So it began like this:
Shiki and Eri were placing their order at Sunshine to join Beat, Rhyme and Neku at a table in the corner of the room. No, scratch that, Shiki was ordering for the both of them because Eri was distracted by a notice printed in seriously too small characters that was taped to the counter. Then Eri made a weird sound, somewhere between a squeal and a gasp.
"Shiki, look!" she exclaimed, trying to somehow squeeze Shiki between her and the counter without shoving any other client away. “Another step toward our own brand!”
Shiki blinked, miraculously managed to bring a hand in front of her to adjust the glasses Eri had almost shoved off her nose in her enthusiasm, tried to accommodate enough to read instead of staring cross-eyed at the thing, and finally understood.
For a while now the two girls had been hunting for opportunities to showcase their talent, and even if creating a costume for a potato mascot was not exactly the high of fashion, it was experience, and it was paid. So yeah, it made sense for Eri to get excited. But still.
"Eri? I kinda can't breathe anymore you know…"
"Oh WHOOPS, sorry!"
And so they told the cashier they were interested, grabbed their orders and joined their friends.
But maybe it would be more accurate to say it started like this:
"I said no," Neku insisted.
Shiki just stared, unimpressed. If Neku was still convinced he would get out of this, he was lying to himself.
The thing was, it was the first time Shiki and Eri worked on a mascot design and so it would be easier for them to have another person trying on the costume while they both looked at what worked and what didn't. So of course that meant recruiting Neku to help.
The fact that he didn't want to be a potato was only a detail.
(Technically, Beat would have been a better choice because he was taller, closer to the adult size the wearers of the finished costume would be, but while Neku couldn't refuse anything to Shiki, Beat totally could, and would. He couldn't refuse anything to Rhyme, though, and Shiki 100% planned to exploit that fact to get him to try on the costume once before they got to the finishing touch. But still, for the day-to-day process Neku was easier.)
Obviously, Neku ended up accepting.
Which gets us to the third and last point in time when we could place the real start of the ensuing chaos:
They were at Eri's place. Neku was wearing a potato-shaped mockup of the costume and moving around to see if it was restricting him or not.
Then Joshua giggled. Eri jumped and screamed.
"My my Neku, I wouldn't have pegged you as someone enjoying dressing up as food…" Joshua smirked.
"How the fuck did you get into my house?!" Eri shouted. "The door was closed!"
Joshua looked at her, radiating innocence.
"It was not. It was open and you invited me earlier, you don't remember?"
Eri blinked, hesitated, then shrugged.
"Oh, you're right. My bad."
Shiki and Neku glared daggers at Joshua, who was totally unrepentant.
"Stop. Imprinting. Her." Shiki mouthed at him.
Of course the jerk pretended he didn't see her.
"Neku, dearest, I already knew your sense of fashion was… lacking, but this is a new low even for you," Joshua went on.
And alright, it was a bit ridiculous to feel attacked over the fashion relevance of a potato, because Shiki herself would not have tried to defend that costume usually, but there was something in the way Joshua was looking down at her work that made Shiki's jaw clench. Neku, bless him, immediately caught her change of mood.
"OK Josh, one: fuck you. Two: my fashion sense is perfectly functional thank you very much. Three: don't sneak up on us like that, we– OUCH!"
“Sorry Neku,” Eri said, 300% unapologetic, “I need you to stop moving.”
“You could have asked instead of stabbing me with this pin!”
“Well, I know I need to take drastic measures to force you to pay attention when Kiryu is in the room…” Eri smirked.
Neku tried to deny. Well, probably. It was not very articulate.
Surprised not to hear a giggle from Joshua, Shiki bent to look around Neku’s shoulder. Joshua was watching a piece of paper on the desk.
“Hmm, Kiryu ?” she called shyly, a bit nervous to see Neku’s friend watching their design. Or math homework. Or just trash.
Eri liked her workplace chaotic and messy. She called it a creative environment; Shiki called it a needle hazard.
Joshua looked up, blinked and then smiled lazily. Shiki frowned but before she could make up her mind about how to deal with him, Eri called her attention back to the costume.
She didn’t see Joshua putting the piece of paper in his pocket.
Joshua slowly walked around Neku, looking at the costume, dubious.
“So, functional fashion sense, you said?” he commented. “You’re going to need to be a bit more… convincing.”
“Of course I’m not convincing right now, this is a mascot!”
Joshua just tsked.
