Fashion Is What One Wears Oneself
The sun woke Neku up, a sharp glare in his eyes that he couldn't shut out. He'd forgotten to draw the curtains before he slept, not that he'd properly slept much. Vestiges of half-remembered nightmares lingered in his mind, and he ran a hand through orange locks tiredly. It was quite possibly the worst Monday morning he'd had since summer started, and he hadn't even pulled an all-nighter. As if on cue, the text message alert on his cellphone began to play, and he reached for the gadget, flipping it open to read the message as he blearily rubbed his eyes. It wasn't from Joshua, unexpectedly, but from Shiki, asking if he wanted to get together with the others for dinner tonight. He replied that he could make it and maybe bring a friend; he could always bring Joshua along if the Composer hadn't left by then. It would be wonderful if they could all hang out together; that had been his wish since the Game ended, after all. Shiki's next message said she was still waiting for Beat's reply, but that they would be meeting at the usual place at six to decide what to eat before heading to the restaurant.
It was over two hours later, after he'd showered, dressed and had a light breakfast, when Joshua's message arrived. Climbing back into bed, he reclined against some pillows as he picked up the phone and read the day's clue.
"Slept well, Neku? Here's your riddle for today:
Tapping out a beat
As I write in my diary
Dance with me, my sweet
For all eternity
I'm already here, so don't keep me waiting too long, dear~"
"A beat? Dance with me? Music then. That leaves three places," Neku mused aloud. "Oh! Eternity! Towa Records then," he concluded in a burst of insight, rolling off his bed to get going.
This one was even easier than the last. Somehow, he'd expected Joshua to make this game far more challenging, but it appeared that the Composer had been quite sincere in agreeing to give him the answers he wanted. He thought of the day before as he pulled on his Hip Snake shoes.
Could it be that he's just doing this to make me spend time with him? He zipped up the red Tigre Punks biker vest he was wearing before stepping out. He could have just asked directly. Involuntarily, he felt his thoughts straying towards the previous evening and resolutely thought of anything but. He needed to focus on the answers he wanted, he decided, the answers and the questions he needed to ask to get them.
It was cooler out than it had been yesterday. The sweltering summer was nearing its end, and he was glad for the breeze. Shiki and Eri had given him this pair of white cargo pants with red accents last week, so they would want to see how it looked on him tonight. They were doing well as a team; in fact, they would be having their first fashion show at an amateur fashion design competition in two weeks' time. The grand prize was a grant, enough capital to start their own fashion label, and an advertising deal for a year to promote it. They stood a good chance, he knew, and he hoped they would win, since that would help realize their dreams. Eri already had almost all the designs they were going to present finalized, and Shiki had already finished sewing half of them. He was looking forward to watching the contest.
Arriving in Towa Records after a brisk walk, he was greeted by Iwata Yoji as usual as he scanned the customers browsing the many aisles of CDs for any sign of the Composer. There weren't many people, considering how crowded Shibuya generally was, but since it was one of the area's pricier record stores, it wasn't terribly surprising. They had a great selection though, especially in terms of foreign imports, and the clientele often came looking for music that was difficult to obtain elsewhere. Joshua was nowhere to be seen nearby, so when Yoji introduced a new CD that had just been released, he decided to take it for sampling at the listening area in the back. He continued looking around as he walked further into the store. There were some foreigners, a middle-aged couple, a blonde dressed in gothic clothing and a group of young men in their early twenties, and several wealthy Japanese women wearing the latest Pegaso fashions and other expensive foreign brands. A little further in, a group of ganguro girls crowded around the international hip hop section, while an elderly man browsed the classical aisle. Still no Joshua.
So much for being here already. Neku made his way to a testing station, played the disc and put the headphones on. Maybe he'll come back in a few. I don't think I'm mistaken, so let's see how good this new album is in the meantime.
Tapping his foot to the beat, he skimmed the CD, listening to a minute of each song. It was pretty interesting, almost experimental. A classical melody would break into hip hop and rap, some electric guitar would spice up an indie ballad, there was a slow jazz song with a techno backing and a soulful ballad was accentuated with tribal percussion. The vocals ranged from rap to standard pop fare to operatic. All in all, it was a fascinating variety that he wouldn't mind adding to his collection. He was halfway through the disc when a slender arm wrapped around his waist from behind and a hand pulled the headphones off. It was the blonde in the gothic dress, only far less foreign than he'd thought.
"I thought you, at least, would recognize me, Neku~" she cooed softly, giggling in a horrifyingly familiar way.
Joshua cut off his shocked exclamation with two long fingers pressed to his lips. Good lord, he'd even glued on purple Pavo Real airbrushed nails. "Shh… Don't make this worse for yourself."
