Beat's in the kitchen, and due to some miracle of fate or timing or Def March, Neku's actually got food in his fridge. Rhyme's trembling request for chocolate pudding had been the only thing that had a chance of keeping Beat from hovering anxiously at her side.
He's been looking for something to punch ever since the Scramble, now reduced to crashing around in the kitchen, though Beat still glances to where they're sitting every other second or so. At least now that Rhyme's stopped crying it seems less and less likely that her brother will want too many details about just what happened, too afraid of upsetting her again. Which brings the total of Neku's problems down to… everything else.
It's his apartment they go to, because it's the closest and Beat doesn't want to take Rhyme home while she's so upset and Neku just wants to get off the street even if that doesn't make a lot of sense. He pulls all the shades down the moment they're inside, though that makes even less sense. Beat gives him a funny look when he does it, but at the moment Neku is just not capable of staring out into the dark. Everything in his house looks strange with all the lights on, oddly distant and unreal. It feels like he's standing on a stage, surrounded by props that just resemble his life, and the greater part of him is still frozen at the Scramble.
He's still breathing a little shallow. Neku hasn't been this scared since he was a Player, and if there are any special Conductor tricks to pull himself together they are sure as shit not working.
Shibuya's perfectly fine, and that would be the part that scares him the most if every part of this didn't scare him the most. The District is singing like always and if Shibuya didn't even notice what happened then there's no reason to think it hasn't happened before, if not in his Game then elsewhere. He's got the hard data that people who ought to be Players are just vanishing instead. How many Players have been… eaten like that, how many Reapers destroyed and as far as anyone knows, it's all just one more day in the Game?
Would you have even seen it, if she didn't want you to?
So maybe this is it, maybe Neku's facing his first real Fallen. It makes Minamimoto at his worst seem like nothing but cheap cosplay. It's hard even to think it through clearly, like frostbite inside his head, and Neku honestly can't remember if there was endless screaming or endless silence in the Scramble, either way equally horrible.
In the kitchen Beat whacks his cast against the counter hard enough that Neku hears the pause where there should have been a lot of swearing - but Rhyme's in the room, so he finally just mutters under his breath, hiding anything worse beneath a clatter of dishware.
At some point along the way Neku's texted an all-points call for his Reapers. The responses he's received are mostly confused, just one more bizarre inanity the last Conductor never bothered with but Neku doesn't care, barely even notices the surly replies as he tallies them up. Minamimoto's got Higashizawa with him, and a wall of nonsensical text that he just does not have the time to try and figure out. The Players are safe, at least until tomorrow and he sends out what might be his first actual Conductor order - every Reaper stays in the RG until further instructions.
Kitaniji had an army. Hell, even Konishi commanded at least some fear if not respect. All Neku has is a whole bunch of people a little bit older than him who don't like him very much, and even if he had their loyalty Neku knows he couldn't send even one of them out there, not against what he'd just seen.
A soft sniffle reminds him that he isn't the only one who'd been there. If Rhyme saw that, then there's no reason to think she hasn't seen everything.
"How long?" He says, very softly. Rhyme's hands tighten around her still-full cup of tea.
"I didn't want to say anything," she says, in nearly a whisper. "Beat was okay, and everyone… no one else remembered. So I just pretended that I couldn't see it." Rhyme looks up at him, and away, quickly. "What was that out there?"
She's not just keeping her voice down for her brother's sake, and Neku's not managing any better, not even trying to go above a whisper. It's his own apartment, in the RG, in his district and he still feels completely exposed.
"I don't know. I have no idea."
"… but you're the Conductor now, aren't you?" As bad as the fear is on the face of a stranger, it's so much worse in Rhyme's eyes. "I can see your wings."
So can he, actually. Neku quickly tucks the dark arches down against his back and wonders just how close he is to going UG altogether without even meaning to, his control absolutely shredded.
"Yeah, Rhyme. I am."
"… do you have to kill me now?"
"Oh, Rhyme - no. Oh my God, no." Neku reaches for her, and hears Beat stop in the kitchen behind them, only a half-second from jumping over the couch if he thinks Rhyme's crying again. She's not, just shaking, and for the first time since the Scramble Neku feels a little anger seeping past the horror, rising up against the fear, that she's been as terrified of him finding out as anything else that's happened. "No one's going to hurt you. I would never let them try. I promise."
"But what if…"
"I don't care."
He really doesn't. Certainly not with the shitty revelations stacking up now like dominoes, because this is just the same every other lie the Game has ever told him. Which has to mean he's the only one who's been left out of the loop. Again.
"You didn't want to talk to Mr. H, for your project. Is this why?"