“Neku, dearest, this is not an argument. Nor a proof. Looks like you will have to prove it to me. How about a little ga–”
Neku glared. Joshua rapidly changed track.
“... contest. To prove you have a fashion sense. How about you do better than me? Shouldn’t be too hard given how confident you are, hmm?”
“Deal!” Neku exclaimed, the serious look on his face at odds with the goofy potato costume.
Joshua's eyes took on a decidedly interested shine, which was actually a bit creepy.
"You're on, dearest."
And he literally vanished. Fortunately while Eri was looking at a sketch of the costume.
"Neku?" Shiki called.
"I'm sorry to say that, but… you don't have a fashion sense."
"Of course I've got one. It's called Shiki and it's the best of all Shibuya."
Maybe Shiki got a bit teary-eyed at that. Just maybe. And if she found herself hugging a potato, well, it was not like her life had been exactly normal lately anyway.
"Alright," Eri observed two seconds later, "the mascot can totally withstand a hug, we're the best."
"And who wouldn't want to hug a potato designed by the two of you?" Neku answered, hugging Shiki back.
It was only a good thirty minutes later that Shiki realized something was missing.
"Neku? Kiryu left before any rules for that contest could be decided."
"… of course he did," Neku groaned. "Well, guess I'll have to be fashionable all the time, because he's so totally going to drop on me at the weirdest moments."
"Are you certain your friend is not a stalker?" Eri asked. "Because it sure sounds like he is."
Neku opened his mouth, then closed it. He made a face.
"Yeah, you may be onto something to be honest…"
"And you're not worried?"
"He can't really do worse than he already did," Neku deadpanned.
"That's not reassuring!"
And so, chaos was unleashed on Shibuya.
Neku bravely accepted to be at the center of the weird tug-o-war that began between Joshua and the fashion duo. He never protested the clothes Eri and Shiki chose for him, but Shiki knew him enough to read the confusion some of the more experimental outfits caused him (well, that and the resigned acceptance of the more conventional looks totally out of his usual style).
The thing was that, as Neku predicted, Joshua was… not exactly playing fair. Each evening, Neku was coming at Eri's to debrief his possible encounter with his opponent and grab new clothes for the next day, and his stories were getting wilder and wilder with every passing day (except for the rare ones when Joshua plain didn't show up).
As the week passed, Joshua went from just ambushing Neku in the streets to trying to make him jump while he was eating so he would mess up his clothes. Then he showed up in Neku's classroom, perfectly visible in the RG, smug smirk and perfectly tailored shirt looking down on Neku's school uniform. (The teacher tried to get him expelled, which made it kinda worth it.) Of course when Neku tried to explain that he could not just wear what he wanted while on school ground, Joshua tried to brush it off as an easy way to gain points. Neku refused to tell Shiki what he told Joshua to make him agree to avoid the school for the rest of the contest.
Without surprise, it backfired when Joshua instead showed up in Neku's bedroom while he was half in his pajamas. And half naked. After he had to lie at full strength to convince his parents that yes, he really did shriek like that because a spider surprised him –while Joshua was helpfully choking on his laughter–, Neku hadn't had the energy to contest that round, which made another point in favor of Joshua. And a very pissed off Neku more determined than ever to win that thing dammit.
Neku was so frustrated that Shiki wasn’t surprised at all to get an angry call from him that very evening while she was at Eri’s to sew another outfit for Neku’s contest.
“I’m going to shoot him” was the first thing he said when she answered her phone.
Shiki faintly heard a smug “Awww, Neku.” in the background, immediately followed by what was probably a punch.
“Neku…?” she asked, a bit worried.
“This bastard! I can’t bear it anymore, that filthy cheater, I… huazirhuizerhzui… JOSHUA!!”
“Hello Shiki, dear. Don’t listen to Neku, I can’t be a cheater if there are no rules, hmm?” Joshua singsonged.
“STOP FLYING DAMMIT!” Neku screamed loud enough to be caught by the phone even though it was obvious he didn’t hold it anymore.
“Hmmm…” Shiki tried to begin.
Another shout cut her. Then another one. And another one. Some fighting sound aaand…
“Joshua, I swear, if you don’t give me this phone back I’m going to ask Mr. H to put a whole shaker of salt in your coffee!”
“... he wouldn’t do it. Sanae loves his coffee too much,” Joshua said but he didn’t sound so sure.
Shiki didn’t hear Neku’s answer, but it must have been something convincing because Joshua’s voice lost its antagonizing edge.
