Après l'Hiver
Étape Deux
: Mais Avant La Printemps
Word Count:
2 764
Spoilers for the endgame and secret reports.

But there's always this kind of breathless pause before the spring.

Mais Avant La Printemps

(may ah-VOHN lah PRAN-tohm)
lit. 'But before the spring'
fig. 'It's not over yet'

Silence and angel feathers hung heavy in the air the day Neku delivered his first report. They looked down on him with a great deal more than just disapproval; he was not only born a mortal, but in addition was Hanekoma's successor. A dual shame, one that would not even exist was it not for the relentless insistence of Shibuya's Composer.

Neku held his tongue out of more than pride.

"Are we correct to conclude that the Reaper's Game has once commenced since venerable Yoshiya Kiryuu and Megumi Kitaniji, may he rest in peace, last duelled, and that it proceeded as normal?"

"Right." The chamber was empty; the voice came from all directions.

"If the Composer determines that his Shibuya is now functioning properly, then we will not inconvenience him. Return to us with a full report when the next Reaper's Game is done. You may leave our presence."

"Will do." He bowed ever so slightly, tears stinging the corners of his eyes.

"Sakuraba. It pains us to see your mortal emotions clouding you. Remind yourself that this is what brought our judgement on your predecessor."

He could not open his mouth again, knowing that he would not be able to stay the words clinging to the back of his throat. His stomach turned over as he bowed again and ran out of that horrible white room.

x x x

"You mean you can't eat?" Shiki's eyes were wide, and she momentarily stopped pinning.

"Not can't, just don't." Even on the dress form, the garment Shiki was making seemed alive. "I'm dead. We get energy diffused down from the Higher Plane, or something. Don't remember."


Something seemed wrong. "Something seems wrong."

"Eri 'n I…stopped talking." She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, pins still in hand. "She says that something changed. I mean, of course something changed, but I can't tell her that, right?"

Becoming an Angel had given Neku many abilities, but he would never be able to heal a damaged heart. "Shiki, I-"

"You don't have to say anything." She turned the dress form, pleats and tucks moving with it. For Neku it was a dream spun in green and blue. "Life goes on, right? I'm just glad to be alive. If it weren't for you…I don't know what would have happened."

He was about to reply when they heard a jangle from the front of the store; the door fell open and through it stumbled two girls. They were about thirteen years of age, covered in barely visible bruises and scrapes, and one had three pins on her lapel.

Shiki looked at Neku, Neku nodded towards Shiki, and they both mourned on the inside.

x x x

Sometimes, for old time's sake, Neku pressed his right hand to the left side of his chest. It took some time to get used to the stillness of his heart, and months into his new career he still was not used to it. He had other human habits he was once barely aware of; the fact that he didn't need to breathe upset him when he paused to think about it, and nights are much longer when one can't sleep.

It all came back to rhythm. A human body harmonizes itself to the beat of the heart, to the rise and fall of breath, to the pattern of sleeping and waking. So Neku, for lack of a natural pulse, turned to the Music of Shibuya to replace his heart and finally understood why he loved it so. Little by little, he integrated Shibuya with himself; little by little, it became him and he became it.

x x x

One of their favourite games, the four of them, was Spot the Players. Rhyme's vision was stronger than Shiki's or Beat's – she would normally win (Neku wasn't allowed to participate), forcing the other three to chip in for ice cream. That was the only reason they loved Spot the Players, for nothing tasted better than ice cream on a hot afternoon with good friends.

They had a favourite place in Miyashita where they would sit and talk. They talked about anything – about Shiki's up-and-coming spring runway show, about Beat's newfound love for his physics major ("Everythin'! You jus' do some number crunchin' and it tells you everythin'!"). From time to time Neku would take a little taste and savour the sensation of chocolate or strawberry or coffee over his tongue.

All things have to end eventually, of course. There came a day when Rhyme offered him a spoonful of mint-chocolate-chip (his favourite) which he gladly accepted, opening his mouth and closing his eyes as she playfully stuck it in his mouth. He felt a cool sensation and the forgiving half-melted creamy texture, but no taste.

"No taste," he said, bewildered, after he swallowed.

"No taste?" Beat looked at him out of the side of his vision. "Whatchu mean, no taste?"

"Lost my sense of taste," Neku said.

x x x

"I'm bored," Joshua announced to the roof of Pork City.

"That's a problem," Neku said, only half joking. "Things tend to go wrong when you get bored."

"Not that kind of bored."

"Well, excuse me, princess. I can't read-"

"Not my mind, at least." A hint of a smirk vibrated across the surface of his form. Neku felt a bit of reverence, of complete obedience, shudder through him, and wondered just how much longer he would be able to resist the impulse.

