Disclaimer: The World Ends With You belongs to Square Enix, not to me, and all characters are used here without permission.
A/N: Whew, another chapter done at last -- sorry it took so long. And... wow. Ten reviews on the last chapter!! Seriously, you guys are awesome -- many, many thanks. Thanks to all who've favorited, too; it's very much appreciated. Hope I continue not to disappoint. :)
EDIT: Thanks to CherrySoda for pointing out a typo. It's now been fixed.
-4: ...and second chances-
Figures, doesn't it?
The words hung in the air for a moment after Joshua had spoken them. In Neku's mind they called forth a sudden memory of the too-vivid nightmare he'd had, of gray, empty space where Shibuya should have been. It was too much to take in on short notice, and Neku stared speechlessly at Joshua for a long, frozen, horrified moment as he once again sank back to lean against the pillar that stood by the throne. He had to; his head was reeling as badly as it had when he'd first stepped across the barrier.
Joshua regarded him in expressionless silence, his violet eyes unreadable--
--And then the corners of his mouth twitched upwards, into that weirdly affectionate smile.
"You really should see the look on your face right now, Neku. I'd take a picture, but the higher-ups are paying far too much attention to my phone at the moment. Someone would probably notice sooner or later, and that would cause problems, obviously, because you really aren't supposed to be here."
Neku drew a long, deep breath. And another. "This is all some kind of sick joke to you, isn't it? It really is."
"Enjoy the moment, Neku."
"Yeah. I don't think that's quite how he meant it."
"Oh, I don't know," Joshua said. "When you get to know him, Sanae's own sense of humor is pretty skewed, sometimes."
"Why," Neku said, far, far more levelly than he wanted to, "is Shibuya going to be erased?"
"I didn't say it would be, Neku. There's a chance,I distinctly heard myself say." He shrugged. "If you'd stopped complaining for long enough to listen to anything I said, I'm sure you would have heard it too."
"How much of a chance?"
"It's... hard to say."
Neku would have killed for a psychokinesis pin right about now. Although, admittedly, there wasn't much around to use one on other than Joshua himself, and Joshua would probably not prove as simple a target to hit as Shiki once had.
Well, if he was wishing for a pin, he might as well wish for a few good, sharp traffic cones, too. Or a motorcycle. Or maybe, he thought, he could go back out to the river, find a few of the Noise that always lurked there, bring them back, and use psychokinesis on them. Maybe ten, fifteen minutes of being repeatedly beaten about the head with two-foot-high, slimy, sewer-dwelling frogs would be enough to get Joshua to talk.
There were at least a dozen reasons why that wouldn't work, either, even if he'd had a pin to begin with, but it was a nice image, and he stared at it fixedly in his head as he prompted, patiently, "Best guess, Josh?"
"Call it fifty-fifty." Joshua paused, and then added, "...Approximately."
Neku shut his eyes. "All right. And why is there such a high chance that this will happen?"
"It's not that high," Joshua said dismissively. "It's just as likely it won't."
Another deep breath. Maybe... maybe he'd see if he could find some jellyfish, to go with the frogs; those things stung like absolute hell. "Fifty percent is pretty damned high, Joshua."
"Hm." Joshua sounded entirely too amused, and Neku opened his eyes to see the Composer regarding him curiously. "Just a week ago, Neku, you let me win our Game. You couldn't seriously have thought that the odds of Shibuya's survival were any better then."
Neku swallowed. Inasmuch as he could remember what had gone through his head during the calm, cold, quiet countdown, there had been shock, and stunned disbelief, and anger, and confusion, and hurt... and grief. Shiki and Beat were two of the closest friends he'd ever had, there was no question, but those were friendships built with little but the hardships they'd shared in the Game for common ground. Whereas Joshua...
I thought I'd finally found a friend I could relate to.
There had not been a lot of rational thought, amidst the chaos. He'd known what he had to do, absolutely had to at all costs, and he'd found that he couldn't, and then he'd gotten shot. Again.
It probably didn't say good things about your life when your own death started conjuring up a sense of déjà vu.
