Until Someone Loses An Eye
Neku rolled blearily out of bed to the familiar sound of an electric guitar riff backed by a jazz melody. Picking up the source of the unusually offensive noise, he swore. 9am was way too early to be woken up by a series of text messages on a Sunday. Who even calls or texts before noon on weekends anymore? Oh, of course, one couldn't expect the great Composer to be considerate. Even if the number wouldn't show, the message's syntax, lexicon and semantics were unmistakably Joshua's. The former Player contemplated ignoring the message and going back to sleep till a saner hour, but figured, on second thought, that he may as well read on to see what Joshua wanted first.
"Morning, sunshine! Here's how our little game works: Everyday, I'll wait for you someplace.
Your task is to figure out where that is from the riddle I send you and to go there to find me.
Since I can't leave this city, that should be pretty simple for someone who's 'Shibuya born and raised,' hm?
Here's today's clue, an easy one to start:
Not a saunter, not a jog
Not an amble, not a trot
Look back on our memory log
Or give the TV at ten a shot
Think 3 hours is generous enough, Neku? See you at noon, dear!"
Wincing internally at the sound of Joshua's voice saying the words in his imagination, Neku wondered yet again why he'd agreed to this. Maybe it didn't matter whether or not he got his answers; the Game was in the past, after all, and he couldn't deny the good that had come out of it. At least he actually had friends now. Besides, knowing wouldn't change any facts. Still, he had agreed to it, and for now, it seemed simple and harmless enough to go along with. For now. Nothing was ever simple when it involved Kiryuu Yoshiya; he'd learned that the hard way. Well, at any rate, he was already far too alert to return to bed, so he made his way to the bathroom for a quick shower before returning to puzzling out the riddle on his cellphone.
Not a saunter, a jog, an amble or a trot… so it's related to walking? Possibly a walkway of some sort? Hm… Let's see… Walkways in Shibuya… That's not all that helpful. Wait, the TV at ten? Neku blinked as he towelled more water out of orange spikes. What's on the TV at 10am on Sundays? Besides the news, I'm assuming. Guess I'll head out to check. Not like mom's around to be woken by the noise.
With that, Neku rose and stepped out to the living room to switch on the television. He was alone in the apartment as usual. His mother was away on another long-haul flight, and he had been five the last time he'd seen his father. It was half past nine; there was time for breakfast before channel surfing. Surveying the options available in the kitchen for several minutes, he finally decided he couldn't be bothered with anything too complicated and emptied half a pack of frozen gyoza into a pot of boiling water. Ten minutes later, he was sitting on the floor by the coffee table, listening absently to the news as he ate. The crime rate in New York was on the rise; there had been a few skirmishes in some city with a complicated-sounding name in the Middle East; another riot had broken out in Paris; a celebrity he didn't recognize had been shot in the colourful city of Florence; and an alarming number of babies were turning up in dumpsters in Kuala Lumpur. The former Player switched channels, wondering why reported news was rarely good. It was as if people had a taste for tragedy. At any rate, it was five past ten. Time to see what was on…an anime he hadn't seen, the weather forecast for the day, the new tokusatsu series he'd heard about in school last week, a cooking programme for housewives, the latest season of Tin Pin Slammurai, local news…
"Wait a minute. That's it!" Neku exclaimed suddenly. Tin Pin! He's at Stride! It's not a saunter, a jog, an amble or a trot, but a stride!
Eager now that he'd figured it out, he quickly finished the rest of his breakfast, did the few dishes he'd used and grabbed his favourite Tigre Punks biker jacket. Best to be early and not give that smug bastard the satisfaction of thinking it had been a tough nut to crack. Just as he was about to pull on his J of the M high-tops, he remembered that he should probably bring some pins. He wouldn't put it past Joshua to enter him into some tournament without warning. Ducking back into his room, he pulled a box out from under his bed. About a month after the Game, he had received a package from Mr. Hanekoma, this box containing one of every pin he'd mastered during his Games.