There was a period of silence. In spite of Joshua's little jibe he immersed himself in stray thoughts that filtered up through the buildings. "It's good, though…boring's better than a lot of things."

"Conductor, sir." They both turned; Uzuki had slid up through thirteen floors of walls, a rather impressive feat. "I've made up my mind. My answer's yes- on one condition." It was only then that she noticed Joshua, yelped, and knelt down so fast it was as though she had been shot.

"Go ahead."

"Make Kariya Game Master with me. He wouldn't do it otherwise, and neither will I."

It's unconventional. The Angels won't like it.

"Sounds fair," Joshua said, before Neku had a chance to speak.

x x x

"You bastard!" The girl was almost inconsolable as she threw punches and insults and bolts of lightning Neku's way. They dissolved before they even came close to him. "You son of a bitch! Why the fuck can't you-"

"Your Partner was erased," he said, in a matter-of-fact kind of way. In a corner of the station underpass, Uzuki and Kariya pretended to be dead. The girl's final assault hadn't been all that mediocre at all – and Neku had seen a lot of mediocre lately. "However, since you were able to win before you were erased, I can still bring-"

"FUCK YOU!" She threw one last punch, then collapsed from exhaustion, tears falling and chest heaving. If she didn't shut up and agree to be reborn soon, it would be too late anyways. "Don't you- why- how can I go on living without him? You Reapers are piles of-don't you fucking know what it's like to be left behind?"

Neku had a lot of things to say, and said none of them.

x x x

Neku attended Beat's graduation, finding it terribly ironic how he was the only one out of the three of them to get a professional degree.

"Congratulations," Neku said, when they had a moment alone. "Never would have thought."

"Thanks, Phones."

"…You'll make a pretty hardcore teacher, that's for sure."

"Fuck yeah! C'you imagine? 'All right, ladies and gentlemen, today we're learning to FOIL: First, Outer, Inner, Last.' I sound like whassisface."

Neku chewed thoughtfully on an ice cube. He had grown attached to them lately, the only things that elicited a response from his mouth. "Where's Rhyme?"

"Actually, I wanted to ask you 'bout her." Beat dropped his voice. "She's just started first year, but she's coastin', man. Not that she don't know what she wants, she just can't think of somethin' she wants to do with her life. He didn't just take her dreams, man. He took the dream right out of her."

"Beat." He fidgeted. "You know that Megumi was Conductor back then. I can't do anything about it."

"But she won, right? Bein' revived and all…shouldn't she get her entry fee back?"

"She didn't win, Beat. The conditions of loss are erasure, and she was erased. There's nothing I can do." He looked up; Rhyme, having noticed them, was walking over.

"How are you, Neku?" She hadn't lost the cheer from her voice, but her eyes looked a little empty.

"Fine, thanks. Beat was telling me you just started your first year."

"Uh-huh!" She smiled and rocked back on her feet.

"What are you studying?"

"I'm taking Psychology, and American History, and Film Studies, and Japanese, and, um, Biology."

It was worse than he'd thought. "Sounds good. Are you having fun?"

She nodded, then skipped off towards Shiki who was by the dessert table. Neku turned back towards Beat.

"Listen," he said. "I can't make something out of nothing. But I can take your dreams, replicate them and Imprint them in her…as long as you're okay with that."

"Thanks, Phones," Beat said.

x x x

"I like the looks of that one. I think I'll become his Partner."

"Wait- don't, Josh."

"Oh? Would it make you feel less special?"


x x x

Neku had a natural aptitude for art, so the Angel transformation had amplified his skill with colour almost to the level appropriate for CAT. The one thing he still couldn't do was sew; Gatito's stocks took a nose-dive with the loss of a single creative vision, and he worried about the Underground's waning influence over Shibuya.

Shiki knew what he had come to ask even before he walked in the door to her workroom. Having a more-or-less steady job designing for D+B meant keeping an ear to the ground.

"Please, Neku," she said. "I just got this job- I don't want anything to get in my way of moving up. It takes all my time to design for one company. I can't do it."

Why does the Game keep following me? Can't he leave me alone? The stray thought was picked up by accident, but it hurt Neku badly.

"You won't have to die," he said quietly.

She sighed and returned to her papers. "That's the least of my worries."

"Are you…" he paused. "…Upset about Eri?"

"Yes, I'm upset about Eri."

"She never passed through the UG. I can't do anything about people who want to die."

He leaned in to wipe the few tears from the corners of her eyes. She slapped his hand away. "Look, Neku. I'm flattered that you thought of me, but I can't design for Gatito. You're going to have to find someone else."

