disclaimer: Don't own, do adore. Thus, you know, the fanfic. -gestures-
author's note: Originally posted to The World Ends With You fanfic community on LJ; cross-posted here for archival purposes.

Five Times Neku Regretted Meeting Joshua...

1. Shiki had been easy to sync with, once he figured out the ways and let himself go. All he'd ever had to do was reach out and her mind would open up to him, a quick and simple link. He should have expected that the second time around wouldn't be so easy.

Joshua fights too deliberately to be useful. He talks all the way through battle, tossing scraps of advice through their shared space until Neku's ready to ally with the Noise just to get him to shut up for five minutes. In those fleeting seconds before perfect-sync, Neku has to fumble through the darkness to make the initial link leap to life. And he's slower than he should be by a good half-second, probably because he's too busy composing plans and strategies to attack the monsters. What he doesn't seem to realise is that by the time he starts to set those traps in motion, the Noise will have already crushed him underneath one axe-like snout and he'll be too non-existent to try revenge.

It's not that Neku wants to notice these things, but Joshua makes it hard for him to avoid them. Between moments splintered by fire and wind whirling through the battlegrounds, he can feel Joshua slipping, struggling to maintain the connection and to forge his next heartbeat.

"Neku," the kid cries, two syllables raking the air, "do something!"

He grinds his teeth as his fingers close on the healing pin.




2. He trails through Lapin Angelique's selected lines, dripping on its carpets, while the clerk flirts with Joshua and, between modest advances, looks at Neku with an expression usually reserved for people who have swallowed whole lemons. Through the wide glass displays he can still see the storm pounding the city into mud, hear the roofs rattling with rain. Half-heartedly, Neku thinks about heading out there anyway. Spending time in a tempest can't compete with Princess K's towering disapproval at wet customers putting their hands on her wares.

So, of course, Joshua picks this moment to call him over.

Ten minutes later, Princess K and Joshua step back in unison from their finished product. Neku tugs at his collar and resists the urge to look down, for fear that the sight might bring him to tears.

"Unhappy with your choice?" Princess K murmurs, reaching for the next selection on the rack: a pair of trousers bristling with an alarming number of buckles, belts and leather straps. "Perhaps sir would prefer to be a vampire in bondage rather than a titillating bunny?"

The worst part, Neku thinks, looking at her expression, is that she's actually serious. "Uhh," he says. "No thanks. I'm good. I think I'll just take these off--" He knees the compartment door, which swings shut between them, and starts to elbow the lock into place. Before he can slide it home, it bangs open again to reveal Joshua's thoughtful, curling smile.

"You can't wear your wet clothes in the store, Neku," he chides. "We can't possibly pay for everything you'd ruin." Before his partner can grit out his protests, he turns back to Princess K, hovering discreetly by his side. "How much did you say the entire outfit was?"




3. Heart hammering sharp in his throat, he barely remembers tucking away the player pin, letting the scanning field slide from his eyes. Joshua is at once close and distant, voice sonorous and soft, a gathering of contradictions that form no whole no matter how he jams the pieces together. Neku swallows, and in his dizzy, ringing ears he can hear a gunshot echoing still.

He killed me

Neku's used to hating the world: a massive, faceless crowd that doesn't think, that jumbles noise and colors into meaninglessness and never once shapes anything worth seeing. What he isn't used to is the hatred that reels and writhes in his veins, that vicious throbbing pulse at war with all other thoughts until every instinct is a road turning towards Joshua. Joshua, and a memory like an invisible fulcrum: the bitter star about which everything has been cast into orbit.

Joshua turns to him, hand dipping artfully to cast a shadow over his features. "Neku?" he says.

Neku swallows it down, reins in his bitterness and struggles to think.

Just a few more days, he tells himself, but against the results of the last Game, even that doesn't sound real anymore.




4. The Joshua he meets after the game is nobody he recognizes. Neku spots him in the crowd anyway, winding past each stranger with the casual swagger that should bump every shoulder in the crowd but doesn't. He leans against the wall and watches him, half-smile sharpened by wariness.

You should trust your partners. Neku's learned that, knows it to his soul, but still he can't help holding back. It's instinct, in these meetings more than anything else, because he can't help but feel that the only reason Joshua comes is because there's something he still wants.

Taller, he notes, just out of aesthetic principle. In this form - he's said before that it's his real shape, but who knows whether Joshua still remembers how to tell the truth? - he's grown into the slender promise of his hands, and his salt-pale hair seems less strange under sunlight. Even the expression in his eyes has aged: now it looks less like boy's arrogance and more like the confidence of a seasoned conqueror. Little of the boy who was Neku's partner remains in this lean and enigmatic stranger.

