Even If The Sky Is Falling Down
It wasn't until the text message alert woke him up that Neku realized he had fallen asleep on his sketchpad with his pencil still in hand. Couldn't he start these games later in the day? he thought, groaning tiredly. Reaching for his phone, he flipped it open and read the message.
"Where things fell apart,
where it all began
What captured your heart?
Will you find it again?"
Neku blinked at it for a moment, then concluded that he was too sleepy to think. Bah, I'll get up in another hour or so, he decided, clearing his bed of his drawing implements and returning to sleep. He wasn't sure how much time passed before his cellphone went off again, and he cracked an eye open blearily. Must be Josh complaining about the delay. Argh, fine. He opened the message.
"On second thought, don't bother coming, Neku.
I've changed my mind. Game's off today.
See you tomorrow, perhaps. Have fun!"
"Oh, so you do have good ideas occasionally," Neku muttered, rolling over to go back to sleep. Several seconds later, he threw back the covers and sat up. "Wait... That's not like him. Josh wouldn't just cancel something he thought was fun. Something's up, something big." He ran a hand through orange locks. Involuntarily, a memory rose to the forefront of his mind, one of new Taboo Noise and the Composer talking about being hunted by people who could track him easily and don't fight nice. "Crap."
Suddenly, Neku was wide awake, jumping out of bed to dress and clean up, not quite in that order. Twenty minutes later, he was dashing out the door, fumbling for his cellphone to look at the riddle again. Where it all began...? Captured my heart... Of course! The mural! CAT's mural at Udagawa! Destination determined, he started running.
It wasn't till he reached Center Street that something occurred to him, and he stopped abruptly. Wait a sec, if Josh is worried about them... Crap, what can I do? We're talking about Angels here! Wait, Angels? That's it! I should ask Mr. H! His mind made up, Neku began sprinting once more, this time towards Cat Street.
The barista looked up from where he was drying coffee cups behind the counter as Neku threw open the door and burst in. "Hm? Phones? Heyyy! You're early today. What's with the hurry?"
Neku leaned against the nearest wall, panting. It took him a full minute to catch his breath enough to speak. "Mr. H, it's... I think... I think Josh is in trouble."
The older man blinked once, confused for the moment, then his expression grew concerned. "Why do you think so?" he asked setting the cup he was holding down, and walking around the counter to approach.
"We were supposed to meet up today. He cancelled at the last minute. You know it's not like him, right? He won't give up his play time for just any old reason."
"Huh. Yeah, J always did like his games, sometimes to the detriment of his responsibilities, but what gives you the impression of trouble, Phones?"
"Yesterday, there were people tailing him. He said they were Angels. Maybe the same people with the pin from the day before? I don't know what's going on, but I have a bad feeling. They even made Taboo Noise to trick him into using his powers and revealing himself once he'd lost them by masking his vibe. S—"
"Ta—Come on, Phones!" All of a sudden, the Producer was running for the door, something akin to panic in black eyes. When Neku joined him outside, he quickly locked the café door. "Where? Do you know where he is?"
The other's urgency only made Neku feel worse. "He originally said we were to meet in Udagawa, by your mural in Udagawa. I don't know if he's still there."
"We'll start there." Sanae Hanekoma broke into a sprint. "Come now, don't slow! There's no time!"
Together, they ran towards Udagawa, and Neku could only pray to whomever was listening that they weren't too late. When they arrived at the area's back streets, there was no one in sight, not even the usual gang kid or two. They hurried up the steps to the mural with Neku leading the way. Nothing.
"Damn it... Maybe he's gone elsewhere...?" he wondered aloud.
Out of the blue, he heard footsteps, and a sense of dejà vu made him look left. Absurdly enough, it really was Joshua who rounded the corner, only this time, he wasn't holding a gun. Their eyes met, and the flash of surprise in the Composer's quickly changed to one of panic, then the silver-haired boy was diving at him. They crashed to the floor and rolled several times, just barely managing to not roll down the stairs. In all the confusion, Neku vaguely registered the sight of two black figures firing something like a laser beam at where they'd been standing from opposite directions and vaporizing each other in the absence of their targets.
"What the HELL?" he managed as Joshua climbed off him gingerly.
"I thought I told you not to come," the other said, looking around. "Sanae, you too?"
"Yeah, Phones came to get me. Good thing he did too, it looks like."
"Heh." Joshua helped Neku up. "There's more of them," he said, even as another figure rounded the corner.
The Producer stepped in front of them. "Listen up, boss. You and Phones get out of here. I'll take care of this."
"Mr. H?" Neku questioned, concerned.
Joshua giggled. "Oh, how charming, Neku. Look, if Sanae can't handle them, no one in Shibuya can."
"What he said," the artist replied with a laugh. "Now go!"
