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Ties We Bind (& Break)

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The Udagawa Mural still drew Neku, even a year after the Long Game. It stands, intricate art illuminated by the afternoon sun, as he approaches.

Trailing his hand over the rough texture of the wall, the dried paint, warmth seeps into his skin, despite the chill January air. There’s blood pumping through his veins, people in the distance going about their lives, and Music of Shibuya pulsing under the surface of the city streets. The mural sinks its hooks into him, dragging him closer, holding him captive with the flow and rhythm of the pain. The sheer life of the atmosphere. Like if he held his hand against the wall long enough he’d become part of the art.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Neku jumps, turning around to face the intruder on this moment. His heart rate spikes, and he clenches a hand at his side. The past is not one he wants to repeat.

Instead of staring down the barrel of a gun, he stares into bright green eyes. There’s no showdown with bullets hanging mid-air here, just a relaxed smile on the stranger’s lips.

“CAT’s art is impressive, the way it draws people in. It’s lovely,” the stranger says, walking closer. “My name is Yuuto Kimura, by the way. What might yours be?”

“Neku… Neku Sakuraba,” he huffs. He has half a mind just to turn and walk away, but no. This Yuuto fellow is just being friendly, it’s not fair to take out his poor social skills on this guy. “I agree, by the way. I’ve been a CAT fanboy for a while now, years,” he says with a chuckle.

“I’d bet. Those headphones of yours are CAT exclusive, aren’t they? They’re an old exclusive too.” Yuuto leans against the mural, tapping a foot on the ground. “I’ve got a fair bit of merch from him myself, if I’m being honest.”

“Mm.” What does he want?

Silence falls between them. The sun traces its way through the sky as they stand. The air between them hangs heavy, waterlogged.

“You know, it’s dangerous to hang out back here all the time,” Yuuto says, slicing through the sea between them. “I’ve seen you around here for ages, it wouldn’t have been hard to learn your schedule.”

“Your point? Besides being creepy?” His eyes narrow, hand grasping at the pins in his pocket. Lightning Rook might not be worth much in the RG, but keeping them around soothes the desperate terror leaping in his lungs.

“My point,” he says, “is that you’re foolish if you don’t take safety measures. I heard this time last year a kid a bit younger than you was shot! Right by this mural!”

Yuuto kicks off the wall, straightening up and stretching his arms above his head--and is he only wearing a lightweight coat in January? Yuuto pays no mind to the cold, like he pays no mind to the ice in Neku’s veins at the statement he’s made.

Sharp metal digs into his skin, needlepoints. One of the pins has come unclasped in his grasp. His tongue is tied down to the bottom of his mouth, throat drying out under this stranger’s gaze.

Green eyes catch the wince, and Yuuto’s gaze wanders to the fist Neku has clenched in his pocket. “Unless you are taking measures to keep yourself safe? Gun violence isn’t something to worry about here, except for the odd fringe-cases like last year, but close-range? A good punch in a knife fight can win the battle.”

“I can pack a punch,” he says. He’s no Beat, but if Yuuto thinks he can pull one over on him, he’s got another thing coming. Specifically, a solid right hook to the face. “If you’re not careful how you speak, it’d sound like you're threatening me, you know? Do you wanna test what it’s like to be on the other end of my fist?”

Yuuto snorts, a hand flying to cover his face as laughter shakes his skinny frame. “Oh god, no. You got the wrong idea my friend! Just sharing tidbits I find interesting. I will say, your reaction was unusual, most people brush it off or get scared when I bring up how easy it is to die. You got ready to brawl.”

“I value my life, ya know? If I’m being threatened I’m not going down without a fight.” He lets go of the pins, dragging his hand out of his pocket and relaxing the fist.

A buzz comes from Yuuto’s pocket, then, and he whips out a pink smartphone. After a few taps, he slides it away and starts walking.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Neku Sakuraba,” he says, flashing a peace sign over his shoulder. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again.”

And Neku is left alone, with the cold digging through his winter coat and the sun obscured behind buildings.


 

Chat: [Babysitting Duty]

Fun Uncle: Josh what the fuck

A literal child: What?

Two cats in a trenchcoat: Kariya is referring to you visiting Neku.

Expressly against the orders of the HG.

A literal child: Hey now, your information is wrong.

A boy named Yuuto Kimura happened to meet Neku Sakuraba at the mural. The great Composer of Shibuya did no such thing, Yoshiya Kiryu never interacted with Neku.

Fun Uncle: You’re an insolent bastard and that is the most clever idea you’ve had all year A+.

Two cats in a trenchcoat: You manage to have such creative intelligence and yet you fail to apply any of it rationally ever.

A literal child: wow rude, I use my creative intelligence perfectly and am fully aware of the rationality my plans have.

Neku stops by WildKat on Thursdays yeah? I’m gonna be chilling there tomorrow as Yuuto so I can catch him for another coincidental meeting.

Two cats in a trenchcoat: Just know I can’t protect you if you get caught and this plan falls through. The HG isn’t going to like this loophole, they’ll like it even less if you make a mistake.

A literal child: and that is why we’re appealing it anyway! Give it a year or two and that rule will be nothing but dust and I can reveal myself properly :D

Fun Uncle: This is why I’m not the dad, I could never discourage such an inventive crafty plan like Sanae is trying to do.

A literal child: idk his Dad Status™ is suspended indefinitely because of the Taboo stuff :/

Two cats in a trenchcoat: Ouch.

A literal child: You know what you did.


 

“Really though, the Reapers need to up their game if they’re still using that boring trick with the shark, it’s old now.”

The voice rings out from inside WildKat as Neku opens the door, bell chiming above him. He stops, staring at Hanekoma conversing with none other than the kid he’d met yesterday. He stares, brain lurching in stops and starts to process what he just heard.

While he stands immobile, Yuuto turns to look at the newcomer. He smiles when his eyes meet Neku’s. “Neku! Do you know Mr. Hanekoma too?”

He gives a jerky nod, kickstarting his legs to stumble forward, onto a chair near the counter. “Yeah, I do. Did you just-- Did you just mention the Reapers? Did he just say Reapers?” He glances to Hanekoma, who replies with a shrug.

Yuuto’s face lights up, surprise echoed in his jumpy fingers stalling out for a second against the counter, rapid-fire taps ceasing. He bounces in his seat. “I did indeed! You know about the Game?”

After running a hand over his face, and ordering a coffee, he says, “Yeah, I played three weeks of it. It was absolute hell, and things got messy.”

Yuuto winces. “Yikes. I played one week about two years ago, but I’ve always seen the UG.”

Neku’s sharp eyes dart to Hanekoma. Those words raise the hair on his arms, but Hanekoma sighs. “It’s rare for people to see the UG while alive, but it ain’t a unique trait of one person. Lotsa people catch glimpses in their life, but a few always have the sight.”

He hands over the coffee, and Neku places the yen on the counter as he sips it. The cost is still a highway robbery, but he needs the caffeine.

“You didn’t play recently, or I would’ve seen you. I watch the Game as close as I can, but I was out of Shibuya for over a year and got back a few months ago, so it must’ve been during that time, yeah?” Yuuto grins, elbows on the counter as he forks a piece of pancake.

“It was just over a year ago.”

The sound of Hanekoma busying himself fills the air, water running and hands scrubbing. Neku contents himself with the coffee, and Yuuto eats away at his meal, syrup coating his lips. The cafe is warm, warmer than the mural yesterday, and warmer than the snow falling outside.

“So, how’d you die?” Yuuto asks, breaking the silence.

He snorts. “Remember what you mentioned yesterday? About Udagawa being dangerous, how someone had been shot there last year? I am intimately familiar with the event.”

The fork clangs against the plate as Yuuto sets it down, so he can cover his mouth as he laughs. “Oh my god, I had no idea! I asked you if you’d heard about your own death!”

“Can you see why I got defensive when you mentioned now?” Yuuto nods, and Neku decides to follow up with a question of his own: “How did you die anyway? If you get to know my death, it’s fair.”

His mouth snaps shut, teeth clicking together. Yuuto looks away, and taps his foot against the leg of his chair. He’s quiet, and Neku is about to tell him not to worry about answering when he speaks up, voice dimmer than the burnt-out bulb in the ceiling.

“I shot myself in the head. I wanted to have first-hand experience with the Game, my family was shit, and well, if I did it right, I’d get to keep my one friend, yeah? I learned from Mr. H later that suicidal tendencies run high when you’ve got the ability to see the UG, but I’d already gone through with it all. I don’t even have that friend of mine anymore, but I’ve got a broom and I’m beating back depression until it’s out of this brain!” he says, saccharine smile brightening his face and as he gives thumbs up.

Neku can see the way it wavers, the way the light doesn’t reach his eyes. “Well, if you need another broom-wielder to help you beat up depression, I’ve got some skill in that field. I’d suggest upgrading to a frying pan, though.”

Yuuto chuckles, and there, the smile softens into something more genuine. “I’ll be sure to call. Or, I will, if you’d indulge me by giving me your number,” he says, fishing out his phone.

“Sure, hand it over.” Neku takes the phone and plugs in his number. When he gets it back, Yuuto sits there, typing a quick message, and he feels the distinct buzz of his own phone go off. The message reads a simple ^Hi! This is Yuuto!^ with about 20 sparkly emojis.

Half of them end up in the contact name.

“You, of course,” Yuuto says, “are welcome to call me in case of brain-fuckery as well. Maybe we can invest in some rope and tie depression up so it can’t escape and get to us again.”

“Hah, alright. I wonder if it likes being painted with neon colors! If we get it to hold still I can test that.”

“Maybe I’ll see what I can do about stabbing it with my violin bow. Or I could just play god-awful annoying notes!”

A pause. Then they both burst out laughing. Neku holds his stomach and grips the counter to steady himself, while Yuuto flaps his hands in the air, high-pitched gasps escaping his mouth.

“If you make me laugh like that again you’ll be the second death of me, I swear!” Neku says, catching his breath.

Yuuto holds up his phone and makes a show of flipping through some apps. “Damn, I just checked my schedule. I can’t get myself accused of murder this February. I guess I’ll have to reschedule all my jokes to March, does that work for you?”

“I’ve got finals in March, I’m dying then anyway. Might as well go out with a laugh, instead of drowning in coffee and insomnia!” He risks drinking his coffee, hoping the next words out of Yuuto’s mouth won’t make him do a spit-take.

“Yikes, finals,” he says. “I’m homeschooled, but even I know those are utter hell. Let me know if you’re on your deathbed, I’ll come with coffee and some bad jokes prepared to send you off.”

Neku places a hand over his heart and mock-gasps. “Truly, how kind of you! Such an offer to put me out of my misery is appreciated. I might have to take you up on that. Bury me with my headphones and the script of the joke that does me in.”

“Noted. I’ll make sure to write it down! Any other last requests before you die?”

“Don’t donate my art supplies, I’ll be back after the next Game week,” he says. Then, holding a dramatic hand to his forehead, he fakes exasperation. “Death won’t solve my finals problem if I just come back later to deal with the aftermath.”

Yuuto mimes taking off a hat and holding it to his chest. “You have my sincere condolences. What an absolute tragedy. Death is not the answer.”

Before Neku can continue the charades, his phone buzzes, and he finds a text from his mom. With a wince, he looks outside and sees the darkening sky.

“I’d better be going home. It’s getting dark, unfortunately. Make sure you message me though!”

“Of course, get home safe,” Yuuto replies. “I should get home soon too, but if worst comes to worst, it wouldn’t be the first time I crash here.”

Neku stands, downing the rest of his coffee. He tosses it in the trash as he heads out. “See ya!”


 

“Ya sure you wanna be takin’ this risk, J?” Hanekoma asks, giving Josh a pointed look.

He sighs, running fingers through his hair, letting the black bleed out of it and turn to white. “It’s worth it. This is Neku, any risk is worth it to see him again, no matter how foolish you may believe I’m being.”

“It’s a good idea, kid, but it might hurt your chances in the appeals court,” Kariya chimes in, before popping his lollipop back in his mouth.

“The HG takes forever,” he whines. “I can’t wait two more years before seeing him again. Besides, maybe if I show how I’m not negatively affecting him with my presence they’ll see the benefits of removing the rule.”

Or, they’ll still see this as a breach of your repercussions and clip your wings.” Hanekoma grabs a mug, using a cloth to clean it as he talks. “They won’t be lenient, ya know. You broke so many rules.”

“But I followed their no RG rule perfectly for a year!” He slices through the air with his waving hands, a hiss escaping from his mouth. “It’s ridiculous! I’m being censured to hell, I was banned from interacting with my own RG, and now they want me to refrain from speaking to the one person who matters most, who deserves to hear what I have to say!”

He’s throwing a fit, he knows, but he’s spent a year bubbling with acid in his blood, eating away at his patience and sanity. It burns his tongue, and he wants to spit it, let it bite at someone else.

A hand touches his, and he freezes. Kariya is at his side. Joshua doesn’t pull back.

“It’s a punishment for a reason, kiddo, it’s not supposed to be fair. They just didn’t factor in your crafty stubbornness, or the consequences it’d have on your mental health.” Kariya sighs, and Josh leans his head on his shoulder. “Neku is good for you, anyone can see that, they’re failing to weigh punishment against potential futures.”

“They don’t like me,” he mutters, petulant, closing his eyes. Kariya isn’t warm, but the touch is his choice, and anyone can be a decent pillow if he trusts them enough.

“You make yourself hard to like. The issue is that they don’t give you the respect you deserve in your role. They’ve always taken poorly to young upstarts becoming Composer.”

Josh snorts. “Well they best get used to it. I’m not going anywhere.”

Hanekoma sighs. “And what happens when you get the repeal? What will you tell Neku?”

A stone settles in his gut, but he breathes. He takes a few seconds to collect his thoughts. “I’ll be simple. I’ll tell him everything. I’ll reveal who I am and why I did what I did.”

“Tell him about the HG?”

His eyes narrow, as he nods. “I’m not going to hide anything from him.”

“How do you know he won’t think you’re lying?”

“I guess I’ll have to trust my Partner, won’t I?”

Josh loses the staring contest between them, because needles stab his eyes from the contact, but his point is made. “Besides, you can always back up my claims. The HG wants him, right? It’d be pointless to deny their own existence, once he’s been told.”

Hanekoma raises an eyebrow. “And you’d let them take him, would you?”

“Oh please,” he says, rolling his eyes and stretching out his back. “As if I’d make anything easy for them! It’s Neku’s decision, in the end, but any info he gets from the HG is biased, so why can’t I share my own biased info in return?”

Hanekoma sets down the mug and the cloth, and takes a long, drawn out breath as he rubs a hand down his face. “Why are you like this?” he mutters.

“It’s just part of my charm.”

Chapter Text

Yuuto: ^Neku.^

^Nekuuuuu.^

^Save me I finished everything I had to do.^

^I’m going to die of boredom this weekend.^

^No homework, no parents. No internet, because that’s getting fixed Monday. Hanekoma is on a trip this weekend.^

^This is my most desperate hour. Help me, Neku Sakuraba. You’re my only hope.^

^Save me Neku.^

^Please?^

Neku: ^Holy shit chill I was in class.^

^Unlike you, I’m not homeschooled.^

^If you want you can come meet up with my friends? We meet at Hachiko on Sundays? Idk how they’ll take to you but it should be cool.^

^I’ll ask them but if you do tag along just a heads up: one of the members of the group, her name is Eri, she doesn’t know anything about the UG or the Game.^

Yuuto: ^Sounds fun! I’d be happy to tag along!^

^And gotcha, no death jokes or UG humor.^

Neku: ^That would be for the best.^

 

Chat: [Hachiko Squad]

Neck: Hey is it cool if someone tags along with us this Sunday?

His name is Yuuto, he’s decent, and won’t stop pestering me out of boredom.

Shiki: Did you make a friend? Without prompting from one of us?

Neck: ...

Maybe?

He’s not a friend but he’s tolerable.

Eri: OMG! We’re super proud of you! Of course you can bring him along!

Beatdown: Hell yea man thas’ cool with me!

Rhyme: Any friend of yours is a friend of ours :)


 

There’s a light dusting of snow on the ground, sun shining high above in the air, glinting off Hachiko. Even though Shiki is twenty minutes early, Neku is already standing there, staring out into the crowd as his eyes dart around, searching for someone who isn’t there.

She raises a hand and waves. “Hey Neku! Been here long?”

He grins when he sees her. “Nah, I’ve only been here for about ten minutes. You got here earlier than usual though. What’s up?”

“Ah, nothing much, just got up early,” she says. “I want to meet your new friend though! What’s he like?”

“He’s… He’s got the same humor as me. And he told me to be careful going to Udagawa because someone got shot there last year,” he snorts.

