piece by soundofez
Neku sighed. Squinting, he rolled up the blinds on his studio apartment a little, taking in the view. One window, the Skytree. The other, he could glimpse the top part of Sensouji’s pagoda. Asakusa was no Shibuya, but it had lots of car free pathways, quirky art stalls, and lots of tourists to draw. And it was a heck of a lot cheaper than living in Ueno.
He could walk to campus in about half an hour on a good day or take the subway just one stop to Tokyo University of the Arts on a bad one. It was convenient and, while a touristy area, surprisingly quiet.
Too quiet today, though. Neku fired up his tablet, pinging his friends. They always called everyone in a big group chat, though there was no obligation to answer.
“Sup, Phones?” Beat grinned into the camera, a giggle heard in the background.
“Beat, are you ever going to actually use his name?”
“I am though!” Best objected. “Neku’s tag is a pair of headphones. It’s practically his name at this point.”
“You’re not going to win on a technicality,” Rhyme chirped, turning the camera so she was in frame. “We’re between takes, anyway. What’s up, Neku?”
“Shit, did I interrupt a shoot?” Neku hovered over the hang-up button.
“I just said we were on break!” Rhyme reiterated, flailing her hands in front of her. “But Beat is shooting with your deck!”
His friend, who had only grown more muscular with the past five years, hefted up his skateboard, showing off the art of a flying squirrel on the undercarriage. “It’s still the sickest one I’ve got. You’d better have another one in the wings when it gets decommissaried, yo!”
“It’s not whatever, Beat,” another voice popped in, the newcomer’s eyebrow quirked in a hint of static as the visual flickered on.
“Sup, Shiki!” Beat said, waving wildly.
“Meet me for drinks when you’re done shooting? I can hop on the subway. It’s only a stop.”
“How’d you know where we are?”
“Beat, you always skate in Ikebukuro,” Shiki said matter-of-factly. “And I’m at school, so I’m only a stop away from you.”
“Oh. Right. Sometimes I wish we kept our mind reading powers,” Beat said with a pout.
“Noooooo thank you,” Shiki said with a grin. “Anyway, what’s all this about? I’ve got ten minutes ‘til my Fashion Sales class.”
Neku scratched the back of his neck, looking sheepishly at the camera. “I… er. Kinda needed some advice. I’ve got a gallery class where my one assignment is supposed to take the whole semester and I’m a bit stuck. I need to hand my draft proposition in by the end of next week.”
“What’s the topic?” Rhyme asked.
“That’s the thing. The art—even the medium—is up to me. Every fine art track has to take this thing. So, it doesn’t need to be painting, but I have to secure a space and create a work to match it. Like, get permission to paint a building, or something like that. Private or public property, just no vandalism. Street paste or yarn bombing is OK in public spaces. Basically, as long as it’s non-destructive; otherwise we need permission from the owner.”
“So, you need to scout out a place and make something that compliments it?” Rhyme asked.
“Yeah. And we can work together if we want. I don’t know my classmates well enough to know if our styles clash though.”
“That’s why it’s my whole assignment.”
Beat frowned. “I’ve got a good sponsorship going with Wild Boar. Could see if you could tag one of their shops.”
“Maybe,” Neku said. “But I want to step out of my comfort zone a little if I can. It’s a good backup.”
Shiki bit her lip. “Maybe you just need a little inspiration.”
“Little is an understatement.”
“What about that tag mural in Shibuya? Would that be fair game?”
The chat went silent. That wall in question was public property. It was absolutely not game—not for this assignment at least.
“Why?” Neku almost whispered, hoarse. “Why’d you even bring it up?”
“Because it’s been five years, Neku, and you haven’t gone back. CAT did what you’ve been assigned; he was a street artist who also did all these kinds of hired art too.”
“Hanekoma’s gone,” Neku reminded her. “I stopped trying. The shop was destroyed. If he ever came back, he’s not in Shibuya.”
“Then… ignore my bad idea,” Shiki said, not meeting eyes with the camera. “Sorry I brought it up.”
“No! No,” Neku reassured her, forcefully, then quiet, as if he were a deflating balloon. “Sorry if I snapped.”
“You didn’t snap,” Rhyme offered, before changing the subject. “I’ll think on it though; there’s gotta be some struggling coffee shop that could use some art, or something. Anyway… we need to get back to work, now.”
“And I have class. Neku, let’s chat tonight, after dinner? I can swing by your place. We can go get conveyor belt sushi over by Nakamise.”
“That… sounds pretty good, actually. Yeah. Let’s.”
“Later, alligator!” Rhyme said, chipper.
“Yeah! Later!” Shiki added.
“Let’s bounce!” Beat snuck in as Rhyme ended the call.
Neku was left alone to his thoughts.
He and his friends romped through the city almost every weekend after they were all brought back—at least at first. Eventually exams took over for Shiki and Neku, both hell-bent on getting in Bunka Fashion College and Tokyo Arts respectively. Beat slowly got more and more skate sponsorships with Rhyme as his videographer, making her new dream to shoot the world’s best skater: her brother.
Neku closed his eyes, imagining the gleaming, ad-drenched skyscrapers, a far cry from the view from his apartment window.
Maybe it was time to finally go back; maybe Shiki wasn’t wrong. It was his old stomping grounds, his old home. And it was only a few hundred yens’ ride away.
Neku pinched his forearm once to ground himself, grabbed his wallet and a scarf (courtesy of Shiki’s weaving class, in a sturdy textured purple crepe) and headed out the door.
Neku’s palm touched plaster and concrete. Slowly, he slid his hand along the wall, breathing out an exhale. Even in his high school years, when his friends would regularly bum around Shibuya after school and on weekends, he avoided the mural. It wasn’t that he stopped liking it; just… He felt he didn’t need it anymore. He had plenty of CAT’s art to keep him company, from the pins in his pocket to the billboards throughout the city.
Maybe he was young and naïve back then, but looking at the faded piece, partially obscured by other, less impressive tags… well, it didn’t seem very impressive anymore.
“‘Course it isn’t, you brain-dead binomial,” a familiar voice sneered from behind him. Neku whipped around to see Sho Minamimoto, cat whiskers and all, grinning with fanged teeth.
Sho put up his hands as a peace offering, sensing Neku’s hackles rising. “I’m not attacking the living; don’t get your panties in a bunch. I’d really rather not get divided by zero. Again.”
Neku relaxed his shoulders a little but said nothing.
“You’re a leaky faucet, you single-digit integer,” Sho explained, as he pointed to a vending machine, sending a pair of CC Lemon bottles flying out of it and at the two of them. He leaned against the mural, back to it, sliding down to sit and sighing with his drink. “I miss CAT, too, you know. Been the square-root of 25 years since anyone’s seen a new piece of his. Some of the reapers actually thought it might’ve been you.”
Neku laughed, wiping tears from his eyes. “Me?” he asked, plopping down next to his former enemy, accepting the citrus-flavored peace offering. “I was fifteen. And CAT had been active way before I was born.”
“Thought it was a title, you dumb fractal. Like Pope or Emperor.”
“Expert street artists are called Kings and Queens, you know.”
“And dead ones are Angels,” Sho added with a sage nod. “Trying to one-up a Reaper on art is like trying to find the cube root of i.”
Neku stared down at his soft drink, thinking of Hanekoma. The title suited him in more ways than one, thanks to a little packet he’d found in Mr. H’s shop back when he and Beat snuck in to see if there was anything they could save. Since Hanekoma was CAT, there had been a pretty strong likelihood some of his art was still in the ruined café, but sadly there wasn’t any evidence in there at all. Neku saw faded marks where canvases and an easel had once been stacked in a curious empty back room; someone had beaten them to clearing it out.
Sho pulled Neku out of his thoughts eventually, after one intrepid skater ate pavement attempting to grind the Cyco Records railing.
“What’s eating you, pain-in-my-vector? Well, former.”
“You don’t hold a grudge?” Neku asked curiously.
“It’s a long afterlife. Grudges are useless.”
The two sat in silence for a while, watching the skaters try their new decks outside the Wild Boar at the midpoint of the T section.
piece by soundofez
“You gonna ask me why I’m here?”
“I know why you’re here,” Sho replied testily, tapping his temple. “Was waiting to see if you’d give me the proof out of your mouth.”
“Right. Mind reading.”
“I can’t see every piece of the equation; that’s not how it works and you know it. But I can solve for x and fill in the blanks.”
Neku sighed. “What can you see?”
“That you’re stuck on a hard problem and you’ve been staring at your homework too long.”
“And by problem you mean—”
“I can’t tell—just some big project is eating you up. At least it’s not Higashizawa. That hectopascal can eat a man whole. I’ve seen it.” Minamimoto slung back his drink. “So, what’s eating you?”
“I mean, other than you being alive again?” Neku asked, eyebrow raised.
“Still dead as I was last you saw me.”
“Last I saw you, you were crushed under a vending machine.”
