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Anything To Make You Stay

Chapter Text

Shibuya swirls around him, unravelled threads twisting, digging into his skin. He is lost in the staves of Music threading to become a part of his own. Awareness blossoms like bruises, the city cramming into his body, flowing through his veins.

Time has no meaning when entrenched in the heart of a district. Everything and nothing, all at once, and the true understanding of it is still a step out of reach, even to a Composer. Words echo back to him, a careful reminder, “Don’t let yourself get lost.”

 

Joshua jolts upright as those words float through his mind, finding himself in a bed, instead of the ground he collapsed on. His consciousness coalesced within his body, Shibuya helping to filter out what he didn’t want to focus on.

He’s at WildKat. The back room he’d crash in sometimes, when everything at home became too much. Hanekoma must’ve managed to drag him here.

He’d done it. He’d only been a Reaper for a day, before he’d gone to face the previous Composer. Josh had beaten them, had taken their place.

Standing up, Josh struggles out of bed, off-balance for the first few steps, but he doesn’t fall. He makes his way to the front, collapsing on a bar stool once he’s there, so he can lay his head on the counter.

“Glad to see you’re up. It looked like you were havin’ a rough time,” Hanekoma says, eyes skimming over his body.

Josh looks up at him, raising his hands to sign with. [Overwhelming. Shibuya is helping me, but I can feel it all.]

“It’ll be like that, you’ll get used to it.”

Josh groans, wondering how long it’d take, but before he can ask, the bell for the door chimes. He glances over, ready to bolt if it’s someone he doesn’t know. He relaxes when he sees Kariya.

“So this is where the kiddo’s been hiding out, huh?” he asks, plopping down into a seat by him.

Hanekoma snorts. “If by hiding out you mean passed out in a bed for a day and a half, yeah. He’s been tucked away in the back room dealin’ with the overload.”

[Shibuya big. I feel everything.]

Kariya sighs and goes to pat him on the head, no doubt a comforting move in his mind, but a glare from Josh stops him. “Ah yeah, if you’re overwhelmed I guess touching is off limits right now, huh?”

He nods his hand to mimic a head-nod, answering with a short, [Yes.]

“Well, take it easy kiddo. Relax a bit, kick back and chill before you gotta do anything.”

Josh frowns. [Kiddo? I’m your boss now, you know.]

“Hah, yeah yeah, right boss. Still a kid, though.” Kariya rolls his eyes, before looking over at Hanekoma and saying, “Get me some coffee, gonna be a long day.”

Josh drops the argument, he’d never win. Instead, as his thoughts drift, he remembers what he wanted to do. He knocks his hand on the table to get the attention of the other two, who were talking about the coffee pricing, and starts with an N at his right, non-dominant side, ear, tracing above his head to end with an S on the left, dominant, ear. [Neku. I need to see him.]

“You’ll freak him out if you go today,” says Hanekoma. “Wait until tomorrow, or the day after. You’re in no shape to be visiting others right now.”

[Tomorrow,] he signs, flicking his thumb forward near his cheek. [I can’t wait. He won’t remember I’m dead, he doesn’t know. He’s forgotten that he forgot me. If I don’t go, I’ll be missing.]

“Alright, tomorrow then, if you’re feelin’ up to it,” Hanekoma says. “Keeping any semblance of an RG life isn’t advisable, though, ya’ know? And you can’t tell him anything, or there’ll be consequences.”

[I know. I won’t tell him. I can’t abandon him though, he’s my friend, and I’m his. It’d hurt him a lot. I’d rather be Erased than be unable to interact with him, unable to help him with the aftermath of my disappearance.]

“He’s that important to ya, huh?” Kariya asks.

He gets an immediate [Yes,] in response. [My Entry Fee was his memories of me. I had no choice but to win the Game, because I couldn’t let him lose those forever.]

“Well, you did that, and now it’s time for you to learn about what you can do. Kariya and I will teach you, today, that way you don’t endanger Neku tomorrow.”

[Fine. Cue the training montage or whatever,] he signs, sighing as he stands.

Chapter Text

The past week and a half had been a blur. There was school, there was homework and art, but when Neku thought about it, there was a fuzzy feeling to the memories, a static that he couldn’t think through. There’d been something wrong, something off about it all. Unwarranted feelings of despair and panic, fearing memories slipping away, nightmares of Joshua with a gunshot wound through his head.

Neku stares at the ceiling, laying on his bed. He makes images out of the popcorn texture, finding hidden shapes because the sense of wrong in his head needed to be ignored.

The unease plaguing his mind faded as he heard the familiar text alert he’d set for Joshua. He sat up, grabbing his phone and smiling at the new notification.

^Hey, sorry for disappearing. Parents grabbed me for a trip, didn’t let me grab my phone to let you know. Back now. I missed you, wanna hang out?^

^Your parents are awful. I’ve been worried about you! Yes I want to hang out I haven’t seen you in /ages/!^

^They really are. Meet up at the Udagawa mural in half an hr?^

^If I meet them I’d be tempted to punch them. Sounds good, see you soon!^

Neku stands, pocketing his phone with a grin on his face, the murky fog cleared, for the first time in a week.

 

He gets to the mural as fast as he can, finding Josh leaning up against the wall nearby already. He waves a hand at his friend. “Hey Josh!”

Josh looks up from his phone, and huh, he looks a bit worn out. Hair frizzled and knotted like a bird’s nest, dark bags and sunken eyes, complexion ashen. Neku takes off his headphones so he can listen better if Josh decides to speak, but what he hears throws him for a loop.

Joshua sounds different.

Everybody had a distinct sound, and it never changes to this extreme. Josh blended in with the backdrop of Shibuya more than ever now.

He slows, stopping by Josh and blinking a few times. “You alright? You seem a bit tired,” he says, to play off the pins needling at his brain with this information.

“I’m fine, I just--” Josh stops, frowning, before raising his hands. [Tired. You know?]

“Long trip?” Neku asks, sitting on the ground, and Josh follows suit.

[Yeah. Too many people, too many expectations to be the perfect kid. Wanted it to end.]

Neku sighs. “Sounds terrible. No touch day or yes touch? Cuz if you want a bit of cuddling I’m down for that.”

“Yes, that would be…” he struggles with the word for a moment. “Good.”

Neku scoots closer and wraps an arm around Josh as soon as he has permission to. They both sit in silence for a few minutes, just breathing and enjoying each other’s presence. Cars and chatter in the distance, the backdrop of Shibuya filling the quiet. It’s a moment before Neku speaks up.

“Don’t disappear on me like that again, please. Like, I know your parents are awful and you can’t control that, but I was terrified. Everything felt wrong and I was worried. Promise me that, even if you disappear, you’ll always come back?”

“I promise,” says Josh. There’s no hesitation in his voice, no pause to weigh the words and create the response.

“Thanks. I mean,” he continues, “who knows what I’d even do without you? You’re my only friend.” Ri͏p̕p҉in͘g,̧ ͟tea͝r̡in͞g͝ ̨at̷ h͜is ͢ha͢i̢r͠ as҉ ͢h҉e h͢ơl͏ds b͟ack ͏an̢o̴th͞er̷ s̵cŗeam, ͢all̛ he̷ can͜ ̡thin͘k͠ ͞i̷s s͘ţati̵c ̨and͞ Joshu͏a is͞ gone.̢

“You don’t need to worry about that. I will always be here when you need me.” Josh smiles, looking up at Neku with dew-soft eyes. “I care about you so much, never doubt this truth.”

“Nerd,” Neku says, chuckling as he pulls Josh closer. “Thanks though. It means… a lot, to hear you say that. You can always count on me, too, ya know, right? I’ll be here whenever you need me, or whenever you want to hang out and vent about your parents.”

“I know. We’ve got each other, that’s not going away.”

There’s a pause in the conversation. Josh closes his eyes, leaning on him, and Neku can’t help but stare at the sight of the wind blowing through his hair, a gentle breeze flowing by. In the distance, he can hear the noises of cars and people and the city, but this is their hideout, a backstreet seldom traveled by others unless they come to see the mural.

Joshua is beautiful. Even worn out and overwhelmed from his recent trip, he still holds an air of elegance about him. The setting sun gives color to his otherwise white hair, illuminating his skin, and Neku wouldn’t be surprised if he gave off a soft glow, because Joshua has an aura of energy.

It’s January, but it’d been a warm day. Even so, Josh had opted out of wearing a jacket, unfazed by the frosty chill in a short-sleeved shirt and jeans. When Neku notices this detail, he frowns, and takes off his jacket to drape over Josh.

He blinks his eyes open, looking up at Neku. “What’s that for?”

“You’re gonna freeze to death with the way you’re dressed. I at least have long sleeves.”

“Long-sleeved shirts are the bane of my existence. I will never wear one.” Josh pouts at him, and Neku can’t help but laugh.

“I know, but you still need to stay warm, hence the jacket. It’s looser than long sleeves, but does the job.”

“...Thanks,” he says, and silence falls between them again.

It’s a nice sight, he can admit to himself. Josh wearing his jacket. Feelings stir in his stomach, a swirling whirlpool of admiration and protectiveness and love. He has to stop to analyze that last one, shutting down the part of himself that’s started to grow, to wish for something different in their relationship. Neku shushes that voice, because this friendship is very nice, thank you very much, and he doesn’t need weird romantic impulses to ruin this for him.

“I’ve been meaning to ask… Wondering if it’d be okay or not, really,” Josh says, “if you’d be alright with me doing your sign name, the initials, over my heart. I mean, you’re the most important person in my life, and it’d mean a lot, but only if you’re okay with it…”

This isn’t helping, Neku thinks. The cacophony of confusing emotions want to leap in joy at the idea, but of course Josh would want this, they’d been friends for years now, each other’s closest people, it doesn’t have to be romantic.

“I, uh…” he takes a breath, and he’s gotta be blushing bad, the red staining his cheeks. “That’d be alright. I like the idea, actually, but only if I get to do the same for you?”

Josh elbows him in the side, no force behind it. “Of course, silly. It’d go both ways. I don’t see why you wouldn’t be allowed to do it.”