Rhyme slowly nods, and Neku feels that anger burn a little brighter. He'd thought that maybe, just maybe a show of good faith might gain him something in return, that not pushing the Producer might prove he was worth trusting - as if that's the way anyone's played things up until now. Manhattan's Conductor tried to tell him that's not how it works, he knows that - but this isn't some hypothetical kick in the face. It isn't about backstabbing him - this is Rhyme. Beat's little sister, who's already gone through so much, and now to deal with this? Months and months alone and afraid and thinking that if Neku knew, that he's have to… no, he'd walk first, leave Shibuya without a look back. Even Joshua isn't worth -
Joshua knows. Of course, if Mr. H knew that Rhyme could see the UG, then that meant Joshua knew too. Joshua had been there, with Shiki and Eri and Rhyme and the rest of them - he'd known. All this time and not even a hint, not a word. So either Rhyme is somehow in terrible danger, so much that even telling Neku was putting too much at risk, or no one thought that her fear - one of his own friends terrified of him - was worth mentioning.
He wishes he could believe there's a good reason for it, but Neku's already been the Conductor a little too long.
"What are you going to do?"
He wants action hero words for her, brave comic book words with special poses and little speed lines of determination. He'd lie to her if he could figure out how, but this thoughts are all blank and dark and full of the Scramble - Rhyme's not his only problem, she's not even his biggest problem. Neku can't make her stop seeing the UG, not now and maybe not ever, and he can't bring himself to ask her exactly what she has seen over the past few weeks. What she might have seen him do.
"You don't need to worry about that. No matter how scary it is, I promise you're safe in the Realground. Nothing here-"
"… as long as you stay in the RG, none of this shit can get to you."
"Neku?" Rhyme says, and he'd started this little speech not to scare her - but it's Kariya's voice in his head and Kariya's too-serious expression looking out of his memories and a scarred stone bird in Neku's white-knuckled grip.
Kariya's question, out of nowhere - did Neku ever think about Ascending?
He knows. Kariya knows there's something out there, lurking the dark - and if all of it, the training and the talking, all of it is to prepare him Neku is certain of two things - Kariya's been aware of this long before anyone else, and Neku isn't prepared, there is no preparing for what he saw. Maybe jumping a few dimensions and hiding out under a rock. On Mars.
"I need you to let me worry about all this, Rhyme." He says as calmly as he can, even with his hand twitching to go for his phone and find the button that makes Kariya give him an answer. Maybe it's time he played Conductor a little closer to the script. "We both know Beat needs you. So I need you to be as strong as you can right now, and let me do the worrying, ok?"
Beat's on the couch before she can answer, the pudding setting up in the fridge and Beat's voice a little too loud with false cheer as he flips through the channels, looking for a show she'd like. When he leans forward a little Rhyme looks over his shoulder at Neku and nods once. The girl's so serious for her age, he remembers that even from the short time she'd been in the game - maybe she really can handle it, seeing the Game. Maybe it will be okay.
He has the feeling it might be the last thing that's going to be, for a very long time.
So, Hanekoma's still Censured and his district's full of Angels and his Composer isn't returning his calls and he hasn't sketched so much as a smiley face in longer than he can remember - but hallelujah, he's cracked the iced caramel mocha at last.
He takes a few sips, and then makes a second one to see if he can replicate the results. Score. Hanekoma's feeling so elated he considers making them a freebie tomorrow, or maybe some sort of buy-one-get-one deal, as a nod to the Players - yeah, that'd be clever. Except he's finally got this drink up to where it's worth paying for and he should be proud of that and it has been so long since he's done anything of artistic merit he's been doodling his 'best of' in the foam of every other coffee that passes by.
The last phone call he'd received had been from a gallery owner asking if he'd gone into early retirement. Hanekoma had calmly responded by lying on the floor of the cafe for the better part of an afternoon, but at least he'd gone starfish and not fetal ball.
It's been a good Game this week, and by that he means the Higher Plane is still muttering to itself about what Neku did to the Players that first day, tapping them all into the city, breaking rules they'd never bothered to set down. He'd have loved to advise the Conductor on the danger, he'd said, even though that was also against their rules - and no, the Composer didn't put Neku up to it, obviously.
It's true, Hanekoma would give the Conductor a little more advice, except for how he kept doing things no one had ever even considered before.
It's rare that success ever looks like success while it's happening. Hanekoma knows this, even if the Higher Plane is perfectly content to spend all its time impressed with its own past. Innovation is messy, and ugly, and this is hardly the first fight Hanekoma's had, to keep reminding them that weeds are just another name for wildflowers. So he made a desperately stupid decision for all the right reasons, but he's the Producer of Shibuya and he still knows a thing or two.
Hanekoma's pretty sure they're all just a different sort of Player, all the Producers, even the Higher Plane. Pull back the curtain and there's just another curtain, and it's beautiful, sure. He puts all his faith in the Game, but after all this time Hanekoma knows - really knows about as much about what it all means as the newest Player on his first day.
A knock at the door, even though it's late and the Game is done and his 'CLOSED' sign is in five languages and a border of cartoon animals with anti-tank guns, one of his looks from several years ago. He ought to redo it, or maybe get Neku to redo it. Hey, why not a collaboration with the Composer, he's seen Joshua doodling a bit more now, when he thinks no one's paying attention, and there's the knock again and Hanekoma looks up.