At first, he thought to return the package, not wanting to be reminded of how much he'd suffered, but he'd kept them in the end. A lot of them were CAT-designed, after all, and many more were rather popular. Plus, he had to admit that the Game's missions had sparked his interest in Tin Pin Slammer, so he had been just a teensy bit disappointed to lose all those custom pins he'd acquired over the course of three weeks upon his return to the RG. Picking his favourite half dozen, he pinned them onto his jacket and was about to close the box when he caught sight of the Player Pin half-buried under some others. As an afterthought, he grabbed it and slipped it into his J of the M jeans pocket before leaving. Just in case Joshua decided to take the liberty of scanning him again.
"Hm! Looks like someone's early today!" someone announced as soon as Neku stepped into Stride, more than a little too gleefully for his comfort. "I see you even came prepared, Neku. I'll admit even I am a tad impressed by this tiny bit of foresight, partner," Joshua continued, twirling a lock of hair around a slender finger as he came to stand by his side.
"Maybe if you could sound that little bit less condescending, Josh, I'll stop wanting to punch your face in every time I see you," he retorted, walking towards the main slamming area.
"Oh, how unkind!" His former Partner giggled, following him. "But I really am glad you came prepared, Neku. There's a tournament for couples today, and I've already taken the liberty of signing us both up."
Bingo. "That's just like you, Josh. Has it ever occurred to you to a—wait. A tournament for what?"
"Hee hee." Joshua twirled with his hands behind his back to face Neku, as if trying to behave more girlishly than usual. "You heard me exaaactly right, dear."
Neku immediately spun around and walked back towards the doors. "No way. I refuse. I'm out of here."
"But Neku…" The Composer pitched his voice to a dismal whine as he tugged on Neku's arm. "I reeeally want that grand prize!"
"Then do it yourself or find someone else," he replied without halting.
"Don't be silly, Neku. It's not a singles tournament, obviously, and who else would I find?"
"Some of the Reapers play. Make them help you." He shook his arm free of the other's grasp and exited the building. I knew this was a bad idea. This kid's always been whack. I shouldn't have agreed to this.
For a moment, Joshua contemplated doing just that before realizing that that simply wouldn't do. "Neku, wait." He hurried after his proxy, grabbing hold of a slender wrist forcefully enough to stop the boy midstride. "Relax f—"
"Relax?" Neku whirled around to face him, incredulous. "RELAX? Look, just because y—"
"No, you look here," Joshua interrupted impatiently, finally serious. "Shooter and Yammer are a team. They're the defending champions. I just ran into last year's runners-up, Inoue Haruka and Haruse. They're sister and brother. By any other name, it's merely a doubles tournament, so just what were you thinking of that's got you so upset? And since when do you care what anyone thinks of you anyway?"
The grip on his wrist tightened till it was just shy of being painful, making Neku reflexively look up to meet a pale lilac gaze. He opened his mouth to say something, but no words came, so he shut it, and then tried again. "T—That's because you keep pres—"
"Also, I didn't ask anyone else because I don't WANT anyone else, partner," Joshua continued, sounding annoyed. "Now, you have two options: you can either stay and join the competition, or leave and forget what you came for. What is it going to be, Neku?" he demanded irritably, arms crossed.
Before Neku could answer, a familiar voice yelled, "HEY, BRO! It's you!" He turned to see Shooter and Yammer approaching. "Wassup, bro? Haven't seen you around here in, what, over half a year?" Noticing Joshua, Shooter nodded and grinned. "Oh hey, your friend's here too!"
"You're both here for the tournament then?" Yammer asked, as usual calmer and quieter than his tremendously excitable partner.
"Yeah," Neku replied with a grin. "I hear we'll be seeing you guys in the finals."
"Whoa, bro! I'm gonna go warm up then! You'd best be at your pinnacle 'cause I won't go easy on you!" Shooter declared, running into Stride.
"I should probably go join him. I've been working on both my pins and my slamming technique, so do be ready for a fight out there. Hopefully, we'll meet in the finals," Yammer added before heading in after his teammate.
Suddenly alone with the Composer again, Neku crossed his arms. "Don't think for a moment that this means I've forgiven you." As an afterthought, he clarified, "On any account."
"Yes, sir~" his companion sang, anger gone as quickly as it had come. "Well, I suppose we should go get in some practice too. Since you, my dear Neku, haven't played in about seven months."
