Some days, Neku wondered why he couldn't have a normal life.
"If this turns out to be about my soul after all, I swear I'll..." The teenager's voice trailed off, realizing he didn't know how to threaten someone as powerful, and as dead, as Joshua.
The aforementioned boy simply giggled. "Now, Neku, I thought you trusted me...?" He smirked slightly, leaning his head idly to one side.
Neku gave Joshua a halfhearted glare. "Just... you'd better not pull anything funny." He sighed, leaning his elbows on the surface in front of him and staring down at the fish swimming beneath the floor. Kind of creepy, but it beat looking at Joshua any day.
Joshua followed his partner's gaze, smirk fading away slowly. "It should start sometime soon," he commented conversationally, giving the watch on Neku's wrist a slightly bored glance. "I wonder where our opponents are..."
Neku sighed, internally, once more.
* * *
When Joshua had first brought it up, Neku had completely freaked out. Play another Game? No way in hell was that going to happen!
"Not the Game, silly, a game," Joshua had told him, half-giggling in that annoying way of his. "A new one, too."
Neku gave his ex-partner the best suspicious glare he could manage. "I don't trust your games."
Joshua only smiled in a disturbingly cheerful manner. "Well then, Neku, you'll be pleased to hear that this was not one of my ideas. Now will you be a good boy and go along with it?"
"Hell, no." Joshua's idea or not, thought Neku, there had to be some trick to it. Besides, who wanted to put up with more of the Reaper Review? It had been more than enough having to remember the price of everything while they were playing the Game; Neku did not relish the thought of having more pointless trivia questions thrown at him.
Joshua sighed dramatically. "Fine, fine." His smirk returned for just a second – "But if you change your mind, you know where to find me" – before vanishing as he turned to leave.
Neku'd thought that would be the end of it, but no.
* * *
Neku had made the mistake of telling Shiki, and Shiki had told Eri, and so here he was now, in a re-made Dead God's Pad, partnered up with Joshua again because both girls had thought it would be so cool to be on a TV game show. Forget the fact that this isn't even getting aired on RG television. Neku sighed once more. This really, really was not a good idea.
Joshua, as if sensing Neku's thoughts, rolled his eyes. "There's no need to be nervous," he told Neku in what the orange-haired teen couldn't help but think was a condescending tone. Very reassuring, coming from you, Neku thought, only grunting in response. His partner looked away, fiddling with a strand of hair in a bored manner. "This isn't even about you."
Well, that much was true. As Joshua had explained, the Composer's presence at the first game of the Reaper Review was all that was really necessary to get the game show off to a good start. The audience's attention would be on the silver-haired boy, not his nobody of a partner. Apparently it was an easy way to make Reapers look 'cool', or something dumb like that.
"Oh?" Joshua's quiet remark broke Neku out of his thoughts. "It appears it's finally starting."
Looking up, Neku could see their two Reaper hosts – Tenho and BJ, if he remembered correctly – making their way to the front of the room next to the jukebox. And – yes, there were Uzuki and Kariya walking together to the pushed-up table with their names on it, and behind them Sota and Nao, joking with each other (and now that Neku thought about it, hadn't he seen them get erased? What was going on here?)
"Attention, all yoctograms! Prepare to be iterated!"
Neku was jarred painfully out of his thoughts. Flinching visibly at the noise, he clapped his hands over his ears, the plastic of the headphones digging into his scalp. Around the room, people were reacting similarly; even Joshua winced and covered his ears protectively.
"Minamimoto," a cold female voice hissed. "Put. The megaphone. Down."
It took a moment for Neku to process the situation; when he did, his jaw dropped slightly. "But... didn't he..." he began, and stopped, trying to find the words. "And wasn't she... but... weren't they...?"
"Dead?" Joshua replied smoothly, giggling again. "Don't you find it strange, Neku, that you found his body? When if he was dead, he should have been erased completely?" Neku just stared open-mouthed at the completely calm, almost bored-looking person next to him. "I liked having him around too much to kill him. As for her... Well, good Game Masters are hard to come by," Joshua continued, not even looking at Neku. "I asked a friend to have the higher-ups pull a few strings, and... Well, you can see."