Shiki lets out a laugh, covering her mouth in surprise. “Oh my god, he did not.”

“He did too! I almost punched him!” Neku taps his foot on the ground, sliding the headphones off his ears and around his neck. There’s no music playing, Shiki can tell, but he’s been working on his politeness.

“That was Wednesday. When I went to WildKat on Thursday, he was there, chatting away with Mr. Hanekoma. About Reapers and their usage of Noise,” Neku says, nonchalant.

Static shocks course over her skin, and her jaw drops. “You mean… He knows? About the Game?”

“He’s played it, from what I’ve heard. Always seen the UG, ended up in the Game two years back,” he says, turning away so he can scan through the faces of the crowd, searching for the rest of their group. Searching for someone else, too.

“Hey now, gossiping about people behind their back ain’t nice, you know,” a voice chimes in from behind them.

Shiki jumps, spinning around to face the newcomer. She looks him up and down, taking in the eyes, the hair, and…

“Neku, you never mentioned his dreadful taste in fashion. Is that a Mus Rattus shirt? Awful. We need to take him on a shopping trip later, to fix this. The Lapin bonnet is okay on its own, but it completely clashes with the watch… is that a Pegaso watch? If you’ve got the money for that, learn some fashion sense!”

She glances to Neku when she hears a muffled laugh, and finds him covering his mouth in an attempt to stifle it. Before she can apologize, Yuuto speaks.

“For today, I went with comfort. I figured anyone friends with him,” he gestures to Neku, “couldn’t be too offended by some poor fashion choices. Clearly, I was wrong.”

“I’ve been trying to get him to fix his wardrobe for a year. It’s a hopeless effort. I’m Shiki, by the way,” she says, holding out a hand to him.

He shakes her hand, before dropping his arm back to his side. “Yuuto Kimura. It’s a pleasure to meet you, I only hope you can tolerate my disaster of an outfit for today. Whenever I have a chance to escape the stuffy confines of tailored suits and formal parties where my parents show me off, I take it.”

“No suits then, got it. How do you feel about dresses?”

“As long as they don’t cling to my skin, dresses are cool. Long, flowy skirts are fun.” He swishes his hips as if he were wearing a skirt. “It’s the hell of long sleeves and stiff movements I hate, except for on jackets. Those can have long sleeves.”

“Mm, sensory issues?” she asks, and when she gets a nod she says, “Well, we can work with that.”

“Work with that?” Neku asks.

A grin lights up her face, and she glances at Neku. “I’m making the decision for Eri and I right now, but I’m sure she’d agree with me, that we’ve gotta kidnap your new pretty-boy friend here and use him as a model.”

“Oh, we get to kidnap the new kid?” Eri says, sliding in next to Shiki.

Shiki sees the exact moment she registers what Yuuto is wearing, when her entire face scrunches up, a hand covering her mouth in horror. “That’s not a question anymore, we need to kidnap him. This is worse than Neku!”

Yuuto laughs. “I swear I have fashion sense! I just wanted to be comfy today. From what I’ve seen, Neku is perpetually like that.”

“Hey! I’m right here you know!” Neku says, arms crossed over his chest.

“Shoosh, we’re bonding with your new friend over how much of a disaster you are,” Eri says, before turning back to Yuuto and introducing herself.

It’s not long before Beat and Rhyme show up as well, and get acquainted with him. “Yo, you the new guy, yeah? I’m Beat, and this is my sibling, Rhyme!”

Yuuto offers a hand to Beat and Rhyme respectively. “I’m Yuuto Kimura.”

Rhyme smiles, but it doesn’t reach their eyes, doesn’t mask the slight shake of their arm. Shiki narrows her eyes, not saying anything. Yet. “It’s nice to meet you, Yuuto.”

“Likewise,” he says. “Oh, and before I forget! Pronouns! I’m a he/him. What about all of you? I know Neku’s, but nobody else.”

“They/them for me!” Rhyme says, and they look more at ease after that question, so Shiki relaxes.

“I use he/him,” says Beat.

“Eri and I are she/her,” she chimes in.

“Alright, cool. I’ll make sure to use the right ones for y’all.” He grins, holding himself with casual confidence. He’s slouched, hands in his pockets, with a calm you only see on the self-assured and the fakers.

“I’m voting we eat at Ramen Don today,” Shiki says. “We aren’t taking newbie here to Sunshine, and we did WildKat last week.”

After a round of agreement they head out, and Shiki trails at the back of the group, eyes on Yuuto. He’s animated when he talks, wide gestures and dancing hands. “My parents, you see, they do a lot of business travelling, so I stay in an apartment here by myself. Tried to live with the American relatives for a bit, but it didn’t work out. So now I’m back here! I take classes online, it’s easier in case I have to be swept away on some family vacation at short notice.”

“You live by yourself?” Rhyme asks, and he nods.

“It’s not so bad, I have relatives who swing by to check on me every so often, and more than enough funds to afford it. Enough about me though! What sort of stuff do you all get up to?” he says, and the conversation goes from there, no doubt going to last through lunch.

He turns, walking backwards so he can face them all, a bright smile on his face. It’s amazing to watch, as he doesn’t bump anyone or misplace a single step. He walks like he knows every inch of this pavement by heart.


 

Shibuya twirls, dancing around her Composer. He stands in her heart, perched on his stone throne, as Musical notes wind around him, tinkling and twisting through the air. She circles above his head and through his hair, pulled tight around his body until the boundaries between the two of them blur. They are not two separate entities, but one being.

With a flourish, he strings the notes along, and she leaps to follow his command!

She bubbles, bright and colorful! Pinks and blue and green and yellow and black!

Pink is happy, pink is him. He doesn’t hate it anymore, he wraps himself up in the color because he can. 

Swirling black, but not like before. Not the black that consumed him and leached the bright away. Not the black which seeped into her own color and stole away their happy. This black is soft! The comforts of the night, silver stars speckled within!

Wavy green, no longer so full of envy. Soft grass of summer, neon life.

Yellow not sickly. Yellow like the sun, full of warmth. Bright, bold, strong. Bursting at the seams with go.

Blue. Blue is her favorite. The ocean, but no longer drowning in it. Flowing with tides, flying through the sky, puffs of cooling clouds. Blue is his favorite too.

Her Composer’s Music bounces in time with her own. She likes that. She likes it when he’s happy. He’s happy now.

Shibuya wants to keep him happy! Because when her Composer is happy, she is too! So she breezes through the air, wrapping herself around his favorite people! Her favorite people (outside of him)! They’re good, they can stay! They can be lucky and happy like she is and like her Composer is! And then they’ll stay with them and not want to leave!

Yoshiya frowns, tugs away from her, and cold stone separates them. Notes in a minor key ring out, one high pitched. Why?

We can’t stake a claim on them. They deserve the right to make their own decisions, without a city coiled around their heart.”

But I want them! You want them too! She cries out.

“I know. But I don’t want them to mistrust us.” He weaves his fingers through her notes, grasping and pulling her closer.

It doesn’t make sense! They could all be happy! We could be happy with them!

But she senses the fear, rooted deep in his human heart. A snake coiled around him, constricting at the thought of earning their displeasure, at mistrust in their eyes burning at his skin. So she whispers, Let me stay close to our favorite people. I won’t keep them if they want to leave, I promise, but I will show them why they don’t have to go.

A soft laugh escapes him, but he nods, and she leaps around him again! She did something right! Her Composer will be happy now!


 

Chat: [Hachiko Squad]

Neck: Should I add Yuuto here? You all seemed to like him.

Shiki: He’d be a wonderful addition!

Eri: I’d love to have him around, me and Shiki need to get him in some of our clothes! You might not have to model for us as much, Neku :D

Neck: Oh thank god.

Shiki: We’re still going to put you in our clothes, don’t test your luck!

Neck: Damn.

Beatdown: I don’ see why ya shouldn’t add him, go ahead!

Rhyme: Mm, sure.

[Neck has added Yuuto Kimura to the chat]

[Yuuto Kimura has changed their name to Yuuto]

Yuuto: Having my last name there is just unnecessary.

Yuuto: Hey there nerds, it’s me, ya boy.

Neck: Two seconds in and he’s already memeing. Save me.

Shiki: You’re the one who decided to inflict him on us!

Yuuto: How dare you insinuate that my memes are such low quality. That I am inflicting them upon you! You will find that I keep only the best stock of memes in my meme cellar.

Eri: All I’ve seen are trash.

Yuuto: Just look a little further back, there’s definitely a cask of fine memes in there :)

Neck: I hate the fact that you’re referencing an American meme and I also hate the fact that I recognize it.

Please do not brick us all into your meme cellar.

Yuuto: There is no escape.

Neck: I am physically going to strangle you.

Yuuto: Kinky ;)

Eri: I didn’t know you were into that, Neku, do we need to make you a choker necklace next?

Neck: Stop.

Why have you all abandoned me in my hour of need?

Shiki: You kinda walked into that one, dude.

Neck: I hate you all.

Beatdown: Nah, ya don’t!

Neck: Fine I specifically hate Yuuto and think you’re all enablers who aid him in my suffering.

Rhyme: What did I do?

Neck: You’re the one that taught us all the American memes.

[Eri has changed Yuuto’s name to Ultimate Memer]

Ultimate Memer: I will accept this title with honor, thank you.


 

Standing before the glaring mass of Angels, the burning light radiating off of them, Joshua keeps his tongue on a short leash.

If he were not in his Composer form, brilliant Imagination glowing off his own body, he would not be able to stand against the might before him.

“Yos͡hi̕ya Kiryu, ̶C͠omp̧os͝er̸ ̸of Shibuya,̴ ̵yo͞ư s̕ţa̸n̵d b͠e͞fo͞r͟e t̨h͏e H͝igh C̴o͜u͡r͟t. S͏tat̶e y͏o͜ưr case.” The voice rings, echoes against the harsh stone walls, reverberating with the weight of twenty voices in one.

“I wish to appeal the punishment placed upon me for my infractions of the Long Game. Rule number three, I am not to interact with Neku Sakuraba.”

“Şt͘a͢t̛e ̕y͟our̸ reaso͠n͠i͞ng͘.”

“First: Your ban placed on me is meant to reform me so I do not take those actions again. Yet this rule does not consider the scenario which caused my break accurately. My actions were taken due to emotional turmoil and a severe reaction caused by isolation. Separating me from one of the few people who knows me will only push me backwards, until I spiral downward again.”

He takes a breath, paces a few steps to the side. “Second: My absence is impacting Neku Sakuraba negatively. He wishes to see me, he deserves the answers I can give. Separation is brewing negativity and hopelessness within him, which will hinder his growth.”

With the hint of a smile on his face, he states his last point for this hearing, “Third: Even if I make every attempt to remove my presence from his life, Neku Sakuraba is determined to seek me out. He is close to figuring out his way into the Dead God’s Pad while still alive. It’s only a matter of time until he breaks into the heart of Shibuya itself. Shibuya is under orders not to help him, but if he makes it to the heart, she will disobey me. And she may choose to appoint my new Conductor herself.”

With that final statement, he steps back, and sits in a chair with a nebulous existence--he’s not sure if it was there before he wanted to sit--while Hanekoma steps up to say his piece.


 

Tuesday evening is quiet. Neku has finished his homework, and art block is clogging up his brain, so he takes a walk to Hachiko, sketchbook in hand. It’s warmer than it was last week, snow melted away and above freezing once more, so he sits himself at the base of the statue, working on still-life sketches to clear the gunk away.

He almost doesn’t notice the two voices speaking above him, static on the edges as he picks it up across the planes.

“You’re really takin’ this seriously, aren’t ya’ J?”

A huff. “Of course I am. This is important. I’m going to do what it takes to get myself into the HG’s good graces, so they remove that blasted rule.”

“Still, if I hadn’t known it was you, I wouldn’t’ve recognized you. You were the epitome of politeness and good manners. I’ve never seen ya’ like that, not when you were alive and certainly not after you died.”

Neku’s breath is frozen in his lungs, he’s cemented to the ground, as he listens in on this conversation. Joshua is right there. On the other side of the statue and one plane higher up. They haven’t noticed him. He shouldn’t be hearing this.

“I hate it, but I’ve gotta be on my best behavior, or they’ll take it as one more reason to deny my appeal. I hate hiding myself away, but--”

“Then don’t!” Neku snaps, shooting to his feet and spinning to face Joshua and Hanekoma. The cold flashes to heat, biting in his veins. “I’m right here, you’re right here! Stop hiding!

Nails dig into the skin of his palm, staring into Joshua’s widened eyes.

He looks the same. It’s been a year, but Josh hasn’t changed at all. Neku knows he’s changed himself, grown taller, filled out a bit more, but Joshua is still a scrawny fifteen-year-old. The plane between them washes him out, violet dull and hair faded, but he’s there.

Until he’s not.

Neku blinks, and he’s gone, not a trace of his presence left behind.

Hanekoma shakes his head, switching to the RG. “Gotta be more aware of our surroundings, I guess. Sorry ‘Phones, but this information is classified.”

And then he’s gone, and Neku is left alone, sketchbook and pencils and thoughts scattered on the ground.

Chapter Text

“So not that you ain’t cool, man, but what’cha doin’ at this meet?” Beat asks, looking at Yuuto.

They’re gathered at Hachiko on a Saturday, like they’ve done twice a month since the Game. Without Eri, so they could hang out as former Game Players.

At least, Beat thought that’s what this was, but Yuuto is standing near. He’d tagged along with Neku to the meetup. None of the others are questioning it, and it makes Beat feel left out of the loop.

“Mm, and here I thought this was for people who’ve played the Game,” he says with a smile, and Beat freezes.

“Sorry, I told him I was meeting up with you guys and he invited himself along,” Neku says. “I told Shiki already, she was the first to show up last Sunday besides me, so we got to chat, but yeah. He apparently played a few years back.”

“It’s been a while since my Game week. I got to play under the previous Composer, in fact; there’s been a regime change since.” Neku frowns at that statement, a flicker across his face before it’s gone, but Beat catches it.

He also notices Rhyme’s reaction, or… lack of it. So he nudges them. “And how come you ain’t surprised by this?”

They shrug, hesitating. “I… I could feel it. My instincts said he’d been touched by the Game, and trusting your instincts is important.”

Ah.

Beat wraps an arm around them, giving a big squeeze. He knows they haven’t told the others yet, and he hasn’t either, but they don’t keep secrets from each other, and… Being a Noise for a bit did something to Rhyme. They get glimpses of the UG, see and feel the presence of Noise, and sometimes they talk about it. Noise running on basic emotions, how it’s heightened their instincts, and how they have to restrain those more now.

Being a Reaper means he didn’t get out unscathed either. The UG is greyscale, hazy, but there in his sights. Power pulses under his skin, buried deep in his core. It’s locked away, he can’t reach it, but if he could

It’s not a risk he’s willing to take. Beat doesn’t want to be a Reaper, and he doesn’t need that power.

“So, where should we hang out today?” Shiki asks, steering the conversation back onto the tracks. “I’d offer the studio, but Eri said she wanted to get some work done, so she’s there right now.”

“Me and Rhyme’s parents is home, so our place is a no-can-do, sorry yo,” he says.

“And my place is too small to hold us all. Or at least, my mom thinks so, and she’s home.” Neku sighs.

Yuuto grins, and chimes in, “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, asking if you’d like to come to my place, but… Like I said before, rich parents and I live alone.”

“Cool wit’ me,” says Beat, and the others agree.

One quick walk later and, “You live here!?” Shiki gasps, holding a hand to her chest. “If you can afford a Pork City apartment, you must not’ve been joking about rich family!”

“Not just any apartment, the penthouse. The lap of luxury, all to myself!” He laughs, rolling his eyes. “It’s so boring and lonely being isolated there all the time.”

It’s an expensive place to rent, Beat knew that, but as they walk through the halls illuminated by chandeliers and past lounges and rooms of all sorts to the elevator, it starts to sink in just how extravagant this place is.

“It’s a bit much, I think,” Yuuto says, “but I’m not gonna argue where my parents put me. Just a heads up though, a lot of Reapers live here too. I think it’s part of being in the Game, they still need a place to stay, after all.”

With a flourish, he opens the door, and plops down on a recliner chair. Beat follows him in, as do the rest, and Yuuto instructs them to make themselves at home so they all get situated. Neku stakes a claim on the other empty chair, while Beat ends up on the couch, Rhyme in the middle, with Shiki on the other end.

Sooo,” says Yuuto, “what do y’all do when you gather like this, Players only?”

“Talk, vent, throw stuff at each other, make bad jokes and memes,” Neku says, slipping his headphones down so they rest around his neck. “We should probably share Game stories first, since you’re new here.”