The Composer didn't wait to be told twice, nor did he wait for Neku to decide, grabbing his proxy's wrist and pulling him along. They didn't stop till they were in front of AMX amidst the crowd, and Neku looked around for a moment before ducking into AMX for a breather, tugging Joshua with him. Ito Masanori called the usual greeting and asked if he could get them something. Neku said some water and a chair would be nice and was directed to the CD testing area in the back along with a hot new release for him to listen to. He was pleasantly surprised when the shopkeeper actually brought them each a plastic cup of water and thanked him before inserting the CD into the player to check out while they caught their breath. Perched on a stool side by side, they drained the water and rested in silence. Neku put on the headphones, but only covered one ear with them, so they could talk.
When he could finally speak without panting between words, he asked, "Where are we going?"
"I don't know," Joshua confessed. He straightened and rubbed his chin in deep thought. "The only place they can't reach is the River, but they know that, so they'll try everything to keep me from reaching it. If that's the case, I won't make it to the station underpass unscathed even by teleportation. But WE are not going anywhere. Stay out of this, Neku. You should have listened when I told you not to come. At least, I've figured out they're only targeting me, which means they intend to conquer Shibuya, but it also means they won't bother with anyone else."
Stay out of this? You... Private dick extraordinaire Kiryuu Yoshiya, you haven't changed one bit! This time, Neku actually punched his former partner. Or tried to, at least.
Joshua caught his fist and blocked with amazing strength, but of course, that was to be expected. The Composer would have seen it coming. "Tsk tsk, Neku, you could be the least bit grateful that I just saved your life out there."
"Is there ever a time when you're NOT a complete ass, Josh?"
"I'm hurt, Neku. I only had your best interests at heart, as always."
Neku grabbed him by the collar in frustration; the other didn't resist. "No, Josh, you've just always been very good at seeing things exclusively your way. Don't screw with me! Stop acting like I'd turn a blind eye if you died out there! You're the bloody Composer; it's not so simple, and it's NOT going to be okay. And... And I'd care, goddammit!" he managed finally, shoving the silver-haired boy away roughly and turning back to the CD player to repeat the track he hadn't noticed was nearing its end without having registered in his auditory memory.
Joshua just barely managed to regain his balance and maintain his perch on the high stool. "But Neku... I thought you didn't want to risk your life? After fighting so hard to get it back? That... you wouldn't let me kill you again...?"
"...I never said I planned on dying, you ass."
There was a pause, and then the Composer giggled. "Fine, you win. Hm... Do you like that CD?"
Neku scoffed. "I don't know, Josh. I've been too busy trying not to choke you to pay it any attention."
More giggling. "Well, you'd best decide quickly if you don't want to have to fight your way out of here. They should be triangulating our most probable position right now, and I doubt it'll be long before they find us."
"What? Oh, screw you." He rose and hurried over to the counter to tell Masanori he'd take it.
The shopkeeper beamed and rang him up for a new copy. He didn't know if he particularly liked it, but he vaguely recalled that it hadn't been bad, and he supposed the least he could do was buy something as thanks for the extraordinary service. "Where to?" he asked his former partner as his purchase was being bagged.
"Hm... Well, first we'll have to shake off the pursuit. Then... We need to go somewhere they won't expect. Being unable to leave Shibuya limits my options, but I'm sure there are places we could evade them temporarily."
"What about... my place?" He nodded and grinned as Masanori handed him the bag and thanked him for the business. "They probably won't expect you to head for the residential side, since your residence is the River."
"It might work," he added, seeing the Composer's hesitation.
"Hm, a tantalizing possibility. For the lack of a better idea, let's run with your plan for now. But first, we'll need to lose our tail."
"Just admit it's a great idea, Josh." Neku chuckled as they reached the door. "Are you ready?"
"What kind of question is that?"
They exited, casually at first to see if anyone noticed, then Joshua broke into a run, and Neku swiftly followed suit. The Composer's heightened senses would have picked up on the fact that they'd been found. He tore after the other boy down Center Street and into the Scramble. There they stopped running to blend in with the pedestrian crowd. For now, the crowd served as their respite from pursuit, but wandering around for too long would make them stand out again, so they couldn't stay.
"So. Where do you live, partner?" Joshua enquired casually as they mingled with the crowd.
"Oh... um... Shoto," Neku answered with mild reluctance. The area was notorious for its high rent, and Neku wasn't terribly enamoured of the level of wealth it implied. His mother didn't exactly make bank, but they'd needed someplace conveniently located for commuting both to the airport as well as to his schools, since she was never around to aid in the latter. Her job made the rent affordable, but they could hardly be considered wealthy.
"That's a nice place," his companion remarked. "We'll have to go through Dogenzaka from here."
"Yeah," he agreed, turning towards 104. He hadn't expected Joshua to comment, since the other most likely came from money anyway, given his behaviour and preferences, but it was always nice not to hear it.