Neku resumed staring at the combination of lace-up doll dress, frilly parasol, blond wig and lace bonnet as he lowered his voice. "Holy crap, Josh. Are you high? What the hell is this?" He wasn't sure when Joshua had gotten his ears pierced, but the silver-haired boy even had silver diamond studs and a silver bracelet on, along with Dragon Couture Typhoon mules and a Pegaso Sparkling Flight purse. In fact, the only thing he'd seen before was the Silver Baron watch on his former Partner's left wrist.
"Aww… You don't like it?" The other pouted. Lip gloss. He was wearing tinted lip gloss.
This was NOT happening. Sure, they'd all worn all kinds of clothes regardless of gender during the Game, but that was because they'd needed the attached abilities to fight off the Noise. This was weird, absurd and, most of all, unnecessary. "Don't screw with me, Joshua. Just what do you think you're doing?"
Joshua glanced around surreptitiously before answering. "I was being followed on the way here," he whispered, leaning in so Neku could hear him over the background music.
Neku was about to tell his companion that he wasn't in the mood for his jokes, but stopped himself. Joshua didn't look like he was joking. "Uh…right," he said instead. "And THIS is your solution?"
The Composer twirled a lock of blond hair around his finger. "It is remarkably effective."
"You can't be serious."
"Oh, I assure you; I am, Neku. Very serious." He giggled. "When I realized I was being followed, I masked my vibe and headed for the Scramble. I managed to lose my tail in the crowd, but to keep them from finding me again, I needed a disguise, so I decided to pay Lapin Angelique a visit for a quick and convincing makeover. I kept my vibe masked when I left, and there was still no one trailing me on my way here after I stopped in at the Stationside to complete the look, so I must surmise that it is working." It was the whole truth, but he had to admit that he rather liked this solution. It was both a fabulous disguise and an excellent distraction. The look on Neku's face was well worth the effort.
"And, of course, you intend to spend all day in this get up," his proxy concluded slowly, crossing his arms.
"Of course, dear," he agreed with a smirk. "I'd rather not pick up more Angelic spies." That and because Neku's reactions were far too amusing to resist.
"And you're certain they're Angels?"
"Indeed. They were following me from before I down-tuned my Frequency. That leaves few beings with both the motive and the ability."
"You're enjoying this," the former Player stated accusingly.
Of course I am. "I make the best of any situation, Neku. We should enjoy the moment more, hm?"
He watched the boy open and close his mouth like a goldfish, at a loss for an aptly sassy reply, and laughed.
"So let's spend some quality time. Get that CD, so we can grab lunch. There's this great Spanish café at Molco that I've been wanting to try," he said, taking a flabbergasted Neku's arm like a young girl would her date's. This was going to be a fantastic day. Neku looked like he wanted very badly to scream.
"Lost him? What do you mean you lost him, Aidan?" A purple-haired girl screeched into her dark blue cellphone. "Is there anything you're competent at?" A pause. "Argh! Then find him!" In a burst of frustration, she screamed and threw the gadget across the room; it left a nick in the wall as it shattered.
"Hush, Eliza," the young boy in an armchair beside her cooed soothingly, sipping a glass of champagne. He looked about twelve with short black hair and startlingly green eyes. "I can't hear the Music."
"I—I apologize, Lord Cyril," she said quietly, bowing. "It appears that Shibuya's Composer realized he was being followed, and Aidan lost him. Please forgive our incompetence. I've told him to rectify the matter immediately."
"Actually, tell him not to bother. I already have what I need to know." The boy crossed his legs.
"Y—Yes, your Lordship. I'll notify Aidan immediately."
"One more thing… Tell me, how is Mirabelle?"
"Recovering well, sir. She should be in perfect condition by tomorrow or the day after, latest."
"Excellent. Then we will attack soon. My hometown has proven itself a worthy target," he murmured with a smile, adjusting his spectacles. Rectangular lenses glinted slightly as he pushed metal rims higher up his face. "Soon, my friends, very soon. Very soon, there will be change."
No one was staring. No one was staring, and Neku couldn't decide whether he was more relieved or horrified by the fact. The problem was, he decided as they shared a plate of paella and some tapas at Moda café on the first floor of Molco, that Joshua was appallingly convincing as a girl. He smiled sweetly at the waiter as they ordered, and the man blushed. A few of the other male customers checked him out as they walked in, hands linked because the cross-dressing boy simply refused to let go, and occasionally snuck envious glances at them. Not only was he convincing; evidently, he was also significantly attractive as a girl. It was positively terrifying.
"So remind me, Jo—"
"No," his companion interjected sharply in a whisper. "Call me…let's go with 'Yoko.' Everyone Upstairs knows my real name, so it'd be inconvenient if I were found out so soon, hm? Hee hee."
