He awoke with a kink in his neck and a throbbing ache in his head. He wanted to sleep longer so as not to face anything; nonetheless, he understood he had to arrive at a consensus.
He glanced at his phone on the table as though awaiting its ringing or a text. The cell represented a dark harbinger, whereas in life it was exclusively a tool of communication. Hesitantly, he picked it up and highlighted Joshua's message from the previous day. He hit reply; the note was replaced with a blank screen. He had prepared himself to do this since before the sun had risen; he'd think about it, doze off and stir some time later with the all-consuming thought numerous times. His thumb lingered over the keys before he typed out his message.
He sent it.
Within half a minute he got a reply: Hey to you, Neku. 3 What's going on?
He looked at the heart symbol with a blank expression. I've made up my mind, he answered.
Nothing. Then: Come to my throne room. You can tell me here.
His eye twitched. Why can't I tell you now? I'm miles from there.
Just do it. Time limit is five minutes or face Erasure. J/K! See you when you get here. Xoxo
He squeezed his eyes tight as he slipped the phone back into his pocket. "Yeah, real funny, Joshua." He left the room and went outside; it was balmy and clear, and air was fresh from the breeze pushing the pollution away from the city. "Oh yeah, he's definitely in a good mood now," Neku inferred from the glorious sights, listening to birds warbling high in the trees. He suddenly felt a burdensome pressure weighing on him.
While walking to the Shibuya Station he couldn't help but feel he was headed towards his proverbial sacrifice. Everyone around him, all the inhabitants of the city… they didn't see him and couldn't care less even if they did. He wondered if, undeniably, he'd been the best proxy hand-selected by Joshua out of all the citizens… or if Joshua had been lusting after him, pure and simple.
He reached the Shibuya Station underpass near the West Bus Terminal; before him lay the entrance to the culvert where the Shibuya River left the city in an odious, yawning maw. Beyond were the twisting corridors to the Room of Reckoning: Joshua's throne room. Throwing his leg over the broken seal that had once prevented Players and Reapers from entering, he stepped inside.
At once, cold, dank air wrapped itself around his body like a snake. The overwhelming reek of mildew and other unidentified scents prompted him to breathe through his mouth. With each step from the entrance the sunlight dimmed; Neku pulled out his ever-charged UG phone and held it open to illuminate the path before him. Rats skittered away from the uninvited glow, the scratching of their claws fading under the babbling sound of water.
Within five minutes of plodding through the dark all light had vanished, save the soft blue glow of the phone screen. He mentally retraced his steps from the one time he came to this forsaken place with Beat in attempts to find the Composer. The path forked more times than he remembered, and he found himself backtracking. Once his foot slipped into the stagnant river, which was nothing more than a concrete-embanked culvert and drain; he cringed when he felt the bacteria-rich soup saturate his sock. In mounting frustration he tried texting Joshua for assistance, but the thick concrete interfered with his signal. He knew he could simply call out to the blonde in case he got lost, but his pride kept him from sinking so low.
At last he reached the hall he recognized as Trail of the Bygone, the place where he, Shiki and Beat found Pi-Face's body. The air grew warmer and the reek of the sewer dissipated as he neared a large set of wooded double doors that separated him from Megumi's quarters, known as the Death God's Pad.
Beyond that was the Room of Reckoning.
He pushed open the doors and entered the bright, modern-style room that had a wall bar, glass floor and contemporary art. No one was inside, and some of the furniture was still smashed as a testament of his battle there days before. Neku realized if he accepted Joshua's offer of employment it would be his personal space from which he could carry out Conductor doings.
He went over to a foosball table, knowing precisely what he was seeking. He cleared his mind and scanned the space until he saw another set of doors materialize. Snapping out of his trance, he swung open the entrance and walked through.
His heart hammered a mad, illogical beat in his throat. At the far end of the hall stood the unassuming entrance to Joshua's throne room, and he knew the other was on the opposite side, ready to hear Neku's long-awaited answer. He found little solace glancing at the wall to his left splashed in the almost-fanatical mosaic consistent of CAT's work. Somehow, it looked less threatening in the daylight.
He arrived at the end of the hall. The simple set of doors deceptively held Shibuya's deepest secret therein; he wondered if anyone living had ever seen the entrance. Closing his eyes, posturing himself, he went inside.
The chamber was silent. He crept in, gazing up at the imposing trio of colonnades bordering the throne that reached into the dizzying heights and disappeared into smoky infinity. He walked to the center of the chamber, treading upon the intricate ancient symbols crisscrossing the floor. "I'm here," he called out to the dim air, his voice floating up to the heavens.
He registered illumination near the throne, followed by movement. Anticipating Joshua with his glowing phone screen, Neku looked over, but he hadn't expected what met his vision. It was the first time Neku saw Joshua in his uninhibited, holy form; his true form of Composer. Instead of a preppy blonde, before him stood a being of godly beauty; he was taller than any man, with pale glowing skin and silver locks swirling around his face as though underwater, spilling down to his shoulders. A pair of glass-like wings was folded delicately behind him, scintillating in the bleak light. The face looked like an angel's, with hollow washes of indigo where eyes should have been. A glow of electric energy cloaked him, piercing the chamber's darkness. The sight filled Neku with a deep sense of tranquility. He noted a heavy aroma of flowers and spice perfuming the air. "Is that you Joshua?"