"I... didn't believe you'd really erase it," he said.
"You had no way of knowing that I wasn't going to," Joshua said calmly. "You couldn't have. I didn't know I wasn't going to. Sanae didn't know I wasn't going to. And between the two of us, we've generally got my mental state pretty well covered."
"I can see," Neku muttered, "where someone wouldn't want to leave it up to you alone, but quit trying to change the subject. Why, this time, is there a one in two chance that Shibuya will be wiped out?"
Joshua opened his mouth, and Neku added, levelly, "And if you say it's hard to say one more time, I will personally make you eat frogs."
This received a mildly affronted look. "That, I would pay to see you try. As it happens, it is hard to say; Sanae is my only direct source of information where the higher-ups are concerned, and, ah... he's not in a position to be tremendously helpful at the moment. Though he's doing the best he can."
"Sa -- Mr. H," Neku said cautiously.
"Mm. Oh, yes," Joshua said, as if it had just occurred to him. "You don't really know about him, do you."
"I know he's some sort of guardian for the Game. I know he's CAT. I've... kind of worked out that there's a hell of a lot more I don't know. But that's about it." But Neku swallowed, and added, "Except that -- that text message I got last night -- it said something about fallen angels, and I wondered if that was--"
The look on Joshua's face as his eyebrows shot upwards was confirmation enough. "Really. Now, that's peculiar; they don't generally like to broadcast those things. To anyone. Still," and he grinned, "at least I can honestly say you didn't hear it from me first."
"Since when have you cared about honesty?"
"Now, that's just hurtful, Neku."
Neku ignored this. "So Mr. H... really is a...?"
"Mm-hm. But, as I said, you didn't hear that from me."
"A fallen angel?"
"Mm. His own silly fault, really. He tried to interfere in my Game with Megumi."
"The details aren't important right now, Neku," Joshua said firmly. "He was trying to protect Shibuya, in his own way. Unfortunately, when everything was over he was silly enough to let the higher-ups find out about it. I did suggest he lie through his teeth, but he's rather stubborn when he wants to be." A cross look darkened the Composer's face for a moment. "As I said, the situation's gotten a bit complicated. However, what you should be worried about right now is yourself."
"You still haven't told me why--"
"I just told you, Neku, I can't be entirely certain," Joshua said. "But with Megumi's failed strategy, and Sanae's fooling around, and admittedly my own... cleanup efforts, afterwards -- and the risk of your imagination starting to run amok, now -- Shibuya's been through a lot recently. From what I understand, some of the higher-ups are concerned that reality around here might start getting a bit unstable as a result. And that the instability will spread.
"What does that mean?"
Joshua smiled faintly. "It's--"
Neku groaned, and echoed, "Hard to say," only a fraction of a second out of sync with the Composer. I will not punch the god of Shibuya's afterlife. I will not punch the god of Shibuya's afterlife. I would like to live, thank you. I will not...
"I don't think they're entirely positive themselves, to tell you the truth. But erasing Shibuya entirely would almost certainly eliminate whatever threat might exist, and some of them feel they'd be better off safe than sorry."
"What, that's it?" Neku stared at him in disbelief. "Darn, Shibuya and, what, a few hundred thousand people just got wiped out of existence, but hey, a danger that might or might not have existed is now almost definitely gone, so oh well?"
"Pretty much." Joshua shrugged. "Personally, though, I don't think it's the solution they'll choose."
"You said it was a fifty-fifty shot."
"Really, Neku, you do need to listen." Joshua's tone became pedantic. "Approximately, I said. I really have no way of judging the odds, at this point, but you wanted a guess. I gave you a guess. You didn't ask what the margin of error was."
Neku blinked at him in silence a couple of times, and then stared fixedly upwards for a moment before asking, with patient dread, "What was the margin of error?"
And there was that wicked grin that generally meant Neku wasn't going to like what Joshua said next. "Oh... probably forty-nine percent or so. Maybe forty-nine and a half, tops." The grin faded as he admitted, "At present the city's chances simply aren't calculable, Neku. From what I have gathered, as I said, I doubt they'll do it -- at least not without trying some other things first -- but as of yet I'm working from a picture that's far from complete."