The coast looked clear as they entered Dogenzaka and walked up the street towards A-East.
"Think we have time for some ramen, Neku?" came the question as they approached Ramen Don.
He turned. "Are you asking me? You're the one that's keeping tabs on whether anyone's tracking us."
"Let's stop by. You haven't eaten, have you?"
Now that his former Partner mentioned it, Neku realized it was true that he hadn't eaten since the night before. Too much had been going on for him to notice any hunger pangs.
"I haven't. Although... I suppose I don't exactly have to, but I appreciate good food nonetheless," the silver-haired boy continued, entering the restaurant without waiting for agreement.
"Oh, irasshai! It's you two! What will you have today?" Doi Ken greeted cheerfully as they walked in. There weren't many customers, but it was an odd hour for a meal, so that was hardly surprising.
"Oh, no specials today, mister?" Joshua asked with a laugh as they sat down.
"Nothing you two haven't tried before. I figured 'The Big Catch' turned out too well to just forget about, so I cook up a batch occasionally for a seafood option. That's the day's special, boys. What's it going to be?"
"Ooh! I miss that! One for me please."
Before Joshua could do him the 'favour' of ordering on his behalf again, Neku quickly spoke up. "I'm not in the mood for fish today. A shoyu ramen will do, thanks." The mirth in lilac eyes came just short of irritating him, and he pointedly looked anywhere but as the owner went to prepare their meals. "Will we have the time?"
"Hm? Who knows. You have to eat regardless."
Neku tensed. Is this... Damn it... Maybe he's right. Maybe I should have stayed out of this. What if I'm holding him back, if I'm in his way? That's why he said to stay away, right? What was I thinking? What was HE thinking? He didn't have to simply agree with me earlier! But it's too late; backing out now would only worsen our situation.
"Keep staring, and you'll make me blush. Thinking about me again, dear?" the silver-haired boy quipped, a flirtatious smirk on his face as he propped his chin up on the table with one hand.
"Will you quit that?" he snapped, annoyed now.
"Quit what, Neku?" Before Neku could riposte, he continued. "Flirting with you or overhearing your thoughts?"
"Hm? Something wrong?"
"Overhearing? You can scan me?"
"Oh. That." Joshua leaned back lazily, twirling a lock of hair around his finger. "Are you feeling all right? Did you not think I could bypass the effects of a pin I created? It IS my own Imagination, silly."
"Then, all this while..."
"Relax, Neku. People's thoughts are naturally audible to me; I'm just used to tuning them out. We could even talk telepathically like we do on the Noise plane all the time if you wanted. That Player Pin may not be able to stop me if I really wanted to know something, but it does keep me from effortlessly hearing everything. I rather like that, really. Being barraged by a cacophonous stream of thought every time I pay one person some attention is rather exhausting."
"So you scanned me?"
"I did not." He sighed. "Is any of this sinking in? Put simply, that pin makes it harder for me to hear your thoughts, but sometimes, I catch an idea or two despite that. If I made an effort, which is what you would call scanning, I'd hear everything. Without that pin, my 'scanning' you would simply mean I was paying attention to you."
"Here you go, boys! Eat up! I even gave you both extra!" Doi Ken cut in, setting their noodles down.
Joshua didn't wait to dig in, and Neku suddenly realized he was ravenous too.
"Mm, I'm in paradise~"
"Haha, I'm glad you two made up, kid."
Neku choked on his noodles. Joshua giggled.
"What? We haven't been fighting any more than usual," he replied innocently as Neku coughed. "Oh my, really now, are we not feeling well, dear?"
"Just zip it, Josh," he muttered.
The ramen master chortled. "Well, you know what to do if you need a second helping or something for the road, boys." He wandered back to his station.
They ate in awkward silence, Neku speeding through his meal while Joshua took his time, seemingly unconcerned. When they were both done, they paid and headed for the exit, pausing at the door to check for their pursuers.
"Hm, none on Dogenzaka just yet, it looks like."
"Then we should probably go before that changes."
"...Ugh, talk about inconvenient. They're not here, but they're all over A-East and 104. We can't leave this area."
"But we can't stay here either."
"You don't say. If we lure them into Pork City, we might be able to lose them amidst the anomalous flow of energy there and head up to Shoto while they're all in there. You up for it, Neku? It IS fairly risky."
"Can't you teleport us both to Shoto or something?"
"An astoundingly brilliant idea, Neku! They'll be all over your place in seconds. I'm sure that's exactly why we were headed that way in the first place."
Neku twitched, but chose not to take the bait. "What choices do we have?"
"You could wait by A-East. I'll meet you there when I've shaken them off my trail. Work for you?"
"...okay, who are you and what have you done with Joshua?"
"...hee hee. I'm repaying an earlier favour, that's all."
For a long time, Neku didn't say anything. Finally, "Is it safer for you if we split up?" he asked.