Yuuto nods. “Mm… Well, I played about two years ago. My partner was Uzuki Yashiro,” he says, continuing without noticing the way the rest of them tense, the way the background music jumps as the CD hits a scratch. “She’s a Reaper now, as far as I know. We did not get along well, but we survived.”

“She’s awful,” Shiki groans. “We all had to deal with her, and she’s a manipulative slimy asshole.”

“Sounds about right,” he says with a snort. The next words out of Yuuto’s mouth were softer: “My Fee was my friend’s memories of me. They managed to nitpick something I’d done, and I didn’t get it back. He remembers nothing.”

Neku winces, Shiki gasps, Rhyme closes their eyes and sighs, and Beat… He can only think of Rhyme, and how they never recognized him as their brother. Every little thing they should’ve been able to think of, from calling him bro to their jokes and the quiet nights they’d whisper to each other, not wanting to be alone. Losing that, forever?

It’d destroy him.

“I can’t imagine what it’d be like to forget someone so close to you forever,” Neku says. He’s sitting sideways on the chair, legs draped over one of the armrests and his head against the other. “I mean, the memories are just gone? How do you not realize you’re missing something? How do other people not notice, if they were so close to you?”

“I remember,” Rhyme sighs. “I remember what it was like to forget. It’s like, you know that person exists, know who they were to you, but all the little details were gone. Name, face, specific memories… dust in the wind.”

Beat wraps an arm around them, and they lean on him. Soft touches, a solid presence, reminders that they’re there for each other. That they haven’t left or forgotten.

Yuuto nods at the words, and dangles himself upside-down off the chair, hair skimming the wooden floor. “He doesn’t remember me. He knows he had a friend, but I haven’t tried to rekindle that bond… I miss him, but I lost it all when I lost my Fee.”

“Well hey, maybe you’ll get another chance someday!” Shiki says, cheer infused in her voice. “Not every end is final, and even if he doesn’t remember the details, I’m sure he’d love to have an old friend back.” She’s hops up on the back of the couch, feet hanging in front of the back cushion.

The world begins with you and all that jazz, huh?” Yuuto snorts. “Your world gets bigger if you reach out to others. Maybe I’ll tell him, sometime. For now, I’ll wait and see what the future holds.”


 

Chat: [It’s not gay if we’re dead]

[Emo gay has added Yuuto Kimura to the chat]

Emo gay: Welcome to the dead kid’s club.

A lot of this chat is Shiki yelling about how cute Eri is.

An entire 50% of this chat is all of us being queer.

Fashion lesbian: Listen,

She’s beautiful and I’m gay as hell.

And she’s not in this chat so I’m allowed to scream.

Yuuto Kimura: Noted.

[Yuuto Kimura has changed their name to Music queer]

Music queer: I figured I should fit the theme.

Space battery: Nice name!

Music queer: Thanks I picked it out myself!

I must ask, though, why battery?

Space battery: I’m triple-A.

Skateboard ace: And they always got enough energy to charge up everyone else

Space battery: Beat,

You should take a look at yourself sometime, you’ve got enough energy to power the sun!

Emo gay: Another 20% of this chat is these two being adorable siblings so jot that down.

Music queer: What’s the last 30%?

Emo gay: 20% memes and dead jokes, 10% depression.

Music queer: You know what? Valid.

I think I’ll fit right in.


 

Rhyme likes Yuuto, they really do! It’s been a month since he’s joined the group, and he’s been nothing but fun. Maybe not the nicest, he likes to tease Neku, but he’s got good intentions, so they like him!

It’s just…

There’s something wrong about him.

Indescribably, horrifically wrong.

Noise do not draw near him. If one gets too close, they freeze and dart away. His mere presence wards them all, and Rhyme can sense it, the Noise are afraid.

Rhyme knows this, because they feel the same.

An instinctual terror, prickling at the hair on their arms, raising the alarm. They squash it down, tuck it away until it doesn’t bother them, but it’s there. Clawing at the back of their throat.

They’ve felt it before, in the presence of Neku’s 2nd week Game Partner. Joshua.

It’s fuzzy, grey-scaled and water-damaged, but they remember being a Noise, operating on instinct alone. They remember when they were returned to a human form, to life.

They remember the Composer.

So they message him.

Rhyme: Hey can we talk today? At WildKat, preferably.

Yuuto: Sure. May I ask why?

Rhyme: You can, but I’m not answering that here, only in person.

Which is how they find themself seated in a booth across from Yuuto after school that evening. Untouched coffee sits before both of them, steam curling up and away.

So,” he draws, picking up his cup, “Are you going to answer my question now?”

They nod. “Your name is actually Joshua, and you’re the Composer.”

Coffee splashes over the table and over his lap as Yuuto flinches back and drops it. With a yelp, he jumps up, hissing, “Ow! Fuuuuck that’s hot!”

They watch as he hops around, grabbing at napkins to clean up. With a roll of their eyes, they say, “I’m right, aren’t I? You can use your powers if I am, no sense hiding them.”

He spares a glance at Rhyme, and then waves a hand to make the mess disappear.

“Well, I’m sure that answers your question,” he says, sliding back into his seat. “Do I get to know how you figured it out?”

“I remember,” they say. “Not… Not well, most of my time as Noise is static, but I remember what it’s like. During the second week of it all, I know Neku’s Partner set me on edge, and when the Composer brought me back, I remember that flighty feeling from then, too. You’ve got the same vibe.”

Yuuto rubs his forehead, taking a long, deep breath. “This was unexpected,” he mutters. “You want to know why I’m lying about my identity, I assume.”

Rhyme nods. “I also want to know if you plan on messing with Neku again,” they say. When Yuuto’s eyes widen, they cut in before he can speak. “He didn’t tell us what you did, but we can all see how he acts. You did something. You don’t have to tell me what you did, Neku isn’t ready for us to know, but I want to make sure you won’t do it again.”

“Fair enough,” he says, and then his color starts to bleed away.

The black seeps out of his hair, and it bounces into wavy curls. Green flashes to purple in his eyes, and his skin goes a few shades paler. Nothing about the structure of his face changes, but he takes off his glasses, and there’s Joshua, sitting in front of them.

“I’ll start simple. I promise I mean no harm to Neku.” At their snort, he frowns. “I mean that! I hold my past actions in great contempt. I wasn’t in a good space, mentally. Like, you met Neku early on during the Game, I was like that, but a hundred times worse.”

“Oh.”

He laughs. “Yeah, oh. I won’t say what I did, but it was bad, and he has every right to be mad. I didn’t expect him to want to see me, after everything.”

“He does though, so hiding behind a false face is a cowardly move.”

“My superiors would rather I not interact with him at all. This is my loophole,” he says, which, what?

It’s a puzzle, and they don’t have all the pieces, but with some work and head-tilting, they can still make out the picture. “You were told not to meet up with him, weren’t you?”

Bingo, but they specified Yoshiya Kiryu, Composer of Shibuya, not Yuuto Kimura, ex-Game Player who lived in America these past two years.”

Rhyme crosses their arms over their chest, leaning back. “Clever. Going to fake this forever, then?”

“Nah, working on getting that rule repealed.”

“And what will you do when it is? Your reveal will be another betrayal, another way you stab him in the back, because he’ll think it’s been an elaborate joke.” It’s dramatic, but Neku would. At first.

Joshua snorts. “I know him better than you do. I know he’ll call me an asshole and think I’m messing with him, pulling his strings, but I have some stuff I can say, which might help.”

“What sort of stuff?”

“The truth.”


 

“Okay, so first things first, we need to get your measurements!” Shiki says, measuring tape in hand as Eri grabs the notepad and pen.

Yuuto laughs. “No time to waste?”

The studio is a mess, mannequins with half-finished projects hanging off them, fabric strewn across the floor, needles shoved into the armrest of the couch, spools of thread in corners and on shelves, and design papers scattered around the room.

It’s perfect. Creativity spawned from this disaster, beauty found in the calamity of a localized tornado. Shibuya’s life shines bright in spaces like this, her Soul strengthened, bursting with energy.

Were he not Yuuto right now, he’d love to soak up the Imagination and refine it, give them good luck for ages.

“Of course, of course! Why dilly-dally when we can get this ball rolling?” Eri laughs, pulling him out of the doorway and into the room proper. “Now let Shiki work her magic!”

He does, standing still as Shiki measures and calls out numbers. Eri dutifully writes them down, and he lets Shiki adjust his positioning as needed to get the most accurate results.

Once Shiki has the measurements, he plops down onto the couch, a grin on his face. There’s more than enough seating for the three of them. The entire gang had crashed here the day before. “So, this thing you’re gonna have me model, what is it?”

Eri flits around, grabbing her sketchpad and pencils, before sitting at her desk. “We’re going to start with something simple first. Maybe a basic suit, or a dress? You could rock either. How do you feel about pink? I feel like it’d suit you well. Or maybe a bright green, or something more forest-y. It’d go well with your eyes.”

“Ooh, pink is always fun, but you’re right, green would match my eyes. I absolutely love blues and purples too, by the way!” He leans back, pulling out a sheet of paper for himself, and a pencil. “Musical motifs are fun, since I’m a composer of music.”

Shiki’s head snaps up to look at him, but he gives no reaction back. Eri, meanwhile is going “Oooh,” and scrawling that down as a note.

“Music notes would be cool to work into some of the things we make you in the future! Little embroidered notes and designs! It’d be super cute!” she says, a grin lighting up her face.

Danger lurks in the room, Shiki refusing to take her eyes off him, but Eri remains oblivious. He gives Shiki a wink, after a moment, playing it off with a shrug. She huffs, and turns her attention back to the doodles Eri is scrawling.

“Mm, we could add some lacework, couldn’t we?” she asks.

Yuuto sighs, tapping his fingers against the fabric of the couch. “If you do add lace, could you keep it minimal or in places that won’t rub against my skin? The texture can be irritating as all hell.”

“Noted!” Eri scribbles that down in the margins as well. At this rate, they’re no doubt going to have a folder on his preferences and design ideas.

The thought of them keeping a record on him sends a spark of warmth through his heart. Watching them squabble over design ideas in the afternoon sunlight, filtering in through the window, makes the sight look like home.


 

The kid sitting in front of Koki is not one he knows. It’s not one he’s ever met or talked to before. He’d been enjoying his meal when this kid walked into Ramen Don and sat across from him.

Except that’s a lie.

Koki might not know this kid with short black hair and green eyes, but he knows those glasses, he knows that grin, and he knows the Music.

“What’s up, J?”

“Shhh, I’m Yuuto like this, remember?” He holds a finger to his lips, hiding his smile. “Can’t have you talking about my secret when the others could waltz right in and see me.”

Koki snorts. “And what will they say if they walk in on their good friend Yuuto having lunch with a Reaper?”

“They know I’ve always seen the UG, I’ll just tell them the truth. I’ve known you since before I ever played, and you’re just a weird uncle type dude.” Yuuto grins, and orders some Shio while they talk.

“Alright, you got me there. I pull off weird uncle well, don’t I?” he asks with a laugh.

“You do, you really do.”

Koki takes a bite of his own ramen, slurping it up. It’s been a while since he’s gotten food with the little brat, but it’s well worth it to make sure he’s eating. The kid always forgets to take care of himself, so if Koki has to step up the family-figure role in his life to ensure he does, so be it.

“So, how’s the whole friends thing goin’, anyway? It’s been a few months so far, right?”

Josh shrugs. “Yeah, it has. It’s going good. They’re all… really nice to me,” he says, fiddling with his hair. “Like, Rhyme, the one that got Erased, they figured out who I am, and they still accept me, though… They don’t know the whole story, but still!”

Ramen arrives, and so Josh has to speak between bites now, as Koki sits and listens to him ramble. “Neku checks up on me and makes sure I’m not left out. He keeps me from retreating into my shell. Shiki and Eri have already been working on making me clothes because they need more models,” he laughs. “Beat is trying to teach me how to skateboard, and I have to remember not to heal up my scrapes and bruises because that’d be suspicious.”

“You’re happy with them all, huh?” he asks. It’s obvious to him, the way Josh lights up, even in this false form. This is the most friends he’s ever had, and it shows in the hands he waves in the air, the glint of life in his eyes, how much this means to him.

“Yeah! I mean, I wish I could tell Neku,” the blinding smile dims at the statement, “but I can’t. This is the best alternative to that.”

“Hey, in a year or two? You’ll be able to tell him, so don’t sweat about that. I’m sure he’ll understand.” With the way his mom raised him, he’d better, Koki doesn’t say, but he thinks it. It had taken a bit of digging, and it’s such a trivial fact, one thread of being related, but it’s there.

He died before he could see his little sister have children, over a hundred years ago. Now, he’s found a distant descendant. He’s an uncle, with a few greats in front of the grand, but he’s an uncle to somebody alive.

 

 

The conversation continues, both of them unaware of the figure watching from outside the window. With a snap, Shiki takes a picture of Yuuto hanging out with a Reaper, eyes narrowing.

She’s got her suspicions. They’ve grown a bit stronger now.

Chapter Text

“Hey Neku?” Rhyme says, not looking up from their textbook. Sprawled out on their back, on the grass of Miyashita Park.

“Yeah?” He glances up from his sketchbook.

“How do you deal with still seeing the UG?”

His frozen breath hangs in the air, summer air not displacing the chill in his lungs. The leaves of the tree he’s leaning against slow their rustling, as his eyes make contact with theirs. “How do you…” he starts. Takes a breath and steadies himself. “How do you know I can still see it?”

“Because we watch the same things,” they say, striking him to the core. “We flinch at the same movements we see out of the corner of our eyes. It’s not hard to put the pieces together when you have the picture placed in front of you.”

“Does Beat…?”

“He knows. He sees it in greyscale, and knows that I see it. Side-effects of being Noise, I think.” They sit up, setting the textbook down. “I have this little voice in my head, not even a voice, just an urge. It feels like Noise. I can sense danger, I can pick up on vibes. I don’t know if it’ll ever go away.”

“I never knew…” he whispers. “I don’t have anything like that in my head. I mean, there’s Music, but there’s always Music.”

“Music?”

He nods, and even now, taking off his headphones, it’s there. A cacophony of notes, swirling around him, pounding against his head. Rhyme’s is distinctive, the edge of residual radio-static making more sense after what he knows now. “I’ve always heard it, but after the Game, it got stronger. It’s how I figured out it wasn’t normal, honestly… I can hear Music coming from art, from people, from Shibuya. I never knew others didn’t before the Game.”

“I have no idea what Music you’re talking about…” They pick up a leaf, twirling it between their fingers.

“As far as I know, it’s like, Soul. Mr. Hanekoma has described it, but it’s hard to grasp.” He starts to scribble again, rough Noise-shapes, messy lines, no silent space in the art. “As for seeing the UG, I see it through a filter. Anything in the UG has the colors more washed out.”

“I don’t have a filter. It’s all the same to me. I’ve bumped people in the UG before. I see up too, higher than the UG. Other things, but that’s when it gets blurry.”

He flips the page. Starts drawing the shape of a face. “It feels like… If I reach out, I could tear through the veil separating me from the UG. Just rip it to shreds and walk on into that side of the world again.” He’s afraid to try. You can’t unpunch a hole in reality, after all.


 

“Save me, I’m dying. Again.”

Yuuto laughs at him, and it’s all Neku can do to open his eyes and muster a glare.

“You look like a cat tossed in water. You’re adorable.”

“I hate you.” The words don’t bite. They hold no fire, maybe a bit of warm water, but certainly not scalding.

“No you don’t. I brought medicine for your cold. And some of Beat’s soup.” Yuuto sets it down by his bed, a tall cup of ice water with it as well.

“I’ve changed my mind. I love you,” he says, as Yuuto helps him sit up and take the meds.

“Oh no, you must be sicker than I thought, if you’re making declarations of love!” Yuuto laughs, and Neku grunts.

“I will find a way to set you on fire. I still have all those pins from the Game.” He musters the energy to stay upright, and take the soup so he can eat. His head is stuffed with cotton, fuzzy and heavy and weighed down by snot. “Are you sure you should be here, though? I could get you sick.”

Yuuto rolls his eyes. “Trust me, I don’t get sick,” he says, flopping into the computer chair and rolling it over to the side of the bed.

“I don’t understand how you’re a living human being. You’re so weird,” Neku mutters, cracking a grin as Yuuto sputters and coughs.

My body learned from dying, thank you very much. It doesn’t wanna go through that again, so it refuses to get sick.”

Reaching out, Neku gives the chair a shove, and watches Yuuto flail as it starts spinning. It’s not fast, not with his arms tired and weak from the cold, but it’s definitely in motion. “I don’t think it works like that.”