Joshua stares back at him.
Hanekoma's hardly expecting an apology, any more than he'd give one for spamming Joshua's phone with pictures of annoying nothing, but it doesn't make any sense why he's not already inside, slouching daintily on a chair and making note of some new improvement to the cafe he doesn't like.
He waits. Joshua continues to stare. Hanekoma's expecting some sort of punishment for setting up that app to annoy him, but he's not about to let the Composer go radio silent again, ready to hand over his merit badge in sloth rather than let things go the way of another Long Game.
Except this isn't a punishment, it's just… weird.
Joshua rolls his eyes, and points at the handle, and it isn't until he's got the door unlocked and half open that Hanekoma realizes how impossibly quiet it is.
"What." He says, once the door is open. It's not exactly a question, more a statement of fact, and Joshua - not the Composer, not a whisper of that power - moves past him with a slight limp he's trying to ignore.
"Did you know I don't have a key to my apartment? Because I totally forgot keys were a thing." Joshua's at the counter and to the bottom of the first mocha before Hanekoma's even across the floor. "I see you finally figured out the coffee. What was it, too much syrup?"
"Changed the beans. Couple of times." Hanekoma says blankly, waiting for this to make sense. The Composer can't not be the Composer. Even when he'd been a Player, it felt nothing like this. If Joshua had been deposed, he'd have been Erased. If he'd Ascended, Hanekoma would have known the instant it happened, if only by the immediate uptick in Higher Plane bitching. Joshua is flickering, ever so slightly - he's been fighting Noise, and obviously with less success than the last time.
The Higher Plane has to know what's happened. The Angels have to know.
Metal clinks against the tabletop, as Joshua drops a handful of pins sorting through them with quiet, weary amusement. Hanekoma might think he can take it all in stride but no one, no one is as blithely unmoved by oncoming armageddon as Yoshiya Kiryuu.
"Any other Game, the Players wouldn't have taken pity on me." He studies a pin more closely, raising it toward the light. "I've never seen… hm, this must be one of Neku's new ones."
"Oh look, someone else who doesn't know how your pin set works." A Big Crunch skitters toward him. "At least they gave me a Cure Drink, that was thoughtful."
"Talk to me, Josh."
"She stole my credit card, by which I mean your credit card, what with your convenient real person job and all. I'm pretty sure she's using it to buy adorable hats for her girlfriend. Or the Pavo Real summer collection. Or both."
"Shibuya." Joshua says, finishing the last of his drink.
It's happened before, a city or a district rejecting its Composer outright, absolutely refusing to follow their guidance. Usually it's an instant Erasure the moment they take the position, like touching a live wire. The places that are old enough and strong enough to have wills of their own usually attract the Composers they do because they understand how their cities work, and how to improve upon the Game while still keeping it happy.
A Game overthrowing its Composer after this long, and after everything they've gone through?
"So, what, did you finally wear stripes and plaids together?"
Joshua smiles - the sly Composer smile he's always had, even before the Game, always aware the world was his for the taking.
"I'm being taught a lesson."
"Are you hurt?"
Joshua pulls a face, deeply annoyed at the question for being applicable.
"Only my pride and… various minor organs. I think I can officially call this as the lowest point of several consecutive lives."
Before he can ask any more questions, two small, furry and familiar Noise bound into the cafe. The bunnies come and go as they please, adorably cadging bits of pastry from whoever happens to be in at the moment. Even the Players think they're cute. Hanekoma's thought about putting in some sort of pet door, though he can probably spare himself the indignity of them ignoring it.
"Oh look, it's insult and injury." Joshua says as the Noise leaps up onto the counter, but he's barely annoyed at best. If anything, he seems ready to fall asleep over his mocha, and Hanekoma feels a familiar pang of responsibility and pride and affection. It's a good thing Joshua's not looking, or he'd have to throw something.
"I wouldn't…" Joshua says, as the Sota Noise nuzzles its way through the pins, only to swallow one. Hanekoma hopes it was the Cure Drink. "Okay, well. Enjoy that."
Hanekoma wonders why the Higher Plane hasn't - no, of course. Of course they'd been watching, hoping Joshua might do them the favor of being properly Erased this time. Maybe they're queuing up to point and laugh before it's time to render judgment.
"How are you not human yet?" Joshua asks, as the Nao Nao rabbit perches on her hind legs, balanced on the rim of his cup and peering down at the last half-inch of mocha. "Or did you give up on it? I certainly wouldn't blame you."
"If Shibuya's not with you, then where…?"
"Slowly killing a young girl. At least she'll enjoy the trip." The words are pure indifference, the look on his face anything but. "I shouldn't have come here. You don't need to be involved."
"It's Shibuya. I'm always involved." Hanekoma says. "Which girl?"