Must…not…strangle… "Fine. Yoko. Whatever. Enlighten me, why are they watching you again?"
Joshua shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe I broke one too many Laws, and they want to see why." He leaned forward to take a piece of sautéed shrimp from a dish on the far side of their white table, and Neku realized what the earlier male customers had been craning their necks to see. The dress was laced closed at the back, and a fair bit of pale skin showed beneath the criss-crossing ribbon.
He resolutely looked away before speaking; the entire situation was too weird to be real. "Laws? Don't you make them?"
"Only for the UG. But the Higher Planes watch over us, and even Composers have to obey certain restrictions that are dictated by them."
Neku ate a spoonful of rice. "What kind of Laws have you been breaking then?" Hesitantly, he added, "Was it the Game we played?"
"Bits of it, here and there." Joshua giggled. "I'm breaking one right now~" he sang as he leaned slightly to the right to rest his head on Neku's shoulder.
"R—Right now?" He carefully extricated himself from the awkward position, wishing he could also escape this surreal circumstance. "What… how? Maybe if you stopped, you wouldn't have to lose them by dressing and behaving like this!"
"Oh, but I have my reasons for breaking them, Neku. Don't you trust me?"
"Then why can't you just explain that to them?"
"I will whenever they decide to discuss it. For now, it appears that they are just observing." Joshua rubbed his chin, the way he always did when he was thinking deeply about something, and the sight of the ornately designed purple nails had Neku asking himself again just how he managed to put up with the kid all day, everyday, for a whole week. "Hm, actually, they are not behaving like regular Enforcers. Maybe you should be careful too, Neku. Depending on what they're after, you could be at risk."
"Hee hee. You were my proxy, after all."
"Oh. Har har. You're killing me. Oh wait…"
"Been there, done that TWICE, and reversed it. What more could you ask for? Really. Have some compassion, dear."
"C—compassion? Tell that to yourself! This isn't funny, J—Argh." He turned away, looking down at the shiny black floor. "I… I went to a lot of trouble to get my life back. I'm not… I'll be damned if I let you kill me again!"
"...then prepare to defend yourself. I'm warning you, aren't I? And be ready. If they're looking for a fight, they don't fight nice." A pause. "It's not as if I can change history."
When you put it that way, I could almost feel bad. Almost. You could have chosen someone else. Speaking of which… "Why me, Josh? Out of all the people in Shibuya with the required level of Imagination, why did you pick me?"
No answer was forthcoming, and when he looked back over at his former Partner, the Composer was eating a piece of spicy fried potatoes.
Neku felt his eye twitch. "Answer me. You promised."
"Hm? I can't see how this is my problem. You're the one who refuses to call me Yoko. Hee hee."
"So now it's my problem? Rrgh… Fine. Yoko, tell me. Why me?"
Joshua put his fork down and dabbed at his mouth with a serviette before turning to him with the same sweet smile that the waiter had blushed at. "You reminded me of something I'd lost."
"Something or someone?" he blurted without thinking, eating a piece of roasted aubergine.
The Composer giggled longer than usual with his hand covering his mouth, exactly mimicking what Shiki did when she laughed. This was simply ridiculous.
"My, my, Neku… why, you almost sound jealous!"
"I do not!"
"Oh, I suppose… a little bit of both."
Before he could reply, a familiar voice called out, "Yo, Phones!"
Neku froze. Much to his horror, Beat hurried over, dressed in the usual Wild Boar ensemble and beanie, with his new favourite deck under his arm. For the first time since he'd returned, Neku really missed the UG. Being invisible would simply have been perfect.
"Oh," Beat said as he reached the table, finally noticing that Neku had company. "Hey, man, you never told me you got a girlfriend, yo."
"I d—" Neku began, but his vehement protest was interrupted by Joshua abruptly standing up.
"Ah, you must be Beat," he said, speaking softly to further mask his voice. Now he even SOUNDED just this side of feminine. Neku was tempted to run away screaming. The Composer smiled that sweet smile, and good lord, even Beat blushed. "I've heard so much about you and Rhyme from Neku here." Neku somehow managed to not break down in tears. "Oh, my name is Yoko, Yoko Engels. Please just call me Yoko," Joshua bowed slightly, then laughed, quietly to keep up the act, before adding, "Neku looks like he's having a nervous breakdown. Do you need a break, dear?"
"Course he be havin' a breakdown, yo. Imma whup his ass fer not tellin' me stuff like dis!"
"In his defence," Joshua cut in again, looking away in pretence of bashfulness. "This is actually our first date." He met Neku's gaze, and the mirth in lilac eyes made Neku wish all over again that he'd actually shot the Composer a year ago.
