AUTHOR NOTE: New story, going to have both Neku/ Shiki and Joshua/Neku. ...Yes. Hopefully you'll enjoy it? Leave a review and tell me what you think.
chapter one: of coffee and affairs
"She's really suthin' aint she, Phones"
"…Shiki, man. Ain't you payin' attention?"
Neku glanced up from his cell-phone and peered curiously from the school bleachers to the gym floor. Expectedly, the sports teams were still out, being cheered on. In the middle of the mess was a group of three girls. Two Neku didn't recognize, or even cared to know, but between them was Shiki. She held a flag tightly. On her face was a fixed expression of determination and school spirit. As the beat of the music increased, the black and blue flag whipped, zigzagged, and zoomed through the air, slicing invisible Noise in its path.
"Yeah, she's something," Neku agreed as he settled back in his seat, allowing his back to meet the bleachers behind him. "She's gotten really good at that."
"Hell yeah she did," Beat agreed. The teen proceeded to clap Neku on the shoulder, causing the skinnier of the two to jolt up in his seat. "Why the hell you so jumpy today, Phones?"
"It's the day before break. No one really wants to be here right now. 'sides, I didn't get much sleep last night," Neku explained as he nudged Beat's large hand off his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, man."
" 'ight, jus' checkin'," Beat answered and lounged some more, propping his feet up on the vacant bench a tier lower. "You have any plans 'dis vacation?"
"Not really, no," Neku admitted. He closed his eyes and subconsciously closed his phone. "Why, do you?"
"Hm?" Neku cracked open an eye and peered curiously at Beat. "What? What's that look for?"
"Nothin' …. "
"Jus' goin' for some ramen tomorrow with Eri, 's all," Beat said quickly, waving his hands about to try and dismiss the tense air that had formed. He looked as if someone had just uttered his real name into a loud-speaker for the entire student body to hear. Not like they didn't know it to begin with, anyhow.
"…That's good," Neku decided and cast his gaze back down on his phone. "At last. I mean you guys have been flirting for what… four months now? Since the start of school?"
"Man…" Beat sighed, shoulders falling. "When you put it that way…"
Neku grinned sheepishly and began aimlessly scrolling through his contacts list.
"….What you lookin' at Phones? Textin' some girl or somethin'?"
"Huh?" Neku glanced up. When the words processed, he laughed, shrugged, and shook his head. "No, just a nervous habit I guess."
"Whatever you say. You still comin' with Shiki and I for hot chocolate after this stupid thing is over?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world."
"So I really did better today?"
"Shiki, you did amazin'!" Beat declared voisteriously and clapped her on the back reassuringly. "I'm sure that kid. That guy yous' always lookin' at noticed ya big time."
Shiki beamed, though the expression suddenly morphed into a hot blush. "W-what?" She blinked a few times before staring accusingly at her friend. "What do you mean that guy I'm always looking at? Are you… implying something?"
Neku laughed weakly from Shiki's other side. He'd be lying if he didn't suddenly feel a twinge of jealousy surface. Things always happened like that, didn't it? That's why he never allowed himself to crush and –
"Neku, you spacin' on us?"
"Huh? Oh right, sorry."
His gaze drifted to Shiki, lingering there for a few moments. The brunette hadn't bothered changing out of her colour-guard outfit. Over a pair of black leggings with a white skirt with blue strips of neon-fabric that reflected the sunlight in just the right way. Her top was of similar material, except that the background was black and white and blue strips littered it. She was festive, to say the least. Not to mention the fact that she had even purchased a new pair of glasses recently. Dark blue frames.
"Neku?" Shiki frowned and reached out to lightly tap him on the shoulder. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Neku assured her, snapping out of his second reverie. "Yeah, just fine. Are we there yet?"
Shiki released a small giggle and leaned playfully against him as they walked. "Unless Mr. H's café randomly decided to get up and move to the Scramble Crossing, nope!"
"I think he ate somethin' strange for breakfast," Beat piped in and scratched his head.
"Didn't eat this morning," Neku said, defending himself with a shrug but his statement was cut short when Shiki stopped dead in her tracks. "Huh?"
"Neku Sakuraba, what have I told you?" she sighed helplessly. "Breakfast is important and if you don't-!"
"Ya gonna faint or somethin'. Ya, we know Shiki," Beat sighed, shoulders hunching.