“Eh, I’ve had worse days.” Minamimoto shrugged. “That infinite asshole of a Composer fixed me back up and sent me right back to work. Now stop stalling, you obtuse angle. Out with it.”
“Artist’s block,” Neku admitted sheepishly. “I’ve got a big project coming up and I just can’t think of the right thing to do.”
Sho laughed, his head flung back and whole body shaking with the action. “Artist’s block, you dithering digit. You don’t think we Reapers never deal with that shit? At least for you, it’s not fatal.”
“F-fatal?” Neku asked, almost dropping his bottle.
“We run on Imagination,” Sho said, chucking his emptied-out drink with force, sending it flying halfway down the alley into a recycling bin attached to a vending machine. “No Imagination, no power. No power long enough and poof, divide by zero. Crunch. Drop a vending machine on me? I’ll walk it off. Go too long without making something…”
Sho went uncharacteristically quiet, running his fingers through a hole in his jeans.
“So, what do you do when you’re stuck?” Neku finally asked.
“I raid the trash. Something always finds its way to me.” Sho pulled a loose thread and threw it to the wind. “I don’t just mean the garbage; I mean the rest of us. Talkin’ it out’s helped. I used to think I didn’t need anybody else. But then I got subtracted out so many times by you ‘n Prisspants, well. Don’t want to admit it but dividing up the work’s helped solve the harder equations.”
Neku smiled, offering a hand. “I can leave you my number if you ever want to talk shop.”
Sho blinked twice, confused. “You’d… help me? I was an irrational digit.”
“So? I was an asshole teenager. I pass through often enough. It’s not much trouble, especially if you’re feeding me,” Neku admitted, shaking his now empty bottle. “You try keeping on weight on a college art student’s budget.”
“Yeah, all right,” Sho said, standing up, swiping Neku’s empty bottle to shove in one of his myriad pockets. “A balanced equation—I dig it. I’m using this in my next piece,” he added, tapping the bottle with a hollow thud. “Thanks… Neku.”
Before Neku had a chance to even realize it was the first time Sho called him by name, the Reaper had vanished back to the Underground, out of Neku’s reach.
Neku stood at the mural a few minutes longer, rolling the plastic bottle cap in his fingers. If Sho was alive, well, less dead, then Joshua was still haunting Shibuya from somewhere—Hanekoma, too.
So why was the mural so worn out? Had Mr. H run out of new inspiration himself? Neku sighed, no more ready to tackle the assignment as he hoofed it back to the station, tossing the bottle-cap into the recycling as he passed.
The CC Lemon Sho had expertly pitched was mysteriously absent from the top of the pile.
“If Sho went dumpster diving to make recycled friendship bracelets, I think I’ll actually bust a rib laughing,” Neku muttered to himself.
“Honestly? I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Neku whipped his head around to see a Reaper in a basic hoodie. A faceless grunt, one of at least tens, if not hundreds, patrolling the city. No visible wings, so at least Neku could remind himself he hadn’t gone sliding into the UG. Just another Reaper coming up to the RG for air. Or to pester him.
“Do I know you?” Neku asked, eyeing the teenage-looking apparition in oversized clothing.
The boy huffed. “The Reaper Review remembers you.”
piece by soundofez
Neku laughed and relaxed a little. “At least you’re not the Reaper who made me show up in all Mus Rattus to break their barrier. Or the other one who made me get them a chili dog.”
“When you’re a minor officer, you’re allowed to send Players on wild goose chases,” the Reaper said with a shrug. “I’m just happy I was allowed to block mine with trivia. I hate fighting.”
“You and me both,” Neku grumbled.
The reaper tipped his hood back slightly, enough to show Neku his ethereal looking eyes. “I overheard you had artist’s block. Er, sorry. Didn’t mean to pry. It’s the worst.”
“Great. Is my mind safe from any of you?” Neku groaned, though it wasn’t in anger. He couldn’t complain. Hearing the livings’ thoughts just happened when you were dead.
“Actually, I was guarding the mural and overheard your chat with the Lieutenant.”
“Oof. Minamimoto got a demotion?”
“He seems happier in the field, anyway,” the Reaper replied with a shrug. “More time for his sculptures and harassing players.”
Neku looked at the Reaper curiously. “Sho mentioned you all do art. Have to keep your Imagination up.”
“That’s… not entirely true. I mean yeah, gotta keep the creative juices going or we stop existing. But it doesn’t have to be through art. Cooking, dance, whatever goes. When I’m stuck, I usually learn from another Reaper. Gives me some perspective.”
Neku’s smile widened. “You’re right, you know. I need to broaden my horizons. What do you do?”
“Me? Uh… I design puzzles. The player traps and stuff.”
“Ugh,” Neku groaned.
“You paint, right? I remember seeing some of your tags under the Miyashita Park underpass a few years ago. You’re pretty good. Maybe… try heading over near Shibu-Q? The Reapers that dance usually practice that way—sidewalk is wide enough. Loosen up with some life drawing or something.”
Neku smiled. “I have to do an installation project, but you know what? That’s not a terrible idea. Thanks.” He looked to the corner where Shibu-Q stood and then back at his nameless friend, but the Reaper was already gone.
piece by soundofez
Neku didn’t know what he was expecting to find outside Shibu-Q, but a pair of Harrier Reapers doing acrobatic dancing was not it. Neku smirked as he watched the reaper woman with electric purple lipstick—Uzuki, if he remembered correctly—pirouetting before using her friend as a vaulting block to spin up and over his back.
The two continued their routine, the man—Kariya, Neku remembered after a few embarrassed moments of mental fumbling—seeming lazy and unmoving but carefully and precisely supporting his partner’s flashy moves. The two continued for another ten minutes or so, then each held out a hat for change.
Neku patted himself down for his wallet before dumping three 500-yen coins in Uzuki’s hat as it passed around. She glared at him a moment, then pushed the coins back in his face.
“Not taking money from you,” she snipped. “I already owe you enough. Shoo.”
Kariya looked over his shoulder at Neku, momentarily confused. After all, the two of them hadn’t aged a day while Neku was now a lanky, slightly scruffy young adult. Realization crossed the Reaper’s features slowly, eventually tugging his mouth into a half grin. Kariya offered Neku a backwards half-salute and went back to waving his hat around for change.
Eventually the crowd dispersed. Kariya loped over to Neku and Uzuki, clapping Neku on the shoulder. “Hey, kiddo. You’re as tall as I am now. Good on you. How’s life treating you?”
Neku couldn’t help but laugh at the double meaning behind the words. “Busy. College.”
“You know, I wondered when I would stop seeing you run around the RG so much over here.”
“Never mind me,” Neku said, sloughing off Kariya’s friendly gesture and looking at the two of them. “How are you holding up?”
“How do you think?” Uzuki spat. “There weren’t many powerful Reapers left after that mess—at least for a while. So, some ass went and got themselves promoted to Conductor.”
Kariya looked down at his feet, blush going all the way across his face. “It’s not like I asked for it; I wasn’t given a choice. At least I negotiated that I could do things my way. Uzuki’s my GM.”
Neku frowned. “So… then you know the Composer.”
Kariya’s eyes went uncharacteristically fierce. “That’s on a need to know basis and—”
“Read my mind then,” Neku countered. “There’s something I do need to know.”
Neku closed his eyes and thought of Joshua. What he really wanted was to talk to Mr. Hanekoma, but the only way he was going to be able to do that would be going to Joshua first.
Kariya whistled low. “Okay. Fine. Kid, come here a sec.”
“Kariya, come on. Why are you even telling this kid anything? He’s alive. And—”
“He knows about Josh, Uzuki, I’m not giving him anything new. Just… maybe pointing him in the right direction.”
Uzuki pushed a loose strand of burgundy hair from her eyes. “Fiiiiine, whatever. You’re the boss.”
“You’ve seen him?” Neku asked quietly.
“’Course I have. He’s my boss,” Kariya said with a sigh. “Though he only comes to speak if he feels like it. I’ve caught him sulking over past the Miyashita Park underpass though. No clue why. Out there is just a bunch of sporting goods stores and Josh and physical activity mix like oil and vinegar. Hope that helps. What do you need him for, anyway? You’re alive.”
“It’s not him I’m even looking for,” Neku admitted. “I want him to tell me what happened to an old friend.”
Kariya relaxed a bit. “If said old friend has anything to do with the UG, might as well ask me.”
“I’m looking for CAT.”
Kariya frowned, scratching the back of his head in contemplation. “CAT was a Reaper? He— or she, I guess— stopped doing anything new after I became Conductor. Yeah. You’d have to speak to Josh. That’s before my time and below my pay grade.”
“Thanks anyway, Kariya,” Neku said, genuinely appreciative. “It’s better than nothing.”
“Anytime. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
Neku closed his eyes a moment, sighing quietly. “Hope so too,” he muttered, opening them to an empty sidewalk.
Neku headed eastbound towards Cat Street, passing Stride on the left. Gone were the Tin Pin banners, long since replaced with whatever new plastic toy battling fad that had taken hold of the local kids.