"Eri. Shiki Misaki's partner in crime." Joshua laughs a little, to himself, leaning a little bit more on his hand. "You know, I think I'm really rather glad she wasn't a Player."
"What happened, Josh?"
He's not certain he'll get an answer. Hanekoma's half-surprised that Joshua came to the cafe, even if he was out of other options. It's not the Composer's style - when Joshua doesn't win, he cuts his losses, he walks. A choice between keeping his pride and staying alive isn't a choice to him. One Game shouldn't be enough to change that, no matter how long it lasted, but when the Composer prefers to stir the cubes in his cup rather than answer, Hanekoma makes an educated guess.
"Out doing Neku things, I imagine. Torturing himself with meaningless homework while listening to horrible music. Batting adorably at his own reflection."
Hanekoma knows he shouldn't be amused - this isn't funny and there's a world of pain that's likely on its way, but the irritation in Joshua's voice is truly one of his favorite things. The Composer only gets annoyed when he's changing and growing and forced to rummage around in the quotidian world. Hanekoma remembers other moments when the Composer learned a valuable life lesson - Joshua hated all of those too.
"You and Neku should know better than to fight in front of the kids."
Joshua shoots him a look full of murder, only somewhat undercut by the way he's scratching a lop-eared bunny behind the ears.
"We didn't fight, actually." His fingers still, just for a moment, and when Joshua speaks again, his voice is secret soft.
"What if I can't be what they need me to be?"
Shibuya played it right. Hanekoma has a vague idea of what's going on, yet another round in the endless push-and-pull between the Composer and the Conductor, and the district stepped in to raise the stakes, to give Joshua no choice but to face the things he needs to without any excuses, without even the Composer's power to hide behind. Hanekoma wonders if this is also his fault somehow, the district influenced by his rather reckless choices, or if Shibuya has always been the one nudging him forward?
Either way, they're all probably insane, and just as likely doomed.
"Isn't your philosophy grow or die?"
Joshua rolls his eyes. "For other people. I'm obviously perfect the way I am."
He yawns again, and wobbles as he slides slowly off the chair. Hanekoma quickly steps around the counter, putting a hand out to steady him. Hanekoma can't hear much from his Music, but he doesn't need to. Joshua's a Player without a partner on a Game Day. It's amazing he even made it here at all.
"So… just what's holding you together?"
"I'm not entirely sure." Joshua says, not pulling away from his support. "I don't think I'll be hopping to Shinjuku for a midnight snack."
It doesn't take much effort at all to herd this particular cat toward the back room, the rabbits hopping behind them in a processional equal parts odd and ridiculous. Hanekoma flips on the light, and though the space is full of posters and a TV and a mini-fridge covered in stickers they are for the most part brightly colored failures to make it look like something other than a couch stuffed into a storage closet.
"… and so my life is complete." Joshua says, but he stumbles out from under Hanekoma's hand to curl up on the couch regardless. The Noise rabbits jump up quickly beside, Sota settling down at his feet while Nao Nao curls up near his chest, only fussing slightly when Hanekoma finds a blanket and settles it over them.
"It's been a long time since I've seen you like this, Josh."
"Oh, are we being superior?" He doesn't bother opening his eyes. "How refreshing."
"If it made you happy, it wouldn't be a learning experience."
Joshua doesn't answer him. Two pair of glass button eyes stare back, the bunnies quietly studying the Producer of Shibuya as he watches his Composer sleep.
Shibuya won't let him run. Hanekoma knows all the ways Joshua has to evade what he'd rather not deal with, thinking fast and talking his way around anything he'd rather not face. He's put it all in the Game, all those feelings all this time, and this is the direct result of all that cleverness and care and love. A swift boot in the ass from his own district.
It's marvelous. It's at the razor's edge of breaking the Game - again - and can't mean anything good for their current parole, but Hanekoma's never a little thing like consequences stop him from being properly impressed.
He feels ancient. He is ancient, and for just a moment Hanekoma feels a couple eons more decrepit than that, the oldest man with the oldest lawn that the damned kids will not get off of. Maybe that's what all this means, unsubtle enough that even he can't miss it, a reminder that he's overstayed his welcome. Maybe it's time for Joshua to take on a little extra responsibility - and Neku can more than handle Composer, he's sure of that.
Every fifty years or so, Hanekoma makes sure to ask himself if it's time to move on, to wander off out there beyond the Higher Plane to whatever's waiting, or just fade away. Except there's always a reason to stick around, some new trend to catch his eye the interconnections of art and life across the span of centuries.
He just doesn't want to leave. It's still too interesting - just look at this - and he needs to see what's coming next, to be right in the middle of it all. Hanekoma doesn't want it easy, anymore than he did in the Long Game - even as he feels the sudden swell of power like gravity increasing, a thundercloud gathering in the front of the cafe.
He turns off the light before he opens the door. He's already doubled down on how far he'll go for Shibuya and Joshua, what he's willing to sacrifice, so it's nothing at all to step out into his cafe as the Angels swagger in with all the restraint of a B-grade yakuza movie. He wonders if they'll actually demand protection money before getting down to business.
