The Scars of Your Love
He'd expected the static burst, the light, the grief. What Neku hadn't expected was for Joshua's Noise form to simply collapse to the floor unmoving, for Maya's caution as she stepped closer to get a better look, for the black markings to flare brightly as he too approached. This time, they didn't fade.
He sank to his knees. "Joshua..?" he called softly, afraid to hope.
And then, the faintest whimper of pain as the other began to glow faintly.
"H—He's still here," Maya breathed.
He gasped, unable to manage much else.
"Oh... Oh God." She sank to the floor as well. Abruptly, she seemed to snap to attention. "T—The energy of Shibuya! It's healing him!"
Neku wanted to weep for joy, but he could tell she didn't mean it as good news. "Isn't that—"
"If we don't do something quick, he'll recover completely and try to kill us again!"
"What?! You can't— I— Didn't you say I could 'cure' him?"
Maya nodded. "It's risky. And you can't make a single mistake. If you do, he won't really be himself when it's done. Do you understand?"
Neku fisted his hands in his clothes. "Just tell me!" No matter what it takes. He'd promised.
"You need to remove the corruption from his Music with your Imagination. It's like... overwriting a file. You replace the corrupted sections with what they ought to sound like."
"That's not very helpful."
Maya grabbed his wrist and pressed his hand to the unicorn's neck. "Listen."
He did. But even in complete silence, he couldn't hear a sound. "I don't h—"
"Focus! It's not the kind of Music you hear with your ears."
He shifted so Joshua's head rested in his lap and ran his fingers through soft fur that seemed to pass through his hand like light. The Noise made a soft sound, something akin to a whinny. Neku closed his eyes and concentrated, putting everything except Joshua out of his mind. He didn't have to try very hard.
That's when he heard it, the sweetest sound, a hauntingly familiar melody. Even as he tried to catch more of it, it was swallowed up in static.
"—is the poison's corruption," Maya confirmed. "Sometimes, it's static. Other times, it's just the wrong sound. The latter is more difficult to detect, but more easily fixed. The former you will have to forcibly break through. Hurry now. You don't have much time."
"Wait, wait. All this about the wrong sound... How will I know what the right sound is?"
She stared at him. "He's your Partner, Neku. Surely, you know what his Music sounds like."
Neku stared right back, wide-eyed. "Surely? Where would I have heard it?"
"Whenever your sync rate is at its peak?" She sounded exasperated. Taking a deep breath, she continued more calmly. "Try again. Really listen. Remember. Haven't you heard it before?"
He closed his eyes again and strained to hear the Music again. This time, he caught more of it before the static kicked in, but he still couldn't place it. Where have I...
"Don't you hear something whenever you use a maximum level Fusion attack?"
A max level Fusion? That's it! Just that day against the spiders... He thought back, trying his best to recall exactly how the Music went. Come to think of it, heck, he'd heard it sometime last night too, but that probably wasn't the best reference, since Joshua had already been poisoned by then. Now that he knew when and where he'd heard it, he could remember the melody, and yet... "Argh! I can't be sure that's how the second part goes! I know what I heard last night, but what if that isn't the right one? What if I'm wrong, Maya? What's the worst case scenario?"
"Injury. Probably some form of psychological trauma. He might never wake up, lose memories or abilities, or become a totally different person," Maya answered quietly. "Depends on the size of the error."
"Damn it... If only he hadn't gone and erased Shades..."
"He's your Partner, Neku." She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him emphatically with each word. "I keep telling you: have a little faith. Would he let you come this far if he didn't trust you?"
"Yeah, he trusted me to kill him and become the next Composer, that prick," Neku muttered bitterly. "He wouldn't even tell me how to do this."
"No shit. The world's going to hell, and you're afraid of yourself."
"Screw you. I'm n—"
"Look, the way I see it, you have three options. Either erase him, let him erase us, or give it your best shot. As a heads up, if you choose to give up on yourself, I'm out of here because I didn't sign up for erasure when I agreed to help out in Shibuya." She crossed her arms and waited.
Give up... on myself...? That's not...
"Tick tock, dude. Time to make up your mind."