Neku, finally managing to tear his gaze away from his quite obviously insane partner, groaned and rested his head on his arms, wondering what on earth he'd gotten himself into.
* * *
"Like a bolt from the blue, it's time for the Reaper Review!"
The audience, sitting in their improvised folding chairs, cheered, and Joshua whispered to Neku, "We even invited this week's Players. Nothing like good publicity, considering the winners may be joining us." Neku stared at his partner, but decided that this was probably not a wise time to voice his thoughts on the matter, considering that the cameras were now rolling.
"I'm BJ, and..." The Reaper in black trailed off, obviously expecting the other Reaper to introduce himself. "Um, and this is Tenho!" An awkward silence followed. "Aaand, let's meet our contestants!" BJ finally announced in a slightly shaky cheerful tone, his friend standing silently next to him. The cameras moved to face the table next to Neku and Joshua's.
"Introducing Nao and Sota, ex-Players," Tenho told the audience, sounding more than a little bored.
"And almost winners, too!" BJ interjected, giving his friend an annoyed look. "So, um..." he floundered, trying to remember what to say, "...why don't you tell us a little about yourselves!" He fiddled with his red bandanna nervously.
"We were Players," said Nao, smiling sweetly for the camera. "And we, like, won one of the missions, too!" She grew more serious, eyes widening slightly, obviously loving the camera. "But then, on the sixth day..." Nao trailed off, as if she couldn't bear to say any more, looking at her boyfriend with pleading eyes.
"We got erased," Sota told BJ bluntly, speaking for the first time. "And then–"
"Well," BJ interrupted quickly, "it's great that you, um, got better!" Neku could tell that he was smiling uncertainly under the cloth covering his face. "Now, moving on to our next contestants..."
Neku and Joshua straightened slightly as Tenho and BJ walked the short distance over to their table. "Here we have Neku Sakuraba, three-time Player and three-time winner! And..." BJ paused for suspense. "Yoshiya Kiryu, the Composer of Shibuya!"
There was frantic whispering in the audience for a second; then the crowd went wild. Neku resisted the urge to groan. He's just a stuck-up asshole. Not that exciting. Joshua just smiled, giving a slight bow to the camera.
"So, Yoshiya," BJ said a little nervously, trying to signal to the crowd to be quiet (Neku supposed the Composer revealing himself had to be a big deal), "what made you decide to participate in this, uh, event?"
Joshua smiled with a kind of confidence that almost scared Neku. "Of course, I had to be here to monitor the latest activities of my Reapers. Couldn't have them biting off more than they can chew, after all..."
BJ nodded as if he couldn't agree fast enough. "That's great! So, um, and, Neku," he hastily continued, "as a three-time winner of the Game, what advice would you give to the Players in our audience?"
"Trust your partner," Neku said instantly, almost automatically. He ignored Joshua smirking beside him; these were real people just like him, and damned if he wasn't going to give them the best advice he could. "Work together with the other Players to complete the missions." There was a pause, then he added: "Um... that's all."
"Thank you for that... sound advice!" BJ replied, sounding as if he was regaining some of his confidence. Walking to the next table, the Reaper continued, "Now, um, our next contestants are..." He stopped, looking unsure. "Um..."
"Former Game Masters Mitsuki Konishi and Sho Minamimoto," Tenho supplied, still sounding completely bored.
There was a noticeable lack of applause; the Reapers were probably remembering incidents such as the outbreak of Taboo Noise that had killed many of of their number. Tenho, looking about as pleased as the audience, broke the silence.
"Mitsuki. Why don't you tell us how you gained the nickname of 'Iron Maiden'?"
The aforementioned woman twitched visibly in annoyance. "Certainly not from anyone of any consequence." Sho scowled, twisting his fingers together in an irritated manner. At the next table over, Kariya whispered something to Uzuki, who giggled. The now-dubbed 'Iron Maiden' pointedly ignored these interruptions. "Apparently it was a popular enough joke," she continued silkily, "to spread among the more foolish of our rank."
