So Joshua shot him, again, and now Neku's on the floor trying to breathe around the growing, hot, painful brick that seems to be pressing down on his chest and he's screwed Shibuya so hard despite all his good intentions. Destroyed it and everything in it, even if he's not quite sure what it means when the Composer flattens a whole section of the city and starts over.

It's probably as bad as it gets, and it's all his fault.

Neku couldn't do it, couldn't shoot, because – impossibly - Joshua really wanted him to. Seriously, the obnoxious bastard really expected him to do it without hesitation, like he was some dumbass Reaper who could just not care when the rules changed, and even the Reapers cared, at least some of them.

He isn't sure if he wants to expand his world enough to start understanding Reapers. What he really wants to do is grab Joshua - the Composer? Really? - and just shake him until he starts making sense or stops being an idiot.

The worst part is that Neku is actually starting to get it, really seeing the big picture from one end to the other and just why Joshua didn't think killing him the first time was really that big of a deal. More like a firm handshake and a change of scenery. Moving up in the world.

Or maybe that's just the blood loss. It wouldn't surprise him if it's easier to understand Joshua with his brain half-oxygen deprived.

His eyes hurt, stinging, because he was crying, because Joshua kept throwing out new games, new rules, new games until he found the one Neku just wasn't going to play and he was pretty sure that "kill your partner" wasn't freaking fair, even for the Composer.

His hands are cold now, not just because the floor is cold, and it's getting harder to breathe. It's so quiet, he can hear the conversation on the other side of the room, a distant murmur. Mr. Hankeoma's talking a lot, and Joshua's not talking much, probably too busy enjoying every minute of this, and okay, come on guys, dying kid! Dying kid in the room! Hello?

Isn't Joshua at least supposed to loom over him with some gloating final words? It's Joshua, he never misses the chance to remind Neku how terribly clever he is, probably has notes and a PowerPoint presentation waiting, but he's going to lose his window if he doesn't hurry his ass up, and if Joshua brings him back again just to smirk Neku is going to shoot him. A lot.

... and it's cold, it's cold and he feels way too bad to have just been shot the once and he doesn't want to be Noise, doesn't want to be erased and Neku just keeps breathing, because as long as he's breathing he can't disappear. Listening carefully to the faint conversation and trying to catch a word, anything, like a line that will keep him from sinking and fading away.

Hankeoma puts a hand on his neck and sighs, watching Neku bleed out on the floor. He'd help the kid, make it hurt less, but Neku's already going into shock and that will take care of it, mostly. He's not sure what would happen, at the moment, if he did reach for what still belonged to the Composer.

Joshua's got his head down, gaze and expression hidden by his hair.

"So, looks like that's a win for you, then. All across the board."

The gun is gone. The kids gone - Neku's latest and last entry fee, along with the rest of Shibuya - everything put on hold. Waiting. He'd consider it a failure, except that Joshua is still here.

"You didn't really think he was going to shoot you."

The Composer's glowing a bit around the edges, but mostly still keeping his RG form, still the kid Hankeoma used to know, even before he'd decided to become what he is now - so how does it feel now, Josh, to expand your horizons? I bet you never thought you'd have to.

Kitanji had been good and serious and just, but he'd also been unswervingly devoted, wouldn't have thought to look sideways at the Composer, let alone call him on his attitude, call him a jerk or a prissy jackass or any of the other increasingly insulting variations Neku had been barely holding back during his week with the Composer.

"I would have used Konishi instead of Minamimoto, if I was going for insurance."

Hanekoma snorts, knows the moment it happens that the comment is as far as it's going to go, Joshua's reaction to betrayal as unexpected as he is with everything else, practically considering it a gift if it's done well enough. A good chance Hankeoma might pull through all of this with the higher ups with a harsh reprimand and some calculated groveling – all depending on what happens in the next few moments.

"She was too cautious, too concerned with climbing the ladder, not at all interested in why." He smirks. "Never had a chance against your proxy."

