Sakuraba Neku thought he’d seen the last of Kiryuu Yoshiya when the Composer had shot him at the end of his third Game, so among the last things he expected was to run into Joshua, of all places, in the very crowded Ramen Don during lunch hour. The silver-haired boy was all long willowy limbs and designer clothing where he sat in an elegant pose at a small table in the back, looking for all the world like the wealthy pompous snot he probably had been as a human. The few times they had gone shopping during their week together had left him wondering what anyone could possibly put into clothing for it to be that expensive as he winced at every price tag. He’d thought Shiki was bad, but at least her tastes didn’t round up to a minimum of six figures per item. Joshua was just…well, Joshua. If there existed a better word to wholly describe the Composer of Shibuya, it had yet to be Imagined.
A year had passed since they’d last met, but it might very well have been just yesterday, and he felt no less conflicted than he had back when they’d faced each other with a gun in hand. He wanted to forgive him; he trusted his former Partner, and more importantly, Joshua had been a friend; even with a sync rate in the proverbial negative, they’d shared a kind of understanding, and that was more than he could say for even Shiki, who would always be his first and best friend. He’d have forgiven Joshua without a thought…if only the Composer had shown even the slightest hint of regret or remorse, but no, he just stood there with his finger on the trigger of the smoking revolver and laughed. As he didn’t feel like dealing with a particular demigod if it didn’t involve strangulation, the idea of heading elsewhere for lunch was beginning to sound incredibly appealing. Still…
“Irrasshai! Oh, it’s you! Got done early and came to join your friend?”
Neku cringed internally at Doi Ken’s loud greeting, any intention of escaping unnoticed rendered futile. As if on cue, Joshua waved animatedly at him, that rather effeminate face the picture of cheerfulness.
Yeah, right, he thought darkly, forcing a smile. It’s not like you see us as people. We’re all just toys to you, like dolls in a dollhouse or pieces on a chessboard. Or maybe we’re like the pins in Tin Pin Slammer, genuinely important only as long as we win for you.
Of course, he’d admit he hadn’t been too different once upon a time, but even at his worst, he hadn’t had Joshua’s callous disregard for human life; at the very least, he wouldn’t shoot someone just to play a game. Even if it were a game that was ultimately for the greater good of all. Sure, he knew Joshua had his reasons, but they were no excuse for shooting strangers with a smile. There was no way that cheery expression was sincere, but because his were a people of strong social conventions, Neku bowed to the proprietor wordlessly and nodded as he warily went to join his “friend.” The owner came to take his order personally, as he always did, chattering away as he contemplated what kind of ramen he’d eat that day.
“Want to try my latest experiment?”
Neku raised an eyebrow at the older man.
“Hey, I still make ramen that makes people happy, but there’s no harm in a little creativity on the side, right? I figure some variety every now and then won’t hurt. I just need to put all my love into every bowl of noodles like I always have,” Ken replied with a wide grin. “So, you up for it?”
“Sure, he’s up for it, mister,” Joshua cut in helpfully.
“Y—I don’t even know what it is!” he protested, forgetting for the moment that he was supposed to be angry at present company.
“It’s what I’m having, dear. For what it’s worth, the broth could use another seasoning or two, but you still have my compliments, mister. The hint of cilantro and basil packs a flavourful punch.”
“Well, well, I’ll take the critique of a connoisseur to heart, my boy!” The ramen master laughed heartily.
“That work for you, Neku?” Joshua asked, turning back to him with a smirk.
“What do you think?! I…I might be allergic to something in there for all you know,” he argued lamely.
“The main difference is I used beef this time, boy. It comes with a juicy sirloin steak on top too,” Ken replied patiently, clearly more amused by the exchange than anything, while the other boy just rolled his eyes in mock exasperation.
“Well, if you are, you’ll have me to rush you to the hospital and sob at your bedside until your immune system calms down, dear.”
“If you’re going to be reassuring, you could try putting some heart into it,” Neku retorted, crossing his arms in annoyance.
“You simply can’t sense all the heart I’ve put into it because it’s above the range of your limited perception, Neku.”
“More like it’s not coming across because sincerity is above the range of your limited capacity for expression, Josh,” he snapped rather nastily.
There was a flash of something alien in pale lilac eyes before the glitter of amusement slid back into place, making Neku wonder if it had been simply his imagination. “You’re just upset because I always beat you at Tin Pin, dear.”
That’s not...wait, that’s not even what he’s talking about, he thought bitterly, remembering. This was an act for the benefit of their acquaintances who didn’t know all the details of their Game.
