Glass Feather

Every Little Thing That You Do

Once upon a dream,
a unicorn grew wings and flew across the sky.
It flew over valleys low and mountains high,
over grassy flatlands on which ice and sand lie,
over watery seas and forests dry
to land in a glade with an orange butterfly.

It alighted on its nose,
that sweet butterfly,
asked if it'd seen a rose
as it was flying by,
but there had been no rose,
nor bloom of any kind,
anywhere close;
they'd been far behind.

Still, in that glade, sweet music played,
so in that glade, the unicorn stayed.
It danced all day till night was nigh;
for by night it could play with its orange butterfly.

One day, it found,
there was a black haze.
It meddled with sound;
it muddled the gaze.

The unicorn searched through it to find
a jet black rose
and lying close,
once upon a dream,
now dead,
its darling orange butterfly.

It was bright, too bright, and Joshua cracked an eye open to give its source a bleary glare. There were no windows in the Room of Reckoning, so when he recognized it as sunlight, he sat up in alarm, the last few snatches of a colourful dream fleeing his mind. He was in an unfamiliar living room; the few necessary furnishings were tasteful. Memory kicked in as he looked around. This was where Neku lived. Even as he remembered the events of the previous day, a nearby door opened, and his proxy stepped out, yawning as he stretched. Bright blue eyes met his, and a number of emotions that he didn't have the time to discern fleetingly flashed in them before the boy was grabbing him by the collar angrily.

"You! You're such an ass, Josh! Do you know how worried I was? I even called Mr. H to make sure you weren't going to die on me!" Neku shoved him roughly against the back of the couch and let go.

"Neku, you do realize I'm already dead?" he checked, smirking slightly as he fixed his shirt.

This time, the other successfully punched him in the face. Evidently, he still wasn't quite awake.

"Die, Ascend, does it matter what you call it? You scared the crap outta me!"

He lifted one hand to gingerly touch his sore cheek and let his other feel the texture of the blanket on him. Even in anger, his Partner's strength had been somewhat measured, hard enough to hurt, but not enough to leave permanent damage. Something buzzed loudly in his mind for a brief moment, and his fingers curled in smooth fleece. He shook his head to clear it. "I simply passed out. One moment, I was conscious; the next, I was not. It wasn't intentional."

Neku looked like he was about to make some kind of retort, but settled for sitting down on the chocolate-coloured suede couch beside him. "Is that normal for you? Are you okay?" he asked instead, sounding concerned.

"Don't be silly; of course it isn't. Perhaps I was exhausted. Flying in the RG is very draining."

His proxy didn't look entirely convinced, but appeared to change his mind about saying something. He wondered what it was, if he should try to find out, but then Neku suggested he shower. A shower sounded pleasant, so he agreed. The other showed him to a bathroom covered in beautiful blue and brown ceramic tiles and handed him a spare towel and some clothes. He wasn't surprised to find that they were all from Jupiter of the Monkey, Neku's favourite brand. He smirked, but the boy left before he could make the remark he'd had in mind, so he simply closed the door and began undressing. As he turned towards the shower, he saw it. He traced the black tattoo-like sigil on his left upper arm experimentally with his fingertips, leaning closer to the mirror for a closer look, and was rewarded with another loud buzz in his mind. It sounded like static, he realized grimly. The sigil seemed to have no particular shape yet, just many jagged edges. He remembered the spot. This was where the shadows' blade had cut him the previous evening. Of course it had been poisoned. He would have expected nothing less.

Taking a last look at the single black mar to his pale skin, he let his hand fall to his side as he stepped through a glass swinging door into the shower area. It was a type of poison that corrupted the Music, precisely the type one would expect a being from the Higher Planes to be in possession of, and as such, using his powers in an attempt to remove or neutralize it would only speed its progression. There was nothing he could do about it. He sighed, turning the taps so warm water cascaded down onto him. Such poison usually wasn't fatal, but he didn't yet know what this particular one induced, so he couldn't even start planning around it. The one person who could probably help him fix this wasn't around either, so he'd have to deal with it himself eventually somehow. He punched the tiled wall in frustration; he'd been far too careless. He closed his eyes and calmed himself down; there was no sense in getting worked up at this point. A metal rack in the corner was filled with a variety of products, most of them more likely to belong to the woman who was once Mrs. Sakuraba than to her son, and he helped himself to some of whatever he needed, ignoring the buzz of static in his head every time he touched the sigil on his arm.