"Bwaaah! Why aintchu say somethin', man?" Beat chided loudly, slapping Neku's shoulder a little too forcefully.
Because I only had all that time to talk between the two of you? Neku rolled his eyes.
Turning back to 'Yoko,' the skateboarder hurriedly said, "Sorry, yo, Yoko-chan. You comin' tonight?"
"Yeah, me, Neku and a couple a' friends gettin' dinner together."
"Mm, well, if Neku doesn't mind…"
Suddenly, they were both staring expectantly at him, or in Beat's case, more like glaring threateningly at him. "I…" He sighed, shoulders sagging slightly in defeat. "Of course not. Please join us."
"Awright, man! We cool. Well, the Beat-Wagon's peacin' out!" With that, Beat sped out as quickly as he'd entered.
"As energetic as ever," Joshua remarked, watching Beat leap onto his skateboard as he exited Molco.
"I'm sick of your tasteless jokes, Josh! Look what you've gotten us into!" Neku raged as soon as visible people were out of earshot, shaking his fist at his former Partner.
"Dinner together with no one the wiser. I can see how this must upset you, seeing as Beat is already telling Rhyme and Shiki that you're bringing a date, but would you truly rather have told him the truth?"
"You… Rrgh." It was true that the current story was better than revealing that Yoko was in fact Joshua, and…well, if Joshua was willing to keep up the act, maybe playing along was the best idea, he conceded. That didn't make it any less infuriating though. "But now everyone thinks I have a girlfriend!"
"And here's me playing the world's tiniest violin. You're so dramatic, Neku," his former Partner remarked, shrugging carelessly. "It's not like I told him we were married. People break up. Even people who have been married for decades get divorced. Just tell him it didn't work out after a week or two. Did you think it was going to be extraordinary?"
That only made it all worse. "Why do you always have to be insufferable?"
"W—What a horrid thing to say, Neku!" the other exclaimed, a look of mock hurt on his visage. "Didn't you always wish for me to join your weekly get-togethers?"
"Yes, but not a—"
"Does it matter whether they know as long as you do?" his companion asked, sitting down beside him again and eating another spoonful of paella.
At that, Neku fell silent. Maybe so, but more importantly… "Why didn't you come?"
"Hm? Come where?"
"A year ago. You heard me. Why didn't you come then?"
Joshua paused before reaching for a piece of bread. "Hee hee. There were more pressing matters to attend to post-Game."
And you couldn't spare even an hour? You ass. I suppose I should have expected as much from you though. "What have you been up to since?"
"You can see that all around you. What about you?"
"I started drawing seriously again, learning new techniques, sending in contest entries and so on. I'm waiting to hear the results of the last competition, but there's a really big amateur art contest coming up in two months that I'm looking forward to joining," Neku replied with a slight grin. "Occasionally, I go to see Mr. H to ask if he'll give me art tips or feedback, but I think he makes me pay for extra cups of house blend as a consultation fee."
"That miser," the Composer muttered with a soft giggle. "I'd like to see your recent work, Neku. It must be fabulous."
"Um, well…" If you'd sound just a bit more sincere… He scratched the back of his head nervously. "I'm not very good yet, but we could stop by my apartment to have a look before dinner, I guess."
"Or we could ask for a piece of paper and have you sketch me something now."
"Um… Yeah, I guess I could." Why am I even agreeing to this?
"Mm, you're so nice to me, dear~" Joshua sang, pecking him on the cheek affectionately.
"S—Stop that!" Neku cried, backing away with a grimace.
The other laughed, rising. "Your face is priceless, Neku."
Then he… flounced to the counter to ask for a piece of paper and a pencil or pen… and flirt with the cashier. Neku buried his face in his hands. It was all just... unreal.
"Here." His former Partner placed a piece of white paper and a pen before him and sat back down.
He picked up the pen, content to shut out the surreality with a distraction. "What would you like drawn?"
The Composer shrugged. "Whatever strikes your fancy, dear. Maybe something that comes to mind when you think of this city?"
Something that comes to mind when I think of Shibuya..? Neku nodded and began to sketch.
It was half an hour later when they left, Joshua walking backwards out of Molco as he teased Neku about what he'd decided to draw.
"This is what comes to mind when you think of Shibuya? Oh Neku, one could read so much into this!"
"I will never draw you another picture again as long as I live," Neku declared in a huff, arms crossed.
Joshua giggled. "Such a spoilsport! I didn't say it's not good. It's just…"
"Look out!" Grabbing Joshua's wrist, he pulled the other sharply towards him and blinked, looking around. "Huh? Where's that shadow thing gone?" He could have sworn he'd seen a huge black form hurtling towards the spot the Composer had only a moment ago been standing in.