The chair is not brought under control. Instead, Yuuto uses his foot to spin it faster. “It totally works like that. I haven’t been sick once since I played.”

“Are you sure you’re not still dead or something, dude? Cuz that’s unnatural.” A sneeze emphasizes his point.

“Hah, maybe so! Plot twist, I’ve been dead this whole time!” Yuuto snorts, flapping his hands as the chair starts to slow.

“Death would be preferable to the hell I am in,” Neku says, and his body convulses as he goes into a sneezing fit. For the fifth time that day. After having been awake for three hours. At some point coughs join the mix, but time is never more clearly an illusion than when you’re sick.

A hand on his back steadies him, solid and stable. A voice, soft but filled with authority. A command. “[Breathe], Neku, breathe. Yeah, just like that, you’re fine. You’ll be fine.”

In. Out. In. Out.

“Ugh,” he rasps, “should’ve stayed dead. Less ways for my body to torment me.” He flops backwards, laying on his back in bed. It’s a miracle the soup didn’t spill during that, but he sees the bowl placed on the bedside table once more. Yuuto’s doing, no doubt.

Yuuto stares at him, eyes glassy. Edges flickering. The echo of an after-image, of bright white. He laughs it off after a second, and Neku’s not sure if he needs to chalk it up to a fevered haze, what he saw, but it’s gone before he can commit the sight to memory.

“Nah, you don’t mean that. Life’ll always be worth living.”


 

Beat ain’t expecting much when he walks into WildKat. Sure, the gang is meeting up there, and the blinds are shut, but that’s not too odd. They’ve spent time there when the place was technically closed before, wouldn’t be the first time, cuz Yuuto has a key.

So when he walks in he’s not expecting anything special. Of course not.

Which is why the chorus of “Congratulations!” and the banner hanging up that says the same makes him jump back, halfway out the door with a “BWAAAAAH!

Rhyme runs up to him and hugs him. “You got a job! A really cool job at a cool place!”

He scratches behind his head, and tries to laugh it off. “It ain’t really that big a deal. Ken Doi is just nice ‘nough to hire me on. Gonna be stuck with dishes duty, probably.”

Neku pats his back, and oh, that’s something Beat usually does to his friends. When did Neku start doing it? “Come on, he hired you as a chef-in-training! You’re gonna be cooking stuff! That’s something big to celebrate!”

“You’re definitely the first of all of us to have, like, actual steady employment,” says Eri from her place at a booth. “Like, Shiki and I? We get some deals, we sell stuff, but an hourly job? Hah!”

“And Neku does his art,” chimes Shiki, sprawled over Eri’s lap, with her current travel-project in hand. “But have you seen his business model? Atrocious. He lets people under-pay him on commissions, like a fool.”

Neku huffs, but doesn’t protest.

“I’m already a popular anonymous songwriter,” Yuuto says. “Only Mr. H here knows what my alias is so far, like hell am I getting a day job.” He laughs, the words a silent dare, figure out my latest mystery. He’s sitting cross-legged on the counter, as Hanekoma tries in vain to shove him down.

Rhyme pulls him to the booth, where there’s a cup of coffee and some food already waiting for him. “We’re all proud of you, Beat. You’re gonna be great, and I’m sure Ken Doi will be a good boss!”

Their smile lights up the room, warm as the sun. All his friends gathered here? This is his home.

“Thanks you guys.” He rubs at his eyes, trying to hide the tears threatening to well up.

“Hey now,” Neku says, “what kind of family would we be if we didn’t celebrate with you?”

If Beat cries at this, well, he trusts the family he’s found not to make fun of him for it.


 

Chat: [Hachiko Squad]

Rhyme: Gender is… Bad.

Ultimate Memer: Oh mood.

I forgot that was still my name.

Shiki: Just give it to me, then I’ll have enough Gender Points to trade mine in for a fancier gender.

Neck: My friends’ dysphoria can come meet me behind Sunshine at 3am to brawl and I will win.

Rhyme: Thanks Neku :D

Shiki: A Good Friend™, truly.

[Ultimate Memer has changed their name to Demi-Yuuto]

Demi-Yuuto: Better.

Also your aggressive threatening of my dysphoria is appreciated <3

Neck: Ok but what kind of demi are you? Demiboy? Demiro?

Demi-Yuuto: Nope!

Well yes both but:

Demigod.

Neck: Why.

Why are my friends like this.

Rhyme: As if you’re any better.

But also Yuuto,

Why are you like this.

Demi-Yuuto: I came out to have a good time and I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now.

Shiki: This is why you were named Ultimate Memer.

Demi-Yuuto: I can acknowledge what I am and wish for a better nickname at the same time. People are complex like that.

We all have our own secret worlds.

I’ve got an internal garden that y’all have barely scratched the surface of and trust me this place is full of complex, contradictory beauty.

I’m multi-dimensional.

FUCK.

Neck: Yuuto I think u need to go to bed.

Rhyme: I think we all need to go to bed, it’s 3am.

Demi-Yuuto: I AM AN IMMORTAL BEING.

SLEEP CANNOT CLAIM ME.

BOW BEFORE MY THRONE, MY RIVERS OF CAFFEINE.

I HAVE NOT SLEPT IN THREE DAYS.

Neck: Yuuto,

I say this with all the love in my heart I have for you, my good friend,

Go the fuck to sleep.

Do not make me come over there, at three in the fucking morning, so I can knock you the hell out.

Demi-Yuuto: YOU’RE NOT MY MOM.

But also please Do Not. Wander. Through Shibuya. At 3am.

Like Neku that’s dangerous.

Neck: Whether I do or don’t is really up to you, now isn’t it?

Demi-Yuuto: Fuck u.

Fine. I will.

Sleep.

U win.

Farewell cruel world, for death hath taken me. Aduei to you all.

If you need me please recall how Neku has forced my hand, I must leave.

Sleeping for a week.

A Lite Coma.

Shiki: If you don’t stop spamming the chat I will physically come over there and turn your phone off and Neku will undoubtedly join me.

Goodnight you fucking memes.

 

 

Eri: Why the fuck were you all up so late none of you are functioning human beings.

Chapter Text

“Where is he?”

Yuuto looks over at Neku from his place sprawled on Neku’s bedroom floor. The declaration makes him raise an eyebrow, and Beat, Shiki, and Rhyme sigh.

Neku is sitting on his bed, flopped over Beat’s lap with a sketchbook in front of him. Rhyme is leaning against its base, and Shiki has staked a claim on the desk chair. Yuuto himself has his back against the wall, laying on his side so he can look at the others. With Neku talking, he sets down his phone.

“Where is who?” he asks.

A sigh escapes him as Neku looks back. “My second week Partner.” Oh. “His name is Joshua, and I haven’t seen him since the last day of my Game.”

“You don’t talk about him much, Neku,” says Shiki, eyebrows scrunched as she looks up from her current sewing project.

“Yeah,” he mutters. “It’s complicated, guys.”

More than you know.

“He did somthin’ to ya, we know that, but you’ve never said what,” Beat chimes in, and oh, they’re prompting Neku. Trying to get the full story out of him.

Neku wavers, fingers tapping at the paper in front of him as indecision flickers across his face. He needs to tell them. Neku can’t keep this bottled up forever, nor can he wait for Josh to emerge.

All it takes is one Imprint. He doesn’t even notice the subtle sway wriggling its way into his head, urging him on, strengthening his impulse to spill the secret.

Tell them. What’s the worst that could happen? They deserve to know, and if Joshua protests, well, you were never told not to tell them.

“Joshua is the Composer, and he shot me. Twice.” The words spill past his lips, tumbling off his tongue, before he slaps a hand over his mouth, eyes widening.

Rhyme gives Yuuto a Look, making sure no one else notices. He shrugs back, sending a thought over to them: He needs to get it out, he’s bottled all this up. There’s nothing against the rules… Explicitly.

“What the fuck?” Shiki is staring at Neku, and Beat is too.

“It’s complicated--”

“Okay but what the actual fuck? He shot you!?” She stands, huffing and pacing the room, running fingers through her hair. “You still want him to show up after he did that to you?”

“Shiki please--”

“I’m wit’ her man, why would you want that?” Beat says, fist clenched.

It should concern Yuuto more, honestly. Rhyme is still glaring at him. Yet, all he can do is frown, and tap a finger to his chin. “I’m sure Neku has his reasons, why don’t we let him speak them?”

Neku shoots him a grateful look as the others quiet down, and Shiki flops back into the chair, keeping her mouth shut but her eyes on Neku, ready to judge if the explanation is satisfactory.

“Joshua is… Complicated.” Neku sighs, sitting up and leaning against the wall, instead of lying on Beat’s lap. It’s no doubt easy to pull away, pull into himself.

“I think he’s a lot like me. Or, before and during the Game he was similar to how I was when you all first met me. Only worse. Depression and loneliness gave him a misanthropic view of the world, and I could feel it.” He runs a hand through his hair. Gelled spikes don’t agree with the treatment, so he switches to twisting the end of one between his fingers.

“I related to him, we had the same sort of humor and outlook, except seeing his helped me re-evaluate my own. It hurt, when I thought he shot me, even though he was an annoying git. It hurt even more, when I thought he got himself Erased to save me, and I thought he hadn’t killed me for that last week.”

Yuuto keeps his expression neutral, a blank sheet of paper. The sacrifice might’ve been over-the-top, it might’ve been what kept Neku from shooting him. Neku knew what it was like to lose him, and he didn’t want to cause himself that pain. Again.

“I dunno…” Neku continues, “I don’t forgive him, but he was my Partner, and you all know what that’s like. He chose me as a Proxy, playing some fucked-up game with the Conductor. At the end…”

“You don’t talk about what happened in that final room,” Rhyme says, moving away from the bed so they can look up at Neku.

“The Conductor got Erased, and he challenged me to a duel. Whoever won got to choose what to do with Shibuya, he wanted to Erase the UG. Even with that motive, even knowing everything he did, I couldn’t pull the trigger. And he shot me. Again.”

A slight tremor runs through Neku’s body. His Music is a cacophony of noise, but Joshua keeps the Noise at bay, even when he looks like Yuuto. There are no tears, but grief wells within Neku.

“If he won, why is Shibuya still standing? Why did any of us get brought back?” Shiki asks.

“Erasing the UG wouldn’t destroy Shibuya,” says Yuuto. “Just the UnderGround, and a shiny new one would grow back. Erasing the UG, however, would Erase the Composer. If the Composer is Erased with no one there to take his spot, no Conductor or person who beat them, then the UG collapses.”

Neku freezes, the guitar strings of his Music snapping as he whips his head toward Yuuto. For a second, he thinks Neku’s caught on, he’s been caught, but… “Oh my god. Did he want to die?”

“I can’t answer that. You did say he seemed depressed, though.” Yuuto doesn’t look up, grabbing a safety pin off his clothes to pick at his nails with.

Of course Neku hadn’t caught him. He shouldn’t even want that. And yet, the idea of Neku piecing together the puzzle fills him with a soft fuzz, warm because it’d mean Neku knew him well enough to see through his disguise.

Maybe if he had all his memories…

But that’s an impossibility.

“Still… I trust him, he and I were Partners. We had a bond.” Neku waves a hand in the air. “The least he could do is meet up with me, because I want an explanation, he owes me one. But no! It’s been two years, and he’s nowhere to be found!”

Silence falls, until: “Maybe he can’t?” Rhyme asks.

Neku’s head snaps to look at them, eyebrows furrowed. “What?”

“Maybe… What if there’s rules you don’t know about, and he’s not allowed to see you?” they explain.

Joshua would hug them, if he could, but alas, it would be weird if he did that now, as Yuuto. He’ll send them a thank-you text tonight.

“If there’s a rule against visiting me but not one against shooting me then the rules are messed up. And if there is one, then he’s a hypocrite.”

Yuuto snorts, rolling his eyes. “Fair enough.”

“He still deserves to get punched in the fucking face,” Shiki says. “If I see him, I’ll chuck something at him for you.”

Neku laughs, and oh, no matter how much he gets to hear that nowadays, it still sends a buzz of energy through his stomach. Like being zapped by a lightning bolt psych.

“Well, if you get the chance, go right ahead, but make sure to tell him to stop being a coward, too.”


 

White light cascades from the rooftop of 104, obscured by the sun. He sits, legs dangling over the edge.

Rhyme climbs the stairs, and pops the door open.

Joshua doesn’t move. His edges are blurred, ink smeared and blended, and they can’t tell where he ends and Shibuya begins. Not RG, maybe not even UG, a frequency buzzing in the back of their head that sends static stabs through their skull.

They shove it to the side, and plop down by him. “So, sitting on the roof, huh? Wistfully staring out at the city?”

He snorts. “You know how it is: doubting life, and death, choices, being the emo seventeen-year-old you never got to be in life. Having a vague existential and moral crisis.”

“Is this… About what Neku said yesterday?”

“He’s right,” Joshua says, light surrounding him starting to dim. The harsh glow fades, and Rhyme can feel him slide down the vibes, into the RG. “I am a hypocrite. He deserves better.”

They headbutt him, leaning against his side. For all that Josh proclaims to be cold and dead, the warmth emanating from him is full of life. Maybe it’s fake, meant to comfort, or habit so he doesn’t alarm any of the group with clammy skin claimed by the grave, but they think it helps his mental state, too.

“He doesn’t want better though, he wants you. Tell me your side of the story.”

He sighs and flops onto his back, staring up at the sky. “He was meant to be my replacement. I wanted to be gone. I’d messed up bad, and he was so much like me, in so much pain, that I thought the Game could make him better, and he could free me from my misery.”

Looking down, the distance to the ground is far, the people below flowing like rivers, intermingling and dispersing. Individuals are lost to the crowd. “There’s more, isn’t there? You fixated on Neku for this, instead of anyone else.”

“Neku deserves to be the first to learn about that reason. Sorry, but it wouldn’t be fair.”

They nod, and swing their feet.

“You shouldn’t be so close to the edge, you know,” he says, and they laugh.

Pulling their legs up, they flop around so their head dangles instead, hair blowing in the wind. “If I fall, you will most certainly catch me.”

A rustle is the only sign they get that he moves, until he sits right on their feet. “And now you won’t fall at all. Beat would skin me if he knew I let you do this.”

“Nah, Neku and I wouldn’t let him.”


 

“So,” says Shiki, “you like him, don’t you?”

It would be useless to flail his limbs, sputter and deny her words, so instead, Yuuto sighs and nods. “What gave me away?”

She laughs, rolling her eyes. “You’re pining, it’s obvious to anyone with eyes. You sprawl yourself over him whenever he gives you permission, like a cat seeking affection. You’re always staring at him when he isn’t looking!”

A cat seeking affection, he snorts. “I’m just a big, cuddly snow leopard. I’m touchy-feely with all of you, how is it different with him?”

“Even on your bad days, you lean against him. You don’t let anyone else touch you, but he’s always allowed,” she says.

“I guess,” he shrugs, tapping his pencil against the paper in front of him.

Since becoming friends with everyone, his apartment had become lived in. Trinkets and gifts from the past year fill the space. Shiki has given him some plushies, and pillows with pretty designs rest on the couch where she sits. Eri’s gifts are clothes picked from the rack, if it’s not a joint-gift from her and Shiki in the form of clothes they’ve made.

Beat has taken to cooking, and Yuuto keeps his kitchen stocked. In return, he gets good food and a skateboard resting in the entryway closet. Rhyme gives stim toys, from the reversible-sequin snap bracelet to the rainbow tangle.

As for Neku… Art hangs on the once-barren walls. A landscape of Shibuya in watercolor hangs behind the couch, and a portrait of the entire gang is framed and placed near the entrance.

Papers and pencils are scattered everywhere. Neku keeps a case of art supplies here. Everyone has small projects that have taken up residency, and Shiki is working on one of them now. Stitching a snow leopard into existence.

“The thing you’re working on, it’s for Neku, isn’t it?” Shiki asks, breaking the silence.

He nods. “I’m composing. I’ve got most of it down, in fact it’s pretty much finished, but I’m worried… Will he like it?”

She looks over at him, a quick glance before her eyes dart away again. “What? Are you gonna serenade him or something?”

“Yes, actually, I am,” he says, tossing the paper to the side and himself to the floor. It’s pointless to sit on the chair when it impedes his creative flow. “But it’s so impossible to know if he’ll appreciate it. If he’ll understand my reasoning. I don’t even know if I want him to know yet!” he moans, rolling onto his side.

“Then play for me,” she says, like it’s the most simple conclusion in the world. “I can tell you if he’ll like it, at least.”

Yuuto perks up. “You’d be cool with that?” When she nods, he jumps, dashing to his room to retrieve the violin.