Instead, he focused on listening to the Music all around him, the Music of his city, his Shibuya. It had sounded so sweet since his Game with Megumi. Most clearly of all, due to its proximity, he heard Neku's Music, and it reminded him of why he'd picked the boy as his proxy in the first place. It had been incredibly beautiful the first time he'd heard it, despite being muffled and having some discordant strings throughout, and it had only improved since the boy had returned from the UG. The interfering sounds were gone, and it resonated more clearly than ever before. He closed his eyes, listening raptly, and licked his lips. Involuntarily, he also picked up on a few stray thoughts. Neku was making brunch while worrying about him. It was quite adorable. All done, he turned the taps again and stepped out to towel himself dry. Borrowing the other's hair brush and using the blow dryer that presumably belonged to Neku's mother to get most of the water out of his hair, he dressed in the clothes the other had lent him. They were slightly too big and really not his style, but the sleeves covered the mark on his arm, and they weren't falling off, so they would work for the time being. Moreover, it admittedly seemed rather cute to be walking around his Partner's apartment in the boy's clothes. Best of all, Neku would NOT find it cute when he pointed it out.

Neku was setting two steaming bowls down on the circular glass table by the kitchen as he exited the bathroom with a smirk and looked up as he entered. Then the orange-haired boy burst out laughing. He raised an eyebrow, but didn't have to ask for an explanation. "Oh lord," Neku managed between peals of laughter. "That... I... Josh, you look..."

"Like your girlfriend who'd just spent the night?" he finished with saccharine sweetness.

At that, Neku choked on an inhalation and began coughing violently. Joshua laughed; teasing his proxy was almost too much fun. Wisely enough, the boy chose to drop the subject and, once he'd stopped coughing and drunk some water, said, "I hope you don't mind udon. I just used whatever was on hand. Don't complain that it's not five-star cooking."

He sat down, picked up the spoon and made a show of apprehensively tasting the broth just so he could watch his proxy twitch in annoyance. He was well aware that Neku, while no chef, was fairly adept at cooking. The other got plenty of practice, since he was almost always at home all by himself; this had been the situation for many years. He didn't doubt that brunch would at least be decent. "Mm, it's actually not bad. I see you've put quite a bit of heart into this. Good work, Neku."

"The proper thing to say is 'thank you,' you ass," the other grumbled, joining him at the table as he picked up the chopsticks and began eating.

"Mm, I'll give you a thank you kiss later, dear~" he sang, giggling.

"No, thank you. I'll pass. Please. Spare me."

"Ouch. Neku, how could you... after everything you did last night..."

"Josh, drop it," Neku snapped suddenly.

Joshua laughed, but didn't press on. Once again, he was tempted to make an effort to find out what his proxy was thinking of, but decided to wait just a little longer on that too. Neku's Soul shone brightly now, unlike the first time they'd met. In his vision, it practically lit up the room. He focused on eating; the udon was more delicious than he'd expected. After some minutes passed in silence, he conversationally asked, "How often does your mother come back?"

"It varies depending on her flight schedule. You probably know she's a flight attendant. She just banks money into my account once a month, so I can buy what I need." A pause. "My turn, Josh. Why did you take my friends' memories?"

He blinked innocently, feigning ignorance. "What memories?"

"Will you drop it, Josh? Beat, of all people, should be well aware that you're the Composer. Quit playing dumb and answer my question!"

"Oh, how rude. The least you could do is ask nicely, Neku."

Neku crossed his arms. "I did the first time. If you'd give me a straight answer the first time, I wouldn't have to snap at you every time we talk."

"But that's no fun, is it?" He laughed. "Honestly, have some compassion. Let an immortal have his entertainment."

"Not at my expense, no thanks. Now, will you answer me already?"

"Oh, all right." Joshua sighed, looking bored as he kept eating. "It's the Law, straight from the Higher Planes. People aren't supposed to know the identities of the Composer and Producer. For good reason, if you think about it."

"I remember," the other said pointedly.

"Who's Captain Obvious now?"

"Grr... Why didn't you take my memories as well?"

"Would you like me to?"

"No, you ass! Just... why? Why them and not me?"

"They are important to your growth as a human being, hee hee." Well, that didn't make it permissible, but it was an excellent justification.

"And theirs aren't for them?"

Neku was a sharp kid, but sometimes, he could be so slow. "For Bito Daisukenojo and Misaki Shiki, who the Composer is doesn't change their experience of the Game. For you, my dear, dear Partner, wouldn't things have been very different if it hadn't turned out to be me at the end? For instance, Neku, wouldn't you have pulled the trigger?"

His proxy visibly winced at the reminder and didn't answer. Honestly, was the child never going to get over it? How long did he plan on wallowing in his past misery? It wasn't like there was anything anyone could do about it now.