Neku smiles. “I’m glad. I’d been thinking about asking you, actually.”

“Well it’s good I brought it up then! You’re horrible at bringing subjects up.” Josh laughs, and Neku laughs too.

“Rude, and here I was just about to say we should go watch the latest Tin Pin episodes back at my place. You’ve missed two, my dude, and I’ve been waiting to watch with you.”

“Sounds like a good plan, let’s go!” Josh jumps to his feet, pulling Neku up with him.

“Someone’s eager, nerd,” Neku says, flicking Josh on the nose.

“Well, as you mentioned, I haven’t seen the latest episodes, and it’s more time hanging out with you.” Joshua’s smile is blinding, brilliant. A miniature sun, and the beams of light warm Neku to the core.

They start walking towards Neku’s apartment. His mom wouldn’t be home until late at night. It was perfect for an evening of TV watching and snacking from the fridge, just the two of them.

Seeing Josh get so excited made Neku’s heart flutter, and he couldn’t help smile as he watched Josh flap his hands and bounce. He’d never give this up for anything. In this moment, nothing could go wrong.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Players were supposed to survive, make it to the 7th day and win, not be gone by the end of the 5th.

Joshua knew things like this would happen, he knew some weeks would have no survivors. But this was his first Game as Composer, things weren’t supposed to go this bad. He wanted to fix this, have more Players win, not less. Not none.

The mission wasn’t hard. Get to A-East from the Scramble and Erase some Noise bothering people there in an hour. Easy. Simple. Screams from the last pair of Players echoed in his head.

He knew he shouldn’t let this get to him, he’d have to toughen up because bad weeks would always occur, no matter how many good ones happened, or how hard he wished. But it hurt to see people he’d been cheering for get taken out.

That pair had a good shot at being revived, if they’d made it.

Joshua pulls himself up, standing from the throne. He can’t let himself sit there all day, wasting away. No, Neku is probably worried about him, because he hadn’t realized just how much attention the UG would demand of him when a Game ran. So he stands, drags his body to the Dead God’s Pad, before flopping onto one of the couches.

Tears fall from his eyes, rolling down his cheeks to meet the pillow. He can’t do this. He could feel their panic, the pins and needles stabbing them and ripping them apart, as they were Erased, screaming for someone, anyone to come and save them. He could’ve helped, but no, that’s not his place.

He always felt the pain of others, the Players he saw Erased, even before he knew what was happening. It struck him, deep in his chest, making him ache to help, to do anything to cure the pain, because surely he only felt a fraction of what the others did.

Josh breathes, focusing on the motions, counting out the seconds to steady himself. He’d have to block himself off, build walls to keep from feeling the pain of others. Joshua had done it before, lived his whole life keeping himself separate so he wouldn’t feel their pain, but being Composer opened up a whole new window of sensitivity.

He drags his body up, fighting against gravity to sit instead of lay forever. His phone feels heavy in his hands as he pulls it out, opening up his chat with Neku.

^Hey. Another vacation I wasn’t told about, sorry. I think this is going to be a thing, these monthly week-long outings. Can I come over?^

He gets a reply almost instantly. ^Fuck your parents. Come over and hang out with me.^

Josh smiles at the message, Neku’s hatred of his parents and willingness to always be there for him. It hurts to lie about this to his best friend, to blame his parents rather than explain, but the consequences....

 Seeing Neku forget him once was more than enough, he couldn’t bear to see it again.

^I’ll be over soon. Front door open?^ he asks, as if he doesn’t already know. It’s unlocked, he can waltz right in, but it’s common courtesy to ask first.

^Yeah, come right in. I’m in my room. Mom is out on a trip.^

^Cool, alone time with you is my favorite time.^

^Nerd.^

Josh chuckles, teleporting to a few streets over. It has to feel realistic, he has to look like he walked a bit.

It takes him a few minutes to reach Neku’s apartment, but when he does, he’s up those stairs and through the door in under a minute. There’s no hesitation when he opens the door to Neku’s room, no need to knock either.

He finds Neku laying on his bed, graphite covering his hand as he works in a sketchbook, soon abandoned when he hears the noise and perks up, looking over at Josh and grinning.

“Joshua! I’m so glad you’re okay! I was worried, you know? It’s been almost a week, and you were just gone? Like, logically I assumed it was your parents, but what if something had happened to you, and I had no way of knowing?” As he speaks, Neku sits, scooting over to make space, and Josh plops down in that space.

“I know. It must’ve been worrying, and I’m sorry,” he says. “I asked if I could grab my phone just to text you, but they were already pulling me out the door. They’ve decided to put me in online classes instead of attending a school, which is nice, but that means I won’t see you as much, and these week-long trips are going to be monthly? It’s…. Frustrating. They can push and pull at me however they like and I can’t stop them.” The beat of Shibuya pulses under his skin, liar.

“It’s alright. Well, it’s not alright what they do to you, but I understand.” Neku pouts, sticking his tongue out in concentration as he draws. “Not your fault if I get worried after they take you away, it’s theirs. I’ll make sure to remember this if you flat-out disappear for a week though.”

Josh hums in acknowledgement, staring at the wall in silence for a moment as Neku sketches.The moments of quiet don’t last long, however, because soon Josh flips around, hanging his upper body off the side of the bed to stare up at the ceiling.

“Hey Neku, what do you think happens when you die?” he asks.

Neku blinks, looking up from his sketchbook, before looking down at him. “I dunno, really… I feel like there’s some sort of afterlife or something, but I don’t know. What about you?”

Josh smiles. “I’ve got some ideas. Maybe there’s other planes of existence, stacked atop ours. When you die, you might end up manifesting in that plane, sorta like a ghost. Or, maybe your energy, the life-force you’re comprised of, will become part of the surrounding area. It flows, feeding into the world when you die. Dust to dust, burn away in a brilliant light, a fire, leave behind ash and coal, so that what sprouts from your remains can use that fuel to grow. I think life is circular, though sometimes that circle breaks and people might stay behind, or maybe it needs to be longer, fixed, so people might get a second chance without turning to ash.” Broad hand gestures and half-signs, classifiers, emphasize his words. Raising a level, fire burning away, and explosion of energy in the shape of his hands.

Neku’s eyes wander as Josh speaks, even as he listens closely. “Sounds very poetic. What do you mean by the second chance?”

“I mean like, some people profess to miracles. Sometimes people die, the heart can stop beating, but they can still be brought back. Or when someone survives an accident that, by all rights, should’ve killed them. They’re getting a second chance to add to this world while alive. They can grow and help others grow, have more potential in life than death, maybe.” Josh is careful, toeing the line as he talks about this subject. If it’s all hypothetical, if it’s just an idea settled in his mind, not professed to be fact, then he can’t get in trouble.

“I like it. Maybe it’s a bit fantastical, but the idea is nice, hopeful.” Neku, looks back at his current sketch, and picks up the pencil again, resuming it.

“If you don’t stop existing after death, then that’s not so bad, is it? You contribute to the world, and it sounds peaceful.” He sits up, turning so he can lean against the wall instead of over the side.

Neku nudges him with an elbow, not even looking over, and gets him in the stomach. “Sounds peaceful, yeah, but don’t you dare go dying on me. Not allowed. I like you existing this way, where I can see you and we can hang out.”

“Of course, don’t worry. I’m not planning on leaving you anytime soon. Likewise to you. If you die, I’ll have to find some way to bring you back just to yell at you.” Josh chuckles, but he means it. His voice slips at the end, he almost wants to state that he could bring Neku back as a fact, but no, he shouldn't say that. Neku doesn’t seem to notice the waver.

“You’re my friend, you’re really the only person I can trust, so don’t worry. I would never abandon you.”

Chapter Text

Weighted air hangs in the hall, the evening sunlight filtering in through a window. Dark clouds are encroaching on the scene, the lazy swirls of dust in the beams of light growing smaller as a blanket covers the sky.

Neku checks his phone one last time. He finds no new messages, no new calls, only a long stream of texts to Josh left unread. The silence is a thick pane of glass, balanced on a ledge. It wavers when he knocks on the door, but does not fall. When there’s no answer, he tries the knob, finding it unlocked.

“Josh?” he says, into the dark, before reeling as a foul stench hits his nose. Fish left on the counter for days. Stew sitting out until fruit flies build a home. Musk of an unclean body building. He reaches for the light switch.

The glass tips and shatters as he lets out a scream that rips from his throat.

The couch in the far left corner, angled to face the opposing corner, has a fallen body by it. A dark crimson has stained the carpet. Matching splatters adorn the cushions, a new hole torn through the back.

Streaks of blood are dried on the face, the trails running down from the hole in the side of the head. The once-white hair is dyed red, but blood makes for a poor dye job, especially once it’s crusty and old.

There’s a gun, slightly dislodged from his grip, but Josh is still holding it. His finger is still on the trigger, and as the realizations strikes him like a bullet from that gun he staggers backwards, falling to the ground as a wail escapes his mouth.

The longer he stays frozen, back against the wall, the more he understands that this isn’t just a nightmare. Joshua shot himself, and pierced Neku’s heart with a dagger. Joshua had left him, decided that there wasn’t enough to stay alive for, and Neku had been helpless to stop him, hadn’t even known Josh was considering this.

He’s staring, and he hears someone coming to investigate the scream. He has to tear his eyes away from the body, and a cold numb fills his own, head starting to cloud with static as he tries to make sense of the grotesque scene before him.

 

Neku jerks upright, a scream dying in his throat, cheeks wet from tears. His body is heavy, it wants to drag him back down and into sleep, but his mind is a swirling mess of adrenaline and fear and that bloody image. He fights against the pull, and grabs the pencil and sketchbook laying by his bed, flipping to a new page.

He doesn’t think, he can’t think, he just needs to get it out. Out of his head, onto the paper, and maybe scrawling this down will help. The couch takes shape first, sharp jagged lines forming the figure, scratches where the hole is and ovals for the blood splatter.

Next is the body. He outlines it, laying on the side, feet near the couch, legs extending away and toward the torso. A circle for the head. He adds rumpled clothing, he adds the dark stain, working to convey the image using shading, his colored pencils too far away to be of any use right now. He adds some hair, wavy locks.