"…You didn't have it either, did you?" she asked accusingly, almost pouting. "You two are so helpless…"
"Hey, hey, we're going to be eating in a few minutes, ain't we? Don't that count for somethin'?"
Shiki cracked a bright smile at that and conceded with a nod. "Oh, I suppose," she added in for good measure. After a moment had passed, the brunette twisted her arm unexpectedly, reaching back into her purse. Her hand disappeared for a few moments, rummaging about, before producing a dark, black, stuffed cat.
"…You brought Mr. Mew with you?" Neku questioned, glancing over with subtle amusement.
"I have to go to the store after this and find some matching thread," Shiki explained, glancing down at the doll with an arched brow. "His ear is coming undone and I want to fix it before it gets any worse."
" 'ight," Beat said, though clearly wasn't all that interested, and continued walking. "Man…. Wish Eri was with us today."
Shiki passed a knowing glance to Neku, attempting to hide a giggle as well. All Neku could do was stifle a laugh. It was obvious how hopelessly devoted Break had become. He had fallen, and he had fallen hard. Harder than any skateboard wipe-out could be.
"So…are we splitting anything when we get there?" Shiki questioned, deciding to break the awkward silence that had befallen them.
"…And walk out broke? Sorry. Saving up for new headphones," Neku laughed and offered an apologetic shrug.
"Yea, Phones's right. Don' want empty pockets," Beat agreed and clasped Neku on the shoulder for a moment. "Good thinkin'."
After a few more moments of walking, the trio ended up outside the cozy Cat Street café. Neku was the first to head inside the establishment, holding the door open accordingly for his two friends behind him. At once, his eyes swept over the empty café. Nothing had really changed over the course of a few months. The black stools remained against the counter, the booths as empty and classy as ever, and the ambiance as 'hip' as it could be. In fact, the entire store radiated a sense of both nostalgia and new age. It was a careful, mysterious mix that Neku really had never bothered to understand. It was Mr. Hanekoma's creation, after all.
Neku's eyes settled on the door to the backroom. Emerging from it was the infamous café barista and owner, holding what appeared to be a box of various bags of coffee. Different brews from different places, even though the place never got business. It was funny how that worked.
"Hey, Mr. H," Neku responded, offering a wave in greeting as he, Shiki, and Beat took a seat at the counter.
"Haven't seen you kids for awhile. How've ya been?" He set the box down and leaned against the counter.
"Fine. School's a drag," Shiki answered first, a smile on her face. "Just… have to get through it and all."
"That's the spirit," Mr. H chuckled and proceeded to beam enthusiastically. "Glad to see you all have stayed friends. Warms my heart."
Beat laughed and humorously swung his arms around Shiki and Neku's shoulders, hooking around their necks, drawing them closer. "Ya man, couldn't ever get rid of these two."
Neku and Shiki shared a small laugh as Beat let go, allowing them to resume an erect position in their seats. Shiki began idly playing with her cell-phone, occasionally looking up to smile or interject into the casual conversation that had arisen. Something about not wanting to buy anything too expensive, and that they'd all just stick with normal smoothes and coffee, and no, they didn't want to try the new, extra flavor blend because it was almost double the price. The conversation drifted between monetary value to social value, to school to business, and to the future. Neku had opted to zone, just a bit, when Beat and Mr. H had gotten in a discussion about the latest spread in that magazine Beat always read – Neku never could remember the name –showing the finalists in some skateboarding competition. Zoning out was always easy with a cup of coffee in your hand and the day of school completed.
Neku snapped out of his reveries instantly. He looked up, noticing the expectant look in the older man's eyes. He faltered, not understanding it whatsoever. "Yeah, Mr. H?"
Shiki and Beat had begun discussing amongst themselves something for a class, leaving the other two to converse. Which usually wasn't an awkward thing, but today, it was looking like it would be.
"…Huh, that's strange."
"What's strange?" Neku quirked a brow. He followed the other's gaze and curiously peeked over his shoulder. Nothing. "Uh… something wrong?"
"Nothin', just an old man going senile," Mr. H laughed hurriedly and reached out to pat Neku on the shoulder reassuringly. "Now tell me, you still interested in that art thing?"
Neku beamed, temporarily forgetting the suspicious moment from priors before. "Yeah, guess you could say I am. …Taking a few art classes, but haven't made anything really good yet."