Tightening his arms around Joshua, he did. Give up on yourself, and you give up on the world, right? I'll be damned if I let you say I never listen. He closed his eyes, picking up the strings of the other's Music. "Let's do this."
"Sweet! Now, you're going to have to listen very carefully to his Music. Every time you find a sound that doesn't match what you remember, you need to... will it to change into the correct sound. Does that make any sense?"
"Got it. What about the static?"
"You press at it till it breaks."
"Why, thank you, Princess Helpful."
"Well, gee, I'm sorry there isn't a handbook for this. Fine." Suddenly, he felt her presence close by. "I'll follow along. Every time you run into the static, I'll break it for you. For everything else, you're on your own."
He nodded. "Thanks." This time, he really was grateful.
At the sound of footsteps, Uzuki leaped to her feet. "Who's there?!" The sound faded. "Show yourself!"
Suddenly, she found herself knocked to the ground as something black and shiny zipped by overhead. Kariya was back on his feet in a flash and pulling her up with him. "You okay there, girl? Looks like work's shown up."
Cold laughter resounded in the room as two women stepped into the light. "For Reapers, they aren't too shabby, Eliza. Or perhaps you're losing your touch?" the blonde asked, taunting.
"Go on ahead, Mirabelle," replied the one with purple hair, arms crossed, refusing to take the bait. "I'll handle this."
"Not so fast, sister." Kariya moved to intercept Mirabelle as she moved towards the door, but had to leap out of the way of an attack. It was a shadow. As he made to stop the blonde again, more showed up. "Ugh, so you're the one behind these things." Mirabelle had already run through the door, so he turned back to face the shadow master. She hadn't even moved from her spot. With her dark blue strapless mini dress, stiletto heels the colour of her hair and the frosty look on her pale face, she could have been a young Caucasian version of Konishi Mitsuki. Kariya didn't like the reminder.
"Indeed, Reaper," she answered coolly, uncrossing her arms. "And I'm afraid I can't let you interrupt."
Without waiting for a reply, Eliza and her shadow army charged.
Neku thought it sounded right even if he had no way of knowing for sure. "I thi—"
"What's your confidence level?" Maya interjected.
"Uh... Eighty percent...?" he estimated as he checked it over one last time.
There was a long pause before she said, sotto voce, "That's not even statistically acceptable."
He tightened his arms around Joshua defensively. "I don't have any way to be more certain than this."
Maya sighed. "Fine. He's your Partner, Neku. Do you or do you not believe?"
Before he could even form his answer into words, she was finishing the job. "Maya!"
"You said yes!"
Just then, the Noise in his arms glowed brightly, and he had to shield his eyes with his arm. When the light dimmed, a young man lay in the unicorn's place, eyes closed as if sleeping and his silver hair in disarray. While taller and older, it was unmistakably Joshua, down to the slightly ruffled designer clothing.
"Looks like you got enough of it right," Maya observed brightly.
To be honest, Neku still wasn't sure he dared to hope. Things with Joshua had a way of going wrong. He looked away, crossing an arm over his chest. "We don't know that."
His Partner smacked him.
"OW!" He covered his sore shoulder with his hand. "What was that for?!"
"Say it with me: have a little faith."
"The bloody bastard doesn't make it easy," he muttered.
Maya chuckled. "But that's what gives it value. Hm?" She tensed. "Someone's coming. I'll go check it out."
As she quietly walked over to the door, the head in his lap stirred, and Neku sagged in relief when pale lilac eyes turned on him with recognition.
"Neku...?" The Composer's lips languidly curved into a smirk. "Predictable."
Joshua caught his fist, of course, but didn't stop Neku from throttling him.
"PREDICTABLE?! IS THAT ALL YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF?! SCREW YOU, JOSH! WHY DO YOU KEEP DOING THIS?! I KEEP TELLING YOU I'M NOT GOING TO ERASE YOU, DAMN IT, AND I DON'T WANT TO BE THE COMPOSER! THAT'S YOUR JOB, YOU SELFISH BASTARD! I'M NOT DOING IT, YOU ASS; NOT NOW, NOT EVER!"