When Neku tries to focus on the face, all that comes is static. His hand moves before he can stop and think, thick, dark, sharp lines cross over the face, scribbling out the circle and ending the chance of giving the figure distinct features.

Fuck,” he says, staring down at the image. He’s starting to wake up more now, and the details of the nightmare are fading, slithering away into the recesses of his brain. He can’t remember whose face it was, connecting the person to anyone he knows just causes his mind to static.

Neku knows who it is, he can feel it, but the more he thinks the worse his new headache becomes.

He sighs, looking over at his bedside clock. 3:35am. He closes his eyes and plops back down, trying to get a few more hours of sleep before school begins.

Chapter Text

Neku has the sinking suspicion that he’s being lied to.

It starts when he asks Josh how one of his trips went. Instead of the usual “Ugh my parents were awful” response, Joshua had looked confused, eyebrows furrowed as he thought about the question.

(The eventual response was, “Oh yeah, the trip, it went as usual, annoying parents and nothing to do,” but Josh sounded too nonchalant, calm, instead of tired and angry like he’s always been after being dragged away for a week.)

Josh is lying to him, and once that suspicion has wormed its way into his brain, he can’t get rid of it. He presses for details of the trip, the location, the events, but Josh finds a way to shrug it off or deflect.

So he starts to make notes. Josh always disappears on a Monday, and he shows up sometime at night on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays. He’s tired, worn down, more likely to ramble or bring up darker topics. The earlier in the week, the worse his mood is. The gloom and doom is all wiped away the next day.

“Hey Josh,” he asks, one Friday night, “Where’d your parents drag you off to this week?”

Josh frowns, and he takes too long to respond with, “New York,” for it to feel true.

“Really, again? Didn’t they take you there just two months ago?” He looks up from his sketchbook, over at Josh, who’s leaning against the side of Neku’s bed on the floor, doodling musical lines in sharpie over his arm.

“They like the city. Lots of big business stuff there. Took me around to meetings, showed me off to potential business partners. The usual, ya know.”

“Mm, yeah, sounds like it,” he says. Neku doesn’t say how that sounded rehearsed, how it matched the exact words he’d used last time.

 

It doesn’t happen immediately. It takes time for the anger to build, for doubts and suspicion to bubble up inside whenever Joshua comes back from one of his unexplained week-long vacations.

He stops telling Josh when he goes on trips, what’s been going on in his life. Acidic bitterness boils, and he hates how he takes pleasure in Josh’s furrowed eyebrows and worried looks.

Like any pot of water left on the stove too long, it all boils over at some point.

 

“Hey Neku, how did the trip to Shinjuku go?” Josh asks, and Neku looks at him with cold, sharp steel in his eyes.

“How’d you know I was in Shinjuku? I never mentioned it.” He frowns, watching Josh as he leans against the CAT mural, an eyebrow arched in curiosity to veil the anger. “So what, you’re stalking me now? Don’t like not hearing about what I get up to when I’m away?”

“I-I don’t remember how I heard. I think I might’ve overheard your mom say something? And yeah, I don’t like not knowing what’s going on. Having my best and only friend disappear for a week is stressful.” Josh’s eyes widen as he finishes his words. He bites his tongue, covers his mouth with a hand, but the words have been said, and Neku’s hands clench into fists as he raises his voice.

“Oh? Tell me again how you don’t like having your friend disappear for a week at a time, no warning and no real info on what they do!” His voice wants to waver, like laminated paper, but he keeps it steady. “I haven’t heard any specifics lately about how awful your parents are, just oh they dragged me on a trip again, and that’s it! No information on what you do on those trips,” he puts air quotes on the words. “You’re sneaking off somewhere, and you’ve been lying to me for ages, over a year by now!”

Josh flinches at the words, at seeing Neku’s fists and red face. He curls in on himself, and Neku feels a little bad, but he’s too angry to care about that right now.

[I can’t tell you, I’m not allowed to. I’m sorry,] Josh says, switching to sign language. His motions are tight, small gestures. It’s easier, Neku understands, to control the expression of emotion in body movement, versus tone of voice. At least, it’s always been like that for Josh.

“Oh, and why the fuck not? You’re clearly off filling your days with people who you like better than me, if you’re not allowed to tell me anything!” He takes a breath, watching and waiting as Josh composes a response, not sure he should bother to listen.

[That’s not what I meant. I can’t tell you, but it’s not me running off with others. I’m sorry, Neku,] he says, circling his fist over his chest before doing Neku’s initials over the heart.

“No. That’s not an answer. There’s always a choice, and you’re choosing to keep this secret. Maybe you shouldn’t be signing my name like that.” Neku turns, not waiting for a response. Josh is signing, so he’s not going to be shouting out at him. It’s cruel, but Neku can’t give a shit right now.

So he stomps off, not bothering to look as he leaves his friend behind.

He doesn’t see the truck coming, as he crosses the road. He hears a scream from behind him, a voice shouting “NEKU!” as the truck makes impact with his body.

There’s blinding pain, searing through his body like he’d run into a wall, except a thousand times worse. Everything is bright, and loud, before it numbs, going black as he slips into death’s embrace.

The last thing he registers is a warm hand, trying to shake him awake, and a scratchy, desperate voice begging him to stay alive.

Chapter Text

Neku wakes up.

At first, he can’t remember what happened, but the memories come pounding back. He died. Got hit by a truck. Other facts, he can’t remember where he learned them, come flooding into his mind. He needs to find a Partner.

You can’t survive the Reapers Game without one.

His phone dings, and he opens it up to see today’s mission.

^Reach 104. You have 60 minutes. Fail and face Erasure. - The Reapers.^

Neku winces at the zap to his hand, an electric shock that scars him with deep red numbers, before pocketing his phone and making a dash to Hachiko. If he’s gonna find a Partner anywhere, it’ll be there.

All around, he sees people vanishing, and he’s about to call out for someone, anyone, when a person, a short boy with white hair, slides up to him.

“Howdy,” the other boy says, a grin on his face. “It looks like you could use a little help. Need a Partner?”

“Yeah, I do, you down?” he asks, ignoring the little buzz of static in the back of his head as he offers his hand to this boy.

“Wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t,” he says, taking Neku’s hand.

There’s a flash of light as the bond is formed. Threads of Music weave between the two, a lightshow as the pact ties them together.

Then they’re fighting. Frogs are jumping out at him, and his Partner is nowhere to be seen, but he’s got pins in his hand and surely these things must do something. So he grabs the one with a fire symbol on it and focuses, feeling a spark of amazement as fire springs up where he wants it, burning the frog until it turns to static.

When the battle ends, they’re facing each other again. Neku is a little out of breath, but his Partner hasn’t broken a sweat.

“My name is Joshua, by the way,” Josh says, brushing a bit of hair out of his face.

“I’m Neku,” he says, starting to head off in the direction of 104. They need to complete the mission.

“Whoa there, no need to go marching off. We’ve still got a good 45 minutes.” Josh takes a few quick steps to catch up with him.

“We need to finish the mission. I don’t wanna get Erased for failing on day one.” He doesn’t stop walking, though he does slow his pace for Joshua.

“It’s a five minute walk, relax. We’ve got plenty of time to take it slow, get to know each other. I’ll start. This isn’t my first Game, my first Entry Fee was my friend’s memories of me.” Josh is grinning, nonchalant, as Neku stops and spins on his heel to face him.

“What? How is this not your first Game? Dying once I get, but twice?” He raises an eyebrow.

“Choice. I’m here because I want to be. So what’s your Fee?” It’s clear he’s deflecting, but by the deadpan way he said choice, Neku decides to let it drop.

Neku has to think about what his fee is, what’s he missing? He goes back through his memories, and frowns when he focuses on the memories of his best friend. If he weren’t aware that something had been taken as a Fee, he wouldn’t notice. He can remember the emotions, having someone else in the world to rely on, not being alone, the inevitable betrayal. He remembers a fight, but not what was said, only that he died soon after. There’s a barrier in his mind, a wall of static, the radio buzz blocking out the memories. He can’t tune in to the right station.

He looks at Josh. “I think my Fee was my own memories of a friend.”

“Better than taking their memories, in my opinion. Imagine if you died and lost, and they never got their memories back. It’d be cruel, to rip a hole in someone’s mind like that, even worse if it were a risk someone took on purpose.” Bitter acid rings on Joshua’s tongue, something dark and sharp hidden in his depths.

How would someone be able to risk that on purpose?” Neku asks, a frown on his face.

“It’s… complicated. We can talk about that some other time.” Deflection, again. Joshua must be a master at it. “What other languages do you know?”

“Besides Japanese? English and sign language. My friend taught me, but he knew ASL better than JSL when we met, so I rely more on that.”

Josh grins, and Neku raises an eyebrow at the excited face, until Josh raises his hands and signs at him. [I know sign language too! I know JSL as well, but I spent part of my time growing up in America, so I picked up on ASL there.]

Neku smiles back, raising a hand, thumb touching his chest, wiggling the fingers. [Cool! It’s a good language to know. My friend sometimes goes nonverbal, I think, and sometimes I have trouble with words, which is why he taught me.]

“Neato,” says Josh, switching back to a verbal language. “I think it’s a pretty handy language to know.”

Neku snorts. “That was awful.”

“You still laughed. And anyway, my point holds. I’m autistic, I learned it because I’d go nonverbal sometimes too. More people should learn it,” Josh says, as they come up on the route to 104.

Neku watches as his Partner approaches someone in a red hoodie and follows him, but his footsteps are hesitant, unsure. It’s weirder when the hoodie guy says something about a wall being cleared. Well, whatever, he and Josh are able to move on, that’s what counts.

Once they’re both in the area, the timer on their hands disappears.

“Huh, I thought other Players would’ve cleared the mission by now, we were taking our time, after all,” Josh says with a shrug.

“What, is that just your plan? Float through the week hoping others will get you by?” Neku raises an eyebrow.

He shakes his head, a frown playing across his face as he crosses his arms. Dark shadows echo under his eyes. “Of course not. I may hate working up a sweat, but I’ve got some stuff that’s important to me. I’m going to fight for it with all my heart.”