Neku rolled his eyes, but followed Joshua back indoors wordlessly. As they sought out an empty table, something the other had said earlier occurred to him. "Josh, what's this prize you want so badly anyway?"
"Ah, that. It's a pair of special pins."
It didn't look like Joshua was going to elaborate. Must…not…choke… "What's so special about them?"
"Other than that they're really rare?"
Are you answering or asking me? "Since when do you care about rare pins? You make all of your own or have Mr. H make them for you."
"Yes, but these ones are special, Neku."
"Josh, if you're not going to give me a proper answer, I'm leaving," he snapped, halting with a hand on his hip in unveiled annoyance.
Finally stopping at a vacant table near a corner, the Composer heaved a longsuffering sigh and turned to face him. "Fine, fine, you've twisted my arm. They are the custom pins used by the champions of the 2001 Professional Doubles Tournament in New York."
Neku's eyes widened at that. "Eh? How did Stride manage to acquire such a big ticket prize for a small open amateur tourney like this?"
"Probably because no one really wants things they believe are cursed."
His former Game Partner shrugged. "The tournament's finals were held on September 11th, just a few streets away from ground zero. It seems the pair played the winning slams just as the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center and have had nothing but bad luck since, which is why they sold the pins, presumably for cheap."
"Right. That doesn't explain why you want it."
For a moment, it seemed as if he wouldn't receive an answer, but then out of the blue, Joshua smiled in a way he'd never seen before. It seemed wistful. "The person they commissioned the pins from is an old friend, a fellow Composer who has since Ascended. They're one of the few things left on this plane that are imbued with his Imagination."
"Heh. I never thought I'd live to see Kiryuu Yoshiya being sentimental."
"Just like I never thought I'd see Sakuraba Neku wanting to know so much about someone else's world. Hee hee."
Inexplicably feeling extremely awkward all of a sudden, Neku turned back to the table, scratching his head with one hand nervously. "We should get started before we run out of time."
"That we should," his partner agreed with a giggle before growing serious and preparing to slam.
Joshua was good, really good. Far better than back during their week together when he'd lost to Neku easily. In fact, Neku was beginning to suspect that the other had lost on purpose. After all, if Tin Pin Slammer was a battle of souls, one could hardly hope to rival a Composer's Soul. So either Joshua had lied about not knowing how to play, which would have brought him no benefit that day, or he had somehow practiced a lot since then. Had he actually been serious about slacking off on his job? Still, that meant that Neku himself had to relearn his skills quickly to keep up and that they actually stood a chance at winning. Things were looking up. He was even rather excited when the beginning of the tournament was announced.
Their first match was against a pair they hadn't seen around and miserably easy. To Neku's surprise, the second opponent they faced was one they knew well. He hadn't seen Nao and Sota since the Game with Joshua. In fact, he didn't even know they'd made it back to the RG. Joshua simply smiled knowingly as both sides greeted each other warmly before the match. Then they started slamming, and Neku felt his tension level rising. Sota was pretty good, and Nao was better than he'd expected. Fortunately, working with Joshua on slamming pins was far easier than cooperating on matters of life and death. They could almost predict each other's moves and synergize accordingly. After an intense five minutes, Neku Dive-Bombed Nao's last pin as she was countering Joshua's Stinger with Sledgehammer and sent it flying off the field before activating Stinger himself right at the very last second, just as Sota tried to push his pin off the edge after Nao's, and giving Joshua the opening he needed to finish the match.
"Wow! Gratz Josh-Josh, Nekky! You guys are, like, super awesome at this!" Nao exclaimed, clapping excitedly.
"Yeah, and now that you've beaten us, don't you go losing to anyone else, you hear me?" Sota added with a confident smile. "I don't want to have lost to anyone but the champions, got it?"
"That's the plan."
"You can bet on it."
Neku and Joshua exchanged glances as they realized that they'd responded simultaneously. Neku couldn't help grinning. This was turning out to be a lot of fun. Surrounded by so many passionate fans, it was easy to lose himself in the heat of the game. It was easy even to forget his history with Joshua as they coordinated their whammies and exchanged high fives whenever they won with a joint attack. Joshua smirked at Sota and Nao.