"Mm." The Composer had favored the girl when he'd been just starting out, her personality a fair match for his iciness and calculation, and he'd watched her with interest. Hanekoma didn't know if Joshua had ever figured out, just why he'd gotten bored of her after a while.

Why he'd demand pistols at dawn with his proxy, as if it had anything at all to do with the Game.

It's still quiet, time still hovering, hesitant to put its foot down without the Composer's approval. Hanekoma can hear Neku's raspy breathing - he doesn't have much longer. Who knows if any of Shibuya has much longer?

He braces for the possibilities, and clears his throat.

"Well, Josh, if you want to make up your mind before he's Noise, it'll be a lot easier to put him back together."

Hanekoma's surprised when Joshua's head jerks up toward the other boy - he hadn't realized, wasn't paying attention, caught up in his own contemplation. Assumed Neku was dead when he fell, just like the last time. That he wouldn't fight to stick around.

So what do you do now, when that bridge just won't burn?

It's almost funny, in a sad sort of way, Joshua approaching Neku as if he's more dangerous now than when he was armed and not mortally wounded. Of course, Neku's proven him wrong now, and that never happens. The minute anything slips out of 'The Composer's Grand Master Plan' Joshua takes an interest to it, infinitely more wary when it seems to involve the Composer rather than the plan – and there's no precedent for when it's just Joshua, Yoshiya. Not the Composer at all.

Everyone wanted to be the Composer. Shibuya was on the block. No reason in any world Neku shouldn't have taken the shot.

"You're still alive."

Leave it to Joshua to sound disappointed. Neku laughs, even though it makes him cough, a bit of blood on his lips, glaring back wearily.

"Not my fault... you have... shit for aim." The boy whispers, and flashes him that defiant, half-pissed, half-understanding grin and Hankeoma wonders, not for the first time, if Joshua chose Neku for his ability, for this Game, or so that no one else could get him first.

Joshua takes a knee, more Composer than boy now as the light pools around him, reaching out. Kitanji would have surely lost his mind to see such an abasement, but Hanekoma lets out a breath he hadn't known he was holding - it's not going to make Neku's life any easier, but at least he still has one - and he doesn't finish the thought, before Neku's form shifts to Noise, and shrinks, and where the boy was there is the new form of a small, sleeping dragon. Nowhere near the size the former Conductor had, coiled up in on itself, blue-green scales and longer frills with orange tips - he always thought Neku looked better in Tiger Punks, but there it was.

"Well, that's one way of dodging responsibility."

"I'm not dodging anything." Joshua says, calm and impassive and totally, totally dodging.

"You can't put it off forever." He can feel Shibuya solidifying, returning unchanged, as it was before the red pins and the Taboo Noise. The same - and yet completely different, sharp and bright and new. Dangerously, joyously at odds with itself, and this is all going to be very, very interesting.

Neku is probably going to regret not shooting them both, he thinks, smiling.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Joshua says, feigning boredom. He reaches out, one hand gently ghosting along the Noise's coils just as two beady eyes open and pale orange wings flip out and Neku bites him really, really hard.

A blaze of power like lightning as Joshua jerks back in surprise, and Neku snaps through the air with liquid grace, a swift leap to Hanekoma's shoulder where he coils up, tiny claws digging into his shirt, tail half-wound around his neck for balance as Hanekoma howls with laughter. He can't help it, not really used to hearing Composers yelp like that. Joshua is wavering between disbelief and fury, a halo of light flickering like a candle flame around him, and Neku is wholly unimpressed, smoothing his scales with his nose - preening - and looking quite satisfied with himself.

"So, this is already going well," Hanekoma says dryly, ignoring the angry glare thrown his way as Joshua cradles his hand, teeth marks already fading. He can't help reaching up, scratching Neku under the chin, the dragon letting out a little, trilling sound and shifting more comfortably on his shoulder. "Good job, by the way," he murmurs, and Neku grumbles slightly but stays where he is.