"Hm, not really. It's about the same for me, but it IS safer for you."
"Then... Then I'll go with you." He turned away, scratching his head awkwardly. "Um... I mean, fewer things could go wrong that way, right? Uh... For instance, if you can't get through A-East, and we don't get to meet up, you won't know where my place is."
Joshua laughed. "Ooh, my knight in shining armour! You could head on home, and I could find you the same way I'm tracking them, you know. But! As you wish, Mr. Escort. I'm sure you'll do a bang-up job as always."
"...ugh, save it, Josh. Your jokes are the worst. Let's go," he said, stepping out of Ramen Don into the street and almost bumping into a girl with auburn hair as he did. He murmured an apology without turning and kept walking.
Several shops later, he was about to turn around to check if the silver-haired boy was still behind him when said boy ran by, grabbing his hand to pull him along. "They've spotted us. Now's our chance! Hurry!"
They ran into Pork City and up the first flight of stairs. Joshua told people that he couldn't see to either put up walls or evacuate because renegade Angels were on the way, reminding him that Reapers hung out in the building a lot. At the sixth floor, they stopped to catch their breath, and Joshua made a sound of annoyance.
"Ugh, at this rate, we won't be able to slip past them. There's too many. They sure came in force. I was hoping to avoid this, but I might have to fight some of them. Come on, let's go up a few more floors."
They ran up several more flights before a panting Neku asked, "If you could fight them to begin with, why didn't you do so in the first place?"
"Oh, please. It's painfully obvious. If I stopped to fight one of them, the others would have me surrounded in a heartbeat. There would be no end to it. Besides, it's more effort than I'd like to exert. Hee hee."
On the tenth floor, they stopped to take another breather, sitting on the steps to the next level.
"Ugh, this is just troublesome. Any one of them is easy enough on their own, but they always pair up, which makes them quite formidable. Even if they're only shadows, they're still Angels."
"Shadows? Huff... Huff... What are we up against?"
"Well, if you've fought lone Reapers before, you'll have seen a shadow form in one zone. That ring any bells?"
"Put simply, those are the Angelic versions thereof. The easy way to get rid of them is to erase the original."
"The problem is finding the original."
"Very sharp, Neku! And, of course, the original isn't among them."
"Huh... well, if each one of them is easy, what if we pair up too?"
"Hm? Someone's an eager beaver. I thought you weren't planning on dying, Neku?"
"I'm not, you ass! I'm going to beat them. I even brought all my A-list pins with me."
"Exciting, Neku, fabulous! I'm so proud!" Joshua said with a delighted laugh. "I knew I'd picked a winner."
"What, you didn't really think I'd come unarmed, did you?"
"Hee hee~ In that case..." The Composer darted forward swiftly to press his lips to Neku's, and everything turned a radiant white.
Atop 104, Aidan sat at the edge, snacking on a bag of wasabi rice crackers as his legs dangled over the Scramble. Behind him, Chiaki leaned against his back, absently smoking a joint. Suddenly, Chiaki seemed to perk up.
"Hm?" Chiaki cocked his head as if listening to something. "It seems the mouse is headed somewhere close."
Aidan turned to face his companion, excitement written all over his face. "Oho, right into the spider's web? How near is near, Chiaki?"
"Looks like it. Very near. Pork City. I assume you want to deliver some personalized service?"
"Hells yeah!" The redhead backflipped to land in a crouch over his partner. "I'm sick of letting Eliza's shadow peeps have all the fun. This operation was supposed to be shiny! Like in Pakistan and New York, remember?"
"Clear as crystal. That was quite the fireworks display. I still can't believe how much Noise you managed to get on that guy without him keeling over. It was like a metal band entered New York by plane playing at full blast."
Aidan laughed, the most cheerful he had been in a long time. "Can't say I regret joining this team. Cyril knows how to keep life heated up! Well, we were told to watch the area. Pork City constitutes the area still, so let's hit them up!"
The brunet allowed the other to help him to his feet, flicking the remnants of his smoke over his shoulder carelessly. "You are rash, Aidan, but if I cannot stop you, I must go with you."
"You're not even trying to stop me!"
"Because I know it doesn't work."
"Bah, details. Come, Chiaki, we have a mouse to trap."
Their fingers still intertwined, they leaped off in the direction of Pork City.
"What the... Will you cut it out already?" Neku yelled, shoving his Partner away roughly.
Joshua laughed. "Mm, not if you keep reacting like this. It's immoderately entertaining."
"Only to you. Oh wait."
"Enjoy the moment, Neku~" he sang.
"Rrgh..." Calm down. Must...not...strangle... Now is not the time to be fighting this kid.
"Shut up and run, dear. The enemies are closing in."
"Grr..." Despite his irritation, Neku didn't protest and followed the other up the stairs.