“Pfft, good luck with that,” chimes a new voice, a pink haired lady with wings. “Only an idiot would screw up day 1.You two are gonna get erased sooner or later. So come on. Help a girl out and earn me a few extra points, ‘K?” she says, and Noise start to form in the air around them.

Josh raises an eyebrow at the newcomer. “And here I was hoping we wouldn’t run into any Reapers. At least you chose to do this after we cleared the mission. A bit of Noise won’t be too hard to stop.”

In the end, it’s only a few frogs, and some sort of bear. Neku plucks away at them with fire, some flying objects, and a few electricity bolts. There’s something at the peripheries of his senses, a buzz, an occasional wave of power, and Neku frowns. Is that Josh, doing his part?

The battle ends as the grizzly bursts into static from a blow he did not deal. He gets the mental image of falling vending machines for a second as the battleground fades away. The lady is already gone.

Josh sighs. “Harriers, I swear. I was hoping none would bother us so soon, too busy picking at others, looks like luck was not in our favor.”

Before Neku can demand an explanation on what the hell Reapers are, the world goes fuzzy, fading into black. He’d just have to remember to ask tomorrow, given that the day was won.

Chapter Text

The heavy air, weighted with the shouts from earlier, explodes with a scream that tears from his throat. Tires screech as the driver tries to break, and the smell of burned rubber permeates the air. There’s going to be skidmarks there, both on the road and on his heart.

Joshua makes a dash into the road, fueled by the crimson staining the asphalt and the body lying where the truck slammed into it, purple headphones crushed to bits, like the shattered bones in Neku’s body.

He knows this is fatal, there’s no way to sew the body back together, to heal the wounds inflicted. Not by any normal means, and this is no place for a miracle. Even so, he kneels down, shaking Neku, begging him to stay alive.

The driver has pulled over, mouth agape and horror splayed on his face. Some grotesque corner of Josh’s mind says serves him right, he should see this nightmare he has created by hitting Neku, but he knows it wasn’t the man’s fault, not really.

A sob bubbles up from his chest, and tears streak down his face, hot and wet. What a sight he must be, covered in blood and guts and crying over a body that resembles roadkill more than it does his friend.

A thought freezes his despair. The Game. If Neku wins, then he can come back to life, no miracle needed. Some law-breaking required, if he wants to ensure that Neku has the best shot of winning he can.

After all, it’s hard to lose when the Composer is your Partner, and doing all he can to get you a win.

With rigid motions, he conjures up a Player Pin, placing it on Neku’s chest. Joshua takes a step back from the scene of the murder and his emotions, letting them fall away into blank space. He can deal with the distraught panic later. For now, face blank, he walks away, vanishing into the UG as he rounds a corner.

He has a Game to prepare for.

 

Joshua oversees Neku’s entry into the Game himself. He can’t afford to leave this up to anyone else. He makes sure Neku has the standard knowledge of the Game that all Players should have, before it’s time to take the Fee.

He pauses, sighs, and knows exactly what he’s going to take. Threads of Music wind away from Neku’s body, laid out in the Room of Reckoning. He bundles up the memories into an orb, sealing it away. Maybe a Neku who doesn’t remember him will be easier to deal with in the Game, given their last encounter.

He repairs Neku’s headphones, placing those around his neck. It’d be rude leave Neku without part of his signature look.

 

The first Day is a blur of activity, as always. He’s quick on his feet once Neku wakes up, offering up a Pact, and then they’re fighting the Noise together. It’s only frogs, for now, but Joshua can feel that pulse beneath the surface as they do battle, Music thrumming in the air, as he and Neku take down the enemies. As the battle ends, Josh lets out a laugh, he hasn’t felt this alive in ages.

Neku takes off, heading for 104 immediately, of course, and no, that won’t do. Players don’t last long if they don’t bond with their Partner, and while Josh knows everything about Neku, feels their old bond on top of the Pact, Neku doesn’t have any of that.

So he drops hints. Between this isn’t my first Game, I’m here by choice, and the mention of his original Fee (he didn’t take one from himself, this time around), he hopes Neku has more than enough material to ask him about in the future. Mentioning languages helps too, nothing like multiple shared languages to bring people together. It might be needed, if either of them go nonverbal, anyway.

 

Like on Day 2, when he wakes up with acid clawing at his throat, bile building up in his stomach. Neku is dead because of him, None of this should be happening. Neku was never supposed to learn about the Game, he was never supposed to die. Joshua should never have killed himself, should never have jeopardized their friendship in any way, because look where that’s gotten them.

When Neku wakes up, 10 minutes later, he takes one look at Josh, and raises his hands. [Bad day?]

Josh nods. [Bad day. Bad thoughts. Bad memories. If you want, you can speak, but my throat isn’t going to do words.]

“Alright,” Neku says, which Josh responds to with another nod.

Both of their phones beep in unison, and they each grab their own.

^Set the cursed sculpture free. Fail, and face Erasure. You have 60 minutes - The Reapers^

[Hachiko,] Josh fingerspells, before Neku can say the name out loud. [Has to be. Cursed sculpture.]

“That’d make sense. This is the Underpass, yeah? So Hachiko should be that way,” he says, pointing. Josh nods. “Let’s get going then.”

Nothing is ever that easy, because there’s a wall to take down, but luckily the mission is just to take out a bit of Noise.

“What’s up with those guys in red, anyway? You said something yesterday about Reapers?” Neku asks, as they walk out of the underpass.

[Reapers are part of the Game. They test Players, whether by creating enemies, as the Harriers do, or by issuing challenges, like the Wall Reapers do. At the end of a Game week, if a Player survives, they have the option of becoming a Reaper. It’s a fresh start, a way to escape their life, if it was bad, but in order to survive, Reapers need to either Erase Players or continue to issue challenges, depending on if they’re a Harrier or Wall Reaper. If they don’t score points, they’re the ones that get Erased.]

“That’s rough,” Neku says, and it looks like he’s going to say more when a big loud shouty guy comes running up to them.

“Gotchu punks now!” says the guy. Daisukenojo Bito, Josh thinks to himself. Nickname Beat, Partnered to his sibling, Raimu, aka Rhyme.

“You got us good yesterday, but today I’ma crush you, yo!” he continues, and Josh sighs.

“What are you talking about? Who are you?” Neku asks, and he has every right to be confused about a person he’s never met shouting at him like this.

[He probably thinks we’re Reapers. You can’t scan Reapers, and Player Pins make it so you can’t scan other Players, either,] Josh signs to Neku, right as Rhyme points this out themselves.

“They’ve got Player Pins. Players must not be able to scan each other. Remember? You couldn’t scan me either,” they say, and Beat deflates.

“... Oh. Yo, sorry I jumped to conclusions.”

[It’s fine,] he signs, but that makes Beat scrunch his eyebrows together in confusion.

“Yo, whatchu doin’ with your hands?”

“He’s speaking in sign language,” Neku says. “Sometimes verbal language can be hard, we happen to both know sign though. He just said it’s fine.”

“That’s neat! Maybe you could teach us some signs!” Rhyme says, flashing a smile. “Oh! We should introduce ourselves. I’m Rhyme, and this is my Partner, Beat.” Something flickers across Beat’s face, and Josh recalls his Fee as Neku introduces the both of them. Rhyme’s memories of him. He feels a pang of sympathy, knowing intimately the heart-stabbing pain of the most important person in your life forgetting you.

He decides to brood, letting Neku talk with the other pair about phones and Reapers and the mission. It’s not like he can contribute much to the conversation without having to go through Neku.

Then Rhyme is suggesting they work together, and Neku looks at Josh, the question he’s asking obvious by the raised eyebrow.

[Sure. Our odds are better if we have more people working to solve the problem.]

Neku raises his hands to reply. A silent, secret, conversation then. [Can we trust them, though? What if they’re Reapers? I can’t scan them after all, could be a ploy.]

[They aren’t. If you don’t trust them much, then that’s fine, but working together benefits us all. You can suggest we split up to cover more ground.]

Neku nods, and turns back to Beat and Rhyme. “Sounds like a plan. We should split up, we can cover more ground that way.”

The others agree, and off they go.

His brain is fog today, so he contents himself to drifting by, letting Neku figure things out. The battles they fight help to clear the air, but he’s moving through jello, and this headache keeps pounding away. Josh hasn’t kept his vibes tuned down for this long in a while, and he hopes that his body will get used to it, because acidic brain fog is not a fun experience.

Neku can tell that something’s up with him, and once the Moyai is cleared of its Noise, he asks, “Hey Josh, is everything alright?”

[Fine. Just thinking. Don’t worry about me,] he signs, and before Neku can ask anything else, he walks off, heading for Hachiko.

He already knows how to solve the missions this week, of course. He had a hand in creating them, so it’s easy to point out how Hachiko is looking dirtier than usual, less friendly, and they get to polishing.

The Garage Wolves that spring out of Hachiko are easy to take out. The Metal Corehog that Uzuki summons is easy too, but it seems Neku doesn’t feel the same. When the next swarm is summoned, Neku looks ready to pounce on Uzuki instead.

“Please tell me you’re not planning on fighting me? Ha ha ha ha! How stupid can you get? You’ll never win against a Reaper! But all right. I’m game. I was getting bored anyway,” she says, and Josh can only sigh.

Leave it to Neku to challenge a Harrier on day 2.

The fog in his head is blown away by the coming challenge, and he feels his throat open up. Finally. “Neku, Harriers aren’t going to be as easy to beat as Noise.”

Neku spares him a glance, surprised at his voice, no doubt. “She’s just going to keep throwing more at us. Take the problem out at the source.”

“Ha! As if a pair of Players on day two could even stand a chance! You got guts, boys.” She’s laughing and them, and Josh wonders where Kariya is, because he should be here keeping her in line. They balance each other well.

“If you fight with us, it won’t be us who end up Erased, Uzuki Yashiro,” Joshua growls. He lets some power leak, eyes taking on a faint glow, as the wind picks up around them all, his hair flowing in it. He is sharp ice, broken class that can cut. He’ll pass this off as a trick of the light, later, but the intimidation works, and her stance falters.

