THE BROKEN DREAMS

CHAPTER ONE: IN WHICH JOSHUA AND RHYME DISCUSS ITCHY ORIFICES

Disclaimer: This story is something of the culmination of "The Slowing Down" and "The Reckless Charging," both of which are like, parallel universes to this story or something. You can read those if you want, but you don't have to in order to understand this.

Rating: T for Language I Guess

Genre: Friendship, Romance...?

Pairing: Possible Joshyme I guess... I feel like a tool for saying "possible."

OF NOTE IN THIS CHAPTER: Joshua spills his coffee, Rhyme does her homework


Another day, yet another boring afternoon.

WildKat was quiet, a welcome relief from the world of Players, Noise, and Reapers outside. It was because of this that the Composer of Shibuya came here to stink up the homey atmosphere with his black aura.

Yoshiya Kiryu, known to all as Joshua, leaned back in his chair, casually draping his arms over the glossy, orange plastic as he stared aimlessly out the window. His hair wasn't brushed and his shirt looked kind of stale, but he clearly didn't give a rip. Hygiene was a tertiary concern at best when one was an animated corpse dwelling in a sewer. Normally, Joshua tried to keep himself looking fine and dandy, like one of those douchebag Dragon Couture models made flesh, but today was a Saturday. Perhaps it was due to Weekenditis, perhaps it had to do with with the alignment of the celestial bodies, perhaps it was written in the stars that today would be a lazy day; whatever the case, he found he just couldn't be assed to care.

In truth, his slightly-rumpled appearance was due to the fact that he'd had a late night and overslept. He'd only just woken up about an hour ago, actually, and was now enjoying a light breakfast of coffee and mint tea cake scone sandwiches (his latest culinary experiment) at three in the afternoon. What in the world had kept him up all night, you ask – watching StarCraft Tournaments? Twenty-four-hour, non-stop Evangelion marathon? Playing goofy lucid dreaming games until deep into the unholy clasp of the witching hour?

Actually, none of the above. Truthfully, he'd been hunting the straggler Taboo Noise and basically beating the crap out of them for hours on end, equipped with naught but a cell phone and a shadow. The task was arduous, and it really drained the physical energies, but it was crucial – another Game couldn't start until all the rogue sub-demons had been thoroughly scrubbed from the UnderGround. And, as the Composer, it was really his job to take care of the nasty little pests. Josh's attitude towards this particular duty could essentially be summed up in three words: Buuuuhhh whatever uuuuugh.

The Taboo Noise also had a nasty side-affect: they leeched his energy. Every hit from monochromatic tattoo-claws seemed to take more out of him than with the usual Noise, and while this didn't amount to much over short-term periods, the little bit extra added up. On top of this, he had just reset Shibuya barely a week ago, which always left him weak for a few days. Given how worn-out he felt, it wasn't a huge surprise that he was sleeping a lot lately, really – but he'd be back to normal power in a few days' time.

The cafe was an excellent place to start the day, be it morning or afternoon. The trendy decorations had been carefully picked to exemplify modern style and slathered with a buttload of Imprinting so that they basically pounded the sense of comfort into your brain, driving a railroad spike composed of homeyness into your eye. A possible plus: the tables and chairs were all the same enamel-coated orange, which just so happened to be Joshua's favorite color. You will recall a certain math fetishist had basically barged in and thrown a level-i tantrum, trashing the entire cafe beyond recognition. Well, about a week or two ago, Mr. H had finally fixed the place up, which basically amounted to slapping plaster over the holes in the drywall and then spraying obnoxiously-bright graffiti everywhere to cover the evidence. (Neku loved it, predictably enough, but Joshua was just glad the fan was back in operation – the paint fumes gave him a headache.) Speaking of Mr. H, he was bumping around in the kitchen somewhere.

Josh had his elbows propped on the table surface, head turned very firmly to the right. WildKat's windows were huge, great sheets of glass that stretched from floor to ceiling, and they let in a lot of light, bringing an airy, lofty quality to the cafe. They also gave the Composer an excellent view of Cat Street and the Shibuya skyline. All in all, they were optimal things to stare through aimlessly, and they served him well. Because... well, they're windows. That's kind of what they're there for.

There were a few people wandering around on the sidewalk outside, all of them rather mundane-looking (well, by Shibuya's standards, anyway). One person appeared to have dropped something of great importance down a sewer grate and was, as a consequence, totally freaking the fuck out.

Joshua snickered. What a dork. Schadenfreude blossomed in his cold, undead guts, filling him to the brim with warm fuzzies.

Presently, Mr. Hanekoma sauntered from the kitchen, squeezed out from behind the counter and approached Joshua, hands behind his back. "...So, J. I was thinking."

"That's highly unusual."

Mr. Hanekoma deftly kicked the chair out from under Joshua's smug little ass, sending him crashing to the ground. "AS I WAS SAYING." He waited politely as Josh peeled himself off the dirty floor and, indignant, flopped back in his seat. "Guess what, boss? Ever since Phones converted to Earmuffs, I've been getting more n' more customers for some reason."

"Why? The food is egregious." Donuts? Muffins? Pfeh! How very Boeotian. Joshua only had taste buds for parasitic mind-controlling fungus.

"I think it's got somethin' to do with the way your horrible personality sucked all the bad outta his, and in so doing made him into your average sunshine burger. He's got a buncha friends now, J, and they all hang around in a cutesy lil' passle, you know?" Mr. H leaned forward casually, bracing his knobby hands on the edge of Joshua's table. With an almost misty look in his eyes, he sighed fondly. "He always comes here for his coffee, bless his lil' heart. And his friends, they follow him like ducklings. It's so cute."

"My personality isn't horrible," said Joshua.

"Huh? Aight, aight, whatever you say, boss. Point is, you've made him a regular Boy Scout. You should be proud 'a yerself."

"I think my personality is just fine, thank you."

"In actual fact..." Ignoring Joshua completely, Mr. H continued his little speech with notes of uncertainty. "...for the first time since I opened up this junky place six years ago...the food display case is empty."

Joshua nodded solemnly in recognition of this important milestone - and went right back to brooding over his people issues.

The look on Mr. H's face at that moment changed to one of slight discomfort. "Why...it's so empty, I...I think I'm gonna have to pop on over to the grocery store for a few minutes."