“You know, I heard a commotion from some of the older guard that a carrot was running around Udagawa.”
Neku had whiplash. Poised behind him with a cigarette loosely held in between his middle and ring finger was a face Neku couldn’t believe he was seeing.
“Seven?” Neku asked incredulously. He reached out his hand for the bleach-blonde, swaggering musician’s to find it cold as ice. Neku frowned. “Smoking kills, you know.”
piece by soundofez
777 played with the cigarette between his fingers. “How d’you think I died?” He gave a cocky grin. “Actually, I fell off a roof rigging an abandoned warehouse party. This is why you do safety checks. Tenho still gives me grief about it.”
Neku smiled weakly. “That bites.”
“The dust? Oof. Yeah. But hey, all three of us went down at once. The party scattered and when we showed up to play a new set a few weeks later nobody realized we weren’t exactly alive. They probably thought we broke a bone or two at worst and hid to lick our wounds—not cracked our skulls on the sidewalk.” Neku winced. “Er, sorry, Orange. Didn’t mean to dredge up anything bad on your end. Just odd, seeing you back.”
“Looking for someone,” Neku admitted. “The owner of the café that used to be on Cat Street.”
“Hanekoma? Stopped in there for coffee sometimes. Bit odd. His shop didn’t have the Player decal, yet he definitely served stiffs. Reapers as customers is one thing—we can go to the RG—but… hell. What do I know?”
Neku flocked his eyes up and down the street. Not that it mattered; Reapers could be in the UG right next to him and he wouldn’t know. “Yeah, he could see the dead.”
“ESPer or something?” Seven asked, blowing out a smoke ring that looked like a bat. Now he was just showing off.
“Something like that.”
“Well, fat lot that did him. Shop’s been MIA ever since I got recommissioned—maybe earlier. All I remember is, I had a double shot espresso there the night before that gig you helped me with, got blown up like two weeks later, and when I’m back to my good old dead self, the shop looks like it got exploded too. What the hell went on in this city that week?”
“War,” Neku said grimly.
“And you won, didn’t you?” Seven elbowed him in the shoulder. “You’d be one of my types now if you hadn’t.”
“Yeah, I did,” Neku said, throat dry. “Thanks for the chat.”
“You come to our next gig, you hear? You’ve gotta be old enough to drink now. VIP for you ‘n the cute chick you were with. Or, uh, anyone else. Don’t know if asking her would be awkward. She made it out, didn’t she? Please say yes.”
Neku smiled. “She did, and we’re still friends. I’ll ask. She won’t look like how you’re expecting though.”
“Neither do you, not-so-short stack. Now get outta here. I’m gonna finish my drag and get back to setup before Beej screams me out. Later.” Seven snapped his fingers and the cigarette exploded in a puff of blue fiery smoke. “Open invite, Orange, just tell the bouncer ‘golden bat’ at the door.”
Neku inhaled. He knew past here was Cadoi, then Miyashita.
Then Cat Street.
Neku passed a small spot under the park underpass where Beat and Rhyme’s flowers had once been placed, leaving behind a tiny finger skateboard. Beat would probably punch him; Rhyme would find it hilarious. He did it to honor his once dead friend. Some kid would probably see it, and abscond with it, and play with it till it broke. Beat’s skateboard, in the hands of some kid passing by—it was fitting.
Neku let his memory walk him the rest of the way to WildKat. It stood as it had since the incident: a broken front window, a door barely hanging on its hinges. How it remained like this almost half a decade without developer intervention was shocking, honestly. Or maybe not, if divine intervention was involved.
Neku inhaled and took a step forward.
He carefully swung the door, afraid the whole thing would come off the frame in his hands. It squeaked something awful but hung by a thread.
The inside was worse. Neku should have brought one of his paint masks with him. The place was a fire trap of chipped plaster, dust, and mold. An old safe in the back corner was open on its hinges. The only things that looked clean were the sink, two sealed jars of whole coffee beans, and a single drip carafe, the rest of the row shattered beyond recognition.
Neku’s sketchbook and a mechanical pencil set still sat atop the dust-crusted counter. He’d left them there when he and Beat had returned— the only time Neku stepped foot in the shop when he was alive—to check on the shop.
To check on its owner.
Leaving the sketchbook behind seemed fitting. It was half full of random crap, and half empty, nothing but open promises in the end.
Maybe Neku didn’t need Hanekoma, or CAT, or the old shop. Carefully, he made his way around a splintered bar stool, sidestepped a broken glass pitcher, and hauled himself up on the only stool left in sittable condition.
Reverently, he opened the book. He almost laughed at his fifteen-year-old self’s sketches. The first three pages were ideas for tags around the city. He actually cringed at one.
Then a page of Shiki—a quick sketch, half likely from stolen glances and half from memory, because it was her as herself on the left, and as Eri on the right.
Ideas for Beat’s skateboards.
An entire six pages of circles and cubes, shaded with hatching or a blending stump.
Neku turned to the next page.
In handwriting that wasn’t his, scrawled in large block print…
TURN AROUND, DEAR.
Neku screamed. It wasn’t one of fear, but frustration. “You slimy, little—” he shrieked, as he spun around in the stool expecting to see a smarmy, fifteen-year-old-looking blonde, if the agelessness of the other UG residents was anything to go by.
Instead, a softly frowning man in his mid-thirties stood behind him.
With blonde fly-away hair.
And strange purple eyes.
And a blue-purple button down with white accents and charcoal slacks.
Neku bit his lower lip, holding back a fury he hadn’t had in years.
“I come in peace,” Joshua offered, hands up defensively, glowing slightly. “I wrote that years ago. Now I kind of regret it.” Neku relaxed a little. Joshua would be dramatic enough to do that and scare him when he entered the shop, wouldn’t he?
“Only kind of, though,” Joshua added, pulling a broken chair from the rubble, fixing it with a shake and sitting down beside Neku. “It’s still Imprinted. I’m not in the RG. The note left a bit of me in it. You see it, you see me, too.”
“You been tailing me all day, too?”
“I felt you in the city, but no. Only when I got a text about it.”
Kariya. Of course.
“Your conductor rat me out?”
“He did say you were looking for me. So, might have imprinted on you a bit to push you here.”
“You could have come and—”
“—said hello? No, actually, I can’t. I’m on probation. Can’t enter the RG for a decade. Not the biggest deal for me, mind, but… humans don’t live near as long as things like I do. I needed you to come to me. Glad that thing still works.” He tapped the notebook, his hand clipping through a page or two like he wasn’t all there.
Neku exhaled. “I trust you, you know. Still don’t forgive you, but I do trust you.”
“I know. I appreciate you said it aloud, but I know.”
“You look better when your clothes actually fit.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment or an insult?”
“You’ve gotten better at keeping up with me,” Joshua said with a bit of a grin.
“You’ve slowed down in your age, you old fart.”
“Old? Fart?” Joshua pouted, and where there had been a well-put-together adult sat a petulant teenager in the same attire, now oversized to the point of baggy. He looked as the Reapers did—unaged.
“At least now you fit in with the rest of your underlings,” Neku huffed.
Joshua frowned. “I wish I did, honestly.” Quietly, he stared off, past Neku to the empty kitchen.
“Miss him too?”
“More than you,” Joshua shot back.
“Didn’t have many friends?”
“Comes with the job.”
Neku rolled a pencil between his fingers. He’d caught the proverbial tail and didn’t know what to do with it. Joshua was here and clearly knew just as much as Neku did about his former idol’s whereabouts. They sat in silence as Joshua’s likely million-yen watch ticked away.
“Well what?” Neku replied flatly.
“You’re no fun, Neku,” Joshua needled. “Fine. Look, Sanae liked you, more than just the fact that you were my Proxy. Hell, I’m surprised he helped you at all, knowing what you represented in my Game. You were the bad guy.”
Joshua slunk in the only-until-recently broken bar seat, kicking at a shattered tile with an awfully expensive sneaker. When he couldn’t quite reach, his form shifted back to that of an adult, flinging the chipped tile aside like a petulant child. “Neku, I need you.”
“Like you needed me to destroy Shibuya.”
Joshua exhaled, wisps of golden hair fluttering as he stared at anything but Neku. “I’ve been trying to find Hanekoma for years. Every moment I’m not here keeping the city together, I’m traveling to find him. You wouldn’t understand, but I need you to get a lock on him.”
“You’re dimension hopping.”
Joshua sat straight up, his too-long legs hitting the café bar as he did so. “Fuck,” he hissed, rubbing at his knee. “Too tall for my own good. But how? How could you even know that?”
Neku pointed to the safe at the back corner of the café, still just as ajar as he left it when he found the key pin with Beat back in the game. “Mr. H. left me a book of notes: on the game, on angels, all of it.” Neku scrolled through his phone. “I used to keep it on me, thinking it would help me somehow, someday. Eventually, I just scanned it all.”