"Indeed," he answered; his serene voice seemed to be the air itself, the life breath of Shibuya. "I expend a great deal of energy in this dimension maintaining the form you're used to seeing, but this is what I truly am."
For a moment Neku forgot why he had demanded Joshua's presence. He couldn't get enough of the sight of the Composer. He was, daresay, stunning.
His wings fluttered. "You've made a decision?"
The question steered Neku back to reality. "Y-yeah."
Joshua smiled benignly; no sarcasm was present. "And?"
He found it hard to speak his declaration. "I thought about it long and hard while in the city." He swallowed "I… I..."
He tilted his head, spilling the moon glow hair over his shoulder. "Go on." He took Neku's hand in his.
The sensation felt like a warm electric current enveloping every cell in his body, and he instantly was at ease.
Joshua said nothing; he squeezed Neku's hand in encouragement.
He clenched his free fist. "I can't do it. I want to return to the RG." The words burned his ears, for saying it aloud was excrutiating.
Joshua's radiant expression shattered, leaving only heartbreak on his serene face. His grip slackened. "You don't know what you're doing, Neku."
"You're right. But…" he looked into the hollow indigo crevasses, believing he saw pupils. "I don't belong here, either. I have stuff I need to do. All my hopes… my dreams… if I stay in the UG, I can't finish them." He managed a pitiable smile. "And… I trust you. I know you'd tell me if my body's condition was too terrible, right?" He forced a nervous laugh when the other said nothing. "'Trust your partner' – that's what you said."
If Neku hadn't been standing only a few feet from the god's face, he would have never believed what happened next: Joshua closed his eyes and limpid tears streamed down his cheeks. "Oh Neku," he cried in a thin voice.
Foreboding iced his veins from the uncharacteristic response. "Joshua?"
He wiped his eyes with a delicate hand, looking at the teen with not annoyance, but pity. "Foolish child." He bent down and kissed him on the forehead. It was gentle, replete with what felt like sorrow.
Neku felt himself trembling… from grief or from the Composer's gesture, he wasn't sure. Unthinkingly, he rested his hand on Joshua's tear-soaked cheek in a wordless assurance that all would be fine. And then, it happened:
Their lips met. But it wasn't a kiss of animalistic hunger… it was a chaste kiss of farewell. The seconds stretched ever onward; they remained there for an undetermined amount of time.
A voice spoke in Neku's clouded mind: Strike while the iron's hot. He broke contact, still painfully close to Joshua. "Where's my body?" he whispered against the flesh, trailing his fingers down the other's cheek. "Just tell me."
"I…" His lips impulsively sought Neku's.
Neku angled his face away slightly, needing to deny Joshua what he wanted until the teen obtained the information he required. His fingers clutched the flowing locks in a covert way to hamper Joshua's resuming of the kiss. "Tell me. Please."
A staggered gasp passed the others lips at Neku's deliberate touch. "Can't… I c-can't."
He broke free from the redhead's grasp and his mouth connected with the Neku's once more in response.
Just then, Neku sensed an immediate change from the other; something vigorous dwelled in the returning kiss, and he panicked when Joshua began kneading his lips against his. The Composer was undeniably determined to cross the margin dividing companionable from carnal with Neku. I have to stop – he's getting too aroused. He pulled away, oddly pining for the other's warm lips on his again despite his necessitation to stop; Joshua's whole form quavered.
His plan to draw out an answer with a distraction failed, thereby having gained him nothing. "I'm ready to leave," Neku said softly, hoping he hadn't gone too far with Joshua.
The haze on his eyes lifted marginally. "Wait… is that all?"
Neku said nothing.
"Don't tell me you were trying to force me to answer by seduction," he bristled as Neku's stratagem became apparent.
"No… it was just a goodbye kiss." Keep steady – don't let him see through my plan, he thought.
The words sunk bitterly into the Composer's mind, and renewed sorrow pushed back any anger brewing; he believed Neku's action inferred he'd changed his mind. "Please reconsider…."
"I can't. This is something I need to do." He looked away to hide his leaking tears. "I'm going to start my life over, enjoy each moment –"
"Don't leave me!" He tightly clasped Neku's hands in his and fell to his knees. "I'm not above imploring. Please stay…" he looked up with wretched beseeching etched deeply in his face. "…For me. I'll grant whatever you desire. Anything! Just don't leave!"
Neku didn't know how to react; never before had someone implored him, let alone the god of Shibuya. For each part of him that wanted to remain, another two coaxed him to leave. "I desire life. That's all I want."
"You know what I mean," he whispered in a reedy plea.
He stared at Joshua, unable to see what drove his desperateness. Why was he so… frantic? Didn't his pride inhibit that? During the Game and even hours before he hadn't been this way; now that Neku's imminent departure was nigh, he was reduced to a quivering mass. Yet… why? "Joshua? What's going on?" he asked almost instinctively, sensing something within the other.
