CHAPTER TWO: of wings and things
The first day of holiday break hadn't gone as Neku expected. He woke up to an annoying ring tone that wasn't even his, but was blaring thunderously from his bureau. From his own cell phone, no doubt. Begrudgingly, Neku had flipped the device open, expecting to hear someone ask for somebody, then he'd grumble and tell them it was the wrong number, and then go back to sleep. Instead, he found a text waiting for him. From the Composer of Shibuya, no less. It had no name, but the jargon used was unmistakable. Less than three, tildes, and the works. There wasn't anyone else that could possibly be that grating in a text message. After that rude awakening, Neku had gone downstairs to grab a quick breakfast, maybe visit Shiki, and then disdainfully head towards the Scramble and finally the sewers. The mere thought of his day destroyed his appetite. He opted only on some juice for breakfast before heading out.
At first, Neku was vehement about visiting his friend before anything else, but the weight of his cell phone in his pocket persuaded him otherwise. Shiki would understand, wouldn't she? That a power-hungry, psychotic Composer was taking him for hostage and that he'd be a few minutes late? Yes, that was certainly acceptable. Still, he felt bad, and decided upon sending her a quick text. ' I'll be about an hour late. Sorry' Because an hour was as long as he was going to allot to Joshua. Nothing more, and hopefully a lot less.
The trek to the Shibuya River was anything but pleasant. The commotion around him—the city, the noise, the screams, the nasally voices—it was all too much. He hated traversing through this part of town, that busy, blood-stained Crossing. Because he had promised himself he'd return to this area as little as possible when he was alone. When he was with the others, it was fine, but when he was alone, the solitary feelings crept upon him. He could almost hear the horrified cries of Players being erased. Of shoes stamping across the ground, irregularly, in response to the hoofs of inhuman Noise. He could almost feel the eyes of the dead transfixed on him, begging for a partner and release. He simply did not like it.
When Neku finally made it through the winding streets of Shibuya to the river, not only was he cold, but a bit out of it. His mind had wandered and his mood had become sour. Less than appreciable thoughts plagued through his consciousness. Memories. Memories of that stupid Game.
His eyes wandered slowly down the dark tunnel that lead into the river. His stomach accordingly churned, twisted, and knotted, and his mind began a bit displaced. Breathing was suddenly harder as he took a step inside. Something was most definitely off—he shouldn't be feeling this way naturally.
Right, why was he bothering calling into the sewer like that? How naïve could he get. With a sigh, he continued the torturous, damp trek inside.
"So glad you could make it, Neku."
Neku's gaze all but burned itself into the floor as he shifted into the Dead God's Pad. He hadn't been expecting the door to be already open, nor had he actually expected Joshua to be here. He figured he was going to be ditched, laughed at, and that would be that. That the whole 'Shibuya in a crisis!' was just a ploy to further embarrass him and show the world how gullible he could be. But when he saw Shibuya's Composer lounging on one of the sofas, with that disgruntled look on his face (it was really a pout), he knew it was no joke.
"All right, what's this about?"
"So pushy," Joshua hummed, eyes slipping shut.
Neku tossed Joshua a flat look, refusing to move away from the door. Just in case he needed to make a quick escape if Joshua decided to shoot him a third time. After all, it was within the realm of possibilities with this psycho.
Joshua cracked open an eye. He surveyed Neku cryptically, half expecting the ex-Player to bolt if he shot him just the right look. When he remained inert, the Composer sighed. "Mm, all right then, sit down."
"Do you really have to make everything difficult, Neku?" Joshua sighed dramatically, both eyes glued intensely to the boy.
"That's usually my line," Neku grumbled and disdainfully took a seat on the edge of the sofa across from Joshua. Like hell was he going to sit near him. "All right, go on."
"Where to start, where to start~" Joshua lilted as his fingers strummed his chin.
As Joshua wasted time, Neku's gaze swept across the familiar lounge. Nothing had changed. The thought alone was a bit unnerving. Megumi had lived here, hadn't he? What belonged to him? Was anything in this room technically that man's belongings? And Neku had killed him. Technically killed him. His stomach churned and his hands suddenly became awfully interesting. This place was not doing anything in his quest for forgetting the Game.
"Ah yes, you killed my Conductor."
Was he reading his mind? Neku's gaze snapped up, helpless as a deer caught in the headlights. "You put a timer on him!" he growled in protest.
"Ah-ah-ah, but he failed because of you. You beat him, didn't you? You and your little …. Friends," Joshua trailed off, shrugged, as if not caring.
"That's why I'm in this predicament. You see, I could have chosen any other Reaper to fill the position until the Higher Plane was off my back, but as I've said, none were as qualified and deserving as the temporary honour as you." There was evident malice in his voice. As if he resented the boy across the way for the trouble he had caused.