"Hee hee, you don't have to answer." After all, the boy hadn't had any trouble erasing Yodai, Mitsuki or Megumi, but even though he'd helped Koki and Yashiro fight the Taboo Noise, when push came to shove, he'd tried to finish them off just the same. Even now, despite his progress, like most humans, the line between friend and foe for Neku was well, if not obviously, drawn.

"If you're done, I'll get the dishes," Neku said stiffly, rising.

"Yes, dear. Thank you for brunch," he murmured, propping his chin up on one hand as he subtly scanned the surrounding area for any sign of downtuned Angels. Satisfied that there were none, he stood as well and followed his Partner into the kitchen. It was small, but well equipped. There was a shelf over the sink with cups on it, and he smirked, placing a hand on the edge of the sink to Neku's right and pressing up against his proxy's wiry frame as he reached up to get a cup off the shelf.

"J—Josh!" Neku's protest was almost a squeak as he dropped the soapy bowl he was holding. Fortunately, it only had an inch to fall. "What are you d—"

"What do you have in the way of beverages, Neku?" he interrupted coolly, moving away with a dark blue mug in hand, successfully suppressing laughter and ignoring the sound of static only he could hear.

"Y—I... Check the fridge," the other muttered through gritted teeth, turning back to the dishes.

He opened the fridge to find that an entire shelf of it was nothing but drinks — cans and bottles of cola, iced coffee, iced tea, juice and Calpico, among other things. It had been a long time since he'd last had Calpico, so he put the cup down on the nearest section of kitchen counter, grabbed a bottle and started drinking as he surveyed the contents of first the refrigerator, then the freezer. It looked like they had almost all the ingredients to make an Austrian dish he hadn't eaten in a long time; he could improvise for the rest. He began to pull the items he needed out of the freezer just as Neku finished cleaning the dishes and approached.

"What are you up to?"

"Dinner preparations."

"What are you making?"

"Something my mother used to make."

"Something you miss?"

"Mm-hmm~"

There was a pause. "Do you... do you miss them?"

"Whom, my parents? On very rare occasions." He probably would, if they hadn't thought he was crazy too; he'd stopped talking to them about the UG because they'd started looking up psychiatrists. "Hee hee. Do you miss yours?"

"I'm used to not having them around, I guess, so not really."

"Tsk tsk, and you say I'm cold, Neku."

His proxy crossed his arms, leaning back against the counter. "As if you're one to talk."

He laughed, moving to look around in the surrounding cabinets. "But, Neku, your mother didn't try to institutionalize you, did she? Besides, there is something to be appreciated about a mother that is willing to save up so her son can do something that is undervalued by this capitalist world because he loves it, don't you think?"

"I—I didn't say I don't appreciate her."

There were a number of seasoning and spice bottles in this cabinet, and he checked each bottle to see if it was something he could use. "Hee hee. Neither did I." He turned to find Neku drinking out of the open bottle of Calpico he'd left on the counter beside the fridge. "My, my, someone's stolen an indirect kiss from me. Whatever shall I do?" The other boy nearly spat out the beverage, and he giggled. "Do you have a casserole dish of some sort?" he asked without missing a beat.

Neku glared daggers at him and put the bottle down before opening a different cabinet and pulling out a large bowl. "Not exactly, but there's this," he replied with less anger than expected.

"That will have to do." He took the bowl, unwrapped the frozen beef and put it in before adding oil and some of the herbs, spices and seasonings he'd found. Humming as he worked to shut out another buzz of static in his head, he tossed the meat in the mixture around it to mix everything up and coat the meat.

"What song are you humming?"

"Hm? Someone's inquisitive today."

"Fine, don't tell me." Neku snapped, storming off in the direction of his room.

Joshua looked over his shoulder just in time to see the boy briefly grab the door before releasing it and simply walking in, as if he'd intended to slam the door shut, but realized how childish it was and thought better of it. He chuckled; his Neku was always such a nice distraction. Done with the preparations, he washed his hands and finished the rest of the Calpico before grabbing two cans of cola from the fridge and going to join his host. He shook his head to clear it again; the poison was spreading fast. They probably knew that he could never completely switch off his powers even in the RG. At this rate, he probably had but a couple of days before the poison sigil completed even if he didn't lift a finger. Entering his proxy's room, he took in the slightly messy surroundings. The walls and carpet were a light blue, most of the furnishings were white, and the bedding was a bright orange colour with dark green pinstripes. There were stacks of manga, artbooks and art magazines, DVDs of animation and tokusatsu series, partially open boxes of art supplies and an entire shelf of music CDs. A few items of clothing were slung over the back of the office chair at the desk, and a fairly new computer sat on the desk itself beside a tablet and scanner. Pieces of paper were strewn across the floor, some used, some clean. Neku lay on the bed with his sketchpad, drawing something sullenly with his headphones on, and he was about to take a peek at the art when a familiar trophy caught his eye. He stepped closer to pick up the photograph in front of it and couldn't help smiling slightly.

