, stop! - horrified even as he opens his claws wide to blind her because that will sure as hell end this. Because she hurt Joshua, she hurt his Composer and she has to pay for it, and the world is a blur around him, and at the last minute Manhattan's arm comes up to fend him off, his claws digging deep into her skin.
... and then it's over, just like that.
Neku wobbles on his feet but doesn't fall, wings and claws fading, human in the time it takes to breathe in. He hurts everywhere, sure he would feel it more but Shibuya's there, he's using its power to recover, to undo the damage done and Neku only hopes he's not hurting it, doesn't know what he's doing enough to try to stop.
Manhattan is sprawled on the ground, breathing hard, clutching her bleeding arm and staring up at him with round, liquid eyes – afraid. Afraid of him, and Neku wonders how often Composers actually die. It has to be fairly rare, really - everything would be chaos otherwise.
He can feel the pull of her power, standing at the edge of the precipice, chaos swirling around him. The city demanding the strongest hand to control it and he could kill her, here, now, take it all. Neku doesn't want to, doesn't want to be this person, but can feel himself slipping, dangerously close to losing his footing, cannot stop that power or figure out how to get out of its way as it draws him in.
Conductor to Composer in ten minutes. Now that's got to be a record.
A hand against his back, warm and solid, giving him an anchor, a way out.
"Neku." Joshua's voice, soft in his ear, and he can breathe again. He looks down at Manhattan.
"So are we done here?"
Surprise, in her eyes, not at all understanding why he didn't strike, and the room is still silent and Neku can feel the eyes on him now, wonders what they're thinking –
Sorry, Neku. A voice, from his past, and he swallows back bile. I just... it would be better if we weren't... I have these other people...
- and he won't look for Ibiza, no way the other boy would want anything to do with him now. It's what happens, when people learn who you are. When you open up. They learn and then they go away.
"Yeah." Manhattan says, softly. "Yeah, we're done.
Neku holds out his hand – please, please understand, this isn't about making a point, isn't about humiliation - and she doesn't take it, but it isn't hate in her eyes as she slowly stands up, shifting her glance to Joshua and then back to him and she's trying to hide the pain in her eyes, the weariness, and so Neku pretends he doesn't see it.
"You should kill him, Conductor, while you still can."
Manhattan turns, and walks away, and all Neku can feel is the silence. The fear. He was no one when he came, no one to look at, and now he's done this and he's broken it all again.
Something wrong with him, you know.
He's just weird.
Neku... I don't really want to be friends anymore.
At least this time, he can't blame them for it. At least he knows what he's done. Neku's still not brave enough to look up, to see their eyes, and when he takes a step back the crowd parts away from him and it would make him laugh except he'd throw up and yeah, here it comes, the whispers, the looks.
And it shouldn't be a relief, when he manages to find a door that opens, a balcony and fresh air, that he can hear footsteps behind him, that he's not alone.
Neku doesn't know how long he leans there against the cool stone railing, looking out over the world as it spins slowly by, distant and glittering. Joshua is behind him, doesn't move, hasn't spoken.
"What was wrong with Shibuya? Why were you going to destroy it?"
Joshua says nothing, but Neku didn't think he was going to get an answer – might never get one - and that's okay, it's not what matters. His heart is still lead, he can feel it, heavy in his chest.
"You know, at least one of them in there thought I was the Composer."
Neku tries to keep his voice steady but there's too much, more than he can control, and it shakes. At least Joshua doesn't try to pretend it's not a question.
"Very few Composers would be foolish enough to choose a Conductor of equal power."
"Yeah." Neku says flatly, "I can see where that would be suicide."
Joshua's eyes are hard, his whole expression carved from pale stone.
"So, did it all go to plan, then, Josh? Are they suitably impressed, or do I need to do more? It's really important, right, that all those Composers know who's got the biggest attack dog?"