Joshua gasped as he hurtled into his proxy's arms. "What sha—" Then he sensed it. "We should hurry; come on," he said, lacing his fingers with Neku's and pulling the other back into Molco. "I know I got rid of the last of these, so I've clearly underestimated the lengths to which they'll go to keep an eye on me." Spotting the modulator decal, he dragged Neku into Funky Fashion. "Still, I'm impressed you can still see the Noise, Neku. I couldn't possibly have picked a better proxy," he added with a smirk.
"Wait, you mean that was… That's Taboo Noise out there? What… Why? And how did I… I haven't seen a single Noise since I left the UG!"
"Oh, that's right. You only carry your Player Pin when you come to see me."
"Hiya! I'm so glad you're here. Work's so much more fun when you're around," Aoi Anna greeted cheerfully as she walked over before Neku could respond. "Wow, your girlfriend's got wicked style too! We've got a sweet new line in. Pick out something for her too?"
Neku blinked and thought to protest, but realized that doing so would simply be digging his own grave. "Sure," he agreed, playing along. "We'll have a look. I'm sure she'll find something. She's convinced she looks cute in anything and everything." Wow, I didn't even have to make that up, that arrogant snot.
"And I'm sure you not-so-secretly think so too!" Anna replied with a hearty laugh.
Neku balked, but successfully concealed it in a supreme exercise of willpower. "I feel so epic," he muttered.
"Holler if you need another size or anything!" she called, walking back over to the counter.
"Think you've come to terms with the day, Neku? Hee hee."
He merely glared at Joshua in response as they made their way to one of the aisles further from the counter. "Why are the Taboo Noise back?" he asked as soon as Anna was out of earshot.
"They're trying to lure me into using my powers, I suppose. If I'd defended myself earlier, they would have picked up on it, so that's quite the bang-up job you did there, Neku."
"A simple 'thank you' would suffice," he muttered, arms crossed. "Josh, while I can't blame anyone for wanting to kill you, is there something you're not telling me about this? They're even making Taboo Noise to smoke you out now."
"Ouch," The Composer deadpanned before pressing a hand to his chin, pensive, as he pulled a dress off the rack for a better look. "I don't know who they are or why they're here, but they're definitely not Enforcers. Those wouldn't break their own Laws. I'll have to somehow look more deeply into this later."
"Okay, now what?" Neku asked, prying the hanger out of his companion's hand and putting it back where it came from. "We can't stay here forever. And we've agreed to dinner with the others tonight."
Joshua shrugged, skimming another rack of clothing. "There aren't many of them, so the stronger Reapers will handle it. The Noise will attack them too, so they won't have much choice. We leave when things have cooled off. In the meantime, why don't we 'pick out something,' dear?" he suggested with a giggle, holding up a frilly pale blue blouse and a colourful flared skirt.
Neku somehow managed not to scream.
"Aidan, this is madness," a young man with immaculately styled dark brown hair declared as he walked over to where his companion sat at the edge of the rooftop they were on.
Running a hand through messy red curls, Aidan replied, "Eliza said to find him."
"Well, it isn't working. But more importantly, Taboo Noise, Aidan! The higher-ups aren't going to miss this one! They'll be all over it in a matter of hours, especially the Producer! Lord Cyril said to be subtle!"
"I didn't make THAT many of them. Hey, watch your step, Chiaki. There's no ledge here."
Chiaki stopped where he was, adjusting his matching pair of iridium shades. "You need to think ahead."
"So Eliza tells me." The redhead rose to approach his companion. "Still no sign of him?"
Chiaki tilted his head slightly as if listening with great concentration. "No. His vibe is completely masked."
"Damn it! I'll just have to make more of them."
"Wait. Eliza's here," Chiaki said a moment before a shimmer formed in the air behind him and coalesced into a purple-haired lady in a dark blue mini dress with purple trimmings.
"Sharp as ever, Chiaki. Aidan would do well to take a leaf out of your book."
He nodded in greeting. "The eyes often deceive us."
"Lord Cyril says he already has sufficient information and that we are to commence regular operations as soon as Mirabelle is ready to join us. She gives me her word it will be tomorrow."
"About damn time! This surveillance business puts me to sleep!" Aidan enthused, punching his right palm with his left fist. "Let's get back in action, guys!"
"I'll see to the preparations then," Chiaki said before shifting Frequencies.
"Hey! Chiaki! Wait up!" Aidan vanished as well.
From the roof of 104, Eliza surveyed Shibuya, taking in the vibrant hordes on the city's crowded streets. "Such a sweet underlying melody," she sighed, twirling a lock of her purple ringlets around her middle finger. "Soon, Shibuya, you will be ours." She smiled with satisfaction before leaving in a flash of light.