It was an Austrian folk song my mother used to sing, he told his Partner telepathically as he put their photograph back down in front of the trophy. I don't remember the words anymore. It HAS been decades, after all.

Neku looked up and pulled off the headphones, taking the can of cola he offered as he sat down on the bed beside him. Joshua opened his own can and peered over his proxy's shoulder at the sketchpad. Two fairies with butterfly wings were creating a swirling sphere of light between them, opening a portal to another place, and within the sphere, a figure knelt as if praying in a beautiful garden. It was still lacking in details at this point, but he liked the concept and the combination of the manga-like aesthetic of the fairies with the soft realistic look of the garden and the figure within it. In his mind's eye, he could already see it in a picture book or on a wall somewhere in Shibuya.

"A secret garden~" he sang quietly, taking the pencil from the boy's hand and drawing over a few lines on each fairy. "Your proportions are a bit off for that angle," he explained, handing the pencil back to the aspiring artist.

The other looked back at the sketch. "Whoa, you're right. Thanks, Josh. I didn't know you draw."

"Hee hee. Glad to be of help, partner," he replied, setting his drink down on the nightstand and lying down beside Neku on the very comfortable bed to stare out the window at the city sky. Several birds flew by overhead. "I draw occasionally, but it's music that I'm best at."

"Did any of your music ever get recorded?"

He shrugged. "Who knows? I never checked. You could look it up."

Neku picked himself up off the bed and went to his computer. Several minutes of typing and clicking later, the boy turned back to him. "Nope, nothing."

"What did you search?"

"Your name. What else?"

"Don't tell me it didn't occur to you that this was a long time ago in Austria. Try Joshua Engels. I used my mother's last name with her nickname for me because no one could pronounce Kiryuu Yoshiya without somehow butchering it."

There was more typing and clicking before Neku swivelled in his chair again. "Hey, is this it?"

Lazily, he slid off Neku's bed and went to join the boy at the desk. "Hm?" He looked at the album cover the cursor was on and then at the track list below it. "Looks like someone actually collected some of the pieces I composed back then. They even found the few I co-wrote with others."

"This is a pretty good orchestra. Let me download it."

"Most of those pieces were originally violin solos. I'd like to see how they've arranged them for a full orchestra."

"In the meantime, Josh..."

"Hee hee. What can I help with?" He rest his arm on Neku's shoulders as he leaned down to get a better look at the image that filled most of the screen. "Ah, is that one of the entries you'll be submitting?"

"Yeah. What do you think?"

"It's excellent, Neku. As expected of my chosen proxy, you're talented."

"I'd thank you for the compliment, but it seems more directed at yourself," Neku replied drily.

"Nonsense, dear. Sanae should be proud to have you as his protégé." The other practically sparkled at the mention of CAT. Joshua giggled. "You're such a fanboy, Neku. It's rather cute."

His Partner blushed. "I—I'm not cute, damm—ngh!"

Joshua cut him off by turning his head slightly to gently press his lips to Neku's and was somewhat surprised when the boy didn't scream, back away, push him away or otherwise drastically overreact even when he sucked lightly at a soft bottom lip. He could almost taste Neku's Soul on the tip of his tongue. He kissed slightly parted lips again, savouring the taste as he drew it in. Del— He silenced a gasp and pulled away quickly. Ugh, what was I— A burst of static interrupted his train of thought. Masking his pain and confusion, he smirked at a glowering Neku. "Hm? Getting used to this, dear?"

"Reacting would give you too much satisfaction."

"Aww, what a shame. You're no fun anymore. Hee hee."

"Is that all you think about? I keep telling you I'm not your toy!" Neku raged.

"Sorry."

"Is everything about fun to you? You... Wait, what?"

"Hm? Download's done."

Neku blinked, then obligingly turned to opening the files as he slowly walked back towards the bed and lay down, resting his head on the boy's pillow. The bed smelled like Neku; he liked it. Of course, that's the type they would use. He should have known, since they were trying to make him return to the UG. What better way than to force him into his Noise form? This was bad. He couldn't stay here much longer either. The sound of a violin filled the room as his proxy came to join him, picking up the sketchpad and reclining beside him with pencil in hand. As the rest of the orchestra joined in on the familiar melody, Neku resumed drawing. He smiled and closed his eyes. After dinner, he decided as he nestled closer; he would leave after dinner.


