When morning rose over the Himekaizen cultural festival, so did Yukio. He rose to the smell of too many teenagers sleeping in a classroom, the sound of snoring and the heat of Kyoko sleeping in his arms.
Shafts of sunbeams ripped through the curtains and bathed the floor in an eerie red. Drowsy with sleep he realised how the sudden dawn light had forced him awake.
There were sounds from the office area, sounds of someone sleeping over the desks and someone working. Rhythmic clattering of laptop keys sang a well-known melody – only Urufu abused a keyboard that way.
Yukio leaned on his elbows, torn between the want to help his friend and the need to feel Kyoko close to him. In the end Kyoko won, and he laid himself to rest on her arm again.
Nuzzling his head closer to her face he drank the smell of her hair and listened to her breathing. Ever so gently her calmness rocked him to sleep again.
When he woke again soothing dawn had given way to bedlam. Of his gentle Kyoko there was not a trace. She sat shamelessly astride him, all sense of propriety gone, daring any shocked onlookers to protest. Looking up at her he watched the most beautiful woman in his life glaring at students whispering and pointing at them.
His ears hurt, mostly because she tugged at them with both hands, and so did his balls.
Balls? Crap, Kyoko you can't sit there!
She didn't just sit but merrily bounced up and down. Yukio sincerely hoped she was oblivious to what it looked like. Even more he wanted her to get off him, because those parts were exactly as sensitive as his recollection of the last time he made a spectacular save as goalkeeper in a game of soccer.
Then a loud cough called for his attention, and Kyoko had the good graces to cease bouncing.
Behind her back four chairs lined up with their four best friends straddling them leaning their arms on the backrests. Noriko scowling, Urufu smirking, Kuri rolling her eyes and Ryu grinning wildly.
“Love birds, get a room or get real,” Urufu said in English.
Atop of him Kyoko gasped and turned.
“Rehearsing the racier parts of the play?” Kuri asked in the same language. “Want to continue on stage?” She frowned and dug into her school bag searching for something. After a while her frown made way for a satisfied smile.
A camera? Yukio wondered in panic, and Kyoko must have shared the same thought, because she rolled off him and covered herself with the blanket they had shared the previous night.
“The four of us need to have a talk,” Urufu said. It sounded as the start of a sentence, but he was interrupted by Kuri.
“You insensitive moron!” She threw Urufu an angry glare. “Ko-chan and I are going to have some girl talk.” And that sounded more like an order than a suggestion. “You are going to dress down that oversexed friend of yours.” A long finger protruded from her hand and stabbed at Yukio through the distance, but Yukio knew the words were directed at Urufu.
Still, oversexed, me? I was asleep for most of it, so why is it my fault?
Urufu just grinned and tapped Ryu on his shoulder. He had to reach behind Kuri to do so.
What once began as an open display of friendly rivalry from the Wakayama twins was an established habit by now, despite Noriko's dating Nao-sempai. Urufu had her by his other side, so the Swedish couple was sandwiched in the middle as always.
Yukio had a hard time imagining them side by side in any other order than Noriko, Urufu, Kuri and Ryu. Usually he and Kyoko trailed a few steps behind whenever the six of them went out together.
“Ryu can you get the patrols and play started? I really need to talk with the moron on the futon,” Urufu said.
Ryu nodded in return and headed for the office area. His chair screeched on the floor as he dragged it behind him. The noise was enough to silence the whispers around them that hadn't subsided until now.
“Noriko, get the food market going. I'll help you after I've knocked some sense into his head,” Urufu said and pointed a thumb at Yukio. “Yukio, boys' locker room. Now!”
With the last words Urufu rose from his chair and left the room.
Before Yukio even had the chance to protest Kuri had already pulled Kyoko to her feet. She did protest, but a shockingly well-articulated sentence in Japanese from Kuri silenced her.
“Ko-chan, you absolutely must shower and change your underwear, wouldn't you agree?” Kuri said to Yukio's stunned girlfriend.
Kyoko barely had time to get her bag, and Yukio used that as a signal to rip open his backpack and pull out one pouch with toiletry and another with fresh underwear. After that he hurried after the girls on their way to the locker room.
When he passed the office area he saw Ryu handing Noriko an old style walkie talkie which she clipped onto a belt. By the windows a dozen more stood recharging.
His footsteps on the stairs down to the first floor were unusually loud but neither corridors nor stairwell were any less crowded than a usual school day. Yukio attributed the sound of his footsteps to a guilty conscience.
They passed the vending machines and then he waved to Kyoko before she vanished into the girls’ locker room. On the other side of the cafeteria Urufu stood waiting by the door to the boys'. He rolled one of the security armbands over a sleeve and opened the door.
“Security patrol. Anyone not showering evacuate now!” After delivering that lie Urufu beckoned for Yukio to follow him inside.
Yukio didn't see how he could avoid the inevitable, and in the end he meekly obeyed.
Leaving Yukio like that made her unhappy, but after a second serving of Kuri-chan's dark stare Kyoko didn't dare anything more than returning his wave before she sneaked inside the locker room.
“Ko-chan, where did you go yesterday evening?” Kuri-chan's voice was all sugary and Kyoko didn't believe one iota of it.
Kyoko sat down on a bench and rested her back against a locker door. Slowly she began to undress. A fresh pair of stockings and panties wouldn't hurt, and that shower looked more and more like a splendid idea now when she had dragged her tired body here.
“Shower first, chit chat later.” Kyoko answered. She was surprised how irritated her own voice sounded. It did the job though, and with a towel over her shoulder she went for the closest shower stand. Kuri-chan stayed silent.
While a morning shower at school just couldn't compare to home Kyoko still enjoyed it. Stiff limbs softened and she purred with satisfaction at the luxury of shampoo in her hair. One of her peculiarities she guessed, but she just couldn't help it. Lathing herself with shampoo had always been a time of bliss for her. Maybe because she could pretend to be both blind and deaf without her parents yelling at her for it.
This time it was Kuri-chan who couldn't yell at her, because that was what was waiting, even though Kyoko really couldn't understand why she was going to be yelled at.
Dragging out the shower turned out to be possible for so long and no more, and reluctantly Kyoko killed the water and towelled herself down.