The other reached up to caress his cheek, soft fingertips brushing away tears he hadn't known were there, and laughed tiredly, still that infuriating devious chuckle. "So you're saying I can never retire? Tsk, and you say I'm selfish."
Neku gripped the hand on his face tightly. "Well, you can bloody well find someone else to do your job that isn't me."
Joshua turned away. "Silly Neku. Weren't you listening to anything I said?" He sighed softly. "I was hoping you wouldn't come. I'd never be able to live with myself if I let you get erased when I wasn't around to bring you back. Can't have Shibuya falling into the wrong hands, after all. But you only ever pay about one yoctogram of attention whenever it matters, so I suppose it's inevitable. Hee hee~ Fortunately, you did a bang-up job as usual, dear~"
Suddenly, a huge explosion burst forth from the door, and Maya's scream cut off anything he might have said. The blast sent her flying towards them, and she landed on the floor with a sickening crack.
"Angel..." she managed, choking on blood, more blood than Neku had ever seen in his life. "Scorpion... Run..."
Then Joshua was taking her hand, and everything fell into blinding white.
When he opened his eyes again, they were on Cat Street. Maya was lying unconscious on the ground, and a fiteen-year-old Joshua was doubled over in pain.
The Composer waved his hands away and straightened. "We need to work on teaching you perfect pitch."
"So now it's my fault you didn't teach me anything before this?" Neku retorted automatically before remembering the more pressing concern. "Maya!" He hurried over to her side and crouched. The singer's clothes were soaked in blood, and the position of her body was frightfully unnatural. "We have to help her, Josh. Isn't there anything you can do?"
Before Joshua could respond, a soft pop sounded behind him, and they turned.
"S—Sh—Sh—Shades?! A—Aren't you..."
"Erased?" Kitaniji Megumi, looking just as Neku remembered, adjusted his sunglasses. "I was, but through the Composer's boundless love and compassion, I was allowed to Ascend to the Higher Planes. As part of Their unified Will, I now enforce their Laws on various jurisdictions. Sir." He bowed to Joshua. "I cannot thank You enough."
Neku stared at the two former Partners and felt awful for every time he'd ever called Joshua heartless on the former Conductor's account. Of course Joshua wouldn't be sad; Shades wasn't even really gone! Even though he'd lost their bet, Joshua had given him exactly what he wanted, maintaining Shibuya and sending him to his ideal world, one in which everyone's consciousness was united in harmony. He hadn't even known. All this while, he'd been so wrong.
I'm the worst... Josh, I'm sorry. I never knew. I never even asked. And all this time, I...
"Hey! Boss?" Hanekoma Sanae ran up and skidded to a stop beside them, surprise written all over his face. "Hah, just as I've finally tracked down Megumi here, it turns out you don't need him after all. Yo Phones! Hm? What's this?"
Joshua turned to Neku and smiled to show he'd heard before returning his attention to the older man. "Megumi, perfect timing. You're the only one of us who can freely leave Shibuya now." He indicated Maya. "Do what you can for her and get her to Chiyoda fast. The last thing I need is to make an enemy of Yohan."
"As You wish, Sir." Megumi gently lifted Maya, and with a pop, they were gone in a flash of light.
"Hm?" Joshua tilted his head. "Looks like we've got company, Neku."
As he spoke, a distortion appeared in the space before them, and a tall woman with shoulder-length dark blond hair wearing a white peacoat and ankle boots over a teal suede catsuit materialized from it. Most likely the Angel that broke into the Room of Reckoning, that almost killed Maya. The thought made Neku angry, and he balled his hands into fists. She smirked coldly, cerulean eyes immediately focusing on Joshua.
"Nowhere to run, Composer. Finally, I get to make you pay for my eye."
Eye? What, she had a third one somewhere?
Joshua rubbed his chin, searching the sky as if it held the answers he sought, before finally meeting her gaze. "Hee hee~ I suppose you do have me cornered. But what's this about an eye?"
The woman's face darkened, and she snarled, "Audacious, Composer! You glanced my way and sent that pin straight at me! Now you dare feign ignorance?!"
Pin? Neku thought of Yammer. "Wait, that was you?!"