When Eliza entered the darkened room to report, the boy was seated on the windowsill, one knee bent and the other dangling off the ledge, looking out at the stormy night sky with a smile. It was hard to believe how young their leader was, that such a young child had won the Game and Ascended to the Higher Planes, but she had seen for herself what an exceptional wielder of Imagination he was. As such, when he approached her with his plan, she readily agreed. She had never been a fan of the system Upstairs and had quickly broken her connection to the hive mind.

"I love rainstorms. Don't you, Eliza?" he asked conversationally without turning.

"Not especially, Lord Cyril. I prefer snowstorms, personally," she answered.

"That is just like you. Chiaki and Aidan?"

"Erased. Aidan's great idea, no doubt." She bowed. "I apologize, my lord. I lost the Composer soon after as well. However, I managed to land a slash with my poisoned blade, so it is only a matter of time before he goes berserk."

"Well done, Eliza." A bolt of lightning illuminated the sky as he turned to look at her, his green eyes bright in the darkness, even behind the glint on glass. "We will have to prepare a welcoming reception when he returns to the UG."

"Then the time to act will soon be upon us?" A woman's voice asked from behind her.

"Indeed. How nice of you to join us, Mirabelle. You seem excited," Cyril remarked.

"Of course I am!" The blonde cracked her knuckles. "I get to repay him for that day!"

"You're acting like you actually lost an eye," Eliza said drily, straightening and crossing her arms.

"Can it, Eliza! What would you know? To be injured by a lesser being with a pin... it's my pride that needs avenging!"

"Now, now." Cyril laughed. "Your turn will come soon. Thanks to our dearest Eliza, we won't have to wait very long. Then Shibuya will be ours, and we may finally have enough."

"One more thing," Eliza added, remembering as a clap of thunder resonated around them. "There was a living boy with him yesterday, a kid with bright orange hair. He seems formidable. He helped take down Aidan and Chiaki."

"Bright orange hair? I remember that boy. They were together on my watch too," Mirabelle chimed in, all wicked excitement. "He helped take down the spider couple, eh? How alluring!"

Only silence greeted their addendum. "Lord Cyril?" Eliza called tentatively.

"Yes, he must be, if the Composer himself would partner up with him," the boy responded at length. "The pact allows two people to share their strengths, but they must also share their weaknesses. He must at least be on the level of a Conductor." He seemed lost in thought, his attention only half on speaking to them, and his green eyes were troubled.

"Any special instructions?"

After some consideration, Cyril answered, "No. Just keep an eye on him and exercise caution."

"I understand," she replied, bowing. Outside, the storm raged more violently than ever.


"T—This... This is really good!"

"Why, thank you, dear. It's good to know I haven't lost my touch," Joshua said with a giggle as his proxy dug into the stew ravenously.

"It's delicious, Josh. I've never tasted anything like it."

"I'm happy you're happy." He began eating as well, and he'd missed that taste, but the negativity in the neighbour's apartment was increasingly distracting. It seemed like a couple had just cut off quite the heated argument by walking out and slamming doors on each other, and both parties were now radiating Noise food. He licked his lips, rising. It was time for another bowl. "Seconds?"

"Yes, please!"

Taking Neku's bowl with him into the kitchen, he just barely managed not to drop anything when the burst of static filled his entire being. It wasn't just a sound in his head anymore; it was like a mild shock, tingly and just shy of painful. He must have staggered because Neku was suddenly behind him, a warm hand on his right arm.

"Come to think of it, I'll help myself," he said, taking his bowl. "You wouldn't know exactly how much I want anyway."

"Hee hee. Wouldn't I?"

Neku turned as he ladled more stew into his bowl. "Are you scanning me again?"

"Hee hee. Say I am. What will you do about it?"

For a moment, Joshua watched the mounting frustration on his proxy's expression, and it looked like he was going to start raging as usual, but then the boy abruptly turned back to the pot and focused on counting exactly three pieces of potato into his bowl. "Rrgh! If you wanted to know something, you could just ask like a normal person."

"Hm? But why bother? After all, y—"

"You could talk till you're blue in the face and not hear the truth, is that it?"

He hid his surprise and chuckled. "Aww, you sneaky little thing. You said your memories of that week were hazy."

"They are with a few exceptions. But tell me, Josh, is it that you think I'd lie to you if you asked?"

"You're assuming I've been scanning you instead in the first place. I just asked what you'd do if I had."

Neku sighed tiredly. "Drop it. My point is that people don't lie twenty-four seven."