He's shaking, tries to rein it in – man up, Neku, man up – but having to stand here and even look at Joshua is making him so angry he can hardly stand it, he's damn near ready to throw it all right back in the Composer's face – take it. Take it, it's poison, not anything Neku wants or needs.
"Or was I supposed to kill her? Would that have been good enough for you? Show everyone who's best? So when is it going to be my turn to roll over and die with a smile? Enlighten the poor, stupid human - do I even /try/ to survive this, Mr. Composer, sir, or do I fall on my sword now and save us all some time?
One word. It should mean nothing, and from anyone else it would but Joshua is not being flippant, not mocking. Only serious, very serious and very pale. Fragile, and even aching and exhausted from the fight, Neku has the strange feeling he's still the stronger of them at the moment.
And Joshua didn't do this. There are a thousand reasons why he could be responsible for all of this, why it's could be one of his grand designs, but he's not and it's not, and that doesn't make things better, just worse in an entirely different way.
"Why in hell didn't you just blast her ass?"
Joshua lets out a weak, humorless laugh.
"It's exceedingly inappropriate, for a Composer to place a personal bet on a Game, whatever the reason. Allowing it to interfere with their duties – abandoning their position to indulge a personal whim?" He smiles slightly, but his eyes are dull, hollow. "You can take some comfort, Neku, your death did not go unnoticed."
"You killed me." The first time he's said it, where it's not just an accusation, and Joshua nods.
"It might not be a rule – I doubt they imagined anyone was stupid enough to need one. Composers are not allowed to choose Players for the Game. Extremely not allowed."
Neku feels it like a punch to the gut, realizing this might not be it, that he might not be able to see all the damage done. "Are you... they didn't... you're going to be okay?"
A real laugh then, Joshua staring at him in what is as close as he ever gets to amazement.
"I'll be fine. I've been... censured before. I'm down to about a third of my usual ability, but even so–"
"She could have killed you. Manhattan could have killed you in there, just now."
Joshua shrugs and Neku has to turn away or he'll seriously beat his own Composer to death with his shoe. Kitanji probably didn't have to put up with this shit - Kitanji probably knew he was the Conductor all along, and could order someone else to put up with this shit.
"I could kill you." All this time, if he'd been a little more driven, a little more clever. If he'd wanted the job as much as Joshua had.
"Wouldn't that be poetic irony? Of course, since you didn't shoot me then, I've probably got a fair chance now." No fear in his voice, and if anything Joshua's stepping closer, still the one in control despite all evidence to the contrary, as Neku leans back on his heels. It doesn't make sense. It's all wrong.
"Why didn't you tell me? You knew I was going to be the Conductor, you knew it. You... anytime, you could have been hurt, or... damn it, how can you not care?"
"What, Neku, you can't live without me?"
Joshua at his sarcastic best, but it cracks at the edges, something old and bitter beneath, and Neku hates it. Wishes it were a Noise he could just smash to nothing, and he reaches out and grabs the Composer hard by the shoulders instead.
A split-second glimpse of wide, shocked violet eyes and then Neku pins him against the railing and kisses him, hard. It isn't magic, isn't perfect, just a warm mouth, open in surprise and Neku tries, does his damndest to make Joshua understand, because words just aren't working anymore.
He pulls back, just as fast, heart pounding. Joshua is still staring, baffled, as if Neku's just done something crazy like, who knows, slip him the tongue, but his hand is on Neku's back, not letting him go far.
"I have this problem, with people who leave." Neku's voice sounds rough in his own ears, a good ten years older, but that's about right for this. He looks up, searching Joshua's face, still nothing he can decipher, no hints, no help, but he has to try.
"I can do this, I'm in this, but you have to give me something to work with. Just a little."
"So," Joshua says, very carefully, "I suppose this means you don't hate me."
It's like relief, warm and overwhelming, Neku aware there's a stupid grin on his face but unable to do much about it. He leans in, and Joshua doesn't pull away, Neku kissing him at the corner of his jaw – he smells good, more Composer bullshit for sure, but he's not complaining.