Hold the phone! Now THAT was different. Joshua's ears perked up immediately. Of course, Mr. H was always doing some sort of errand, but... he never bought food. In fact, Joshua didn't even know what Mr. H was doing half the time – but whatever it was, it sure didn't involve buying Joshua tasty stuff. You wouldn't find Mr. H lovingly buttering Joshua's toast in the morning, or bringing him bags of postmodernist pancakes in bed, or even making him a cold, slimy glass of cream cheese tea. No, no, no. If Joshua wanted to stuff his face with something, he was on his own. (To paraphrase the Producer himself: "I will in no way be aiding your degeneration into an Eloi, J. I think you can handle a five-meter journey to the nearest vending machine.")

Joshua's interest was piqued, anyhow. Mr. H hated grocery shopping for some reason, preferring to construct his muffin sets out of strategically-folded napkins.

"So, um, J. Do ya think you can watch the cafe for a sec while I'm gone? It won't be THAT long."

The cream puff blinked slowly, uncomprehending. "...Me? Watch the cafe?"

"Pff, yeah. You're a big boy now, aren'cha?"

"I'm the Composer," Joshua sniffed. "I believe I qualify for the position of 'big boy.'"

Mr. Hanekoma reached down and ruffled the big boy's fluffy hair fondly, an action that was met with a "neh" of disapproval. "That's what I like to hear. And, here–" Mr. H pulled out the thing he'd been hiding behind his back. "A java chip frappuccino, for my fav'rite lil' bosserino."

"If you're going to kiss my ass, the least you could do is shave," Joshua remarked, but he accepted the cold drink eagerly.

"Ha, ha! Be good?"

"If I must."

Mr. H paused. "Oh! Wait, before I go – make sure you put on the Employee Outfit, 'k?"

Joshua groaned. "Oh, come on. Do I have to?"

"Yeah."

After a series of horrible faces and accusations of shota torture fetishes, Joshua hauled himself out of his chair and hobbled off into the backroom with the enthusiasm of an eighty-year-old man stricken with the bubonic plague.

He dragged himself back a moment later, fully garbed in the Official Employee Outfit of WildKat. Basically, it was a miniature version of Mr. H's own signature clothes, complete with sunglasses... with the unwelcome addition of a really unfashionable-looking apron that said SUBOORDINATE in violently-pink block letters. Natch. Joshua had personalized it already, tying his gorgeous hair back with a little hair bandy thing so that he had a dorky little ponytail sprouting off the top of his head – an attempt at masking his identity, perhaps? Whatever the case, he looked ridiculous. And therefore cute, which was rather degrading - in Joshua's esteemed opinion, at least.

"Aww..." Mr. H gushed. "I shall call him... Mini-Me."

"Can it," Joshua snapped, an excessively-warm deluge of ectoplasm throbbing through the cold capillaries of his undead cheeks. His ears were bright pink.

Mr. H laughed his lady-killing laugh and waved good-bye, breezing out through the front door. Joshua was left alone to wallow in his misery.

"Like there are going to be customers anyway," Joshua sniffed darkly. "Bah humbug!"

He sighed, walked over and fell back into his chair. Picking up the frappucino with a ginger touch, he slurped away his unnecessary and illegitimate angst with a monsoon of sugary sweetness. Joshua summoned a spoon from behind the counter and used it to swirl the whipped cream into the rest of the deliciously unhealthy brew, a tiny smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Ahh, these stupid frappuccinos were nothing short of paradise...

He took a casual bite of his mint tea cake scone sandwich and instantly regretted it with all of his being. Eyes watering in distress, the poor child slammed down half of his coffee in a vain attempt to burn away the hideous flavor from his oral tissues, but the coffee seemed to react chemically with the hideous stuff, and in so doing generated an even worse sensation that spread horrified chills through his body. "Bluh!" A cold sweat began to prick at his lower back. Panicking, he grabbed a wad of napkins and resorted to removing the flavor manually via frantic scrubbing motions.

And, as luck would have it, it was at this most unfortunate of times that someone else entered WildKat.

Whaaat? An actual customer? Now?

No... not now! Not like this! Joshua almost crammed the wad napkins down his throat in shame. ABORT MISSION ABORT ABORT ABORT

The approaching challenger didn't pay any attention to the gagging miracle boy in the corner. Rather, she seemed to be fixated on the immediate air below her nose – she dragged her feet ever-so-slightly, each shuffling step seeming almost like an effort. A gust of cold air spilled in from the outside world, and so it seemed that as she walked in the temperature in the room plummeted a good ten degrees.
Joshua managed to hastily cram the spit-covered napkins into his pants pocket and sloppily rearrange himself into a nonchalant position. (For those of you keeping score at home, why yes, Yoshiya Kiryu was indeed the very definition of 'smooth operator.') His mouth still burned with disgust – in hindsight, perhaps cementing the scone and cake to the sandwich bread with crimson chili hadn't been the best of ideas – but he kept his jaw clamped shut, lest an agonized whimper somehow escape and shatter his bastardly image. Even so, he shed a single, glittering tear.

With a calculated flick of the hair, Josh swept his eyes over the newcomer, trying to casually determine if his cover was blown.

She was short, blonde, and kind of scruffy-looking; her chunky skater shoes were well-worn and slightly tattered in places, and her Wild Boar clothes looked a few sizes too big for her tiny body. As a proponent of slightly-oversized clothing himself, Joshua could only give this last detail his stamp of approval. However, clearly she was well off, a true Shibuya-grown child – the crown of her head was jammed into a signature Gatito cap, and a limited-edition, hyper-rare bell pendant jingled around her slender neck. She also had this sweet red bookbag in her hand. If she noticed the spectacular crisis Joshua was going through, she paid it no mind. Classy, or just completely oblivious?

And so she staggered up to a table in the far corner, hooded eyes fixated on her feet, and plonked her knapsack on the floor. With a slightly-grumpy sigh, she collapsed into a chair and proceeded to rub her temples for a good, solid minute.

Joshua breathed a small sight of relief, venting it through his nose so that it came out as an arrogant scoff. Confidence cradled his palpitating heart once again in its sturdy hands, and he sipped his coffee smugly. Awww yeah, Josh. You still got it. The tiny coffee spoon sank down a little in the thick drink, nearly vanishing under the surface.