"Hey, Neku?" the Composer called conversationally over his shoulder as they ran. "I suppose I should warn you, so you don't have a stroke about it later. Don't strain yourself."
"Huff... Huff... What's this about?"
"I removed the naturally occurring limiter that keeps the living from going full blast."
Neku had no idea what the other was talking about, but couldn't quite manage to breathe enough to say so.
"You still don't get it? Let me make it obvious; it keeps you from tapping into your life force to draw energy."
They broke out onto the roof of the building, and Neku dropped to the floor, leaning against the wall by the door to rest. Joshua looked around before joining him.
"Looks like there's only one door up here," he observed. "I manipulated the energy of Pork City to continuously form and reform walls between every floor, so that should stall them some."
"Right. What's this you were saying about tapping into one's life force, Josh?"
"Hm? I thought that explanation would be easy enough for even you to understand. Mm, fine, fine. Put simply, if you overexert yourself in battle now, even if you win, it'll shorten your lifespan. Is that elementary enough for you?"
"All right. Wait, you removed it? A—"
"Say, Neku. Would you rather die at 70 instead of 80 or right here, right now?" Joshua's eyes were closed. He seemed to be concentrating on something, no doubt the army of Angel shadows amassing below them.
Neku didn't have an answer to that. He'd insisted on coming along, despite being warned of the mortal danger, so he could hardly fault anyone else. Instead, he looked around. Skyscrapers lined the horizon illuminated by the evening sun. They had a few hours left till dusk. Almost an entire day had gone by, and they'd done nothing but run from enemies whose real motives remained unknown. Come to think of it, it was distinctly reminiscent of being in the Game for the first time. He wondered what it felt like for Joshua to be seriously hunted in his own city. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of something red. He turned to look more closely, but couldn't determine what it was. Abruptly, he realized it was hurtling towards them, and he dove out of the way, pulling Joshua into a roll with him. The fireball hit their seating area bare moments after they'd vacated, and two men landed on the roof a small distance away as they picked themselves up off the floor. The redhead wore a red mesh tank top under a black leather jacket with matching black leather pants, while the brunet was dressed in a white suit with gold pinstripes paired with a red button down. They wore matching iridium shades and leather shoes.
The brunet tilted his head. "Hm? What is this? It would seem the mouse has company," he observed, sounding bemused.
"So it seems, Chiaki. Nice move, Orangeylocks! There goes my preemptive strike!" the redhead remarked with a laugh, not sounding the least bit upset at the loss of the advantage.
"Oh? Why, hello again. I do believe I've seen you before," Joshua greeted, looking right at the one in black.
"You know him?" Neku asked, surprised.
"More like I caught him checking me out some days back. Guess I know why now."
The youth pushed some of his messy red bangs out of his face and struck a pose. "I'm charmed, Composer. You remember me! The name's Aidan. Don't go saying I was checking you out though. Chiaki won't like it!"
"There are many things I dislike, Aidan. When has that ever bothered you?"
"Ouch, you wound me, partner. You make it sound like I don't care."
"Hm? What's this? Trouble in paradise?" Joshua asked teasingly with a smirk, a hand in his pocket.
"No more than usual, Composer," Chiaki replied calmly. "I never was a fan of how things are run Upstairs."
A silver eyebrow arched elegantly. "Ooh, why, this is new; here's a sharp one now. Where do we fit in?"
"You don't; Shibuya does," answered Aidan cheerfully. "But enough talk. I've been dying to get in some exercise for a while now. Won't you be a nice host and show us a good time?"
"Hee hee. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't. Are you ready, Neku?"
"You even have to ask? Bring it."
Neku gasped as they entered the strange battle plane in Pork City. It hadn't been obvious in the RealGround, but here, he was floored by the surge of energy that flowed into him. Joshua had been his strongest Partner during the Game, but now, he was even glowing slightly with the sheer power they shared. Was this a Composer's true strength?
Something wrong, Neku?
Wrong? He felt nigh on invincible.
Hello? Is this going to be a problem?
No, Josh. I'm fine. Better than fine. Is this your full power?
Hee hee. Almost, I suppose. You'd better keep up, partner~ Look out!
Neku dodged the fireballs headed his way and summoned icicles beneath his opponent. The first hit, but Aidan escaped the second, only to evade into an orb of water. Neku sent a bolt of lightning at the redhead, who ducked to avoid it and slammed his hands onto the ground, engulfing Neku in a pillar of flames. He screamed in pain as he moved out of the inferno, and barely managed to evade a punch by twisting sideways. He caught hold of the Angel, however, and activated Black Saturn as the familiar light puck came to him.
Keep in mind, dear, that I might not be around to bring you back if you die this time.
If this is how you express concern, Josh, just save it.
His opponent grunted in pain as his own wounds healed, and Neku let go to dart away quickly just as the effect of the barrier ended, sending a lightning bolt at the other as he left. He sent the light puck back to Joshua before dashing away from another flame pillar, only to be assailed by a barrage of blades. Rolling out of the way and retaliating with some projectiles of his own, he realized the blades were poisoned.