“You’re such a killjoy, Neku dearest…” Joshua sighed but he apparently gave the phone back because the next thing Shiki heard was Neku speaking directly into it.
“Shiki? You’re still here?”
“Neku, maybe you need a referee?” she rushed before the boys could return to their fight.
“... Shiki, you’re the best,” Neku said reverently. “Joshua, come here, we’re going to see Mr. H!”
“But Nekuuuu, I gave the phone back…!” Shiki heard before the call disconnected.
She blinked at her phone, not exactly sure what had happened, until Eri startled her out of her contemplation.
“What was that about?” she asked.
“Well… Kiryu was basically being himself, Neku kinda snapped, and things… escalated,” Shiki summarized.
Escalated, or at least went into a vertical direction, judging by Neku’s mention of flying.
“They’re supposed to go get a responsible adult to give some actual rules to this madness,” she added. “It should be OK. You remember Mr. H?”
“That guy from the coffee shop? The one where there are more paintbrushes than cups?”
“... yeah, him. So they’re going to see him, and he is firmly against killing or maiming your friends so he should keep them from getting too physical…?”
“What the fuck do you mean ‘against killing your friends’? That’s supposed to be common sense, not something you point out as an extra special positive trait someone has!”
Shiki opened her mouth and realized she had no idea how to explain that without inviting ten more questions.
“... actually I should maybe go check on them anyway. Better safe than sorry, you know?”
“Shiki you’re avoiding my question. We already have Kiryu ‘totally not a stalker I swear it’s cool’ who ninjaed his way into Neku’s bedroom, and now you tell me that your Mr. H is ‘a responsible adult who’s against murder’? How the heck did you get involved with the mafia or whatever shit they are?!”
“They’re not mafia! I’m sure!” Shiki added when Eri threw her a 100% unconvinced look. “Kiryu just made it his life mission to annoy the hell out of Neku, and Mr. H really is a barista. He’s cool.”
“... nothing will convince me that his coffee shop is not used to launder money.”
Well, technically, Neku had told her that the overpriced coffee was helping to sustain the new Reapers who had a hard time balancing their UG and RG lives so, in a sense...
“Of course not, Eri,” Shiki smiled nervously, fighting a blush. “Anyway, I’ll let you finish this? I’ll just check to make sure they didn’t kill each other,” she said before muttering a “...again.”
Eri waved, assuring her that she could finish this alone. Shiki made her way to the café, only to push the door and see...
A bar fight. She was walking into a bloody bar fight.
Well, not literally bloody, thanks god for small mercies. (Also technically more of a coffee shop fight, but it didn't quite capture the wild energy of the thing.)
"Hello, young lady!" Mr. H greeted her as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Neku was holding a chair and running after Joshua, trying to hit him while the giggling nuisance was looping around tables to avoid him. Shiki stared. Then she sighed and made her way to the counter.
"You're not stopping them?" she asked.
"Nah, they need it out of their system before they're able to communicate again. Better they fight here, where I can keep an eye on them and step in if it goes too far."
Shiki raised an eyebrow, unconvinced. It already seemed way beyond "too far" to her.
"And you're not worried for your furniture?"
Mr. H shrugged.
"I bought solid."
Shiki put her elbows on the counter and hid her face in her hands, wondering how her assessment of Mr. H as a reasonable adult had gone so wrong.
She looked up at Mr. H, whose smile had lost his amused edge to turn kinder.
“You know, Josh won't let Neku hit him anyway.” He paused, then added: “Well, probably. And besides, Neku doesn't really want to hurt him. Bruise his ego, definitely. But injure him? Never.”
She thought about it. Looked back at the two boys.
“You’re right,” she eventually admitted.
“So, relax?” Mr. H suggested.
Shiki was finishing a plate of pancakes by the time Neku and Joshua joined her at the counter. Neku was scowling, but Mr. H was right, he did seem more ready to actually communicate through words.
“I’m listening,” Mr. H said.
“Well, Neku dearest thinks I’m cheating,” Joshua said. “Which is absurd. I’d never break a rule.”
He got three eyerolls at that.
“Your version, Phones?”
“He’s an ass.”
“We all know that.”
“What? He’s right and you know it.”
“OK, so we’re… in a fashion competition?” Neku finally explained. “Except he cannot play fair. There is no point in trying to be more fashionable than the other if Joshua keeps showing up only when I can’t be all dressed up, or doing his best to mess up my outfit!” He paused, then added: “And it’s really not cool for Shiki and Eri, they put so much work in these clothes, they deserve to get them back in a perfect state!”