“Hmph, you’re boring. I know, let’s have some fun! A special bonus challenge, just for you, orangeylocks! If you pull it off, I’ll let you out of the Reaper’s Game!”

“Bullshit.” Josh cuts her off, rolling his eyes. “You don’t have the authority to do that.”

“And how would you know? Awfully knowledgeable about how us Reapers work for a Player. Here’s your mission, Erase your Partner here, and you’re out of the Game!” She’s got a smug grin on her face, and Josh frowns, seeing Neku waver. His Music echoes with indecision, fluctuating, considering this option, and that’s another needle to the heart.

“I have my reasons for knowing what I know, and I promise, Neku, I will tell you them. Don’t listen to her.”

Neku doesn’t have time to decide on who to listen to, because Kariya, followed by Hanekoma, comes swooping down to the rescue. Koki gives a nod to him, and projects a thought, We felt the surge of power, figures that she’d be at the center of it. I’ll keep her off of your back.

Josh sends a quick Thanks, to Kariya, watching as he tries to herd Uzuki away.

“Leave the kids alone, you owe me a bowl of ramen, girl. I bagged more Players yesterday,” he’s saying, grabbing her hand and tugging her off in the direction of Ramen Don. Josh can’t help but laugh at the sight.

Once the pair have gone, Josh turns to grin at Hanekoma. “I see you brought in the cavalry to get her off my back this time. Hopefully Koki keeps her from bothering us much more.”

“You should know better than to egg her on, Josh,” Mr. H replies, and Josh can see how annoyed he is, from his hair sticking up to the barely-concealed splashes of color on his skin. Stress-painting again, he figures. He’ll have to apologize for this fit of anxiety later.

“She started it. Anyway, she’s gone now, so it’s time for introductions. Neku, this is Sanae Hanekoma, he runs the WildKat cafe on Cat street. Mr. H, this is Neku, my Partner.” He doesn’t need to add on anything else, Hanekoma knows all about Neku.

“Nice to meet ya, ‘phones. You’re gonna be in for a long week with J here as your Partner. I’ve known him since he was a kid, always had a knack for getting into trouble.”

“You had a knack for getting me out of it.”

Neku looks between the two of them, eyebrows raised, before he takes a deep breath, and sticks out a hand to Hanekoma. “Nice to meet you. How are you connected to the Game?”

Hanekoma shakes the hand. “Think of me as a sort of...guardian. I watch the Game, to make sure shady types don’t start bendin’ the rules.”

“Alright… And how did you two meet?” He gestures to Josh and Hanekoma.

“I visited his cafe,” Josh says, calm and measured words. “He caught me staring out the window at things I had no right to be seeing. I’ve always been able to see the UnderGround, the Game, and he saw me flinch when some of the Players were Erased. Took me aside, told me all about what I was seeing. First time in 10 year I heard that what I saw was real. Everything about the Game I know, I learned from him.” Josh steels his nerves, keeps himself from shaking as if he hadn’t just told Neku his biggest secret. It’s wrong, says his twisting gut, for Neku to learn this now. For him to have keep the secret so long.

Neku has always deserved better than what Josh has given him.

“Josh here is a trouble-maker, I’ll say that, but he’s a pretty good kid. You’re lucky to have him as your Partner. There’s only one way to stay alive in this Shibuya. Trust your Partner! Especially you, Phones. I saw you considering the offer.” Josh chuckles as Hanekoma goes on one of his speeches, he’s heard them all before.

Josh lets Hanekoma answer Neku’s questions, his own throat going dry again. A better teacher than he could ever be. When Hanekoma lets the title Composer slip, Josh raises an eyebrow, but says nothing. He’ll fill Neku in on that more later. Once Hanekoma tosses Neku the fusion pin and explains it, he departs, and Josh gives Neku a little smile, before everything goes fuzzy.


 

“Why the hell did you stop me? I had those two in the bag!” Uzuki says, pouting at Kariya.

“Trust me, you didn’t. The orange-haired one, maybe, but the other? Don’t mess with him, if you know what’s good for you,” Kariya says, and she’s always thought that his laziness was a facade, but never is it more obvious than here. His back is straight, a steel rod, not unlike the katana sheathed at his side. One hand rests on the hilt, and secrets like the night lurk on his face.

“Who is he?” she asks. Curiosity killed the cat, but she’s already dead. Uzuki has never seen her friend like this before. So easily he shrugs off laziness and slips into a cloak of shadows and secrets.

“A kid I met a while back. You know how those people who have some sense of the UG are stronger in the Game? He’s always been able to see it, hear it, and he’s Played before. I’m a little surprised you don’t remember him, honestly,” he says, and he has that knowing look in his eyes that pisses her off.

“Oh, and why is that?”

“The last time he Played was about a year and a half ago. His name is Joshua. If you’ll recall, that was the name of your Partner.”

Chapter Text

They wake up at the Concert Stage, because of course they do. It’s pitch black, and Josh groans. He shouldn’t use his power to light the place up, that would be irresponsible. So when he and Neku get the mission mail, Josh takes the longer time limit as an excuse to drag Neku around and go shopping.

First stop, Lapin Angelique. He insists on paying for everything, it’s only polite, of course. And it lets him dress Neku up in stat-boosting gothic lolita clothes like he’s always wanted to.

“Josh, is this really necessary?” Neku asks, as he tries on the vampire dress.

“Yes, it absolutely is. This is a Game, and the stuff you equip will affect your stats. We’ll be taking what we can get right now.” He grins, paying for the Bunny Parka and throwing it on. “We should also probably be level grinding, fighting more Noise and whatnot, getting the drops.”

“Whoever thought that making this work like a video game was a good idea is out of their mind,” Neku says, and Josh snorts. Neku’s got a point, it’s not something anyone would reasonably expect from the Reaper’s Game.

“That’d be the Composer you’re talking about. Head honcho here in the UG. The Composer is tied intimately to the city, unable to be separated from it. The Composer is the god of the UG in which they are connected to. They’re the one that brings the Players who win back to life.” Josh buys two capes, putting one on and tossing the other to Neku, who frowns, but puts it on.

Josh grabs the lace-up dress, rolling his eyes at Neku’s scrunched up face as he slips into a changing room to put it on.

“We both look ridiculous and this is awful,” Neku says, when he comes back out.

“You’re just annoyed because I can rock it better than you.” Josh smirks, before turning back to Princess K and chatting with her a bit, purchasing at least one of every pin in stock, tossing them to Neku as they leave. “Here, you should have a use for all those. I don’t use pins. I channel the psych through my phone, and drop shit on the Noise.”

Neku takes the pins tossed at him, and follows Josh out the store. “How in the world did you learn to do that?”

“Just felt natural, I guess. I input commands by tapping some buttons, and the stuff I summon falls out of the sky and hits them. It’s very satisfying to see happen.”

As Josh steps out the door, a girl runs into him, and she steps back and yelps. “Oh gosh! I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you there!” It only takes a glance at her to know who she is, Shiki Misaki, and the other girl behind her must be Eri. Joshua had hoped those two would Partner up, it’d let them settle some issues.

He shrugs. “No worries. I’m Josh, that’s Neku, my Partner. I’m assuming you two are Partners as well?” he asks, and hides his laugh as both of them look at him in surprise, jaw dropped and eyebrows raised. It’s bizarre, seeing two people with the same body do that.

“Are you two like, twins, or something?” Neku asks.

Shiki shakes her head. “No, no, we’re not. Just friends. I had some… Jealousy problems, my Fee was my appearance. I’m Shiki, by the way. Eri’s fee was her voice,” she says, and motions to the pad of paper and the pen in her friend’s hand. “We picked that up so she could have some way to say stuff.”

“Useful, if you don’t know sign language, I guess. Neku and I both know sign, which was handy yesterday when I went nonverbal.” Neku rolls his eyes at the repeat of the pun, and Josh just gives him a grin. He slides out of the way of the door, standing to the side with Neku while they speak to the girls.

“Ooh, maybe you could teach us sometime!” Shiki says, and Eri nods.

“I’m not opposed to that. Neku?” he asks, looking over at him.

“Sure, whatever. How about after the mission?” he says, and Josh rolls his eyes.

“Fine with me. Do you ladies know anything about it yet?” Josh asks.

Shiki shakes her head. “Not much. There’s some guys hanging around front of the concert stage, they’re from a band. Their tech is missing, said he went off to get fuses and should’ve been back by now.”

“Makes sense, it’s dark as hell in there,” Neku says. “If the fuses blew, then no wonder we can’t see anything. Maybe if we get the lights working again, we’ll find whatever we need to fight.”

“Let’s split up, we can share any discoveries we make with each other, and do more apart than we could together. There’s another pair of people running around, Beat and Rhyme, if you see them, be sure to fill them in,” Josh says, and with a few quick goodbyes they part ways.

It takes some running around, and they stop by Sunshine and Dragon Couture for some food and threads. It’s here that they also run into Beat and Rhyme again.

They swap notes. Rhyme tells them about memes and Imprinting, Neku tells them about the tech and getting the lights back on.

They’re about to part ways when Josh speaks up. “Hey, Beat, can I have a chat with you?” he asks.

Beat frowns, but nods. “Sure, whatchu want?”

Josh looks over at Neku and Rhyme. “You two wanna go try Imprinting some people? I promise I’m not trying to pull anything, there’s just something I want to talk about, and I’m sure once Beat knows the topic, he’ll agree that the conversation should be private.”

It takes a moment, but both Neku and Rhyme agree to give them a bit of privacy. Once they’ve gone, Beat turns to him. “What’s this about, yo?”

“Rhyme’s your sibling, aren’t they?” he asks, blunt. He’s never understood why people would dance around a subject.

A look of shock crosses Beat’s face, eyes wide. “How’d ya know?”

“Resemblance, matching skull motif,” Josh flashes a grin, but drops it as he moves on. It’s not the time for humor. “The way you reacted when Rhyme said Partner, like you were hoping for a different word to come out of their mouth. Entry Fees can be nasty things. Seeing the most important person in your world forget about you? That’s a special type of pain. A jab to the heart anytime they can’t connect the dots between the missing memories and you.”