Crap, he thought as the light puck returned, and he summoned an orb of water atop the redhead and an icicle beneath in quick succession before exhausting a cycle of lightning bolts.
Joshua's message was wordless this time, mixed pain and anxiety, and he responded with silent reassurance despite the whopping sap of energy the poison incurred. They could win; they MUST. The earth shook beneath his feet as rocks fell out of the sky, and he evaded most of them as he ran towards the Angel, barreling into the other as he used Black Saturn again. The healing effect offset some of the poison's, and he conjured his own pillar of flames as he backed away when the barrier ended and sent the light puck back.
Now we're talking... Having fun over there, Neku?
Aidan sent more fireballs his way and more blades in the direction he dodged, so he was hit by a few of each, but managed to summon a full cycle of icicles beneath his opponent regardless as he regained possession of the light puck. As the poison took out another chunk of energy, he checked the Harmonizer pin; it was charged to level two. Level two might just be enough.
Think this is a good time?
Fabulous, Neku. It should do the trick. Work for you?
He almost laughed as he activated it. What do you think?
He heard Aidan scream as the entire field was covered in a rain of fire, and when they landed, they were back on the roof of Pork City. Neku panted from the exertion; they were strong. Even with more power than he'd ever had before, the fight had been challenging. The battle had ended, but it didn't look like they'd been erased. Chiaki was leaning on his Partner for the moment, but Aidan seemed more energetic than ever. Neku felt arms circle him from behind and thought to protest before he felt warm energy flowing into him. It was pleasant; he felt refreshed.
"Hey, lovebirds, ready for another go?" Aidan hollered across the roof. "Now that we're all warmed up and all!"
"L—lovebirds?" Neku spluttered as Joshua giggled cheerily in his ear. "W—We're not—"
"Aidan, we should report back," Chiaki interjected disapprovingly.
"No way! I'm all fired up now! Don't be such a killjoy, hun~ This time, it's on full blast!" As he announced it, the redhead's form shifted and grew...into a huge spider with extremely long legs and red graffiti-like markings on its body.
Chiaki sighed. "I will always regret that I was never very good at changing your mind." He changed forms as well, transforming into another giant spider, but with shorter legs and a larger body.
"We're switching over, Chiaki! Now, up the amp! Phoneutria Cantus is going to rock this city!"
"Have fun, Neku~" Joshua sang as the spider Noise touched him, bringing them both into the next plane. And be ready.
Beware his poison, Josh, he sent back as he charged the other spider.
"Since Aidan wants a taste of the Composer's power, I suppose that leaves me as your opponent," Chiaki said as they entered their zone. "I am Theraphosa Cantus. He tells me you are quite formidable. I will judge for myself."
"Then bring it on."
"I already have."
Neku blinked, then he noticed it, the network of threads everywhere. He couldn't immediately discern what they did, but it could only be either damage, debilitate or immobilize. He summoned fire in a path towards his opponent and sent a cycle of projectiles after them. Unfazed, it jumped and landed heavily. The shockwave sent Neku hurtling back into a mass of threads, and the explosion of pain clouded his vision momentarily.
Hey, stay with me, Neku; do something.
He tried. He couldn't move. The spider pounced at him, poised to strike, and the fangs were large, razor-sharp and ugly. There was no way to avoid it. Cold fear shot up his spine. His heart pounded loudly, wildly in his ears. Neku struggled, screaming in vain, and pushed at it with all his might, fought the all-encompassing bonds that he couldn't see. And as the fangs closed in, he fought harder. It couldn't end like this. He'd only just gotten back. He wasn't giving up so easily. By sheer force of will, it seemed, he broke the immobilization, reflexively activating Dark Saturn in the nick of time. The light puck formed as the barrier damaged his opponent, and he sent it over to Joshua, panting from the exertion. He followed up with icicles and lightning, peppering the field with water orbs. Chiaki lashed out at him with its front legs, and he evaded all but one strike. Rolling out of the way of a follow up attack, he summoned the flames under his opponent again in retaliation, and the other shrieked.
Suddenly, he felt the telltale pull of temporary zone-fusing for Fusion Attacks and braced himself as a cocoon of web spun around him. You'd better survive to fix things this time, Josh.
That doesn't inspire much confidence, partner.
Cold liquid rose around them as the web tightened to an asphyxiating pressure, and his skin stung. What seemed like a million blades and needles pierced him through the cocoon as the liquid pooled around his knees, but he couldn't even open his mouth to scream. Yet, as the rising liquid swirled around him and burned his wounds, a strange warmth filled him, and the pain suddenly seemed to grow distant. The foul-tasting substance drowned him, filled his lungs, and he couldn't breathe, but it seemed somehow far away, disconnected. He choked and coughed as the silk threads forcibly crushed his body. Everything hurt distantly, but it was warm here, and he wondered what would happen if he died again... if he would have to play another Game with Joshua.