Neku's right hand rose, pinching at the bridge of his nose in an effort to dispel the headache he could feel coming on. There was one thing, he reflected, to be said for talking to Yoshiya Kiryu at any length, and it was this: you got a lot of practice at holding your temper. "Joshua, just -- just once in a while, could you say I don't know like a sane and normal person?"
"Now, where would be the fun in that? Anyway, I did say it was hard to be sure, but would you listen? No. You insisted on an answer. You know, Neku--" and Joshua's tone became reproving -- "You aren't the easiest person to talk to, sometimes. I hope you realise this."
And yet, what you didn't get, talking to him, was enough practice at holding your temper to -- well -- actually allow you to hold your temper while talking to him. Bit of a problem, that.
"I'm not the easiest--?" Neku spluttered for a moment before shaking his head and gritting his teeth in grim resolve. No. No -- I'm not even going to answer that. Sewer frogs, jellyfish, and it was really a shame that those nightmarish pink elephants they'd met once or twice were immune to psychokinesis. Not that they lived anywhere near the river anyway, but as long as he was in fantasy land...
"Well, you aren't. I just thought I ought to mention it as a point of interest; you're so taken with self-improvement these days. If you really want explanations, you could stop interrupting and just let me talk. I will tell you what I think you need to know, Neku, but I am not obligated to explain myself to you any more than I care to, and this would be going much more smoothly if you would bear that in mind."
There had been some reason, Neku remembered, why yesterday some part of his mind had thought it might be good, after some bizarre fashion, to see Joshua again.
He couldn't presently remember what it had been. It was a lot easier to feel halfway kindly inclined towards Shibuya's Composer when you weren't actually in the same room with him. From a distance, Neku could just about convince himself that things had turned out for the best and that maybe, somehow, everything had been meant to happen as it had, no matter what Joshua might have said at the end. That from the beginning, it had all been part of some higher plan that only Joshua could see, that none of the horrors of the last month had happened without reason.
Closer to, it was hard not to feel that yes, there had been a reason, which was that the ruler of Shibuya's Underground had a really sadistic sense of humor. No higher plans, no hidden designs, no grand order to the whole thing. Just the godly equivalent of a creepy kid who liked to pull the wings off of flies when he was bored.
And yet -- I trust him. Going to get me killed... but I trust him.
Doesn't mean I have to like him.
"Yeah, see -- no." He folded his arms over his chest stubbornly. "First off, as far as obligations go? You shot me in the head. You put me through three weeks of hell. Then you shot me again. Now you pop up out of nowhere a week later, drag me into the UG in my sleep, tell me the whole city's about to be destroyed despite everything my friends and I just went through, and--"
Neku's voice rose slightly. "--And act like I'm supposed to be okay with this and just go along with whatever you--"
"Neku." Sharply. "None of this is news, and I have to tell you, right at the moment -- world's smallest violin playing over here."
Neku's hands clenched themselves into fists involuntarily as he snapped his mouth shut. For a moment the two stared at each other in silence, Neku glaring daggers in a sudden rush of anger, Joshua gazing back, calm and indifferent.
At last Joshua opened his mouth to say, very softly: "Composer, Neku. All Shibuya is rightfully Mine, to do with as I will. You're a part of Shibuya. And we could have the long version of that conversation, if you really, really insist, but the short version? Deal with it."
Neku stared at him speechlessly for a moment longer, the brief instant of fury draining away into a sort of strange blankness that filled his head. And then, abruptly, he pushed away from the pillar against which he had been leaning, spun, and strode back towards the tangle of lines painted on the floor.
"Neku..." There was a definite warning note in Joshua's voice.
Neku did not turn back. "Josh, I don't know what's really going on, and frankly, even if you did give me a straight answer I'm not sure I'd believe it. But whatever the hell you want from me this time, tough. You're on your own."
