Disclaimer: The World Ends With You is the property of Square Enix; I'm just borrowing.
A/N: Written for the fanfic100 community on LJ; prompt was 'How?'
Chapter 5 of Quis Custodiet will be done this weekend if it kills me. But this has been bugging me for weeks and I wanted to finish it... turns out Joshua is much harder to write when he's not snarking at Neku, though.
Missing the Point
Missing the Point
He watches Neku pretty often, from the Underground, but even Joshua can't spend every minute of every day stalking his former proxy. A lot of minutes, yes, when he has nothing better to do and when, for one reason or another, he doesn't want to drop his frequency down to the Realground to harass Neku face-to-face. But even then, even a demigod needs an afternoon off from time to time.
Today he's wandering Shibuya more or less aimlessly, occasionally pausing to tune into the constant chatter of thought all around him. He wouldn't have bothered, not so long ago, not unless he needed something specific from someone. But he knows Neku thinks he ought to pay more attention to other people, and though he would never, ever admit to anyone that he's even considered agreeing with that, he has started to wonder if perhaps it might be worth a try.
He suspects, too, that prying into other people's minds without invitation probably isn't what Neku meant, but he is the Composer. It's his right. And anyway, it isn't doing them any harm, they'll never even know, and how else is he supposed to go about the thing?
His feet eventually carry him to Hachiko, and he stops for a moment, and as he looks around he sees a familiar face: sitting by herself next to the statue, enjoying an ice cream cone as she watches the world go by, is a little girl, somewhere in the vicinity of eleven years old, blond hair sticking out from underneath a black knit hat.
She's only really met him a few times, on rare weekends when some insanity prompted him to venture into the midst of Neku's inner circle. Those were, on the whole, uncomfortable occasions: Beat and Shiki not exactly welcoming to someone who had twice murdered one of their best friends; Neku more than a little awkward; Joshua himself stiff and unused to socializing with teenagers. Mostly he hung back to watch and listen in silence, only throwing the odd incredibly snide or insulting comment into the mix to give himself something to do.
Those few weekends weren't exactly painful, but they weren't much fun. Neku's his, and no Realground mortal -- least of all Neku himself -- will change that, but Shiki and Beat and even Rhyme, they have some peculiar and unidentifiable thing with Neku that Joshua knows he himself doesn't and probably never will. And that's… difficult to sit back and watch, because Shibuya and everything and everyone in it, it's all supposed to be his, and anything he wants he can reach out and take, and this… this he can't.
And neither Shiki nor Beat is going to let him forget it anytime soon, both hovering protectively about their friend whenever they see Joshua get within a hundred feet of him -- Beat outwardly hostile, Shiki more restrained but with undertones to her that clearly say: You hurt him, ever again, and you'll have me to deal with. He wonders what threat they can possibly, possibly think they pose -- but then again, maybe it's more of a threat than he thinks, because if they were to attack him he'd strike back without even thinking about it. And what is painful is the knowledge that whatever connection he and Neku do have, he could lose in an instant, that way.
Rhyme never met Joshua in the Game, though, wasn't there at the end to see Neku cry over the murderer he couldn't kill and the city he couldn't save. Joshua's sure she's heard a hundred garbled horror stories from her brother by now, along with strict injunctions to run for Shibuya's limits if she ever sees the Composer so much as glance in her direction, but she knows Beat well enough to take everything he says with a grain of salt.
On an odd impulse, he drops his frequency down to RG levels. There's nobody looking his direction at the moment; one or two people might notice a boy popping into existence out of thin air, but if they know what's good for them they'll have decided, thirty seconds from now, that it was just their eyes playing tricks on them. Rhyme's eyes widen very slightly when she sees him; she tilts her head to one side and watches him curiously for a moment before raising a hand in greeting.
"Hey. Joshua, right?"
He hesitates for a moment, but somewhere in his head he sees Neku's piercing blue glare and thinks that perhaps, just once, he'll try going about this in human fashion. A second or two of work with his cellphone conjures up ice cream of his own (all right, mostly human fashion) -- good stuff, not the cheap, too-sweet vanilla soft-serve they sell at Sunshine. "Mind if I join you?"