Beat flinches. “Shuddup. You got no clue what it’s like yo.”

“I’ve known Neku since we were both 11, he remembers nothing from before the Game,” Joshua deadpans, stopping in his tracks. People pass through him, but he pays no mind to that. “Your experiences are not unique, there are others going through the same stuff as you. Take comfort in that, and know that you are not alone in what you feel.”

Before Beat can reply, Josh walks off to go see how Neku and Rhyme are doing. Which is bothering a business man, apparently. They’ve both taken to Imprinting what they have on him. Josh cracks a smile, grabs Neku, and decides that it’s time to visit Dogenzaka.

They find the tech at Ramen Don, and send him on his way to get the fuse. Then it’s just a matter of waiting until the boss appears.

When the bat does, Neku and Josh hop into battle. He has some fun throwing objects, while Neku pummels the big boss with fire and lightning.

They have a bit of time to spare, but the timer hasn’t disappeared yet. It doesn’t, not until Beat and Rhyme appear from their battle with the small, golden bat.

Things go fuzzy after that.

 

They all wake up at 104, and Josh has a chance to appreciate the fact that he budgeted a lazy day. Get to Towa Records, no time limit.

It’s a bit of a blur. Shiki and Eri rope them all into a ton of shopping, and Josh can’t deny he had a part in that. He’s not being stingy, tossing out yen pins to everyone. It’s not a blur like day 2 was, it’s exciting, he can feel the pulse of the city beneath him as they all take turns between battles. The rhythm vibrates through him, the Music flowing around them all like the wind, and really, how could he ever want to stay on the higher vibes, when the rush, the thrill of the Game had adrenaline coursing through his system.

Throughout the day, Neku and Josh show off some sign language, teaching the others some basics. They aren’t bothering with grammar for now, just showing the signs for what they encounter.

The flow comes to a halting, cacophonous, stop as they arrive at Towa Records.

Instruments tumble over, unsure of whether to continue, as Rhyme pushes Beat out of the way of the shark trap.

Time slows.

Time stops.

Rhyme is halfway static as the world goes grayscale and freezes. Joshua takes measured steps to her side. A simple zap of power to the Swing Shark vaporizes it, the static flowing past them, back into ambient Shibuya, as he presses a hand to Rhyme’s forehead, pulling their Music back into one place, rebinding the body and Soul. He lets Rhyme shift into timeless space with him, and they look around first, panic evident, and then at him.

“What did you just do?”

Josh shrugs. “Erased the Noise, froze time to do it, reassembled you. You were almost shark bait.” He pauses, lets out a short laugh. “This is why Composers shouldn’t Play in their own Game, huh? Getting attached isn’t good when you need to be an impartial judge.”

Rhyme’s eyes widen, mouth dropping. “You? Composer? What?”

He smiles. “For about a year and a half now. I’ve always seen the UG. I’ve been friends with Neku since we were 11, became Composer a few days after my 14th birthday. He died after we got in an argument, he marched off and into the road. I… owe it to him, to keep him safe. Didn’t expect to be doing that for others, but I don’t think I’m gonna regret this.”

“Does he know?” they ask, and Josh shakes his head.

“No. I’m planning on telling him everything after we win the Game, but his Fee was his memories of me. Gotta get him those back, first. So I’d appreciate it if you could keep this secret for me.”

They mime the motion for zipping their lips, and nod. “I won’t tell anyone. You have my word.”

Josh smiles, falling back into place with the others. Their minds will accommodate, Rhyme was a near miss, the shark disappeared when it failed, things happened too fast for everyone’s brain to process. He snaps his fingers, and time resumes.

“RHYME!” Beat shouts, as he lands on the ground. He’s on his feet in seconds, ready to do whatever it takes to protect Rhyme, no doubt, but instead he finds them brushing off their knees, otherwise uninjured.

Neku hangs back, but an aborted yell hangs heavy on his lips, eyes wide. Josh takes a singular step forward, playing the part of surprised and worried friend.

There’s a lot of hugging and worrying over Rhyme, but Joshua looks beyond, at the Reaper who placed the trap. Uzuki looks annoyed, yes, with an eyebrow twitching and frown set on her face, but she’s eyeing him. She suspects his intervention, no doubt.

Kariya must have informed her of their previous Partnership.

Chapter Text

Neku wakes up at Tipsy Tose Hall. Josh is already awake, of course. He’s  been like that every day so far. He stands up, brushing himself off.

“Ah, so Sleeping Beauty decided to wake up. The others are already up and about. Beat and Rhyme are heading over to AMX, while Eri and Shiki are seeing if they can head over to Molco.” Josh pulls out his phone, fiddling with it.

Neku pulls out his own when the text tone sounds. “Alright, Erase the Noise at Spain Hill. Should be easy enough.”

“There’s probably a twist to it. Noise feed off of negativity. Some people might be stirring up trouble.”

And off they go, solving the problems of Shibuyians.

While they buy some chili dogs, he takes a moment to stop and think. It’s strange to look back just a few weeks, and remember how much he didn’t care. He didn’t hate people, not with a bitter loathing for each person he met, but besides that friend of his, the rest of humanity could turn to dust, and he wouldn’t have batted an eye. Everyone else was gray, boring, not worth his time.

Now though… Now, he can look around, and see the colors, see the way everyone shines. Everyone’s colors reflect off each other, illuminating the differences and complementing their own bright light.

He suspects that the Music he’s always heard might be related to this side of the world.

Rhyme was the first step. When Josh had that talk with Beat, Neku had his own with them.

They had been frowning, and when he’d asked, they’d said, “I can’t remember my brother.”

“Entry Fee, probably,” was his reply. “Mine was the memories of my best friend. I know I died after we had a fight, and I remember vague things, but otherwise? Nothing.”

They nodded. “It’s the same for me. He’s there, somewhere, but I can’t remember specifics. I hope he’s doing okay.”

“It’s like… It’s not a hole, it doesn’t feel jagged around the edges.” He hits the business man with another meme. “More like when a radio is out of tune, or when graffiti gets faded to the point where you can’t see it. If I didn’t know about the Fees, I might not’ve noticed.” That’s a scary thought, tendrils of terror burrowing deep into his heart. Neku knew, at one point, that his friend had meant everything to him. To have this missing piece of his heart be taken forever? To not even realize what was missing? That would’ve been hell.

Then there had been a conversation with Shiki, while Josh was showing Eri some more sign.

“What’s the case between you and Eri, anyway,” he’d asked. They were shopping in 104 together, browsing the selection.

Shiki shrugged. “We’ve been best friends for a while. I’ve always admired her. She was popular, she was sweet, everyone loved her designs. I wanted to be a fashion designer like her. I made Mr. Mew myself, my first attempt at sewing something. Just before we died… We got into a fight, she told me I wasn’t meant to be a designer. I took that bad, it was my fault we--” she cuts herself off, takes a breath, and looks back at the rack she’s absently carding through. “She just meant my talent was as a seamstress. I envied her too much, I guess.”

“You can’t blame yourself for whatever happened!” he’d insisted. “From what it sounds like, she did a lot of the talking between the two of you. She could’ve listened better, thought before she spoke, and maybe that  fight would’ve turned out better.”

“Maybe…” her voice was hollow, unconvinced.

“Hey, listen. A little bit of jealousy gives you something to shoot for, as long as you don’t fixate on it too much. I marched off from a fight with my best friend, only to get run over by a semi-truck. There were things both of us could’ve said to keep it from ending up like that, probably. I dunno, I don’t actually remember much of the fight, cuz of my Fee, but my point holds.” He grinned, nudging her in the side.

Shiki smiles at him, bright and wide. “Maybe you’re right… Thanks.”

It takes longer to figure out Beat. Once he learns that he’s Rhyme’s sibling, it clicks into place.

On day 4, hanging out at the Crossing, they’d had a chat, Beat telling him about Rhyme, and what his home was like. “Our parents were always comparin’ me to them. Sayin’ why couldn’t I be more like Rhyme. ‘Rents didn’t care ‘bout my best, didn’t care at all, so I stopped carin’ too. Rhyme though, they never gave up on me.”

“Hey man, fuck ‘em. If that’s what your parents are like, don’t listen to them. You don’t need that. I’m sure you’ve got something you’re good at, something you like doing. Even if you don’t know what that is, we’re all gonna win, and you’ll have plenty of time to figure it out. You’ve got us now. All of us.”

Eri was harder to talk to, but between her limited signing and paper, they’d discussed guilt complexes and how listening, thinking, was important. He’d gathered she spoke a lot before, so maybe this was a chance to learn patience.

He didn’t know why he was taking in everyone else’s problems. It wasn’t his job to listen and give advice, he’s not a therapist.

But that’s what he’s doing. Everyone has their own little world they live in, isolated from the rest. It’s their choice, whether to let the air become stale and let dust settle, or open the doors and windows, let others in.

In the past, Neku had his friend, but they never reached out to others. They never tried to live instead of laugh at the caricatures of everyone who passed by.

So helping Ai and Mina is less of a bother than he would’ve thought. He’s happy for them, when they make up and walk off.

 

Day 6 has Tin Pin. They all have a few hours to kill before the slam, so they spend it practicing, playing against each other.

It’s Josh and Neku’s turn to do the 1v1, when Neku decides to chat. “Hey Josh, tell me more about yourself.”

For all he’s reached out to others, to the rest of the group, Josh has been silent as the grave. He’s dropped hints, shadows of truth playing out before his face, wary to pull back the curtains and show more than the imitation of trust, wary of confiding in someone else.

“Any specifics you wanna know, dear, or are you just trying to distract me so you have a shot at winning?” Josh grins.

“I dunno, anything really. You mentioned a friend before, tell me about them.” He smiles at Josh, dropping the game of snark they play.

Josh’s grin falters, and he sighs. “He was… He was my best friend. My family was pretty shitty, between being autistic and my gender and seeing the UG, I was not the perfect child they wanted.” He hisses, teeth clenched. Maybe because he lost a pin, or maybe because of the topic.