"Oh, so your little boyfriend remembers!" In a flash, she was right in front of Joshua, sneering. "My turn."
Her hand darted out, but Mr. H caught it, having suddenly moved to Joshua's side as well.
"Ah-ah-ah, sister," he sang. "Can't let you do that."
"Keep your paws out of this, Fallen Angel," she snapped, swiping at him with her other hand as Joshua leaped back easily.
The Producer deflected the blow. "My turf, my call, ya dig? M'afraid the only way to the boss is through me."
The blond Angel only screamed in frustration as they vanished into the Noise plane, and Neku hoped that Mr. H would make her pay for what she did to Maya.
"Ah, I was hoping I wouldn't have to make an appearance, but it doesn't look as if Eliza and Mirabelle will be in any condition to finish the job."
No. Please. Just...no.
Neku turned slowly at the sound of the soft voice he'd recognize anywhere to see a young boy with wavy black hair and bright green eyes behind rectangular spectacles walking towards them with his hands behind his back. It couldn't be, but it was, in a white long-sleeved dress shirt with a black fitted vest over it and matching black knee-length pants over long white socks and black oxfords. A cravat the colour of his eyes gave the look a splash of colour. He smiled wistfully.
"It's been a long time, Neku, hasn't it?" he asked, coming to a stop just a few steps away.
Below, the street seemed to give way.
"What's this? You have Angel friends too, dear? I certainly underestimated how much you get around." Joshua's teasing voice seemed to come from very far away.
"E—Enishi...?" was all Neku could manage, and it came out in a hoarse whisper. Too much. This was just too much. His heart may well have stopped for how frozen it felt in his chest.
"Enishi?" Joshua echoed. "Ah, so you're the one he's still hung up on."
Enishi turned to the Composer, still smiling. "Kiryuu Yoshiya, was it not? Shibuya's longest reigning Composer." He held out a hand in greeting. "Cyril Enishi Benoit. Perhaps you remember me? I certainly haven't forgotten you."
Joshua chuckled, shaking the offered hand briefly before returning his hands to his pockets. "Now that I'm looking at you, why yes, I do recall our last meeting! It was one of my most enjoyable Games. The youngest Player ever to erase a Game Master, and Sayuri was one of our best. You even managed to get your Partner to cooperate. Most exceptional, I must say. Neku sure knows how to pick them!"
Cyril nodded. "Excellent. That simplifies things. As for Sho and I, we simply shared relevant interests."
Sho? The Grim Heaper? Partner? It didn't— He couldn't— He clutched his head in his hands.
"Aww, you spoiled him! I think he still misses you~" Joshua sang cheerfully.
At that, the Angel laughed. "I'm afraid I prefer not being reduced to a math theorem. Speaking of which, how is he?"
"Inactive. He was going to pull a number on Neku here at a most inopportune time for me." Joshua's fingers ran through orange locks as he spoke. "Couldn't have him spoiling our climax, could we, dear?"
That broke the stupor.
"WHY?!" Neku grabbed his best friend's wrist from where he had fallen to his knees on the floor. The other didn't resist. "Enishi, why?! Why are you doing this?! Why now?!" His fringe hid his face, but his tears fell freely to the asphalt. Four years. Four years of guilt, of thinking his best friend was gone forever because of him, because he'd wanted to show him the mural he'd discovered in Udagawa, and now... THIS. "Why, goddammit?!"
"You'll have to forgive my dear, dear Partner," Joshua murmured from beside him, a hand squeezing his shoulder in an attempt to comfort. "This is turning into Judgement Day for him, I'm afraid."
"And you are as unsympathetic as always, Yoshiya," Enishi snapped, kneeling to wrap his arms around Neku. "I'm sorry we had to meet again like this, Neku. I'd hoped to avoid this... for your sake."
Neku could only bury his face in the other's shoulder. "Answer me, Enishi. Say something, damn it," he pleaded.
It wasn't fair.
All these years spent wishing that he hadn't asked his best friend to meet him that day, that Enishi would come back, somehow, and tell him it was okay, that it wasn't his fault, that they were still friends. And here he was, in the flesh, trying to kill Joshua.
It just wasn't fair.