"One grande quad one-pump vanilla mocha latte." Brede says, bright as knife. "Extra foam."
The Angels have ambled out of some catalog of smug, Brede flanked by his two lieutenants - one grinning, with a baseball bat loosely over his shoulder, the other calm and unassuming, glancing around as if suspicious of the entire concept of beverages.
"Please, please tell me that you've just fucked up in the middle of our inquiry into how you fucked up." Brede says, clearly ready to start high-fiving himself. At his side, Baseball Bat snickers.
For half a heartbeat, Hanekoma actually considers Falling, just letting himself become the thing they all believe he's so close to being anyway. He's so old, and there's power in those years even if he's always found more useful avenues than wielding it outright. Hanekoma thinks he could probably kill two of them, that he might even escape - but Fallen don't really do noble causes, they don't have friends or districts that are worth fighting for.
So he doesn't damn himself, and sighs instead. "You're going to make me listen to the whole speech, aren't you?"
"I've been practicing." Brede grins. "We've been waiting for this. Well, not this, exactly. Obviously my mistake for lowballing your incompetence. Shibuya without its Composer. In a Game week. We know Kiryuu hasn't been Erased, or the Higher Plane would have invited us to the party. So where is he?"
"If the District wanted him gone, he'd be gone. Shibuya kept him around, so I think it's fair to say he hasn't been punted from his position just yet."
Of course the Angels aren't buying it - this is the Higher Plane's real hit squad, and Hanekoma feels the burn of grim amusement, actually wishing he had Kariya to deal with instead. Time and space and reality all infinitely malleable, and he's almost never met an Angel who can think past two dimensions.
Brede looks amused, chagrined, pitying. "How many times did they warn you, that you were too close to your Composer? You poor bastard, even now you can't see how far he's dragged you down."
"If Joshua hadn't been Censured as hard as he was, this might never have-"
"Oh, so this is their fault now?" Brede laughs. "Use that as your defense, I'm sure they'll go for it."
"So you're just the Higher Plane's messenger boy?" The Angels are spreading out a little, their power pushing noticeably against him now but Hanekoma ignores it. "How convenient."
He can't talk his way out of this, not that there's much else he can do, and Hanekoma's not going to argue that Shibuya knows exactly what it's doing, but yeah, maybe it could have picked a slightly better time.
"There's a girl out there. She's not even a Player. Fully Realground - the District pulled her into this. We need to track her down. The district will kill her if it doesn't drive her crazy first."
"I don't see how that's our problem, honestly." Brede says, in that falsely patient voice of reason that has Hanekoma seriously considering trying to hit him with the coffee machine. A nice steaming cup of shut the fuck up, that's the saying. Why has he never put that on the menu?
"Look at this from my position, Hanekoma. No one cares if the Composer goes and hangs himself, you know that as well as anyone. If this were any other Game we'd all sit back and make popcorn - but if Shibuya falls, it could take Shinjuku, and Nakano and every other ward and then what? The whole city? If Tokyo destabilizes, what's to keep from losing every Game between here and Nagoya? You know what's at stake, I know you do, and you damn well know why I have to be here."
"Do I sound like that when I'm gloating? I hope not."
Hanekoma feels the thrill of dread, all his insides sliding into a pile of cold fish, though he can't say he's all that surprised to hear the wry, scratchy tone. Joshua is barefoot, stepping through the doorway, hair slightly mussed and clothes a little too creased to be artful, looking the Angels from the epicenter of the Tragic Global Crash of Fucks Given.
"My goodness, Kiryuu, look at you." Brede says. "If it were up to me, I think I'd let you finish the job yourself and save us all the effort."
"If only I'd known you were coming." Joshua says. "You can leave the Producer alone, he didn't have anything to do with this."
"Josh-" Hanekoma starts, but Joshua glances coolly back over his shoulder, as if annoyed that anyone would try to steal his glory. He has so few tells, barely a foothold in the sheer flat ice of his indifference. Just the sort of person to stare down his own suicide and treat it no different than impending victory.
"I would think the Higher Plane would be ecstatic. It's not every day a Composer gets dethroned by their own Game. The fact that I still exist to be humiliated is practically a bonus."
Brede nods, conceding the point, but no further. "Gentlemen, you've had a good run of it, but the party's over. You don't get points for having a new debacle slightly smaller than the last. If you go in now, maybe they'll even take the time to pretend there's two sides to this."
"I don't need to pretend." Joshua says. "My Game has operated successfully under conditions far more taxing than this without a seated Composer and everything turned out fine."
Baseball Bat laughs, swinging his weapon to the other shoulder. Joshua glares.
"My district is stable. Obviously stable enough to make its own decisions. As I said, if it wished to Erase me I wouldn't have to be standing here trying to explain that to you."