She doesn’t see it appear from thin air in his hands, doesn’t see his form flicker ever so slightly. He comes back looking like Yuuto as always.

“Serenade me, music boy.” She stabs the animal in her hand with the needle again, something to fiddle with so she can enjoy the music more, no doubt.

A laugh. He sets up the stand for his music, and positions the violin. “Now, ideally, this is somewhere like, WildKat, and I’m wearing one of your super fancy suits, but we can discuss that later.”

Yuuto raises the bow, and lets the magic happen.

Fast-paced, running through Shibuya streets with the beat, weaving through crowds and ducking into back alleys. It starts soft, then crescendos. He closes his eyes, letting the high notes weave together with the low.

The pulse matches time with the heartbeat of the city, spray paint graffiti hits the wall. The echo of a drum plays through his tune, noticed by its absence. A solo player is not a quartet, is not a band, and he does not have techno parts to add for a violin solo, but he lets the music do the talking.

Imagination weaves through the notes, calling forth the memory of other instruments, adding the illusion of more than there is.

Yuuto steps in time, sways, pacing a fluid circle to match his song. Not his song. Neku’s song, Neku’s Music. Music warped and persuaded into playing on a single violin, playing over the strings to describe him.

Magic is kept to a minimum, he doesn’t call forth the actual sounds, or implant them as more than elusive notes, but it’s impossible to give off the feel he wants without it. Impossible to transcribe the flashes of orange and piercing blue, the splash of color he brings everywhere, the conflicting notes and discord of life.

Joshua does his best, but there’s only so much he can do without dropping his disguise.

The final note draws out as the song comes to a close. The real one plays on elsewhere in the city, but he cannot play his violin all day.

Opening his eyes, he looks to Shiki, finding her staring on with awestruck wide eyes, and a jaw dropped far enough to catch flies. The snow leopard in her lap left abandoned.

He bows with a flourish, before setting his instrument down.

“So, think he’ll like it?” Yuuto asks with a grin that wavers like the final note.

“If he doesn’t fall head-over-heels for you after hearing that, you’re shit outta luck my dude.”


 

She stays unnoticed, trailing behind Yuuto after the weekly meetup. Shiki doesn’t want to suspect a friend, but he’s suspicious, plain and simple.

Yuuto doesn’t make it to every meeting, which she can understand, but it’s a regular occurrence every few weeks. He’s had lunch with a Reaper, chatting like old friends. He knows too much about the Game, more than any of the Players should know, more than Neku ever learned.

WildKat is the destination, and she hangs back to watch through the windows as Yuuto enters. Standing in the shadow of a nearby building, staying out of sight, she expects to find some shady business going down.

Shiki doesn’t expect him to have a fucking magical girl transformation.

Bathed in a glow of light, his features blur, glaring against the window. As it fades, black hair grows and turns white, his body shrinks, and the glasses he wears are removed. His skin goes pale, and--

She’s seen him before.

She doesn’t need to see the violet eyes or the smirk to know that frame. He’s talking to Mr. Hanekoma, facing away, but the picture rings clear in her brain.

Neku has filled pages upon pages of his sketchbook with that person. She’s seen him in the ink staining paper while he vents far too often.

The bell chimes above her head, and she’s faced with Yuuto again. The last vestiges of creamy light fading from view, dismissed as aftereffects of being in the sun if she didn’t know any better.

“Hey, Shiki, what are you doing here--”

The steel in her eyes leaves no room for him to finish that sentence as she marches over to him, her voice a snake’s hiss. “You have ten seconds to explain to me what the fuck I just saw, starting now.”

He slides off the stool, taking a step back from her pointed finger. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He laughs, rubbing his neck.

“Try again. You changed. I saw that. I saw who. Six seconds.”

Yuuto scrambles, holding his hands in the air as he retreats, back to the window. “Okay, okay. It’s. Shit, it’s complicated. Give me a moment.”

She holds up five fingers. In the silence, she ticks it down to four.

“I can’t, okay? I can’t. There’s… A lot. Where do I start?”

“Start with why the fuck you’re hiding your identity from all of us!” He’s down to three fingers now, and as Mr. Hanekoma slips out of the room, she takes note of the steaming cup of coffee on the counter.

“Well,” two fingers. “I wasn’t hiding it from all of you. Rhyme figured it out in a month.” He takes another step back. “I just… I can’t tell Neku who I am, okay?”

“So you’re a liar, then?” One.

“No! Well, yes. It’s complicated, give me some time to--”

Gravel escapes her throat as she huffs, grabbing the cup and throwing it.

The scalding coffee never reaches its target, suspended in midair, lid popped off as some splashes over the edge.

Yuuto’s eyes glow violet.

The glow washes over the rest of his body, and vanishes when he blinks.

Joshua stands in front of her. Coffee hangs between them. His hand is still outstretched.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t walk over there and punch you. Or take a picture and tell Neku.” Her voice is flat, buried deep in the anger boiling in her stomach.

“You can’t tell Neku. If he knows, Yuuto will have to leave without a goodbye,” Joshua says, waving his hand so the coffee settles on the table. “I’d hate to do that to him, but you’d give me no choice.”

“You coward,” she spits, acid burning her tongue. “You’d do that to him? What, can’t face the truth? Can’t face his judgement of you?”

It burns. Fire burns in her, eating away at her stomach as the fumes leave her mouth. She’s biting back the flame, for now.

“It’s beyond my control! Give me a chance to explain, please!” His voice cracks, wavers like a pane of glass balanced on its edge.

“Explain what? How you’re lying to us? How you’re trying to manipulate me, so I don’t tattle? How do you explain shooting someone in the face? How do you fucking explain what you’ve done to Neku? What you’re doing,” she flings her arms wide, “to him!”

Reality splinters.

Time tips on its axis. Cracks run through her body, she vibrates a pitch just out of reach, on a different frequency. Static leaks into the air, humid and heavy. She’s frozen, an ancient crumbling statue ready to collapse, unable to hold back the torrent of power coursing through her.

It wants to escape. She gives it a channel.

Mr. Mew launches himself from her purse at Joshua, who scrambles back, collapsing on a chair as he tries to get away from the stuffed cat. Curses fly from his mouth as the echo of light flies from his fingertips, trying to bat the cat away.

All it takes is one hit and Mr. Mew stills, dropping to the floor like his strings were cut. Shiki stares.

She’d done that. She had made Mr. Mew move in the RG. She’d used a Psych.

Joshua is staring at her, she’s staring at the plushie. Her anger stewing in her stomach is stirred by confusion, cooling for a second to digest this.

Joshua stands, inching closer, but not too close. “You’ve still got your power, but don’t worry. You’re firmly RG right now, WildKat is on a thinner part of the boundary between the planes, and nobody in this group of friends has been left untouched by the UG.” Hesitance is scrawled on his face, and his hands bounce, fingers tapping at his leg.

While it helps her to know she hasn’t flipped to the UG, this draws her attention back to him, and she pierces him with an icy glare. “Don’t test your luck by trying to change the subject. Tell me what you’re trying to accomplish. Or I’ll try doing that again.”

“I want to be friends, is that too much to imagine?” he asks.

“After everything you’ve done? Yes! You’re playing at some kind of game here, and I don’t trust it. I don’t trust you.” She steps forward and picks up Mr. Mew, so he doesn’t go flying off again. She’s ready for some retort, some proof, or a laugh.

She doesn’t expect him to go blank. To shut down. He closes his eyes, and they stay closed for a few seconds. Arms go slack, mouth drops into neutrality.

When he opens his eyes, she takes a step back, because they’re dead.

Yuuto is known for his energy, his laugh, the glint of mischief in his eyes. He doesn’t sit still, he can’t. It only happens when he hits a slump.

Joshua very much resembles that rare Yuuto, cold and tired. Dull violet eyes meet hers for one second, before he glances away. HIs voice has slipped into a monotone as he says, “If that is what you believe, then there is no point in me saying anything right now. If you choose to listen to one thing I have said, let it be the fact that if you tell him, he will lose a friend.”

She must blink, because one second he’s there, and the next he’s gone.


 

Shiki: ^Rhyme listen trust me.^

^I need you to kick Yuuto from the group.^

^He’s trash we don’t need him around but you’re the one with admin powers in the game chat.^

Rhyme: ^Oh did you find out too?^

Shiki: ^Wait what?^

^You actually know?^

Rhyme: ^Of course. If he told you I do, then yeah, I do.^

Shiki: ^And you’re just???? Letting him stick around? You haven’t said anything!?^

Rhyme: ^I’ve always been able to tell.^

^I still have residual instincts from when I was a Noise.^

^I sensed something off about Neku’s second week Partner when I was Noise, and I remembered that. It felt the same around the Composer. And Yuuto. I put it together and he told me what was up.^

^He can’t mention the whys directly, so he dances around the subject until you figure it out. Hints and clues because I don’t think he’s allowed to say it or anything.^

Shiki: ^He’s been lying to us for a year now! And you heard from Neku what he did!^

Rhyme: ^I’ve gotten to watch him as both Yuuto and Joshua for a year now, though.^

^He’s the same person, always. A different face, a different name, but he’s got the same personality. Just, as Josh, he’s more open and honest.^

^I trust him. He’s helped me work through some of the residual Noise stuff, and he wishes he could tell Neku, tell everyone.^

Shiki: ^Then why DOESN’T he? Why not tell us all? He could’ve told me and Beat way earlier!^

Rhyme: ^The more people who know, the more likely someone will slip up and reveal it to Neku.^

^And besides, he plans on telling everyone after he tells Neku. Once he’s allowed, he will. I’ve seen how it’s eating at him, he wants to, but he can’t right now.^

^So no, I won’t remove him from the group. I don’t think he has many people he can befriend, and we’re some of the few he does. I’m not going to take that away from him. Besides, we’d have to explain it to the others, somehow, and I don’t want to reveal the truth and force him away.^

Chapter Text

Chat: [Hachiko Squad]

Neck: Hey is it just me or has Yuuto been quiet lately?

Rhyme: Maybe something came up?

He’s always had some times when he gets super busy with family or school.

Shiki: Mm.

I couldn’t say.

Neck: Well I’m worried. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s just quiet, but I wanna make sure he’s okay.

~|~

Neku: ^Hey are you okay?^

^The rest of the group has noticed how quiet you’re being.^

 

 

^Seriously are you okay? You haven’t been responding at all.^

 

 

^Yuuto please.^

^Yuuto?^

^Hey. Respond.^

^I’m worried.^

 

 

 

 

Yuuto: ^whoops.^

^life has been.^

^elusive.^

^I’m doing ok now.^

Neku: ^Why do I get the feeling that you’re lying?^

^Remember the offer to beat up depression with a frying pan?^

^It’s still up for grabs.^

Yuuto: ^I’m fine.^

^Don’t worry, Neku.^


 

Shiki: ^If you don’t open your fucking door for him I WILL tell him.^

Yuuto: ^Oh? Are you talking to me again?^

^I’m not home right now. Can’t open the door.^

Shiki: ^You lying, sniveling brat. Get your ass home and pretend that you’re his friend or I will stab you. I am constantly in possession of sharp pointy needles and I am not afraid to use them on you. After I tell Neku your secret.^

Yuuto: ^Fine.^

 

The pounding continues.

A drum beating at his skull. A hammer bashing at his Music.

A hand slamming against the door.

Joshua tosses his phone to the other side of his bed, and works his magic over his appearance. Doesn’t bother to check it in a mirror. He’ll look gross and haggard either way, no need to confirm it.

“Yuuto I swear I will break down this door if you don’t come open it! I’m not just going to let you isolate yourself!” Neku’s voice carries through the air, through the walls. Fire slams itself against the wooden door, threatening to burn it to the ground. A blaze of spiky orange taking a stand.

“If you’ve done anything stupid in there I’m gonna have to fight you. After I make sure you’re okay. I will beat your ass back into the Game.” He speaks with the force of a solar flare, daring him to come and look at the searing beauty of the outside world once more.

Yuuto drags himself up, out of bed. Blankets hang off him like cascades of water, clinging, whispering the blissful escape of the void contained underneath. The undertow struggles to keep its hold, pulling him back into the crushing pressure of the depths.

Shiki was right. He is a coward. One who would succumb to the allure of an anglerfish rather than face the sun.

Quieter. The sizzle of a fuse burning away. “This had better not be like the last time I had to break down a door. Don’t you dare end up like… That.”

A bomb goes off in his deep-sea trench, rocketing him toward the sky, toward the sunlight. He’s out of bed, out of the blanket tarpit, gangly limbs floundering about, a fish on land. All knees and elbows, almost-misplaced feet as he stumbles his way to the door.

Unlocking it, opening it, he leans on the doorframe, and squints against the harsh sunlight coming from the hall window, obscuring Neku’s face. The well of energy in his soul is depleted, drained from the fight it took to get there, so he can’t muster a glare.

“I gave you a key to my place months ago.” He slumps forward, head thudding against Neku’s chest.

Neku scoffs. “Well excuse me for forgetting it at home when I made an impulsive decision to come check on you. I don’t think it’s a big issue compared to this trash dump you’ve been living in, though.”

“Hey now, it’s not as bad as your pigsty of a room,” he mumbles.

Neku’s laugh vibrates against him, the warmth of a nice spring day, the sun peeking through the clouds after a cold and snowy winter. “You’re going to go shower, and I’ll get a head start on cleaning up your mess.”

Yuuto lets himself be herded to the bathroom, and Neku leaves once he’s started the water. When the door shuts, he starts undressing, three-day-old clothes being tossed to the side.

It’s Joshua who stands underneath the steaming water. There’s no point in expending the droplets of energy it takes to maintain the false form. It doesn’t take much, but he’s low on energy right now, and the smallest drop that can be saved is worth more used elsewhere.

The heat seeps into his skin, melting his ice-cold exterior. The iceberg encasing his heart. His cold, clammy, dead body starts to mimic life. Steam fills his lungs, hangs and wavers in the air. A standing wave floats around his body, inches out, like an aura.

He breathes in. Breathes out. Lets color seep into the grayscale world. The tiles on the wall aren’t a sun-bleached sand, but rather deep, rich gold, filled with flecks of pinks and reds and blues.

Crystal-blue shampoo washes the grime from his hair, pink body wash scrubs away the dirt clinging to his skin, layers of filth washing down the drain.

Sensation returns, and he has to turn down the heat, because it burns. Turns his skin red.

Joshua stands under the torrent, letting the water slide across his skin. He stands. Focuses on the beat the streams of water make. Pounding against the ground. A steady rhythm. A tune. An ear-popping melody.

The beat of drums. The pull of the strings, friction as the bow slides across the violin. Depth from the reverb of the brass section. Air breezing through his hair from the wind instruments, spiraling higher and higher.

Cymbals crash together, his body caught in the middle of collision, and he braces himself with a hand on the wall so he doesn’t fall.

The underlying piano tune of Shibuya plays through his veins. The pseudo-heartbeat returns with the wave of force, carrying his city through his blood.

She sweeps him up, wraps her staves tight around his arms, quarter-notes clinging to his skin, a crescendo placed above his throat and a fortissimo etched into his heart.

Joshua hadn’t noticed the absence of her song until it crashed into him all at once. Lightning striking true and electrifying his nerves, clearing up the fog clogging his senses.

When he emerges from the cloud of steam, turning off the water, his connection to the world around him is solid, no more wavering tenuous state. He finds the clothes Neku set out for him, and puts on the purple sweater and sweatpants. The soft, clean fabric against his skin doesn’t irritate him, low on sensory input.

As he slips through the door, he slips back into the skin of Yuuto. The sight that greets his eyes outside the bathroom sends a jolt of shock through his body.

No clothes litter the ground. The bed is made. Windows are open, and a soft spring breeze flows through the apartment, the rays of light cleansing the dark musk.

Neku stands in the kitchen, busying himself with grabbing bowls and dishing out food.

“Where did that come from?” he asks, body on autopilot as he moves closer to the enticing smell.

“Got Beat to grab us some Ramen Don as he was leaving work for the day. I figured some shio might cheer you up,” Neku says, walking to the couch and plopping down.

Yuuto follows, sitting by him and taking his bowl. “I’ll have to thank him for that, huh?”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ve all been concerned for you, and he wanted to help out.” Neku smiles.

“Still… I’m being a bother with all this.” He takes a bite, savoring the warmth that fills him.

“You’re not though. You’re my friend, everyone’s friend! We care about you, ya nerd,” Neku says, elbowing him in the side, careful not to make the ramen spill.

Yuuto falls silent, picking at his food, swirling ramen around his bowl and thoughts around his head.

In the end, he doesn’t finish it, setting it on the coffee table.

What if…” he whispers, voice almost masked by the sound filtering through the window. “What if I were hiding something from you? Something big? What if I’m not who you think I am?”