"God, no." He whispers. "I hate you so much I could hate two of you, no problem."
"I have a funny story about that, actually..."
Joshua trails off, and then the Composer's mouth is on his again, hungry and urgent. It's good, it's really good, either a Composer thing or he's just a natural-born kisser and Neku can't help melting into it, his show of force somehow turning into Joshua pressing him back against the rail, all tangled up against him and he wonders if anyone's watching and for the moment, can't really force himself to care.
It feels good, feels right, and he wonders if Joshua's going to kick his ass for daring to reach out and touch his hair but the Composer only lets out another soft, needy sound – Neku wants this so much, it's overwhelming, it's terrifying and he shudders, pushes away, but there's nowhere to go.
"Neku?" Joshua's voice is gentle, curious, one hand reaching up, fingertips grazing his cheek.
Now that he's been through it all, Neku actually knows what's worse than dying.
"People leave." It's hard to force the words out. This isn't a secret he wants to give up, even if Joshua will figure it out anyway, if he doesn't already know.
His mother left, so long ago. His friend did, and took everyone else with him. Shiki hasn't betrayed him, Beat and Rhyme and Eri haven't, but Neku can think of a thousand reasons why it's still coming, why it has to be coming, when he can't understand what he did to make it happen the first time.
"People find out who you are, who you really are, and then they leave."
Joshua laughs, his standard teasing chuckle but it sounds so warm now, affectionate.
"Neku, I already know who you are."
Just to see what he says, Neku half expecting him to say nothing at all, but Joshua blinks, and smiles, and it's his usual smile but not quite. Something new hiding there, something real.
"My Conductor. My proxy. Mine."
... and after that it's pretty much a matter of trying to crawl in each other's clothes, Neku silently promising to make up for every wrinkle he's putting in the suit, at least for as long as he can think about it. Not really able to focus with Joshua kissing him, as attentive and focused as he is on everything else, as if he's making plans of attack for Neku's whole body, and hey there's a thought that makes everything shiver and tighten nicely.
"Are we in a race?" Joshua snickers, breath warm against his throat as Neku accidentally pops a button somewhere on the Composer's shirt.
"I'm fifteen, what's your excuse?"
Neku presses closer, Joshua shifting against him, one knee sliding between his legs, a little friction and he has to bite his lip hard to keep from making some insanely stupid sound. If this is a race at least he's not the only one in it, and at least Joshua has the common decency to look a little flustered – glowing now, actually, just a little, though Neku keeps that observation to himself.
"Yeah, because I imagined my first kiss would be exactly like this."
"Neku..." And there is nothing, nothing in the universe like hearing Joshua say his name like that, and he's on his way to having all his firsts wrapped up solid in a single night right here on the damn balcony, when Joshua's eyes snap open, going sharp and cold in an instant and Neku turns, hardly ready for another battle but what the hell, he might at least give it a shot.
Vegas is leaning against the door, possibly sent out here to make sure they aren't both dead or killing each other, or possibly just because she likes to watch.
Or possibly because she'd be happy to join in.
She grins brightly, and gives a double thumbs-up.
"I'm soooo not even here. More grinding! Way more tongue!"
A mercy, that Joshua knows the back route out, or perhaps simply creates one, and they can leave without being seen. Neku's caught between the feeling of Joshua's tongue on the inside of his mouth and the memory of the silent crowd, and there's nothing but empty space between the two, and he'll tumble down into it if he thinks about either for too long. It's not going to be okay, it might not be okay ever again, but it's going to be different, and with a little time to rest he'll have the strength to pick it up again.
A soft, hesitant voice, just as they're about to reach the elevator, and Neku turns. It's the girl from before, from the very start of the party, and she looks no better now than she did then, pale and tired and her eyes are a little red, like just maybe she's been crying, and before Neku can say anything she puts her hands in front of her and bows deeply.