Hanekoma glances down at the softest brush of power against his foot, the bunnies lined up next to him, nestled together like a pair of mismatched shoes. Terrified, and trying to stay out of sight, but still here for moral support.
"You can't leave Neku alone here." Hanekoma interrupts, ignoring the venomous look Joshua throws his way. "I'll go, I'll petition the Higher-"
"No, you won't." Joshua snaps, turning back to the Angels, barely a Player and all too happy to stare them down. "Who are you planning to have take my Producer's place? What veteran talent is out there ready to step up and be Shibuya's Producer. If CAT vanishes like that, everyone he's influenced takes a hit. If there's no one there to fill the gap - that will destabilize my district."
Brede shakes his head. "Funny, I don't remember offering any deals. I'm just giving you both the last chance for a bit of dignity. I suggest you take it."
Silence. Baseball Bat lets his weapon fall, the end resting lightly against the ground, wings rising in anticipation.
Brede sighs, full of feigned annoyance and real satisfaction. "Kicking and screaming it is, then."
Hanekoma's ready to strike. It won't change the way this is all going to turn out, but he wants to remember the sound an Angel makes trying to eat an espresso machine. He's just about to go for it when the door flies open and they all turn as Neku all but tumbles into the shop.
The Conductor looks wrecked, wide-eyed and pale as any Player, and Hanekoma knows then just how far the Angels have been pushing their hard sell. Nearly two full Games in and Neku still has next to nothing when it comes to armor, open worry and confusion and a surprising amount of panic in his expression as he looks from Angel to Angel - freezing in place when he finally comes to Joshua, and yeah, the Higher Plane can wave goodbye to any chance of doing this quietly. Hanekoma wonders if Joshua would appreciate it, being the one silent spot in a room currently spilling over with power makes him far more noticeable than if he had never been Censured.
Neku's Music is nearly visible, reaching out toward the Composer even as the kid shoves past the Angels to reach him. Neku stops short, not quite touching, even his Music held back, afraid to hurt what his fledgling powers can't begin to make sense of.
"You didn't… you're okay? Why don't you sound… what happened?!"
"Hello, dear." Joshua says dryly, for lack of other options. Neku is too stunned to remember being annoyed is even an option. It's not like Hanekoma had any doubts about the extent of their relationship but it is more than a little satisfying to watch the Angels have to listen to Neku's heart being played in Joshua's key.
"Shibuya has overthrown the Composer of its own accord." Brede says. "Obviously not how we expected this all to end, but when presented with such a scenario…"
"… something something lemonade." Joshua finishes for him.
Neku shakes his head. "I don't… I don't understand. How did Shibuya-"
"It will have to wait until later, Neku." Brede interrupts. "I'm afraid these two are already late for their meeting with the Higher Plane."
"No." Neku says. "They can't leave. You can't leave."
"No, you don't understand. I saw… I think… I think there's a Fallen in Shibuya."
He glances at Joshua, a look full of panic and apology. Neku's aware he's not doing them any favors, that this wasn't what he meant to walk into but whatever he's seen or thinks he's seen has shaken him right out of strategy. Hanekoma can't imagine what's actually happened - he's censured, but he'd have to be blind, deaf and dead to miss something like that prowling around Shibuya. Brede looks coolly amused, though sympathetic, raising an eyebrow.
"Are you certain it was a Fallen?"
"How am I supposed to know?" Neku snaps back, slapping the thick sheaf of papers he's brought along against his other hand. "Funny thing, they're so dangerous, but once again there's nothing anyone feels like sharing!"
Brede raises his hands in apology. "Easy, easy. Calm down, all right? Just tell us what you saw."
Do not let him be the hero here, Josh.
Hanekoma hopes against reason that the Composer will step in, will keep the Angels from being the sole voice of reason, but Joshua says nothing. He's hurt, that much is clear, that his Conductor is reaching out to the Higher Plane for help, no matter what the cause. All too aware that he's the least powerful one in the room, and the only thing he has left for armor is indifference. Pretending it's his choice to let his Conductor stand alone.
"I saw something out there, during the Game tonight. It… it ate two of my best Players, and one of my Reapers. There was Noise, it had Noise with it… but it didn't disappear. They fought it and defeated it but it just came back. It wasn't right. It's not supposed to… to come back like that. I think there was a girl, older, in a high-school uniform. She.. she smiled at me."
He shudders, hard. Whatever he saw out there, it hasn't let go. Brede nods, his voice gentle.
"Neku, I'm sure what you witnessed was terrible. Games often seem that way. The Higher Plane has made note of some… rather unconventional choices you've made, even during your short tenure, regarding your Players. You're new, and very kind, and it's all right to be a little skittish, about the demands of…"
"I fed my first batch of winners to a giant bird." Neku says flatly, eyes flashing with growing anger. "I am telling you, what I saw out there was not the Circle of Reaper Life, okay? You've obviously been keeping track of the Game here - you can't tell me none of you felt anything?!"