Neku sensed it, tensed, and then his gaze sharpened. "Are you blaming me?! You're the one that shot me! You're the one that got me into this stupid mess and you're blaming me for that stupid bet you and your Conductor made? Are you stupid?"
"I wouldn't insult someone who could very easily erase you with a flick of his wrist, Neku."
Neku glowered, slumped back against the couch, and just kept quiet.
Neku scoffed as his eyebrows threaded together. "Are you going to tell me what's going on now? You know, the important stuff that'll keep my home from being destroyed?"
"Always ulterior motives with you~" Joshua teased and then lounged back further. "As I've said, the Higher Plane doesn't feel that Shibuya can run on merely a Composer. So I have a month to present them with a suitable Conductor. Your job is to learn to play that role flawlessly."
"…All right, go on."
"Of course, you'll have to learn how to deal with Music and oversee a few games, but that really shouldn't be too difficult for such a quick-learner like yourself." A wave of his hand.
Neku glared. "Games? No, no, no, Josh. I didn't agree to that."
"All you have to do is bark a few commands at the Reapers. Commands I tell you. Your hands won't get dirty at all. That is, unless you're challenged by a Player who wants your position. Or even my position for that fact. You are my temporary bodyguard."
Neku's eyebrow twitched some. "…Can you try not being an ass for just one minute?"
"Are you getting all of this, Neku? Or are you just trying to be cute?" A slight glare from the Composer's side. He wasn't amused.
"Be a figure-head for you, I get it. I'm just waiting for you to tell me something important," Neku recited and folded his arms to his chest.
"And you'll be needing to fit the role."
"You need to look the part, Neku. Don't worry, it'll only be temporary." The dangerous glint in Joshua's eyes caused a chain reaction in Neku. The boy's muscles tensed and he found himself incapable of moving. Whether it was his own fear, or some Composer trick, he didn't really care to stick around and find out. Now if only he could actually move…
"Josh… What the hell are you talking about—"
"You're so dramatic," Joshua complained as he hoisted himself up from his seat. Small sparks of light trailed after the Composer as he padded over. Neku wasn't sure if it had been a trick of the light, or another Composer-perk he never knew about, and could have gladly went on living without ever finding out.
When Joshua's hand reached out to grab hold of Neku's chin, the ex-Player snapped back in his seat. "What—Don't touch me!" It was a pathetic growl that was more of a reflex than anything.
Joshua quirked a brow, towering over the seated boy with a look of annoyance. "Neku, if you're going to be a baby about this, you're just harming yourself."
Neku bit down on his bottom lip, not enthused. "Tell me what you're doing first." Creep, he added on in his head.
"Making you look like a convincing Conductor," Joshua lilted nonchalantly. His hand reached out and dusted over Neku's shoulder, fingertips barely grazing his shirt. He watched in a lack of amusement as Neku tensed. "It'll take longer if you don't relax~"
"How can I?" Neku grumbled and sucked in a deep breath. "Just do it already." He had things to do, places to be, and a night ahead of him where he could plot a loop-hole that would get him out of this entire mess.
"If you insist."
Neku wasn't sure how it happened, but the Composer's warm hands were suddenly on his back. No, they weren't just on his back, but everywhere all at once on his back. Near his shoulder blades, near his lower back, along his sides. At first he had just shivered, but after a few seconds, a ripple of pain shot through his spine. Neku suppressed a surprised yelp and closed his eyes. His hands instinctively curled up. His fingertips dug into palms as he tried his best to focus on that and not the assault on his spine. The urge to keen over and spew out curses was growing, as well as the pain. IT wasn't long until he became acutely aware that Joshua's hands were no longer on him, and that whatever he was feeling was something entirely different.
Neku willed his eyes open, giving Joshua a pathetic, helpless stare. "What did you …?" His voice was coarse. Definitely not his own, he told himself. It was strained and a fraction deeper than usual. Was this how he had sounded when he died all those times?
"Lean forward," Joshua instructed with an icy demeanor.
"It fucking hurts—I can't," Neku said through ground teeth, gaze as sharp as the pain shooting through him.
"Lean forward, Neku." It wasn't a suggestion: it was an order.
Neku did as he was told and tipped himself forward, barely hanging onto the couch. The pain soon began to subside. But it was strange, though. He was leaning forward enough not to feel the back of the couch, and yet he was. He could distinctly feel the soft material. He could feel the grooves in it, and it made him shiver, as if he was listening to nails on a blackboard.
"Not bad," Joshua said, cutting through the silence. The Composer's violet eyes swept over the panting Neku, glued to the couch.