Every time he let himself care, it all went to hell from there.
Enishi had been his only real friend at school, and when he'd died, he'd taken Neku's world with him. Neku had always been a loner; it never mattered whether or not he'd had friends. It seemed silly how everyone around him would make and break their friendships on a whim. But Enishi... Enishi got him. On a level he didn't think anyone would again until Joshua came along. It... It shouldn't have to come down to this.
Why... Why, why, WHYYYYYY?!
The Angel sighed. "Do you know what it's like Upstairs? Stagnant. All that talent, all that creativity They hone in people here, gone, wasted. You go there, Ascend as They so sweetly call it, expecting to stretch the limits of your Imagination, and instead of boundless inspiration, you lose everything. Everything! Your own thoughts, your own will, your own self. Every thought, every choice, every action... even if you are doing it of your own volition, you can't be sure it wasn't merely implanted in you as long you're connected to the hive mind, that you aren't simply a puppet of that being at the centre of it all." Enishi tightened his embrace as he looked up to face the Composer. "Isn't that right, Yoshiya? And you knew," he continued bitterly. "That's why you've held on to your throne all these decades and refused to Ascend. Your Producer told you, didn't he? How he too broke his connection when he returned here? How seeing the unique individuality of Shibuya once more awakened Sanae to the realization that he was but a shade of his former self without the ability to expand his horizons through clashing with others? Isn't that why he keeps telling people to do as much of that as possible while they're here, going so far as to use command codes? Heh, you knew, and still you let the best and the brightest go there."
"I don't see how this is my fault," Joshua replied coolly. "I gave every winner the same three choices. You're the one who chose Ascension. And it can be fabulous... sometimes. Right, Megumi?"
With a pop, the former Conductor appeared in a flash of light before Joshua. "I have returned, Sir. The girl is safe."
"You did well, Megumi, as always."
"Thank You, Sir. As for you, traitor," Shades said, turning to the other Angel. "We have been looking for you. This is the eighth city you have attacked. For your crimes, I owe you only destruction!"
Enishi didn't move. "So you see, Neku, I really was gone, you know. For a time, I wasn't even myself. It was worse than death, worse even than erasure. And he sent me there. YOU sent me there."
"I'm sorry..." Neku whispered, feeling the strength drain from his body. It wasn't okay. Of course it wasn't okay. "I'm so sorry, Enishi. If only I hadn't..."
"My, my..." Joshua interrupted. "You seem like such a pro at this guilt-tripping thing, even I feel a teensy bit bad... for Neku. But since you've piqued my interest with all this talk of the Higher Planes, pray tell how we fit in."
"Do you like New York, Yoshiya?" Enishi asked, smiling. "I have Them to thank for sending me there as Producer. That was where I felt it, what I was missing through the unification of minds. I saw that instead of learning from our differences, we were homogenizing to the strongest will, retaining little of our former selves and losing our ability to progress. That is when I understood — there is only one way to bring all of creation to the next level: I'm going to break the hive mind."
"Exciting!" Joshua enthused. Distantly, Neku thought he shouldn't sound so cheery, shouldn't encourage this madness that had gripped Enishi. "And to do that, you need power, lots of it, so you're gathering it from the cities, hmm?"
"Well done. You are as sharp as they come, Yoshiya," Cyril murmured appreciatively, rising to his feet and pulling Neku up with him to stand between him and the other two. "I see now why Jude always spoke so highly of you."
Joshua stiffened. "Jude? Jude Ascott?"
Neku couldn't choke back his sob. No. NO, NO, NO...
"The same. And I see you've already realized, sharp as you are, but I may as well make it obvious. Yes, New York was the first city I took. And I couldn't bear to send a friend to the hell I'd only just escaped from, so I did the only other thing I could: I erased him."
"E—Erased...?" Neku gasped, barely audible. He could barely even breathe. This... This wasn't— His best friend had always been so kind. "How could you?" he choked out. Enishi would never— He'd never just... erase a friend in cold blood! "What happened to you, Enishi? You never used to be like this!"