She grins, nodding to the cell phone. "Depends. Does that thing do hot fudge sundaes?"
He strolls over to the low wall and sits down a few feet away, raising his eyebrows and giving the phone a disdainfully dubious look. "I suppose. If you like that sort of thing."
"Wha-at, you don't?" She laughs. "My brother's right. There is something wrong with you."
At this the corners of his mouth curl upwards, and he says, dismissively, "So Neku tells me. Often."
She takes a bite of ice cream before adding, "On which subject, I didn't get a chance the last time I saw you, but I… well, I sort of wanted to apologise. For the way Beat was acting. And to thank you."
He blinks, and for an instant he's actually taken aback. "Why?"
She shrugs, smiling. "You returned us all to life, right? As far as I understand it, you didn't have to do that. Except maybe for Shiki. But I lost fair and square, and Beat kinda got himself kicked out of the Reapers, and--" Her smile fades. "--I heard about what happened with Neku. Neku doesn't really talk about it much," she adds hastily, as if suddenly worried she might get her friend in trouble, "but -- well, I heard."
"…Oh. I see."
"Anyway," Rhyme goes on, "Beat, well… I know he was kind of... rude. I think you scare him, a little. But I know he's really grateful we were all brought back, too; he just can't quite connect that with you, yet, in his head. So thanks. From me, and from him."
He gives her a level stare. "You'd better not just be buttering me up in the hopes of getting that sundae."
She giggles. "Busted, huh? Was it working?" But her head shakes quickly, and a solemnity in her eyes belies the teasing tone. "Nah. I mean it."
There doesn't seem to be much to say to this, except, "You're welcome, then."
She studies his face for a moment, and it would be silly for Shibuya's Composer to be unsettled by an eleven-year-old girl's stare, so he's not. "Players don't say that to you very often, do they?"
"Most of them never meet me," he says indifferently. "And the ones who do don't remember it, when they return to life. You and your friends were special cases."
She nods. "Because of Neku. Beat and I wouldn't be here at all, if not for him, would we?"
It's a simple statement of fact, no accusation, no anger, no fishing for a better answer, just confirmation of something that she clearly already knows: that in Joshua's mind, she and her brother count for about as much as -- as he once heard Kariya put it -- two specks of Shibuya space dust.
The strange thing is what's equally clear: a little fascinated despite himself, he asks, "It really doesn't bother you, does it? None of it does."
"No use worrying about what you can't change, is there? Anyway, it's all over with now."
"You don't know that," he feels compelled to point out, because it's -- well, it's the principle of the thing. "For all you know I could change my mind and wipe Shibuya out tomorrow."
But she shakes her head, still smiling. "You won't."
"And how do you know that?" he asks sharply.
"Because," Rhyme says simply, "It's on your face, you know. Your eyes light up a little every time you hear his name."
Joshua blinks, stiffening as if struck, and his brief amusement with the conversation and with Rhyme herself drains away in an instant. He... he didn't know that, actually. And that, he thinks, is why he doesn't do honesty, and doesn't do things the human way, because he didn't really want to know that.
He's just about gotten his own head around the concept that he does in fact care about Neku -- that the boy's not just some passing amusement that he could just as easily live without -- and he tries not to think about it in those terms very much, but when he does he's... more or less all right with it. Mostly.
He's even, almost, mostly-sort-of-more-or-less all right with the knowledge that Neku could just as easily live without him. What peculiar relationship they have consists mainly of teasing and arrogance and snide remarks and petty arguments and the occasional death threat, and he's pretty sure Neku's too exasperated by it all to realise just how much power he actually has over Shibuya's absolute ruler, and as long as things stay that way it'll be fine. Just absolutely fine.
So hearing -- from a near-total stranger -- that he's quite so transparent, it's... not comfortable, not at all.