“I was weird,” he continues, deploying his next pin. “Kids at school didn’t want to be my friend, and Hanekoma was a good parental figure, but not really a friend. I met my friend a bit after I turned 11, after meeting Hanekoma, and by that point, I’d learned good and well not to tell anyone about what I saw. So we hung out, explored the city, joked about how other people were, but I never told him. I guess I was afraid that I’d lose him if I did.”

“If he was going to reject you for that, then he wouldn’t have been a very good friend,” Neku says.

Neku chances a glance up at Joshua as his pin goes flying, and sees galaxies hidden in those eyes. The focus is hazy, not on the game in front of them. An old, aching fear bites at the edge in the way he holds his falter and shake.

“I know, but I didn’t want to risk it. I was a coward. He was everything to me, and I don’t think I would’ve been able to bear the pain if he did reject me. I didn’t think he would, but there’s that voice in the back of my head, reminding of all the times others called me a freak. I didn’t want to be his voice.” Josh looks sad, eyes downcast, mumbling his words, posture shrinking as if to hide away from the world.

Neku feels a storm-surge of emotions, and it takes time to pick them apart. Worry, knotted deep in his gut, over how Josh could’ve ended up in the Game. Empathy (curse hyperempathy, it settles less like a washcloth on his heart and more like a case of cold, biting steel), because he knows the bitter sting of a friend’s rejection.

 

He doesn’t know why guilt is flooding him like this.

Neku would offer Josh a hug, if he didn’t know Josh was touch-adverse. As it is, he pokes him in the side. “Well, we won’t abandon you. You’ve got more friends now, all of us. You won’t be alone anymore.”

Josh’s eyes flit up to him, to see the softness in his smile, the sincerity in his eyes, and he smiles back. “Thank you, Neku.”

The smile is quickly replaced by a scowl as Neku knocks his last pin away, and Neku grins over at him. “You got too distracted by being sappy.”

“Shut up and stop using underhanded tactics, or I’ll find a way to get you in more Lapin threads.”

He narrows his eyes. “You wouldn’t.” It’s not that he really minds, but the theatrics have become a joke now.

“Don’t test me.”

He laughs. “Fine, let’s slam.”

In the end, he takes home the win. Neku suspects Josh might’ve had something to do with Shuto’s malfunctioning equipment, but a win’s a win, and it kept them all in the Game one more day.

 

They all wake up in the Scramble, once more, for day 7. When six phones chime off in unison, they all grab at them, and let out a collective groan.

^The Game Master awaits you on the freeway. Defeat him. You have 600 minutes. Fail, and face Erasure - The Reapers^

“Well, that’s plenty of time to get ready. Once we’re all set, we should decide which of us will go first,” Josh says, tapping his foot on the pavement.

“You and Neku should be the ones to try first,” Shiki says. “I mean, you’ve both got the best chance, so if you go first, the rest of us won’t risk being Erased.”

Neku looks around, to see Eri and Rhyme nodding, and Beat puts in a “Sounds like a good plan to me.”

So they do the daily shopping (at Josh’s insistence), spending the ludicrous amount of time they have preparing. Neku insists they grind on Noise (what better way to prepare for a battle than to battle, after all?)

It’s late in the afternoon when they finally head down to the Station Underpass. Before they go too far, though, Neku stops and turns around to face them all.

“No matter what happens, you’re all my friends, got that? Once we come back to life, let’s all meet up at Hachiko, yeah?” he asks, smiling.

Eri nods, signing a yes with her hand.

“Of course!” Shiki says.

“You can count me in!” chimes Rhyme.

“I’ll be there, yo!” Beat says.

When Josh says nothing, they all turn to him. Neku raises an eyebrow, and Josh sighs.

“I can’t promise anything,” he mutters, “but I hope to be there with you all.”

“Good enough,” Neku says. “Let’s do this.”

Joshua and Neku walk forward, leaving the others behind to watch on, as they approach the Game Master (Ram Crotch, a voice in his head whispers. He holds in a laugh at the thought).

The most notable thing about the guy, besides the absurd belt buckle, is his usage of food puns. Who the hell says ‘Prepare to be spicy tuna rolled!’ before an epic battle, seriously?

After that, it’s just a matter of dodging attacks and hitting Higashizawa with all he can throw at him. Shockwaves, pyrokinesis, lightning bolts, all of it. He can feel Joshua fighting in the other plane, dropping all types of items down from the sky, from motorcycles to vending machines. He keeps his thoughts focused, syncs up his attacks with Josh’s.

The energy fueling their bond builds. The Music swells, reverberating between them, a crescendo of power, threatening to tip over. It blooms inside him, and he struggles to hold it back, waiting for the opportune moment.

It comes when Neku finishes dodging the balls of energy flung about. White hot light ignites under his skin, as he throws his hand out and channels all that energy into an attack. Josh picks up on what he’s doing and does the same.

“Another world awaits…”

“And you’re going!”

 

The battle fades around them, and then they’re back in the UG, wearing matching goofy smiles. Adrenaline still courses through him, but now it’s being waylaid by relief. He has time to glance back at the others, eyes darting away from Josh for a second, before they’re all enveloped in a soft warm light, twirling around them.

They all disappear together as the light takes them to their final judgement.

Chapter Text

Neku blinks away the soft light, finding himself standing in a bright room with five other people. Beat and Rhyme are to his left, Beat closer, while Shiki and Eri are to his right, and he thinks it’s Shiki that’s closer, but he still can’t tell the two of them apart.

The fifth figure is tall, glowing white with wisps of Imagination floating off the form. The features are blurred, no distinguishing identifiers to see, just the outline of a person. Feathered wings are stretched out behind him, glowing with the same white light that had enveloped them, and the Music coming off of them echoes with Shibuya’s notes, a remix fed through the Music of someone else. This must be the Composer that my Partner talked about, he thinks, and then freezes, looking around once more.

Joshua wasn’t there.

“Hey you!” he says, taking a step forward. “Glowy guy! Where is my Partner?” He glares, sparks of red-hot anger in his eyes.

The figure looks down at him and speaks, a distortion disguising the voice, making it seem unnatural as it resonates and reverberates around the room. “Your Partner is fine, Neku, but there are circumstances that prevent him from standing beside you. This is a matter for a later time. Now, all who are here have won the Game, and so, first, I will return Entry Fees to each of you.

As he says that, he waves his hand in an arc, ripples colliding with them all, Fees returned. Shiki--and his guess was right--shrinks, pink hair turning brown, and clothes becoming green. Eri lets out a gasp as her voice returns, able to make noise for the first time in a week. As Beat’s is returned, Rhyme turns to him, and he pulls them into a hug.

Neku’s is less graceful. He falls to a knee, holding his head as the memories come flooding back. It’s a tidal wave of emotions, all the little inside jokes and time spent together with his best friend. It hurts more, when the past year hits him, and that last fight.

Joshua. The name, the recognition, hits him like a bolt of lightning, searing through the synapses and forming connections in his brain. His Partner is Josh. Joshua, who spoke during the Game about how he’d always been able to see the UG, about how he feared his friend wouldn’t believe him. Josh, who must’ve seen him get run over by the truck.

He would’ve known Neku’d play the Reaper’s Game, knew he’d need a Partner. Joshua would’ve blamed himself…

He stands, looking up at the Composer again. Neku grits his teeth, and clenches his hands into fists at his side. “Where the hell is my Partner!? Where’s Josh!? What did you do to him?”

The Composer tilts his head, before sighing. “You will know soon. You and your friends here have all earned Resurrection, however, I am sure you wish to learn the fate of your Partner beforehand. This should not interfere with everyone else’s Resurrection, unless you would rather force them to wait while you argue more, when the topic is a private matter.”

Neku stares him down for a moment longer, but relents and takes a step back, looking at his newer friends. “We’re meeting up at Hachiko as soon as possible, right? I’ll see you there, and Josh will be there with me.”

They turn to look at him, and Shiki asks, “Neku, you sure?”

“Yea man, we could help ya fight this guy if you want,” Beat chimes in. He gets the impression that the Composer is rolling his eyes at that. 

“It’s fine, really. I don’t want to hold you up, and it doesn’t seem like I’m gonna get answers if you’re here.”

“It’ll be alright. I’m sure Joshua is fine,” Rhyme says, calm and collected. “If this is private, it would be rude of us to try and intrude.”

At her words, the others frown, but stop trying to argue, The Composer smiles. “Now then, four Resurrections. You will remember the Reaper’s Game, but you mustn’t speak of it to those who do not know. In the memories of others there will be no significance or important event worth remembering, a dull and normal week. For your own sake, try not to die again.”

Threads of plasmic white string together as the Composer raises his hands and weaves with grace. Soon the threads reach to the other four, pulling them into the pattern he is constructing, pillars of white light surrounding them. Bonds are entangled between them all, and Neku senses some plucking at his own body, but he isn’t surrounded in the same light.

It’s beautiful, Neku thinks, staring in awe, forgetting his anger for a moment. The Composer did exactly what the title implied, write the Music, weave the story together, and rewrite when needed. Editing the history of the past week to reflect the illusion of normalcy.

When the light display fades, and his friends are gone, the anger returns. Neku strides to the Composer, ready to punch him if he doesn’t get a satisfactory answer. “Where. Is. Joshua?”

The Composer chuckles, and Neku snarls, teeth bared. “Is this funny to you? What have you done to him? Why does this need to be private?”

Before he can deliver a fist to that featureless face, the Composer snaps his fingers, and the both of them are in a new room. The floor is a fish-tank, there’s a bar, and two couches. The teleportation is disorienting, and Neku falls backward onto one of the couches, failing to keep his balance.

Sorry, no, it’s not funny. Especially not from your perspective,” he says, taking a seat on the opposite couch, one leg crossed over the other.

“Then explain what’s up, tell me where he is, because I need to speak to him, to ask him questions. Like, he didn’t… die… just to be my Partner, did he?” Neku keeps his eyes on the Composer, but his voice wavers, betraying his fears.

He was dead long before that,” says the Composer.

With a deep breath, the figure drops the glowing, wispy form, and the axis of the world tilts off balance once again. The teleportation is nothing compared to the shattering earth of Neku’s worldview.