Neku sets his own ramen down, and turns to face him, sitting cross-legged on the couch. “You’re my friend, dude. You could literally murder someone and I’d assume you have a reason.”

Yuuto flinches, and shakes his head. “No no, uh. That’s not-- Well. I mean technically does it count if I murdered myself?” He tries to grin, but Neku doesn’t smile.

“That’s not what I was going for, and you told me that already.” He sighs, and sets his own ramen down. “Yuuto, listen, you can trust me. I’m not going to stop being your friend over certain things.”

“It’s just… It’s big. And I shouldn’t tell you, but. I want to. You deserve to know but I can’t tell you. Not now. In the future, hopefully, but not yet.” He fidgets with the hem of his shirt, and Neku hands him a tangle to have something else to use instead. He’s always got stuff like that in his pockets, for himself and all his friends.

“You’re important to me,” Neku says, a smile on his face. And really, is it that simple?

Has Yuuto earned Neku’s trust so well, become so important, that this is how he is received?

“That’s what makes it worse,” he mutters. “You trust me, you’ve let me into your circle of friends. What happens when you find out, and decide I was in the wrong? What happens when you take this as a betrayal?” He wants to snap the pieces of the tangle, separate them and pop them back together, but it’s Neku’s. He doesn’t want to accidentally break Neku’s stim toy.

“Whatever it is, take the time you need. Honestly?” he reaches out, places a hand on Yuuto’s knee. “Knowing you’re hiding something doesn’t mean much to me. I mean, yeah, I hope one day you tell me, but I can see how much it’s eating you. Trust me, Yuuto, like I trust you, when I say: I’m not going to push this issue, or drop you, because you’re hiding something.”

And Joshua could cry. He could break down right then and there. He wants to, the urge welling up inside him. But he doesn't.

Instead, Yuuto wipes his eyes, and places his hand over Neku’s.

He still doesn’t trust that Neku won’t react badly, but… He trusts Neku. Neku doesn’t want him to worry, so for now. He won’t.

“Thanks, Neku,” he smiles, and picks his bowl of ramen back up. It wouldn’t do, to let this go to waste.


 

There is a knock at the door.

Shiki sighs, standing as she goes to answer. There’s not many people it could be. Eri is out of Shibuya for the weekend, Neku is busy contemplating things. Beat and Rhyme typically send a message ahead of time when they come to hide.

So when she opens the door to reveal Yuuto--No, Joshua, she’s not surprised.

“If I throw something at you, will it hit this time?” she asks, heading back to the couch where she was sewing the latest project. A fox meant for Neku.

“Probably not, but you can try,” he says, laughing with that stupid fake voice, that false face smiling.

“Then leave.” She stabs the needle through the fabric.

“Unfortunately, I don't think I should.” He steps into the studio, and takes his seat in his usual armchair. “We need to talk. For real. Without either of us falling into petty insults or hate.”

“Fuck off.” She glares at Yuuto.

“Just--Listen? Please?” He’s fidgeting with a tangle. One of Neku’s tangles.

“I can’t stop you from speaking.” She says.

He takes a deep breath, and drops the disguise. It’s unnerving, jarring to watch the transformation. Watch the colors and body shift, but it’s… fascinating at the same time. If she had that ability…

But no, she’s happy in her body, even if she wants to change some aspects. She doesn’t need bullshit god powers to be happy. She doesn’t need that, she likes who she is now.

“I have… Higher ups, who were--are mad at me for what I did, during the Long Game. Starting the Long Game, and… I’m not allowed to interact with Neku, so becoming Yuuto was my loophole.” He rubs a hand down his face, under her glare.

“So because you didn’t like your punishment, you’re cheating the rules now. And this is supposed to make me like you?” she hisses.

“I--” He cuts off. Takes a breath. “Listen, I know it sounds bad. I know you don’t like it. Or me. But… I have many reasons for doing this. One of them is that I want to see Neku, that’s the main one. I want to hang out with him, and be his friend. I missed him. But there’s others, too…”

“Like what?”

“Like the fact that, if I were not here, he would’ve gone to the Room of Reckoning again to try getting me, Joshua, to talk to him.” He huffs a laugh, and looks one second away from snapping the pieces of the  tangle in his hand. “With me being at his side, I’ve been subconsciously meeting his urge to find me, keeping him from doing dangerous, risky stuff like that. If he makes it to the Room of Reckoning, Shibuya will disobey me, and make him my Conductor, because that’s what she wants him to be.”

And that’s… A lot. Shiki stares at him, a frown etching its way onto her face.

Neku becoming Conductor… That’s a big no. The very idea unsettles her. Dread pooling in her stomach at the thought. Because Neku and everyone are out, they’re free, and one reason why she doesn’t want Joshua around is because he’d drag them back in.

Neku can’t let go of him yet, she knows, no matter how much she frowns when Josh is brought up. Neku doesn’t want to leave the UG behind, and Joshua… He’s the reason why.

But if Joshua, even as Yuuto, is keeping Neku from getting stuck, getting pulled back to the deep end, caught in the undertow, then--

“I don’t like this. At all. Fuck you for not giving me the choice.” He shrinks back from her dagger-glare, as cold steel lines her tongue and she’s ready to lash out.

“I will tell him, as soon as my ban gets repealed. I promise you that.” He says, eyes cold. Body stiff.

(The same way Yuuto stiffens up whenever he’s nervous, or afraid of something, her traitorous brain whispers, he really is the same.)

“And then what? He’s not going to be happy.”

“He already knows I’m hiding something,” Joshua says. “I told him I wasn’t who he thinks I am, and do you wanna know what he said?”

She tilts her head, raising an eyebrow. “What?”

“He told me he didn’t care if I’d killed someone before. What the fuck have I done in the past year that makes him so loyal?”

That-- That makes Shiki stop. Because Neku is loyal to him. Loyal to all of them. His partners, which he trusts, even if he doesn’t know. And dammit, Joshua is making himself hard to hate. She doesn’t want to like him, this person who killed her best friend.

She’s known him for a year. He’s dug his claws in, under her skin, a hook sunken so far in that it’s better to let it stay than tear it out, barbed and ready to shred you apart. A familiar, heavy weight at one side, making her unbalanced with him gone these past few weeks.

“Just… Give me a chance, please?” he asks, not looking up to meet her eyes. “Give me a chance to prove that I’m not going to hurt him. That I just want to be friends with him, with everyone.”

Shiki bites her tongue, rolls the words over in her mouth.

Fine. You have one chance. Don’t waste it.”


 

[Shiki Misaki has created: Josh is Awful: The Chat.]

[Shiki Misaki has changed their name to Shiki.]

[Shiki has added: Yuuto Kimura and Rhyme Bito to the chat.]

[Shiki has changed Yuuto Kimura’s name to The Awful One.]

[Rhyme Bito has changed their name to Rhyme.]

The Awful One: I feel like I should be mad about this.

But it’s true.

Shiki: He’s self-aware. Amazing.

Rhyme: So this is the in the know chat then?

Shiki: Yep.

The Awful One: Great. Awesome.

A chat where literally everyone in it can make fun of me.

Superb.

Because I am awful at being a functioning human being.

Rhyme: You’re too gay to function

The Awful One: Damn right I am

Hey Shiki you made it so I couldn’t change my name

Please just make it abbreviate to TAO. That’s so much simpler

Shiki: No. You get to suffer.

The Awful One: I don’t think she likes me.

Shiki: of course I don’t. This is your second chance with me, don’t squander it.

Don’t push my limits.

I make the rules here.

The Awful One: Got it.

I would love to stay and chat some more with yall, but

I have to go stop Neku now.

Because he’s about to do something super idiotic.

Shiki: You can’t just leave like that.

What’s he doing?

Josh.

Josh what the fuck tell us something.

Rhyme: And he’s gone.

Now you know what I’ve been dealing with for a year.

Shiki: How?

Rhyme: It’s worth it when you get to make fun of him too.

He is. So bad at trying to fake things.

Need I remind you of: The fact that his name in the main chat is still “Demi-Yuuto”

He literally said it was because he’s a demigod.

Do you know how hard it is to not yell over all of this?

Shiki: Oh my god.

I’m so sorry.

Rhyme: At least I have someone else here to suffer through this with me now :D


An urge boils under Neku’s skin, as he prepares to leave his house again.

It’s been over a year since he’s had the impulse to walk this path. A year since he’s wanted to go through the Trail of the Sinner and find the Pad, find Joshua.

(A year since he met Yuuto.

Neku doesn’t want to connect the two, but his brain draws lines between the dots of the scatterplot.)

But here he is, walking along the river.

It eats at him, fire wanting to leap out, to find him again. He wants to see his friend.

So his footsteps echo against the empty walls, as he crosses the Rubicon. Comes upon the barrier forward. The door to the Dead God’s Pad.

A tingle runs against his skin, but it lets him in. Shibuya’s melody whispers around him, clearing the path as he steps forward, through the barrier. The fish in the glass tank underneath follow his feet.

Neku is determined to make it this time, determined to reach Josh. It pools in his mouth, a bitter thing of metal and fire. A heavy burden weighing down his jaw. A song coiled around his heart, tugging him forward, following the beat, following where he’s meant to be.

He still has his Player pin, so it’s easy to scan. Maybe he shouldn’t be here, in the UG. The wrong vibe is tingling against his skin, raising the hairs along his arms, but he’s come this far.

He sees the door in his mind’s eye, the entrance to his judgement, and--

Yuuto is there, eyes flaring with concealed worry, but Neku knows his tells.

Doesn’t know how he got here so fast, unless--

Unless…

“You shouldn’t be here, Neku.”

Chapter Text

“You shouldn’t be here, Neku.”

“Hey Yuuto, what the fuck?” Neku asks, stumbling back, bracing himself with a hand on the coffee table. Staring at him.

Staring at his friend. Who’d just teleported.

Yuuto sighs, long and drawn out, as he runs his fingers through his hair. “I said I was hiding something, the other day, didn’t I?”

Neku nods, the only movement he makes, because yeah, he had. He remembers that conversation.

“You should sit,” Yuuto says, gesturing to one of the couches.

Neku moves, fog at the edges of his brain, cotton muffling sensation as he plops down. He should be feeling something, anything, as he stares at Yuuto and asks, “Are you dead?” But the emotional processing has short-circuited, and he needs to wait for a reboot to kick it back online.

Yuuto sits opposite him, and nods. “I’m a high ranking Reaper. Not the new Conductor, but still high up.”

“Why would a Reaper choose to befriend me? Or did you really not know?” Hands reach up, and he has to fight down the urge to fidget with headphones that no longer rest against his ears.

“No, I knew,” he says. “I was already dead when the Long Game happened. But given everything, I’m not surprised you don’t recognize me.”

A sigh, before continuing, “It was… the Composer’s idea, that I befriend you, and keep you from coming down here.”

It’s this punch to the stomach that generates the spark, sends electricity surging through his nerves again, igniting them. Nails dig into the skin of his palm as he glares. “Oh, so you’re just friends with me on orders, then, huh? Joshua is too high and mighty, can’t even tell me he doesn’t want to see me, so he sends you in his place, just to keep me unaware.”

Yuuto laughs, and Neku hisses, ready to lash into him with words, but before he has the chance, Yuuto speaks. “Sorry, that’s just--A big assumption. It’s complicated, but--and telling you this is risky enough--the Composer is under strict orders not to interact with you. Rules-lawyering can only get you so far, when you break as many rules as he did.”

Oh.

It doesn’t stop the bubble growing in his chest, forcing its way up through his throat, hot and red, but it’s information to be filed away. Information he should've been told before now.

“What? He’s decided to try following rules now?”

If he found a loophole, you wouldn’t ever know.” Yuuto pushes his glasses up, careful not to smudge them. “It’d be risky too. Best not to speculate about any of that, honestly.”

“Fine,” he huffs. He’ll shelve this topic. For now. But like any shelved book, it can be opened up at a later time and revisited. “What about you, then? This doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been lying for over a year! I don’t want a friendship based on lies.”

“Hey, what was the name of your first friend? The one who died.”

What?” The whiplash makes him falter, as his brain reaches for the answer.

Reaches.

And gets stuck on a buffering symbol.

“I--I don’t see why that matters. Don’t change the subject!”

The name isn’t there.

H̯̩̝e͚͉͕̠ͅ ̳̮̮̤͖̤doe̱̠̖̳̘͕͖s̺̘͓n͚̬’t͇ ̜̻̝̳̹r̠̼̝̗̻̫e̱̗̤͇̮̩̝-

                       -m͇̠̭͓̝̙ẻ̗̯̞͖̻̘͆͌͐m̜̳͓̜-

                                    -ḇ͎ͭ͂̌̄ͬe͖̱̞̠͎ͬͅr̘̟̯̰̗̜̜

“Oh Neku,” says Yuuto, snapping him out of the static. And--there are tears in Yuuto’s eyes. “I’m not befriending you on orders. You already know what my lost Entry Fee was.” His voice cracks at the end, splintering apart as wood-chips clog his throat.

So instead of speaking more, Yuuto raises his hands and signs, [I missed you.]

“No.”

He spits it, teeth biting the end. “No. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to use his memory against me!”

[What memory? You don’t have any about him! About me!] Sharp signs, big motions as his hands force the words to form.

“You’re lying!

Feet hit the glass floor as he stands and turns his back, Player Pin still clutched in his grasp. “He’s gone! He shot himself in the head because he’d rather be dead! Instead of being here, with me, he left. It took dying and three weeks of hell to get me to move on! So no, you don’t get to play pretend as if that would help your case right now.”

Two seconds of silence is all he can take before he starts to spill, words tumbling out of his mouth because that’s better than a void. “It hurt. Do you have any idea how guilty I felt? I wasn’t good enough. My only friend teaching me that inevitably, all people do is leave you, and hurt you, and it’s too painful to remember! There’s too much blood staining the memory to see his face!”                                                   

He bites back the scream boiling in his throat, redirecting the volatile concoction of emotions by chucking the Player Pin at a bottle on the bar.

It falls harmlessly to the floor.

His body falls with it as his brain is hit with one word, punching him with the force of a tsunami.

{STOP!}

It pierces his skull, a familiar bullet ricocheting against the bone, and the words after it follow suit. {I know! I fucked up! I regret it every single day! I watched you sink further and further, swarmed by Noise I couldn’t keep at bay! I was so happy for you when you got other friends, because I didn’t know how to be there for you!}

Images flash through his mind, as Yuuto goes on telepathically, spilling over through the connection forged. Packs of Noise, never Erased for long. Aborted attempts to approach. Watching from a distance at Hachiko.

{You can be as angry as you want with me, but don’t deny my truth!}

He’s drowning. Blood is filling his lungs, overflowing from his mouth. The black pile of J̵̶̛͝ǫsh͜u̢͞a̴͜'̛s Yuuto’s thoughts choking him, clogging his ears, his nose, blurring his sight, tar pulling him ever deeper until--

Walls slam down. Cut him off from the tidal waves lashing against him.

Neku drags himself up, out of the abyss, and finds a Player Pin--his Player Pin--attached to his shirt, just over his heart once more.

And Yuuto sitting in front of him, hands shaky as they sign, barely comprehensible, [I’m sorry,] over and over again.

It comes to him, muscle memory never lost even if the time spent learning has been forgotten. [Is there any way you can get the Fee back? It’s the least Joshua could do, after what he did to me,] he signs.

(And if he were paying attention to his own hands, he’d notice how he used the sign for music but the Y hand-shape to sign Joshua’s name. But he doesn’t.)

[No. Can’t.] Yuuto shakes his head, crossing his legs as he leans back, now that Neku is okay. [Accidentally forfeit it. Under a different Composer.]

Neku mirrors him, crossing his own legs. [Why?]

[Was dumb,] he signs, tapping his fist against his forehead. [Thought I could become Composer myself, didn’t know that trying as a Player would mean losing you.]

[You didn’t even manage that goal, huh?]

[I barely managed to survive. It was a foolish dream, and it cost me everything.]

Neku sighs. There’s anger, flames in the furnace flaring. A wet chunk of fresh clay, lobbed into the kiln right along with all the other artful, carefully constructed ceramics.

And yet.

[Show me.]

[...What?] The confusion is written on Yuuto’s face like a five year old scribbling on the walls of a house, three crayons in each hand.

[Show me,] he signs. Deliberate. Forceful. No energy wasted in his movements. [You did it before. I saw some of your memories. Do it again.]

[I can’t just-- I can’t just do that?] He pauses. Frowns. [I mean maybe but--]

[Then try!] Neku reaches up, to take off the Player Pin, fumbling with it as his hands try to sign as the same time. [If I can’t remember, then show me what I’ve forgotten! You owe me that much!]