"Hm? Do you want me to question you that badly? Hee hee, all right then. Do you like me, Neku?"

"I... What? Do I... W—what kind of question is that?"

Joshua burst into a fit of giggles at the sight of the other's flustered expression. "Oh, Neku... Your face is priceless."

"Who asked you?"

He continued laughing as he helped himself to another bowl.

"You're acting really strange today," Neku remarked quietly as he returned.

"You think so?" Personally, he thought Neku was acting stranger.

He subtly scanned the area again as he ate. The coast was still clear. They were probably waiting by the River. The Room of Reckoning, Trail of the Judged and Dead God's Pad were set up to not allow anyone to teleport directly into them, so his best bet was to teleport into the Trail of the Bygone. He'd called Sanae earlier to tell him to watch the River and have the Reapers tighten security, but it was best not to take any chances. Moreover, there were still those among the Reapers who would attempt to take his seat by force, and they would surely take advantage of the situation. Avoiding everyone was probably playing it safest. He rose.

"I trust you'll take care of the dishes? I must be going."

He was halfway to the door when Neku grabbed his wrist to stop him. "Going? Going where?"

"Oh, please. Where else? I'm the Composer; I have to return to the River."

"But they'll be waiting for you."

"You don't say."

"...no..."

"Hm? I didn't catch that."

"No! I'm not letting you get yourself erased by going there!"

"Don't be silly, Neku. I have to go back, and the Room of Reckoning is the most defensible place in this city."

"If that were the best idea, you'd have returned to the UG as they wished and gone there yesterday!"

"Surely you've realized I can't bring you back there with me."

Minutes passed in silence with Neku staring at some point on the wooden floor, possibly imagining pictures in the grain of the wood, still refusing to let his hand go. "I never know when you're telling the truth, Josh."

"Hm? Hee hee. You make it sound like any one truth is mutually exclusive from every other, dear. I suppose you want me to explain? Fine, I'll keep it extremely basic. It is true that our pact protects me from any direct psych they could try using to forcibly change my vibe, but it is also true that I can't return to the River with you in tow, and as such, I couldn't teleport back directly from the roof of Pork City yesterday when they were occupied. If you hadn't tagged along, I would have teleported back to the River as soon as they were all inside the building. Or I suppose I could have left you with them to see if they'd know to take you hostage, hm? Ah well, pity I didn't think of this yesterday."

Neku looked like he was about to start crying. That only made Joshua want to leave sooner and more desperately. He twisted his hand out of Neku's grasp and resumed walking towards the door.

"Wait. To answer your earlier question..."

He wasn't sure whether it was curiosity, affection or the delicious whirl of pain and anger filling the room that stopped him. It was so, so very tempting. Neku was very tempting. He swallowed, firmly pushing the thoughts away.

"I don't like you, Josh. I don't know why anyone would, and it doesn't surprise me that half the world seems to want to kill you at any given point in time. You're a presumptuous, snotty, manipulative, devious, hypocritical and unnecessarily cryptic know-it-all that goes out of his way to be insufferably irritating! It's confusing as hell because you never give straight answers, and you tell truths and lies with the same ease and expression! Hell, you kill people, you killed ME, with the same expression! It's all about your own personal amusement, isn't it? For fun? Are we all just toys to you? When did it become so easy, Josh? Half the time, I don't even know if you've ever been human because you have the callousness of a monster; your indifference to others' feelings borders on malice! You won't tell me anything, you won't apologize for anything, and you act like explaining anything is a chore! Lord knows, most of the time, I want to tell everyone else to just get in line because I'd really love to whack you myself! I don't know which is worse, that you do it on purpose or that you don't care, you ass!"

Feelings, huh. Feelings were like glass feathers, such beautiful fragile things that cut you when they were broken. He wasn't in the mood for this; he didn't have the time to sweep up glass shards tonight. "Then why the sudden interest? This isn't like you at all, Neku. You don't like anything I do as the Composer either." Neku's Soul had flared so brightly during that tirade that he didn't have to turn to see it, and he realized he was salivating. Damn, he really had to leave.

It seemed like Neku had to pause to breathe. "I'll take the devil I know," he answered, chuckling weakly.

"And if I said I knew for a fact that my replacement would be better?"

"You can't know that."

"Can't I? Say I do know; what then?"

"I still wouldn't let them erase you. You're my friend, Josh."

"Mm, charming, but that doesn't give you the right to stop me," he responded, reaching for the doorknob.

"Stop, goddammit!" Neku pulled him by the arm and spun him around so they were face to face, his other hand clenched into a tight fist by his side. "Just what the hell's gotten into you?"

"Don't do anything you'll regret, Neku," he warned coldly.