Then, just as suddenly, it was over, and he found himself face-to-face with Chiaki once more. How charming, Neku. I had no idea you missed me that much. It touches my heart, the Composer's voice murmured into his mind.
Instinctively evading an attack, he retaliated with icicles. "Zip it, Josh," he muttered as he sent the light puck over. The last thing he needed right now was the desire to punch his Partner in the face.
Remembering what he'd learned from the Game, he realized that dying here meant erasure. His opponent looked like it was charging an attack he had yet to see, but whatever it was, it couldn't be good. He barrelled into the spider, activating Dark Saturn as he ran, and just barely escaped being stabbed by thousands of needle-like hairs. He dashed away as the barrier faded, using Black Mars as he did so before exhausting a cycle of Black Mercury above it and summoning icicles beneath it to toss it upwards at the orbs of water. He checked the Harmonizer pin; they were one star short of a full charge. If they managed a level 3, it could wrap this up immediately, and they needed to end this soon; they couldn't take another round of the last attack. He could feel the strain, sense that Joshua was in pain as well, no doubt poisoned by now.
Listen, Josh, he thought as the light puck returned to him. Neither of us can afford to be erased here, but you, especially, can't abandon Shibuya to them. I don't want to die, but I don't want to live in their Shibuya either!
For several moments, there was no response. Then, he heard Joshua giggle. How do you know it won't be better?
The Composer had a point. Maybe it would be. Maybe he didn't know. However, he did know that the current Shibuya was a wonderful place, and he believed that it was better than it had been before it changed, before they all helped it change. It was his world, and he hadn't even seen all of it yet; he wouldn't trade it for anything else. But he remembered something Beat once said as he sent lightning bolts at his enemy, something about how Rhyme always had the right words. Those weren't the right words. They had to be in sync for this to work, right? It couldn't just be about him. Yet Beat, dense as he was, had also said something else near the end, and they'd mattered. Just a tiny, tiny bit. Maybe those were the right words here too.
You're my friend, Joshua. Can you trust that?
Hee hee~ Well, if you like my version of this place that much, then I guess I can't disappoint my public. The last fusion star came with that thought. Let's usher them somewhere new, shall we?
"Anywhere but here, Josh." Neku grinned, activating the pin with mixed relief and exhilaration, as he turned to face the Angel's Noise form. "As for you, a new world awaits."
Behind him, his Partner laughed as the other spider came into view too. "And you're going!"
As a meteor the size of the moon crashed into the Earth, he heard music in his mind, a sweet sound that drowned out everything else. Warm energy flowed into him as debris and large rocks flew from the collision, and he couldn't help smiling in relief at the telltale bursts of static. When they landed on the roof of Pork City once more, he was surprised to find them hand-in-hand. The Angels too had regained their human forms and were crouched, panting.
"Heh, that was a good fight. You win, Composer. I see why he chose Shibuya," Aidan remarked, still cheerful despite all the static fizzling from his body.
"He? Who's he?" Neku asked.
"You fight well, human. I suppose I should expect as much, if a Composer would willingly partner up with you," Chiaki said, ignoring his question. "Don't ever Ascend, boy. They will waste your potential."
The redhead laughed, but this time, it was hollow and strained, and he rested his forehead on his Partner's shoulder. "Sorry, Chiaki. You're going to say I should have listened to you... I really should, shouldn't I?"
Chiaki merely laughed as he reached for his Partner's hand. "Oh, Aidan, it's but a matter of time for us. But you know...?" he added, sounding wistful, as he laced their fingers together. "I must say this isn't a bad way to go..."
As they vanished into dispersing static, a sharp black blade zipped through them. Joshua and Neku dodged, but not quite swiftly enough; it caught the Composer's arm, leaving a cut just a little deeper than a scratch. Ugly black static fizzled from it like smoke, and he covered it with his hand.
"Ugh, they're here," he observed as a host of black silhouettes flooded the rooftop.
They backed away from the shadow women as more came up to join them. "Crap, nowhere to run! We can't slip past them now. You and your brilliant ideas, Josh! We're trapped!"
Not really. Things are about to get exciting, Neku! When I say jump—
He whirled around to look at the silver-haired boy. What? We're fourteen storeys up, Josh! Are you high?
Joshua met his gaze squarely as their backs hit a low wall. Do you trust me?
I… Neku blinked. Of course, they were Partners. He'd learned his lesson the hard way. Yes. Yes, I do.
Then jump, Neku. Now. So saying, the Composer released his hand, but didn't look away.