“In any case, you can try mine before ordering it if it helps,” Joshua continued without missing a beat, pushing his bowl across the table helpfully.
Neku considered refusing, but thought better of it; they’d already pretended this long, after all.
“Ah, I was wondering when you two would drop by together again. You always seemed so close. You’d come in together, leave together, order for each other, quibble like people who’ve known each other forever, use the same chopsticks…”
Neku choked on his spoonful of noodles at Ken’s remark. He heard the girls at the next table snickering excitedly and blamed Joshua for everything. If he hadn’t been chosen as the other’s ‘dear, dear partner,’ they wouldn’t have had to go everywhere together. If Joshua had just shut up and let him choose his own meals, they wouldn’t have done any ordering for each other. “Bloody fujoshis,” he muttered under his breath, wishing he’d never gone along with the other’s pretence of their still being on good terms. The silver-haired boy’s appearance and manner weren’t helping any. The fact that he admittedly looked better than even Eri in EGL probably gave people ideas. Across from him, his former Partner laughed in that way that was distinctly Joshua, the one that was somewhere between a giggle and a devious chuckle – as if he understood amusement, but didn’t know how to properly express it in human terms.
Ken, seemingly oblivious of his embarrassment or the surrounding fangirls, continued, “But these days, he keeps saying you’re busy, and you keep saying he’s out of town…”
“Sure, I’ll take your latest specialty, extra steak,” Neku interrupted pointedly with a forced smile, pushing the bowl back across the table.
“You got it!” The older man left to prepare the noodles as Joshua smirked and resumed eating.
Left alone with a certain demigod now to wait for his lunch, he found himself staring at Shibuya’s Composer. That unchanged appearance and smug expression taunted him in a poignant reminder of how his former Partner had killed him and tormented him for the longest three weeks of his…well, death. He’d tried to put it behind him, scanning the crowd for that familiar face every time he met up with his friends, even spending an extra few minutes chatting with them at Hachiko in hopes that Joshua would show up. Perhaps if he had and they’d spent some time together as real friends, it would have been easier. But Joshua never came, and as the few good memories of their acquaintance dimmed into the past, he was left with nothing but that empty sense of unfading bitterness that he couldn’t seem to truly forget or let go of.
“See something you like?” The other had even got that tentatively flirtatious tone down pat, but maybe Neku was prejudiced in thinking that the whole look didn’t quite fit.
Still, “Assuming people glare at the things they like, I might have to say yes,” he riposted swiftly.
Joshua simply laughed. “How charming. Good to know we’re on the same page, dear.”
Neku opened his mouth to make an unpleasantly snarky reply, but restrained himself; the other was baiting him as usual, and he wasn’t falling for it this time. Some days, he wished he’d actually shot Joshua at the end. Only the Composer could possibly act like nothing had changed after everything that happened. Only this former Partner of his could repeatedly visit the RealGround without so much as saying hi. Only Joshua could pretend to die protecting him just to win him over completely and make the betrayal hurt that much more later. Only Joshua. And now they were sitting here having lunch together like the old friends they’d never been. He wondered what Joshua wanted after an entire year without contact; he wouldn’t put it past the devious Composer to imprint the idea of coming here for lunch upon him so that they’d run into each other in seeming coincidence.
“I wouldn’t, Neku. Hee hee. Such a high opinion you have of me.”
“You… Are you scanning me?” No, he wouldn’t punch a demigod in a ramen joint. The shop would suffer more than his target, and it was rarely worth the trouble.
Joshua giggled. “And you call me Captain Obvious.”
Here we go again. He crossed his arms and pretended he could see a fascinating pattern on the tiled floor. “Fine. Hats off to the actor extraordinaire, Josh. Why not just tell him we haven’t spoken in a year?”
“Looks to me like you never told him either.”
“I’m not the one that has a problem here.”
“Hee hee. Aren’t you?”
“Are you incapable of giving a straight answer?”
“Were you happy the last time I did?”
Neku looked up sharply at that to find Joshua looking at him with an expression that he had never seen before and couldn’t decipher. He tried to bore into pale lilac eyes with his glare, but to his surprise, Joshua quickly looked away. Thrown off, he suddenly wasn’t sure what to say.
“You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?” he asked after a moment, steering the conversation back into familiar waters.
“Doing what, Neku?” This was the Joshua he knew, all feigned innocence, arrogant nonchalance and smooth deviousness.
“Being insufferable.” He’d waited a long time to say so plainly.
The other laughed. “Sharp as ever, I see.”