"Rrgh!"

The Composer braced himself for the blow, closing his eyes, but was surprised when the other's hand shoved him forcefully against the door instead, and moist lips pressed roughly and clumsily to his own. This was one too many surprises for one day. Being unable to access his clairvoyance was starting to irritate him. It was very inconvenient.

"Is that your answer?" he asked when the boy pulled away after the brief contact, masking surprise with indifference.

"I..." Blue eyes were filled with confusion as they met his own. "I don't know... Just... Suddenly..."

Joshua narrowed his eyes. "Is that how far you'd go to keep me here, Neku?" He grabbed Neku by the shoulders and whirled around so he had Neku pinned to the door. "Hee hee~ Temptation is a dangerous game, partner. Sure you want to play? You won't regret that, hm?" He leaned in closer, smile predatory. "While we're at it, dear, here's how you do this right," he continued, tilting his head and pressing their lips together, at once both gentle and demanding. Open your mouth, he commanded.

The other was unexpectedly obedient, and he plundered the boy's mouth. He could taste it again, delicious and tempting, just barely out of reach; it would be so easy to devour all that beautiful, brilliant Soul, as simple as inhaling. But no, no, he mustn't; he knew he mustn't. Neku gripped his arms to steady himself, seeming not to mind this outcome, and pulled him closer. He always did know how to make things harder.

Suddenly, Neku was screaming in pain. The boy's body spasmed like he was being electrocuted, and in a flash, Joshua realized the problem, backing away swiftly and dropping to his knees as the static reverberated painfully inside him as well. Neku slumped to the floor, back against the door and hands on his head.

"What was that, Josh?" Neku asked with mixed pain and fear. It was hard to tell whether the fear was for him or of him. Maybe it was both. Regardless, it was uncanny how sensitive Neku still was to the energies of other planes.

"The reason I must leave tonight, Neku," he answered quietly, sighing. "Cat's out of the bag, I suppose. It's poison."

Sapphire eyes widened. "No way! That's all the more reason not to go to where they are waiting!"

"Yes, way. Don't be silly, Neku. It's more dangerous if I stay here."

"Why don't you remove it?"

"Isn't it painfully obvious? I can't. That's like having a psychiatrist diagnose himself," he replied derisively.

"Is there anyone who can?"

"In Shibuya?" Joshua laughed bitterly. "There was. Megumi."

Neku winced, all concern and dread now. "Um, what about Mr. H?"

"Put simply, you need two components to remove it, the necessary knowledge and the ability. Sanae has the ability, as do a number of others. Megumi was the only one in Shibuya who had both. Ironic, isn't it?"

"Then... You're really... You're giving up? You're just going to give up and die? Weren't you the one who said that if you give up on yourself, you give up on the world?"

"I won't die if I stay here, Neku. You will," he said bluntly, rising to his feet. "If I'd known about this yesterday, I would have broken the pact with you as soon as we landed behind Pork City and teleported back to the River from there. This poison is meant to make me go berserk in my Noise form, keeping me in the UG, so the right person can come claim my seat. It won't kill me, Neku; it will make me kill you. I thought you said you didn't plan on letting me do that again?"

The former Player looked away, an arm crossed over his chest. "I don't."

"Then don't stop me, Neku. I've already tried to consume your Soul today, more than once. The next time, I might not be able to stop myself. No sense in dying over someone you don't even like, hm?"

Neku stood unsteadily as he approached. "Screw you, Josh. Let me finish," his Partner said hoarsely, wrapping thin arms around him without warning. "Look, I don't like you, but... But it feels right somehow, when you say or do things that make me want to punch your face in, when you're picking out four-hundred-thousand-yen shoes at Pegaso Atelier, when you're trying out EGL dresses at Lapin Angelique, when you're lying beside me as I draw or making dinner in my kitchen while humming Austrian folk songs. It doesn't make any sense, I know, and I... I never thought I'd see the day, but all this time... All this time that you weren't here? Yeah, I was mad; yeah, I resented you, and I didn't think I'd ever be able to forgive you, but most of all, Josh, I missed you, goddammit! Stop pushing me away, and most of all, for crying out loud, stop lying to me! I don't like you, but I'll be damned if I let you get erased! If I couldn't pull the trigger myself, what makes you think I'd be okay with someone else doing it, you ass? I told you, didn't I? Yesterday. That... That I'd care." He paused, uncertain. "I'd care a lot," he added at length.

Joshua closed his eyes in resignation. After a long moment of silence, he giggled softly and returned the embrace. "My, my... My little Neku's growing up~ I suppose this is what people call 'being in love'? After all, I once heard that you can be in love with someone, but still hate that person."