"Yes, all right, Neku." From his tone of barely-concealed impatience, Joshua might have been trying to placate a five-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. "But you--"
Neku picked up his foot, started to step over the painted lines--
--There was a sharp crack, and he heard himself yell, and then he was flat on his back on the floor, blinking stars from his eyes and shuddering at the memory of a very brief instant of very bad pain.
Joshua cleared his throat. "Never mind."
Neku stared dazedly up at the vaulted ceiling, only dimly visible on the edges of the room's weird ambient light. Maybe, he thought, this was all just another too-vivid nightmare. Maybe he'd wake up shortly, find himself back in his room, and would be able to chalk the whole thing up to the aftereffects of an incredibly stressful month.
Maybe, while he was at it, he'd win ten million yen in some contest he didn't know he'd entered. And would find a message on his cell phone informing him that Joshua had gone on vacation to someplace far, far, far away -- possibly back to whatever damn planet he'd come from, because Neku was seriously beginning to doubt he was from this one -- and had liked it so well there that he was never coming back.
After a minute or two, Joshua said mildly, "Would you like a hand getting up?"
"No. No, actually I'm kinda comfortable here, thanks."
Grimacing, Neku shifted position enough to fold his arms behind his head. The floor really wasn't too bad. It was possible that after so many mornings spent waking up on the pavement of Scramble Crossing, anything else seemed good by comparison.
Another minute or so went by before Joshua said, "I did try to warn you, Neku. The barrier there is one way. Getting out's rather more difficult than getting in."
"Happily, there is another route out which you'll be able to take. I haven't trapped you here."
"Glad to hear it."
"So," Joshua said at last.
"Are you quite finished sulking and throwing a snit, or do you need a cookie and a pat on the head to make you feel better?"
Neku drew a deep, weary breath. "You really can't give it a rest, can you? You just can't."
"Shall I take that as a 'no'on both counts?"
"Sure. You do that."
More silence. There were patterns on the ceiling, Neku noticed as he gazed up into the gloom. At least, he thought they were patterns, not just light and shadows playing tricks on his eyes. They were hard to see, dark grey on black, but they were there.
"You know," Joshua said eventually, "most people about to be hit with serious trouble would be grateful for some warning, Neku."
Neku breathed a silent, humorless laugh. "I'm not even going to dignify that with a response."
"You are sulking."
"No. No, I'm not. There is just really nothing that I can say to this situation, Josh, that's not going to end with you telling me to shut up and pay attention. I have been paying attention. I'm in danger. The city's in danger. Fine. Now I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me what you're actually afterwith all this."
"What happened to trust your partner, Neku?"
"If you would actually act like we were partners for once, I might."
"Neku," reprovingly, "I am the C--"
"Composer. Yeah. I'm kind of aware of that by now, thanks."
"Yes, well, if you would actually act--" Joshua began meaningfully, but Neku interrupted him again.
"Josh, just tell me what the fucking hell you want from me, or let me go so I can go stand on a street corner and shout 'Run for the hills, the end is coming' at everybody I see."
"That attitude's getting you nowhere, Neku."
"Yeah, well, neither is yours." Neku shut his eyes with an air of finality. "Look, just wake me up when you've gotten to the point, will you?"
There was a very long, very dangerous pause, and then Joshua said, in an bright, amiable tone that was very, very obviously false, "Let's try this again, shall we? I wouldn't say this conversation is going nowhere, but it is, I think,heading for places which would perhaps be best put off for another day."
Neku waited, eyes still closed, and said nothing.
"Fine," Joshua said at last, suddenly neutral. "Neku, I... could use some help here."
And if you'd admitted that a half an hour ago, you idiot... Neku nodded, very slowly. "You don't say," he said in equally neutral tones. "So what's the story? The whole story."
"The whole story." There was a soft laugh, followed by a sigh, and Joshua, when he spoke again, sounded a lot less his usual self and a lot more tired. "Sanae tried to kill me, Neku."
The inward triumph at finally winning some sort of concession from Shibuya's arrogant Composer died as quickly as it had come to life, replaced by a cold, sick knot in Neku's stomach. He opened his eyes, sat up to turn and give Joshua a disbelieving stare, but there was no faint smirk on the Composer's face this time, no evil glint in his eyes suggesting that this was another of his inappropriate ideas of a joke. Only weary honesty.