After a moment's hesitation, he chanced another look at the girl – she seemed oddly familiar, somehow.

...Oh, right. She was the delinquent Reaper's pet gerbil. Er, squirrel. ...Sister. Yeah. That was right, wasn't it? (He hadn't exactly seen her before – at least, not conscious and loose on the streets.) Nnnnnnneh, it didn't really matter. She was just another face to him, but...

Something about her seemed a little... off. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop lightly, frowning a little. If memory served, Gerbil-girl here had been largely defined by her optimistic, upbeat attitude. The adorable, bubbly, sugar-sweet Polly Saccharide of the group, friend to all living creatures and Sailor Earth or something. However, this assumption was clearly utter fallacy, given her current state. She looked more like a world-weary young woman, honestly; like she had some great weight locked in her bones and had to lug it around all day, and only now could she rest in piece. Seriously, if her soul was music right now, it'd sound like a funeral dirge.

Well, knowing young girls, Joshua brushed it off, assuming her apparent depression was a simple mortal issue magnified long past its scope by the influence of puberty hormones. No doubt, it was probably something like an upcoming math test, conflicting club schedules, boy trouble...

He pictured this tiny little girl being cradled in the meaty palm of some super-beefy douchebag. 'Ooh, Higashizawa-sama~~~~!'

The idea was so ridiculous it forced a choked snicker from his throat, one that curled his dead lips into the tiniest of tinysmiles. Then he realized his pathos was showing, and so he drowned his grin in a huge, disproportionately-enthusiastic swill of frappucino. A handy tip: never chug freezing cold drinks full of bullet-sized chocolate chips, or you'll wind up a choking mess like he did.

Gerbil-girl started at the sudden racket. She whipped around, concern stirring in dull blue eyes. "...Oh, sir... Sir! A-Are you okay?"

"(hack hack spit)"

She took a tentative step forward, her expression slightly worried. Something seemed to click in her eyes – she quickly slapped on her game face and dashed to his aid. "Hold on, s-sir! I know CPR! Everything will be okay... I, uh, I think!"

She kicked his chair out from under him – he came crashing to earth disgracefully for the second time that afternoon – but she caught him, throwing her tiny arms around his flabby torso like a lariat. Staggering back a little, she nearly collapsed with the sudden excess weight. In a rare lucky break for poor Joshua, she managed to stabilize before they both wound up dining at WildKoncussion.
Break time was over only seconds later, though - the girl proceeded to impact her combined fists into his poor, suffering diaphragm with violent stabbing motions.

Joshua tried to salvage what was left of his dignity and shove her off, but he was weak and his vision was basically buried under a fountain of tears. Also, he literally couldn't breathe.

Whelp. He really was choking.

No matter – dead people don't need to breathe. Here's a fun fact: you can be dead in any environment, regardless of the atmospheric conditions – you can be dead in the desert, at the bottom of the ocean, even in the vacuum of space. Especially in the vacuum of space. So, that in mind, Joshua just stopped breathing altogether.

Big mistake.

Now, you see, his intention was to pry this psycho hamster-girl off his personage and throw her to the floor like an alpha wolf, swagger coolly to the bathroom, casually rip open his windpipe and shake out the offending impetus to his respiratory system. A brilliant plan, I guess, but of course the forces of the universe had to conspire against him.

Gerbil-girl basically flipped her shit. "H-Holy God! He's stopped breathing!" Panicking, she mimed goring Josh with a knife a few more times, and when that didn't seem to spur his lungs back into action, she dropped him on the floor.

Aha! Escape! Joshua tried to get to his feet and run for the hills, but she tackled him to the ground. "NO! S-stay put! The commercial said you have to stay put – you'll be okay! I-I... I'll save you!"

The girl, flustered even though she was, clambered atop his abdomen, straddling him like one might ride a sandworm. Pinning his cream puff ass to the floor with her hefty weight of ninety-four pounds. Destroying his dignity with the very fact of her existence.

Obviously, Joshua couldn't talk to her without air to run over his vocal chords – in fact, he couldn't even cough or anything. Splayed helplessly on his back with a crazy seventh-grader boarding his spaceship, he tried to signal that he was fine - but there must have been a miscommunication somewhere down the line, since instead of "Get off me, I'm okay!" the message she received was evidently "OH SWEET GLORIOUS FUCK I'M DYING."

Gerbil hammered his solar plexus with all the might she could muster – if one didn't know any better, they might have thought she was trying to kill him. The solar plexus is a very well-known pressure point, so to speak, and so each blow sent Joshua into convulsions. His mouth gawped like that of a fish, eyes practically bleeding out the tear ducts. Inside, Joshua felt his soul begin to shrivel with a deep-set agony grounded in the metaphysical realm of pathos. She can't touch me! She has no RIGHT! She can't just CRAWL ALL OVER MY GORGEOUS BODY LIKE THIS, AAAAGH!

He would have jesus beam'd the fuck out of her were it not for the fact that such behavior would probably get him skewered by some feathery asshole. He tried to summon up some kind of energy force-punch that would shove her off of him, but her incessant fist-pounding was kind of distracting. Each impact sort of drained his mind of all thought. Besides, he was still weakened; affecting something so heavy and solid in the RG with his powers was kind of an impossibility right now.

"Nothing... still nothing... I, uh, what comes next, uhh, uhhhhh – he, he needs to breathe, so uh, um, I know! I know! I – I have to inflate his lungs manually! Then – then I'll jump on his chest and the blast of escaping air will dislodge whatever is choking him!" She looked awfully uncertain, so she injected her tone with overdone amounts of zest, as if that would somehow warp the laws of medicine to accommodate her wishes (out of pity, perhaps).

Josh kind of wanted to raise a point about how this would not help, but he couldn't talk. Frustrated, he reached out with his sputtering telekinesis, grabbed a handful of coffee straws, and started lobbing them at Gerbil's head. They bounced off her head like wavelengths of light - as if they weighed nothing. She didn't even notice.

Clearly, for the poor, prone corpse-boy, the situation had come down to this: tap out, or pass out. Joshua began to frantically slap the ground with his hand.

Gerbil was apparently not well-versed in the ways of mixed martial arts, so she plowed forth like an unstoppable steam engine run off the rails – absolutely unfazed, careening through wild tracks of country, ravaging all in her path with screaming wheels of hot iron. Josh writhed, trying desperately to buck her off - but it was if her thighs were some kind of clamp, shackling him to the ground. She reached out with an unforgiving hand, pinched his nose shut, and loomed overhead...