“We never agreed on all of that!” Joshua protested.
“... and so you want me to be your referee?” Mr. H asked.
Neku and Joshua answered at the same time.
“Yes!” Neku said.
“No way, you’ll automatically give the win to Neku,” Joshua grumbled. “Don’t think I didn’t catch you playing favorites, Sanae.”
Mr. H looked at them both for a while before nodding.
“Alright, I have what you need. Gimme a sec.”
He left for another room and came back with a flyer he put down on the counter in front of his three guests. Shiki moved closer to Neku to read it more easily. Not that she actually needed to see the details, she discovered, given she had already seen the information about this event floating around.
“An actual fashion contest?” Neku said.
“Are you kidding?” Joshua complained. “It’s in Nakano!”
“What’s wrong with Nakano?” Shiki asked.
Joshua mumbled something unintelligible.
“It’s in Nakano,” Mr. H confirmed, “and that way you won’t be able to use your Composer abilities to influence anything. Seems fair to me.”
Joshua glared daggers at him.
“But Nakano...” he whined.
“I’m not the one who organized this event, Josh, don’t look at me like that.”
Joshua didn’t stop.
“I’m also not the one who managed to infuriate someone usually perfectly calm to the point she was ready to punch you in the face,” Mr. H added. “I saved your jaw and your dignity, if I recall correctly.”
Neku and Shiki exchanged a confused look.
“What the hell?” Neku mouthed at her.
“No idea,” she answered in the same tone.
Joshua crossed his arms.
“Fine, I’ll do that stupid contest–”
“Not stupid,” Mr. H interjected.
“–and I’ll win!” Joshua finished, turning to Neku and Shiki with a dramatic move of his hair.
“In your dreams,” Neku countered, getting up in a move that didn’t quite manage to equal Joshua’s natural flair but was honestly a decent attempt.
Shiki realized she didn’t quite have a say in their participation, at that point.
Which led to Shiki explaining to Eri that they got signed-up practically against their will and having a quiet but intense freak-out. And despite the fact that Eri had wanted to try that kind of thing for a long time now, she toned down her glee to comfort and reassure Shiki instead.
Even if having the friends she had was what had led her to actually enter that damn contest she felt underprepared for (and undeserving, and…), she felt a bit blessed to have them.
The next two weeks were a whirlwind of preparation. But the good thing was that at least Neku and Joshua were not fighting through clothes anymore for now so Eri and Shiki could dedicate their time to perfecting one outfit instead of working on several projects at once. Neku was even letting them do as many fittings as they wanted without complaining, which was a minor miracle by itself.
And then, the day of the fashion contest came.
It was a good thing it was a Saturday, because Shiki wouldn’t have been able to go to class, too busy being a bundle of nerves to the point of almost getting sick. She spent the afternoon repeating to Eri that they were not ready and pointing details of the clothes they could obviously had done better and why didn’t they think of it before, they were so stupid and... Therefore Eri spent her afternoon reassuring and comforting Shiki. Neku was not exactly comfortable with the idea of being the focus of fashion judges, but his desire to win against Joshua once and for all was apparently enough to give him a determination of steel.
Shiki didn’t want to let her two friends down, so she gathered herself as best as she could. (And maybe their utter certitude that they had their place in the contest rubbed off a slightly bit on her, in the end.)
The actual contest was more or less a blurr for her. She remembered holding Neku’s hand with what she wanted to be a reassuring smile. She thought it was Eri who did the actual helping him into the clothes and giving him advice but she couldn’t remember a word. If asked, she couldn’t even tell how many participants there were.
(She did remember Joshua being legitimately very well dressed. She also remembered quite vividly a man wearing way too many feathers, and even if she couldn’t visualize the clothes anymore she knew at some point she had thought something along the lines of “I was so sure this style had died somewhere in the 70s”.)
And then the results floored her.
Firstly, Joshua was last. Which was so absurd it was obvious the full jury was biased against him. They didn't even look at him when they announced the result, avoiding Joshua's annoyed-but-not-surprised glare. (She made a mental note to ask about what the heck was Joshua’s problem with Nakano at some point.)
Even more shocking, Neku (and thus Eri and her) was first.
Eri was cheering. Shiki was trying to reboot her brain.