"You're even, like, totally in sync! Good luck, you guys!"
"We'll be watching, tigers!" Sota called back as he walked off to join the audience with an arm around Nao's waist.
Several increasingly intense rounds that at once seemed to last far longer and pass by more swiftly than they should have later, they found themselves face to face with Shooter and Yammer in the final match of the day. Before they knew it, they'd already made it this far. As the Master of Ceremonies finished off the introductions and opening address, Neku glanced sideways to find the Composer staring vacantly at the table, unusually tense.
Hm… Maybe this really is that important to him, he mused, remembering the somewhat nostalgic smile on the other's expression earlier.
"Let's slam, Yammer!" Shooter cried, readying himself as the signal to begin was given.
Without thinking, Neku reached out as Yammer nodded and gave his partner's hand a brief squeeze in reassurance before getting into position, sensing rather than seeing Joshua's surprise.
Then Joshua grinned. "Have fun, Neku," he called and readied himself for the match.
Barely a minute after the battle was joined, both teams were at their last pins, and the audience was going crazy in the background as they all held on. Yammer had indeed improved tremendously, while Shooter clearly hadn't been slacking off either. Possibly the only edge they had, Neku decided, was teamwork. Shooter and Yammer may be good friends who always played Tin Pin Slammer together, but they couldn't claim to have lived and died together. They had never been in the Game, where teamwork was the only way to survive. And Neku was forced to admit, in hindsight, that Joshua had been the strongest of his Partners. It had taken him some time the following week to adjust to the reduction in shared energy he'd experienced with Beat as his Partner. They COULD do this.
Neku seized the moment as Joshua countered Yammer's attempt to Dive-Bomb him with Stinger while Shooter moved his pin within range, no doubt to use Sledgehammer. He Dive-Bombed Shooter's pin just as Sledgehammer activated a heartbeat too late, stunning it just as Joshua rammed Yammer's pin out so violently, he had to use his last Helping Hand to save himself. Shooter's pin was saved by bricks when Neku attempted to seal their victory, but there was little Yammer could do to help now as they threw whammies at each other. The telltale beeping of the timer was nearly drowned out by the crowd's mad cheering, but it made him anxious nonetheless. At this rate, it would be the number of pin points they had that mattered.
Before he knew it, time was up, and he let out a loud cheer when he saw the pin points tally. He turned to give Joshua a double high five, only to have his teammate throw slender arms around him in his excitement. He froze. It was a brief hug, somehow familiar, and he tentatively returned it after a moment. This time, Joshua stiffened, as if only just realizing what he had done, and pulled away gingerly, turning instead to face the audience with a smirk and wave. Meanwhile, Neku scanned the crowd, more than a little puzzled. He could have sworn he'd heard a shriek of pain nearby, back when Yammer's pin had violently ricocheted off the table, but it didn't look like anyone was injured. In fact, it didn't look like anyone else had noticed the voice.
Abruptly, he realized there was something else missing, just as a desperately searching Yammer straightened and demanded of no one in particular with more than a little dismay, "Where's my Tin Pin Führer?"
Outside, a tall woman with shoulder-length dark blond hair uncurled her fingers to reveal a green and gold pin clenched in her hand. Glimmering static fizzled out of her left eye as she glared at the piece of metal she held. Then she tossed it aside angrily with a loud cry of frustration.
"Urgh… Composer…" she ground out through gritted teeth, pressing her hand over the remains of her left eye. "You will pay for this! I will make certain of that! Still…" Out of the blue, she laughed, a harsh chuckle. "Lord Cyril will be pleased to hear that you are sufficiently perspicacious to perceive my nature."
With that, she shifted frequencies and vanished where she stood. However, none of the passers-by in the vicinity seemed to have noticed her presence to begin with.
The participants chatted animatedly about the tournament as they exited Stride before splitting up into smaller groups to disperse. Joshua and Neku were about to head up to Spain Hill when a familiar voice gave a shout behind them.
"Hey! That's...! That's my pin!"
They turned as Yammer rushed over to pick something up off the pavement and dust it off.
"My… My Tin Pin Führer! Who could possibly have… what a horrible thing!"
