"Um, so. Uh."

Eri's brow twitched, and she drew up her hand to massage her throbbing forehead.

This was impossible.

Across from her sat the source of her migraine, currently engaged in tugging at his ridiculous purple collar. The thing was pulled up so that it easily obscured the bottom portion of his face.

She supposed, at the very least, that it was polite of him to remove those enormous headphones of his. They were left dangling, lopsided, on his thin neck. Eri could still see the slight depression in his hair from when he had been fervently listening to music not long ago.

Both of his hands were now jammed carelessly into his pockets, and he looked at her expectantly - actually, she couldn't really make out just what his expression was; it was strange, and just a tad disconcerting - gesturing with a very slight nod for her to continue.

She sighed. Of all the people who could have been assigned the project with her, it had to be the most socially inept and taciturn person in the entire class.

She ground her teeth together. This awkward atmosphere was unbearable. She was ready to tear her hair out by the roots.

Eri plastered a smile on her face. She tried looking at him, but when she found it too difficult, resorted instead to gazing around him, at the stacks and shelves of books and volumes. Even if it was the school library, chatter was commonplace, and it stuck to her, from every which direction, like pins and needles. It served only to make her feel even more isolated at her silent table.

"So, um...Neku, we should probably get started on the, uh, you know. Project."

He didn't respond, causing her to glare.

"Because, it's due in two weeks, but it's never a bad thing to get started early."

He merely shrugged.

"If that's what you want."

She rolled her eyes. One of her fingers absentmindedly twirled a strand of her glossy pink hair.

"Oh, for goodness' sake. We're never going to get anything done like this. Look, I don't care what your deal is, or if you want to be left alone or whatever. That's all well and good. I'm the not type of person to barge into others' personal business. But like it or not, you and I are partners, and we've got to-"

She frowned, pausing in the middle of her lecture. She could have sworn she saw the blue in his eyes flicker the slightest bit at the mention of the word "partners".

"Is something the matter?"

With the minimal amount of movement possible, he shook his head.

"Nah. It's not really worth mentioning."

Eri's disposition suddenly shifted. Only a shade, to be sure, but it undoubtedly shifted. There was strange gleam in her eyes, and the corner of her lips tugged upwards in a tiny smirk.

"Alright, well, with that, you can't just not tell me. What's up?"

He listlessly shrugged once more.

"Like I said, it's nothing."

Eri pouted, puffing out her rosy cheeks.

"Mannn. You're such a downer," she said while stretching out her arms.

Neku seemed to raise an eyebrow.

"You change gears quickly. She did a good job, pretending."

Eri glanced at him quizzically.

"What? Pretending?"

Neku merely budged his head from side to side yet again, in that infuriating manner of his.

Narrowing her eyes, Eri contemplated him. Something was up, but of course, it's not like she expected to get much out of him.

"Do you have friends?"

Eri blinked. And then scowled.

"What? Are you insinuating...I mean, how could you even think-"

She shook her head. He had the gall to inquire if she had friends when he was the loner, and this was just so wrong in so many ways-

She was caught off guard, however, when he groaned softly.

"I'm still not very good at this. That didn't come out right. I meant to say - well, I'm not sure how to put this," he sighed.

This was the most she'd gotten out of him thus far, and Eri wasn't one to squander opportunities.

"Go on," she urged.

"...Someone like you. Someone popular and outgoing and pretty..."

She blushed at that. She realized, however, that he wasn't trying to pay her a compliment. He had stated it bluntly, truthfully, and she understood suddenly that he was not one to mince words. He declares everything as he sees it.

"...Well, I'd imagine, someone like that," he continued. "Someone like that would probably explode if that's all she had. Friends who aren't truly friends, bonds which aren't truly bonds; there wouldn't be much to you if that's all you were."

Eri felt her own temperature rise in anger. He was insulting her?

"But that's not all there is, right? To you, there has to be someone who's more. Not just your family, but someone else who is really and devotedly by your side. A friend who means the world to you."

Eri gaped. There was some rusty nail somewhere, and he'd just struck it on its head with tremendous force.

"I...how do you...? Are you psychic?" she blurted, dumbstruck.

"Not really," he said, scratching his nose. "I sort of cheated, actually."

Eri heard him mumble that last bit to himself. Needless to say, she was confused.

"Well..." she hesitated. "Well, yeah. There is someone like that. My best friend, Shiki."

If she wasn't watching closely, she wouldn't have noticed him nodding in response, so nearly imperceptible as it was.

He stayed silent for several more moments, before softly uttering.

"So, you and...Shiki," he paused. "You and she are still in contact?"

Eri cocked her head to the side.

"Why wouldn't we be?" Her eyes twinkled. "She's my dearest, most precious friend, and we'll always be together and I wouldn't give up what we have for anything-"

She suddenly halted her passionate declarations, before narrowing her eyes at him.

"Why do you ask?"

The trademark shrug in response.