In the early morning hours the locker room quickly cooled down despite a cloud of steam promising lingering heat, and she soon found herself putting on her clothes scrutinised by Kuri-chan.
“Where were you last night?” Kuri-chan asked when Kyoko had donned panties and bra and was zipping up her skirt.
Kyoko waited until she started buttoning up her blouse before answering. “Rooftop,” she admitted, “with Yukio.” Because that was the real question, wasn't it?
Kuri-chan stayed silent, dug through her school bag and handed over a few plastic packages. “It's time you started thinking about these,” she said. “I hope it's not too late.”
Kyoko blushed red. She felt the rubbery contents through the plastic cover. “We didn't.” She met Kuri-chan's gaze. “We didn't do it.”
Her friend let out a long sigh. Of anger or relief Kyoko didn't know. Then she felt the hands of her friend on her shoulders.
“Be more careful next time. He's a guy, with the needs of a guy. Sooner or later you'll share your bodies with each other, or you'll break up.”
Break up? Does he hate me?
Those blue eyes met hers. “He's interested, but he'll respect you for some time more, but eventually those needs will become too great.” Kuri-chan took a deep breath before she continued. “Maybe your needs will be stronger than his, but sooner or later you'll have to trust each other enough. OK?”
Fear still dominated Kyoko's thoughts. “Do you think he dislikes me now?” she finally asked when she was done pulling her stockings to her knees.
The look she got in return was one of utter contempt. “Do you really see Ulf's best friend as that shallow?” For a moment anger flared to life in Kuri-chan's eyes. “Do you think the man I love would chose his friends so easily?”
It was a scary Kuri-chan, one who reminded her of the chasm that had grown between them since the time they made their differences clear about which methods were acceptable when it came to handle bullying. It was also a more guarded Kuri-chan than Kyoko had ever seen before, one who showed a desperate need to protect her Urufu even from a friend.
“I'm sorry,” Kyoko said. What else could she say?
“Love hurts, you know.”
Kyoko looked at her friend. Did it? The last months ran through her head. Worry, embarrassment, a little anger and a lot of joy and excitement. “No, I disagree. I never felt hurt.”
The door opened and a few students from 6:1 arrived inside. From the looks of them they were about to make the final preparations before the play.
“Funny you should say that. I said the same all those years ago.” Kuri-chan laughed softly to herself and sat straight up leaning her back and head against the locker door. “Maybe a first love doesn't hurt.”
She wore the face of an angel, with eyes staring at the ceiling and through it. Kuri-chan was worlds away. Kyoko saw it in her eyes, had seen the expression of what she once took for homesickness many times before.
“Have you been in love before? Before Urufu I mean?”
“Mm,” came the answer.
But that answer wasn't for her. Kyoko guessed her friend spoke with her own memories right now.
“Twice,” Kuri-chan said after a long silence.
“You said it didn't hurt, your first love.”
Kuri-chan smiled, but she never moved her head. Her blue eyes still stared at a landscape of years gone past. “No, not me. I hurt him though. Fourteen, I was fourteen.” Then she returned to the here and now and caught Kyoko's gaze. “An ugly kid with long legs. I think you remember.”
Ah, yes, she looked the same the first time I guess. “Why would that hurt him?”
A grimace played over Kuri-chan's features. “He wasn't very good looking. Strong and fast and very good at football, and he adored me, and I him.”
Kyoko waited for her friend to continue. In the background she heard the other girls giggle as they tried out clothes for the play.
“He was shorter than me. And when I grew beautiful and started modelling he got scared,” Kuri-chan said. “It took years for me to feel confident in my looks though. Always running to photo shoots, always cancelling with him whenever an opportunity opened.” She sighed and stroked her face with both hands. “I had him waiting for me, but I never waited for him. In the end I never gave him a chance to follow me. I hurt him.”
“How?” Kyoko asked when she understood that Kuri-chan was finished.
“I always believed he broke up with me, but in reality I forced him to. I enjoyed being surrounded by beautiful boys too much, and I always thought he'd be there for me anyway.” Kuri-chan's hands slid down from her hair to cover her face. “Damn, that's embarrassing to realise so many years later. And I never apologised to him.”
Kyoko didn't understand those thoughts. Yukio was Yukio through and through. She'd wait for him and she'd ask him to wait for her. Wherein lay the difficulty in that?
“You'll understand one day,” Kuri-chan said as if she had read her thoughts. “Anyway, I'll give you this one. A first love doesn't have to hurt. I'll give you that.”
That piqued her interest. “But the second one?”
Kuri-chan grinned and laughed. “Oh that hurt for sure. I was twenty. He cheated on me on a grand scale.” She smiled at Kyoko who only saw sparkling joy in those eyes. “Five on the side, or more likely all six of us girls were his playthings. I've never felt so humiliated in my life.”
She had heard that story before. Never so heartfelt though. “And you never fell in love after that?”
A bubbling laughter was the first answer. “No, not until I met Ulf. I promised myself never to fall in love again, but he made me break that promise.” Once again those eyes strayed elsewhere, but this time they weren't looking into another world.
It was time to change the topic. “Why did you want me here?”
The question had Kuri-chan return to reality. “To give you this.” She dug into her school bag and offered Kyoko a small metal case. “It's a portable make-up set.”
Kyoko turned the box over and opened it. “Yes?”
“You can pull that lever.”
She obeyed and stared as the bottom came away. “Yes?” she asked again.
“You have parents. Parent's never respect the privacy of a teenager in love. That's a false bottom with enough space to hide two of those.”
It took a while for Kyoko to grasp what Kuri-chan meant, but when she did she blushed from her collarbones all the way to her hair.
“This isn't a suggestion. In this case you'll do exactly as told. Get it?” Kuri-chan took both her hands in hers. “Ulf's having this talk with Yukio as well. Don't you even dare to take stupid risks!”
“It's not like we're going to do it any time soon,” Kyoko protested.
Kuri-chan grinned, took the one Kyoko held in her palm and placed another in the adorned metal case before she put the false bottom and make-up back. “It's not like they go bad in a few days,” she said and pulled Kyoko to her feet.
An hour after his embarrassing talk with Urufu in the locker room Yukio stared at the main gates. We've got problems.
He unclipped the walkie talkie from his belt and brought it to his face. “Urufu?”