Drying his eyes, he stolidly stood full height, ignoring the redhead's query. "Very well, Sakuraba Neku." Something detached clipped his voice, and biting cold wrapped itself around the chamber. "I have heard and value your choice."
Neku was confused, at once on edge. Joshua usually uttered his surname when he was incensed. Should he not have kissed him? It was something impulsive he felt was right. "Are you mad I kissed you?"
"On the contrary – I enjoyed it immensely, especially had it been under different circumstances. What vexes me is the fact you still intend to leave." He brushed past him; Neku noticed the pleasant warmth of his aura and skin had turned frigid like an ice cube. "I cannot fathom you, Neku!" He rounded on him, his livid eyes sparking. "You survive not one, but three weeks of the Game – it takes a remarkable person to do that. You," he shook his head in bafflement, "you tolerated me for one week, even though you suspected I was your murderer. You helped me defeat Shibuya's Conductor. You, a mere human doing that?" His gaze dropped, as though the words he sought would emerge through the cracks of the ancient floor. "You refuse me and my offer of new Conductor, and then… you kiss me? Caress my hair and cheek?"
His limbs shook in fear – everything was going horribly wrong. "I was just touching your face because it was close –"
"LIAR!" he roared. His placid aura twisted and convoluted into jagged voltage. "Your exploit was driven by one of two reasons: it was an attempt to beguile me, or you were obeying your carnal instincts." He refolded his wings, glaring down his nose at Neku. "You've nerve to toy with the Composer, whichever reason is to blame. I ought to take you right here for enticing me like that." His expression was that of a man who was about to shatter, his shoulders quaking. "Tell me: it all means nothing to you? I mean nothing to you?"
Neku didn't know how to extract an answer that didn't sound indifferent or ignorant. Was he supposed to feel something? He had to have; otherwise he wouldn't have resorted to kissing Joshua, even if it was platonic in his mind. He couldn't get his head around the Composer's sudden enragement. "I –"
"I don't know." Fuck it, that was stupid.
His features contorted in rage. He bore down on Neku, covering the distance quickly. He grabbed the teen's jaw in one hand and crashed his lips into his. The kiss, if it could be classified as such, was forceful, laced with anger. Neku tried pulling back but the sheer strength of the Composer's grip on his face was overwhelming.
He then glanced at the face before him and what he saw drew his attention away from the kiss: tears streamed down the Composer's cheeks, even though his mouth was still planted on Neku's. His great body shuddered, and he slumped to the floor, now at eye level with the other. He pulled his lips away and wept, resting his head on Neku's shoulder. "I tried… so hard to win you over. You ignited something in me and now I can't quash it!". He curled his knees to his chest and leaned his shoulder against Neku. "I'm sorry I killed you, I am. I would've repented endlessly for it… simply if you had had me. I was sincere when I offered you the position of Conductor." He looked into Neku's eyes, something dark flickering where pupils were absent. "Do you know what happened just then when I kissed you? Nothing. Absolutely nothing." The furious indigo orbs glossed with tears. "You broke my heart… I hate you for that!" he hissed.
"Hey, how was I supposed to answer?" he retorted, his eyes swimming. "You stole away everything I had, and then propose to substitute it with things totally unfamiliar to me! The job of Conductor? Being your toy… I can't do those!"
"No Joshua, I won't!" He stepped back, leaving the Composer sitting by himself. "You already took it upon yourself to kill me then give me an ultimatum!" He rubbed his hand up his arm, warding off the freezing air burning his skin. "I don't know where my body is, and knowing you it's probably a trap. So what's my alternative? Do a job I know nothing about and be your fuck buddy." He stared at the other, breathing heavily. "I'm tired of you thinking you rule me. Because you don't." No sooner had he spoken the words he regretted it.
Joshua ogled him as though he'd just noticed his presence, when he laughed; it was shrill and sent spikes of ice down Neku's spine. "What a supercilious infant you are. I do own you! I'm Composer – I rule everything! EVERYTHING! You are something I created on a whim and can effortlessly destroy if I so please!" He rose to his feet sinuously and advanced like a stealthy predator, ready for the kill. "I only wanted to hear your avowal of remaining with me from your own lips; I didn't need your permission. I could have forced you, like when I bereft you of life without your say-so."
Neku nearly fumbled back in a full-out run, but his knees began shaking; he didn't possess the coordination to step back any further. Joshua's body bumped against his.
"I can have anyone I want, but I chose you explicitly." He stroked his finger up Neku's cheek; Neku thought he'd vomit from the marrow-freezing contact. "However, I now know your true feelings and how you perceive me." His mouth stretched into a smile that had been pushed over the edge. "How grand you humans think of yourselves, when you are nothing but insignificant particles."
"J-Joshua?" he whispered hoarsely, fearful of the being's spiteful demeanor.
"Call me love struck or crazy; I was willing to devote my existence to you."
Neku stopped short upon processing the obtrusive adjective. "What are you saying?" His mind and limbs went numb, followed by his face. "You love me?"
Joshua's finger paused on Neku's face, the seconds passing excruciatingly slow. "How dare you ask such a stupid question? I've a good mind to Erase you!" His finger ghosted past Neku's chest as he observed with maliciousness.
