THE BROKEN DREAMS

CHAPTER TWO: IN WHICH JOSHUA PUNCHES RHYME IN THE CONSCIOUSNESS AND KIND OF FEELS BAD ABOUT IT BUT NOT THAT MUCH

Rating: T for Language I Guess

Genre: Friendship, Romance...?

OF NOTE IN THIS CHAPTER: Joshua meddles, Rhyme isn't too impressed


It was the day after the fiasco at WildKat. Sunday, if you're not keeping track.

This particular Sunday was, shockingly enough, a sunny day, of pleasant temperature and calm sky. Now, Joshua was sick of laying in the dank old dungeon of the Shibuya River all day, but the Angels had been bugging him about staying in the Underground, like it said in his job requirements. He had little choice but to comply for now – he was kind of toeing a fine line with those fine fellows at the present juncture.

And so, Joshua whiled away the bored hours by ghosting around the UG, aimlessly doing flips and tumbles in the air over Udagawa, pretending to karate-kick people in the head in the Scramble, tripping over Pig Noise symbols at Pork City. He meandered over to the north border and pressed himself against it, making nasty faces at Ikebukuro for an hour while watching their Reapers fly back and forth, chasing two rather pissed-looking Himegyaru girls around. It was the final day of their Game, clearly. One of them finally got sick of it and fired a few rounds in his direction, prompting Joshua to flee from the scene of the crime.

This sort of thing continued for a few more hours. Annoyingly enough, Joshua couldn't get that freaky-deaky hole thing off his mind. Even as he floated around, doing everything and nothing, he wasn't very entertained for very long – his mind had many opportunities to wander, and when it did, it always seemed to loop back around to that hole in Rhyme's head.

He had looked it up on the Internets last night, but such a condition didn't seem to have been documented yet – that, or the servers were deleting useful information by the terabyte to make room for more cat videos. He had not asked Mr. H about the hole yet, but he didn't want to. Not now, at least, since Mr. H was still sending reports to the Angel hivemind. Joshua's foresight, or maybe just his logic, sensed a connection between the hole and the fact that Rhyme had been erased and (illegally) retrieved. Alerting Mr. H to this problematic hole could potentially alert all of the Higher Plane as well. If possible, Josh wanted to see if he could quietly make the issue go away before it gained an unwanted audience. Doing so would boost their confidence in his abilities as Composer, surely. Maybe they'd get off his back for once.

Of course, trying to amend illegal activity with more illegal activity was hardly an excellent plan, but if we were to cut through the many layers of bullshit encrusting his being, it would become apparent that Joshua just didn't want Mr. H lecturing him.

At the moment, Joshua was levitating high in the air over Dogenzaka hill, thrown back in a reclining position. His dull eyes stared into the hazy blue sky without really seeing it, distracted by his bored thoughts of boredom. "It's all such a bother," he mumbled to himself, idly scratching at his arm.

Suddenly, there was a small clamor from below him. Voices he recognized tapped at his ears, registering in his conscious as Neku and his fancy brigade of ducklings. Josh rolled over in the air so that his arms dangled like balloon strings, curious. He hadn't seen that fool in a while, so he lowered his altitude carefully until he could sit on top of one of the decorative trees. It wasn't like he had anything better to do.

The very tips of Neku's orange crown of spiky shit poked through the faceless crowds like a shark fin, so he was the first to be spotted. He emerged from the writhing horde, looking as surly as ever, but... There was a certain softness to his eyes that belied his newfound harem of friends.

He was wearing a stripey, long-sleeved shirt, in accordance with the cooling weather. Joshua was momentarily distracted by the fact that Neku's armpits weren't showing. It was almost surreal.

Neku was bickering with a bespectacled girl. She looked like she would have towered over him, had she not been stooping like a hunchback, huddled around a stuffed cat toy. Her hair was untouched by dyes, shiny and dark, but it was cut short enough that she almost looked like a longish-haired boy to the untrained eye. Josh didn't care about her.

The two of them stalked over to the front of Ramen Don and slouched against the wall like a couple of loitering thugs, perfectly in time with each other. Such a pretty synch rate... Joshua sniffed snootily, folding his arms in a huff.

Neku pulled a permanent marker out of his pocket as if drawing a sword from its scabbard. He looked at the girl and told her dumb things. "I'm telling you, Sheek. This is my calling."

"Doodling schwa thymbols all over public property? That'th not a calling. That'th a lame... thing. To be doing. And, like, probably kinda illegal, too."

"Shiki. Shiki, you don't understand. I have to spread the legacy, Shiki."

Shiki stomped her foot with the good-natured kind of irritation. "Neku, no. There ith no legathy. You thaw that thing in a bathroom, Neku! It'th grody bathroom graffiti, that'th all!"

Neku began to draw schwas (Ə) all over the entrance to Ramen Don. His tone adopted lofty airs: "It's the voice of the masses. The power of the people. Bathroom graffiti is the 2chan of the art world, Shiki. It has a dingy, disgusting beauty all its own, like a delicate, pure white lily smeared with shit, rolled in a garbage heap and covered in wriggly earthworms."

"Bleh! You're dithguthting!" Shiki bashed her face into Mr. Mew's cuddly head with exasperation, giggling a little.