Yukio looked at the glittering monsters just inside the main gates. “Yukio here. There are two buses with television teams at the gates, and they're bringing gear inside the school grounds.” He stared once more. Students quickly dismantled one stall to allow the buses to turn. That's the least of our problems.
“Local media, I guess. Let them inside, or better, have the student council do it. It's their show anyway. Over.”
The voice from the loudspeaker carried with it Urufu's very personal version of being a moron. “Man, turn on your brains. They're here right now and I don't have the time to run to the council room.” He remembered Urufu's instructions on radio communications. “Over,” he added.
The loudspeaker blared to life again. A static crackle, silence and more crackle. “… this piece of crap work?” a female voice said. And then some more crackle. “… push this button when you speak.” That voice was male. Then there was silence and after that even more crackle.
“You, the guy before. I'll get down to you.” Once again the voice was female.
'The guy before' glared at his walkie talkie. What the hell? “Yukio here. Please identify yourself when you speak. Over.” The guy before, my arse!
“This is the student council president speaking. Where are you?” the female voice said.
Yukio watched the students closest to him stare from their stall. Or at least some of them did. Most wore scared looks and had their eyes glued to the gates.
“Yukio here. I'm at the gates. President, how many guests do we usually have for the festival? Over.” This can't be good. I need Urufu or Noriko for this.
Suddenly the door to their club room flew open with a bang. The sudden noise had Noriko swirl in her seat.
Urufu came dashing inside with the student council treasurer behind him.
“Noriko, we have a problem. You,” he pointed at the treasurer, “sit here and take Noriko's com unit.” Urufu grinned at her. “Getting exiting now, so let's see what you're made of,” he said to her.
She pushed her walkie talkie across the desks and looked back at him. “What's going on?” she asked, barely noticing the treasurer taking his seat and frantically emptying his school bag on his desk.
Urufu reached down and fingered the walkie talkie she had before her until moments earlier. “You had it turned off, so I guess you didn't hear.”
“Hear what?” Across the desk the treasurer lined up an array of pens and paper.
“He'll fill you in. We're setting up an HQ here. I have to run.” And with those words Urufu grabbed a walkie talkie from the rack and was out of the club room.
What on earth? “Hey!”
“No time, need to find Kyoko,” Urufu's voice called from the corridor.
“Kyoko, over here!”
She stopped dead in her tracks and looked over her shoulder. That had been Urufu's voice, but with an edge to it she had never heard before.
“Get four guys from 9:1 to the back gates! I need their cell phone numbers as well. Amaya's on her way and Kondo-sensei is already waiting there. I'll instruct you later.”
Kyoko watched Urufu's vanishing back and felt the unfamiliar weight of the communications device he had slapped into her hand. Thinking back she had heard him sounding something similar to this during their extended stay at the holiday resort, but only similar. His voice this time carried a tone of absolute command that had to be obeyed immediately.
She made her way back up the stairs and went for Himekaizen's newest addition to its number of classrooms. If Urufu had such a desperate need of four students by the back gates he would receive them there.
When the door slid open she looked inside and recognised a few faces who helped out with patrolling the school the previous night. While that night made her all fuzzy and warm inside, now wasn't the time to linger on those memories.
“You, you, you and you, follow me!”
The good thing with the students recently transferred from Red Rose was that they always obeyed without asking. The bad thing that they obeyed without asking. It scared her a little.
Yukio, what would you think if you saw me now?
“I'm not that good at estimating numbers, but at least five hundred by now. Over.”
Beside him the student council president instructed the last arrivals of students wearing security armbands. Yukio looked at the six already by the gates. He hoped it would be enough.
“I'm on my way to the principal's office. Should be able to get a useful estimate from there. Over and out.” Urufu's voice sounded excited and tired at the same time.
Yukio sent a grateful thought of thanks to his friend. The council president lost control of the festival from before it opened. Any teenage student would, but Urufu wasn't a teenager, was he?
“Urufu?” Kyoko's voice said from the loudspeaker.
“Urufu here. What's your status? Over.”
“Kyoko here. I'm mailing their phone numbers to you. Two of them are away in Kondo-sensei's car. Sato-sensei called and said she's here soon. Over.”
Yukio listened to the conversation on the open channel while he stared at the growing mob waiting outside the gates. She sounds so grown up. My Kyoko!
“Superb Kyoko. Send the numbers to Noriko as well. She'll take it from there. Over and out.”
The praise made Yukio blush a little, even if it was praise from his friend to Kyoko. Then he turned his attention to the gates again. During the short time another fifty or sixty guests had been let through. Any normal school day would have allowed them inside by the hundreds, but on a normal day those gates opened up to a flat expanse covered by gravel. Now stalls limited mobility to narrow streets.
Yukio winced at the sudden call of his name, but he quickly regained his composure and pushed the button. “Yukio here.”
“Ulf here. Send a security detail outside and redirect people to the service gates. Over.”
Security detail? Oh! We don't have enough people for that, unless... “President, follow me!” He grabbed the stunned president by her hands and started dragging her outside. “Man, you're impossible, but I'll handle it. Over and out.” Damn, she'll have me pay for this later.
With his senior in tow he negotiated his way through the gates. Yukio registered how her hand was soft and small and warm in his, and how it felt very different from Kyoko's.
He hoped Urufu had arranged staffing of the back gates, but given the monstrous organisational capacity of his friend there were probably already students there setting up a second entrance to the festival.
“Noriko here,” the loudspeaker blared.
“Ulf here. We have an estimated fifteen hundred guests, and I see hundreds more coming on the streets. Over.”
That's a lot of guests. Isn't it family and alumni only today?
“Fifteen hundred? Sorry... Noriko here. Hang on a moment. Eh… Over.”
Yukio grinned at the uncertainty in her voice. So she can't handle everything on the fly after all. Good to know that she's human. Even though he did feel some satisfaction at that thought, most of him filled with affection. No matter what she was one of his best friends.
He made it across the street and stood to attention with the president by his side. “Honoured guests. I have the Himekaizen Academy student council president at my side. We have opened another entrance. Please allow her to instruct you.”
As he had hoped the cue he gave her was enough for her to become their president again, and after she shot him an uncertain but grateful smile she took command.
OK, what was that thing with my Kyoko all about?