Several hours later, Joshua and Neku made it to Hachiko without any unfortunate run-ins with Taboo Noise. It appeared that the Reapers really had dealt with them, and there were none in sight. They were a couple of minutes early, but apparently, the rest had already been there for a while.
"Here they come. See, told you she's a looker," Beat announced in a failed attempt to be quiet.
"Shh! Beat! Neku doesn't wear his headphones anymore, and she might hear you!"
Uh, dude… I would have heard you two even with my headphones on… Clearly, they hadn't gotten the memo to come earlier in order to gossip about them.
Beside him, Joshua giggled. "How flattering! They're making me blush!"
"Josh, you owe me one for this."
"I think it would be in your best interests to remember my name, dear~"
"Gosh, guys, you're worse than housewives!" he admonished in greeting as they reached his four friends. "We could hear you guys a mile away. Um, Beat, Rhyme, Shiki, Eri?" He indicated them as he said their names. "This is Yoko."
"Good evening," Joshua greeted softly with a shy smile, but Neku didn't miss the twinkle of mirth in pale lilac eyes. "It's really nice to meet you." He just barely managed not to flinch when a warm hand took hold of his. "Neku tells me you're his closest friends."
"More like his only friends," Eri corrected with a chuckle.
"Hey, who's side are you on?"
"Shiki's, of course!" she replied, draping an arm around her friend protectively.
"H—Huh?" Shiki had been staring at Joshua, and Neku had the sinking feeling she knew something was up. Suddenly, she gasped, and he steeled himself for discovery. "Is that...? Is that the Princess K VIP members' exclusive doll dress?"
Neku didn't know whether to slap himself in the face or sink to his knees in relief.
Joshua nodded with a smirk. "I love it."
"Oh, I'm so jealous!"
"Oh wow! How did you get one?" Eri asked. "I heard they're only available to a few elite members of K Court, and they're super expensive even then."
"I've been buying Lapin Angelique almost since they started out, so I'm an elite member now, and I heard about this dress before it was released, so I saved up for it for months."
For once, Neku hoped Joshua was lying. The idea of the Composer having a wardrobe full of gothic women's clothes was rather frightening. However, he would have settled for Joshua releasing his hand.
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If you start saving early, you'll eventually be able to afford it," Rhyme chimed in approvingly.
"Hey, about steps, let's bounce, yo. This outin' ain't nothin' widdout some curry," Beat interrupted, much to Neku's relief. A conversation about fashion could go on endlessly with Shiki and Eri, not that Joshua was any better, although his tastes ran into the higher end of the price spectrum.
J—Yoko giggled. "There's an excellent curry place in Dogenzaka that looks like a quaint little teahouse. They stew their curry slowly for a full week before serving it, so all the flavours from the meat and spices are brought out perfectly."
"Yo, yo, yo, you got my tummy rumblin' now! Come on!" Beat flipped his deck expectantly.
"I guess that's decided then," Shiki said with a chuckle.
She'd ditched the glasses for contacts, and grown her hair out a bit, but she still laughed just the same way she did in the Game. Neku smiled fondly. At least she didn't have to carry her piggy around anymore. He'd recognize his first Partner's Soul no matter its Code now. The Game had been so tough, so painful, but they'd all learned so much, grown so much. He'd even started making new friends. Shiki liked to joke that it was thanks to her fixing his fashion sense.
Joshua paused thoughtfully for a moment, then shook his head with a smile as they began to walk towards Dogenzaka, reaching up to brush a bit of blond fringe out of his eyes. It all seemed so natural when he did little things like that. Even the girls hadn't suspected a thing. His act was flawless, and even when he behaved in a way that was distinctly Joshua, none of the others knew him well enough to recognize the quirks. When they reached the shop, they sat next to each other and because it would have seemed odd if he'd recoiled when his date rested her head on his shoulder, Neku gingerly wrapped an arm around the Composer's shoulders in a brief hug and reluctantly let him do as he pleased. To his surprise, he didn't mind as much as he'd initially thought. In fact, Joshua was a lot less prissy and insufferable while trying to act like a girl, so as strange as the thought sounded in his mind, it was rather a welcome change. They ordered, or rather, everyone else ordered, and Joshua ordered for him.
"You need to stop doing that," he protested.
"Hm? When have you ever disliked something I ordered for you?"
"That's not the point."
Joshua placed a hand on his thigh, far too intimately for comfort. "Even if I already know what you'll order, dear?" In all seriousness, the Composer was, in fact, clairvoyant.
He removed the offending hand from his person. "You're going out of your way to be a thorn in my side, aren't you?" Neku asked quietly, a hand over his mouth to keep the others from reading his lips.