Neku shook his head, grinning slightly, and finished covering the door handle with upside-down-and-backwards e's. So it was that the pair fell to silence once more, leaning quietly against the wall. Neku noticed there was some incriminating ink on his sleeve and cuffed it, frowning.

Joshua stared at them, incredulous. Neku, why the hell are you so boring.

He toyed with the idea of shooting spitballs at the two of them from the safety of the UG, but decided against it. He didn't have anything to make the spitballs with other than waxy tree leaves, you see. Bleh.

After about a minute, there was something of a ripple in the crowd, as innocent bystanders dove out of the way of some incoming missile of a person. The delinquent ex-Reaper careened into sight, plowing through several people who weren't fast enough to clear the path, and screeched to a halt in the general vicinity of the noodle place. Kicking the skateboard into his thick arms, Beat Bito bellowed his latest achievement to the heavens. "BOOYAKA! THATS'A NEEEEEW RECORD, HEY-OOO!" He then did an incredibly lame dance.

Joshua was halfway through wishing he'd brought a whiffle bat to smack the kid with when he remembered who exactly was related to this disruption made flesh.

And through the disgruntled throng came she, apologizing profusely every step of the way and helping those fallen to their feet despite their vaguely weirded-out looks. With a small sigh, she staggered up to her brother's flank and proceeded to punch him in the gut, lambasting him for being such a nuisance. And that punch was no cute little pansy strike of the weakling, no. That punch had substance. The people on the sidewalk behind the siblings glared at them slightly and went on about their business.

Thus the passle of ducklings was assembled at last, clustered around the orange-crested punk and the kingdom of delicious noodles. They briefly swatted banter back and forth, like kittens with a wadded-up ball of tissue, and then prepared to go inside and "get to the eating already," as per Beat's request. Joshua recalled, with a twinge of annoyance, that he couldn't follow the troupe inside since the UG and RG were as one inside that store. Hrmphrpghrph.

As if to add insult to injury, Neku kicked the Player pin emblem marking the doorjamb as he vanished into Ramen Don.

Feeling as put out as a spat-upon birthday candle, Joshua wrenched open a scan field and shot for Neku's brain, only to bounce off like a super ball chucked at a glass door. A sharp crack of pain illuminated his mind's eye – his arms windmilled and he tumbled backwards out of the tree, looking like a total idiot.

Of course he's wearing the Player pin. Grinding his teeth softly, Joshua pulled himself out of the concrete and glared at their backs. Out of spite, he slapped each one's soul with a tendril of mind as they entered the restaurant, getting away from him – and each soul rejected him with the same burning barrier. Except Rhyme's.

The tender walls of her consciousness tore at the unexpected force of his mind-slap, and she cried out in surprise and pain, falling on her sitter with a bump and clutching at her head. "Ack!"

Shoot. He hadn't meant to do that.

The angry hiss of a thousand hungry locusts filled Joshua's awareness and he retreated quickly into the safety of his own skull, shutting the scan field behind him. Scrambling to his ghostly feet, he stood in the middle of the road and let the cars swish through him, tasting the metal and upholstery in his mouth. He wondered if he ought to run off before somebody theorized his meddling and their collective opinion of him worsened ("Confound that Joshua, always punching holes in our friends' heads! How dare he, I say!"). Or, you know, help Rhyme out instead, like a good little boy scout.

She was sitting there on the sidewalk, blinking weakly. She looked like she was seeing stars or tripping on acid or something. Her brother had pulled a perfect 180 and now gripped her by the shoulders, shaking her a little and making lots of frantic noises. "Rhyme...? Yo, Rhyme! You okay, sis?" Neku and Shiki had tried to whirl around and fly to her side at the same time and collided in the process; their tangle of limbs was firmly wedged in the doorway. They couldn't reach Rhyme, anyway – not with Beat blocking them, the elephantine beast that he was.

Of course,he was unbound by such physical restraints. Joshua drifted over lazily, skirting the gridlock of writhing teenagers with delicate distaste. He ground to a halt over Rhyme's head and nudged her with his ghostly foot, prompting her to sneeze. While her mind would have repaired itself on its own after a moment, for some reason Joshua felt obligated to fix it for her – maybe he had the thought that this might somehow also fix the hole in one fell swoop. Reaching into that white-hot wellspring of power in his back, he scooped up a handful, Imprinted it with the order to heal, and basically dumped it on her head, as if he were cracking an egg.

The rush of Composer energy pooled all over her head and wove the torn edges back together. Rhyme blinked, looked him in the eyes for a split second.

He practically did a backflip jumping back into the relative safety of his tree. The bitter taste of leaves filled his mouth and brought a wave of pissiness crashing into his general being.

"Ow," said Rhyme finally, blinking a few times.

"Are you okay?" Neku asked, the concern in his voice slightly muffled by the cat plush stuffed in his face. He could barely be heard over Beat's overjoyed garbling, anyway.

Rhyme shoved her brother off and wriggled into a standing position, sighing and rubbing her temple. "Yeah. I think I walked into the wall or something... ow."

That temple she kept rubbing. That was probably where the far edge of the hole in her mind was. Josh frowned, spitting out a leaf a few times before he remembered he wasn't in the RG and he couldn't.