“Gimme,” Joshua demanded, and the phone was in his hands. Neku watched in awe at the Composer’s speed reading. “I know he kept notes for the Angels, but this wasn’t for them—it was for you. Where’s the real deal?”
“Address. Specific location. I’m talking ‘fourth floor, third bedroom, under the red futon next to my stack of- ‘”
Neku cut him off quickly, rattling off his exact address and where he hid the book. Joshua held out a free hand, and in a moment, it materialized with the softest of thunks, pages fluttering in Joshua’s fingertips. “Be glad I’m on good terms with the Composer of Taito Ward,” Joshua admonished, pointing with the small hand-bound journal. “Otherwise I would have sent you home to go get it yourself.”
“What, are you going to track down Hanekoma with this?”
“No, of course not,” Joshua snorted, standing upright, shaking himself once to completely dissipate any plaster shavings or broken chips from his clothing.
Neku watched in awe as Joshua’s back bloomed with light, a pair of massive swan-like silver-white wings settling on his back, iridescent with hints of lavender as he shook them loose. Before Neku could think, Hanekoma’s journal was thrust into his hands, and Joshua had him in a position he’d later call The Little Spoon of Death. With a jerk backwards, the two fell through and landed precisely where they’d been before, except the shop was in clean, working order, jazz playing on the radio, and a familiar voice humming tunelessly along with the guitar.
“Heya, Josh. Back so soon?”
Neku blinked and almost cried when he saw the man behind the counter. “H-Hanekoma?!? Mr. H?”
“One of,” Hanekoma said with a shrug. “Not the one you’re looking for though.”
Neku tried to surge forward to give the man (angel?) a hug but was held firmly in place by Joshua’s murderous grip around his waist. “Let go,” Neku whined through gritted teeth.
“Not a good idea, Boss,” Hanekoma chided. “You don’t want to get stuck in the wrong place.”
Neku let himself slacken. “I can get stuck?”
“Sure as the rain ruining my day,” Hanekoma agreed. “When you’re in the right place, you’ll know.”
“Can you help?”
“Can I? Sure. Will I? No. He’s a hellion. You’re never going to find him anyway.”
“Isn’t he another you?”
“You wouldn’t say the same thing if you met you from this world,” Joshua said, exasperated. “I wonder why the book sent us here.”
“This is where you hid after Minamimoto tried to erase you, isn’t it?” Neku asked. He flipped through the journal. “He hid somewhere high to wait for you. Because he thought this Hanekoma would turn him into the Angel Police or something.”
“I did,” Hanekoma said proudly. “Can’t have me ruining my good name.”
“Fuck off,” Neku spat at the barista. “You’re not Hanekoma.”
“I’m the part of Hanekoma that actually follows our rules.”
Joshua squeezed Neku tighter. “Hold on and keep thinking of that.”
“What—whyyyyyyyyyy?!” Neku screamed as sound escaped him. The whole universe lurched underneath as Joshua resumed pinging around between alternate realities, barely stopping to breathe.
“Focus!” Joshua ordered him through the din of dizzying WildKat cafes, Shibuya skylines, and for a brief moment, possibly the cold depths of space.
“THERE IS NOTHING TO FOCUS ON YOU DAFT ZOMBIE!” Neku shouted back, feeling his insides out and outsides in before the two bounced off a massive plate of glass and went rolling out to nowhere. Joshua pulled his wings around them, breaking the fall as they bounced a few times to the sounds of shattering glass.
They stilled. Neku could hear his own breathing and feel his heart jumping in his chest. Disquietingly, Joshua had neither breath nor a heartbeat, his torso flat against Neku’s back without any noticeable sign of life. Neku quietly filed that part under “disgusting, do not remind” and wiggled a little to loosen Joshua’s grip on his midsection.
“Hang on,” Joshua hissed out. “Easy does it.”
“That was easy?”
“You should see hard,” Joshua said, smirking as he raised an eyebrow. “And it might surprise you but… I think we’re here.”
Joshua rocked on the shoulders of his wings, pushing them both upright and parting a crack for them to see from.
The world consisted of a single, stained-glass building in a shattered-glass sky. The ground crunched with hardened paint beneath them.
“Somewhere high, following the rules… and nothing to focus on. Neku, sometimes, only sometimes, am I reminded of your genius.”
“I am in elbow-to-face range,” Neku reminded him.
“Yes, dear, and you’d best stay that way unless you want to swallow glass,” Joshua pointed out. “I’m too concerned about flying through that with a passenger, let alone someone alive, so we’re going to walk in tandem to the entrance and pray there’s no tricks along the way.”
Neku wanted to argue he wasn’t much for prayer but being cocooned in angel wings wasn’t doing him any favors in that department.
“Well at least I’m getting the inspiration I was looking for,” Neku muttered as he marveled through the tiniest of openings in between Joshua’s feathers. They both shuddered as pellets of colored glass dogged them like rain, Neku grimacing with each step.
“I think that is this world’s rain,” Joshua said aloud. “What? You’re thinking too loud. Either shut up or I’ll nitpick your thoughts. Last you want to do is swallow glass talking out loud, anyway.”
They walked in silence for what felt like eternity, roughly matching steps so their wing-cocoon tank didn’t topple. Peppered by the shards of rain, Neku was slowly getting a better view of the world outside his feathered umbrella.
piece by me
The tower reminded him of Pork City, though it stretched upwards through molten clouds that burned red hot like liquid glass being worked at a forge. The whole thing was stained glass of infinite color—giant, angular panes crossed and reinforced by black, wrought iron-like supports, with sharp points sticking out at odd angles from the structure.
“I think so too,” Joshua agreed with Neku’s wandering thoughts. “That’s Pork City, all right—made from Reaper wings. It looks like a gorgeous prison. A prison all the same, though,” he added, sighing.
Soon enough, the entrance loomed overhead, its maw of black webbing haphazardly stuffed with angular pastel glass. The tinkle of the rain bounced off the overhang as Joshua ever-so-slowly folded his wings behind him.
“I think you’re safe, for now,” he said, with the authoritativeness betraying his true age. “I promise, I’m not going to let you die here—you’re still holding Sanae’s book.”
“Because that’s all you care about,” Neku grumbled, to Joshua’s pout. “Oh, come off. I’m going to make up for all the teasing you did to me. Now let’s hope there’s an elevator in there or you’ll be flying us up the stairs.”
“Lights are on; nobody’s home,” Joshua said, looking around as the two shuffled inside. “Okay, I’m letting go.”
“You’re what!” Neku shrieked, breathing heavy as Joshua smirked, unhooking his hands from around Neku’s waist. “Didn’t that other Hanekoma say it was a bad idea?”
“Oh, it’s a cataclysmically terrible idea. You’ll be trapped here forever now.”
“Joshua–I—you’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?”
“I mean, of course. I’m an ass, but nobody’s that heartless.”
“You murdered me. Twice.”
“I also brought you back to life, so no complaints,” Joshua snipped back. “Now, what have we here?”
Neku sighed, reminded of exactly how aggravating the little god could be. He looked around the entry foyer. The walls inside the building were a blinding white, almost piercing in their contrast to the stained glass on the outer walls of the monstrous tower. “I think this thing is alive,” Neku muttered.
“It’s not,” Joshua said, almost too quickly. “Or, rather, it’s as alive as Sanae or I am.”
“So it’s, what, an angel?”
Joshua kneeled down to touch the floor, a soft white abalone with a pearlescent sheen. “Yes. And we just entered the mouth.” Neku shuddered. “Oh, it’s not really that big a deal, Neku,” Joshua said, standing up and tsk-ing him with a finger. “This building is no more going to digest you than a wooden one; though I’m sure you’ve seen trees grow around and consume cars and houses.”
“Not helping,” Neku grumbled. “Hey, I’m not sure if it’s the retina damage, but are the walls bleeding paint?”
Joshua tucked his massive wings up high on his back, where they still trailed behind him like a couture dress, and shimmy-hopped over to the interior wall. “Oh, it’s probably retina damage,” he said cheerily, “you’re looking at pure light after all. But you’re not wrong.” Joshua swiped his hand along the wall, coming off it with a smear of mustard yellow acrylic paint. He blew on it, drying it immediately, and peeled it off like a face mask. “Must be the elevator hidden in the wall and… here we go.”
With a squelching sound like wrenching a tooth out of its socket—Neku wondering with a shudder that if that actually was a tooth—Joshua dislodged the panel, revealing a plush, red-velvet-lined elevator speckled with flecks of paint.
“If that’s a tongue, I’m out of here,” Neku complained.
“It’s not a tongue,” Josh said with a suspicious grin, stuffing himself inside with his wings still exposed. Neku shuffled and squeezed in, a massive feather poking him in the backside. The doors closed. “It’s the esophagus, Neku.”
“Can’t you put those away?” Neku asked, after what felt like an eternity of being smothered by a giant chicken.
Joshua sighed, looking more serious than Neku was ever used to. “Yes, but I won’t.”