Joshua was absolutely mortalfied, but alas, there was nothing he could do in this situation. Weakly, he raised an arm, tried to shove her off – but without oxygen, his arm was about as useful as a limp noodle, flopping weakly against her clavicle and straining faintly. To the untrained eye, it almost resembled an affectionate caress or something dumb like that.

Using her free hand to pry open his clamped-shut jaws, she descended on his face like a coelophysis snapping at fresh kill. Clamping her lips over his, she began to blow noisily and spittily.

AUGH, thought Joshua. NOT LIKE THIS-!

His brain abruptly shut down and instinct seized the controls. Panicking, he made awkward chewing motions with his mandible until he had her lip between his teeth.

You can probably guess what happened next.

CHOMP.

Blondie recoiled as if stung – or, rather, bitten. "AIIIIEEE!" she shrieked, clapping both hands over her mouth, eyes watering. Dick move! DIIICK MOVE!

He hadn't gnashed her delicate virgin flesh buds too hard, but lips are awfully sensitive things – and besides, it came out of nowhere. Surprise amplified the pain a thousandfold.

The poor thing. She just wanted to help.

Joshua's hands scrabbled around on the ground, feverishly searching for purchase – he pushed himself backward, kind of tilting to the right, and attempted to scrape the girl off against the support pole of the table he had been comfortably sitting at barely five minutes prior. This, as you might imagine, did not work so well – and so Joshua finally just reached up and shoved her off.

Weakened by pain and surprise, she didn't stand a chance, not even against boneless noodle arms. Gerbil girl half-fell, half-slumped off his stomach, scooting away, shaking. From behind her firmly pressed hands, faint noises of pain and anger could be heard.

Joshua did not care about that right now, he was too concerned with A) his mouth virginity being stolen, and B) the sharp object wedged in his trachea. He staggered to his feet, leaned against a table for support, and drunkenly tottered over to the bathrooms, as per his plan. It took several pathetic tries of flinging his entire body weight against the Men's Room door, but eventually it gave and in he went, as graceful as an inebriated layabout. Moldy heart hammering, he basically collapsed over the sink, knees giving out at last, and with one cold, stubby-nailed hand he proceeded to tear his own throat open.

At first, it was hard to rip through the skin, especially with blunt fingernails. He clawed frantically at the smooth flesh, glaring at his too-close reflection, carving bright red scratch marks across his neck until small red spots appeared. From that point on the flesh began to shred, and then it was just messy.

Ectoplasm gooshed out of the gaping wound in Joshua's neck as he ripped his exposed windpipe out, splattering iridescent red all over the poor porcelain below. Ugh, what a bother – Joshua just knew he'd have to clean up all this garbage later. Whatever. He held the collapsing tube of tissue in one gory palm, reached into the moist sleeve of flesh with the careful fingers of the other, and poked around until he felt something hard, smooth, and definitely not organic.

With an irritated frown he grabbed the foreign object and jerked it free, the walls of his windpipe ripping as the edges scraped the delicate tissue. He held it up to the light, aghast – though edged with gobbets of meat and drenched in his own ectoplasm, the shape was unmistakable: his spoon.

He had inhaled his coffee spoon!

Disgusted with himself, Joshua tossed the thing over his shoulder – it hit the ground with a delicate tink. Ridiculous. Glaring in the mirror, he stroked the flesh of his neck, drawing forth energy from the white-hot wellspring at the core of his back and shaping it into fingers of healing. As if watching the scene unfold in reverse, the torn head of Joshua's windpipe flew back into its regular place, re-attaching seamlessly to the site of rippage. The surrounding tissues, though still dumping absurd amounts of ectoplasm everywhere, wove themselves back together, sealing his throat back up as if nothing had ever happened.

The entire process only took a few minutes. Joshua was left fully intact, with a sink that looked fit for a murder scene and a good-sized kiddie pool's worth of ectoplasm splattered everywhere. Even though ectoplasm resembles unusually-thin blood with colors floating in it like oil, this wasn't enough to trigger his phobia, and so instead of freaking out like a spineless wimp, Joshua was busy being dismayed over the state of his shirt. He was kind of glad that he hadn't been wearing his good clothes, but a shirt is a shirt – and good Lord, would you just look at this sad state of affairs! he thought, plucking at his stained collar despairingly. Well, at least the apron had taken the brunt of the assault. SUBOORDINATE was invisible under the shiny-red splatter.

Sighing raggedly, Josh looked up at his reflection and realized his cheeks were oddly pink. Frowning, he grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser and scrubbed his face – but no, instead of coming off, the weird color stuck to his skin, like some kind of rash. Joshua immediately reacted with horror – suppose Gerbil had crab for lunch or something? - but no, the pink spread didn't puff into blotchy hives and start itching horribly as per his allergy. It just kind of... sat there. Burning. Warm.

He goggled at his reflection stupidly for a moment longer before he realized he was blushing.

This really rustled his jimmies, let me tell you.

"Whaaaat? Wh-what is this travesty?" he demanded of the mirror, slamming his hands down on the slippery counter. "It was disgusting and juicy – sp-spitty, and not meant affectionately at all! I don't even know the broad's name!" This was funny, since the girl in question wasn't 'broad' by any stretch of the imagination. "Quit reacting like that!"

The more he thought about it, the redder his face got. He grit his teeth, face burning as if he were sticking his head in an oven – he might as well have! What was he, some kind of lovestruck maiden teeter-tottering on the bluffs of youth? (Yes.)

The fact was, having died before completing the eighth grade, Joshua had never been kissed before. Except by, you know, his mom, on the cheek, et cedra. Biting his cheek in a savage attempt to divert his thoughts, he grabbed a wad of paper towels, turned on the faucet, and started scrubbing away at the sink. This, predictably, did nothing to alleviate his mind of the idiotic predicament now needling away at his brain. You see, while not exactly a romantic person, he certainly had not wanted it to be like... like that – he would have settled for a delicate peck, something prude and stingy and fairly unimpressive! And with someone he knew, not some random kid off the street! But not... not like that, not full of spit and biting and fists pounding his chest. That seemed a little over-indulgent, come to think of it.