"Looks beyond repair," Neku noted, walking over with Joshua and Shooter. "That's a shame."
Yammer looked like he was about to burst into tears, much to Neku and Shooter's horror.
"H—Hey, Yammer, bro, it's…"
"Hm, mind if I had a look at it?" Joshua requested, holding out his hand expectantly and smoothly interrupting Shooter.
"Huh? What? Oh…" Yammer handed Joshua the mangled pin, seeming to snap out of his vacuous dismay for the moment.
With his other hand over his chin, the Composer examined the pin. "It's not beyond repair," he pronounced at length. "In fact, I have the tools necessary to fix it back home."
"R—Really?" Yammer's dismay seemed to have converted completely into hope. "You'll help?"
Neku raised an eyebrow. Joshua was volunteering to help the boy out? Joshua, private dick extraordinaire? Of all people? This was some development.
"Yes, I'll return it to you as soon as I get the chance. It should be fine," he replied absently, still scrutinizing the pin.
"Whoa, bro, didn't know you were good at fixing pins too," Shooter commented appreciatively. "See you guys around here then? Great slamming today, by the way. You even beat me when I was going all out! Time to train some more, bro! I'm all fired up now!" he exclaimed, running off and waving.
"T—Then I'll leave it to you! Thank you!" Yammer gushed before bowing and hurrying after his partner.
"Okay, who are you and what have you done with Joshua?" Neku demanded once everyone else was out of earshot.
"Neku, do you need a break?" his companion asked derisively, walking off briskly in the direction of Spain Hill.
Aha, bingo. An ulterior motive. Figures. Neku jogged after him before slowing down at his side. "What are you up to this time, Josh? He's n—"
"There are traces of a different frequency on this pin."
"A higher frequency, higher than the RG and UG both. Someone from the Higher Planes was there earlier. That's probably our pin crusher. I'm taking this so I can question Sanae about it."
"Why do we have to question Mr. Hanekoma?" They left Spain Hill and walked down from Molco towards Cadoi City, stopping briefly at a café to grab the priciest sandwiches Neku had ever eaten.
"Neku, what did you have for breakfast? It's slowing you down. Tell me, if someone hit you with a pin by accident, what would you do?"
"Return the pin, expecting an apology or more, of course," the former Player answered automatically. Then realization dawned. "Oh…"
"Right. Instead, this person quietly left, crushed the pin and tossed it in a bit of roadside litter. If Yammer hadn't been so obsessive, we never would have noticed it. There's nothing wrong with Angels visiting the RG at leisure, so there's no reason to avoid anyone. Looks like our Angel's got something to hide, don't you think?"
"And Mr. H would know about this Angel business?"
"He might. He's t—" Joshua cut himself off mid-sentence. "Well, he told you he was a guardian of the Game, yes? All the guardians are Angels. He's one of them."
"Mr. Hanekoma is...? CAT is an Angel? I… wow. I guess I can see that." They turned up onto Miyashita Park, and something else occurred to Neku. "Josh, did you know?"
It took the other a moment to grasp what he was referring to, and then Joshua stopped so abruptly, Neku almost walked into him. "I foresaw myself talking to Sanae today, which is nothing unusual. I did not know in advance about this Angel, so no, your being here has nothing to do with this. Feel free to leave, dear," the Composer replied without turning. "Although, of course, that means that you won't get to ask your question for today," he added with a giggle.
"Why, you little… twisting my arm, are you?" Neku demanded, but it was half-hearted. Something wasn't quite right with Joshua's manner today; he wasn't being his normal level of insufferable.
"Just returning an earlier favour~" Joshua sang, turning so his back was to the sunset. The reddish orange light illuminated him, and for a moment, he looked the part of the human incarnation of a higher being.
"Just shut up and walk, dear," the other interrupted, resuming his brisk walk to Wildkat, apparently satisfied that Neku had decided not to leave.
There was the familiar tinkle of bells on the door when they walked into the vacant café. Sanae Hanekoma came out from the back to greet them, his excitement at the prospect of actually having customers dwindling upon recognizing them. "Oh, it's you, J. Eh? Phones too?"