Neku expected him to elaborate, but Joshua merely went silent, hands out and open and feathers fluffed up.
Quickly, Neku understood why. It started quietly, a ping and a plop and a hiss, and became louder and more intense with each passing second. A few moments later, Neku was positive he wasn’t hearing things; it sounded like rain pouring from a gutter except… the rain was a stream of fire-engine red and the gutter was the walls of the elevator. The liquid pooled in the velvet flooring like blood matting the fur on a wounded, furry animal.
“Neku, move in before I make you.”
He didn’t need to be told twice as Joshua threw his wings up around them again, reaching a hand out of the fluffy shield to pull the emergency stop on the elevator panel. Neku didn’t even realize how fast they’d been ascending until they screeched to a halt.
“The walls are bleeding.”
“Paint,” Joshua replied. “It’s just paint.”
piece by jix
“You also said the building was an angel,” Neku reminded him testily. “What’s to say that this isn’t—”
“Angel blood melts like acid,” Joshua replied flatly. Neku didn’t know if he were telling the truth or not, but the soles of his shoes, now caked in it, weren’t dissolving.
Joshua pulled him close, wrapping his left arm around his shoulders and left wing over that like a shield. Neku couldn’t see anything but white, but he felt a jolt of exertion and heard Joshua swear low.
“Neku, dear, stay close and don’t scream.”
In the time it took him to blink, the Joshua that Neku was familiar with vanished. Every pore of the elevator was leaking paint in gushes now; thankfully blues and greens and hot pinks, to put Neku slightly more at ease, balanced evenly with the remainder of the free space taken up by living, swirling paint.
One giant one.
It was silent and snake-like, and it dug its claws into the elevator door, wrenching it open without a sound save the rushing air.
The elevator had stopped between two floors, and the Noise slipped out the bottom to slide down to the floor below.
Move, it demanded of him. Drowning in paint doesn’t belong in your obituary.
Neku more or less knew the beast had been Joshua, but the voice in his head finally cemented it.
“I’ll break my legs.”
“I’ll catch you.”
Neku didn’t even register the response said aloud, slipping down the paint-soaked velvet and landing in a nest of color-streaked feathers.
“I’m drenched,” Neku grumped, and then realized he wasn’t. His and Joshua’s clothes were pristine again, though the wild streaks of paint still covered Neku’s arms and Joshua’s feathers.
“Not getting rid of it all. I don’t know if the building is trying to attack us and I’d rather we still smell like it.”
“You think?” Neku asked sarcastically. He looked around the room. Paint had pooled in oil-slick puddles on the floor and was leaking out cracks in the walls. Neku heard dripping from overhead, looking up to see globs of color slowly plopping from the ceiling. The acrylic paint’s own drying-to-plastic properties were likely the only thing preventing a flood of multicolored rain on them.
Carefully, Neku hot-footed around the deepest puddles and made his way to the stained glass on the perimeter.
“We are really high up,” he breathed out, looking at the world below.
Joshua fluttered, and landed gracefully next to him. “We are. Care not to break the glass.”
“I’m not that—”
“—without me,” Joshua continued, barreling for the window, grabbing Neku as he shattered an entire pane.
For a moment, time stood still, not that it mattered much in this place to begin with. The triangular pastel shards exploded out with them on the side of the building and Neku swore he heard it scream. The shards from the broken window floated around them, glittering against the glass rain pelting them from above. Joshua pulled Neku in tighter, wings curled.
“Duck.” That was Neku’s only warning as Joshua opened his wings to propel them up against the pellets of crystalline rain before hurling himself sideways, crashing into another exterior wall.
“Human bodies are too frail,” Joshua tsk’ed at him once they finished rolling in a 20 centimeters deep pool of paint. With a hand wave, Neku found himself as clean as he could be, and free of scratches.
Paint sluiced down from their entry hole, likely streaking the outside of the building as the room began to drain. Neku shook the stars from his eyes as Joshua flicked his fingers across his button-down shirt, sending the liquid colors away as he did so.
His wings were still streaked with neon.
The room had no stairs, no elevator shaft, from what Neku could see. It was just glass around the outside and a concrete floor and ceiling. Scattered about the room were pillars and flat concrete pieces, some wall-to-ceiling, but most about half height—like an art gallery.
The entire room, save the glass, was completely covered in art.
It was one step short of being an eyesore. And as the paint drained out, pouring down the exterior side of the building, Neku could see the floor, too, covered with incredible works of art. He felt almost embarrassed when he moved his foot, leaving behind a hot-pink footprint on impressionist lilies.
“They’re just copies,” Joshua said sternly, looking around. “Technically precise, but nothing original except in how it’s all mashed together.”
Neku nodded. “I just stepped in Monet.”
“Well, a good copy. Poor Sanae. Stay on your guard, Neku; he’s up here somewhere. And he’s probably not going to look like what you’re used to.”
“Like how you were a dragon?” Neku asked.
“His street art handle isn’t CAT for nothing.”
“I’m assuming it’s not a housecat, then,” Neku hissed back, suddenly concerned. Both of them winced on hearing a howl.
Quiet, Joshua ordered inside his head. And stay behind me.
Neku nodded and the two wove their way through the gallery, following the sound of growls and irritated hisses. Joshua slowly peeled around a corner, motioning for Neku to follow.
A great graffiti-winged panther that Neku could only assume was Mr. Hanekoma glared back through acid-paint eyes.
Joshua shoved Neku roughly aside, striding confidently to the massive graffiti beast.
“Hello, old friend,” Joshua said, tired and aged himself.
The creature screamed. The concrete half-wall Neku had been cowering behind exploded into fragments of color and shrapnel.
The beast froze, sniffed. It took one step, then another, leaning its gargantuan head over the broken divider to look down at Neku.
Neku had never been terrified before. Even in the Game, he’d had periods when he was scared, adrenaline coursing through him like the drug it was. But this abject fear to witness a man he trusted—who he might even consider a friend—be reduced to a mindless abomination drooling tempera paint overhead was sobering.
The beast opened its maw wide. Joshua jumped to his side in a flash, throwing up a wing to protect him.
Hanekoma tilted his head a little, reminiscent of a puppy. “Ne….ku?”
Neku and Joshua watched over the next…however long it took. Hanekoma paced, occasionally knocking over a bucket of paint or, in one case, slamming into one of the concrete half-wall dividers with his flank as his graffiti form jittered and convulsed.
He’s coming back around, Joshua hissed in Neku’s head. At this point, we just need to wait.
Neku nodded. Joshua still held a wing up and an iron grip on the other’s arm and waist, but it was with good reason. Hanekoma screamed again, rupturing the concrete and Neku’s eardrums. For a few moments, Neku saw nothing but static, before the searing pain faded.
“—Sanae, Sanae, come back to us,” Joshua pleaded in croaking whispers as Neku’s hearing returned. “Please. Your attacks are only hurting him, see? I just had to completely repair his eardrums.”
The cat-beast howled again, knocking Neku utterly unconscious this time.
Neku came to on the floor of the gallery, slowly taking stock of the room around him through hazy peripheral vision. Most of the dividers were at least punched through, if not entirely destroyed. A cold hand covered most of his forward vision, however.
“Neku, can you hear me?” Hanekoma’s gruff voice was twanged with concern.
“He should; I fixed his eardrums twice in one eternity,” Joshua grumped.
“Mister….H?” Neku croaked.
“J, make him some water.”
Slowly, a sturdy arm pulled Neku to sitting, leaning his body back into something warm, but lacking breath and a pulse. It was too broad to be Joshua, confirmed when the other hand slipped away to take an offered bowl of water.
Hanekoma was in human form again. Human-ish, at least.
“I’m twenty,” Neku protested before coughing up a little blood, realizing that was the first full sentence out of his mouth to the former barista.
“Hey, all humans are kids to me,” Hanekoma laughed. “J, he needs his throat patched up too.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Joshua whined, leaning forward to place three fingers against Neku’s neck. Immediately, Neku felt a wave of calm wash over, and his throat felt clear. “Now drink, before I whip you up an IV. I can patch you up, but I’m not magically refilling you with lost fluids. I don’t have the brainspace right now for that.”
Neku slowly downed the water, leaning heavily into Hanekoma. “I don’t have the brainspace to brain for at least a week.”
“I don’t think any of us do,” Hanekoma added. “I’m not even sure how I’m back to any kind of sanity as it is.”
Joshua rolled his eyes and refilled the water bowl with a gesture. “Enough of you was sane enough to be worried.”
“You brought a living human as bait, J! Of course I was worried.”
“That doesn’t make it—” Hanekoma hissed, squeezing Neku’s shoulders a little too hard.
“I missed you,” Neku cut in. “It looked like all of Shibuya did, even though they never knew who you were.”
“Of course they knew,” Hanekoma said gently. “I was the local barista, ready with a good cup ‘o joe. I was the artist that painted the town red.”
“All the Reapers I spoke to had nothing but praise for you,” Neku continued. “I ran all over the city today finding that out.”