With a firm push she turned her walkie talkie off. Kyoko desperately needed the rest. An hour after the opening well over two thousand guests crammed the school grounds. Several stalls were already running dry, and only Urufu's desperate gamble kept most of them supplied.
She sank to the floor in a tired heap and listened to the pandemonium from the office area turned festival headquarters. While the official festival planning room and student council room still operated as formal planning centres, the students there were swamped beyond capacity from before the cultural festival even opened.
Weary beyond belief she rose to her feet and struggled to the desks occupied by a few club members, two students from the festival planning committee and the student council treasurer.
“Noriko, how can I help?” she asked and slumped into a chair.
“Rest, please just rest,” her friend said. “You've been fantastic. I understand Yukio better now.” The smile in Noriko's face spoke of respect, and for once Kyoko felt she deserved it.
Kyoko watched Noriko send another email before she continued reading a seemingly endless number of unread ones on her screen. With her right hand she jotted down notes on a piece of paper, moved it to the keyboard and opened up a document and changed something in it. After that she composed yet another email and sent it.
How can you keep all of it in your head? My larger than life midget sister, isn't that what Ryu calls you?
For each email sent the treasurer made a quick call only making certain who was to execute the instructions in it. An expression of awe played on his face whenever he stole a glance at Noriko.
“What are you guys really?” he asked during a brief lull in the madness.
Kyoko shot him a tired smile. “We're part of the club management,” she teased. “I'm the secretary and Noriko is our treasurer,” she continued knowing well that wasn't what he really had asked.
“Treasurer, huh?” he said instead. It made sense in a way. They shared that position.
Noriko flashed him a grin between emails “Talking about money,” she said, “we're unable to provide more funding at the moment. I need your help.”
“Huh?” That question pulled him back to the operational reality. “Funding?”
“Yeah, stupid, we're out of money. I need council funding to secure the continued flow of supplies,” Noriko said and frowned.
The treasurer sat upright. “You paid from the club funds? How much?”
Noriko sighed and pushed her laptop aside.
Kyoko couldn't help but giggle when she saw her friend stare at the ceiling while waving her fingers in the air like a Showa era elementary school kid. Learned the abacus did you?
“Three hundred, eh, make that four hundred thousand yen. Anyway, we're bled dry.”
“I know. And we can't recirculate the money paid at the stalls either. Way too many coins.” Noriko grinned. “We'll get it all back later anyway, but I can't wait until the banks open.”
The treasurer stared at her, but Kyoko noticed how Noriko read the same email over and over again. Kyoko rose from her chair and walked behind her friend. Absent-mindedly she started massaging tired shoulders while looking out the window.
A bit inside the back entrance another piece of Urufu's black magic grew into existence. An unplanned outdoor café with the capacity to handle over one hundred guests, staffed by third years he had managed to scrounge up from gods knew where.
How he thought up the concept and made it reality while handling security patrols, their own food plaza and taking overall control of the cultural festival when the student council organisation crumbled was beyond her. Then she noticed one clue.
Among the third years manning the impromptu café a few club members walked around directing students two years their seniors as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Yukio was among them, her Yukio, and a third year always by his side year she didn't recognise at first. A girl with gorgeous, waist long black hair.
Kyoko felt a brief sense of panic running through her until the identity of the girl finally found a match in her brain. What's the council president doing there?
The voice from inside the room tugged at her attention and she turned, still massaging Noriko's shoulders.
“How much, Wakayama-san?”
Kyoko looked down over Noriko's head and saw the email she had read so many times. And gasped. No way! Yukio, you should see this.
Yukio felt a tinge of irritation when the council president followed him like an obedient dog all the way to the food plaza.
Urufu had come up with another hare-brained idea, but by now Yukio accepted how well they worked. The theme was try and play, and it hooked a couple of hundred parents and younger siblings. Anything that got people away from the planned events and stalls was a blessing.
He owed the kendo club big time, but they promised half an hour with Kuri and a camera would be payment enough. Nothing naughty the club president promised. Yukio wondered about that, and he still had to break the news to a Kuri he gifted to the club without telling her first. Urufu would have his head for it as well.
With a grin splitting his face Yukio saw grade school kids trying out kendo gear much too large for them. They looked happy, and Urufu only told him to solve the problem, so he did. He'd stand his ground if Urufu protested later. Hell, even if Kuri did.
But now there was the case with his current problem. Score a goal. The Watabe twins quickly convinced him having grade schoolers playing goalkeeper was a horrible idea. So instead they convinced both goalkeepers in the soccer club to spend two hours each defending against penalty kicks.
Problem being the food plaza was laid out on the soccer field as well, which was the reason Yukio walked here with the student council president trailing him.
It didn't take a genius to understand she suffered a severe case of being smitten. Even one as inept at the boy meets girl game as him understood.
At least it's me. It'll pass. Crap! If it was Urufu she'd stay in a state of love at first sight, like forever. A vivid image of Urufu with Kuri by his side and the council president desperately tugging at the back of his shirt passed Yukio's mind, and he couldn't help laughing at it.
He cackled with glee until his stomach hurt. People around him stared and whispered, and for once the president gave him some extra space.
On his radio he heard voices from time to time as islands of small crisis flared alive only to be extinguished by Urufu either promising help in a soothing voice or barking harsh orders in the language of an over-educated drill sergeant.
When Yukio returned to the food plaza kids were already lining up for penalty kicks. There was enough space by one goal not to interfere with those eating, not even after they accommodated one of Kuri's few suggestions over the radio – an international style picnic.
Yukio glanced at the grassy slope where they used to watch soccer training. It served as a delimiter between those above and those below with the occasional stubborn couple eating their food lying down in the middle.
Like watching sakura in the park, he thought. But it's autumn now.
From where six dozen blankets had arrived he could only guess at, but his suspicions went to Kuri. Any magic concerning cloth had to be her doing.
She's our president, but for this festival in name only. This is Urufu's show.
Ah, the other president. “Sorry, just thinking.” He gave her a smile. There was little reason to be rude, even if she was a pain. Now that's a novel thought. With Kyoko by my side I can suddenly act like normal around girls. Funny that. Now when I'm not even interested any longer.
“What happens now?” the president asked.