But then again, who would willingly mack on a shambling corpse like him? (Put your hand down.) Anything at all was a little over-indulgent, given the circumstances.

But then again again, didn't CPR not count by the official rules? Were there rules?

But then again again again, that CPR attempt was horribly botched! So did it even qualify as CPR proper?

Joshua clasped a cooling hand over his burning face with a melodramatic moan. He scrubbed blindly at the sink with the other, once again displaying his remarkably shitty skills at being a janitor. Quit being such a starry-eyed waif, you fool! It doesn't matter! You're dead, you don't need to worry about this frivolous nonsense! She just wanted to keep you from choking, that's all.

But ah, wouldn't someone like Neku have just let you suffocate?

But ah-ah, Neku isn't gay.

But ah-ah-ah, that's not the point – the point is, if you were choking to death, would Neku care enough about you as a fellow humanoid to give you CPR if he knew how?

But ah-ah-ah-ah, he knows I'm already dead, so why would he bother? Besides, she did the wrong kind of CPR altogether! She was supposed to do the Heimlich maneuver or something.

But ah-ah-ah-ahh... oh, dear.

Joshua now realized he had been pushing the ectoplasm onto the floor instead of down the drain. "Good night, Joshua." He flung the sopping towel in his hands into the garbage can with an aggravated flick of the wrist. "To hell with it all! I'm going back to bed."

He pinched his nose bridge and slumped back against the wall, sighing tightly. Ugh, this bothers me...

Suddenly he clamped his teeth together very tightly, absolutely fed up with his own bullshit.

Hmph, well, it shouldn't. Walk it off like a champ! Where's your swag, fool? WHERE IS YOUR SWAG?

Incredibly annoyed at having something like this render him about as mentally functional as any given member of the Neko Sugar Girls, Joshua decided to scrap the issue altogether. It was stupid to get in a tizzy over lip-to-lip contact performed in the context of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and that was that. There was no gray area here; Joshua was being a flying fool. He finished cleaning the counter up (and the floor), under the pretense that, while it was indeed working, it was less work to clean up the ectoplasm while it was still wet rather than after it had congealed into hard, scabby rings. It also offered him a minute to calm the frenzied chicken that was his childish behavior. Seriously, he was being pathetic. Time to sober up and move on with things.

Still grumbling, but somewhat more organized, Joshua tossed the last wadded-up paper towel into the trash, tossed the gore-smeared apron of shame in as well, and stomped away, the bathroom left in a state of reasonable cleanliness.

Exiting the men's room, he was mildly surprised to see the girl calmly sitting back at her table, as if her afternoon was proceeding entirely as normal. With one hand, she rummaged around in the scarlet mouth of a primly-kept schoolbag, fishing for homework or something. Joshua checked anxiously, peering creepily out from behind the doorjamb - apart from a slight pinkness around her bottom lip, she seemed fine. Good. He didn't want to have ripped a chunk of meat off the poor child's face or anything. That would have been kind of hard to explain.

Anyway, she seemed oddly serene given what had just transpired, but that wasn't exactly a bad thing, so Josh counted his blessings and resolved to ignore her in the hope that they could put the entire fiasco behind themselves.

Moving with stiff steps, Joshua strutted over to his table and nonchalantly righted his fallen chair. It seemed like the thing to do, he supposed – he couldn't just leave it there on the ground like that, could he? That wasn't very city-sect. While he righted the poor thing back on its tiny metal feet, he noticed that his coffee had been spilled everywhere, undoubtedly in the earlier kerfuffle. This observation prompted a withering look and an exasperated sigh of blade-like sharpness to burst from his skull. Damn it all!

Josh really wasn't in the mood for wiping anything else, so he moved to the next table over – which just so happened to be the one directly adjacent to von Hamsterviel.

He settled himself awkwardly into a new seat and wondered what he would do about breakfast now. His tea scone sandwich whatever had been an absolute flop, obviously, and his delicious frappucino was now saturating the carpet, rest its soul. Now what? Bacon? Bouillabaisse? Barge into the back room and demand more coffee from Mr. H? Oh wait, he was gone.

It wasn't that easy to keep his mind on food when Gerbil-face was right there.

Joshua, for all his mental pep talk, couldn't help but wonder if she was into him. He snuck a glance out of the corner of his eye, noting with disgust that this wretched child was doing her homework rather than goggling at his godly beauty. Well, then! Be a prudent student, why don't you? The boy huffed slightly, and since he didn't want to eat napkins, continued to glare softly at the girl from behind.

There was something about her... something lifeless. This something had fled the premises like a bat out of hell when he'd choked on his spoon, but now the girl seemed just as unmoved as before. However, he noticed that her hands were shaking, and that she had her legs wound together as tightly as possible. Perhaps not so serene, eh? The thought that he could scramble the emotions of the women like this just tickled Joshua. Hee hee hee...

She also seemed to be muttering something under her breath - Joshua's hair covered his ears, so he couldn't exactly tell what. He made an educated guess and assumed it was some kind of occult summoning chant.

Because his nosiness knew no bounds, Joshua craned his neck and tried to see what the girl was working on. A ream of papers was spread out beneath her doll-like elbows, looking almost like scattered feathers. "Literary Analysis..." He subconsciously read the header of one of the pages under his breath.

The effect was nigh instantaneous – as if the words themselves were an axe taken to a tank of liquid nitrogen, the temperature in the room seemed to plummet fifty degrees.

The girl froze.

Joshua froze.

Slowly, with the stilted motion of a grotesque puppet, the girl turned around to stare at him. She looked slightly fearful, like he came back to bite her ear off, too. "Wh... What are you doing?"

"...Reading your literary analysis."

There was silence.

"The title intrigued me," Joshua said after a moment.

(The title in question was "Literary Analysises are For Lame-o's.")

The girl's cheeks reddened and she sort of recoiled slightly. "O-Oh... huh. It's just my homework."

Joshua sniffed. "Homework? Pfeh, that's a word I haven't heard in a long, long time..."

She glanced at him. "...What, are you a drop-out?"

"I... no," Joshua snapped, indignant. "Not of my own choosing, no."

She looked at him with a tabulating stare, frowning a little. "W-Well, don't just stop there. Why, exactly, aren't you in school?"

Joshua stretched casually, looking off into the windows. "Extenuating circumstances arose and forced me to cut my education short."