The other leaned in close to whisper in his ear. "Hee hee. You always were a fast learner."
Neku turned to face him and tried very hard not to punch him in the face. "You owe me one, Josh," he muttered through gritted teeth.
Joshua only giggled more. "I think you have it quite in reverse, but whatever you say, Neku. Only because you're my dear, dear partner."
Before he could say anymore, Rhyme spoke up. "Miss Yoko, I'm told that you and Neku haven't known each other for that long, which must be why I haven't heard much about you. What do you do?"
"As an occupation? I teach and study music."
"Oh, what kind? What instrument?"
"Mostly classical. Violin and viola. I played in a chamber orchestra back in Austria."
"Oh! That's amazing! Is that where you're from originally then?" Eri asked.
"Yes. I'm presently staying with my maternal grandparents here as I study Japanese music for a few years."
"That sounds nice," Shiki remarked with a smile. "How are you liking it so far? Is this your first extended stay? You seem to know this city quite well, so you must have been here many times before though."
"My, my, sharp as a tack, aren't you? Yes, my mother and I visit every year. That's when I buy all my Lapin Angelique clothes too, hee hee. I love Shibuya; I always have. It's... edgy, different, vibrant. I like the energy here better than in Ikebukuro, where my grandparents live. It's too bad that that's where the conservatory is located too."
Huh... Colour me impressed, Josh. You've thought this story out some. The Composer had even thought about how to head to the Station without raising any questions. If he lived in Ikebukuro, it wouldn't seem odd.
"Wait," Beat said suddenly, scratching the back of his head and looking perplexed. "Yo Phones, how didchu two meet?"
Neku blinked, distracted from his thoughts. "What? Oh, um, Hachiko," he blurted without much thought.
"Eh, really?" Shiki exclaimed in surprise. "Oh... Do you still do that, Neku?"
"Hm? Do what?" Joshua asked, curiosity piqued.
Neku's eyes widened in horror as he realized what Shiki was referring to, but before he could tell her to keep mum, she replied, "Neku hangs out by Hachiko sometimes. He told me once that there's someone he'd met there d—well, a friend he'd met there once that he hadn't seen again since, and that he wanted to be there just in case that friend happens to walk by there sometime."
"Oh! Oh! Dat prissy kid you was with, Phones?" Beat chipped in, much to Neku's dismay. "Yo, speakin' of which, man, I wonder what became of him. Never did see him again after dat week he was with you. Didn't dat Composer dude fix evrythin'? So you be thinkin' dat kid musta come back too, aintcha? Dat be why you keep waitin', right?"
Neku blinked, confused. "What are you talking about, Beat? He—"
"Ah, is that when you dropped it, dear?" Joshua interrupted almost too quickly. "Well, he was looking for something. I ran into him at Hachiko and helped him find it," he explained to the others truthfully enough with a smile. "In that process, we talked, got to know each other and arranged to meet up again." Turning to face him, the Composer playfully whispered, "Do you need a break, Neku? Remember to keep up with the program."
He narrowed his eyes at his crossdressing companion, but decided it was best to play along for now. "Yeah. And... and I'm not waiting for anyone!" he protested. The only response he received was indulgent laughter. "H... Oh, she's really good at Tin Pin too," he supplied finally in hopes of changing the subject.
"Oh!" Rhyme exclaimed. "Speaking of Tin Pin, I heard you won the tournament yesterday with a friend. I didn't know you still played, Neku. Birds of a feather flock together, perhaps? Yoko-san must have made you practice again."
"Yeah... It was a long time since I last played by the time we met. I was surprised when she asked if I played."
"Eh, why didn't you join with her then?"
"His friend asked for a favor, you see," Joshua answered on his behalf. "I watched though. It was a great game."
While Neku was thankful for the Composer's quick thinking, he was starting to grow suspicious of the other's cooperation. Last he checked, Joshua rather liked seeing him in a fix.
"Hmm... So tell me, Yoko, what is it that you like about Neku?" Eri enquired suddenly.
"E—Eri!" Shiki admonished, eyes wide.
"What? I'm just curious!"
"Ah... How do I explain it...?" Joshua turned to look at him with a smirk, covering Neku's hands with his own in what almost seemed like genuine tenderness. "Hm... It's just... I just..."
Neku raised an eyebrow at the theatrics, looking right into amused lilac eyes.
"Well... I really like his Imagination, for one, and I guess... Basically, I can see myself in him, you know?" The other turned back to look at the rest, leaning against him affectionately. "We connect. So~ deeply~ Oh!" Joshua fished out his cellphone. "I should take a picture of us together," he said with a giggle, pulling Neku's arms around him as he aimed his phone's camera at them both.