Neku felt the single loud thump of a heartbeat from the ethereal body keeping him upright. “Really now?”
“None of them knew you had a connection to the game either,” Neku continued, getting a second wind. “They just praised CAT’s art and WildKat’s coffee.”
“Won’t you come back, Sanae?” Joshua asked, a pleading smile on his lips. “It’s been too long.”
“I wish I could, J.”
“What do you mean you wish? You’re an Angel, for Someone’s sake!”
“Er, about that,” Hanekoma said, scratching the back of his head. “I’m… well. I’m not not an angel, I guess. But this is my punishment.”
“You’re definitely under supervision,” Joshua said testily. “Your warden was more annoying than anything else.”
“I take offense to that,” Hanekoma’s voice reverberated through all three of them.
Joshua nearly growled. “You know, you could have skipped the theatrics. If you wanted us gone, you could have Erased us, or just booted us out.”
Neku blinked the last of the daze away. “Hold on. I’m missing something here.”
“Remember how we passed a million billion WildKats and Sanaes and Shibuyas trying to find this place?” Joshua grumbled. “And how Sanae knew what we were doing? Angels have a singular hive mind. Mostly. I’m not actually an Angel, mind you—sort of just a hatchling, an infant. But he’s a real-deal Higher Plane beastie.”
Neku frowned, putting up a finger, lost in thought. Hanekoma went to speak, only for Joshua to shush him.
“Neku’s smart enough to put the pieces together. Give him a moment.”
“I gave him at least a concussion, if not brain damage, J.”
“Which I fixed.”
“The building.” Neku’s face sharpened into a frown.
Joshua and Hanekoma turned their heads to Neku, now sitting upright unassisted as he bopped his finger to his own internal music, slotting what he knew in place. “You said the building was an angel. This building, this whole thing, is this dimension’s Mr. H. All of the other yous are mad at you, aren’t they?”
Hanekoma nodded, exhaling a sigh. “I’m… sort of still an angel. But they cut me off from the Hive and took my inspiration. I can’t leave until I have them back.”
“I’m going to have a word with Management.” Joshua hoisted himself off the shrapnel-pocked floor, stomping a foot. “Elevator, if you please.”
“J, you’re crazy.”
The three heard a ding as a concrete cube rose from the floor, the elevator with it. It opened with a smooth motion, the door already fixed but the interior still caked in paint.
“Am I the hostage negotiator, or can all of us go?” Joshua asked the elevator, irritated, arms crossed and wing-feathers fluffed in annoyance. In response, the elevator ballooned sideways, expanding the interior to accommodate three adults and one massive pair of wings.
“All right,” Joshua sighed out. “Everybody in.”
The elevator hummed pleasantly and dinged, opening back up to the pearly-white entryway. The large front doors—triangular shards of crisscrossing stained glass—were blocked off by an aggressive black chain and padlock. A gleaming solid front desk sat at the entryway with a bored Hanekoma flipping lazily through a completely blank magazine. He shot them a grin; Neku noticed he was missing a tooth.
“Ah, hello. Thanks for giving me one heck of a sore throat, J.”
“Can it. I’m busting him out,” Joshua snapped, straight to the point.
Hanekoma put down the magazine, all high-gloss and solid-white pages. “Oh? How?”
Joshua pointed at the door, the chain and lock melting like acid under his gaze. “The front door, how else? Unless you want a few more teeth popped out.”
“That isn’t what I meant, J,” Hanekoma-behind-the-counter said simply. “Your me isn’t an angel right now. You take him out of here and he’s a mortal. I give him a few decades, tops. Stay and he’ll pay his price eventually; won’t you, you sorry excuse for a me?”
Joshua’s Sanae wrung his hands. “I’ll head back up. I did say you didn’t need to come for me, J.”
“If you leave before your sentence is up… you’re mortal?” Joshua asked, his voice cracking a little.
“Yeah, sorry Boss. I’ll take the long way ‘round.”
Neku frowned, scratching at some dried paint on his cheek. “Hang on. What is his sentence exactly? Josh, you said yours was being banned from the RG, but nothing stopped you from letting me see the UG.”
Joshua broke out into a nasty grin. “Ohhhhhhhh Neku, dear. I need to have you get brain damage more often.”
“No,” Neku interjected flatly.
“Aw, it was only a temporary inconvenience. Anyway, Sanae—either of you—what is his exact punishment from the Higher Plane? I want the full contract.”
The glass world’s Sanae slid him the blank magazine. “They were pretty thorough.”
When Neku turned his back on the front desk, a couch, two chairs, and a coffee table, all in different shades of blinding alabaster, existed under the overhang just to the side of the entryway. The tinkle of stained-glass-shard rain peppered the overhang roof and a rainbow of garish light streaked in between the storm clouds outside. Joshua lifted his wings, draped them over the back of the sofa, and got to reading.
The only sounds were the tinkling of the rain, Joshua’s ever-ticking watch, and the occasional turn of a page.
Neku tapped his fingers on his jeans. “Can I do anything?”
“No,” muttered Joshua, half in thought flipping through the plain pages.
“Haven’t you done enough?” asked the bored warden, slouching at his desk.
“I could… clean the elevator,” Neku offered, trying to figure out something to do. He was definitely caught in some sort of celestial war, played out in miniature. Everything was over his head right now as he looked sideways to the glass-world Hanekoma. He looked the same as all the others—rolled-up button down, slacks, waistcoat, watch, sandals, sunglasses, messy hair—though he did seem a bit more… shiny, like light was reflecting off of him. Neku didn’t want to consider what it meant for him to both be standing at the front counter as well as being the entire building.
“You’d do that?” the glass angel questioned, confused.
“Why wouldn’t I? I’m just standing here. And it’s partially my fault that happened. More so if it’s hurting you.”
“Angels aren’t people, Neku,” he replied, handing him a bucket of soapy water from nowhere. “We don’t feel pain.”
“You’re clearly in pain,” Neku shot back in a whisper after Joshua rustled the magazine loudly, clearing his throat in a way reminding Neku to not disturb him. “Let me help.”
“Help, huh?” The glass Hanekoma smiled, the missing tooth returning to its space after a moment of static. “That’s a new thought.”
“Nobody’s ever helped you before?” Neku asked, concerned, as the elevator dinged and opened. He walked to it, both Sanaes following. One handed the other another bucket, then made one for himself. The three went inside and Neku took to the floor, carefully washing down the carpeting. The door slid closed and the three worked in silence.
“Not me, no,” the glass one admitted. “Not most of us. Angels don’t interact with your kind, or they really aren’t supposed to. I think some of us are jealous of the us from your world.” Another beat of silence. “I know I am.”
“Then why don’t you leave?” Neku asked.
“The other mes would make me a traitor, same as that one.” He jabbed his thumb at his duplicate. “In all honesty, I think it’s better than wasting away with only our own thoughts for company. All of us know it too—only that one said the quiet part out loud. There’s a small and finite number of angels, but an infinite number of each of us. One broken hive is a massive blow to the higher plane—kind of contradictory when you realize we run on Imagination. Think about it for five seconds and—”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Neku cut in, satisfied with the state of the floor, moving on to an aggressive teal spot on the wall. “If you run on Imagination but you’re made up as a ton of fragments that all have to think alike, any dissent and your own self turns on you. Seems a bit counterintuitive to have it that way.”
“The only possible outcome is to break apart from within,” Hanekoma agreed, but Neku wasn’t sure which one of them said it. Inside the elevator, the glass one didn’t have the odd shine he’d had in the foyer. At this point, he wasn’t sure it mattered.
Neku and both Hanekoma exited the elevator, Joshua still pouring over the magazine. “They really did try and close every possible loophole,” he muttered. “I can’t see a way out… shy of killing you,” he added, looking up at the two angels. “And now I can’t even tell you apart.”
One of them smiled. “Neku just opened one up for you.”
“Yes, ‘should the warden be unfit for service, Hanekoma is to serve the remainder of the sentence under a new warden.’ I was going to kill you and claim myself warden.”
“There’s no way the Higher Power would allow that. He’d just be transferred,” the other one said. Joshua raised an eyebrow to the first one—his Hanekoma. He slid his eyes between the two of them and the glass one scratched the back of his neck.
“Sit. I’ll get us something to drink.”
Neku shrugged and practically threw himself into one of the chairs, sighing as he sank into it. It was soft and warm and the light pinging of the rain overhead was lulling him to sleep.
“Stay awake,” Hanekoma ordered, pinching his elbow. “You started going see-through when you passed out last time—it’s what jolted me to consciousness. You aren’t coming all this way just for me to see you fade to nothing, Neku.”
Neku jolted upright, just as a steaming cup of coffee was placed in his hands. “I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen,” the glass Hanekoma said, determined. A third settee appeared between the other two; their captor-slash-host sat in it, placing a tray of coffee, tea, and snacks on the table between them. “And anyway, I’m unfit to be Hanekoma’s warden now. The Higher Plane may come for me soon. Though, soon here could be eons off. I know my time doesn’t run at the same pace as most of the other dimensions; that’s why I was picked to watch him. Joshua, they would never accept you under probation, but… Neku—you seem to be a favorite of upper management. Transferring to you shouldn’t be a problem. Hand him the contract, J.”