Neku thought to remind him that his name was 'Neku' and not 'Phones,' but remembered that it was futile, so instead, he waved the trophy and envelope in his hand and said, "Yeah, we went to play Tin Pin Slammer."
The artist looked amused. "Yeah, looks like you guys won too. Practiced much during the Game, boss?"
"Speaking of the Game, Sanae, care to explain this?" Joshua cut in, dropping the crushed pin on the counter. "We found it outside Stride."
"Hm? I didn't make this."
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Neku muttered drily.
"Why, that's a brilliant observation, Sanae. Tell me something I don't know for a change."
The Producer laughed sheepishly, scratching the back of his head with one hand as he picked the piece of metal on his counter up with the other. His expression grew grave. "This… One of Us has been in contact with this...?"
"One of You that didn't want to be caught spying," Joshua supplied. "What's the meaning of this?"
"I don't know, J."
The Composer narrowed his eyes.
"I swear, boss! Look, why don't you and Phones chill here with a cuppa joe while I go check up on this?" The barista put two steaming cups of coffee on the counter. "Be back in a few. Keep an eye on the place for me, will ya, Phones?" With that, the Angel disappeared into the back room.
For a moment, Joshua simply stood there. Then he took the coffee to a nearby small table and sat down. Neku followed suit, and they sipped coffee in silence for several minutes. Finally, Joshua turned to him expectantly. "Well, dear?"
Neku blinked. "Well, what?"
"Aren't you here because you have questions, Neku?"
Oh, right, he'd almost forgotten. Questions, huh...? He had so many; he didn't even know where to begin. Among others, "What changed your mind?" and "Why me?" seemed rather high on the list. Alternatively, "Did all the Players get to return to life?" or "Can't you stop being such an insufferable snot?" sounded pretty good too. But Joshua would be expecting that, and he didn't like giving the other the satisfaction of calling him predictable. What difference did it make whether he received his answers today or tomorrow? For now, it would be far more satisfying to surprise that arrogant know-it-all with a few new questions the day had inspired.
"Tell me about yourself, Josh. From before you became the Composer." The slow, wide-eyed, blink of surprise he got in response was gratifying. Well, he supposed a part of him did genuinely want to know. He'd always known dangerously little about his lunatic former partner, and changing that would likely be good for his anxiety. Seeing Sota and Nao alive earlier had raised his opinion of present company somewhat, and the conversation they'd had about the pins they'd won had piqued his interest. For once, Joshua had actually sounded like a normal human being. "You said your parents called you Joshua, and Mr. H said you could see the UG while still alive. How much of that is true?"
His former Partner smiled, more sincere delight than mischievous glee. "All of it. I told you; I don't lie for no reason. Making up convincing stories is awfully hard work, you know."
"The story about those pins too then?"
"Naturally. Just like the stories about how Dogenzaka got its name. Or about the origins of the Moyai statue. Say, Neku, where is the Moyai statue from?"
"Uh… I… I don't remember," Neku admitted sheepishly, turning away with an arm crossed over his chest. "My uh… memories of that week were… are rather…"
"You mean you barely listened to any of it because you were too busy wondering whether or not I killed you and how to get back to life," his companion interjected without missing a beat.
Neku winced. That was precisely the last thing he wanted to be reminded of. Joshua, smoking revolver in hand, wearing a sinister smile. He pushed the thought away resolutely. Even if he trusted Joshua, even if, deep down, no matter what he said to anyone, he knew that some part of him had already forgiven his friend, it still hurt. He couldn't think of a response to that, but the other beat him to moving on, as always.
"Really, Neku, how could you? Considering how the amount of attention you pay me appears to be on the atomic level, I don't see why I bother telling you anything."
"That's different," he protested. Besides, it helped to not pay attention when you were being an ass, which was only ALL the time.
"Is it? This information won't save your life either."
"You promised," the former Player pointed out instead, trying a different tack.
Joshua giggled. "Oh, all right, since you want to know so badly for a change. And only because you're my dear, dear partner." He flicked a lock of silver hair back from his face. "Let's see… Well, I was born in Shibuya to a Japanese father and an Austrian mother. As I was growing up, we discovered I had a talent for music. We moved to my mother's hometown, Vienna, after I completed my primary education, and I was accepted into a very prestigious conservatory there when I was thirteen."