Neku screamed from a searing agony erupting in his torso that felt like electricity lashing his insides. "Stop it! Do you love me?" he screeched over the pain that turned everything blinding white.
Joshua withdrew his finger and Neku fell against him. "What does it matter?" he muttered, his voice tinged with something gentler. "I wanted to protect you. I cleared your path recurrently when I was your Game partner; I know I was breaking the rules, but I…". His tone cracked under untold anguish, and he pushed away stray strands of hair from Neku's forehead. "… I enjoyed seeing you happy. Smiling. So, so much."
The confiding words ground into Neku like constricting air. The ambiguous answers weren't sufficient, and for the third time he entreated. "But do you love me?" His own tone and new tears shocked him.
His eyes focused on the present harshly. "The feelings I had prior are no more." He brushed his nose lightly against Neku's and whispered, "You want to revisit the RG so badly? Very well." He stepped back, smiling cruelly at the redhead. "I grant you your return to that world. Enjoy your reality." He snapped his fingers.
And for the final time, Neku found himself in settings that had not changed. Pitch black chamber, cold curving walls, dust….
Renewed drive coursed through him. If this was his reality, he had to break out of the dark prison. He'd renounced the UG and Joshua hated him. He backed up a few meters before running forward and slamming his full weight into the wall. He crumpled from the resulting stab in his shoulder that had made contact with the wall. Again he tried, with the same dismal outcome.
His mind digressed to Joshua's confession, and he forgot his situation at present. Was it possible the god had seen something more in Neku than just a warm body that could relieve his sexual urges? He couldn't see how it was probable, as Joshua unmistakably loved only himself. He wasn't capable of loving another, let alone a human.
As much as Neku tried debunking the likelihood of Joshua's sentiment, he couldn't help but experience second thoughts. Had he really broken his heart? "No, he's just messing with me," he rationalized to himself. "Anyway, who could ever love me? Not someone of his caliber at least…."
His eyes widened in the blackness when he heard the distant mumbling of voices. With a cry of disbelief, he stumbled to his feet. "Hello?"
The voices wavered in and out of detection.
"Hey!" Again, he threw himself against the wall. "Can you hear me? I'm in here!" He rammed it again; that time he felt a shudder following impact. Barking a laugh, he retracted a few meters more and flew to the metal. The bone-jarring collision produced another quake in his surroundings. He slammed into it once more. "Don't leave! I think I can get out of here!"
Again, a crash. He was certain he cracked a rib that time.
"Come on, you can do it," he bolstered himself. He retreated back further than before, and his back bumped into the opposite metal wall. Belting out a triumphant howl, he charged and crashed into the wall.
He felt no shudder; instead his world was turned upside-down as gravity failed him. He knew he was falling, and he realized, too, the walls and dust were also turned topsy-turvy; in that second he understood that the entire chamber was plummeting at increasing velocity. The swirling dust filled his eyes and lungs, and he bounced off the metal surfaces.
At that moment the room crashed to a stop; blinding light poured in a large, round opening before him, and he spilled out with the contents. His eyes adjusted to the light that was diffused by the cloud resultant of the dust.
He tried sitting up, but couldn't – he couldn't sense his body at all. Panic flooded all reason from his mind. I broke my neck? he thought in terror. No, as much as he had hit the sides, his back and neck had managed to stay protected. He tried straining his eyes downward to examine his body, but it lay just out of his vision range.
"What was that sound?" he heard a woman say. The voice… was that Mrs. Takaba, his mother's friend?
'I'm here!' he screamed.
"It came from in the living room."
He froze when he heard the new voice. 'Mom! Is that you?' but he knew, without doubt, it was her. He wanted to cry, but no tears wet his eyes. 'Please help me!' The dust settled, and he caught sight of his surroundings:
it was the living room of his house.
Numbness dulled his mind. What was going on? He heard his mother gasp, followed by rapid footsteps. She entered his field of vision, her bloodshot eyes wide and darting around him.
'Why am I in the house? Why can't I move?' he asked. He felt he'd die from exhaustion.
Mrs. Sakuraba bent down, tears dripping from her puffy eyes. "My darling Neku." She reached towards him.
"No, wait Sakuraba-san!" It was Mr. Aishii, their neighbor, emerging from the other room. "That's an omen. You mustn't touch them!"
"He's my son!" she screeched, her shoulders quaking. "What am I supposed to do?" She sobbed hysterically into her hand.
Neku knew his heart hammered, even though he didn't feel it. 'Mom?' he asked tremulously.
She didn't answer. Neku heard more gasps and murmurs just behind him, but he couldn't turn his head to see the owners. "What happened?" he heard his father cry. Mr. Sakuraba rushed to his wife's side and consoled her.
"I don't know," she hiccupped. Despite Aishii's advisement, she ran her hands around him beyond his sight; was she brushing something? "Why did his urn fall? The ashes are everywhere!"
That single second seemed to last a century – no, millennia – for Neku. The framed photo of him adorned with a black ribbon in the upper corner, the white chrysanthemums and lit candles, the family's neighbors and friends….
He was at his wake. In his house.