BJ cleared his throat. Probably regretting not coaching them on how to answer, thought Neku. "And... Sho." The name probably could have been said more coldly, but not by much. "We... hear you're something of an artist, on the side of your Reaper duties. Why don't you tell us about your art? What does it all mean?"
The former Game Master began to reach for his megaphone, stopping when his partner shot him a withering glare. "Isn't it zetta obvious?" he barked. "The world is garbage! Any artist can see the world in front of him. I see the meaning of it all!"
BJ stared awkwardly at the teenager in front of him. "Is... that so? Well..." He seemed at a loss for words; after all, Neku thought, what did you say to something like that? "Um... moving on! Over here, last but not least, we have long-time partners Uzuki Yashiro and Koki Kariya!" Uzuki smiled, and Kariya inclined his head. This time, there were a few cheers from the audience, though most likely not from the Players.
Regaining confidence, BJ continued, "So, Uzuki. We've heard you'll do anything -- and I do mean anything," he added jokingly, raising an eyebrow in what Neku thought was a decidedly unfunny way, "to climb upward in the Reapers' ranks. What are some tactics you've used in the past to further your own ambition?"
The pink-haired Reaper looked scandalized, and BJ watched nervously as her hand fiddled, most likely unconsciously, with her gun. Uzuki took a deep breath, still looking furoius, and then cleared her throat. "Well, I've never done anything morally questionable to get a promotion," she said icily, teeth clenched. "I want the power to make the Game better for all the Reapers... and that's all." Kariya, standing next to her, raised an eyebrow; Uzuki shot him a glare.
"O-Okay," BJ muttered, still staring rather wide-eyed at the gun in her hand. "A... And. Koki, was it? We've heard many rumors about you, but the most exciting have all been about one thing: your lollipop. What flavor is it really... and how many licks does it take to get to the center?" He grinned at the audience.
Kariya glanced briefly at BJ. "It's bean paste flavored. Really." He yawned, looking across the room at Sho. "You'd probably be better off asking math genius there about that last one."
"I'm sure that'll be the talk of the town for the next few days!" BJ commented. Liar, thought Neku. "Aaaaand, those are our contestants! We'll be back with the actual game after a commercial break."
"This game show is sponsored by Gatito," Tenho added. "For when the real thing just isn't as good as the imitation."
* * *
"Do you feel like you don't fit in? Do you want to be as cool as everyone else? Are you tired of being treated like a nobody?"
Neku nearly choked on his own saliva, recognizing the voice instantly. "What- what's he... but- but I... I saw him..." Neku made a fist, glaring accusingly at Joshua. "I killed him myself! What the hell is he doing alive?"
Joshua smirked, flicking a strand of hair out of his face. "Now, Neku, deep breaths." He frowned slightly, hands on hips. "He's been one of my closest friends and allies for a long time; I hardly think it unreasonable for me to want him here on this occasion."
"If that's the case, then Gatito-brand Red Skull pins are the item for you! Just put one on and you'll share the thoughts of everyone around you!"
"That's not the point!" Neku snapped, clenching his hands so tightly they shook. "He tried to brainwash all of Shibuya!"
"Because I forced him to," Joshua replied, an irritated edge slipping into his voice. He crossed his arms. "Now would you stop making a spectacle of yourself. This is on live television, you know."
Neku growled under his breath, but forced himself to turn back to the live commercial (budgeting had prevented them from pre-recording) where Kitanji and Makoto were trading lines.
"Guaranteed to make your life become as paradise, or your quest items back. We do not take responsibility for any lack of creativity, motivation or individuality experienced while wearing this product."
Neku winced, remembering the horrible silence and the same whispered words everywhere he had heard during his week with Beat. They'd better not be serious...
"Gatito Red Skull pins! 'What a wonderful world such would be...'"