The pin is unclipped when a hand rests over his own. Soft, voice cracking, Yuuto says, “Stop.”

Neku stills. “Please. I want to know.”

Yuuto nods, and shifts so he's kneeling on the floor, instead of cross-legged. Neku follows suit.

“You don't need to remove the pin. It'll actually help filter out my thoughts and emotions from the memories,” Yuuto says, reaching with his free hand, grasping Neku's, so that the pair not intertwined over Neku's heart rests together at their side.

“Alright.”

Fish gather beneath them as Yuuto leans forward, touching Neku's forehead with his own.

 

And everything goes dark.

 

Chapter Text

There’s a boy that sits by you during lunch.

Neither of you speak. You don’t acknowledge him, he says nothing to you. Silence hangs in the air as the other kids laugh and chatter away, while the two of you fill space at the edges of the room.

Nobody wants to sit by the weird kid, but you guess this kid is outcast enough to end up here.

Isolated spaces for lone wolves are in high demand in lunchrooms, so sometimes you have to make compromises and co-exist closer than you’d like. Cash in on that prime real estate with someone else for a split of the space.

So.

He doesn’t talk to you, and you don’t talk to him.

Until one day, you do.

 

A day just like any other, really. The bullies leave you alone after you glare at them (over their shoulder, at the Noise that haunts their steps).

They don’t leave the other boy alone, though. Sneers and subtle jabs. You see it all, the teacher frowning at his headphones, the students that bump into him and make him drop his sketchpad.

The frogs that stick to his shoulders, tongue flicking to catch the dropped mood from the air.

It makes your blood boil, and with one glance at the food on your tray--Minestrone, which leaves phantom slime on your tongue without ever touching your mouth--you sigh, and push it away.

For the first time in a year, the first time since this silent arrangement began, you meet his eyes and extend a hand.

“There’s something cool you should see, come with me.”

His eyes dart away, and despite the relief from that, the newly formed bubble of hope starts to sink in your stomach.

Until he nods, stands, and says, “Lead the way.”

You grin, and walk right out the front doors, new friend in tow.

But not without protest.

“Wait where are we going? We shouldn't leave, we could get in trouble--”

Rolling your eyes, you shrug. “What're they gonna do? Give their star student and heir to the Kir̸y̷u̕ Kimura name detention? I don't think so.”

The other boy freezes, staring. “Wait, you're--?”

Y̶̧osh̛͠͡i̴҉y̡a Yuuto. I'd prefer that name to not be uttered, please.” You tense, bracing for the inevitable impact of explosive words.

It doesn’t come.

Instead, your new companion shrugs, and fiddles with his hair, rubbing one of the tips of those ridiculous spikes between his fingers. “Well, I’m Neku Sakuraba. Keep me under that diplomatic immunity of yours and you can take me wherever you want.”

You give him a wink. “Wherever I want, huh? Is that an offer for a date?”

Silence.

Pain sparks as you bite your tongue, a hundred thousand words running through your head as time stretches on. You’re a fool, a chance to make a friend and you throw it away. Neku will leave because you don’t know how to not be an asshole.

But then he rolls his eyes, and snorts.

“Even if you’re Richy Mc-Richpants,” the name surrounded with the air-quotes it deserves, “I doubt you’d manage to pull off a date. What, gonna take me to the fanciest Sunshine in town? I don’t think they serve eleven-year-olds alone.”

“I’ll have you know I’m twelve.” You puff up your chest, and flash your teeth, pearly-white because your parents would accept no less. “And I can do whatever I want.”

It’s a bold lie, and Neku takes your bluff, raising an eyebrow as you continue to lead him down the streets. “What, parents don’t care? Cuz I know my mom would forbid it a hundred times over.”

“Sorry,” you say, falling back into neutrality, “you must be at least a level four friend to unlock my tragic backstory.”

“Ass,” Neku says, which gets you to laugh again, mask broken. “Where are you taking me, anyway? Did I just willingly leave school with a secret murderer who’s gonna kill me in a back-alley and get away with it?”

You shake your head. “Getting away with murder is way harder than getting away with leaving campus. Relax, I’m taking you to see this cool mural out by Udagawa!”

"What's so cool about some paint in a back-alley?" Neku asks, keeping pace with you through Tipsy Tose Hall.

With a scoff, you reply, "Some paint in a back-alley? You've always got that sketchbook, surely you can appreciate art!"

Grabbing Neku's wrist, you pull him along, almost there now. Almost there. Ignoring his protests, you weave past Wild Boar, and--

"Oh."

You stop, and look at Neku. Staring up at the mural. Staring at CAT's work. Awe written on his face, mirroring the beauty written in the lines on the wall. His smile grows, pure and simple, as he basks in the Imagination radiating outward.

"Okay," he whispers, "this is pretty cool."


 

You don’t get in trouble. Of course you don’t. The name you bear is a shield against the backlash of authority figures.

But maybe, just maybe… You’ve gained a friend.


 

"Nekuuuu," you whine, sprawling out across his lap, pushing his homework to the side (your own long abandoned). "I'm bored!"

Dude, I was working on that!” he grumbles, but you laugh, and refuse to budge.

“And now you’re not!” You grin up at him. “Now… You’re gonna show me your art!” A pause, words hanging in the air, so you tack on, “If you want, that is!”

He blinks at you, taking a second to process that, but you aren’t pushed off his lap in revulsion at the idea, so you take that as a win as he grabs his sketchbook. “Alright, fine. But you’re helping me with my history later, got it?”

You nod. “Sure, history is easy.”

With that, you prop yourself up, only half on Neku now. He raises an eyebrow at you, but says nothing as he opens it up. “So, I uh… None of this is really good yet, I’m not good yet, but…”

The first page is messy, pencil smudged and awkward sketches of classmates. Trying to get proportions down. The second is much like the first, studies in shapes and sizes and capturing the image.

“Hey, you’re learning though!” you say, flipping through a couple more pages of the same. “Everyone starts somewhere. Like, there’s definitely room for improvement, but it looks like you’re getting good at the basics! That’s important stuff. Can’t build a good house if you don’t have a strong foundation.”

“Still… I’ve got a long way to go,” he murmurs. “I wanna be the next CAT, but I can’t get there with art like… this.” He gestures at the current page, more recent, of one of your shared teachers. The hands are a bit weird, but the face is good, the lines are sharp, and it captures the scene of him yelling at some poor student.

“That’s pretty good, though! You’ll get even better with time, too!” You clap your hands together. “Better than CAT, even!”

(Mr. Hanekoma would charge you double for coffee if he heard you say that, but it’s totally true.)

“It’s different for you, Mr. Prodigy,” Neku says with a snort. ”You just pick up whatever instrument you want, and you can play perfectly. You’re good at everything.”

It’s pointless to try and argue this with words, but the frustration wells up. Everything you’ve done is trivialized so easy.

“Well,” you snap, teeth biting the air, “you only see the result of countless hours where I sucked. I’ve learned the basics of strings and winds. But it’s not all the same, I have to figure out how the instrument works. I have my specialties in violin and piano. Because I’ve worked to get there. I have the basics of music down. And I didn’t have a choice.”

You slide off his lap, and lean against the wall. Catching his wince before you divert your eyes, you unclench your jaw, and sigh. “Sorry, that was rude. I just. I’ve been learning to play since before I learned to talk. My parents wanted a prodigy. They wanted the perfect daughter, picturesque, and instead they got… me. And I’m a mess.”

Tap. Tap. Tap. Your fingers can’t hold still, tapping against your arm. “I actually had trouble learning to speak. They had me learn sign language, but didn’t bother to learn it for themselves. Hired a translator for their own kid. When I did start speaking, they told me I wouldn’t be allowed to use sign in front of them, unless it was to show off. I’m just a trophy for them!--”

A headbutt to your shoulder cuts you off. “Your parents are awful, and I’ll punch ‘em. And I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t know…” He lays his head in your lap. “You deserve better. Do you still go nonverbal sometimes?”

It takes you a second, frozen from the touch and the shock, but you nod. “Y-yeah. How come?”

“Well…” He smiles up at you, and oh-- “If you want, I could learn. You could teach me!”

“I’d--I’d like that,” you whisper, signing along as you speak. “Thank you, Neku.”


You hold a box out in front of you, facing Neku. It’s wrapped neatly, with foxes on the paper and a purple bow on top.

“Happy birthday!”

He looks at you, a statue as he processes the situation. “You--You didn’t have to get me anything, you know…”

Shoving the box into his hands, you laugh. “Neku, I have more money than I know what to do with. My parents are rich, let me spoil you, Mr. twelve-year-old!”

He fumbles, but relents and takes it, as you waltz into his apartment living room. “Fine, whatever. Come on, my mom isn’t home right now, so we have the place to ourselves.”

The dismissive tone doesn’t mask the buzzing in his body, leg wiggling as he sits cross-legged on the couch. You take the other seat, bouncing up and down as you stare at him.

“Open it!” you say. “And don’t think I didn’t see that eye-roll!”

You’re excited about this, huh?” But he obliges, and tears through the wrapping.

Freezes.

Stares.

Holds the box like it contains the holy grail. Like a single move would make it disintegrate, fall apart like thousand-year-old parchment.

“Holy shit.” It’s barely a sound, the flutter of a moth breaking free from the prison of a cup.

“I can assure you, it’s real,” you say, grinning. “There’s a certificate of authenticity right in the box.”

“These-- These-- CAT?” He tears his gaze away from the limited edition, rare, expensive headphones in his lap to look at you, and you nod.

“Of course!” You gasp, mock offense, holding a hand to your heart. “I’d never be so cruel and give you fake merch.”

“I think I died. I think you killed me. I’m in heaven now.” His eyes land on the box again. “Clearly you killed me yesterday when we met up at the mural. That’s the only explanation for this.”

Laughter bubbles up in your throat. “I promise you, I haven’t done anything like that.” You lean closer, and open the box before he can protest.

“Hey--” You plop the headphones over his ears.

“You gotta try them out!”

With that, you fish the new MP3 player, on its own fancy lanyard, out of your pocket, and toss it to him. “Birthday gift part two! I loaded it up with some songs already.”

This, at least, he puts around his neck himself, and manages to plug the cord in despite his shell-shocked state.

Neku’s eyes slip closed the second the music starts. His lips twist into a gentle smile, as he sways in time to the beat. You can hear the pulse, booming in a volume that can’t be good for his eardrums, he taps his leg to the rhythm.

And a bubblegum pink frog hops onto his shoulder.

You flinch at the Noise, heartbeat doubling. A spike of adrenaline rushing through your veins, because the Noise are not allowed to touch your friend--

Except--

This frog hops around, happy as can be.

This frog doesn’t look like any other you’ve seen.

You’ve heard of them, of course. You grilled Mr. Hanekoma on everything, but you didn’t expect to see one, not until you became Composer. Too much negativity clogs your life, for something positive to exist.

But. There it is. Blowing bubbles and letting out soft ribbits as it pleases.

One of those bubbles must form around your heart, as it swells.

Because this means Neku is happy.

(It means you’re happy.)


 

There’s a knock at your door.

The door of the apartment you inhabit. Not yours. Your parents'.

Your parents who swept you away to America for the weekend with no warning. It’s by chance that you had your phone with you, because they had all your luggage ready to go when you got home from school. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have been able to cancel your plans with Neku. Two days of over-performance and deadnaming, no time to prepare, and no Neku.

Neku. Who is pounding at your door.

Heaving your body up, through the heavy air, you stumble forward. Open the door.

Pull him inside before he can speak.

Collapse on the couch and drag him down with you.

[You’re blanket now,] you sign. Fingerspell, mostly. He’s still new to this.

“If you need time alone, I can go--”

[No!] Cut him off, shake your head. [Stay. Good. Just tired.]

“Alright, alright, I’ll stay.”

[Thanks.]

Silence.

Weight against your body.

Eyes closed. Breathing.

Music?

Headphones.

Neku’s headphones over your ears.

Time is fake. Not real. The measurement a construct of society.

But it must be at least two hours before you blink your eyes open, and look up at Neku. Still diligently sprawled over your body, as he plays Pokémon.

You slip off the headphones, catching his attention, and he smiles at you.

“Feeling better?”

[Little bit. Sorry.] You push him to get him to sit up, so you can too. His shoulder is soft as you lean against him, looking at his screen. [Is that Ruby?]

“Yeah, it is. And you don’t need to apologize. I figured something like that might happen, with how out of it your texts were,” he says.

[I was texting you?]

He snorts. “It wasn’t coherent. You were yelling about frogs and foxes, and asking me if I could come over to make them go away.”

You freeze. Glance around. There’s no Noise.

[Well, clearly you chased them off when you showed up.]


 

“I hate them.”

You look at Neku, sitting by your side, at your usual table, and raise an eyebrow as you chew.

“All these people.” He gestures to the rest of the cafeteria. Students sitting and chatting, not a care in the world besides homework. Not noticing the other students with minks coiled around their chests, feeding on their negativity and stealing air from their lungs.

“How come?”

“Because,” he starts. Pauses. Eats a bit more of his food while figuring out how to word it. “Because they’re all so happy. Which like, sounds bad, but. They don’t care. They never do. Bullies mock and trip me, knock stuff out of my hands. And they call you the wrong name. All these people watch, but they never stop it. They’re awful.”

You nod as he speaks. It’s gotten better, the past few months, since you two formed your alliance. Your friendship. Two is better than one, but now the insults have changed. Picking at your relationship, at your gender.

“They don’t matter,” you say. “I know who I am, you know my name. We both know the truth. I’m more worried that they’re gonna damage your sketchbook. That stuff ain’t as easily replaceable as other objects.”

“Still,” he says, “I hate them. They hurt, and take, and break, and they don’t stop! And everyone else ignores it! They have eyes, they have ears! But they don’t do anything! They could speak up, and help, but no, they just sit around and give the assholes approval through silence.”

There’s a jellyfish now. Enveloping Neku with tendrils, tangled around his arms, his neck, his head. Pulsing to the beat of the negativity.

You reach out, and put a hand on Neku’s arm. Ignoring the static tingle where the Noise is. “I know. I get it. They’re awful, but we can’t do anything about that,” not here, not alive. I’ll change things for us.

Neku sighs, and leans against your arm. This will feed the rumors, of course, but you can’t bring yourself to care. “Wish they could leave us alone. I don’t need adoration or anything,” he snorts, “but some peace would be nice. I’m fine with being an outcast, as long as I’m not alone.”

“One day, we’ll have that. We’ll be free of this hellhole. We could be kings, working together, nothing can hold us back.”

That gets him to laugh, and the jellyfish loosens, slipping back. “We’ll show them. All these fake fools will never know what happened.”

“You and I will be the best Partners this world has ever seen. We’ll be unstoppable.”


 

“Here.”

You blink, looking at the box in Neku’s arms, as he stands in the doorway to your apartment. Wrapped with too much tape and kitten paper. Orange and blue ribbons dangle, haphazard, with all the wild abandon of a 12-year-old.

“What’s this for?”

Neku stares. “Dude, it’s Christmas tomorrow. It’s a gift.”

Raising an eyebrow, you grin. “Oh, so it’s not because today is my birthday, then?”

“Wait--what!?” Neku fumbles with the box, before shoving it into your arms. It’s a decent weight.

“I’m a certifiable Christmas baby, you know?”

He shakes his head. “You never told me!”

You laugh, floaty like the drifting snow. “Well, now I have! Lucky you, already having a gift for me, huh?”

Neku headbutts your arm on his way to the couch, and taps the box. “You still should’ve said something. Now open this, or I’m taking it back!”

The threat is loud and clear, even if false, and you bump his side as you sit down.

Course paper peels away under your delicate work, careful not to rip it. Inside is a brand-new Tin Pin set.

Or--not brand new, box already opened once. The pins are definitely legal to the game, but upon closer inspection the pins have been given a new paint job. A purple cat. A violin. Hachiko. A green eye. A pink pair of glasses. A white feather.

“I--I know you like Tin Pin,” Neku says, fidgeting with the headphones around his neck, “but you could probably buy any pins you wanted. So I wanted to give you something that you couldn’t just get for yourself, so I painted them. With things that made me think of you. Sorry, it’s dumb isn’t it? It’s not like you can’t get better things yourse--oof!”

He’s cut off when you throw your arms around him, pulling him into a tight hug. “Thank you, Neku,” you murmur.

After the brief bout of shock, he hugs you back. “Of course, you’re welcome. Glad you like it?”

You smile up at him, reflecting the sunlight Neku gives off back to him. “I don’t think… I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a personalized gift before. It--It means a lot to me.”