Like a limb-breaking avalanche, it at long last impacted him so fiercely, so brutally that he felt his soul ripped to shreds. He wasn't buried, embalmed, or in a morgue, no… he was cremated. The metal walls of the urn, the dark space, the dust comprised of his burnt and pulverized bones, teeth, skin, nails, hair, tongue, eyeballs….
'No! No! This isn't fair, Joshua!' he screamed; no one looked at him. Had he had the ability to move, he would have torn the flesh off his face in madness. He couldn't budge because he was nothing but ashes. In spite of this, Joshua had bestowed them life. Neku could navigate in the urn freely because his entire body had been contained therein; now he was scattered across the Sakuraba's fine Chinese rug. They couldn't hear him for he no longer had a tongue, larynx or lungs, and only his disembodied soul could hear his intended words. What he'd thought was his dead cell phone was no more than a phantom sensation of the items he carried with him before his death.
He had the facsimile items in the UG, simply because Joshua had sanctioned it in that limbo world.
What had Joshua gained from it? This twisted game that was nothing less than a nightmare?
Neku heard a knocking on the front door a few feet away, and Mrs. Sakuraba stumbled to answer it.
"You must be Neku's mother. I heard his wake was today?" asked a voice after she opened the entry.
He knew the voice. The little fucker.
She rubbed her forehead. "Oh, yes, yes this is his wake. Did you know him?"
"Yes, we were in the same grade. My name is Kiryu Yoshiya, but my mother and father call me 'Joshua'. He might have mentioned me to you."
She blinked. "I believe he did," she smiled feebly. "Please, come in."
Neku glared at him. 'You asshole, stay away from my parents!' he screamed at the top of his lungs. 'Are you going to tell them you shot me? HUH?'
He removed his shoes, stepped inside and bowed to both her and Mr. Sakuraba. "I extend my deepest condolences to you both. He was a good friend of mine. We were all saddened when we heard about it at school." He handed them a card with the customary money offering.
'I know you can hear me, you snot!' he snarled.
Joshua saw the spilt ashes and touched his hand to his mouth. "Oh dear."
"We're so sorry, the urn fell," the mother dithered.
"It's advisable to have a Buddhist monk bless the ashes in case a dark presence knocked them over. Then his soul can be at full peace." He extracted a pen and piece of paper from his coat pocket and wrote something. "I know a monk who's my acquaintance. I'm sure he'll perform the ceremony by tomorrow if you contact him today. You can take the ashes to your family tomb afterwards."
'Fuck you, murderer!'
"Yes… yes, of course." The parents bowed in appreciation to him.
"May I pay my respects? I have an appointment in Shinjuku later but wanted to make some time for this."
"But… the ashes…."
"Don't worry, Mrs. Sakuraba, I'll stay clear of them."
She smiled and dipped her head.
He knelt before the photograph of Neku and touched his hands together in prayer; everyone left to give him privacy.
'Feeling guilty, bastard?' Neku hissed.
Joshua, his hands still together, opened his eyes and looked at him with a coy grin. 'Guilt is a human trifle; I have no comprehension of it,' Neku heard him say telepathically.
Neku noticed the black suit he wore and recognized it as the one he'd purchased at Pegaso Altier the day before. 'I trust you didn't buy that with attending my wake in mind….'
'Of course I did. Remember what I advised yesterday? I said, 'Don't give me a reason to keep it.' '
The memory rushed back. 'You… meant the suit?'
'That's right. If you agreed to remain with me I would've returned it. Regrettably, you fell below my expectations. I figured you'd get sentimental, not use your brain and return to the RG. So, I took preemptive measures and got some nice clothing for the occasion.'
'If I had a body, I'd –'
'You'd what, kill me?' he tittered; his laugh was more annoying directly inside Neku's soul. 'You couldn't kill me even if you had a whole army of warriors.'
He suddenly felt browbeaten, and his fighting spirit took flight from him. 'Why did you do this? First you kill me then you agree to return me to the RG when you knew my body was like this?' He closed his eyes. 'I trusted you.'
'The only person you can trust in life is yourself. You should know that by now. Oh, wait… you turned over a new leaf, didn't you?'
'I thought… you said you hated seeing me cry.'
Joshua considered the statement and lowered his hands to his lap. 'I did at a time. But you apparently didn't care about me. I reciprocate intentions, good or bad.'
'I gave you palpable advisements not to return, but what did you do? You defied me and my help. I allowed you not one, but a pair of two-way passes back to the RG; the setting of the urn horrified you, and yet you wanted to stay!' He shook his head in disbelief. 'Why? I expressly said you were dead; once something is dead, it's gone forever.'
'But you can resurrect things, right?'
'Do not insult me with such drivel. Of course I can! Look at you! I choose not to practice it generally because it goes against the natural orders of things. Why bring back people in perfect bodies when there are seven billion others already alive?'
The reality sunk into him and resonated sharply. 'So, everyone who's passed the Game… they never got back their true lives?'
'I guess if you want to sum it up, then yes.'
He felt like a rug had been pulled out from under him. 'Then why were the players lied to about resurrection? It doesn't matter if they exceeded or did crappy – they all met the same fate!'
'But it did matter how they performed, Neku. It entertained me to see them scramble in their life-or-death struggles. Plus, if they believed there was a light at the end of the tunnel, it gave them incentive to carry out their finest.'