"When was this?" Well, that explains the hair, the nickname and the pretty face, I suppose. Wait, did I… did I just call him 'pretty'?
"Decades ago, before you were even born, dear. I've been around for a while."
"What instrument did you play primarily?"
"Hee hee. The violin, of course," the other replied as if it should be obvious, and perhaps it should. "Anyway, that was where I first met the artist and pianist, Jude Ascott, when I was fifteen." Here, Joshua's smile grew affectionate. "He was twenty at the time, very talented, not very social. That suited me just fine in a roommate, since I'd never been one to make friends easily."
Wow, I never would have thought. Maybe I didn't give this kid enough credit. He must have always been an insufferably snotty asshole. Saying as much aloud was tempting, but he supposed it could wait. It wasn't anything he hadn't said before by this point.
"It took a whole year for us to even start actually talking to each other and realize we had a lot in common. He could see the UG too, so he didn't think I was crazy. We became close friends and wrote a lot of music together. We kept in touch after he returned to New York five years later, and I visited him whenever I was performing in the States. Jude was always an inspiring fellow, full of dreams and ideals, overflowing with optimism, you know the sort. It's surprising he wasn't the most popular person at the conservatory. I never understood him." Joshua laughed fondly. "But New York has done well with him as Composer, don't you think?"
"I've never been there myself, so I wouldn't know to say."
"Oh well, he Ascended several years ago, and the city hasn't been quite the same since, I hear. As for me, I returned to Shibuya when I was twenty-seven. It had changed a lot, but it still had that edgy diversity I'd always found so fascinating as a child. Still, despite the cacophony of life around me, I grew bored. Sanae had his own art studio at the time instead of a café, and the more we talked about the Game, the more I came to see its allure. Instead of a mundane existence where people waste their lives away by taking it for granted, perhaps the constant threat of erasure would once again imbue human life with meaning. So when the concert hall I was to perform in one night caught fire, I didn't try to escape, and I woke up in the Scramble just like you, a Player in the Game I'd been seeing all my life. Long story short, I won and became Composer." Carding his fingers through a few locks of hair, he regarded Neku with a smirk. "Well, what did you think, Neku? Anything like you expected?"
"How old were you?" The story was less unexpected than the Composer's unusual willingness to share details about himself or his thoughts, even if he had promised to. Granted, there was no guarantee that it was the complete truth.
"When I died? Thirty."
"So why do you look… about fifteen?"
"The better to go gallivanting around with you kids? Hee hee."
Neku frowned. "Can't you give me a real answer?"
"That was the real answer. If I make an effort, I can look any age I want, but it seems that the default appearance when people down-tune their vibes to the RG's frequency is the one they are most comfortable with, constrained by how much down-tuning needs to occur. Looks like the second happiest stage of my life was when I was fifteen." Joshua shrugged with his usual effortless elegance. "Since it meant Megumi and the Reapers wouldn't recognize me, I didn't modify it."
Neku couldn't help flinching slightly at the mention of the Conductor he'd helped erase. "How did you meet him?" he asked tentatively. "Do you have a new Conductor yet?"
"Who, Megumi? He was my Partner in the Game," the Composer replied, seemingly unconcerned. "And I can't pick just anyone, so I have someone performing most of his duties, but no one actually holding the position yet. I'll manage."
His Partner… How cold. Had I been the one erased, the one HE erased, would he just casually mention my passing to someone over coffee like this too? The thought chilled the former Player to the core. Just like that time, he was painfully reminded of exactly how inhuman, how much of a monster, Kiryuu Yoshiya could be. He could kill me again too, easily, on a whim, and maybe he wouldn't even blink. He suppressed a shiver.
"My, my, Neku. You brought your Player Pin with you. Hee hee."
Neku crossed his arms, channeling the sinking feelings he had into annoyance. "You tried to scan me."
"Mm, I don't like not knowing what you're thinking, partner. Especially when you're thinking about me."
"W—What? I'm not…" he spluttered.