And this--This is how you know Neku gets you. Because he doesn’t pity you, or make it tragic. Instead, he takes a second to process that, before smiling, and saying, “Well, I guess I’ll have to make sure you get more, won’t I?”


 

“What do you think happens when you die?” Neku whispers into the night. You’re both tucked into your blankets, on two futons stuck together. Moonlight shines through the window, a visual reminder that you’re supposed to be sleeping.

You turn your head, meeting his eyes for a second, before the intensity behind that blue makes you look away. “I dunno… Complicated. How come?”

He sighs, crossing his arms over his chest. “My dad… He’s sick. And I know I don’t see him often, and my mom is wonderful, and he’s not that good a parent, but-- But I care about him still. He’ll probably be fine, and I’m dumb and overreacting, but--”

“Hey,” you cut him off. “First off, you’re not dumb. You’re good, and smart, and determined. And it’s not an overreaction to worry when someone in your life, in any capacity, is sick.”

Neku stays silent, so you decide to fill the air. “I believe in a lot of things,” you say, soft. “I believe that we all keep existing after death, in some way. We are beings of Imagination, of energy. We’re comprised of Souls. And maybe we don’t hold together, we might fall apart, and mix with all the energy of other people who’ve done the same, but pieces of us still exist. Scattered in the air, in the earth. Joining the heartbeat of the universe.”

There’s a waver in your voice, trying to avoid giving too much away, but you want Neku to hear this. You want to allude to what is true, and you want to give him hope. “I believe in second chances, for the lucky ones who deserve it. I believe in reincarnation. Everything is a cycle. From the cosmos we come, and to the cosmos we shall return. We’re all notes in a symphony, Players in the process of mastering our role in this piece, with a Composer to guide the song.”

“So you believe in God then?” Neku asks, scooting closer. Reaching out to take your hand. Hesitating.

You close the gap, meshing your fingers with his, and tug. It’s your permission, your comfort, you telling him it’s okay. “I never said God, capital G, but maybe gods, lower-case. Overseeing the world, writing the Music we dance to all our lives.”

He rolls onto your futon, burying himself against your body. “I kinda get what you’re saying… I don’t know that I’d believe in it, though. It’s supposed to be reassuring, thinking that if someone dies then they’re in A Better Place, but I--I don’t really want him to die, but I don’t want to end up in the same place as him. So either he goes somewhere bad and I have to be good, or the system is flawed.”

It’s warm, with him under your blanket with you, but that doesn’t stop you from wrapping your arms around him, hugging him close. “You don’t have to believe what I do,” even if I know it’s true. “I understand what you mean. And for the record, wanting to avoid someone who causes you pain isn’t a bad thing. If there’s tiers to this, you deserve to be in the best one, and he doesn’t.”

Neku nods, and you pet his hair.

He holds so much power, so much determination in him, that sometimes you forget he’s a kid like you. So full of pain and rage, spirit unbreakable.

Except for when it’s not.

You’ve seen him stand up to bullies, telling them off for hurting you in ways he never did for himself. You’ve seen his fierce protective streak, fire burning as he balls his fists, and you have to talk him out of starting a fight.

But he’s fragile. For all that he seems like steel, bulletproof and fireproof, under that raging inferno he’s stained glass still in the process of being colored.

He’s an incomplete work of art. You both are.

(You plan to be less bulletproof.)


 

You’re supposed to be at your apartment, tucked away in bed with Neku beside you. Asleep, curled up in blankets peacefully, as the stars twinkle in the sky.

J̶҉o̵s̨ḩ̛͘ Yuuto, are you sure this is okay?”

You’re not inside.

“My parents would kill me, but there’s no way we’re getting in trouble for this otherwise!” You toss a grin over your shoulder, hand intertwined with Neku’s as you pull him along. Through now-unlocked side door. Up, up, and up the stairs.

To the top of 104.

“That’s not reassuring, you know!” he says, but he doesn’t pull away. He keeps pace until you reach the roof.

Letting go, you bounce to the center, and twirl in circles, arms spread wide. “Trust me, we’re fine! Now look up!”

A streak of light lights up the sky as you speak. Neku looks in time to see it, in time to catch more bright white lines illuminate the inky void.

They trace their path through the spaces between the stars and moon. A meteor shower rains down above you.

Neku gasps, staring up at the show, and you take this chance to slip behind him with a hop and a skip. Back toward the boxes stacked by the entrance.

To the case on top of the pile.

You manage to tear Neku’s gaze away from the rocks tearing through the atmosphere the second your bow touches the strings.

He spins in place, eyes wide as he fixates on you. “What are you--?”

“It’s your birthday, isn’t it? It has been for three minutes now,” you say, smile soft. Voice filled with warmth.

“Enjoy the show, Neku.”

Music ripples from your violin as you play. Soundwaves carry through the air, for the two of you to hear. Your eyes slip shut, focused on the movements. A lilting tune, energetic, sliding from high notes to low. Stars streaking across the scale and the sky.

You’ve practiced this. Planned this. Your gift to give. A moment in time, a moment to engrave in his brain. All the memories poured into your melody, carving your Imagination into the notes.

As you sway to the rhythm you open your eyes. Glancing at Neku.

Instead of staring up at the phenomena above, he stares at you. Jaw agape, as if you’re more breathtaking than the show above. As if the cosmos ends at the edge of this roof.

If the world tears you apart, rips you from his head, you pray it leaves this memory with him. The two of you painted in the light of a thousand wishes. Staves of music twisting away from your violin, creating a bubble shielding you from the rest of Shibuya, from the cars and people far below.


 

He’s going to be my Fee, isn’t he?” you ask, looking across the counter at Mr. Hanekoma as he cleans a mug like it’s his idle animation in a video game. (It probably is, he does that to have something to do with his hands, a way to keep tension from leaking into the atmosphere).

“Who, Neku? Prob’ly, boss,” comes the reply.

“I don’t wanna go through with this if it means losing him. I can’t lose him.” Your grip on the cup of coffee in front of you is tight, hands shaking slightly. And maybe that’s because this is your fourth cup today, and Mr. Hanekoma should’ve stopped you two cups ago, but you can pay, so he doesn’t care yet, even if drops escape past the rim and dirty the table.

“Ya ain’t gonna lose your Fee by becoming Composer. We’ve been over this. As long as the week is won, you get your Fee back.”

You nod, downing half the cup of coffee, even if it’s still slightly too hot, sears your tongue and throat. You burned your mouth an hour ago, with the first cup, so it’s not like it matters. The taste-buds are long gone at this point.

“Thanks. For the info.”

“For the record, I’d rather you wait a few years to use this plan,” calls Mr. H, as you hop off the counter and head for the door, but you’re already gone.


 

“Hey, fuck you. I’m gonna hide your teeth.”

Neku laughs at you, as you fall off the stage once again, and the TV calls out Game! Mewtwo standing triumphantly while Peach is resigned to the background.

“That’s a new threat. Bringing out the big guns for a game of Smash, now?”

You chuck your controller at him, flopping backwards on the couch. “I’ll show you what I’m gonna smash,” you mumble as he catches it. “You only won cuz I’m banned from playing Sheik right now.”

“Last time we played you decimated me with her, I think I’m allowed to say today you can’t use your main.”

“Ugh, fair. I guess.” You draw it out, rolling your eyes. Out of the ten matches you’ve played today, Neku’s won seven of them. The computer won the other three. “Getting kinda bored of this now though.”

“If you have any other ideas for what we could do, I’m all ears.”

Glancing around your apartment, you try to draw inspiration from the environment. Movie? Nah. We’re caught up on Tin Pin right now. Hmm… Your eyes land on your CD case, and a grin lights up your face.

“I think it’s time to dance, don’t you? I’m bored of sitting.” You hop off the couch, and pop in the top CD, one of the mixes Neku’s made for you.

He laughs at your antics, but obliges and lets you pull him up. It’s mostly an excuse to jump and spin around, but the beat is good, and it’s more fun with another person. The fancy expensive speaker system your parents have set up doesn’t hurt either, as you feel the pulse in the floor. Music up far too loud to be safe for your ears.

“Have some composure, where is your posture,” you sing out with the music, twirling from foot to foot. Arms spread wide.

“You’re pulling the trigger, pulling the trigger, all wrong,” Neku sings along, but from what you catch as you spin, he’s tapping his foot in place, otherwise standing still.

And that just won’t do, will it?

A yelp rings out as you grab his hands and pull him into a spin. “You gotta dance, too!” you say, bouncing, feet scrubbing against the carpet underneath.

“Alright, alright!” He laughs.

So you spin, with wild abandon, holding his hands and grinning up at Neku. The momentum starts to pull you along, round and round, under his arm, under yours. Ignore how he steps on your feet sometimes.

(Take note of the bubblegum-pink positive Noise starting to gather in your living room, but only so you don’t run through them too often.)

Warmth buzzes through your skin. Flying off your body. Energy built up in your body, yellows and purples all bottled in, needing an escape. And now it flows.

You hope Neku can feel it too, the release. The smile on his face tells you he probably can.

Abrupt, Neku bodyslams you, laughing as you both fall to the ground.

“Got dizzy, huh?” you say, as if you aren’t dizzy too. The room spins wildly even as you stare up at the orange hair in your face.

“Yeah, your fault, asshole.”

You knock your forehead against his, but don’t deny it. It’s much more fun to dance with someone who’s never had dance lessons. No predetermined motions to go through, just a friend at your side.


 

“Happy birthday!” Neku says, the moment you step into his apartment. His mom is in the kitchen, it sounds like, and she shouts her hello to you over the noise of her cooking dinner. You’ve talked to her a bit, and she’s nice enough. She cares about Neku. About you.

(She probably knows you better than your own parents.)

“Happy Christmas!” you say right back. “Yes touch day?”

He nods, and you immediately draw him into a hug, arms tight around his chest. It takes less than a second for you to drag him to the couch, so you can lay on top of him.

Someone’s affectionate today.”

You laugh, muffled by his shirt, and say, “It’s been a while since someone’s asked to celebrate my birthday with me. Christmas too, for that matter, even if only the Eve.” He’s too distracted by you speaking to notice what you slip out of your pocket.

“Wow, depressing,” he says cheerfully. “I’m adding another punch thrown at your parents to my to-do list.”

“That makes what, ten now? Make sure to break my dad’s nose if you ever follow through, he’ll be pissed.” It takes a bit of careful maneuvering to get the object in position.

“He deserves i--Hey what the hell?”

Neku jerks his wrist up and into sight. Right there, in clear view, is the homemade friendship bracelet you managed to slip on and tighten without detection. Strands of pink and blue, all woven together in a braided pattern. Purple beads spelling out your own name, with orange ones on both sides.

You hold your own wrist up, showing off the matching one, inversed. Purple and orange string, and Neku’s name on blue beads. “It’s my gift! I made them myself! I mean, I got a kit, but it took a bit of practice, I have a few messed up ones at home still. Do you like it?”

It’s lucky that Neku fixes you with a blinding smile and another tight hug, otherwise you would’ve kept rambling, anxiety making you hyperverbal. “I love it! I’m never taking it off!”

He’s bright as the s u n - - … A thought not quite loud enough to be heard by anyone else, echoes in your head.

“If we’re doing gift exchanges right now, you should get off me, so I can give you mine!” He doesn’t give you a choice, already sitting up, pushing you off so he can run to his room and retrieve it.

Your leg ignores your stop command as you sit there, vibrating in place as Neku rushes back out, wrapped gift in hand until it’s in your lap. It’s big but thin, with a slight weight. Delicate paper gets removed without a rip, and set aside.

You stare. Breath stolen from your lungs two days earlier than planned.

A framed, painted portrait sits on your lap. Of yourself. Playing the violin, serene smile on your face. Eyes closed. The meteor shower illuminating the black sky background, with stars forming a crown around your hair.

The detail. The shading. The way you’re glowing bright in a scene of night. His skill has improved in the past two years, and it shows in the strokes. The proportions.

You don’t notice the tears on your cheeks until Neku brushes them away, a silent question in his eyes. No doubt as anxious as you were about your own gift to him.

I love it.” You give him the biggest smile you can, setting it on the coffee table so you can hug him again. “It’s going on my wall. I’m keeping it forever. Thank you, Neku.”

Later, there will be dinner, home-cooked and served. There will be cake with candles and singing. There will be a wish made.

A wish for luck. A wish for success. For the Game to go smoothly.

For Neku to stay by your side, always.


 

“Hey Neku?” you speak, into the phone against your cheek.

Gun in your lap.

“What’s up, dude?” He’s cheerful, of course, but you can hear the edge in his voice. The concern wavering under the surface. You were just hanging out in person two days ago, after all.

“Not much, I just wanted to talk to you, I guess.”

“Alright, what’s on your mind? Cuz I know you don’t like phone calls, you always text.”

You sigh, and lean back against the couch. “I dunno… My parents didn’t show up yesterday. I’m annoyed, maybe. It’s dumb, I knew they weren’t coming home, but I’d hoped anyway.”

“Ugh, fuck em. You don’t deserve to have to put up with all that.”

That brings a smile to your face. Neku always jumps to your defense… It’s nice.

You feel bad for what you’re going to do. He doesn’t deserve that pain. Not even for just one week.

But you can’t take this pain anymore. At least his won’t be permanent.

“Thanks… You’re important to me, ya know? You’re a really good friend.”

He snorts. “What is this? Are you dyin’ or something?”

You’d laugh if it weren’t so close to home. “Aw, come on, can’t I show genuine emotion without being on my deathbed? I care about you a lot, and I hope you know that.”

(It’s true, you aren’t on your deathbed. You aren’t on your bed.)

“I know, I know,” he says. “You just don’t say it much.”

You fiddle with the trigger with your free hand, safety still on. “Yeah, that’s the emotional neglect, ain’t it?” you ask, and give a ghost of a laugh. More of a huff of air.

Neku laughs though, a little, and you can picture him nodding his head. “I’d bet yen on it,” he says. “Messed up though, honestly. If I ever see your parents, I’m punching them, and you can’t stop me.”

“As if I’d want to stop you. They deserve it. I mean--” you groan, taking a moment to figure out words. “I still care, I guess. And some part of me still craves their praise and attention. It’s dumb.”

“It’s not dumb. Wanting something you know won’t happen isn’t dumb.” There’s a loud noise from the other end of the phone, and it sounds like Neku has flopped onto his back. “You don’t need their validation, though. You don’t need  them. They’re the dumb ones, cuz they don’t see how amazing you are.”

That gets you to smile. “Thanks, Neku.”

“Of course,” he says, overflowing with care, like a bullet to your heart before you’ve even fired the gun. “For the record, you’re important to me, too. You’re my best friend, and I dunno where I’d be without you.”

It’s almost enough--almost.


 

[You LIED to me!] Nails cut against your chin with the sign lie, too harsh, too rough, but it doesn’t fucking matter anymore. Nothing matters.

Black tar clogs your lungs. Sticks to the lining of your throat. An oil-slick fire in the tears escaping from your eyes. Smoke and bitter heartburn in your nose as you catapult yourself over the counter of WildKat, to punch Mr. Hanekoma square in the traitorous face.

The surprise lets you get one good hit in, the solid crack of his nose breaking assures you of this. But it’s not enough, so you swing again, and attempt to tackle him to the ground.

He bats you away like it’s child’s play.

J̶҉o̵s̨ḩ̛͘ Yuuto, behave.” With a wave of his hand, you’re frozen in place, muscles stuck, as he adjusts his nose back into place.

The world is small, and closing in. You can’t move. You can’t sign. You can’t speak.

You have no voice.

Powerless. Stripped of agency once again.

It hurts.

Pins and needles. Fishhooks digging into skin. Clenched teeth aching. Lightning bottled up with nowhere to go, so it consumes, fries the nerves, rebounds against the skull, screeches against your nails.

Agony. Walls crushing against your body. A hundred bouncy balls pelted from all sides. Too much and you can’t dodge, you can’t avoid, you can’t move, you’re stuck.

A snap reverberates through the air, and you find yourself collapsed on a chair. No clue how you got there.

Your brain is a foggy haze. Your ears and eyes are stuffed with cotton fuzz. Blinking, you try to clear your vision, flinching away from the unknown hand that touches your shoulder.

The floor greets you after that move.

Cold linoleum, sharp against your cheek, is enough to push back some haze. Enough to remind you of your real misery.

There’s a hole in your chest. Screaming into the void. Echoes of Music longing to find their missing pieces.

The Noise, swarming. Enough to make anyone wish for death rather than their monochrome life.

The icy, blank stare.

The lack of recognition on Neku’s face.

That hurts more than any blow you could land. Hurts more than the existential terror that engulfs you when you’re made weak.

Being forgotten is the price you paid, and now it’s too late to stop this self-inflicted pain.