And Neku irrevocably comprehended that Joshua thought of no one but himself and saw others merely as expendable toys. 'You're not human.'
'Of course not! Thank goodness for that.'
'Shut up!' he screeched, fury, antipathy, rage directed at the other. 'Just shut the hell up!'
A look of surprise betrayed Joshua's calm visage.
'You're fucking sick! You kill off the people of your city, subject them to a pointless game with the promise of resurrection then put the souls of the better players into ruined bodies and leave the worst souls to wither –'
'No, the souls of the losers are recycled to become Noises.'
Neku processed the proclamation and could only laugh. 'You make players fight ex-human souls? Wow, you sicken me.'
Joshua narrowed his eyes coolly. 'The amount of people who participate in the Game in comparison to those who die daily is modest. Approximately 146,000 deaths occur around the world in a twenty-four hour span – that's a death every two seconds – yet only about half a dozen of them participate in a Game round that lasts a single week. So stop whining - the numbers aren't that severe.'
He somehow voiced it – the thing he'd been trying in vain to avoid hearing, acknowledging – despite knowing the answer. 'What happened to Beat, Shiki and Rhyme?'
'Oh, I reunited their souls with their bodies as thanks for playing their part in my winning Game. Don't you worry your pretty head about that.'
The gears began grinding in his head. 'But… weren't Beat and Rhyme hit by a car?'
'So doesn't that… doesn't that mean their bodies were mangled?'
Something twinkled in Joshua's eyes. 'It looks as though you're finally grasping why I'm reluctant to return players to the RG.'
It hit him between the eyes as his deliverance to death had in the form of a bullet. 'Son of a bitch! You fucking lied to them!'
Joshua's face was stone-cold. 'And how did I lie? I plainly said I'd return their souls to their corpses. I didn't promise mended bodies when they returned. But they have it worse than you, I suppose. Both the Daisukenojo siblings were embalmed and buried. Shiki was cremated and the ashes were scattered.' He shrugged as though facing a petty inconvenience. 'Oh well, not my problem. I fulfilled my end of the bargain.'
He could only figuratively shake his head. 'Why? They never did anything to you.'
He rolled his eyes. 'I guess it's not sinking in, is it? I'll speak on an elementary level so you understand. You and your little gang thought you were all entitled to resurrection, so I acquiesced only to reunite soul and body, regardless of the cadaver's state. My reasoning behind it was punishment for their selfish petitions. Don't you see? Things need to be born, and by the same token, things need to die. I hinted all of that to you, but you still turned a blind eye. And why? You've seen death in the UG isn't all that different from life, and death in the Higher Plane far surpasses any life in the RG. It rivals anything here on Earth, without misery, worry or pain.' His eyebrows furrowed. 'You realize I've never conceded to a human soul entering the Higher Plane; you would've been the first.'
Neku tried wrapping his head around what Joshua was telling him. 'Why… would you let me stay there, then?' but he conclusively knew the answer, already felt his eyes welling and the heavy compression on his heart.
'Why do you want to know?'
'Just tell me!'
He chewed the inside of his cheek, deeply contemplating. 'Are you truly that clueless? Or do you just want to hear me say it?' He giggled mellifluously; a lock of hair fell over his eye, yet anxiety flushed his face. 'Fine, I'll say it: I loved you. Happy?'
Although Neku had readied himself for the revelation, it hadn't prepared him for the words. Actions and hints were one thing, blatant words were another. 'You're lying. You don't love me.' His voice cracked in his ears; had he been standing his legs wouldn't have supported him. And he couldn't understand why he responded in such a pitiable manner… why he hurt so much inside.
'You're right. I don't love you, but I did. And yes, I was willing to cast aside protocol and grant you access to the Higher Plane.'
Neku felt like his soul was dying, being Erased like he'd done to so many Noises. He couldn't look away from the other's face, which looked clearer to him than ever before. 'No one loves me – I don't even love myself. Why would you, the Composer, love me? I'm nothing!'
'I see that now, but you were something to me.'
His mind was careening out of control. 'Tell me! What was it?'
Joshua blinked at the screamed demand. 'I can't answer that,' he replied, his eyes softer than they'd been since arriving at the house. 'It was everything about you, nothing particular.'
Had his form been intact, he would have collapsed. He never knew, even though he'd been right there by Joshua for hours and days. In retrospect he saw it all, but nothing registered with him during the time that had passed by like leaves on the wind. He was privy to the shameless flirting, yes, but there was more than that. The protection Joshua had extended, his sacrifice to absorb Pi-Face's flare, his simple acknowledgement of Neku amongst the other players and humans who were mere insects to an omnipotent being as powerful as he. It all transcended Joshua just shielding his proxy to ensure winning. Had Joshua solely wanted a sexual conquest he could've taken anyone… and yet he pursued Neku. In combination with everything else he'd done for the redhead, Neku suspected it was the Composer's unique, albeit, sociopathic way of expressing an emotion deeper than pure lust.
He was, after all, just like Neku: leery of letting others in, which in turn impaired his social skills.