"What are you talking about, asshole?" Neku breathed, trying to catch his breath. "You could have just killed me with whatever you just did!..."
"Could I have?" Joshua giggled and then paid Neku's rambles no heed. Instead, he tipped his head to the side, still fascinated. "Stand up."
"I'm in pain, asshole!"
"Stand up, Neku."
There was that superior tone again. Neku growled under his breath and slowly got to his feet. His legs felt like jello and his back felt heavy. "I feel like crap…" he admitted, a wave of nausea assaulting his senses.
"As expected," Joshua said calmly, hands going into his pockets. There was a strange light in Joshua's eyes that matched the all-knowing smirk playing at his lips. "All Conductors say that when they first get their wings."
"Phones, you look upset. Vacation already draggin' you down?"
Neku stared blankly at the cup of coffee he had ordered. His back hurt, his mind ached, and his feet were killing him. He still had a good ten minutes until he needed to traverse to Shiki's house, but for now, he needed to clear his mind. He had thought coffee was a good idea, but one sip of it made his stomach churn.
"I'm fine…" Neku murmured.
He did not look fine at all. His face was a sickly pale white, his hands had taken to trembling lightly, and his eyes were blood-stained, as if he hadn't slept at all. After a moment or two passed, he ducked his head down into the valley his folded arms made. He looked as if he was going to take a nap right there on the counter.
"Uh… not to pry, kiddo, but what happened?"
Neku murmured something into his sleeve. No coherent words came from that, which left Mr. Hanekoma puzzling over the specifics.
"…Is this about J?"
"Good guess." Neku finally lifted his head from its cove and gave the man a weak stare. "He…" It was hard recounting everything on his own. "He made me his 'fake Conductor' to trick the Higher Plane or whatever," he explained, having to stop for a moment to keep his stomach from growling. He felt so sick and it just wasn't fair. "And he decided to not tell me I was going to feel like I was dying afterwards."
"Gave you your wings, huh?" Mr. H grinned knowingly, but the look faded when Neku coughed, face going impossibly paler.
"I should be used to feeling like death by now," Neku said ironically under his breath and closed his eyes. "…Yeah, wings. Wasn't … expecting that at all."
"Taught you how to control them, too?"
Neku nodded dizzily. "I never said I wanted them."
"Jus' part of the job, Phones," Mr. H sighed and reached out to lightly pat Neku on the shoulder.
"This isn't fair," Neku decided, more so in a grumble. "I finally get my life back, things are going well, and then Josh has to show up and screw everything up. If I didn't care so much about Shibuya, I would have rejected him right to his prissy face."
Mr. Hanekoma couldn't resist a snort of laughter. "I'm glad ya did say yes, though."
"Yeah, yeah," Neku sighed and cradled his head against his palm. "I'm just a hero … or something."
"What else did J tell you?"
"…That's mostly it. He said I'd need to learn how to deal with Music or whatever, but he'd wait until I got used to the wings," Neku grumbled and kept his eyes shut. "I hate this. I really, really hate this."
"You should be honoured. Shibuya's Composer entrusting the city's well-being to you," Mr. H pointed out, watching Neku with a bit of sympathy. Joshua could be manipulative, no doubt about it.
"For the second time," Neku corrected and wearily cracked open his left eye. "What if these stupid wings accidentally come out in the RG?"
"No one will be able to see them," Mr. H lectured. He sighed. "Don't move, Phones. I need to tell you a few things. You'd probably wanna stay seated."
Neku nodded. He figured he couldn't possibly hear anything else that could make him in any fouler of a mood. "All right, shoot."
"Your Wings are a mirror-image of your Imagination," Mr. Hanekoma began, a calm look on his face. "The stronger a Reaper is, the more complex their wings will be. Some just have plain straight lines, others have more intricate lattices. It all really depends."
"Conductor's, aside from their Composers, have the most detailed wing-structure. Because their imagination is high. J wouldn't have sought you out if he didn't think your wings would be convincing. I don't really like the idea of him trickin' the Higher Plane like this, but I suppose you were his best choice," Mr. Hanekoma mused.
"And if they figure out this is all just a joke? Just some stupid plan Josh made?" Neku sighed, tracing a line on the counter with his finger, trying to dispel the sick feeling that was constantly growing.
"…You'll both be erased."
Neku's stomach dropped further, if at all possible. "He's risking my entire existence on this?!" he snapped, eyes wide and face the equivalent to a white sheet. "Can he be any stupider?"
"I guess he just trusts you."
"But that's suicide! That's --!" Neku began, but his tirade was cut off when the front door to the café was opened and then shut. The bell jingled and Neku instinctively shut up and glanced over his shoulder to see who it was.