I was dead long before that,” says Joshua, sitting across from Neku with a small, wistful smile on his face, violet eyes looking away.

Chapter Text

What the fuck?

The words are out of his mouth before he can process the sight before him. He’s on his feet, nails biting at his palms. If the answers are unsatisfactory, fists might be needed. “If this is some kind of fucking trick, drop it.”

Neku is no fool, a being as powerful as a Composer must have shapeshifting capabilities.

The Composer sighs, running a hand through his hair in a distinctly Josh manner. “It’s not a trick, Neku. What motive could I possibly have, if I were lying?”

“Being a dick and messing with mere mortals is probably motive enough,” Neku spits, but he takes a small step back, shrinking away from the picture in front of him.

The figure snorts at his words, igniting a fury in his chest. Until he manages to slip back into the mask of neutrality by biting his thumb. Like Josh. “Every word I said during the Game was truth, more truth than I have given you for a year. I told you I’d played before, I told you that I’ve always seen the UG, and what my Entry Fee was.”

The puzzle pieces start to align, clicking into place and painting an image Neku wishes he could unsee. “Your disappearances. They were always a week or less,” he mutters, swaying backward and collapsing on the couch.

Across from him, Joshua nods. There’s a weight to the bags under his eyes, pallor skin drained of life. “I owe you an explanation. It’s long overdue.”

“No fuckin’ shit you do,” he mutters. “And by the way, all this?” he says, motioning to Joshua, “still not 100% sure this isn’t a trick. So, either own up now, or prove it.”

“You have nightmares,” comes the immediate reply, and Neku flinches. “Horrible, awful nightmares. They’re fuzzy when you wake up, like memories just out of reach, but there’s blood, and a nameless body, and--” his voice breaks. Shatters. His mouth is open, but sound does not escape, no matter how hard Josh is trying.

So his hands move instead.

[You weren’t--,] the hands are shaking, fumbling with the language. Not like a beginner, no. Neku knew that, the unsurity. He’s only seen this shakiness a few times. Twice.

The first was the first time Joshua had ever failed a test; a piece of paper and the sign for parents and afraid were all he managed to read. The second time was the night after Joshua had tried coming out to his parents.

When Neku pieces together the repeated broken, stop-and-go motions, his blood turns to ice. Body plunged into an arctic lake.

[You weren’t supposed to find my body.]

A cold metal knife, sharp stabbing pain, pierces his head as the memories try to surface. His ears fill with static, and he has to cover them, but that doesn’t block out the relentless, ceaseless droning. His memory has been tampered with, and all he can sense is the negative, the empty space where it used to be. With attention called to it, his Music longs for its missing piece.

There’s a hand on his shoulder, grounding him, snapping him back into tune, forcing the static image to retreat. He’s tilted over, laying on his side, couch firm beneath him. He looks up to find wide, violet eyes staring at him. The hand touching him is shaking.

“Alright. Ok. I’m good,” he says. When Neku moves to sit up, Joshua retreats, giving him space.

“So,” he starts, “my best friend has been the dead god of Shibuya for a year and a half, and didn’t tell me. Do I have this right?”

“Well when you put it like that…” he mutters, flopping down on the couch by Neku’s side. “I was ten when I met Hanekoma. Becoming Composer, being the one in charge, became a fantasy of mine. The amount of people who are allowed to know the Composer’s identity is two, not counting the Composer themself. I wanted to tell you, every single day, Neku, but… Even the Composer answers to someone.”

“You decided to gamble my memories, our friendship, for a power trip?”

Maybe he’s being harsh to Josh, but this is a lot to drop on a person. Neku remembers Joshua on day one, saying: It’d be cruel, to rip a hole in someone’s mind like that, even worse if it were a risk someone took on purpose. Neku is inclined to agree.

But he also sees how Josh winces at his words, hears the stormy self-loathing rising in his voice as he says, “Yes, I did! And it’s the worst decision I’ve ever made! I thought I could have the best of both worlds, but I never considered the risks of losing. I never considered how winning might not be what I wanted, but…”

Joshua closes his eyes, huffing, one elbow propped on the arm rest behind him as he twists a strand of hair. “You know how my parents were. They didn’t even bother calling me for my birthday or Christmas. The most acknowledgement I got was a gun as a present. I had plans to be Composer, but death is scary. The gift pushed me over the edge, made me impulsive, and I’ve had plenty of time to regret it.”

Silence stills the air as Neku processes his words. He pulls his legs up onto the couch, mirroring Josh by sitting cross-legged, facing him, but his eyes follow the fish below. It might be nice, to be a fish. Fish don’t have to deal with stuff like this.

“Your impulse decisions are shit,” Neku says, looking back over at Josh, and really, of all the things his mouth decides to say, this? Not the worst, but nowhere near the best. His brain is too jumbled to put serious words in order, though, a crowded school of fish colorful fish.

Josh snorts, covering his mouth in shock. “Would you prefer it if I ran all my impulsive ideas by you first?”

“Yes. Definitely. It’d save you from dying, again. Apparently, you can’t be trusted with your own wellbeing, so I gotta be the one to look after you.”

Joshua laughs, and the high-pitched unstifled sound melts away at some of the cold anger covering his heart. Neku can’t help but smile, and god, somewhere in the depths of his stomach the fluttering of his crush starts to surface, winged beings abuzz (and speaking of wings, he eyes Josh’s back, does he have any? A question for a later time).

The thought he’s cute hits him like a stomp from a kangaroo Noise, and oh shit--

“You can’t read my thoughts, can you? I like having privacy in my brain, please,” he blurts, before covering his mouth.

Josh snorts. “If I really wanted to, I could overpower the Player Pin and hear what you’re thinking, but I don’t want to. Before, I tried to keep your thoughts at bay, but for me, it’s like I’m always passively scanning all of Shibuya. The city helps to filter it for me, and I ensured your privacy, but sometimes things slipped through.”

He lets out a sigh of relief. His emotions are already jumbled up, scrambled like eggs, he doesn’t need Josh finding out about any emotions outside of friendship.

An ambient silence falls for a minute, as Neku thinks of what else to ask first, before he yawns.

Josh sits up, looking over at him. “We ran around Shibuya shopping and battling Noise for like, eight hours today, and then we had this chat. You must be exhausted.”

Neku nods. “A little, yeah, but I can keep talking.”

“Nope,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m bringing you back to life and depositing you directly into your bed. I’m sure you have more questions, but sleep and some time to think will help. We can always talk more later. If the higher-ups do something, Hanekoma will find you. If you don’t hear from me in a while, look for WildKat, he’ll be there. Otherwise, you still have my number, and it does work across the planes.”

He pouts, because he wants to keep having this conversation, but it’s clear Josh is insistent. A stray thought says that maybe Josh is trying to get rid of him, and as it registers his eyes widen, panic splayed across his face as he prepares to stand up and do something, anything to stop Josh if his suspicion is confirmed.

“You’re not going to make me forget, are you?” His voice is quiet, but the fear leaks into it, pitching it higher. He’s ready to beg if he needs to.

“No.” Josh’s own eyes widen, and he shakes his head, spitting the word out as soon as Neku’s question registered. “God no, Neku, I’d never make you forget this. I don’t even think I could. You finally know everything. The Higher Ground could order me to make you forget and I would refuse, I would face them down before doing such a thing.”

“You’ve made me forget other stuff,” he mutters. “I want those memories back, by the way.”

“We can discuss whether or not you should get severely traumatic memories back at a later point in time. At the very least, let yourself have some time to recover from all this, first.” Joshua stands, and then takes Neku’s hand.

At first, the contact is why Neku chalks up his fast-paced heart, but the realization hits him that no, it’s just fast compared to before. Because it’s beating once more. Warmth radiates outwards, Josh’s powers weaving him back together, imbuing his body with life again.

When he looks over at Josh, he sees his friend standing tall, violet eyes piercing through the mask of that white glowy disguise. For a second, all of Shibuya is contained within his chest, the strings wound between him and Josh as their Pact burn, scalding him from the inside-out. The pain evaporates after a second, but it leaves him breathless. Or maybe that’s because he hasn’t had to breathe in a week.

A hazy glow floats around everything, not just Josh, and he’s pulled through Shibuya’s melody, finding himself deposited in his bed. Alive. Blood pumping and oxygen flowing.

He lets out a laugh, and grabs his phone to text Josh. He finds four new numbers in his contacts list, and a message from Josh already.

^Sorry for the quick goodbye, we can talk more later. I hope my gift helps make up for cutting the chat short. They all have your number too.^

Chapter Text

Hachiko glistens in the afternoon sunlight on this fine Sunday, with not a cloud in the sky.

Neku is the first one to show, but he doesn’t have to wait long until Shiki and Eri come bounding over, and Beat and Rhyme manage to show up a few minutes after them.

To the outsider’s perspective, one might think this is the entire group. These five kids are always hanging out around Shibuya nowadays. Hachiko is a little lonelier without them standing nearby.

What outsiders don’t see is the glowing figure floating by the dog, watching the others gather. What outsiders don’t know is that this group is woefully incomplete, lacking its sixth member.

This Sunday is not like all the ones before it, ones that have come and gone this past month.

A shock of white hair stands out in the crowd, just as the group is readying to leave for food. Neku catches sight of it first, and whips his head around to confirm.

Feet pound the pavement as he sprints, launching himself at Joshua, who barely manages to keep himself standing as the weight of Neku crashes into him.

“Nice to see you too, Neku,” Josh says, wrapping his arms around Neku and squeezing tight. He revels in the ability to touch again.

“Shut up. You took your time, gettin’ here. Missed you, asshole.”

Josh laughs. “Missed you too. Even though you texted me, every day, and pestered me at every given opportunity. And tried to break into my sewer hideout on multiple occasions.”

Neku snorts. “Your fault for not showing up sooner.”

The others catch up, and the reunion turns into a pile of people, hugging each other and getting smushed up against everyone else.

Words still need to be spoken, a discussion on secrets and memories, but for now? Josh doesn’t worry about that, surrounded by friends.

Neku does ask one question, but it doesn’t concern such heavy topics. Instead, he says:

“So, how about some Sunshine for lunch?”