By the time he's thought any of this he's already on his feet, several paces away from the statue and opening the distance by the second. The dish of ice cream's vanished back into thin air, his hands are stuffed in his pockets, his shoulders stiff, and the moment he can lose himself in a crowd or find somewhere out of sight he'll be back in the Underground where he should be, because this kind of conversation… it's a mistake he should be smart enough not to make. It's stupid. He's supposed to be above this kind of thing.
But there's an indignant "Hey!" and a patter of running feet behind him, and Rhyme has apparently just become either very dumb or very suicidal. She reaches out, catches his sleeve. "Sorry, I didn't mean to offen--"
He turns, and there's a brief crackle of energy and then Rhyme is stumbling a few paces backwards, clutching at her hand and biting her lip in obvious pain, staring at him in startlement. He stares back, closed and expressionless as he waits, with detached curiosity, to see what she'll do.
He's expecting anger, whining, complaints, hurt feelings, something; she's only a child, and only human, and it was only a warning shot but it was still a pretty nasty jolt she just got for daring to touch him. Actually, within the confines of his head, he has to admit he's moderately impressed that she didn't scream. Just as well; it would have drawn attention, and he doesn't need the trouble over a half a second's lost temper.
Her face is a little pale, now, but after a moment she says only, softly, "Sorry. I... guess I must have hit some kind of nerve pretty bad, huh?"
"You know," he tells her evenly, "who and what I am. Never make the mistake of lowering Me to your level. Even in your thoughts."
Her brow furrows for a moment, and again he's on the receiving end of the level, unafraid scrutiny, her clear blue eyes entirely too knowing for someone so young. And then she nods. "All right."
There's a slightly off-balance moment at the sense of action without reaction. Despite himself, he hears his voice echoing, a little blankly, "All right?"
"Yeah." She shrugs philosophically. "Well, you've got a point. You're the Composer. I… don't know what that's like. So it's kind of presumptuous to think I'd understand how you feel about anything." Smiling a little sadly, she adds, "Or anyone. I don't even know if you can feel the same kinds of emotions most people do -- it seems like whatever goes on in your head, it's… probably got to be beyond human comprehension, really. I mean--"
She nods at him, standing there in jeans and sneakers and a rather nice jacket that he suddenly, self-consciously remembers he stole from Neku, more to annoy than because he really wanted it. To all appearances, he's one more teenager out enjoying the afternoon. "I know that's the form you put on to come down here and talk to people and everything, but it's not really who you are, is it?"
"No." Though it's who he used to be a long time ago, before the day he got his hands on a gun and shortly thereafter... well, opted out of the living world. Solely for the sake of an adrenaline rush.
Rhyme nods again. "It's just -- that's easy for the rest of us to forget, sometimes, you know? We aren't used to talking to… well… gods." The corners of her mouth curl upwards, and she adds, "Not face to face, anyway. It's not really something that most people know how to do. So I really am sorry for making assumptions."
If Neku were like this, Joshua thinks, life would be a lot easier. Maybe not as much fun, but easier. He considers the girl for a moment longer, then returns the nod curtly. "Fine."
Rhyme smiles, and from the look on her face she seems to feel that's that. But then she looks around. "Aw, I dropped my ice cream." It's upside-down on the pavement, now, melting into a small, sad puddle of vanilla.
"Don't look at me," Joshua says, shrugging. "Go buy yourself another."
"Yeah, yeah." She rummages through her pockets for a moment, though, and her face falls as she comes up empty. "Or not."
"I believe the expression," he tells her blandly, "is 'sucks to be you.'" He retrieves his phone from his pocket, and a couple of tapped keys are all that it takes to rematerialise his own dish as he strolls back to the low wall.
She purses her lips and glowers at him, but there's a faint spark of humor in her eyes and it's clear she understands that whatever strange nerve she did hit, she's been forgiven. "You're not nice."
"I murdered your brother's best friend. In cold blood. Twice." He takes a bite of ice cream. "If you're just figuring this out now, you're not as quick as I thought."
They sit in silence for a moment, but she's eyeing him curiously, sidelong, and at last she says, "Is that Neku's jacket you're wearing?"
"Hm?" Joshua coughs. "Ah... yes. And your point?"