“You know, that's my line,” Yukio said and laughed. But he didn't care to keep up the pretence of who ran the show. “We're filling the gym right now. Principal Nakagawa negotiated with one of the TV crews and they're moving their bus inside the gates.”
That was today's lifesaving brilliance from Kuri. Well, given her background he shouldn't be too surprised. One of the buses was equipped with exterior led screens and loudspeakers, and the crew agreed to display live footage from the gymnasium throughout the day. At the moment they moved it into a position where it could be seen and heard without being in the way.
Jirou-sempai came over to him from the line of grills he oversaw. From the line of grills you were never supposed to oversee in the first place, Yukio corrected himself. The former president of the Sengoku club made the utmost to fill the position he was pressed into after madness descended on Himekaizen, and he did a very good job at it. Yukio took a mental note to make certain the second year was properly thanked later for shouldering the responsibility for the entire plaza.
“Have you had any rest?” Yukio asked.
“It's fine,” Jirou-sempai answered, which obviously wasn't true at all. Fine job or not, the guy was worn thin.
“President, how would you like to stand in for him?” Yukio asked the girl by his side.
She offered him a frown in return. “I don't know anything about this area.”
“But you do, you gave it a green light after all,” Yukio tried, but he harboured little hope she'd take the bait. “I'll help out for some time, but I need to run an errand later,” he said. “Please,” he added.
She looked at him and then at Jirou-sempai. Somehow she must have noticed how tired the second year was, because she nodded even though her shoulders slumped.
“Thanks!” Yukio didn't need to fake any gratitude. It was genuine, especially when he saw the relieved smile his club member gave their council president.
“An hour?” he asked?
“Make it two,” the president offered. She shot Yukio a questioning glance as if asking for praise.
“I'm in your debt,” he said. Damn, we need the council to regain their confidence before tomorrow. There's no way the club can handle all of it another day. He sighed. Especially not tomorrow.
“Urufu?” he called into his walkie talkie. He needed some confirmation.
“Yukio here. What's the turnout today? Over.”
“Is the president there? Over.”
Yukio looked at her back and slowed his steps further. There was something Urufu didn't want her to know just yet. “I'm alone. Over,” he lied. As long as she didn't hear their conversation that statement was true enough.
“Three and a half today. About double the expected. Never more than two and a half at the same time though. My guess. Over.”
No wonder the school crawled with guests. They were already at their limits. Yukio had to ask the dreaded question. “Tomorrow? Over.”
His radio stayed silent just a little too long. “Hard to say. We could run the numbers together. Over and out.”
Yukio stared at his silent unit. Maybe an alternate universe existed where Urufu needed his help to run numbers, but this one most certainly wasn't it. Holy crap! That bad? We're going to run out of food to sell.
With a sinking feeling he joined the president before she got too suspicious.
The smell of food filled his nostrils and he was suddenly ravenously hungry. With a pang of guilt he tugged at her sleeve. “Let's have lunch.”
Any other day before he met Kyoko the smile he received would have made him giddy with happiness. Any other day he wouldn't have called a third girl. Yukio smirked and punched up Noriko's number. He needed her brains.
“I don't care if you'll have problems later. Nakagawa promised he'd cover your back and now you'd better man up!”
“Why do you always trust the old goat?” Urufu was visibly sulking.
Noriko didn't care. She didn't even long for him any longer and that reduced him to a useful tool. The most important tool on two legs on the school grounds. “Shut up and make it work! If you want me in your fan club you'd damn better deserve it.”
The student council treasurer sat across the desks and watched them with stunned incomprehension.
“You certain you can't provide the funding?” Urufu asked him again. Another poor attempt at crawling out of the trap Noriko just sprung on him.
The treasurer finally found air enough to speak. “Three million yen? Are you crazy? Where the hell do you expect me to get that kind of money on short notice?”
“Fuck!” Urufu said.
“Language!” Noriko said and glared at him. She needed him to back down. “Look, you can dock my pay if it doesn't work out,” she suggested, and with that Urufu's secret was out in the open.
Thank all gods I mostly fell out of love with you earlier! That wasn't entirely true, but most of her feelings lay elsewhere now. “Thank you but no thank you. Nao maybe, but it's too early yet.” I'm unfair, but it can't be helped. You'd work me over the same way. “Make it happen!”
What she demanded of Urufu was beyond the pale, and she'd have what she needed or she'd see the festival crumble within a few hours. She locked eyes with him.
“Bah! No wonder I pay you two the most,” he said and admitted defeat.
“Pay?” the council treasurer said from his chair.
“Shut up!” both Noriko and Urufu said in unison.
“Fine! Get me someone with a motorcycle and an extra helmet. I'll need coordinates as well.”
Noriko sank back in her seat. She'd apologise later. “I love you, you know. Not the way I love Nao, but still. I'll get your ride.” She would. One of the thugs in 9:1 rode one.
She wasn't supposed to know, but the hulking giant in 9:1 adored everything Wakayama from the moment they stood their ground against the bullying at Red Rose Hell. Since last night Urufu was included in his hero worship, because Noriko told him why Urufu was expelled.
“What's going on?” the treasurer asked and broke Noriko's memories.
She threw him a dark look. “If the student council can't fund the cultural festival Hamarugen-sama will do so in your stead.” Urufu deserved that much at least. She forced him to put his company on the line based on pure speculation. In return she could at least refer to him with the utmost respect.
She dug up her smart phone and dialled a number. The call took less than twenty seconds. On pure speculation, but you knew you could fund it if things went south, didn't you? Four cars with students unable to pay for the supplies they were ordered to buy had already hit the road. Urufu has some serious catching up to do, and Noriko hoped the thug knew his bike.
“Big words coming from you. Where the hell did you arrive at three million yen?” It seemed the treasurer didn't intend to give up.
“You really don't know?” You can't be that clueless, can you?
He could, and when she thought about it maybe clueless was too harsh. “Our friend, Ageruman-san,” she chose the polite reference, because he probably wouldn't know who Kuri was, “is a part time model.”
Noriko turned her computer to him so he could watch the videos. Kuri's face was plastered to every major billboard around Tokyo since the day before.
Noriko hardly listened to Urufu leaving the room. Instead she slammed both hands to her desk. “Now listen closely. Best case, absolutely best case, we estimate five thousand guests here tomorrow.”