"He..." Neku swallowed, thinking that he must have heard wrong. "He what?"
"You wanted to know how he became Fallen? As I told you before," Joshua said quietly, "he was trying to protect Shibuya. He tried to talk me out of my wager with Megumi. I didn't listen. He took what steps he thought were necessary."
Joshua's face was set, expressionless. "It was nothing personal; I don't hold it against him. But he broke some of the highest laws that angels are bound to follow, and--" A barely detectable note of strain entered his voice. "They -- wanted to take him away."
Joshua's voice was still level and almost devoid of emotion, but somehow there was a weirdly childish sound to that last. Neku found himself remembering the day Joshua had first tricked him into visiting WildKat Café, and remembering the conversation he'd had when he had cautiously broached the subject of his second partner with the café owner.
"See, he's a little special. He... sees things," Mr. H had said. "He saw Players and Reapers and all when he was still alive -- and when he wanted to talk about it, he came to me. There aren't many folks who'd listen, if you know what I mean. In a way," and the man had grimaced ruefully, "he's been alone all his life."
After learning who and what Joshua really was, Neku had dismissed just about everything that had been said and done, that week, as nothing more than lies, but watching the Composer's face now he had to wonder if to that, at least, there might have been some grain of truth. Come to think of it, he must have been alive once, huh?
One way or another, Mr. Hanekoma had been the one person Neku had met who had actually genuinely seemed to like Joshua. And even for an angel, that... that probably took some work.
Joshua went on, interrupting Neku's thoughts. "Of course, I'm already down a Conductor; I don't need to deal with a replacement Producer, too. So I told them -- very politely -- that I wasn't handing him over."
"And how did that go over?" Neku asked cautiously, biting back the observation that the present lack of a Conductor was entirely Joshua's own dumb fault.
"Ah." Joshua paused. When he spoke again, his tone was not exactly embarrassed -- Neku had trouble imagining Joshua being embarrassed about anything -- but there was a faint, rueful note to it that suggested that just about anyone else, in the same circumstances, would be feeling more than a little sheepish. "Well, I'm slightly under arrest at the moment. If that gives you some idea."
Deep breath. "Slightly... under... arrest."
"That's what I said."
"I heard you. How are you--"
"It's mainly a question of semantics and social niceties. The higher-ups don't like to involve themselves in the UG directly. They'll sit back and watch, but a lot of them feel that getting close up and personal is beneath them. Sanae's always been an exception to that, of course; most Producers have to be, to some extent, but they're in the minority. The rest, when they do have to interfere, try to be very quiet about it."
"Erasing Shibuya is considered quiet?"
"Well, that's a special situation. Trying to stop reality from collapsing, and all. Whereas a rebellious Composer is... ah..." Joshua coughed. "More an inconvenience, as far as they're concerned, than an outright disaster."
"Here's the thing," Joshua said quietly. "When they do interfere, they like to work within the rules, you see. And unfortunately, Sanae's assassination attempt -- however well-meant -- may have given them a way to do that."
Neku waited in silence.
"They're not too happy with me at present. It's not just the question of harboring a fallen angel -- although that alone would be enough for them to kick up quite a fuss and I doubt they would be bothering so much with everything else, otherwise. Some of them feel I overstepped my limits in last month's Games."
Aww, is murdering people frowned upon? You poor thing.
"And although Sanae was, theoretically, working against me, certain things that he did... did indirectly affect the outcome. Ironically, had he not betrayed me, things might have gone quite differently. I won't say I would have lost, but he did change things, from well outside the rules. Which, technically--"
Joshua drew a deep breath, and Neku had a strong suspicion that he wasn't going to like whatever came next. If Joshua had to stop and steel himself before spitting it out, it couldn't be good.
Before Joshua could continue, however, a new voice spoke, from somewhere in the darkness behind the throne.
"Which technically gives Us the right, Composer, to declare the Game's results invalid."