Neku blinked a bit of the daze from his eyes, downing the beverage. It felt like more than mere coffee, a solid glass of liquid courage, emboldening him.
Joshua hesitated, but passed the blank, glossy magazine sideways to Neku. He then stared down at the tray of offered snacks and carefully picked out a chessboard cookie, frowning at it, before biting the head off the knight’s horse.
Words swirled on the paper in Neku’s peripheral vision before he could see them straight off. “Can I get a translation?” he asked meekly, looking at the mess of block print before him.
“Did I not write it in Japanese?” Glass-Hanekoma asked.
“That’s not what I meant,” Neku sulked. “I can’t read lawyer.”
Joshua craned his neck sideways. “It’s a transferal of ownership contract. Standard language, except… hm. Neku, would you want to be an angel?”
Neku scrunched up his face. “Seeing what you deal with? No. I have enough trouble with artist’s block as it is. I’d rather it not be fatal.”
“Take out paragraphs eight and twenty, then.”
“Wait, this would have…”
“Made you one of us, yeah,” Joshua cut Neku off. “It does mean that if Hanekoma didn’t finish his sentence before you died, he would be mortal; so some sort of transferal clause needs to be added.”
Hanekoma snatched up the magazine, flicking it. “Consider it done. Sign and get out of here before I’m taken away too.” He grinned slyly. “Maybe I can keep the domino chain going. Wouldn’t the upper management just love that?”
Neku flicked his eyes to Joshua. “I still trust you, Josh. How’s it look?”
“We can take him with us. You’re his warden ‘til you die or his sentence is done, then you can renegotiate angelhood if you want.”
“But… what is his sentence?” Neku asked, looking between the now indistinguishable Hanekoma.
“I have to re-earn my Imagination: the human way.”
“Some magic. About as much as Josh has. Which is a lot compared to you. Very little compared to before. And none at all when I’m not near my warden… though I’m not sure how near near is.”
“Don’t worry about that,” the second Hanekoma said, squeezing the first’s shoulder. “I’ve given you a little extra juice on your way. I’m sure they’ll take mine from me anyway. It’s enough to manifest your wings again, at least. Now get out of here, before there’s bigger problems. All of us is already tattling.”
“Bunch of assholes,” Hanekoma hissed under his breath.
“We both were, too. Well, me at least. Think you were always the black sheep. Now, sign and get.”
Joshua plucked a pen from nowhere, handing it to Neku who turned to the angelic twins. “You trust me?”
“With your life,” both Hanekoma said with a nod.
Neku signed with a flick of his wrist, the pull of slumber taking him again. He could barely hear Hanekoma and Joshua shout something as they hauled him upright at the torso.
With a jerk that felt like someone had tied a rope around his waist and then yanked on it from behind, Neku blinked his eyes open to Hanekoma’s shop, as destroyed as it was when they’d left it. He gasped for breath, completely winded and woozy, the world spinning around him until he succumbed, sliding out of Hanekoma and Joshua’s shared grip to bounce on the cracked tile floor.
Hanekoma frowned, flapping feathered wings he forgot he’d missed. “J, you know you can’t throw yourself around the mortals—not like that. Not even to someone like him.” Carefully, Hanekoma pulled Neku out of the rubble, flinging his body over a shoulder. “Be glad he’s just passed out. If he stayed a moment longer in that dimension, he would have been gone. You could have killed him or worse.”
“But I didn’t,” Joshua insisted. “I needed him.”
“Did he know the risks?” Hanekoma asked roughly, finally free to yell at his former boss-and-ward without Neku overhearing. “He didn’t. You never told him.”
“You said in your notes that I’d be a strain on him. He had to know what that meant.”
“There’s a difference in knowing what your toned-down presence would do over a week versus what the full force of your power would do to him in a few hours,” Hanekoma chided. “He may have known the former, but you certainly didn’t tell him the latter.”
“What’s your point?” Joshua asked, watching Hanekoma shift Neku’s unconscious form into a more comfortable carry.
“My point is, stop breaking things, J. Stop treating everything like a broken bone that’s healing the wrong way. Not everything has to be shattered even more to fix it.”
“You were imprisoned by the Angels! All for trying to protect this city!” Joshua protested.
“I would have finished my sentence eventually,” Sanae countered in a calm and even tone. “I may have been in that place for eons, but it was—what? Three years here, maybe?”
“Five,” Joshua whimpered with a pout.
Hanekoma’s eyes flicked up and down Joshua, seemingly searching for something. “I’m putting Neku down in a room and warding it. He needs to recoup.”
Hanekoma turned on his heel to the shop backrooms, leaving Joshua standing confused in the mound of rubble.
Whatever Hanekoma was doing, he was taking his sweet time. But Joshua heeded the barista’s words and waited, rolling his shoulders and slowly ratcheting his own wings back into the ether. Bored, he made himself a broom from Imagination and began idly sweeping up the chipped plaster and shattered tile. Eventually, Hanekoma returned to the shop portion of the building, eyeing Joshua.
“Physical labor? That’s a first.”
“I… I feel,” Joshua said, stopping to roll the broom handle in his fingertips. “I feel responsible.”
Hanekoma lowered his shades, peering over them. “Responsible. Who are you and what have you done with J?”
“I grew up, Sanae. Someone had to. You weren’t here. I have a new Conductor and Producer now.”
“What, so I’m outta a job?”
“I’m not kicking you out,” Joshua said, almost pleading. “You just don’t have any obligations. Other than your sentence, I guess.”
“With Neku as my warden,” Hanekoma sighed out. “You didn’t need to plan a jailbreak, J. You’ve waited longer than five years for things before. It’s hardly an eye-blink to people like us.”
Joshua slunk to the floor, defeated and boneless as he slid down the broom handle. A small cloud of debris puffed up around him as he went.
“Drama queen,” Hanekoma tsk’ed as he joined his former colleague on the floor, nesting his wings around himself. “I can’t say this isn’t nice though. Missed ya, J. Being honest, I don’t remember much at all from that place, anyway. Could’ve been a long time there before I became myself again without your little stunt.”
Joshua didn’t answer.
They sat in silence a few moments, then Hanekoma choked back a cry as his coworker—his friend—grabbed him from behind, wrapping his arms around him just under his wings. Hanekoma flapped them in surprise as Joshua buried his head in the down.
Angel and Reaper wings were their Soul; one didn’t just touch them—not without explicit permission. To touch someone’s wings meant someone else could feel what they did. Feel their joy, their disgust, their pain, or all at once.
Hanekoma didn’t pull away. He could hear—just barely, but it was there—Joshua sobbing silently into his back. Joshua was, for the first time in his so-called-life, showing Hanekoma a vulnerability he didn’t know the other even possessed. Slowly, the barista relaxed both sets of shoulders, taking on more and more of Joshua’s weight until his Composer was literally leaning on him as much as metaphorically.
Seconds ticked away from Joshua’s Pegasso crystal-quartz watch, which turned to minutes, then a solid half hour. Slowly, Hanekoma felt the weight lift.
“You let me,” Joshua said, a bit hoarse, patting the down where wing phased through clothes.
“You needed it, J. Pain shared is pain halved. I was happy to listen.”
“You didn’t want to be saved,” Joshua said sharply. “Forgive me for feeling like you were ungrateful. But… you weren’t. You were protecting me from the angels and a sentence like yours. You were a fall guy.”
“Yes,” Hanekoma said slowly. “I didn’t want you to suffer, too. Not being visible to the RG is hardly a penalty compared to what I have.”
“Pain shared is pain halved,” Joshua threw back at him, wiping snot off his face. If he’d been in his teenage form, he would have looked like just another kid. But Joshua was an ugly crier, and as an adult, he just looked silly—more so with a few errant feathers from Hanekoma’s back stuck to his dripping snot and hair.
“Wash up—the backroom sink works,” Hanekoma insisted, flapping his wings a few times to get rid of any other loose feathers. “I need to do some tidying, anyway.”
Joshua reverently ran his fingers through the shoulder of Hanekoma’s left wing. “Clean the shop all you want; you know all about me and dirt. But leave this part to me.”
“I kinda expected more, Sanae.” Joshua leaned in the doorframe, pristine as her always presented himself to the public.
“I’m not exactly going to waste my magic, Boss.” Hanekoma went back to wiping down the countertops with a wet rag. The only change Joshua could see was all the broken furniture piled in a corner, with the floor debris in an equally uncoordinated pile.
“The human way?” Joshua asked with a smirk.
“If I’m not your Producer, I need a little art project to keep me busy.”
“Wouldn’t really call fixing a coffee shop art,” Joshua scoffed.