"Oh, so you were thinking about me." Joshua giggled, as if delighted. "How flattering, dear."
Neku resisted the urge to punch the other or growl in frustration. "Believe me, Josh, if I'm thinking about you, there wouldn't be anything flattering about it," he snapped back instead.
His former Partner was about to respond when the proprietor chose precisely that moment to return. "Hello, hello. Am I interrupting anything special?"
"No," Neku muttered irritably, his knuckles turning slightly white from their tight grip on his arms.
"Why, yes, Sanae, so you'd better have news for me," Joshua replied, rising with his arms crossed.
"Well, what I've uncovered so far is that whoever it was definitely doesn't want to be found. There is no record anywhere of anyone from Our plane being sent here, so this person or group is acting independently. As such, they must be separate from Our unified consciousness, which makes the list of possible perpetrators significantly shorter. Still, it will require some time to properly look into, y'know, so no sense keeping you both waiting here."
The Composer rubbed his chin, pensive, staring up at the ceiling momentarily. "Well, then it looks like I have some work to do. Ta-ta~" he called, and with a tinkle of bells, he was out the door.
Neku rose to leave as well, when he suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Ah, J left before I could mention. Thousand forty yen for the coffee, please."
All of a sudden, Neku REALLY wanted to choke Joshua. "I still can't believe you're charging, Mr. H."
"Ah, well, a man's got bills to pay, ya dig? Got to keep this place running somehow."
As Neku concentrated on fishing the money out of his wallet, the Producer gave him a closer look. "Hey, something eating at you, Phones?"
"Just the usual."
The café owner pocketed the cash Neku handed over. "Thanks kindly. Poke in again sometime."
Neku turned to leave, but Sanae Hanekoma stopped him again.
"Yeah?" Now, this was a surprise.
"Did… Was he the one who contacted you?"
"Huh? Well, uh… We ran into each other at Ramen Don. I have my doubts it was a coincidence, but he insists he didn't set it up, so I can't say for sure. Why?"
"Oh. No, nothing, just asking. Forget it, Phones. But look, I know it's… not easy dealing with J, especially given your history together, but… believe me, he's a better person than you give him credit for, and he's not as cold as he wants people to think. Being the Composer just takes a lot out of you. Trust your partner, yeah?"
Neku didn't know what to say to that, so he just nodded and left, wondering about Mr. Hanekoma's peculiar question at the end. If Joshua and his old friend had one thing in common, it was that they never said or did anything for no reason. The sun had set by then, and Joshua was nowhere in sight, so he took his time walking home. Half an hour later, he opened the door to an empty apartment, locked it behind him and went to his room to flop face down on his bed. After several moments, he rose, put the trophy in a small vacant spot on his shelf and opened the envelope. There were three sheets of paper inside, two certificates and a photograph taken at the prize-giving ceremony. Joshua and him stood with the trophy between them, an arm around each other's shoulders and each holding up one of the prize pins that were both now with the Composer. He wore a triumphant grin, while Joshua never failed to look smug even when genuinely smiling with his head tilted slightly towards Neku in what appeared to be affection.
He propped the papers up against the trophy with the photograph in front and couldn't help smiling slightly at the memory of their victory, the euphoria that flooded his senses when time ran out and they still had more pin points than Shooter. He remembered the fondly nostalgic look on Joshua's face as he spoke of his old friend, the familiar warm feeling of the other's arms around him in that brief embrace, and tried to hold on to those positives, but couldn't help recalling the Composer's nonplussed expression as he'd talked about his late Partner. Neku sat on his bed with his knees pulled to his chest, looking away from the photograph and wrapping his arms around himself. Sometimes, Joshua could be so cold, just like the time he'd admitted to being the Composer, to having killed Neku, and handed him a gun while talking about 'all that quality time we spent together.' Sometimes, he couldn't tell whether the glint in lilac eyes was mirth or malice; the kid could talk about the weather and kill both his former partners with the exact same expression. Neku shivered as he prepared for bed, resolving to get his questions answered when he next saw Joshua. Maybe it was for the best that they hadn't seen each other in so long; if they had actually become friends, he would probably be feeling infinitely worse right now. It was a long time before he managed to fall asleep that night.