Gerbil-girl turned to face Neku inc., and she then did something that looked kind of weird from behind. Threading her pale fingers behind her back, she rose up on the balls of her feet, shoulders rising and head tilting to the side very slightly. It looked kind of like if she were a plush toy having a principal seam pulled. "I'm fine guys. Really! Hehe..."

What in the world... Josh squinted suspiciously at the girl, but only after he heard her tiny giggle did it dawn on him that she was probably smiling. Conducting a weird full-body smile, that is, as if thrusting every ounce of authenticity she could gather out through her face. It occurred to him that perhaps this smile was slightly forced.

...Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. He rubbed his forehead distractedly, frowning.

She followed her compadres into Ramen Don, her shoulders noticeably sagging when everybody's back was turned to her once again. Strangely enough, Joshua felt a small trickle of disappointment – but it wasn't his. It came from Rhyme, as if they had made a really, really weak pact. While it felt different, there was nothing too unusual about this. Josh had just spewed some of his shiny Composer energy on her head; it was probably still transmitting signals back to the mothership, like an abandoned yet unbroken probe.

Now, if Joshua had any sense of knowing when to quit, that would have been it. He would have been off to ogle schoolgirl idols or something, maybe punch some kids in the psyche and take their origami paper from them so he could fold a bunch of shitty cranes. He would have packed his bags and soared off into the sky, vanishing from the lives of his dumbass Artists and returning to the bleak eternity he was anchored to. If he had, we would be looking at a rehash of the Slowing Down or something.

As it happened, Joshua was bored senseless and intrigued by that hole at the same time. And, as he thought more about it, his foresight prickled all over, telling him that her condition was... worsening. The state of her mind was degrading steadily, and it would continue to degrade at a rapid pace. Washing over him like a splash of hot water, Joshua foresaw a vague vision – like a feeling of instinctual knowing, he saw there would be a huge breakdown of some kind on Rhyme's end. The foggy haziness of the vision told that what he saw was far off, but all the same, the end result would be death – a Rhyme's twisted and mangled body lying in the middle of the road; a Rhyme's cold corpse nestled in the grass of Miyashita Park, as though simply sleeping. And not just death, but immediate erasure, for her Soul would be so broken, so damaged that it would be unable to ascend to the UG in one piece.

A bad future if he ever saw one. And disturbing, given what he knew about the girl. Joshua frowned – the vision showed him the end of Rhyme, but that end was still long to come. Perhaps... he could intervene, and change the paths of destiny before she crumbled away into dust?

He felt a strange sense of power, as though he controlled Rhyme's existence completely. Should he try and save Rhyme from her fate, or watch her fall apart? The Angels would have encouraged the latter, seeing as how he wasn't supposed to mess around in the RG, nor was he supposed to have resurrected her in the first place. Simply letting her die would fix all his problems with the Higher Plane since her soul would be returning to where it rightfully belonged as per the Game's rules. Neku and company would still appreciate him for bringing her back to life even though she was doomed from the start. It would all be very clean and simple.

However... a memory stirred within him, one he cared not to dwell upon too much nowadays. A memory of someone very important to Joshua, a memory of a powerful spirit breaking over something he did - or rather, didn't do. He had stood aside and let them crumble, even though it hurt like nothing else to watch them waste their mind and waste their talents. Why? Because he was too great a coward to face them, that's why.

Never again.

And then, it was decided. He couldn't let that happen again. He refused to stand by and watch another person squander away their potential until their soul shattered into pieces.

Some of his shiny Composer vapors were still circulating through Rhyme's soul like a blood transfusion, and there they would remain until they eventually synced up with her vibe and became as one with her native energies. But, if he scanned her while they were still distinct, entering through the whirlpool-like patch of Composer Soul in her head, his intrusion would probably be completely unnoticed. You'd think he'd have a little aversion to the idea as he'd just torn her head open a few minutes ago, but he reasoned away any guilt he might have felt with thoughts like I already fixed it and Got to gather information holy shit ~mysteries.~

Thus Joshua made himself comfortable in his tree, opened up a scan circle once again, and extended his thought-probe out into the blue. Whispery snatches of thought filtered in through the edges of his awareness, but Josh was a man on a mission. He had no need to dive into the minds of a punch of goofy pedestrians, whether or not they were presently thinking about the episode of Tin Pin Slammurai that he missed. He shook 'em off and reached through the wall of Ramen Don. Exercising some semblance of care this time, he delicately dipped himself into the smear of Joshua soul spiraling over Rhyme's mind.

Entering her head in this way, he was immediately assaulted by a weird string of flashing images. He was briefly stunned – but quickly realized these images were simply a nauseatingly disjointed projection of what Rhyme was seeing right now. This didn't usually happen when scanning, unless... the tiny part of his soul grafted to hers was, indeed, obediently transferring the thoughts that flowed through it back to its owner, almost like a wiretap. Joshua got a brief twinge of uneasiness – after all, you shouldn't just go around, microchipping people's skulls – but he supposed it was just an aftereffect of him patching up the poor girl and couldn't be helped.

A tiny twinge of guilt didn't mean he wasn't going to totally take advantage of the situation.

Below him was the hole, hissing and spitting like a kicked cat. Josh did his best to ignore its caustic existence and focused on adjusting his vibe until the disjointed flow of images stabilized somewhat. This was all very boring.

Suddenly, his mind's eye was flooded with Neku. Neku, Neku, everywhere.