"What kind of 'extenuating circumstances?'"

"Death."

Smooth as buttercream, this boy.

The girl stared at him for a moment, and slowly the slight taint of 'you-gotta-be-kidding-me' melted off her face. "...O-Oh. Sorry." She clutched at her bell pendant nervously, eyes suddenly downcast. Then, "So... are you a player?"

"Ha! Me, a simple Player? Pfft!" He snorted obnoxiously. "Think bigger, my dear."

"...A Reaper?"

He giggled. "I eat Reapers for breakfast."

Gerbil hesitated for a second, her small frown deepening. "...Composer?"

He curled a strand of flyaway hair around his finger, smiling mischievously. "That's classified."

"Oh, jeez..." she murmured. A fierce blush devoured her face meat, her straw-like hair practically curling from the heat, and she buried her face in her small hands. "I-I... I-I'm so sorry, oh... oh, no..."

"All is forgiven," Joshua said, smirking. "Worry you not, youngling."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she mumbled, tugging her hat down over her eyes. She looked like she wanted to vanish into that darkness. Joshua's lips curled further – ah, sweet, sweet revenge. "Y-You're 'prolly going to kill me... just like Neku, oh... I-I'm not normally like this! I'm usually very polite!" Ah, pleading for favor, eh?

"And what makes me so abhorrent that you go out of your way to make me such an exception?" Joshua batted his pretty eyelashes innocently, really enjoying this.

The girl cringed slightly. "I'm... I'm really not... I didn't know, uh..." A deep, hollow sigh rushed out of her, as her frantic embarrassment cooled. "You were choking, dude! I can't just sit there and watch someone... choke! I had to f-fulfill my end of the social contract! I-I just... I never took CPR classes, but I watched someone do it on TV..."

"You do realize you could have killed me with your tomfoolery?" His drawl was almost painful to listen to, jeez. "Lucky me, I'm already dead."

She paled. "O-Oh! I'm s-so sorry, sir! It won't happen again... I just... kind of lost it, I mean, like, I haven't been myself... a-and you were right there,choking, and I had to do something – forgive me, p-please, sir..."

Sir! This pleased Joshua. He puffed up like a peacock, ego swelling. "I see. So you say you've been feeling off lately... In what way?" He inspected his stubby fingernails uber-casually, just in case she worked up the nerve to glance at him. "Depending on the circumstances, I might spare you yet."

She frowned a little more. "It's really nothing, I mean – I just feel kind of..." She dug a knuckle into her temple and swirled roughly. "...Empty."

Joshua swept an eye over that glittering million-yen pendant. "Empty how, exactly?"

"It's... It's kind of..." She folded her hands in her lap. "Um... It's hard to concentrate… to think, really. It's sort of like... Like there's this hole in my head, and the edges are itchy, but I can't scratch them."

"Huh."

Shyly, or perhaps just uncertainly, she looked at him out of the corner of her eye. "Um... well... never mind that! It's nothing to, uh, concern yourself with." She chanced a nervous laugh. "'If the front gets through, the rest will drag.' I'm sure it'll all work out in the end, hehe."

Joshua scoffed. "Implying I would concern myself with your itchy orifices in the first place." High on power as he was, his sarcasm was running loose and untrained like a bull in a china shop, and he wasn't really thinking in the way of the socialite. (The kid lives in a sewer, give him a break.)

The girl looked like she'd been stabbed. "R-Right... um... I...I'm sorry, I'm sure you've got better things to do than, uh, listen to my goofy little trifles, uh... Bigger fish to fry, right?" Her weak smile crumpled, and she sighed again, softly. "...I shouldn't have opened my big mouth. Sorry..."

"Hmph. Your self-esteem is lacking, I see." It was more of a spoken mental note than an observation meant to be taken as insightful. Joshua took in a deep breath of the cold air. "Buck up, kiddo."

"H-Huh?"

"That's what Mr. H would say if he were in," Joshua muttered. He looked at her sharply, and tried to offer some of his own advice. "You're acting weak. Stop it."

Her injured look only worsened. Joshua saw her spine visibly deflate as she slumped in her chair and felt a little tweak in his shriveled husk of a conscience. "I-I know... Sorry..."

"I'm not being mean," he said quickly, fidgeting with his hair. "I was being facetious earlier. But really, acting like a victim will win you no prizes."

The girl was silent for a time.

Joshua felt that this was something of a bad omen. "Ah... well. Enough about that. I don't care to dwell on the negatives, if I can help it. What's your homework about?"

"What isn't it about?" The girl leaned on an arm, staring at the spread with a hollow-blue gaze. It was as if she were looking at a tax refund and not simple schoolwork. "I've got to get this done, but..."

Standing, Joshua took the goofy sunglasses off his eyes and set them on his tabletop. "Here," he said, boldly closing the distance between him and her with a cocky step or two. "I'll show you how it's done, don't worry."

The girl looked a little taken aback by this. "Um..."

Joshua sat down in the chair next to her and scooted in so that he had an excellent vantage point. "No, really. Where's your problem?"

"I'm not exactly having any real problems," the girl said slowly, still looking at him with all the incredulous awe you'd expect if she'd never shared a table with another humanoid before in her life. "I just don't... want to do it..."

"A teenager who doesn't want to do her homework? Shocking." Rolling his eyes, Joshua grabbed her literary analysis paper and scanned through it. Her writing ability was only slightly above average, he noted; somewhat blandly-written, with short sentences and no-frills description, the only remarkable thing about the essay was how she threw in a famous quote or adage every other sentence. Why, in fact, it looked almost as if it had been written without much mind to the subject material – she had just written this to get it over with, it seemed like, but it was quite passable for a middle-schooler. It was still way better than Neku's poetry, anyway. "Hm. No issues here."

"There aren't any issues, I said," the girl repeated. "I just don't want to do it, that's all."

Joshua continued to wordlessly paw through the papers, letting nostalgia wash him away. He even remembered getting some of these assignments, very vaguely. They brought back dull memories of sitting in a antiseptic-smelling bed, a writing pad propped awkwardly on his knees; he remembered often falling into a delightful state of flow that churned out vibrantly-worded ten-page reports on how the predictable plot of the required reading book was actually a stealthily-concealed satire of the archetypical tropes so often found in fiction. Yes, homework was great fun compared to watching your IV sway for hours on end.