It's the smirk that gives him away: the playful smile coiling at the edges, turning up the corners of his mouth.

He's always been a little bothered by the way Joshua smiled. During the Game, when every road had veered to danger and monsters, he didn't think about it much, just dismissed it as the overbearing insolence of a boy who hasn't grasped his death and tried not to turn up the volume on his head-phones whenever Joshua giggled. (It was a giggle, wasn't it? Just like a girl's.) Now, though, it's daylight and peace, and Neku can't ignore it anymore. On those oddly adult lips, it curves with a deliberate knowledge that makes Neku ram his hands into his pockets and struggle not to redden - or think about why he might want to.

"Waiting, for me?" Joshua drawls, cutting short all thought. "Neku, I'm touched."

"Sure you are," he says; because if he gives an inch, Joshua won't hesitate to push him right off the metaphorical cliff. After another moment, Neku steps away from the wall and into the sun, where Joshua is waiting. "Let's go."

But he thinks of it again, long after Joshua leaves him for the evening, that split second when Joshua was neither brat nor threat but someone intriguing, and all the more dangerous because of it. And the worst part is how Neku can't even begin to figure out why.




5. Much, much later, things get clearer -- and far more complicated.


For a fleeting instant, this is the shape of his world: morning light rolling heat through the room, white sheets blurred. Neku stirs hazily at first, letting the world stream into consciousness in fragments: sun heavy on his outflung arm, legs sliding bare across the mattress, door creaking open and Joshua's footsteps resounding into the room.

That last bit of knowledge comes easy to him, though he's still a little puzzled when he thinks about it. Neku knows that Joshua can play a long game if he has to, that he's done it before and will do it again. He just wishes that he could pick up on the slightest inkling as to what Joshua's up to. As it is, throughout the years, Neku's gathered thousands of scattered and trivial moments about Joshua and still hasn't pieced together any concrete facts.

Some part of Joshua, he thinks, yawning, is keeping score. Last night was probabably his equivalent of a touchdown.

"Good morning," Joshua says, which is around the time that Neku realises that

1. Joshua is carrying a large stack of books
2. with a deliberate air that bodes ill for Neku, since the last time he saw it was last night, shortly before he found himself pinning Joshua to a wall and -- okay, that's enough of a trip down memory lane.
3. he's naked. Deeply, extremely, terrifyingly so in a bed he doesn't remember.

It's at this moment that Joshua drops the stack onto the mattress, startling Neku out of his reverie. Books scatter, tumbling over Neku's legs. He jerks them back in surprise and nearly falls off the bed. "Wh-what--" A title blares up at him, stark in yellow and black and white. SEX FOR DUMMIES, it says helpfully. A counter-evolutionary instinct sends a spark rattling through his brain, and, in spite of himself, he opens it up to a random page.

After a moment's horrified perusal, he flies back against the headboard, reddening. "What the hell is this for?"

Joshua only looks at him with a calculated kind of pity. "Can't you tell by the title?" he asks, shaking his head. "You really need to do better, Neku."

And before Neku can wrestle a strangled retort out of his lungs, he turns on his heel and walks of the room, leaving Neku in bed with ten books' worth of tips towards a better sex life.

...and one time he didn't.

He has a hard time explaining it to himself. Even later, when things should be settling, everything's still raw and so oddly new.

It's not friendship, he knows, and not sex that brings Joshua back, since he's rarely there by the time Neku wakes up and he takes care to say lazy, cutting things whenever they veer too close to the subject. (Not to mention the whole thing is still weird and awkward and something that Neku really, really doesn't want to think about.) Which leaves a thousand more possibilities to go, except Neku's starting to think that maybe he was closer to the answer than he'd thought. Because there are moments - in the Games and the pranks and the insults - when everything stills for a perfect, precise moment and they're the only two people in the world. They're not on the same side - they're never, Neku thinks, going to be on the same side - but it's something to hold onto. Joshua brings out the worst in him - and, oddly, the best. And try as he might, he can't imagine this mix of love and madness for anyone else.

"Someone's thinking, isn't he?" Joshua's eyes are slitted in the dark, small and aslant in laughter. "Finally had that philosophical breakthrough?"

"Yeah," Neku says, because it's true. On a whim, he cups the back of Joshua's neck and leans in.

Joshua tilts his head back, lips already parted and curving in something that Neku suspects is amusement. "Well," he murmurs, lashes shadowy on his cheeks, "at least you're learning."