Rhyme was apparently ogling Neku from the corner of her eye. Ogling him in the girly way. Filtered through the lens of Rhyme-o'-vision, he looked incredibly tall and super-manly, practically surrounded by a cloud of sparkles and floating, translucent blossoms. His skin seemed to glow, as though he were a girl on a makeup commercial. The tips of his fiercely-orange bangs had a tendency to tangle in his thick, luscious lashes with every other blink, and hiseyes... His eyes were like pools of liquid sapphire – piercing, transfixing, amazing. Filled with an inner steel, they burned bright with the joy of living again; these were the eyes of a warrior that had fought through the infernal legions of Hell itself, armed with only a pile of pins and a cell phone. They told tales of kicking reason to the curb and generally being a totally unbelievable badass, fighting destiny with all he had, and winning against all odds – and her existence itself was testament to his greatness. He glanced at her and smiled slightly, his pink lips twitching into a small, secret curve.

He was beautiful.

Joshua scowled at the disgusting sight. Rhyme, why can't you be a lesbian.

Apart from the awkwardness of seeing Neku, another male, through eyes of purest estrogen, Josh had it on good authority that she hadn't ogled HIM like that. Joshua ground his teeth. The nerve of this girl! Truly, such impudence deserves a punishment. She's just wasting her time with that hipster - why can't she see how fabulous I am? Ugh!

After a second of this overblown pouting, he got over it. Gently, he imprinted the meme "Ramen" into Rhyme's soft, pithy brain matter so she'd quit exposing him to Sakuraba fumes.

It worked like a charm – she turned her head away and stared at the counter, tapping her fingers. The general theme of the thoughts floating past Joshua's astral elbow turned away from "Jeez, Neku looks good with long sleeves..." to "Dag nab it when will the food get here."

Even so, Neku's every utterance punctured her ear canal and illuminated her mind with perfect clarity. The deep richness of Neku's manly voice was practically nosebleed-inducing for the poor girl. Joshua ignored him – after all, he was still going on about schwas and how graffiti was the soul of the city and how cool it was that people everywhere were drawing schwas on junk without any organized effort behind it and how it had sprung out of nowhere and how he had to spread the legacy blah blah blah. Since the Japanese language did not include schwa sounds, Joshua assumed that Neku had probably done something with a schwa for English class a few days ago, thought it was neat, and was now noticing it turn up everywhere.

Instead of wasting his patience with Neku's blatherings, Joshua turned his focus more to Rhyme's thoughts, splitting his consciousness so that one part was pressed to the "video feed" and the other was dangling in the slowly-sinking stream of thoughts that flowed steadily through Rhyme's head. The hole clawed at the back of his awareness, distracting him a little, but he paid it about the same amount of regard one would pay a toothpick laying in the sidewalk. This almost enabled him to read her mind as if he and she were one being. Of course, he was still fully aware of his body laying on the tree outside and the fact that he was but a tiny mind parasite, but it was still pretty sweet.

As Neku blabbed on, it became more and more apparent that nobody was talking to Rhyme. The other three were locked firmly in their stupid little discussion, but Rhyme was ignored. As if they didn't bring her along for any reason other than that they were obligated to. She slumped against the countertop, the tapping of her fingers becoming steadily more agitated and arrhythmic.

It's taking so long, she thought, irritation prickling against every word. Her brow furrowed slightly and she swept her eyes over her friends. Look, they're just ignoring me. Again.

When will the food get here? Maybe eating will take my mind off this.

Joshua witnessed this all thoughtfully, like a critic watching a movie he planned to review. From off in the distance he was aware of the door opening and a cheery voice calling out.

Oh, great. Eri's here. Rhyme ground her finger into her temple, obviously not too fond of the other girl. She seemed to consciously ignore the entirety of Eri's being, deliberately looking as far away from her as possible and letting her words fade to background noise. This was slightly aggravating.

"Come on, throw me a bone here," Joshua grumbled, not getting a good look. While he normally didn't care for fanservice, it seemed only fair that she ogle an attractive girl to make up for that hideous paragraph of excessive Neku adulation. Rhyme seemed determined to snub all other females, though.

Eri strutted over to the party of four and took a seat – the only one available was next to Rhyme, though.

Great, thought Rhyme.

Great! thought Joshua, ready for his consolation paragraph.

Rhyme immediately looked away, staring at her lap and picking at her gross little fingernails for a few minutes. Josh was only barely able to see Eri through Rhyme's peripheral vision as the older girl leaned over, saying "hello" to everybody down the line, pausing only to make some goofy faces at Shiki. Rhyme was last. "Hey there! You're Beat's sister, aren'tcha?"

"...Yes, my name is Rhyme," she said, softly. To her credit, she made it sound shy rather than spiteful. "How are you?"

"How am I? HOW AM I, SHE ASKS! Well, Raimu, I'm BURNING with the fire of A THOUSAND SUNS! That's how AWESOME I feel today!" She punched the air a few times, striking down invisible warriors of the darkness with her fists. "I just saw last week's episode of Tin Pin Slammurai! GOD, IT WAS THE MOST KICKASS THING EVER, LET ME TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT..."

Joshua internally screamed in agony as Rhyme immediately tuned out.