"Aaaand, we're back in a moment," BJ announced. "Everyone, uh, look your best, okay? Five, four, three, two..."
"Welcome back to the Reaper Review," Tenho announced, straightening up for the camera. "Now that we've met our contestants, it's time for the game to start."
"You all know the rules already," BJ began, gesturing to the contestants.
"What? No, I don't!" Neku protested, mainly to his partner, who reached out to pat Neku's hand in a thoroughly condescending manner. Neku yanked his hand away as if it had been burned.
"But, let's go over them for the audience's sake," the Reaper continued.
"Turns go counter-clockwise around the room," Tenho explained. "The partners take turns answering; if a team gets a question right, they get a point and are given another question; if they're wrong, they lose a point. When a team answers incorrectly or does not answer, the question is offered to the next team who decide if they want to answer it, and so on. Partners take turns answering questions."
"Whoever has the most points when time runs out wins!" BJ finished. "Are you ready? Then let's get started with... The Reaper Review!" The audience (doubtless bored to tears by now, thought Neku) cheered enthusiastically.
"First question!" BJ announced, reaching into the foosball table, currently filled with scraps of paper, and pulling one out. Now that's low-budget, Neku thought. "This one goes to our Composer and his partner." He cleared his throat, reading the piece of paper. "'Seller of Ohabari, Togenkyo, and more, this rap-speaking storekeeper is one of the most popular in Shibuya! What is his name?'"
Joshua, Neku was pleased to note, looked absolutely baffled. "I'll take this one," Neku told him. Turning to the hosts, he said, "K1 Okada."
"Correct! --and to buy the items mentioned and more, visit Jupiter of the Monkey, first building on Cat Street," BJ rattled off. Neku grinned. I guess it helps to have all the info about your favorite brand. "All right, it's the Composer's turn to answer. Next question..." He fished for another piece of paper and handed it to Tenho.
"'If you have 1000 pennies, 1000 nickels, 1000 dimes, 1000 quarters, and 1000 half dollars, then how much do you have altogether?'"
"Nine hundred and ten dollars," Joshua answered instantly. Neku gaped at him; he only smirked. "Simple math, Neku." But... that's not even Japan's currency!
"Great! You two are on a roll, aren't you?" BJ reached for another scrap of paper. "Next question... 'It is rumored that Dogenzaka takes its name from a famous bandit named Dogen. What was his first name?'"
"You know this one... don't you, Neku?" Joshua smirked, fiddling with a strand of hair. "After all, I taught you myself, didn't I?"
What the... that bastard knows I don't remember! Neku thought frantically. Damn it, it was his turn to answer, wasn't it? "Um... Odawa? Odawa Dogen," he guessed, looking hopefully at the Reapers.
"Wrong," said BJ and Joshua simultaneously. Joshua crossed his arms, tsking disapprovingly. "Did you learn nothing from our time together, Neku?" He shook his head. "When this is over, I'll have to give you a lesson on listening when others talk to you." Neku scowled. Dammit... and we were doing so well, too.
"Sota and Nao, you're the next team. Would you like to take the question?" The two ex-Players exchanged a glance and smiled.
"Yeah, sure," Sota said. "'Owada Dogen'."
"That's right – one point for Sota and Nao," said Tenho, and Neku scowled further.
"How does he know that?"
"Perhaps, my dear proxy," Joshua suggested, "he pays attention when other people are talking." Neku glared, but turned back to hear the next question.
"Next question... 'We know him and love him as the Prince... but what is his real name?' Nao, your turn to answer."
Nao looked beside herself with glee. "Oooh, I know this one! Eiji! Eiji Oji!" She beamed at the hosts confidently.
"Aaaand that's right as well..." Tenho was having to fish for the scraps of paper fairly fast at this point. "'How many miles away is the sun from the Earth?'"
He was greeted with a blank stare from Sota, who exchanged a glance with Nao and shook his head.
"Uh... think I'll pass." Nao smiled sympathetically and put her arm around her boyfriend, whispering something in his ear. Sota scowled and muttered, "I knew that," under his breath.