Neku looks to them, and Hanekoma would truly like to have his back - but even before he can plead ignorance, too censured to be sure of much beyond the front door of the shop, Neku's gaze slides by him without stopping, expecting no help from his corner, and even though Hanekoma knows he has it coming it still stings.
Neku looks to Joshua for far longer, saying nothing, though it's all in his eyes and threaded through each note of the Music that's still reaching for him, so ready to protect. Please, it says have my back on this. Please trust me, that I'm good for it. Please don't make me do this alone.
The Composer doesn't move, somehow making it seem entirely casual, how he's not meeting Neku's gaze. If only this weren't all happening now, with Joshua laid so low in front of the world's worst possible audience. If only Neku wasn't asking him to admit to the worst of crimes, that he might have had a hand in unleashing monsters on his own Game, but here they are and Joshua can't do it. Won't do it.
Abandonment slides across Neku's expression like a rime of ice, strength and pain all at once, but at last he only nods a little, shifting his shoulders as if steadying under a heavy weight.
"I know what I saw, and I have no idea how to fight it. It's going to destroy this Game, and it… it's not going to stop. I can't… you didn't see it, but you must know what the Fallen can do."
"Taboo Noise, maybe. Evolved, somehow?" Baseball Bat shrugs, glancing at Brede. "Who knows what this Underground's been infested with, considering." A glare at Hanekoma, just in case anyone forgot who was to blame in the last minute-and-a-half.
"Neku, I appreciate your concern. I understand your desire to protect your Game, and we'll look into it, but without any sort of actual proof-"
He's fishing, Hanekoma knows he's fishing and his little Angel stooges know it - and Neku knows it too, hand tightening around the stack of paper he's carrying because if he does have the evidence, that there's more Taboo Noise in the District, possibly a Fallen… there's just no way the Higher Plane won't draw a direct line back to what Hanekoma did, bringing that sin into this world, a door opened by the Composer's callous selfishness, and who cared what had changed in the meantime?
Neku hesitates, and Brede's eyes narrow.
"Any evidence that could help us untangle this mess would be of use, Conductor. If nothing else, the Higher Plane will certainly take your help into account when considering the full scope of the Producer's… adjustments of the rules."
"What are you…"
"I believe you call her Rhyme."
The snap and rush of wings fills the air, making a dark curtain of empty space, tips brushing the ceiling as Neku bristles in anger.
"You leave her out of this. It has nothing to do with her."
Brede smiles, even though Neku's threat is hardly empty - not with those wings, dark as any Reaper's but full-feathered as an Angel's, a few loose bits of shadowed plumage gently fluttering to the floor.
Joshua's wide eyes shatter his mask of disinterest, looking far more wounded than he could have possibly intended. Neku looks up, and then back at his Composer, surprise or shame or shock, it's hard to tell. Halfway between Reaper and Angel - and he's slipping.
"Neku…" Hanekoma says, not at all certain what he's going to ask for. A plea for understanding, skirting apology. A warning not to trust these Angels, just because he's angry - but it doesn't matter, all words fading as Neku's eyes meet his.
Maybe he's not quite the revolutionary he thinks he is. Maybe Hanekoma really has bought into his own hype. He saw the potential there - for the girl, and her brother, in the Long Game and beyond, if any of them survived to see it. So he'd given her that second chance, and it didn't seem such a terrible payoff after, to send her back into the Realground with a slightly better view of what lay beyond. He thought she was fine, growing and learning, and then he didn't think about her much at all, truth be told, the success of her life lost amidst the clamor of his less respectable deeds.
Big-time Angel too busy to care about a little girl?
No. He'd saved her. He'd been there when it counted. Which is why Neku's anger is mostly disappointment, hoping for better but not expecting it. Hanekoma's kept the truth from him before, but this time there's no reason to go looking for a lesson in it.
"You should have told me."
Before he can say a word, Neku turns back to the Angels, neither expecting his apology or needing one.
"I had Akibahara's Composer run some numbers, compile a few searches. People are dying all over Tokyo, maybe even farther out, and they're not coming back to the Game."
"Not everyone who dies will-"
"No, these people are dancers, designers, they make garage kits and compose their own soundtracks - look." He nearly throws the pages into Brede's hands, equal measures angry and desperate. "Look at this. Maybe one or two, sure, they're not Game material - but all of them? All of these people, just gone, and if no one notices when it's even here then it could be killing Reapers too, in the same kind of numbers. No one knows, no one cares. Everyone thinks it's just Noise, it's just the Game as usual, but it's not. It's hunting Players before they die - it's hunting us. What kind of Fallen is that? Will you just, for once, tell me what's happening in my Game?!"
Brede couldn't if he wanted to, Hanekoma knows, because the Fallen might find their way into Games, they might attack Player and Reaper alike but they certainly don't go unnoticed. No one can take Players before they're even in the Game, or anything like what Neku's suggesting. It's clear the Angels think Neku's hysterical, pushed too far, and damned if it isn't so very convenient, one more black mark against the Producer and Composer that sent him over that edge.