She managed to get her voice back to answer the jury when Eri and her were called to stand before them alongside Neku. Fortunately Eri was able to talk for the three of them because Neku didn’t have a clue about the details of the plans the two girls had regarding their future brand and Shiki was still not at her full brain power.
One hour later, they were in WildKat, “celebrating”. Which meant that Neku and Eri were celebrating (Eri in a relatively traditional way, Neku by making fun of Joshua with a hysterical grin), Joshua was pouting (and pretending to ignore Neku) and Shiki was still a bit dazed, trying to understand if she was dreaming or not.
“They’ll help us launch a brand,” Shiki said, tone flat because she was still processing.
“Yeah!” Eri answered. “It’s so awesome, I’m so glad!”
“Yes Shiki,” Mr. H said, somewhere between kind and amused.
“We are going to make clothes for other people.”
“Well, it was the prize!” Eri pointed out.
Shiki just stared at the counter. Mr. H slid a plate with pancakes toward her.
“Take your time,” he smiled. “The help for your brand will still be there tomorrow… and for a while after that.”
Shiki slowly nodded.
“Hey, by the way…” Eri said. “Am I the only one thinking someone bribed the judges against Kiryu or something?”
“Nakano…” Joshua answered between gritted teeth.
“As far as I know, a district is not physically able to bribe someone,” Eri countered.
Shiki looked at Neku, then they both glanced at Joshua. While Eri was not exactly wrong, for some definition of “district” it was possible. Which… raised a lot of questions, actually.
“Want to tell us what you did to anger, uh, someone in a position of power?” Neku asked.
“What I did?” Joshua exploded. “I’ll have you know it’s not my fault!”
“It totally was, Josh,” Mr. H intervened.
“That’s unfair and unloyal Sanae! The fries-zombies were all for you! Gatito had to be avenged!”
Mr. H sighed. There was a silence.
“Joshua,” Neku said. “Seriously. You… please tell me you were not the asshole who forced us to impose upon Mr. H for a whole week.”
“Well, technically it wasn’t me. In fact you–”
Mr. H pointedly coughed, glaring at Joshua who prudently decided to change track.
“... I think you mean the wonderful person who helped you stay at your hero’s house for a whole week, hmm?” Joshua concluded with a too sweet smile.
Neku made a weird noise and tried to disappear in his cowl, suddenly beet red.
“It was totally you,” Eri concluded. “Even if I have no clue how in hell this is possible.”
“You should ask Neku,” Joshua said, grinning like the cat who just caught the canary.
Of course, Shiki thought, leave it to Kiryu to turn a situation to his advantage. There was no way Neku (nor her) would be comfortable with explaining the whole situation to Eri like this.
One week later, her brain was online again and she was both overexcited and anxious to get things right. But she had to admit she was happy with the result of this whole… mess. Episode. Thing.
She was at Eri’s again, quietly threading the sewing machine while Eri tried to coax Neku into trying yet another shirt.
“Eri, the contest is over…” Neku complained.
“The contest, yes, but our brand is only starting! And we need our star to wear our clothes don’t you think?”
“... sometimes I wonder why I’m still your friend.”
“Liar,” Eri smiled.
“Awwwww,” commented Joshua, who had not been there two seconds earlier.
At least he had appeared next to the door for once. Could have been worse.
“Don’t awwww us asshole,” Neku grumbled.
“But Neku dearest you’re so adorable in this!” Joshua cooed.
“I’m– ERI PUT DOWN THIS PIN RIGHT NOW!”
“Niiiice, I don’t even need to stab you to get your attention anymore!”
Joshua leaned against the wall not far from Shiki, watching Eri and Neku friendly fight with a grin.
“Kiryu?” Shiki called in a low voice.
Joshua looked at her, confused.
“You’re mistaken. I didn’t do a thing. And if it had been fair I would totally have won.”
“Not a thing? You mean the flyer Mr. H showed us didn’t come from here?”
“... of course not. Why would you say that?”
“Hmm, I don’t know, maybe it had a Mr. Mew doodle in a corner? Like the flyer that was somewhere in Eri’s organizational blackhole over there?”
Joshua had nothing to answer to that (and seeing him speechless was so rare that Shiki tried hard to commit it to memory). Then, even more incredibly, he seemed embarrassed and even a bit defensive.
“Thank you,” Shiki repeated, smiling as kindly as she knew how to.
She went back to her sewing and saw Joshua slowly relax in the corner of her eyes.
Maybe they could get to be friends too one day.