'I… w-why didn't you tell me?' He felt lightheaded, like he was rapidly falling without hopes of ever landing. 'You could've said something!'
'Why? So you could reject me that much sooner?' He shook his head. 'I know you all too well, Neku. It was bad enough to be subjected to such a foreign sensation; it would have crushed me had you refused me straight to my face. Believe me, it took vast courage to admit I liked you back in the Room of Reckoning.'
Gathering his thoughts proved taxing while the declaration clouded his mind. 'But I did reject you….'
'Yes, but you didn't say it after I asked you. You shot me down before I said anything!' he smiled, shattering behind his eyes.
His mind was a sorry, crippled shell of its former self. He couldn't cry, but not because he lacked a body; he felt numbed to everything. 'I'll… I'll do it.'
'I'll be Shibuya's Conductor. You win.'
Joshua blinked then laughed audibly. 'Neku, we made a pact, remember? You used your last free pass back already.'
He trembled, feeling his sanity slipping as his destiny unfurled before him. 'What… are you saying?' he whispered.
He sighed. 'Are you stupid again? Oh right, you don't have a brain anymore.' He lit an incense and placed it in the appropriate burner in front of the photograph. 'This is it, dear. This is your existence. Your forever.'
He just stared at him. 'You're lying.'
'I assure you, I don't fib. However, I do cut my losses, as that's my creed.'
He grasped at any answer. 'Wait, I think I do love you. I wasn't sure at first but I am now!'
'Oh no, no! I see through your mockery clear as day!' He leaned down close and voiced out loud, "Don't you ever lie about loving me. If you play that card again I'll make you rue the day you met me!" He stood and brushed off his knees. "You would've loved the Higher Plane, Neku. You were to be my everything, truly. I've never met a human who entranced me as you did." He turned around. "Alas, I don't appreciate people who ignore my friendly gestures."
Neku could only gawk at him. 'You're a lunatic. A goddamned lunatic!'
He looked back over his shoulder at him and winked. "Mrs. Sakuraba!" he called out, "Thank you for letting me pray for Neku."
She rushed into the room, tightly clutching a tissue in her frail hands. "Oh no, that's all right. My husband and I welcome all of Neku's friends to pay their respects." She trembled and pressed her hand to her face.
"Please don't cry," he smiled sweetly. "Neku is in a happy world now."
She dabbed her eyes. "Yes… he would talk about life being a shallow existence," she said with a forced smile. "We had considered moving to the country when Neku was a child, but my husband's job made it impossible." Her smile seemed it would break like bone china at any moment, and she mindlessly squeezed the tissue in her fingers. "I told him he could take the train to work, but he insisted we were fine in Shibuya."
He let her talk, listening with his well-practiced smile. Humans were too sentimental for his tastes. "In a way, Neku may be right," he said, referring to her comment about Neku's observance of life's triviality. "After all, it was violence that did this to him." He shook his head theatrically. "Getting shot in Udagawa like that. It must have been horrible when you were informed."
'Bastard… I hope you rot!' Neku screamed.
She brought her crumpled handkerchief to her mouth to stifle a sob. "We… we had reported Neku missing. He'd been gone for three days when we got the phone call." She quietly suppressed her forthcoming weeping. "He said he wanted to get some air! Why didn't he come back?" She asked not as rhetorical, but a heartrending plea. She grabbed his suit tightly. "Why?"
"Calm down, Mrs. Sakuraba," he said evenly, guiding her hands off his suit. "There's no logical answer why he died. These are appalling times."
Something in her eyes focused; she bowed in embarrassment repeatedly. "I'm so sorry; please forgive me, Joshua-kun."
He waved his hand. "No harm done. But Shibuya…" He looked out over the skyline of the city with dull eyes. "It's fractured beyond repair, and I only saw that today. That's why I'm going to do something about it." And he walked out the door.
'Wait! Come back!' Neku started sobbing hysterically. 'Please, I'll be Conductor! I'll do anything! Please!'
She blinked. "Oh, are you interested in law enforcement?"
He looked back and smiled. "Something like that." He gave a curt nod of his head and turned away.
As she watched the young man, something he had said dawned on her; at first it seemed marginal, but then it swelled like a deathly heaving sea. "Wait… we didn't tell anyone where Neku's body was found," she mumbled to her feet.
Joshua stopped in his tracks and peered back with a stunning smile, his eyes lit from within. "Oh, I realize that!" He tilted his head, ashen waves of hair tumbling down his face, "Why, is something the matter?"
She opened and closed her mouth incoherently, the color draining from her cheeks.
He clicked his tongue. "You should lie down. No doubt this ordeal is taking a toll on you." He giggled and resumed his departure.
'PLEASE! I can't live like this! I beg you! JOSHUA!'
But he ignored Neku and strolled down the sidewalk, humming to himself, leaving the mournful house, petrified mother and unheard screams of the cremated boy behind him like a passing fancy.
"Hey, aren't you going to give the kid another chance?" Hanekoma sat on one of the roofs, his white wings folded behind him; he watched the other reprovingly.
"No. He wasted his chances."
Hanekoma glided down and walked alongside him. "I still think that was a bit harsh, Josh."