“It’s not not art, though,” Hanekoma countered, flinging the wet rag on a shoulder and smiling at the dented, but still functional, kettle on the burner, whistling away. “Tea?”
“Mm,” Joshua hummed with a nod. “Also, Neku’s phone was ringing nonstop.” He pulled his own from a pocket. “Oh. It’s past ten PM. Someone’s probably been wondering what happened to him. Least it’s still the same day we left.” Joshua cracked a small smile. “Gone for a week and the mortals think you’re dead or something.”
Hanekoma threw the rag square in Joshua’s face, storming past him to go retrieve the offending cell phone.
Hanekoma sat on one of the two useable stools, Joshua behind him on the other, sipping tea from one hand while using the other to pull out stuck feathers. The barista unlocked Neku’s phone, scrolling through twenty missed calls. “Shiki. That’s a name I haven’t heard in a while.”
“You planning to call?”
“I should. Neku’s probably going to need a day or more to recuperate. And then you’re going to call his mother and let her know he’s sick with a fever.”
“Can’t. RG people can’t perceive me for another few years, remember? Phone calls included.” He grinned toothily. “You’ll just have to clean up the mess for me.”
Hanekoma sighed, stretching out his wings a little so Joshua could pull out all the powder down stuck from his eons of not taking care of himself, and pressed a familiar name in the missed calls history. “Hello? Shiki?”
“Oh my god, is this the police? Where’s Neku?”
“Shiki,” Hanekoma smiled a little, glad for a familiar voice. “It’s… Hanekoma Sanae—the café shop owner on Cat Street.”
Hanekoma waited patiently as Shiki processed what that meant. “If Neku is dead, I’m wringing a long line of necks. Joshua’s first; something tells me this is his fault.”
Joshua laughed hard enough to slam forward into the angel’s back; Sanae shot him a glare. “Neku is alive, but he’s taken a massive hit of Imagination. He’s probably going to sleep a day or two.”
“But he’s alive.”
“Alive and in no pain, with no injury. Mortals just can’t handle being around a city Composer too long.” Hanekoma glared over his shoulder at a snickering young-looking man in a lilac button down.
“I’m coming over there,” Shiki insisted. “And Joshua better be ready to take a knee to the balls.”
“Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see or hear him, but hang on,” Hanekoma said, pushing back on the deadweight behind him with his wings. “I’m putting you on speaker. Feel free to yell at him—I already have.”
Hanekoma clicked to speakerphone, maximizing the volume and holding the phone out behind him.
“Go ahead, Shiki. He can hear you.”
Shiki took in a deep breath, expelling a gasp of colorfully laced expletives so pointed Joshua’s hair began to catch fire. The moment she was out of breath, she slammed the end-call button with enough force that Joshua’s wings twitched, even within their aether.
“Josh, you’d better be out of my shop before she gets here or you’re going to be in deep shit.”
“I didn’t realize someone who played the Game before could deal that much splash damage,” Joshua complained, patting out the embers on the edges of his loose curls.
“You were human once yourself, J. Now bolt before she sets all of you on fire.”
“Good night to you too,” Joshua grumped, crossing his arms as he slid off the seat, leaving Hanekoma’s wings in a worse looking state than when he’d started. He saluted awkwardly to the sighing barista, disappearing out into the night.
“How are you holding up, kiddo?”
Neku rubbed the crust out of his eyes. “What year is it?”
“Same one you were in before this mess.” Hanekoma smiled. “You slept away three days, though. I impersonated you on the phone to your mom and college—hope that’s alright.”
“Monday night. Six PM. Josh’s going to stay away from you for a while.”
“That why I feel like shit?”
“Mhmm. You want me to bring you in some food?”
“Bathroom,” Neku complained.
“Think mine still works.”
“Neku, I’m not human. I’ve never needed it.”
“So now what?” Neku bit into his burger; nothing Hanekoma made, but then again, his kitchen was mostly still in shambles.
“I guess I rebuild. Maybe I take some art classes at community college.”
“Then I’m helping.”
Neku glared up from his dinner. “That’s not up for debate. I’m your prison warden, remember? I help and in return, you let me paint in here.”
Hanekoma laughed. “You don’t even need to ask permission for that.”
“Oh, so I can tag every wall, floor, and ceiling in this bombed out husk of a deserted island?”
The barista frowned, leaning forward on the counter. “That didn’t get me any closer to having any inspiration, you know.”
“And I think that’s a lie,” Neku replied, crossing his arms. “Josh didn’t see it either. Maybe the individual components were copies, but that space you made in that other place was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Incredible doesn’t even begin to describe it. Nothing we do is truly unique anyway; we’re always working off the backs of those who came before us. It’s what voice we add to that conversation that makes our art what it is and… I should really be following my own advice. Hang on. I’m making a few calls, and you’re not stopping me.”
Neku pulled out his phone and rolled through his contacts list. “Hey, Sho. I’ve got a destroyed café here ripe for a giant-ass chandelier. You in?”
“Neku,” the other end of the line sounded annoyed. “I don’t do electrical.”
“So? You do the sculpture; I’ll get someone else to wire.”
“It’s going to be made of trash.”
“Why do you think I called your ass? Take notes; here’s the address.”
“I haven’t done heavy lifting in… forever,” Hanekoma said, wiping actual sweat off his brow. It was a weird feeling, being sort-of human, but he couldn’t say he didn’t like it. The past six weeks had been a whirlwind with Neku in charge, directing a steady stream of ethereal beings— self included— into a massive renovation of his shop. The place was an explosion of color and life, an irony in real time to contrast the lack of both on the owner.
“Quit complaining,” Uzuki demanded, hauling the other end of the new bar counter. “If I can get Kariya to lift your tables in, you can help with your own damn high-top.”
“The one you danced on,” Hanekoma said with a grin, looking down at the hot purple and neon orange footprints crisscrossing the acrylic-sealed bar counter. The two had tangoed across a plank, then encased it for eternity in enough two-stage resin that it would never fade—Neku was particularly proud of that collaboration. Uzuki pushed the shop door with her shoulder, so both of them could bring the counter inside.
“—and you don’t need to hold that ladder, Neku.”
“I don’t want you falling,” Neku snapped back, looking up at the Reaper wiring in the shop’s new light fixture. It looked like a vending machine had exploded on the ceiling, and Hanekoma loved it.
“Neku, I can fly,” Triple Seven replied, waving a pair of wire strippers. He was flapping his wings to show those off as well, not that Neku could see them from the RG.
“My masterpiece can’t,” Sho grumbled from the corner, looking on in a mix of horror and awe as Seven worked his stage rigging magic to get the recycled-bottle chandelier hooked into the building’s wiring.
“Look, it’s way easier for me to do this if I’m not trying to balance,” Seven sighed out. “Sho, get up here and hold it in place, so I can finish. Neku, go help do something that doesn’t involve a ceiling or frying yourself on open electricals.”
Sho sighed, stood up, and vanished back into the UG, flapping up to hold the sculpture as Seven jumped off the ladder. Neku winced, unable to see either of them.
“If you can hear me, I’m going to check on Shiki and her friends making chair cushions.” Sho rattled the ladder with his foot, and Neku smiled. “Hey, Mr. H, your shop’s haunted.”
“I’d be more worried if it wasn’t.”
“So?” Hanekoma slid a ceramic cup down the acrylic to Neku. “Get your grade back yet?”
“Semester ends in January, Mr. H; it’s gonna be a while yet. How about your magic?”
“While this helped, no. It’ll be a while yet for me too. Can’t complain about the décor, though.”
Hanekoma and Neku grinned, taking in the space. Except for one section of wall painted with chalkboard paint for patrons to go wild doodling on, every square inch of the shop was covered in art altogether dizzying and explosively contrast in design.
“Opens tomorrow, right? My teacher is coming around again to see it.”
“Soft open today though.”
“Sign said closed,” Neku pointed out with his teaspoon.
“Maybe for the living.”
“Ah, a few reapers pass by?” Neku asked with a smile. “Hey, make a bet with you.”
“How many days the shop’s open before a paying customer draws a dick on your wall.”
Neku looked sideways as a handful of change bounced across the counter, Sho coming into view. He downed his already half-drunk coffee and loped to the chalkboard to vandalize it. Neku flicked his eyes at the empty tables and chairs, a massive grin breaking out on his face as every single one was filled in with a Reaper, raising glasses in toast.
“We all needed someplace to stay,” Hanekoma said on the room’s behalf. “Thanks for giving us a home. It’s still pretty broken and lopsided, but I promise we’ll keep the lights on.”
“Mr. H, this was already your home.”
He shook his head. “No, Neku. It was only a shop.”
“If its home, does that mean the drinks are free?” A few reapers turned to the furthest corner of the room—Joshua grinned, sitting backwards in his chair.
“J, what did I say about coming ‘round when Neku’s here?” Hanekoma scolded.
“Short bursts only, lest you want to clean up the exploding brains on the wall.”
Neku shrugged. “It’ll probably add to the ambiance.”