"Nothing, I just thought I recognized it. It's the one Shiki gave him."
He stares up at the sky for a moment. "You don't say."
"She was mad as anything that he lost it," Rhyme says complacently.
"Barely spoke to him for two weeks. She put a lot of work into it."
"How about that?"
She gives him a narrow-eyed, suspicious stare now. "Did you take it so she'd get mad at him?"
Another cough. "If you're trying to look for blackmail material, I suggest you forget it. You're not getting that sundae."
Rhyme very nearly smirks. "You did, didn't you?"
"Would I do a thing like that?"
She shakes her head ruefully. "I wouldn't pretend to know, Composer, sir."
"Good. See that you don't."
More silence, but there's a certain subtle change in its quality that Joshua's not at all sure he likes.
"Joshua?" Rhyme ventures after a few seconds.
"Please don't take offense at this."
She hesitates, and he eyes her narrowly. "I make no promises. Say it, and I'll see if I'm offended."
Rhyme shrugs, and studies his face for a moment. "It's not obvious, you know," she says at last, very quietly. "It's there, if you know what you're looking for, but it's not written for the whole world to see. If that's what you were worried about."
Right. Not obvious except for the bit where I'm wearing his favorite shirt, I think you mean? "What would this be, exactly?"
She doesn't hesitate, at that. "Oh... nothing, I expect."
"Thank you. Just so we're clear on that."
"Also nothing to be frightened of," she adds calmly.
Ice cream melts a little too quickly to be easily choked on, which is probably just as well.
"Frightened," Joshua repeats weakly after a moment, giving her an incredulous stare. "Frightened?"
"That's what I said," she tells him calmly.
"I heard you. You--" He doesn't bother to try keeping the bemusement out of his tone. "You really have no sense of self-preservation whatsoever, do you?"
"I've been hit by a car, eaten by a shark, turned into a squirrel and sealed inside a pin," she says simply. "It's all worked out. And anyway, Neku trusts you."
And, again, Joshua blinks. Neku's said as much to him, once or twice, and he's aware that however unbelievable it may seem it must, to some extent, be true; Neku doesn't exactly mince words where Joshua's concerned, and would have no reason to lie about something like that. But he's never been under the impression that the boy's particularly proud of the fact. To hear Neku tell it, the sentiment runs more along the lines of: I can't believe I'm hearing myself say this, I know you'll make me regret it, but against all my better instincts, for some insane, godforsaken reason I do trust you, Josh. Sort of.
He wouldn't exactly have expected Neku to go around advertising the fact, is the point. Even to his closest friends. "And how," he asks, cautiously, "do you know that?"
She shrugs again, and smiles ruefully. "That one is obvious. Anyone who knows Neku at all could see it, when he's around you."
"He doesn't trust people easily, you know," Rhyme adds. "He's working on that -- but it is work for him. He's always... it's like he always has to stop and think about it a little bit. Like he's reminding himself to open up. Even with me and Beat -- even with Shiki -- we're all best friends, and I know he'd go to the ends of the earth for any of us, but shutting people out is such a habit, I think, it's still not easy for him to stop. He's not like that with you, though."
Joshua pauses for a couple of seconds before saying, again, "Oh."
"Also," she begins, and hesitates again.
"I asked him about you, once."
Joshua's eyebrows shoot upwards. "Oh, you did, did you?"
"Well -- I wanted to know what the whole story was. Beat... he was pretty, um, vehement about you," Rhyme says tactfully, and Joshua's lips quirk up at that, "but I kind of got the feeling he might have missed a couple details."
"So I asked Neku."
"I see." And Joshua's damned if he'll ask. It hardly matters what Neku says about him to someone else.
Really. He's absolutely not asking.
Well, all right, if Rhyme doesn't start talking again in the next, oh... call it... twenty seconds, then of course he'll--
And Rhyme gives a small smile. "It was pretty obvious, from what he said then."
"Oh." Joshua swallows, and tries to sound casual. "Was it?"
"It was," she says complacently.