"You know what? You aren't the Composer, are you Sanae?" He smiled brightly, the corners of his mouth at tearing limit. He then amiably patted Hanekoma's cheek. "Love you bunches!"
The other kept his hands in his pockets, looking off into the building-pierced horizon. "So… I'm afraid to ask but… what did you mean you're going to 'do something' about Shibuya?"
Although Joshua's smile remained lovingly on his face, Hanekoma could see him gritting his jaw. "I've no Conductor, no proxy and I was dumped by a human I stupidly harbored feelings for." He looked up at the taller man. "I really don't think Shibuya has a future, do you? It must be purified."
He scratched his scruffy hair. "Is that why you've been letting Noises back into Shibuya, even though your round with Megumi ended?"
"You know me too well. I suspected Neku would reject me, so I permitted the reintroduction of the Noises to start a new Game cycle. I was too coerced by Neku the first time to annihilate the city, but this follow-up round would assure my victory. However," he looked up at the wispy clouds dotting the atmosphere, "I don't intend to wait out this Game's conclusion, able players or not. I'm going to get it over with quick." He laughed sharply, his voice ringing through the sky. "Shibuya will be no more in six hours! Everyone thank Sakuraba Neku for this!"
Hanekoma looked over at Joshua and saw a lone tear sliding down his cheek; it caught the sunlight, radiant against his skin. Hanekoma marveled at the Composer's uncanny ability to sustain a neutral façade in spite of his obvious inner turmoil. And it was no wonder the blonde was so recuperative: countless times before he had obliterated populations he loved because they'd recessed into sorry examples of mankind, yet he, as the Composer, had to play the part of nonaligned third party, the astute judge of humanity's undertakings and sins. Hanekoma realized once Joshua set his mind on something, even if it necessitated abolishing an entire populous, nothing could dissuade him, for it took something tremendous to push him to that resolution. He suspected, in spite of Joshua's ostensibly resilient manner in which he conducted himself, he was screaming inside.
"I imagined..." Joshua said softly, "… what it would've been like had he stayed with me." His trembling chin failed to stem the flood of tears he'd kept bottled up till that point. He tangled his arms around Hanekoma and buried his face into his chest. "It wasn't supposed to be this way, Sanae!"
"I know, I know Boss." He rubbed his back with a gentle hand; this wasn't the first time he had to pacify Joshua's overwrought nerves.
"I did love him. I thought he'd reciprocate my feelings." His muffled voice sounded miserable, a far cry from his proud comportment. "Why didn't he feel the same about me?"
"People are just like that. It's nothing personal against you."
His shoulders trembled and he gripped the angel tighter. "It was, though. He said he hated me."
Hanekoma opened his mouth in reply but then thought better of it. He wanted to agree that perhaps Joshua had been a bit overzealous shooting Neku then acting so casual about it, yet that was potential suicide. "I think you're a great guy, Boss."
Joshua uncovered his ruddy face, which was deeply marred with spite. "Yeah, well I don't want you, so that doesn't give me much consolation." He stretched his arms high over his head, flexing his fingers as he gazed at his flawed metropolis. "It's like what I told Megumi: I want to wash my hands of Shibuya. I should've extinguished it years back."
He sighed and shrugged, knowing there was nothing left for him to say. "Oh well, guess it can't be helped. You'll lend me a hand moving some of the items out of the shop before you do it, right? That Swiss espresso maker cost me a fortune."
Joshua held onto Sanae's elbow, wiping his eyes with his free hand. "Of course!"
The sun was low in the sky, and the clouds began taking on peachy hues. It was said before the city of Shibuya melted away that night the sunset was the most gorgeous it had been in that area of Japan in three-hundred years. Once reason returned to the shaken world remaining, the only proof of Shibuya's existence was unearthed from the barren plane: a metal urn with the family name "Sakuraba" written on the bottom in kanji. It was a miracle, some said, that the object had withstood the apocalypse that had taken the city in a matter of seconds and reduced the area of Tokyo to a stretch of flat wasteland; the urn was quickly deemed a national treasure and displayed at a memorial for the lost city of Shibuya. Visitors would awe at it for years to come, weeping of the cataclysm, whispering their conjectures as to who Sakuraba was.
Yet, for as many people who passed by in remembrance, no one would hear the screams of the teenager contained within. Never would they know of his eternal damnation, nor would they learn how he was indirectly responsible for Shibuya's annihilation, as he had refused the one who reigned over it all.
The one who wanted nothing more than to be loved in return.
When, lo, as they reached the mountain's side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hallowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say all? No, one was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say, -
"It's dull in my town since my playmates left!
I can't forget that I'm bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me:
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed, and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new…
…And just as I became assured
My lame foot would be speedily cured,
The music stopped and I stood still,
And I found myself outside the Hill,
Left alone against my will,
To go now limping as before,
And never hear of that country more!"…
…The Mayor sent East, West, North, and South,
To offer the Piper, by word of mouth,
Wherever it was men's lot to find him,
Silver and gold to his heart's content,
If he'd only return the way he went…
…But when they saw 'twas a lost endeavor,
And the Piper and dancers were gone for ever…
Excerpt from The Pied Piper of Hamelin, by Robert Browning