It became such that Neku and Shiki were discussing the merits of tildes and umlauts as cultural symbols while Beat and Eri had a conversation about tin pin that began to edge into slightly "fresh" territories. Rhyme kind of ducked her head down, sighing slightly in embarrassment... and annoyance.

Josh could feel it throbbing in her being, a deep, itchy anger. Long bottled up, it seemed to ache for release, infesting everything she did and felt. It made her thoughts buzz slightly, prickling against his extrasensory perception; the walls of her mind crawled with it subtly, but noticeably. And then there was that hole. Joshua could have sworn it looked bigger than it had yesterday, but that was probably just his imagination.

Those chuckleheads hadn't been paying much attention to her at all, had they? Joshua mind-frowned. Most likely, it wasn't a conscious effort to exclude the shortie on their part; she was kind of out of their age group, after all.

He gently disconnected his thought-probe from her senses, turning around to examine the hole again. The fear of the unknown grabbed at his cold heart, but Josh was having none of that. He stared at the hole with trepidation – it looked almost like a window, looking over a great expanse of nothingness. The Something was indeed still down there, like a tiny black splotch amid a sea of static. No longer was it screaming; rather, it seemed to be... sobbing.

Joshua watched it for a while, his initial uneasiness fading into something like pity, if such an aberration could be pitied.

As if echoing from the other side of a dome, he heard the clink of a ramen bowl being set down before the girl. Judging from what he saw in his scanfield, Rhyme had begun to pick at it absently, but her thoughts were certainly elsewhere. Angry and frustrated, they rose from the front of her conscious like vengeful hornets. Why am I even here? What's the point? It's not like they'd miss me if I left.

'Lost time is never found again.' She stabbed at her noodles, disregarding her hunger. I should be doing something... something...

Something else...

At this point, Rhyme began to reach into her memory, scouring the crevices for any evidence of what she was missing. Joshua knew this because a thought-tendril of her own projected from the inside of her mind's wall, heading towards the depths of her brain – even though those depths were gone. Even though there was a hideous tear in the mental membrane of her preconscious mind, Rhyme's thought-probe proceeded, unaware, fearlessly shooting deep into the crackling static of the hole and feeling around. Like a bloated, blue-colored worm, it twitched and writhed, unable to find what it was looking for. Rhyme began to squeeze her chopsticks in her small hand, grinding her teeth. Why can't I... ugh...

I can't remember.

Aaaand that would probably be her entry fee she was looking for. Non-refundable, of course.

Joshua felt a little sting at that, but he ignored it. With a job like his, he couldn't very well go around passing out mercy like party favors, now could he? He'd make a very ineffective judge if he was always cuddling the weaker argument. Besides, it was an easy thing to replace an entry fee.

All you had to do was fill the void with something new.

To find something else to love with all your heart in place of what was lost – it seemed simple enough to Joshua. After all, since she couldn't remember what her entry fee was in the first place, it wasn't like she was missing out on much.

He studied the tendril of thought as it squirmed around in the crackling hole, watching it seethe with building irritation. With a small sigh, he slathered another Imprint of the "Ramen" meme all over her head and hoped that would momentarily distract the girl from the loss of her most precious thing. There wasn't much more he could do here while remaining silent, and her interpersonal interactions were growing too boring for him to bother with. He had much to think about, at any rate. And so, Joshua withdrew from her mind, gently slipping out the way he came.

Once his consciousness had been safely sealed up inside his own head, Joshua got to thinking.

So... Rhyme had a hole in her head. This fact, though well-established, was still somehow difficult to swallow, if only because it was the first time Josh had ever seen or heard of such a phenomenon. Regarding the static, it reminded him uncomfortably of the Noise as they were erased, screaming, from this plane of reality.

Erasure. Rhyme's erasure and this hole were linked somehow, Joshua could feel it. Perhaps the stress of being erased tore her mind open? No... her Soul should have repaired the hole by now, if that were the case.

And that still didn't explain the Something, screaming deep within that strange world of pure, unfettered static. Perhaps it was some kind of Noise? Rhyme's squirrel Noise form, even, angry at being sealed up again? Although, if that were the case, there shouldn't have been static everywhere. Humans just don't carry around seas of monochromatic noise in their heads.

And then there was her entry fee...

Her entry fee!

Subconsciously, Joshua's face lit up. Eureka. The hole was where her entry fee had used to be, close to the forefront of her mind but far enough back to not imply an unhealthy obsession. A theory spun itself out of the dusty bits of info Josh had collected. Perhaps Rhyme's Soul was still slightly scrambled from being erased, re-gathered as a Noise, and finally reincarnated as an actual human being. This would weaken it, of course – unbalance it, maybe to such a degree that her Soul was unable to repair itself? It could be that the Soul was shifting frequencies slightly every instant. Maybe it was something like a microcosmic wobbling – not shifting enough to push Rhyme into another layer of existence, but enough to make it hard for her Soul to recognize its own vibe?

If that doesn't make sense, imagine spinning around for a long time and then trying to walk in a straight line – except the relentless, chaotic pitching of the world beneath you never stops, no matter how long you sit and wait.

Now, suppose the "you" in that previous example represents your mind, and the pitching instability of the world around you represents your Soul. In other words, the mind was stumbling around and bumping into shit while the soul spun around it, like some kind of sickening teacup ride. Like... a psycho-dizziness.