And God damn it, Joshua thinks after a few more seconds, she isgoing to make him ask, isn't she. Well -- he could get it out of her head, of course, but he'd have to go back to the UG for that, and singling out specific memories in one person's mind is really more of a hassle than he likes, even then, and...
...And he's going to ask, isn't he, he thinks resignedly.
He clears his throat, and begins mildly, "Just out of curiosity, what--?"
But she shakes her head, smiling, before he can even finish the sentence. "That isn't mine to tell, is it?"
He frowns. "You forget to whom you're speaking, I think. Tell me."
He makes no effort to keep the edge out of his tone. "No?"
There's a dangerous pause, and Joshua smiles tightly. "I think, perhaps, you misunderstand. Ultimately, everything in Shibuya is mine. It's yours to tell if I say it is."
"I don't think Neku would like me repeating it without permission," Rhyme says, and then clarifies, "his permission. If you'd like to know what he said, you should ask him."
"I could pull it straight out of your memory, you know."
"Yes, I expect you could," she concedes. "I can't do anything about that. But, you know..." She tilts her head to one side in considering fashion. "He does trust you. A lot, I think. The least you could do is return the favor."
Joshua blinks. "Excuse me?"
"Trust him," Rhyme says patiently. "He's always saying things to you that he's not sure he wants to."
Yes, Joshua does not say aloud, and most of the time I make his life very, very difficult for it. Rhyme's not unobservant; she's probably aware of that already.
"I just... expect he'd appreciate it, you know, if you did the same once in a while."
He snorts softly. "Give him a chance to hit back, is that what you're saying? Upon consideration, I think I'll pass, thank you."
Rhyme's lips twist ruefully. "That's not what I meant at all, but all right. If you want to see it that way -- sure. Give him a chance to hurt you." She pauses, and then adds, "And trust he won't take it. From a certain viewpoint, that's a lot of what friendship is, really."
"I... think," Joshua says carefully, "that you're missing one or two rather fundamental details about my relationship with him." Such as it is.
"Am I? Well," and she gives a slight, quiet smile, "at least you're not the only one, then."
He pauses, opens and closes his mouth wordlessly a couple of times, and shakes his head. She's missing the point. She's obviously missing the point. She really couldn't be further off if she tried.
And he'll explain that to her, at great length, just as soon as he's remembered what exactly the pointis and can put it into words. It's a very good and clear and sensible point, he remembers that much.
But she glances down at her watch while he's still searching for a suitable response, and makes a face. "Ah, I've got to go. Promised Beat I'd help him with some work he had." Hopping to her feet, she adds, "We're all getting together tomorrow. You coming?"
His tone goes dry. "I sincerely doubt it."
"Aw. You should, you know?" she tells him. "Beat and Shiki, they'd get used to you, but not if you're never around."
"You assume I would -- or should -- want them to, ah, 'get used to' me."
"Worried that familiarity might breed contempt?" she returns immediately.
This receives the withering stare it deserves. "Hardly."
"Well then," she says as if that settles everything. "You ought to." She pauses, and then gives a bright, cheerful, infectious grin. "Anyway, it'd do you good to get out more."
Joshua draws a deep breath as she starts to turn away. "Rhyme?" he says levelly, and she pauses, looking back.
"You're lucky you're his friend. I want you to be very clear on that."
"I know." She nods. "Not to worry -- I am. I'd probably be dead, if not for him."
"Twice over, at the rate you're going," Joshua bites out.
"Maybe," she says simply. "But I'm not, am I?"
And people just -- aren't supposed to react thatcalmly to what he says, and it's a little tempting to pull out his phone and drop a vending machine on her head then and there, just to make that point... but he won't, and he knows it every bit as well as she does, and he knows why he won't every bit as well as she does, too. He's not sure when Neku started turning into some sort of strange external conscience, but he has, and Joshua may not like that, but there it is. So he watches in uncomfortable silence as the little girl turns away again and heads off towards the scramble.
It's not as if they were even arguing, really, he thinks... and so he's not at all sure why he's getting the distinct feeling that he just lost.
A/N: Hope you enjoyed! Reviews would be much appreciated. :)