Neku saw Joshua freeze, violet eyes widening slightly in the closest thing to real shock that Neku, in their brief -- yet still entirely too long -- acquaintance, had ever seen on his face. Neku himself spun, and found himself staring at someone very like the being from the nightmare he'd had. There, but not quite possible to focus on. The effect was not quite as frightening as it had been in his dream, but it was a hell of a lot more annoying, and made his vision blur when he tried to see the being properly.
The being ignored Neku entirely as it went on, its voice musical but cold: "The Fallen was right. You anticipate your opponents' moves rather well, for one whose senses are so limited. Your disdain for even the simplest rules, however, does not stand you in good stead." It nodded at the lines painted on the floor. "They were some clever additions the Fallen one made to your prison -- and largely of your design, I believe, not his -- but did you honestly believe We would not spot them?"
Joshua had by now recovered from the split second of uncertainty, but definite irritation showed on his face. "I'll admit I had hoped it would take you longer. What have you done with Sanae?"
"He is in custody. He is, right now, not your concern."
Joshua's expression became dangerously cross at this, but after a pause he said only, mildly, "So you do intend one more Game, then."
"Indeed, Composer," the being told him calmly. "A rematch. With Shibuya as your opponent's fee -- as it should have been last time -- which will nicely avoid the issue of what to do with it."
"I thought so." A faint smile crossed Joshua's face. "Neatly done -- and all without getting your hands dirty. If I win, Shibuya will effectively have been destroyed, and if I lose, it will have a new Composer -- one you believe will be better capable of fixing the city's problems. And more cooperative, yes?"
The being inclined its head slightly. Joshua's smile became a faintly mischevious grin. "I might want to warn you against that last. Personally, I've found he doesn't take orders very well."
Neku was still listening to all of this in horrified bewilderment, but it was not until the amused violet gaze turned to settle on him that the last sentence clicked into place. "W... wait. No. What? No. Um, I think there's some mista--"
Joshua's voice was quiet. "You were wondering, Neku, why you didn't take that shot? Looks like you may shortly be getting all kinds of second chances. Unless, of course," and the cool stare flicked away from him, landed on the strange, indistinct form of what Neku could only assume was one of the higher-ups, "I've misunderstood your intentions? I would assume you're not dragging poor Megumi back from the great beyond for this. He was a good enough Conductor, but he would make a very poor Composer."
"No, Composer. You are quite correct." And now, at last, the being turned its head, acknowledging Neku's presence for the first time. "We have no intention, Mr. Sakuraba, of forcing your hand. What unbalance exists in Shibuya does not require immediate action. The Game will begin in one week's time." The figure shrugged. "You will be contacted with specifics at a later date. I suggest you think things over very carefully before then."
And then there was light, and then the being was gone. For a moment, Neku could only stare in stunned silence at the spot where it had stood. Then, very slowly, he turned to Joshua. "Uh. Josh?"
There were so many things to say, questions to ask, profanities to shout that he didn't even know where to begin, but somewhere from out of the chaos of total mental breakdown, words arose. "You know that thing you were saying before. Quis custa... whatever. Who watches the watchers."
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes." And at a time like this, only Joshua, Neku thought, would take the time to correct another person's pronunciation of a dead language that said other person didn't even speak. "Yes, Neku."
"If they're watching you to make sure you don't go overboard..." Neku swallowed, aware that his voice was shaking a little bit. "Um. Who's watching them to make sure they're not, you know, completely freaking batshit insane?"
"Ah, well." Joshua's smile was more than a little grim. "That, my dear Neku, is the real question, isn't it?"
A/N: Aack, this is another one that had far too many drafts. I did make an effort to stop Joshua and Neku from the constant bickering, but eventually concluded it wasn't happening. Hopefully they've gotten most of it out of their systems for the moment and things will be able to move forward a little more smoothly -- albeit probably in a direction that neither one of them likes very much.
One week and counting to the start of exams, so I doubt I can get the next chapter up before then. But once I'm past those and back to a regular school schedule I should be able to get into a more efficient writing schedule as well. Meanwhile, reviews are always welcome. :)