Speak of the devil.
"J, good to see ya," Mr. Hanekoma greeted. "Come for a cup of joe? It's the houseblend today and –" He stopped when Joshua lifted his hand.
The Composer walked over to Neku and casually took a seat on the stool beside him. "Feeling better yet?" he hummed, not even bothering to look at Neku when he was speaking. Instead, he reached over and stole Neku's coffee and took a sip.
"That's mine!" Neku protested, but when he was ignored, he settled on glaring. "No, I'm not, thanks."
"What a shame," Joshua mused and took another sip of the coffee before looking to his Producer. "I assume you've been badmouthing me while I was away?" An infernal giggle followed that made Neku shiver.
"…Just talkin' to Phones about everything," Mr. Hanekoma explained and waved his hand in the air. "The kid's just a little frazzled." And sitting right there.
"He'll bounce back~" Joshua cooed and then finally regarded Neku with a smirk. "Won't you?"
"See? He's feeling better already! He's such a quick learner," Joshua gushed, the sarcasm in his voice as venomous as any snake. "Let me see your phone."
"What? No." Neku folded his arms to his chest irritably. "I'm not giving you that. It's mine."
"Neku, let me see it," Joshua repeated, eyes narrowing.
"…This is gonna take awhile," Mr. Hanekoma sighed. "And here I thought Composer and Conductor were supposed to get along…"
Neku ignored the man in favor of glaring right back at his ex-partner. "I said no. You don't need it."
"You know what? If it'll make you shut up and leave me alone for a few minutes, fine." He shoved the phone at Joshua unceremoniously.
"Thank you," Joshua hummed and idly flipped it open. Neku tried not to watch, tried to feign indifference, but couldn't help but gawk at what Joshua was doing. After all, it was his phone and if Joshua did anything to mess anything up, he would never hear the end of it. Never, ever.
"What are you doing?" Neku demanded.
After a few more seconds had passed, Joshua passed the phone back to Neku.
"What'd you do?"
A few more seconds passed. Joshua took a sip of coffee and Neku stared down at his phone quizzically. His back still hurt, but the feeling of sickness had miraculously left. At least Joshua was good for something: a distraction. When Neku was about to shove his phone back into his pocket, it vibrated.
Neku opened it, and his stomach plummeted. On the screen was not only a message from Shiki, but what she had replied to.
'Wanna go to the movies tonight? My treat.'
Neku didn't even look at Shiki's reply. His stomach was too busy doing flip-flops to pay any attention to that. "Why did you send that?!" Neku hollered, looking to Joshua, face flushed and cheeks burning.
"I said I would help you win her over, didn't I?" Joshua questioned and tipped his head to the side. "Obviously a date was in order."
"You had no right…!"
"Boys," Mr. Hanekoma interrupted.
Neku sighed and looked back down at his phone. A warm rush of air passed over him when he noticed Shiki's response. 'Really?...Sure, I'd love to!' He blinked, a smile unable to suppress itself.
"And you can thank me anytime now, Neku."
Neku pointedly ignored Joshua. "I'm going outside to call her."
"Young love," Joshua sighed as Neku hurried off the stool and headed outside. More than likely to apologize for never showing up and to cement their plans. When Neku had left the café, Joshua's gaze traveled over to his Producer, who was grinning knowingly. "What?"
"That was real nice of you, J," Mr. H noted with a lecherous grin.
Joshua frowned. "It was part of the deal~ Not like I had any choice in the matter."
"Sure you didn't," the barista responded and smirked. "About Phones…"
"What about him?"
"You do realize he's not ready for what you did to him?"
"The date? I think he is. After all, his hormone level is rather high and," Joshua began with a snicker but stopped when Hanekoma's glare reached him. "What?"
"He's not fit for Conductor. His Imagination and Soul are great, but at this rate, you're going to have him erased. You shouldn't have given him his Wings for another few days."
"I don't have a few days," Joshua snapped and reached for the coffee again. "The Higher Plane is paying me a visit tomorrow night and if Neku doesn't have his Wings and know a bit about Music, they aren't going to believe he's a Conductor in training."
Mr. Hanekoma rolled his eyes. "If you hurt the kid, J…."
"Why would I do that?" Joshua's eyes sparkled deviously.
"…You're a mess."
"And your coffee is horrible."
Joshua hopped off the stool and headed for the door. "And for the record, I believe firmly that Neku is more than qualified for the job." And with that he left.
Mr. Hanekoma sighed. Not because neither Neku or Joshua had remembered to paid him for the coffee, but because Joshua's zealous attitude was going to be the death of Shibuya yet.
"You're only saying that, J, because you want to believe it."