He glanced at the girl and smiled carefully. "Well, why not get it over with? It really isn't all that bad."

"But there's just so much..." She was rubbing her temple again. "And I have a headache, and I'm so tired... I just..."

"Shh. No whining. Where's your pencil?"

She handed it to him.

"Thank you. Now, please tell me which class's homework you hate the most and why."

"Math," she muttered. "Language. Science. All of them. All of them!" She threw her hands in the air and mooooaaaaned. "Math is boring, language is boring, it's all boring!"

"It's not boring when you're bedridden, I assure you." Joshua drew from the pile at random and found some worksheet for something or other. The author is deliberately being vague because they do not know what kind of worksheets are in Japan. Probably Japanese ones. Anyway, Joshua went through it pretty easily, despite not having so much as touched a textbook for around two years. "Ah... I missed this..." The memories of doing homework for hours while a pleasant breeze blew through his open window were nice ones. He had dragged every single assignment out as much as possible, mind you – half of those hours were spent doodling mecha battles in the margins. After a moment or two, he set the finished paper down with a flourish.

The girl yawned. "You can do it all, if you want."

Joshua would have, but he didn't need to study. He was dead. He had an almost-godly database of information tattooed on his back, for crying out loud. This girl, on the other hand, was very much alive and mortal – and her life depended on passing grades. "I'm not that easy to fool, girl. No, one's enough for me."

"...It's Rhyme," she said after a minute. "I'm Rhyme Bito."

"That's kind of an odd name," Joshua said offhandedly, rolling the slightly-crushed pencil between two pianist fingers. "Engrish."

"It's not my real name," Rhyme muttered. "My brother... he nicknamed me that. Sort of."

"You don't sound too pleased."

"Well, it's... Engrish."

All of a sudden, she burst into giggling. Eyes widening in horror, Rhyme quickly clasped her hand over her mouth. "Ah. Um. Sorry..."

Joshua didn't say anything, just let one eyebrow slowly scroll up his forehead.

"S-Stop that," she sputtered, grinning.

Joshua flipped his hair and smiled bemusedly. "If you say so. Well, Rhyme, I'm Joshua."

"Hey! That's Engrish, too, you hypocrite!" she said. Something about that sentence sent her back into a fit of hilarity, practically shoving her fingers in her mouth.

"Um, no. 'Joshua' is a perfectly legitimate name. 'Rhyme' is not. Nobody names their child 'Rhyme' unless they come from a hippie commune." He smirked a little, twisting a curl of hair. On the inside, he was kind of weirded out by her nervous giggling. "...If it's any consolation, that's not my real name either."

Rhyme still looked disproportionately happy about it. "Did... somebody brand you against your will, too?" she asked, tentatively – still awkwardly beaming. It was kind of weird, but the look in her eyes looked a little more vibrant, at least.

"I was 'branded' by my parents, but I like it better anyway." Joshua sniffed.

"Oh," said Rhyme.

"What is it about this conversation," Joshua asked, giving her a look of mock suspicion. "that sends you to such a state of euphoria, exactly?"

The girl began grinding her finger into her temple again. "W-Well... it's just not that often you meet somebody else with the their own nomenclature." She scrunched her face up with what looked like disgust. "I have like, three names. It's awful."

"Well, lots of people have many nicknames. For example, I've heard one person - I won't say who - called such things as Pumpkin, Tiger, Box-boy, Orangeylocks, Phones, Nekky..." Joshua said. He was suddenly hit with a crippling realization: the current topic of conversation was painfully lame. "What's so special about that?"

"I mean, English nomenclature. But th-that's not all! I..." She paused. "Well... You say my name right."

"Huh?"

With a sense of trepidation around her, she spoke quietly. "Everyone else says... 'Raimu.'" She said that last word as if it left a bitter taste on her tongue, which was a little silly.

Joshua snorted. "Oh, I see." He made a mental note: if irritating Rhyme is ever necessary, refer to her exclusively as Raimu.

Here, Rhyme tugged at her hair a little. "...You're a freak of nature, too."

"If you mean blonde, yes... but if you don't mean blonde, shame on you."

Rhyme yanked on her hair harder, as if to really drive the point home. "Also... you died. And you like this cafe. You know Neku, clearly."

"Oh boy, we're twins."

Rhyme smiled a little. "Birds of a feather, hehe."

At this point, the conversation kind of flatlined.

Joshua whipped his phone out and checked the time. Mr. H had only been gone fifteen minutes. He had been known to wander around Shibuya for hours on end. A bit of selfish panic began to flutter around in Joshua's lungs – was he really expected to entertain this kid for the rest of the day? Not that he had anything better to do, except maybe press his face against the Shibuya boundary and make nasty faces at Ikebukuro for a while.

It wasn't that Joshua was having a hellish time talking to Gerbil-face, because he wasn't. It was only mildly excruciating. But that was the thing - he was fairly certain that the longer a conversation with him dragged on, the faster the probability of him saying something incredibly douchetastic approached one. He contemplated starting up a game of High N Low. That would probably keep the girl from piping up again, since nobody likes talking to people while they're playing solo video games.

"Neku talks a lotta trash about you," Rhyme said quietly.

"Ooh, scary, scary." He rolled his eyes.

"...But you don't seem that bad."

"Hm!" Josh put his phone away. "Of course not. My personality isn't horrible."

"No! You're not horrible!" Rhyme's eyes widened. "Y-You're nice! Kind of... I mean, you're not that bad..."

Josh took his phone out again and fired up the High N Low.

Rhyme bit her thumbnail. "...What are you doing?"

"Oh, nothing," he grumbled, dropping the orange hunk of junk on the table with a decisive air. Ponk. "So... about that itchy orifice of yours. Is it feeling better now?"

Rhyme blinked at him a few times before the word "orifice" translated into "hole" rather than some other definition her brain flat-out rejected. "Uh... well, now that you mention it... I guess? I mean, it's not itching that much."

"Maybe all it needs is just need a little TLC." He paused. "You know, a little... stimulation."

Rhyme blinked, blinked, blinked, blinked, blinked...

"Intellectual stimulation, darling," Joshua drawled, bemused (as usual). "Read a book. Better yet, do your homework."

"O-Oh! Right!" She whipped around, made to finish some essay or other – and froze. "Uh... You have my pencil."