"Neku, I'll make sure this gets to the Higher Plane."
"I'm sure you will." Joshua says. Neku's dark wings mantle slightly, and whatever he's feeling he still takes a step back, putting himself between the Angels and their prey. Hanekoma is close enough to see his feathers shiver with tension, like a living thundercloud.
"I'm not letting you take him up there. Either of them."
Brede sighs. "Flattered as I am by the thought of being so important, Neku, and despite how deeply satisfying this is on a personal level, I assure you that at the end of the day I'm still little more than middle management. If I go back up there alone, all that will happen is that the Higher Plane will send someone else - and when they come, they won't ask."
"At this point, I almost want to go." Joshua mutters. "The mood I'm in deserves to be shared."
Hanekoma's little coffee shop is starting to feel just a bit overcrowded, between the competing wingspans and the rising tension in the air - and that's when the front door bangs open hard enough to knock the bell clean off. Hanekoma doesn't even hear it hit the ground, not with the girl standing in the threshold, blazing with Music and power like she just rode a comet through the front of the shop.
"Neku! I found you!"
Eri leaps into Neku's arms, and the kiss is long and passionate and straight out of one of those movies with lots of explosions in the background. Neku doesn't move, stunned silent even when she pulls away and grins, pushing a few strands of hair out of his eyes and straightening his collar slightly.
"Yeah, mostly. Kinda. I think. It's getting a little weird in here, that's for sure. I, uh… I think I might have called Shiki's mom and said some… things? About her, uh, parenting techniques. I think maybe I shouldn't have. It's going to suck when I remember how to regret things." She tips her head, studying him. "You have wings. Did you know that? Do you put little… wing slots in your clothes, or what?"
"Eri." Neku says more gently, confused and worried, his hands carefully settling around her shoulders. "Eri… what happened? Why are you… god, what did you do?"
"We had to make everything okay again. I couldn't, it couldn't…" She frowns, makes a soft, pained sound, but her voice steadies after a moment. "It's harder to… but it's going to be all right now. He's here, and you're here, and now you can just talk to each other… or I can beat you up until you do."
Eri grins, and though her eyes are bright her skin is dull and pale, her hair hanging limp and Hanekoma's sure if he hugged her he could feel every bone. It's killing her fast, trying to keep the rein on so much power. It's amazing she's lasted this long.
Jealousy's never been a problem for him, but now here he is, more than a little envious of the dying girl. Hanekoma's always been there to watch Shibuya, nurture it, help it grow - and here this girl is, caught right in the white-hot core of it. He's never seen anything so beautiful, the district he's loved all this time turning, beaming right back at him.
Neku looks to Joshua. "Why does she sound like Shibuya when you don't?"
"There was a… situation." Joshua says, ignoring Eri's rather pointed snort. "The district's chosen an avatar, but it doesn't understand the consequences. It's burning her away from the inside."
Neku's eyes widen. "You have to help her! Do something!"
Joshua makes several annoyed faces at once. "No, you talk to her. You started this."
"What are you even-?"
"Hey!" Eri says, staring across the room at where Brede's fellow Angel is standing, the one who hasn't spoken since they arrived. "I know you. You're the dick who keeps trolling Oji's site! I… I'm not sure how I know that. Dick."
Brede sighs, taking a step forward. "Entertaining as this little show might be, it does not change the facts. If anything, I think it should be even more clear to all involved that the time has long since passed for lenience."
Eri frowns, looking to Joshua. "… and you actually bother listening to all that?"
The Composer shrugs. "One word in six?"
So goes the very last of Brede's feigned patience, and he steps forward with his own wings outstretched. Neku moves to protect Joshua - there's no taking him without a fight. Keeping quiet all this time has given Hanekoma maybe the chance to be overlooked, just long enough to take one of the Angels down, and with the Conductor here they might just -
Eri steps right into the middle, raw and fearless, with Shibuya's music a controlled, low hum, a thousand violins drawing out the same shuddering note. Brede's old enough, that he ought to know better, not to discount the dangers in the unexpected even when the unexpected is mostly human, and seems barely able to keep on her feet.
"Get out of my way, little girl."
"I don't think I like you very much."
Brede steps forward and Eri throws one hand out. The flash of light is blinding and the sound is even worse and when it clears they're all frozen exactly where they were, the Angels with wings out and weapons raised - except that Brede is nowhere to be found. Shibuya's banished him, tossed him right back into the Higher Plane, though the cost of it is clear as Eri staggers, turning slowly, her shoulders slumped and knees buckling, crushed beneath the price of that much power.
"Okay, so," she breathes, and giggles, though she's struggling for the words, "I think… maybe I might have overdone it."
She blinks, confused, just at the edge of remembering how to be afraid.
Eri falls, and Neku catches her before she's halfway to the floor, shouting her name, the rest of them frozen, stunned and staring at the place the Angel used to be.