If Rhyme's Soul had, indeed, become psychodizzy (as Joshua immediately dubbed it, once again displaying his flagrant lack of skill at coining not-lame terms), it was no wonder that she wasn't performing at full capacity. That explained why the hole was still there, even though weeks had passed since Rhyme had graduated to living. The hole, presumably, was the space left behind from Rhyme's entry fee.

And the static...

Joshua remembered something Mr. H had told him long ago, back when Joshua had just fallen into Reaperdom and was learning the ropes. He had asked why the Noise explode into static when they were erased.

Mr. H had laughed a little. "The Noise don't explode into static, J. That static-y stuff you see? Not real. It's only in yer head."

Joshua had whipped out a whole laundry list of reasons why that wasn't true – other people saw the static too! He wasn't delusional! Et cetera.

"No, I... hm... This is hard t'explain. When they're erased, they're obliterated, right? You erase the 'glue' that keeps their Soul together, causing the Soul to scatter and disperse. The static you see is the 'glue' turning from something to nothing. Absolute nothing, mind you. I ain't talking about 'black void' nothing. I mean the total, complete absence of things altogether – no air, no color, no light, no darkness. Y'see, by its nature, nothingness is impossible to describe. The human brain simply cannot comprehend this nothing, as it has only ever had to experience Things – and so it substitutes an image of static, so that yer cute lil' sanity won't explode. It already kind of kicks the first law of thermodynamics in the shin as it is."

Presently, Joshua considered this. If static was the brain's representation of Nothing, and the hole in Rhyme's head was the hole left behind by her entry fee... then it was simple. The static was simply the absence of what should be: all of Rhyme's hopes and aspirations, dreams and desires, deleted.

The Something, however... that was probably the rest of Rhyme's subconscious. As Joshua saw it, the wound left by the deletion of Rhyme's entry fee was finite. It was impossible for Rhyme's entire subconscious mind to be composed of only future wishes. While yes, a core part of Rhyme's self had been wiped from existence totally, that was still only a small part of her mind, right? What of her memories of her life thus far? Her adages? The way people mispronounced "Rhyme"? The hokey CPR performed on the commercial? Her behavioral patterns, her emotional responses to stimuli, her friends and her family? Her ability to perceive pain? The fact that a red light means stop?

Miscellaneous things like that were stored in the subconscious mind, which functioned as something of a massive database for anything and everything ever encountered by the brain. Archived data of any sort could be instantly retrieved for future use, if you knew how to do it. This was, in fact, the basis of Joshua's Composer powers, but that isn't important right now.

The point was that the subconscious mind was massive. What was the loss of some future hopes? And anyway, this meant that the void in Rhyme's mind had to be finite, surrounded on all edges by the rest of Rhyme's personal experiences and such. Her subconscious was probably lamenting the loss of a thing of great personal importance, but Joshua was sure it could be overcome. She could always just think of something else she wanted to do with her life.

The explanation, although he had only just pulled it out of his ass, satisfied Joshua. Still... every few minutes, his foresight stabbed at him like a thousand throwing knives, beating him over the head with vague visions of dead Rhymes. It was almost as if it was angry at something, but that was ridiculous. Josh scoffed and rolled over in the tree, shivering as a twig unexpectedly phased through his ghostly elbow.

Well, at least now he had a good and plausible explanation for all this. From here, he could formulate a plan based on educated guesses. It was too bad that his theory would eventually turn out to be almost ninety-five percent totally wrong, but that is a lamentation for other times.

A frog Noise symbol drifted overhead, examining him. Joshua shooed it off like a pesky fly, too busy drafting battle strategies to pay it any mind. The Noise veered away from Joshua's hidey-hole and started to angle down towards Ramen Don's attractive beige wall, glowing a malicious scarlet.

It stopped at the edge of the building, hovering up and down with apparent excitement. Another Noise drifted down to join it.

Joshua paused his heavy-duty gambit-weaving to notice they were behaving oddly. The Noise were clearly gathering, but around nobody in particular – but ah, the Noise couldn't enter Game-registered shops. They were lusting after someone inside, clearly.

Someone like...

All of a sudden, Rhyme Bito burst through the door.

She staggered into the street, her slender arms pinwheeling and finally bracing against her quaking knees. Panting, Rhyme hunched there for a moment, bent uncomfortably and uncertainly in the middle of the sidewalk. Her hat was askew and, when she straightened up, it actually fell off her head. Rhyme didn't seem to notice – she threw a frantic glance behind her shoulder at the restaurant, tensed -

- and broke into a run.

Joshua's interest was piqued like Pikes Peak. The door of Ramen Don suddenly became clogged with no less than three teenagers trying to evacuate the premises at the same time, all shouting "Raimu! Stop!" over and over. Neku, Beat, and Shiki strained against the disgruntled door frame, glared at each other, writhed around, beat the walls with their fists. Joshua stared at them, bemused. You'd think they would have learned...

However, the three stooges and their antics had basically handed him a head-start on a silver platter. Smirking, Joshua jumped out of the tree and scooped up Rhyme's hat into his unholy clutches. Enjoying the slightly alarmed looks of the hapless Artists as the hat seemed to lift into the air of its own accord, Joshua waved an invisible wave goodbye and soared into the sky, scanning the sidewalk below for any sign of Rhyme. He was actually scanning, by the way – it'd be easier for him to find a crackling hole of nothing with his mind powers than a specific blonde on the ganguro-covered streets.