The treasurer stared back at her with his face pale and lifeless. The numbers simply didn't agree with him. She could as well kill any remaining hopes of understanding he had.
“Worst case we'll have upwards to twenty thousand people trying to get in. There's no way in hell we can handle that.”
“Where did you get those numbers,” he asked and repeated his prior question in a new way.
She couldn't tell him. Those weren't merely estimates from their friend Kuri; those numbers were from The Billion Dollar Empress. Noriko had absolutely no reason to doubt over thirty years' worth of professional experience from the fashion industry, but she couldn't tell him. Sixteen year old girls didn't have that kind of experience.
“It's a wild guess,” Noriko lied and tried to make it sound like she admitted that she had no clue. Twelve to fifteen thousand, unless something unexpected happens, Kuri had said. Eight thousand and not a soul more, Urufu had responded when asked about how many guests the school could handle with the help of a shoehorn.
We're so screwed! Noriko growled and when the treasurer winced she shook her hands. She wasn't angry with him. She had forced Urufu to empty his accounts, but that only covered supplies for five thousand guests.
I'll bleed Kuri dry as well and it still won't be enough. She already had. One million yen, Kuri's entire fortune, transferred to Urufu half an hour earlier. He didn't know yet. He also didn't know she herself still held lingering feelings for him despite going out with Nao. Enough to join him in the madness.
“Excuse me, I need to make a call.” Noriko rose and left the room.
In the corridor outside she dialled another contact and waited for the answer.
Bro's going to kill me for this.
“Dad, I need access to my university funds.”
Ryu elbowed his way through the corridor. The school was crammed with people, and tomorrow should be worse; Sunday and open house and all.
He guessed none of the students would need to pay very much for the anticipated second year field trip late February. The festival would generate a huge surplus.
There was an errand for him. One Yukio had assigned to him. Ryu navigated his way between the shoe lockers until he finally made it to the student council bulletin-board.
I'm sorry Yukio. Not a joke. It didn't matter all that much. Kuri would win the beauty contest hands down, so Kyoko didn't have to worry all that much. He smiled and laughed. Wonder what she'll look like on the catwalk though.
The boys' contest was a more open affair though. Himself or Nao-sempai. A couple of weeks earlier Ryu wouldn't have given Nao-sempai much of a chance, but with Urufu all over the place enough first year votes were bound to move in his direction to make the competition interesting.
Now it all hinged on the third years, which was only fair. Sure, they had two contenders of their own, and before the cultural exchange club came into existence and changed all the rules, one of them ought to have won.
Now they didn't stand a chance. It didn't help them that the club had saved the day when the entire festival fell into disarray, and all because Urufu suddenly displayed almost godlike powers.
Damn, I'll never catch up to that guy! Not bloody fair! Ryu swallowed his resentment. Calm down. He's over fifty. He's done this shit for a living the last twenty years now.
Which was true. And that truth wasn't enough. Ryu knew only one person on the planet he'd have trusted to run the show by wire like this, and that was his father. Grimly he admitted his father would likely have come running to Urufu for advice. There was a difference between superb and godlike after all.
He can't play ball, he's just hiding what a crappy athlete he really is behind that absurd stamina of his. He's stupidly insensitive with the girls, his Japanese sucks and he doesn't know how things are run here. And yet. And yet.
Normally Urufu made people around him shine with glory, which usually turned him relatively invisible, but given the current bedlam Urufu wasn't given that opportunity and had to take command in person. Ryu could understand that, and he could forgive Urufu that. What he couldn't forgive was how Urufu had hidden his true ability for half a year.
Dammit, I don't mind you being superior, but don't bloody lie about it to my face you shit head!
“Besides, what's so damn good about Urufu anyway,” he murmured. That was unfair, but he didn't care.
With a grimace the picked up his cell and mailed Yukio. Preparing Kyoko to take the stage was her boyfriend’s job after all. Ryu didn't envy him in the least.
After that he elbowed his way through the cafeteria turned restaurant, the shaded area outside under the great sails and sauntered towards the gym. On his way there he made an effort to flirt a little with the middle school girls he met. That earned him flustered giggles from the girls and scowls from their parents.
All in all the short walk from the cafeteria did wonders to his mood, and when he entered the gym he truly felt like the prince of Himekaizen again.
Inside the hall filled up with parents and siblings. He guessed the relatives of those in 6:1 were present in force. The play should start shortly, and after that the fashion show.
He unclipped his radio and pushed the button. “Urufu?”
“Urufu here,” the answer squelched. Reception was less than optimal inside the gym.
“Ryu here. How's staffing at the plaza? 6:1 have a play on stage soon and then it's time for us. Over.”
“Thanks for the heads up. I'll send some extras from 9:1. Jirou can take it from there. Over.”
You really never bother with the honorifics. “OK, guess you have it covered then. Over and out.”
A few adults looked at him. He guessed they weren't used to the sound of a walkie talkie. He looked back at them while his radio relayed the conversation between a security patrol and Noriko for everyone to hear.
“Kiddo, you in the student council?” The man who asked the question looked like he could have been one of the parents, but something in how he moved was off.
“Sorry, no. I'm just helping out,” Ryu answered.
“Damn, I need someone in charge for the show.”
So he's working here. Uniclo or television I guess. “I can help you with that. It's our club doing the show.”
“You can? Great. We need space for the mixer table and some place from where we can control the spots.”
That needed a translation. “Technicians and equipment, and you need a place for them?”
The man nodded affirmation.
“Would two by two metres do?” There was a trick to keep the flow going. Urufu once taught him that during the field trip in August. By asking the question he bought himself some time to think while handing off the responsibility to act.
It worked perfectly. The man made a call and when he was done Ryu felt prepared to handle whatever was coming his way.
“Better make that two by three.”
Ryu had already picked up his own cell when the question came. “Hang on,” he said and dialled Kuri. She answered almost immediately.
“Hi, I need three guys, the male version with muscles, to carry some stuff for ten minutes or so.”
Ryu nodded at the man who waited for the call to finish.
“Where?” he asked.
Ryu pointed him to a set of chairs in the very middle of the gym hall. “We'll have the area cleared and you can set up your equipment there. Would that work for you?”
“Perfectly,” the man answered and grinned. “Can I use the muscle you send over here?”