Tenho rolled his eyes, and turned to the next table. "Mitsuki, Sho, will you take this question?"
The younger Reaper clapped his hands together smugly. "Ninety-one million miles!"
"Oh? It would seem our math whiz is also a science genius," Joshua commented, slight amusement in his voice. "Now do you see why I keep him around?"
"That's... correct," BJ muttered, eying the tattooed teenager as if afraid he would explode. "This next question will go to the Iron– uh, that is, to Mitsuki." He drew out another slip of paper. "'2.7182818284... also known as e. Who was this mathematical constant named after?'"
Sho reached for his megaphone; Konishi slapped his hand away irritably. "Minamimoto. I'll thank you to remember that this is my question." She stopped and fiddled with her glasses, looking unsure. Making an unpleased noise in her throat, she rested her chin in her hand, frowning slightly. "...Einstein?"
"I'm sorry, that–" The black-hooded Reaper was interrupted by a furious outburst from the table next to him.
"You zetta moron!" Sho practically exploded, flinging his hands out in frustration. "It's Euler! What the factoring digit were you–"
"Shut up!" the blond woman snapped, face livid with both fury and embarrassment, wringing her hands. "You think an immature upstart like you can–"
"Stupid, brain-dead zero!" Apparently, Konishi's partner was not yet finished with his rant. "How the FOIL did I get stuck with a partner as zetta stupid as–"
"Cut it the hell out, all of you!"
The contestants and audience alike all stopped what they were doing in favor of squeezing their hands over their ears. Tenho had apparently managed to swipe Minamimoto's megaphone from the table and turned it up to full blast. Neku was shaking slightly, the music blaring through his headphones seeming surprisingly distant after that landslide of sound.
"Now." The red-hooded Reaper was looking quite irritated at this point. "Sho," he practically spat the name, "your outburst and illegal answering of the question disqualifies your team."
"What did you say?" Konishi snapped, slamming her hands on the table.
"Disqualified," BJ snapped back. "Both of you. Now get the hell out of our show."
Sho glared sullenly but stalked off, ignoring his former partner completely. "Zetta waste of time..." he muttered.
Konishi looked furious but didn't speak. Instead, forcing an icily calm look, she practically stomped off the stage in the opposite direction as the other Reaper. Neku edged away from her nervously as she passed by their table.
"Personal space, Neku," Joshua whispered, smirking slightly, and Neku hurriedly backed away from his partner.
A familiar face walked onto the stage ("Mr. H? What's he doing here?" Neku protested to Joshua, who ignored him), passed a slip of paper to BJ, and walked off again. The wall Reaper looked alarmed.
"But what about the bonus– oh, the hell with it," BJ muttered, reaching for the megaphone. The audience instantly quieted.
"This concludes the first episode of the Reaper Review!" he announced. "The winners are Nao and Sota, with two points; runners up are Yoshiya and Neku, with one point! Please collect your prizes some other time," he added hastily.
"What?" The shriek came from the fourth table. "But we didn't even get a turn!"
"I said, this concludes the first episode of–" BJ tried to say.
"That is so unfair! You invite us here and then treat us like–"
"Steady, Uzuki," Kariya interrupted, popping his lollipop out of his mouth. "Cool down. C'mon, I'll buy you a bowl of ramen, aight?"
"...Fine," Uzuki grumbled, and the two walked off the stage together, Uzuki stopping once to glare at the hosts.
"Um..." BJ cleared his throat gingerly. "But. Though you may forget the review, rest assured, it remembers you. Um, that's all. Bye-bye now." Nao smiled for the camera, leaning against Sota; Neku and Joshua exchanged glances.
The audience erupted in chaos. Neku sighed, leaning on the table and putting his hands over his headphones, trying to block out the sounds around him with music. A hand tapped his arm, and he looked up.
"So, Neku," Joshua said silkily. "About that lesson on listening..."
* * *
Lounging on a beaten up old couch, 777 watched as commercials took over the television. "Man, they left the band for this?"