Joshua found her a few minutes later, cowering in a narrow alleyway full of trash cans. She was all alone, before you get any fantasies about Joshua swooping down from above and karate-kicking a thug in the face – although the author will not discount the possibility of such a thing occurring in later chapters. Josh eased himself to the ground, crouching out of her line of sight behind one of the aforementioned trash cans. He didn't want to scare her, appearing out of thin air. (In hindsight, jumping out from behind a trash can couldn't be any easier on the nerves.) The smell and proximity to the grubby concrete made him crinkle his nose slightly, but he managed to remain strong in the face of adversity.

Holding his breath, he tuned into the RG, the familiar warm, tingly feeling washing over him. The trash can smell hit him like a sack of bricks, even if it wasn't that bad, causing him to fall on his knees with a small "Oof!"

Rhyme jumped ten feet in the air. Not literally. "Wh-Wh-Wh-Who's there?"

The game was up. Scowling, Joshua rolled out from his hiding spot, staggering to his feet. "Ahem." He banished the dirt from his nice shirt with an irritated sweep of his hand and glanced at the girl. She looked like she'd seen a ghost. Oh, wait.

Rhyme jabbed a shaking finger at him, eyes wide. "You!"

"Joshua," he corrected her, performing a princely bow. "We've met, haven't we?"

"Where'd you come from? What are you doing?"

"Can't the Composer go where he wants?" Joshua muttered, tossing his hair. "...Perhaps he ordered me to come here."

Rhyme stared at him for a moment longer, then recognition seemed to click in her eyes. "O-Oh... right... sorry," she murmured, her shoulders sagging. She rubbed her temple and averted her eyes, mumbling apologies.

Joshua waved them away, excruciatingly aware of the fact that he was breaking his RG-fast. "Never mind me. What's got you so riled up, hm?"

"What do you mean...?" she murmured, looking up at him with something like fear.

"I was simply passing by when I saw you run out of the ramen place as though hell itself were on your heels," Joshua drawled, presenting the soft, wadded-up fabric of Rhyme's hat to her. "Moreover, you dropped this."

Rhyme stared at the black lump for a moment, subconsciously reaching up and patting the crown of her head. The feeling of slightly-frizzy hair under her palm seemed to bring her back to her senses. "...O-Oh. Thank you," she mumbled nervously, tentatively reaching out and taking the hat.

Joshua watched her eyes flick back and forth, like rats trapped in cages. He got the strong sense that she wasn't... right. Something about her gave off a feeling of wrongness, of total detachment from reality. He smirked, not unkindly. "...What could cause you to run like that, I wonder? Was there a squirrel in your soup, perchance?"

Rhyme flinched at the word "squirrel," biting her lip. "Oh, I... um..."

Stuffing his hand in his pocket, Joshua made it clear that he wasn't going anywhere until he had his answer.

"Uh, well... I had a... I had a headache," Rhyme muttered lamely, staring at the wall. There was a glazed look to her eyes. "And then..."

Her pale hands tugged at the hem of her sweatshirt, which Joshua saw for the first time was soaked. The wetness seemed to remind her.

"Eri poured water on me," she spat under her breath, a faint scowl twisting her lips. It didn't suit her. "I... no, that's not right. I mean, she knocked over her drink, and..." She took a deep breath, rubbing her temple. "It was... an accident, but... but I..."

Joshua frowned, waving his hand in a circle as though to urge the words along. "But you...?"

Tears began to glisten at the corner of her eyes. "I hit her... Oh, no..." She covered her face with her hands and fell to the ground with a bump, lips quivering. "I-I hit her! I did! Oh..."

Recalling the punch she had delivered to her rhinoceros of a brother, Joshua winced slightly. "Oh, dear."

Rhyme didn't seem to hear him. "I smacked her, right across the face! Just like that! I... Why did I do that? Violence isn't the answer!" Crouching there on the ground, she started rocking back and forth, a despairing expression twisting her face. She whimpered, tears spotting her already-damp sweatshirt, and buried her head behind her knees. "Why did I do that? Ohh..."

Joshua tossed a wary glance behind him, wondering if Neku and company were on their way by now. "It does seem disturbingly out of character for you."

She didn't answer him.

The girl looked so small and alone, lost within the haze of confusion that so permeated her being. Someone had to do something. The thought of her cold body laying smeared across the pavement, her Soul crushed beyond recognition, sprung to the forefront of his mind once again, leaving something of a bitter taste in his mouth. Thank you, foresight.

He looked at her for a moment longer, and then he did something unprecedented.

He knelt by her side, reached over, and patted her firmly on the head.

Jolting away at the sudden touch, Rhyme snapped her head around to look at him, eyes wide. The cloudy look within them had vanished; she stared at him with clear surprise. "J-Joshua..."

"Hush, girl." He pressed his hand on her head again, and this time she didn't recoil, though her thin shoulders tensed. "It's fine."

"N-No, it's not!" Rhyme whimpered, digging her fingers into her calves. "Eri, she never shuts up! She's a mouth on legs! She's prolly gonna tell everyone about this, about me slapping her like a... and then..." Color tinged her cheeks as Joshua gently rubbed her crown. She sniffled. "My mom'll kill me... and... and... wh-why are you patting me...?"