“Ten minutes, no more,” Ryu said. “They're models for the show as well, and I guess you want them prepared.”
“Good boy. Ten minutes. I got it. By the way, are you part of the show as well?”
Ryu nodded, and that was enough to raise a few admiring eyebrows around him followed by the giggles he was used to.
Looks like it could be fun after all, he thought. He waved to the man and went for the stage. Kuri was waiting for him together with Yukio who won the booby prize, and had to take the stage when it became clear Urufu wouldn't have time to play his part.
Yukio could smell the anticipation in the air, mixed with a bit of fear but also with a lot of joy.
With the school crammed with guests every attraction filled beyond expectations. Even the display room showcasing Himekaizen's history saw a decent turnout.
At the moment however, it was time for 6:1 to shine. Urufu's suggestion to set up West Side Story gave way to a modernised version of the original. Romeo and Juliet was simply a more recognisable title.
For most of the festival he was tied up with the club, especially as their responsibilities had expanded far beyond what was decent to ask of them, and with Urufu at the helm there was no end to the requests.
Yukio suspected Principal Nakagawa was involved somehow. Urufu could be as tight lipped as he wanted, but Yukio wasn't an idiot. An innocent comment there, a spoken oversight here and a determined glance when Urufu mistakenly believed no one saw him all added up to a single conclusion; Principal Nakagawa knew the truth about Urufu and Kuri.
With a deep sigh Yukio rose from his chair backstage and offered a false smile to Hitomi-chan. She held one of the leads. She rather unsurprisingly held it given her undisputed position as class beauty.
During the months since she joined the club her side as a reliable friend shone through more and more, but like the other princess in the freshman left wing, and to a certain degree Kuri as well, all too often she relied on her looks. Which was why he only offered her a false smile.
Kyoko would be in the audience, because he got shanghaied a week earlier to stand in for a small role in the play. The role was originally assigned to Urufu until it was clear the workload would become impossible.
“Almost time for act one,” he said to no one in particular.
Behind him Kuri laughed together with one of the girls from the drama club. She offered her services with costumes, but he knew she really wanted to make a last ditch recruiting attempt. A couple of the go home club members participated in the play as well.
“Good luck!” Kuri said. She also volunteered for applying make-up and handling costumes, but in her case it made more sense as the fashion show came directly after the play.
At the moment he fingered his prop sword. How anyone had come up with the idea to mix swords with modern day clothes was beyond him.
“Good luck to you as well,” Yukio said and turned.
“Good luck to us, you mean. You're part of the club as well.”
Yukio shrugged and walked onto the stage. Through the curtains he heard the audience and it was barely light enough for him to see where he should be.
Why am I this irritated? The very concept of fun long gone he wondered what had made the festival a chore. Kyoko, I'm afraid how she'll react to the contest, he admitted to himself.
The curtains opened.
Christina watched the play from behind. They were better than she expected, the students from 6:1.
I'd have liked to be part of them, but then 6:1 wouldn't be 6:1.
Lights and sounds were close to perfect. Having professionals handling it did wonders, and Uniclo were adamant when it came to who ran the all-important lights. In the end she caved in and let them use highly skilled technicians for the sound as well.
I'd prefer being in 6:1. That thought still haunted her. Due to Ryu and her 3:1 had become a popularity circus. The Watabe twins didn't help and nor did Noriko's close to perfect test scores. But that wasn't the real reason, was it? I want to spend more time with Ulf.
They waved once and hugged once, but that was it for the festival thus far.
Over the radio she heard him running the festival in a way that would have had her consider kidnapping during her years as The Billion Dollar Empress. Superb organisers were usually hard to come by, but until now she had believed the rumoured genius to be a fairy tale.
Until now. Listening to how critical problems dissolved and noting how less critical ones climbed a self-escalating ladder of importance filled her with an almost sexual desire. She accepted that part of herself. How watching almost inhuman competence turned her on.
Christina winced and swivelled on her chair. Crap, she saw my face! “Yes, Hitomi-chan?” That girl was way too perceptive, and a beauty in her own right. She had seen, and Christina was certain she recognised what she saw.
“Missing Urufu-kun much?”
Christina felt her cheeks heating up. No way she could play the innocent any more. “Yeah, I do. What of it?” She was surprised how hoarse her voice came out.
Over the radio another terse conversation played out, and another minor disaster vanished.
“Nothing. I envy you,” came Hitomi-chan's frank answer. “Had you chosen Ryu-kun I'd make him mine.”
You wouldn't, but I can't tell you the reason why. “You like him?” Facing a rival made it easier for her to dial down her racing emotions.
“No,” Hitomi-chan answered and climbed into her dress for the last act. “He'd look good by my side, that's all.”
That was one aspect of Japan Christina couldn't come to terms with. When the kids here grew beyond their years they acted like adult in ways that scared her. “Would you really settle for a trophy that way?”
“Yes, why not?” came the surprisingly calm answer. “But you got him first. I guess I ought to congratulate you,” Hitomi-chan said and climbed the stage.
She really doesn't understand how much I love him? A trophy? It was a sobering thought. If most who knew they were a couple saw him as her trophy boyfriend then more rivals were bound to line up after the festival. I don't want that. He's mine! Her possessiveness frightened her a bit. Too much like how she used up people and discarded them during the years when she built her empire.
“No, I didn't get him first. I just fell in love with him first,” Christina whispered to the stage. Pangs of loneliness gripped her, and fear. Am I losing him? Sato-sensei is our handle from today onwards, and she wants us to break up. Lieutenant Colonel Sato. A formidable adversary. I'll fight you all the way. If I lose him at least allow me to make it my own fault you bitch!
More students entered the stage around her. A few of them threw her questioning glances.
I need to get my act together. She rose and started handing out the remaining props and clothes she had prepared earlier.
The play would conclude without her help from now on and she turned her attention to the last preparations for the fashion show.
From the back doors her models started arriving. Ryu merrily chatting with Nao-sempai, the second beauty from the left wing clinging to them like a stamp to an envelope and a stunningly good looking Midori-chan. Make-up artists had worked miracles with her hair.
Everyone on the beauty contest short list were pressed into participation, including a shocked Kyoko and a swearing Ulf. And Yukio as well, even though he didn't know it yet. Noriko knew of her own participation though, but to Christina's surprise she didn't protest at all.