Cyril's smile turned sad as he spun his old friend around to wrap his arms around Neku from behind. "Do you remember the Game, Neku? I'm sure you can't forget. You played thrice, after all." He tightened his embrace and stepped back, pulling Neku with him. "See, that's where I learned: sometimes, you just have to do what is necessary; sometimes, there are no easy choices. If it's either me or the other guy, I have to defend myself, don't I? And between a living hell and oblivion, I know which one I'd choose, so I gave dear Jude the same."
Too numb to do anything but let Enishi drag him along with surprising strength, Neku barely registered Joshua and Shades following them, taking a step forward for every step they took backward.
Madness. This was madness.
"I will not let these streets I know and love fall into your tainted hands, Cyril," Megumi warned, poised to attack.
"Now, now," Cyril replied, an iridescent knife materializing in his hand to press to Neku's ribs. "No need to get so hostile. You do know what this does?" He continued to back away down Cat Street, dragging an unresisting Neku with him. "See, I've been observing you, Yoshiya, and I am certain you wouldn't want his Soul completely dispersed to the ether."
"Don't be silly," the Composer chided derisively, but the uncertainty in his voice made Neku look up, look at him, at the hand he held out to restrain Megumi. Neku had never heard Joshua sound so unsure. "He's been your friend longer than I've known him."
Behind him, he felt Enishi nod, his voice incredibly sad when he spoke. "Yes... I never wanted to hurt you, Neku, to get you involved. I never expected— Well, I suppose it's all moot now, is it not? You should have stayed away."
"You're a monster," Neku whispered.
This was wrong. This was all wrong.
"Is that an endearment, dear?" Joshua teased, but his usual playfulness was strained. "I remember you calling me that a lot too."
Neku didn't answer. This was all WRONG, and there was nothing he could do about it. It was all his fault. Enishi buried his face in his shoulder.
"That's a horrid thing to call something you created, Neku," he whispered hoarsely. "I missed you, you know... We could have been so much together. At least, that's what I thought. But I saw you during my Game. You were better without me, Neku. You worked so much harder, drew more, were so much more creative. That was when you won your first art contest, was it not? That's why I chose not to come back."
W—What. The. HELL?! "G—Goddammit, Enishi!" Neku yelled, voice breaking as he wiped at his tears. "I— Do you know how hard it was for me?! All I could think about was how I'd killed you. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, could barely even function! I felt like crap, knowing it should have been me, but unable to even wish it had been because I was... I was afraid to die! I threw myself into the only thing I knew to take my mind off it, to keep from THINKING, damn it!"
"Then help me," Enishi pleaded softly without missing a beat as they kept moving. "Help me help the worlds. Tell him to cede his throne."
At that, Shades pointed a condescending finger at them, angrily declaring, "Egotists like you are not fit to judge the will of the Higher Planes! Breaking the hive mind would only unleash chaos upon the worlds. Even after sharing in Our collective wisdom, here you are staging childish rebellion." He turned to Joshua. "Composer, Sir. He is merely biding time. You cannot allow him to cross into Omotesando. We must stop him. No matter the cost."
A sigh. "Busted, I suppose." The sly smile was audible in Enishi's velvety voice. "Not that Yoshiya didn't know from the start. To be honest, I'm quite impressed. Tell me, how is it that people call you the most ruthless Composer in Japan?"
"They don't know Yohan well enough," Joshua answered, expression unreadable as he continued to follow them, lilac eyes still trained on Neku. There was a long pause, and then, expectantly, "Well, Neku?"
Neku met that carefully blank gaze and wanted to run.
No way out.
Joshua couldn't afford to cede his throne; it was either Ascension or erasure for that. Enishi was beyond reason. They had to do something before they reached Omotesando (that was in Minato, out of Joshua's jurisdiction), but instead of attacking, Joshua was giving him a choice. Just like on the roof of Pork City mere days ago, looking prepared for any answer.
"I can't," he said desperately, shaking his head. "I can't." How could he? Once he chose, there would be no going back. But they had to do SOMETHING. Worlds were at stake. He turned to Shades. "No matter the cost, right?" he reminded sadly.
The older man's mouth set into a grim line. "Time be still!"
The next thing Neku knew, the laser was searing through him.