It was thick, the despair he brought to her; he'd have to think fast or she'd end up Noise food. "Okay." He turned away and fidgeted with his cell phone. "How about this. You come down Saturday to the River, and I Imprint your talent into someone else. In return, I'll Imprint your name into someone's head." It wasn't the best solution, but he could work with it.

"My choice?"

"Your choice."

"It's not…ethical."

"You decide. I'll be at the River if you choose to come."

He left her with tears and angel feathers.

x x x

Joshua had the nimblest fingers of anyone he knew, but the day the Composer lifted a finger to help him out would be the day Pig Noise gathered in the Scramble and asked to be Erased without a fight. In the end, he chose himself to be Gatito's successor. A contingent of Reapers was quietly put aside to help him get the label back on its feet.

It just so happened that Shibuya Fashion Week was a month later, and Neku scored them two tickets to see Pegaso's spring collection walk down the runway.

"There he is," Shiki said with the point of her finger. The president was sitting in the front row (Neku found it silly how people like him insisted on wearing sunglasses inside) beside his new girlfriend. Neku flipped open his cell phone, scrolled down, and aimed.

"You sure?"

She paused to contemplate. "Yeah."

I want to hire D+B's Shiki Misaki.

x x x

Gatito ran a fall collection with every one of its models wearing headphones. Its 'creative director', an Officer Reaper whose entire job was standing in for Neku in the RG, told the press that Gatito was making a statement about the need for isolation in mixed-up Shibuya; sales of Gatito-brand headphones skyrocketed, every single pair with a device that allowed him to trace spikes of Imagination. He was working on a way to additionally implement something that would allow him to Imprint on anyone wearing a pair of his headphones.

"Conductor," Kariya said with a wave of the hand, strolling into WildKat like he owned the place.

"Yo," Neku said. "How many today?"

Kariya counted on his fingers. "Thirteen. Uzuki got restless and challenged a Harrier. Hope you don't mind."

"Game Masters shouldn't…just don't make a habit of it."

"Gotcha. How's business?"

It's like we're suddenly best friends. "Good. I- someone's coming. You should go."

"Will do, Composer." Kariya paused, halfway out the back door. "…You've changed, Neku. You're not that little kid who played the Game."

Neku was still tongue-tied after Kariya had left. The front door jangled as it opened, a girl and a boy stumbling in.

He recognized them- he'd just happened to be strolling in the Scramble when they woke up, and witnessed their Pact. Ami was an American immigrant, short with naturally blonde hair and bright blue eyes, and a pleasant, curious nature. Daisuke was dark-eyed and dark-haired, pensive and withdrawn.

A real Shiki and Neku.

"Hiya, Mr. S," Ami said, flashing a smile as she hopped up to a seat by the counter. "How's it going?"

It still hurt to hear someone call him that. "Pretty good. Dai still his brooding self?" It hurt even more to hear himself speak like that. Daisuke harrumphed and took a seat next to his Partner.

They ordered bouillabaisse and shared some muffins and conversation. Daisuke and Ami had gotten pretty close in four days- but four days is a long time in the Game, and being around someone like Shiki was sure to change you.

"Hey, Mr. S." He looked up from his sketchbook; Daisuke was staring right at him. "Did you ever play the Game?"

"'Course he didn't, he said so himself," Ami said, before Neku could break down. How was he supposed to know that so much of his role would be ad-libbed? "He can see us 'cause he was born that way. But…" she frowned with the spoon halfway to her mouth. "It must be scary, not knowing if your customers'll be here tomorrow, huh? But I guess all life's like that. You never know what's going to come."

Two days later, when he checked the roster of erasures, Ami and Daisuke were gone.

x x x

His parents died childless, unaware that their dead teenage son attended their funeral. Shiki and Beat were old now, married with children, and were probably going to forget this whole ordeal soon enough and move on with their lives. That was the greatest quality you could find in living humans- the ability to move on.

"There won't be anything left soon," Neku said, allowing himself a moment of unhappiness. The rooftop of Pork City, Joshua beside him, was quickly becoming his favourite escape. The streets were empty at this late hour, but littered casually with sleeping Players.

"You're going to have to deal, Neku," Joshua said, and giggled. "Unless you're having second thoughts, of course."

Nothing is ever the same after the winter, and there's always this kind of breathless pause before the spring. Everything is mourning for what was lost and waiting for what is to come at the same time, and so was Shibuya; Neku loved them, loved them more than they could know, but they were going to be memories soon and all he could do now was treasure what time was left in the generation he should have lived through- his era.

"I'll deal," Neku said. For, after all he had been through, the one thing he had learned was that he needed to trust others and trust himself. Shibuya taught him that. Shiki and Beat and Rhyme and Mr. H and Uzuki and Kariya and Joshua all those other idiots taught him that.

"I'll deal," Neku repeated, and turned to the remains of the day.

x x x