Even the Watabe twins grinningly accepted together with a couple of girls from the softball team. Those four were central for the display of sports clothes. Ryu would wear some as well, and Ulf had the build for it, but he moved like a gorilla whenever she forced him to wear sports casuals, so she gave up on that idea.
Strangely enough he walked with an aura of self-confidence in those awful outdoors clothes of his, but he only frowned when she showed him Uniclo's line in that section.
Christina had her own plans for him. Costumes and sports jackets. No one else, not even Nao-sempai could compare when it came to dressing up and still behave like someone in jeans and T-shirt.
Because those were your jeans and T-shirts for half your life. I want to see you in a high quality costume when you're thirty. Damn, you'll probably look like a Greek god! And that thought had her all flustered again. I guess... She blushed even more. I guess… That seed of a thought both scared her and filled her with joy. I guess I want to marry you.
Helplessly in love. Not as a teenage girl but an adult with a good grasp of what forever meant. I'd share my life with you. I'd age with you. I'd love you forever.
Kyoko flinched when a storm of applause and shouts broke over the music. And I'm not even on stage. Gods this is scary!
It was her turn, and she almost fell over when she climbed the stage and made for the catwalk section. Spotlights blinded her and for a moment she stood frozen.
“Take my hand.”
Yukio had arrived from the other side and she felt his fingers around hers. That calmed her down somewhat, and with his hand in hers Kyoko finally dared the catwalk.
The shouts grew even louder and from the rows of chairs closest to them she heard one racy suggestion after another.
“Don't bother,” Yukio said. “You're all mine. They're just jealous,” he added and screwed a forced smile onto his face.
You really don't like it when others look at me that way? It made her strangely happy. “You're one to talk,” she said. “Half of those comments are yours.” She gripped his hand harder, but when they came to the end of the catwalk she had to let go.
A few seconds followed before they agreed on how to walk back. She heard a few laughs, most of them friendly but at least one in the crowd shouted his displeasure.
Almost all the way back they met Urufu. He shook his head but Kyoko understood he only rued his own participation. He wore a suit just the way all the boys here wore their school uniforms. It was as if he didn't register how stunning he looked.
“You did just great out there,” he said when they were within earshot. That comment warmed her. “Just watch what it means to make an arse out of oneself,” he said and gave them an ironic salute before they passed each other.
Behind her the shouts increased to a deafening roar. That's them thanking you for your hard work today. You deserve it.
Kyoko quickly walked behind the curtains and stole a look. From the other side she saw Yukio doing the same. He gave her a thumbs up before turning his attention to Urufu's backside.
She followed that stare and watched Urufu pretend to play with an invisible soccer ball all the way to the end of the catwalk. Before he turned he picked it up and smashed it into the audience volley ball style. I bet that's Kuri-chan's instructions. Only Ryu would have the guts to do something like that without being told.
When Urufu returned Ryu and Hitomi-chan took the stage.
The entire gym hall exploded in shouts drowning the music. Kyoko had to slap her hands to her ears. So that's what true popularity sounds like? I wonder what happens next.
There was a difference. Both Ryu and Hitomi-chan walked with the grace of people used to being looked at. A packed gym hall only made them shine even more.
I really wonder what happens next.
Kuri-chan and Nao-sempai last. They planned the show that way. After everyone were done the two professional models would hit the catwalk every second display. Both Kuri-chan and Nao-sempai promised they could change a full set of clothes in under thirty seconds, and two make-up crews, one on each side of the stage, stood ready to do black magic during those seconds.
Ryu and Hitomi-chan returned to the sound of a thunderous chant. Both were visibly shaken. Used to being looked at was one thing, but none of them had experienced anything like this before.
And now for the pros.
The lights changed, as did the music.
Kuri-chan came up behind her. Kyoko stared into blue eyes filled with youthful joy bordering on glee and a face split in a happy grin showing off two rows of perfect, white teeth. She came fully battle dressed and the radiant happiness almost felt out of place.
“Twenty years, it's been over twenty years now,” Kuri-chan said and grabbed Kyoko's shoulder. “Wish me luck!”
With a last grip on Kyoko's hands she entered the limelight. Her face immediately changed into an ethereal beauty, and from the other side of the scene Nao-sempai's face went through a similar transformation.
Kyoko slapped her hand to her ears in anticipation of the roar and stared at the two models as they started walking down the catwalk, or danced. They walked, ran, stood still and waited for each other. Sometimes they switched places with each other, almost but never touching.
Impossible! I never saw them train anything like this.
Apart from the music Kyoko couldn't hear a sound, and slowly the sound technician lowered the volume until Kyoko could hear the breathing from the audience. Not a single shout, nothing.
At the end of the catwalk Kuri-chan did something with her feet that snapped her entire body into a statue-like fixture. She did that at Shibuya as well. How can you move like that?
On their way back Nao-sempai slapped Kuri-chan's hands and they quickly fell out of pose as they half-ran the last bit.
Kyoko quickly ducked behind the curtain to avoid being seen.
“That was fun,” Kuri-chan whispered when she came around the corner. She grabbed Midori-chan on her way out onto the stage. “Wait! You don't want to go out right now.”
A sudden wall of sound slammed into Kyoko and forced her to stagger backwards. She sat down on her knees overwhelmed by the onrush.
On the other side of the stage Kyoko saw how Nao-sempai held back Nori-kun the same way as Kuri-chan had done. Then he let go and vanished from sight.
The loudspeakers on both sides of the stage rumbled in protest when the sound technician turned up the volume in an attempt to drown the audience.
It worked to a degree, but Kyoko wondered if anyone even noticed Midori-chan and Nori-kun when they made their run on the catwalk. When they returned both faces paled and Kyoko had to help Midori-chan stagger off stage while Kuri-chan and Nao-sempai went up again.
Noriko was next together with Urufu, the pros next and after them a third year girl paired with one of the third year boys. Then she had to go up with Yukio again after Kuri-chan and Nao-sempai returned from their fourth run.
Thirty seconds of madness, another thirty with models made invisible and then madness again. Three and a half thousand guests. Half of them present only for this.
Just as Kyoko was about to enter the stage again realisation hit her. Tomorrow's open house. We're screwed!