"Physical contact seems to help you get your bearings," Joshua said. The top of her head was nice and warm, a sharp contrast to his own. "Anyway, there's no need to freak out. Just apologize to Eri."

"B-But..."

Joshua laid his hand in his lap and tutted softly. "No, listen. Make up some BS story about how these fools kept pouring water on you every day at school for the past week, and so you vowed to slap the dickens out of the next joker who tried. I think she'll accept it."

"...That's a lie, though," Rhyme muttered, scooting away from Joshua. "Honesty is the best policy. ...Besides, Beat will wanna know the names of 'those fools,' so he can put them on the hit list."

Joshua shrugged, smiling a little. "Give her a reason to forgive you. It doesn't matter to mewhat reason that is, but avoiding her will only inflame the situation." He was such a hypocrite.

She was silent for a moment.

Josh got to his feet and brushed off his pants, humming softly as he did so. Then, he nudged Rhyme with his toe. "Come on, then."

Rhyme mumbled something weakly.

"Hm?"

"...What does that mean, I said."

Joshua sighed. "Get up and come with me, Rhyme."

She looked at him with alarm. "...What?"

"Are you deaf, girl? I said get up and come with me. That's not too difficult for you to understand, I hope?" He ran a hand through his hair, huffing. "You clearly don't want to face your friends right now, and that's fine. You just smacked one of them right across the face, after all."

Rhyme cringed. "E-Eri isn't my friend..."

"Be that as it may, you still need to explain yourself to her." Joshua planted a hand on his hip and rolled his eyes skyward. "As it is, you don't seem to be feeling very well. I think a short break will help you get your thoughts in order, don't you? If you don't like what you're doing, it usually helps to do... something else."

She thought about this. "I shouldn't go running off alone... Beat will have a heart attack."

"And that's why I'll be with you." Joshua smirked. "To ward off the unscrupulous types, you see."

The look Rhyme gave him at that moment made it clear just who she thought was an unscrupulous type. "Neku said... I shouldn't trust you."

"Aww, he's a spoilsport of unimaginable proportions, isn't he?" Josh snorted. She must have gone and blabbed to Nekkums about yesterday; it was either that, or poor Neku was suffering from a case of 'Have I Mentioned Joshua Is A Murderer Today?,' bless his squishy heart. "Now, we won't be gone that long. An hour, at the very most. I give you my word, Rhyme, that no harm shall come to you during that time." The thought occurred to offer her some van candy, but that seemed like pushing the envelope.

She looked like she wanted to resist, but after a moment's hesitation she staggered to her feet anyway. "I... I guess that's all right," she muttered softly. "Please don't kill me, though."

"Who, me? A killer? I wouldn't hurt a fly, Rhyme." He couldn't help but grin wider in devilish delight, reviling in his own nastiness. Rhyme didn't seem very impressed by this.

"...Seriously," she whispered hoarsely.

He threw up his hands. "If you can't bring yourself to trust a rat like me, go right ahead. Pat me down. I'm unarmed."

She turned pink at the suggestion and fidgeted a little. "...I don't think that's... just don't kill me, okay? P-Please..."

Joshua rolled his eyes and stuffed his hands back in his pockets. "Very well. I won't kill you. Is that perfectly acceptable? Can we get going? Yes? No?"

"Well, uhm..."

At this point, Rhyme stood there for a still moment, fidgeting, lips pursed as though words were begging to spill out but still had to go through customs. You could tell that two forces were struggling inside her - Neku's probably overly-hyperbolic stories fighting with her own experiences for her trust.

Josh figured her completely unwarranted crush on Neku might be skewing the playing field, so he turned on the puppy dog eyes and commenced the batting of the eyelashes, lip a-quivering. Wibble, wibble.

Rhyme made a face. "You don't have to look at me like that, you know..."

"Oh, come on," Joshua pouted, trying to look as obnoxiously dejected as he could.

Finally, she seemed to come to a conclusion. Rhyme looked up at Joshua, her somber eyes almost bleeding with uncertainty. "I know they won't like it, but... as... as long as nothing weird happens..." A small sigh. "I guess it's okay." She bit her lip. "...Let's go."

At this favorable response, Joshua's creepy eyes glittered. It was pretty fab, to be honest.

"Excellent. Shall we?"

And thus they shall'd out of the alleyway.


A/N: ok

I have nothing to say here except

I hope Joshua will be able to make a clean, believable transition from creepy zombie kidnapper to lovesick zombie maiden in the next chapter, wherein he sweeps Rhyme off her feet and kisses her neck succulently and grossly sniffs her fruity innocence while sucking on her teeth as she groans and bucks her hips and weeps and says "j-joshua," all in some vaguely-defined kitchen somewhere as Neku watches TV next door and eats some crackers. [/sarcasm]

also, I am totally taking down the strawberry thing at some point

I personally hate strawberries, so having Rhyme always stink like strawberries really turns my stomach. I just... I keep picturing the IHOP strawberry carnival garbage and I kind of have to lie down after that. Open a window, take painkillers and die, you know. That whole song and dance.

but it's also a cliche and cliches get stomped on whenever I'm around (apparently)

...what, you thought this wouldn't have some parodic elements

dude

dude

are you for real?