Whatever Joshua thought he'd get out of this particular arrangement, it's clear Neku is Having None Of It. Hanekoma tries very hard not to start laughing again, has never been closer to this particular clash of personalities as when one of them is using him for a perch. Joshua raises a hand, his gaze lofty and imperious, his voice brooking no argument.

"Come. Here."

Neku hisses back, remarkably vulgar for being nonverbal, and doesn't move. Hanekoma is about one second away from rupturing something if he doesn't start laughing again, and that's when Neku uncoils, leaping off his shoulder and soaring away into the darkness. For a moment, they just watch him go. Joshua hasn't tried to force him back, already aware it won't work. As if any sane Composer would choose a proxy as powerful as they were, no matter how much they might like to win.

"You think he can get past the door?" Hanekoma says mildly, as if they both don't already know the answer. Joshua is back to his RG form fully now, aware of the ridiculousness of the situation even if he refuses to acknowledge it.

"This? This never happened."

He walks into the darkness, until Hanekoma can't see him, but then he can hear sneakers scuffing on the floor as Joshua breaks into a run. He sighs, the day turning out infinitely better than he'd been fearing. Nothing much left to do but go back to the shop and clean up. Brew a fresh pot, for when Neku inevitably comes around. Even dragon Noise can use a cup now and then, and he'll just put it on the kid's tab.

Joshua stands in front of the 104, the crowd parting around him even though, at their level, he's not even there. The UG is thankfully deserted, no new Players quite yet, not until the aftershocks of the last few weeks fade, the Reapers welcoming the chance for the breather. He wonders how many of them have been lost, how many more might break, even as things stabilize.

Joshua is aware of how far he's strained things, pushing the rules as far as they could go for reasons that seem less and less important by the moment, so much less than when he'd started. Maybe the only reason he thinks that now is because he went so far.

And Joshua's quite aware, thanks, that the current situation might be considered some kind of payback.

"Neku, you're Noise - I can see you wherever you go. It's not like you're hiding."

In the '0' of the sign, a tail flips out, lashing back and forth for a moment before disappearing again. Neku has taken him along a grand tour of Shibuya, flitting off from every perch just as he arrives, finally ending up here. Joshua has considered turning him back, just for the look on Neku's face as he loses his wings mid-flight, but he has the annoying suspicion that, until Neku wants to turn back, there's not much he can do.

Neku is ridiculously powerful, a Soul so strong Joshua couldn't believe he hasn't ever noticed, completely oblivious to what he is. At the start, Joshua fairly hated him for it, hadn't really thought much of Neku at all except for his value as a piece on the board. Useful and strong and important to keep on his side, fun to play with – and when, exactly, had that changed?

Given all that had happened, he can't really fault Neku for taking advantage of the change in form. Noise was always much less interested in self-reflection than in simple action. Certainly, that's why Joshua did it, although he'd expected a little bit more... tractability, maybe. Gratitude. Which is a word he probably shouldn't use in front of Neku while he's still got fangs.

"I can come up there. You don't want me to come up there."

It sounds laughably feeble even as he says it, and Neku's head pokes out of the sign as if he can't believe it either. Even from this distance, Joshua can tell the dragon is laughing at him, Neku's personality condensed down to - see how you like it, asshole - and he's off again, wings spread wide, sweeping back toward Cat Street, where Joshua figured he'd finally end up.

For a moment, Joshua just watches him, graceful and beautiful and true, Neku honest with himself to an almost embarrassing level. The voyeurism has become one of his most common recent habits, and he's been rather lucky that Neku hasn't noticed. It'll be easy enough to fix this, to put everything back the way it was – except that nothing is the way it was, and Neku isn't who he used to be, and Joshua is fairly certain he's not as comfortable with just watching as he had been before.

Right before he stopped you from clearing the board. Because that's what comfortable looks like.

Joshua grins to himself, envying the Noise for a moment, their lack of interest in thinking too much. He decides to let Neku wait a bit, and takes his time walking down the streets, making his way slowly back to the café.