"Thank you. Thank you... for my Composer."
Manhattan, this girl is Manhattan's Conductor, and everything Neku assumed shifts instantly – still shy and tired but she must have a will of iron. He can't imagine that kind of strength, and Neku licks his lips, tries to think of anything he can say.
"It's been hard for her." The girl says, an understatement several levels deep. "It's been hard for a while."
"We do what we have to. We do our best, for them." Neku says, already feeling that responsibility resting on his shoulders and he hasn't been a Conductor for even half a damn day. Neku watches her straighten up, steadying herself, and god, he wonders if he'll ever see her again. He hopes so.
"Good night, Shibuya."
"Be safe, Manhattan."
It makes her smile, looking back at him over her shoulder and then she's gone. Joshua waits until they're in the elevator, descending back into some semblance of the real world, before he finally speaks.
Neku smirks at the hint of offense in his tone.
"Joshua, you'd be way less irritating if you were just plain crazy."
Hanekoma's standing at the edge of what counts as Shibuya's territory, wishing he still smoked though he knows it wouldn't do any good, refusing to tap his foot or pace or do anything but wait. At least his Frequency's high enough, he doesn't have to worry about having to deal with anyone.
Not a word. Not a word, and once they'd left Shibuya he had no way to contact them, not that it mattered with Joshua not answering his damn phone. Restricted, tied down by the sanctions against him, the same ones they'd put on the Composer and he'd thought that alone would have kept any idea of going to the party out of his head. As if he'd ever bothered to go before, when it wasn't a potentially lethal exercise.
Taking Neku along had just been the icing on the crazy cake. So here he is now, decidedly not pacing and not tearing his hair out, waiting. He's still got a few friends in the upper circles, has tried to make his report as clear as possible, hopes one of them will step in. Or at least tell him, if anything happens.
"Hi, Dad. Been waiting long?"
The dry sarcasm still nearly sends him out of his skin, Hanekoma recovering badly, Joshua watching him with his head tilted in that mildly patient and amused way of his that he'd had even when he'd been human, and he looks all right, feels... better than all right, although he's changed so much that it's getting harder to remember the way it was before.
Hanekoma would be more or less set, then, if it weren't for the small Noise draped around Joshua like a necklace, Neku laying across the Composer's shoulders, tail curling down over his chest and twitching gently, now and then.
"Did you fill his gun with blanks this time? Because eventually he's going to shoot you just out of spite. I would."
Joshua rolls his eyes, as if murder is in any way a ridiculous assumption to make.
"You're as bad as he is." Hanekoma watches, very closely, when Joshua reaches up, gently rubs his thumb across the dragon's muzzle, Neku muttering softly without waking up. "I think the fight with Manhattan tired him out a bit."
Hanekoma takes a breath, lets it out, wonders if they'll let him transfer to one of those northern cities, where they only have a Game once every eight months or so, and there's lots of fluffy animals to talk to. He takes another breath. It doesn't help.
"He fought who?!"
Joshua shrugs, always at his most nonchalant when things were at their very worst.
"She started it. He finished it." He waves a hand, as if that covers for an explanation. As if there still isn't the matter of Neku, in Noise form, and the possible reasons behind it.
"Josh, has the kid finally..."
"I'm a little tired, Mr. H. We can talk later."
So that's a yes, then, Shibuya with its new Conductor, and he can only imagine how Neku took the news, wonders how he'll take it when he actually has a chance to think about it – and Hanekoma watches Joshua walk off, not toward the River or Neku's home – but to Pork City.
"Well, I'll be damned."
Hanekoma had the feeling they might get there eventually, though he was giving it a year, at the very least. He still wonders, just when it was, the exact that Joshua realized his brilliant plan had betrayed him, that he'd failed. Maybe tonight he finally realized just how much he's won by losing.