Joshua plonked it down in front of her.

"Th-Thanks..." She paused, considering something. "Mister... uh, Lord Composer, sir, um..."

"Good gravy, girl. Just 'Joshua' is fine." He rolled his eyes. Such crazy levels of respect were so polite, they were almost insulting. Beyond that, Joshua didn't like being called 'Composer,' like everything that kept him human was gone. "Besides, I never said I was Composer, did I?"

Rhyme looked horribly embarrassed. "Oh... s-sorry..." She looked up at him, sheepish. "Are you sure that's okay? Just Joshua?"

This mentality of hers was for the weak. Joshua narrowed his eyes almost imperceptibly at her, slightly irritated. "If I just said it's fine, it's fine."

"Oh... um, okay. It's just that... I... accidentally did that to some people, once, and... and they kinda... thought I was insulting them. The nail that sticks out most gets hammered down hardest..." She pressed her knuckles deep into her eyes, groaning. "I-I was new, okay?"

"Hm. How 'new' are you, exactly?"

"I've lived in Japan for two years," she said, cheeks burning bright pink. "Approximantely."

Joshua nodded slowly, arching an eyebrow. "Ah..." She'd been here about as long as he'd been dead. ...Interesting. She's almost like me, if I only I were an overly emotive, female doormat with a delinquent reaper for a role model. If she just read a few more books... maybe developed ESP... He had a vision of himself, taking her under his wing and grooming her to become a gender-swapped clone of himself, but he killed that train of thought quickly. Clones were nothing but bad news.

He glanced back at the girl.

She looked absolutely petrified, like a deer caught in the headlights. "Shit! I said approximately wrong!" was written all over her face.

He sighed.

"Rhyme... it's okay. I know it must be hard." It was the chunk of Neku's soul in him, he swore. "But, there's no need to be so worried. I don't mind."

He was incredibly worn out from that excruciating whopper of a motivational speech, but it seemed to work. The girl looked like a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders, even though her blush deepened to fresh, cavernous depths. "D-Don't tell anyone, okay? I might die..."

"Look at you, implying I actually talk to people." He snorted. "My lips are sealed."

She smiled shyly. "Thank you..."

"Do your homework, already."

With a small 'eep!' she quickly turned away from him, burying her scarlet face in a sheet of math problems. For what, the third time? Joshua decided he was being too much of a distraction, so he stood up, pushed his chair in, and slowly strutted off to the back room.

"Bye," Rhyme said softly.

He waved casually.

Once out of sight, he shut the door behind him and sighed, rubbing his temple. Great. Egotism aside, she probably wouldn't be able to write him off too easily – and, worst-case scenario, that meant the cafe was going to get a new regular. Joshua would have shed a tear for the slaying of yet another of the endangered species of "quiet places" in Shibuya, were it not for the fact that his tear ducts were shriveled and long-dry.

Well, maybe that was an exaggeration. She seemed unobtrusive enough.

He had a sudden thought – maybe he ought to scan her? Neku and his passle of ducklings typically kept their player pins secured tightly to their collective personage, presumably to lock him out, which was kind of insulting. But he hadn't seen his pin on that girl. Maybe she forgot it? Maybe she didn't see the point in it, given that they had never met?

Curiously, he dropped the barrier around his consciousness and let it flow outward, opening a scan circle. Immediately a flood of stars poured into his mind's eye, a glittering galaxy that spread seemingly infinitely in every direction. Like swarms of locusts, the red, prickly, ever-present clouds of Noise symbols leaped into focus, sticking at his extrasensory perception like thistles, menacing. "Oh, bug off," he muttered. So irritating. For a moment's breath, he took in the sheer majesty of it all – and then he sharpened his focus to a thin tendril. He reached out, gently tapped at Rhyme's soul. The star-like thing was unusually-bright, but it had the tendency to flicker, which was strange.

Thankfully, her mind was open. Joshua dipped inside, always delicate with this sort of thing. It was kind of like stepping into a pool, rather than doing a cannonball. The splash was less noticable.
What he saw next was disturbing.

Yes, the cluster of blue thought fragments spiraling through the blue pit of her mind were normal. They whispered vaguely, like clipped sound-bytes. Older thoughts were darker, deeper, hazier. Like a cascade of signs slowly sinking into a bottomless pit, almost – but that wasn't disturbing at all. That was entirely expected.

The disturbing part was that Rhyme actually did have a hole in her head.

Looking into a normal mind was sort of like looking into a deep, deep well. But Rhyme's mind did not slowly transition to the murky, hazy blackness of the preconscious.

At the bottom of the well of her mind, he saw something like a gaping bullet wound. A hole. A red-ringed, tattered-edged hole, that led not into darkness, but screaming static. The bladed hiss of white noise bled from it, scratching at the walls of the well like claws on a dungeon wall.

Although looking into the void was an experience comparable to shoving a power drill in your eye and letting it run, Joshua could see – just barely – that something was in there.

Something was in that hole.

Suddenly – as if Joshua were trapped in a nightmare, watching something so hazy and distant and terrifying that it didn't seem real - that Something looked up at him.

And screamed.

NOPE.

Joshua yanked his thought-tendril out of Rhyme's mind and jammed it back in his skull at the speed of light. He slammed the scan circle shut, wrenched his eyes open, and scrambled away from the door, as if even standing in the same place would let that... thing... grab at him, drag him down into that white-hot cauldron of static.

He stood there, pressed to the wall, breathing hard, for a second. Slowly, his panic ebbed, and he came back to earth – he felt the sturdiness of the building around him, cradling. His legs were suddenly quite weak. Dizzy, he slumped to the ground, staring at the door with an absolutely boggled expression on his face. "What in the world...?"

Joshua had never seen something like that – not ever. He had never even heard of anything like that. Never, never. Never.

This... this was...

What was it?

Joshua pinched his nose bridge, sighing. Great.

It looked like he wouldn't be able to write off Rhyme Bito any time soon, either.


A/N: BUT KIPPER YOU HATE ROMANCE!

YEAH I REALLY DO IT'S STUPID

BUT I DO IT FOR FRIENDSHIP!

Bugh this pairing is hard for me to write because it is like, NO SHENANIGANS, SHH ONLY ANGSTING NOW

guh I hate shipping

my fembro kisa beta'd this for me since I needed an impartial judge...