Neku's cheeks were hot against his skin, but instead of vehemently denying it, he chuckled. "You don't say."

At any other time, Joshua would call this an improvement. Inexplicably passing out seemed to be a remarkably effective tactic with his proxy. He should try it again sometime. "Hmph, took you long enough. Really, Neku, do you try to be complicated? You don't like it when I put you in danger, but you get even more upset when I try to keep you out of it."

Neku opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again after a moment. "Rrgh, fine. This is easier than explaining." Reaching into his pocket, he fished out the Player Pin and tossed it across the room at the couch.

In the flood of thought that immediately rushed his senses, the Composer realized that he simply would not be able to get past Neku to the door at this point. That certainly complicated things; imprinting was quite ineffective when the subject was vehemently opposed to the idea being imprinted. Now that Neku knew he cared, the boy was dead set against letting him leave, especially on his account, something about how he didn't want a repeat of 'that time with Enishi.' Enishi? Ah, the friend that died on his way to meet him at the mural some years back and the cause of that unsociable personality; deep down inside, the silly boy still blamed himself for it.

He shook his head before resting it on his Partner's shoulder. Silly Neku, a love confession is by far the worst strategy for the result you're aiming to achieve. He hid a sigh; it was time to try a different tack, the rules be damned. Neku would probably be livid when he found out, but at least he'd live to be furious. Alternatively, he could alter Neku's memories of the last few days, but he couldn't afford to risk using his powers that much. "Well, come on then," he said, stepping away from the door. "You don't plan on standing here all night, do you?"

Neku eyed him suspiciously as he held out his hand.

Joshua laughed. "My, my, such unkind thoughts you have of me."

"Well, it's significantly harder to think kindly of you." Neku warily took the offered hand and let Joshua lead him to the room. Speaking of all night, how much time do you have?

"Ouch. I'm hurt, Neku," Joshua deadpanned as he sat down on the bed. Lifting his sleeve to reveal the mark on his left arm, he answered, "Till this sigil is complete." It was a half-formed picture now. "By my best estimate, that will likely be tomorrow afternoon."

"That's not much," Neku remarked glumly, sitting down beside him.

He flopped back gracelessly onto the bed. "Yes, well, no sense worrying about it."

It probably wasn't the right moment, but he might not get another chance, so Neku lay down beside the Composer and quietly asked, "Why me?"

Joshua turned to him, amused. "Haven't I already told you?"

"Yes, but I didn't get a real answer."

"Eri did. Don't you remember, dear, at the curry house?"

He did. "You were serious?"

"Of course. I don't lie for no reason."

Yes, yes, only Joshua almost always had a reason.

The other smiled wistfully as he crawled under the covers. "I'm the Composer, Neku. It's in the job description."

"To lie?" Neku clarified as he slid beneath the covers as well, skeptical.

"Mm, remembering that is already more than you should know."

"Did all the Players get to return to life?"

"Not all." Neku was about to protest, but Joshua pressed two fingers to his lips to silence him. "While some parts of our Game were invalid, the basic tenet still holds. If you don't win, you don't have the Imagination it takes to earn a choice in your next destination. Those who were fairly erased within the system stay that way, Reaper and Player alike," he finished in a tone that brooked no argument.

Neku sighed resignedly. He didn't like it, but he wasn't the Composer.

Joshua grinned. "You could be. It's simple enough."

"Not interested, and that's not funny." Still, if he were, maybe he'd agree with his Partner.

Joshua sighed his name into his ear and wrapped slender arms around him, snuggling closer. It was the strangest feeling, lying in bed entwined in each other's arms. Once, he'd thought he might someday end up here with Shiki. It had always seemed far more likely, and nothing could ever change her importance to him or take her place in his heart, but being with Joshua under the covers now, it all seemed so perfect. He wasn't sure when or what had changed, but he wouldn't trade the teasing giggle in his ear for her warm chuckle, the hard angles pressed against him for her soft curves or the amused tenderness in lilac eyes for the gentle affection in her brown ones.

"Do you know, Neku, I've been Shibuya's Composer for so long that it's increasingly difficult to remember my brief life before it? I wonder if Sanae feels that way about being an Angel. Maybe one day after I Ascend, I'll start to feel that way about being the Composer. Hee hee~ Eternity is such a very long time."

"Don't say that, you ass. You're not going anywhere."

The other laughed. "In that case, you'd best do something about keeping me here, hm?" His slender fingers fiddled with fastenings playfully. "Though I should warn you, dear: I never share."

Neku rolled his eyes. "As if I'd let you change your mind."

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