He hesitated; Joshua wasn't jumping either. It seemed as if the other was giving him a choice. Yet, was this a test or an act of good faith? Could he believe that Joshua would stay with him if he chose not to jump? Or that his Partner had a plan to keep them both alive if he did? He thought of their Game, the smoking revolver, the smirk on the Composer's face as he died, the cold look in lilac eyes as he'd talked about other Players, even his own Partner, getting erased, and couldn't suppress a shiver. Then he thought about the events of the day, how Joshua had tried to keep him uninvolved... to keep him safe. He bit his lip and searched the other's gaze.
I said I trust you, and I do... but can I, Josh? Should I?
What do YOU think, my dear proxy? Besides, allow me to simplify the worst case scenarios for you: death or erasure?
There was that. He closed his eyes. Somewhere in his heart, he found his resolve. He vaulted over the wall.
The wind blew past as he fell, righting himself so he was face-down to slow the free fall. Unable to see the fast-approaching ground, he spread his arms; it was like flying. Still, he couldn't help the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that he was going to die and he knew it. Josh...?
Turn over, Neku.
He flipped over and opened his eyes. Joshua was just above him, smiling with his hand extended, and he couldn't tell if the Composer was truly glowing or if it was simply the effect of the sunset.
Take my hand. Quickly now.
He reached up and did so. The silver-haired boy pulled close and wrapped slender arms around his torso. The way the other rested his head where neck and shoulder met seemed downright affectionate.
Hang on for dear life~ Hee hee~
He obeyed, embracing his Partner tightly, and felt their descent slow. Holy... You can do this? Sure, he'd seen Joshua levitate before, but hovering one foot above ground was quite different from flying. And they were definitely flying now, navigating past obstacles like antennae, compressors and awnings. Hell, they could probably fly to Shoto, only they'd be spotted since they weren't in the UnderGround.
We're in my city, Neku; I can do just about anything. Being in the RG limits that though.
Then why stay?
Is it not painfully obvious to you that they're trying so hard to have me return to the UG for a reason?
Can't you give me a straight answer the first time for a change?
Oh, all right, I'll keep this as simple as I can, since you're my dear, dear partner. Hee hee. The down-tuning limits my power, but it limits theirs too. However, since this is my city, I can still tap into the surrounding energy, which gives me an advantage over them in the RG. In fact, it's ironic that they trapped us here. Given what you know, wouldn't you say Pork City is a most ideal location, Neku? I must admit that your unexpected insistence on coming with and helping out was instrumental in perfecting my brilliant plan. Now that I have a pact with a living human who can't leave the RG, they can't directly force me to switch frequencies. Really, my dear Neku, I couldn't have done it without you~
Despite being in the process of falling off a fourteen-storey building, he felt the familiar mounting pressure in his head from a level of annoyance and frustration that he only ever got from present company. ...apparently, I was an idiot to think you'd let me tag along if I weren't useful in some way. Is that why you came to Ramen Don that day?
My, my, is that what you're still hung up on? Fine, say it is; what will you do?
Someday, Neku could just imagine, he would die — not in battle, not by accident, not even naturally, but from a stroke while asphyxiating Kiryuu Yoshiya. Punch your face in, Josh, like I should have the last time. Now, is it or isn't it?
Hee hee. Unfortunately, that was coincidence. Or, at least, if someone set it up, that someone wasn't me. They landed on their feet in an alley behind Pork City. It was conveniently deserted. Joshua released him and pulled away as he steadied himself. "Well, now. Lead on, Neku, while they're still occupied upstairs."
The former Player didn't have to be told twice. He ran like he'd never run before. It seemed like a full marathon later when they finally reached their destination. The last rays of sunlight were dying as Neku unlocked the door to his darkened apartment in Shoto. Joshua followed him in, and they toed their shoes off before collapsing on the couch in exhaustion, not even bothering with the lights. The Composer seemed unconcerned, so he had to surmise that they were safe for now. He heaved a sigh of relief. That had been a close call, but at least, they'd survived to fight another day. He ran a hand through his hair; he still didn't understand anything, and given what he'd seen today, he had no reason to believe that his Partner knew any more than he did. In any case, they could talk later or in the morning. Right now, he needed a hot shower. He rose, or tried to, at any rate. The thought of standing up had barely crossed his mind when a head of silver hair fell heavily into his lap.
"Josh!" he protested. "Will you quit that? I need a shower, dammit!"
No response was forthcoming, so he tried physically moving the boy instead.
"Hey!" He managed to roll his Partner over. "Josh, stop being a p— Josh?"
The Composer's eyes were closed, his face serene and peaceful in sleep. That's when he noticed it, how oddly 'silent' it was in his mind despite their pact. He could usually feel the other's presence over their mental link. Presently, it was like a phone line gone dead. He shook the slender body to no avail. Only silence answered him. He tried again.
"Hey, Josh? Come on, dude, wake up. This isn't funny. You could at least move to the bed. Joshua? JOSHUA!"