"Keep trying. If you ever want me to glance over your work, just ask, kid," Mr. H assured with a jovial grin.
It meant more to Neku than words could express to have CAT, of all people, telling him that. Life was really starting to look up since that stupid game. Friends, a life, a future. Coffee, laughs ,and smiles. Not just a world of isolation and music.
Neku glanced up yet again—he had begun zoning out, swirling his spoon aimlessly in his hot chocolate-when Mr. H's words met his ears. He was about to question it, wonder if anything was really wrong because that look on Mr. H's face was priceless and telling, but he was cut short.
With warm breath on his ear.
"The point of hot chocolate, the last time I checked, was to drink it, not make a mess out of it, Neku."
Neku unceremoniously let go of his spoon, allowing to clatter against the inside of his coffee mug.
Shiki and Beat fell silent, passing worried looks to their friend, who had for the most part, reacted over something. What that something was was still up in the air.
"Uh, Neku?" Shiki began hesitantly.
"Somethin' wrong, Phones?" Beat frowned, nose scrunched up in confusion.
"Just…thought I heard something." Neku resisted the urge to look over his shoulder, and instead glared down at this hot chocolate. In fact, that little stunt had caused it to splatter politely onto his jacket. Great.
Mr. H laughed uneasily and looked away.
Neku realized it wasn't just his imagination.
"Going to ignore me after all we went through, partner?~"
Neku's teeth automatically gritted. He could ifeel/i the slight brush of soft, silver hair against his cheeks, feel the breath on his ears, cheek, neck, and envision the asshole's face and—
Neku pushed himself up and out of his seat at once.
"Neku?" Shiki asked again, this time more urgent. "You okay…?"
"Just… fine," Neku grumbled, hand defensively rising to rub at his ear. "I'm going out for a bit of air. I'll be back in like ten minutes, guys."
Mr. H pretended to busy himself with work, and Beat and Shiki gave weak nods of confusion. Neku took that moment to exit the building. Once he was outside into the crisp, clean air of Shibuya, he threw his balled up fists down and glared into thin air.
"Okay, what the hell do you want this time?"
"And here I thought I was going to make you think you were going crazy. How disappointing."
After a few seconds, and a few misplaced sparkles of time, a form materialized a few feet in front of Neku. Possibly changing Planes, but Neku didn't want to concern himself with the details. He was done with all that mumbo-jumbo. Done with the UG and RG and all that jargon. Even those thoughts couldn't prepare him for seeing that face again. His stomach plummeted and his veins coursed with fiery anger. Even after all this time, all this time, the anger remained.
"I said, what do you want?"
"…So pushy, sheesh," Joshua sighed, hands sliding into his pockets. His head tipped to the right and he surveyed Neku. "Have you been well, partner?"
"I'm sure you already know," Neku responded curtly.
"You think I stalk you?" Joshua arched a brow, hand moving to push aside his bangs. He couldn't help but emit a giggle. "I'm honored that you think that highly of me."
He was never, ever going to get used to this jerk. "Josh, just cut the crap. What are you here for?"
"Can't I just visit my favorite café?" Joshua questioned, eyes playfully batting at the enraged teen before him.
Neku scoffed. "You? No, no you can't."
"Ulterior motives aren't always there, you know," Joshua pouted. After a moment or so, he continued, shrugging absently. "Actually, I wanted to speak with you."
"Oh, now you want to talk?" Neku all but snapped, barely able to resist talking an aggressive step forward. No, he had to stay calm.
"Whatever do you mean, part—"
"You ishot/i me! And now you want to talk?" Neku growled, fists balling up again. "What ever happened to trusting your partner, asshole? You lied to me! The entire time."
"I see you're still holding that grudge of yours," Joshua noted distastefully. Another shrug proceeded. "Oh well, it'll just make this all the more difficult, but I really can't take no for an answer. Go on, get all that anger out now."
Neku opened his mouth to continue, but faltered. He wasn't going to take orders from Joshua. Not ever. "I'm done."
"Good, now we can discuss business." Another infernal giggle.
"Business?" Neku sighed and passed a look over his shoulder. "Listen, if Shiki and Beat see you out here with me—"
"You're just special," Joshua teased and continued on, as if not bothering to clarify that statement, "I need a favor, actually."