"No reason," he deadpanned.

Another tense silence.

"Is she," he began, after a few moments. "Is your friend doing well?"

For the first time since they sat at the circular table, marooned from the rest of the cacophonous world, Neku seemed anxious.

He was hiding it well, but Eri was, by now, able to decipher his suddenly out of place fidgets. His unconscious, minuscule squirms.

She prided herself on her uncanny ability to read people. That was how she'd cracked Shiki open in the first place and saw her for who she truly was.

At this point, Eri had already grown very suspicious. There was something behind the scenes, drifting just out of comprehension's reach, swimming just below the surface.

"Is there a reason you need to know?" She'd had just about enough of this mystery theater.

Neku slouched back in his chair, lifting his face towards the outward curved ceiling of the library. There was a soft intake of breath from his end.

"Just that it'd be nice," he murmured.

"Huh?"

"It'd be nice," he repeated. "If this exceptional bond you two have is kept. If it remained an unhindered connection, an irrevocable link. It's something special that ought to stay with you, is all I'm saying."

Her retort she had ready died in her throat. Instead, she felt rather touched. There was a lot more to him than she thought there was.

"Um, thanks. I guess. I'd like that too."

When he said nothing more, Eri sighed.

"Alright. Why don't we...take this somewhere else? It's too confined in here. The air's too stuffy."

The umpteenth shrug of the day, which Eri assumed meant Neku did not mind either way and was okay with it.

Surprisingly, at this point, whether she was mentally exhausted or had just grown used to his affectations, Eri found that she did not mind either.


They had passed the school premises several minutes ago, and Eri was contemplating where to go to continue discussing their project.

"Oh, crap," Eri muttered. "I just remembered."

Next to her, Neku raised an eyebrow. His headphones were still hanging from his neck.

"Listen," she turned to him, causing him to stop. "D'you mind if I invite someone else along? 'Cause I kinda forgot that we were supposed to meet up after school. I'm sure she won't protest to coming with us."

"Uh, sure, I guess-"

"Eri!" a voice called out.

Instantly, Eri's eyes brightened, and her face was lit up by a wide smile.

"Shiki!" she turned and waved to the figure drawing steadily closer from the other end of the sidewalk.

Neku froze.

A familiar black feline-swine bobbed cheerily into view, petite arms wrapped snugly around its front.

"Hey, Eri, I-" the speaker suddenly stopped, standing stock-still in front of the pair.

Neku's gaze swept over her. He didn't recognize a thing about her, save for the doll pressed to her chest. And yet, she was entirely, thoroughly familiar. From her tufts of darkened hair to her glinting glasses.

For a moment, they only stared. Eri stood there, shifting her gaze back and forth, bewildered.

A lone tear slithered down Shiki's cheek. She fumbled clumsily with Mr. Mew.

Neku tugged at his collar.

"Oh..." Shiki seemed to struggle with herself for a moment. "Oh, forget it."

Eri watched on, flabbergasted, as her best friend uncharacteristically flung herself at Neku, tackling him to the ground in a bone-crushing hug. Her arms wound their way around his neck, brushing the side of his headphones, causing them to swing from side to side.

Eri realized, abruptly, that Shiki was sobbing.

Neku awkwardly sat up, supporting both himself and Shiki, who was currently wiping her eyes with her palms.

"Never had the chance to thank you," she mumbled.

He scoffed.

"You should know me well enough by now that you don't need to. Besides, I wasn't the bastard who unscrambled everything."

She hiccuped.

"I thought - because, at the end, you were -" Her lip trembled.

"I thought you were gone," she whispered.

Neku scratched at the back of his head.

"Too stubborn to go, I guess. All of us were, when you think about it. Why, did you want me gone?"

She lightly slapped his arm.

"Moron."

Eri cleared her throat, enabling a blush on Shiki's visage.

"Whenever you two are finished, would one of you mind telling me just what in blazes is going on?" She seethed.

If there was a loop, Eri simply hated being left out of it. And she was not one to be made a fool of.

Neku glanced up at her. To her surprise and irritation, he smirked.

Even after all this, Eri still couldn't say she had him figured out. He was one real piece of work, she'd give him that much.

"Bonds," he murmured. "Are meant to be kept, after all."

Eri felt herself half-laugh, half-groan.

Truer, more infuriating words have never been spoken.


Author's Note:

I've always wanted to write a TWEWY fic. Hope I did it justice. I wrote this while contemplating Eri's perspective regarding Neku and Shiki's enigmatic relationship.

Placing her as the bystander was fun; I've always considered her to be the type of person who's cheerful, yet rational.

Since it's clear that this is the first time Neku's met Shiki after completing the Game, one can assume that the final meeting at Hachiko either occurs afterwards or doesn't occur at all.

Random quotation of the day:

"The chickens have earned their right to live, while the humans will go hungry."

-Protagonist of Jinrui wa Suitaishimashita