“You little…” No, he’d at least wait till they were outside to pick a fight. He inhaled a deep, calming breath. “What do you want, Josh?”
That familiar bemused innocent blink. “I beg your pardon?”
“Why are you here?”
“Hmm… I like ramen; you know that, Neku. I really don’t lie for no reason.”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it, Josh. Drop it.”
Joshua let out a longsuffering sigh, twirling a lock of his silver hair around his finger. “Neku, I’m the Composer. This is my city. I often visit to see things for myself. Is that really so extraordinary?”
It wasn’t that it was extraordinary; it was that Kiryuu Yoshiya never said or did anything without a motive. If he was here to look around, there was probably something specific he wanted to see. If they ran into each other somewhere random, it probably wasn’t coincidental.
“Tsk, how charitable of you, dear.” The amused tone was back full force beneath the veil of chagrin. “You don’t believe me even when I’m telling the truth. How could you, after all that quality time we spent together?” the Composer lamented theatrically, fishing out his cellphone as he rose to his feet and flipping it open as if he were going to call his mother-in-law to complain about how his spouse was treating him. Instead, he simply pressed a few keys and flipped it shut before slipping it back into his pocket. “Well then, Neku, I must be going. Enjoy your lunch, dear~” he sang, heading for the entrance.
Neku was out of his chair and grabbing Joshua by the collar before he’d even realized he’d moved. So much for not causing a scene.
“What do you want, Neku?” his former Partner echoed his earlier question with a slight smirk.
Neku thought to answer, but no words came. What indeed did he want? Yet, after all this time, was he really about to let the prick walk out nonchalantly just like this?
As his proxy struggled internally to come up with an answer, Joshua absently picked up on a stray observation among the other customers. They really were quite close. Rather conveniently so, he might add, for an excellent distraction. Stifling a giggle, he tilted his head just that little bit up, sideways and back to brush his lips against Neku’s slightly parted ones in a brief kiss as he gently pried the other’s fingers off his Pegaso button-down, tracing the boy’s bottom lip lightly with his tongue before pulling away. Mm, he could get used to this. The look on Neku’s face was immoderately entertaining. Still holding onto a warm hand, he decided to present his idea while his dear, dear partner’s brain attempted to catch up to the moment through the fog of shock.
“Hm, you want answers, I suppose. Well, why don’t we make it a game? It’ll last for...oh, a week for old times’ sake. If you win, I’ll answer your questions. If I win...I’ll decide what I’d like you to do for me later.”
“What’s the Fee?” Neku asked automatically, clearly still having great difficulty processing reality.
“No, no, nothing like The Game. No Fee. You play if you want to. Don’t worry, even if I win, you won’t die. Or be otherwise dreadfully inconvenienced.” Joshua giggled, releasing his proxy’s hand and walking towards the entrance. “Think about it, dear. Let it marinate. I’ll text you the details tomorrow. That work for you?” he called over his shoulder. “See you soon, dear~” He exited, wiggling his fingers in farewell, without awaiting a reply.
“Y—you..!” Neku spluttered, starting to run after Joshua, when his lunch chose that moment to arrive.
He wanted to protest vehemently. Much more than that, he wanted to punch Joshua’s smug face in. Alternatively, covering his ears and screaming his heart out till he lost his voice was sounding increasingly tempting. Instead, he simply slumped back down into his chair in defeat. He couldn’t deal with Joshua, not alive, not dead, not anywhere in between. He wasn’t even sure what he was angry about anymore. Suddenly, he found himself really missing the headphones he used to wear all the time. Music would have been a pleasant diversion. They would also block out the giggling all around him. Fighting down his embarrassment, he settled for eating his lunch in sullen silence, vowing to make the other pay the next time they met, and dearly.
Outside, the Composer of Shibuya turned to take one last look into Ramen Don and couldn’t help giggling as he watched a spluttering Neku’s attempt to chase after him foiled by Doi Ken bringing him his ramen. Perfect timing, of course. As he turned to leave, he caught sight of a youth with messy red hair across the road in the reflection on the shop’s glass display panel. He was dressed in a tight red mesh tank top with a black leather jacket and pants, and even with his iridium-coated shades, Joshua could tell the young man was staring at him. He turned to get a better look, but just then, a bus drove past, and by the time it was no longer obstructing his view, the youth was no longer there.
Maybe he finished checking me out, he decided, beginning his walk back to the River with a casual flick of his hair. Oh well, it’s not easy being me. On the other hand, breaking the rules keeps getting easier. Hm, that was a nice distraction.