"Whatever it is, the answer is no."
"Really now? Are you that cold?"
"You shouldn't be talking, murderer," Neku grumbled and folded his arms to his chest defensively. "Can I just go back in with my friends? I was having a good day until you decided to screw it up."
Joshua rolled his eyes, sighing. "Honestly, you're showing your age. How naïve." He paused and pretended to think for a few moments. "No, no you can't go back in. Because the business I have with you concerns Shibuya's well-being as well."
"I swear to God, if this has anything to do with another Game… or if you're about to shoot me—"
"Trust your partner," Joshua lilted.
"Unless his name is Joshua Kiryu and he's a backstabbing jerk," Neku whispered under his breath and fixed a glare on his face. "Okay, fine. Go on. But don't expect me to agree to it."
"I'm flattered," Joshua said indifferently and went on. "The UG is without a Conductor. The Angels aren't pleased."
"What? You didn't expect there to be Angels? Honestly, Neku. You'll believe in Reapers but not Angels? How dark," Joshua cooed but went on before Neku had a chance to defend himself. "Yes, the Angels. The Higher Plane, more precisely. You see~ Well, they're upset that the Game is being run without a Conductor. I have no problem with it at all. In fact, I like to work alone, but they have the power to shut me down."
"How unfortunate," Neku muttered and waited for the Composer to continue on.
"If I don't present the UG with a Conductor by the end of this month, one who meets their standards, well, bye-bye to Shibuya."
Neku faltered. "…What?"
"Ah, now you're interested~!"
"What do you mean 'bye-bye' Shibuya. What'd you do?!"
"Neku, I just told you. Honestly, if you listened for half a second…"
"Then just appoint a Reaper or something! Don't just stand around complaining to me, idiot!" Neku all but shouted. He almost reached out to shake the Composer by the shoulders, but thought better of it. After a few seconds had passed, he sighed.
"And risk them actually doing something that'll destroy Shibuya? I'll pass. No can do, try again, Neku."
Neku frowned. "So what? You're going to be selfish and not do anything? How like you." The last part was a bit of a whisper than anything else.
"…Then what?" Not like he cared or anything. Just about Shibuya.
"I see you've taken a liken to that girl in there."
"What? That doesn't have anything at all to do with this conversation, Josh! Stay focused! This is Shibuya we're talking about," Neku growled, the urge to smash the pretty boy's face growing.
"I'll make you a deal. You be my 'Pretend Conductor' long enough to get the Higher Plane off my back, and I'll help you win her over. Composer's Oath."
Neku faltered, eying Joshua cryptically. So that was what this was about. "Are you seriously expecting me to agree to that? Are you crazy?"
"Hopeful, actually. And waiting for an answer that isn't just rambling."
"I don't like her," Neku added as a second thought, though his cheeks staining a bright red didn't help his cause. "And I won't do it."
"Really? You'd want Shibuya's destruction on your back? For shame, Neku."
"Don't say it like that!"
"You're really my only hope. It'll be your fault enitirely, you know~ I offered you the position. Well, to play the role, anyhow."
Neku frowned. "Doesn't a Conductor have to be, you know, Dead?"
"Hm… normally, but there have been exceptions."
"…I don't want anything to do with that stupid Game, or you, anymore. Don't you get that?" Neku offensively looked away, trying to calm down, just a bit.
"Mm… mostly~ But just think, Neku, if you help me, you'll have her all to yourself. Oh what was her name? Ah yes, Shiki. Too bad she'd be dead if you refused~"
Neku sighed, lowering his gaze. If Shibuya fell, if what Joshua was saying was really the truth, then it'd all be his faults. All his friends' deaths, all the chaos, would be because he was selfish enough to refuse the position. Just because of a death-grudge. Why wasn't life fair? Why couldn't he just get the annoying jerk to go away and find someone new to harass?
"…Fine. But I swear to God, Josh, if you try anything."
"Mm, like what?" Joshua cocked his head to the right and brought his right hand up into the air, making a gun gesture. "Bang~?"
"Go to hell."
"Then we'll start tomorrow."
Before Neku had time to protest, a warm rush of air encompassed him. Without warning, Joshua disappeared, leaving a single, white feather behind.
Neku wasn't sure whether to be relieved he was alone again, or upset that he had fallen for that.
Or confused as to why Joshua would pick him, of all people …