Reluctantly, Neku played along, hugging 'Yoko' affectionately and smiling for the camera. Internally, the idea of choking Joshua was sounding increasingly brilliant and tempting.
"Ah, what a perfect shot!" the Composer commented as he checked the photograph he'd just taken. "Oh my, we even look good together, see?" He showed the others the picture excitedly.
The ensuing awkward silence was thankfully interrupted by the server bringing them their food, and dinner conversation immediately turned to other things. Shiki and Eri were almost ready for the competition; there were just four more outfits left to sew. Beat's skateboarding lessons were gaining in popularity, so much so he nearly had enough to rent his own venue, and Rhyme was doing really well, both in school and in her hip-hop dance class. Eri asked 'Yoko' if she would like to model for them during the competition; Joshua laughed, feigning bashfulness, and said he'd think about it. The curry was the best he'd ever tasted, and he was content in being ignored for the moment. It wasn't to last, of course, and Shiki was soon asking about his artwork and which pieces he planned on submitting for the upcoming contest. He hadn't decided for certain, but he'd shortlisted a few to refine, and he told her as much. Then Joshua was showing them the sketch he'd done earlier that day, and everyone quickly agreed that he should submit that as one of the entries. Mentally, he added it to the list of works to refine. Much food and chatter later, they exited the restaurant, still engrossed in swapping stories. Joshua was speaking obliquely about growing up in Austria upon the others' insistence, although he doubted the Composer had seen his mother's homeland in decades.
"J-Hey, Yoko, didn't you say you had to be home early today?" he interjected, deciding it would be best if he rescued them both from the threat of discovery swiftly.
"Oh?" Joshua checked his watch. "Ah, that's right... It's already half past nine. I promised my grandparents that I would be home before ten tonight to do something for them," he murmured, playing along smoothly.
"Well, you should get going then." Neku hesitated, then added, "I'll walk you home."
The Composer blinked slowly, and then he giggled. "You're so chivalrous, Neku. Still, Ikebukuro is quite the detour for you, so I'm afraid I'll have to decline."
"Oh no, you don't, Yoko. Take the boy up on his offer, or you'll spoil him!" Eri protested.
"Yeah! Dontchu let Phones off like dat, yo!" Beat chipped in helpfully.
"At least to the train station then," Neku suggested. "You live very close to the station in Ikebukuro, don't you?"
"I do." Joshua smirked. "Well, if you're insisting, I suppose to the station it is, dear."
They said their goodbyes, promising to meet up again some time the following week, and the others asked 'Yoko' to bring her instruments along next time, so they could hear her play. Joshua said he'd see, but Neku doubted he would really keep up the charade for that long. His former partner took his arm as they walked towards the station together in comfortable silence amidst the cacophony of the nighttime city crowd. It wasn't till they reached the underpass that Joshua let go and smirked at him.
"My, my, you seem to have adjusted to this quite well, partner. I didn't expect you to play the part of the chivalrous boyfriend all the way. Hee hee. Charming."
Neku rolled his eyes. "Oh, for... UGH, forget it." There was no sense in bothering. "Is anyone tailing you?"
The Composer's eyes widened, then he seemed to concentrate on something for a few moments before concluding, "Not as far as I can tell." He paused, then giggled. "Oh, how sweet, Neku. You were worried about me!"
"Yeah, well, not everyone is like you," Neku snapped thoughtlessly, already irritated by the events of the day.
Joshua didn't immediately respond, but by the time Neku realized he'd been unduly unkind, the other was speaking again. "I wonder what this sketch would look like coloured."
He held it up, and for a moment, they both looked at it. Neku could envision what he wanted it to look like in the end after some revision and refinement, and he had to admit it would make a great contest entry.
"You were going to improve on it for the art competition, weren't you?" He seemed to take another look at it before holding it out. "Here. Show me the final product when it's done, won't you, Neku? I'd like to see the kind of Imagination that my proxy would put into a reflection of my city."
Neku took it wordlessly.
"Well, my dear, dear partner, that was a nice distraction. I suppose I'll see you tomorrow? Ta-ta~" he called, twirling around to vanish into the Shibuya River without waiting for a response.
"Hey, wait!" Neku called out, but it was too late; he would have to ask Joshua his question tomorrow.
He clenched his free hand into a fist in frustration. Beat, of all people, should have known that Joshua himself was the Composer. There was no way he could have forgotten, given what had transpired at the end of their Game, unless Joshua had taken those memories away. The question was why. Why did he erase those memories for Beat? For a moment, Neku simply stared after the silver-haired boy into the darkness of the sewers, and then looked down at the sketch in his hands. In his mind's eye, he could see all the edits he wanted to make. He turned, starting on a brisk walk back to the apartment. Inspiration wouldn't let him get much sleep that night.