I'm heading for a mental breakdown. Ulf glared at the festival committee room. Then he gave the student council room a glare as well for good measure. Bloody hell, I need them to get their act together.
He buttoned up his shirt and pulled his neck-tie all the way to his throat. Wearing his school uniform the casual way had become a habit since he dropped the geek act late spring, but he had a role to play today. One he hadn't planned for.
Wearing a blazer over the belted walkie talkie looked like crap, but he appreciated how it made him look more important as well. Looks were important in Japan, more so than in Sweden, where no one gave their CEO a second thought when he arrived in chinos and an unbuttoned hiking shirt covering a T-shirt.
Sure, there were days when he wore one of his business suits as well. Chinos or suit, it mattered little to him, but right now he wanted the added authority a suit would have granted him.
Can't be helped. I'm a student here.
He belted his walkie talkie after a last confirmation and fished up his cell.
“Ulf here, how long until you're back with the canned drinks?”
He looked at his watch when he got the answer. An old habit. He'd worn watches for far more years than cellphones.
“Fine, dump it at the back gates. I need another four hundred cans after that.”
Crap, we really need trucks, but I'll make do with the cars we've scrounged up. He groaned. Poor sods. They're damned heroes keeping us supplied.
There were heroes and heroes. The next set of victims of his phone calls were on their way back with Ramune, a soft drink especially popular during events like these, and always sold in small glass bottles. The weight was a killer.
Time to beef up the trash patrols as well, and I need sanitary basics as well, or we'll never make it through tomorrow. He didn't want to fund toilet paper and soap.
In the end he called the old goat and forced a promise to have a full week’s worth of sanitary supplies delivered late that evening. After that he sent Noriko a mail with the estimated costs in case the school wanted the festival to pay. He wasn't sure the old goat would pay for the hundreds of extra trash bags and trash transport Ulf had ordered. The alternative would be toilets looking like something from a horror flick.
When he finally called the Ramune patrol he had them shop for a mountain of trash compactors as well. Less disgusting to fill the trash bags that way.
And Christina thinks I'm sexy like this? Just proves she has poor taste in men. But he admitted how her comment built a warm knot of cosiness in his stomach. All your fault Yukio, or Kyoko. But for that roof top adventure of yours she'd never talk about sexy this way.
He shook his head. No time for thoughts like those, especially not with Amaya slamming down an unheard of curfew over his head. What the hell? I'm not a bloody kid!
He'd obey, even if it stole even more precious hours from him and Christina. Don't understand what you're thinking Amaya. We're starved for time together as it is already.
Even the old goat nagged about how he should go home and get a night's full sleep. That met with a flat refusal. Their second day would go up in flames unless he kept the human machine he built running during the coming evening.
When he arrived at the plaza the alluring smell of grilled meat played with his nose, and he realised how hungry he was. For a moment he nursed the idea of forcing his way to the barbecue stalls, but the plaza was crammed and he didn't have the time to stand in queue.
Haven't had as much as a bite since morning. I'll fall apart like this. Reluctantly he unclipped his radio. Pulling rank wasn't his idea of good leadership, but there was no other way.
“Ulf here. I'm swamped. Think you could arrange some food for me? Over.”
“No problem Uru… Hamarugen-san. You should have asked earlier. Over.”
“I'm really grateful. I'll be at the front gates. Over and out.”
While he walked between the stalls on the main school yard he looked at his radio. The voice behind the polite words had been genuine. Guess I did pretty well today after all. You guys really made it easy. I owe you all big time.
Students in several stalls greeted him, and some even shouted encouraging words after him. It warmed his heart, and he reached the gates with rising feelings.
Ryu waited for him with a plastic bag and a bottle with Ulf's favourite sports drink in one hand. By his side the council president rolled uncomfortably on her feet. Ulf could have sworn she waited for someone else, which was strange considering the company she already had.
“Ryu, why aren't you at the plaza?”
Ryu waved to the president who hardly took any notice of the school prince leaving her side. “Because someone ordered food,” Ryu said and handed over bag and bottle.
“Thought Jirou took care of that.” Ulf looked down, lured by the smell from the bag, and looked inside. “Whoa! Looks fantastic!”
Then his stomach announced for anyone close what it thought about him talking about food instead of eating it.
He dug up a piece of barbecued paradise and took a bite. With gravy all over his chin he looked at Ryu and the ever present crowd behind him.
“Yeah,” Ryu said after Ulf downed his second huge mouthful. “Jirou-sempai almost handed the bag off to the closest girl who offered to carry it here.”
“I said the closest of them, moron.”
“Don't get it.” Ulf really didn't. First one with some free time on her hands should have been just perfect.
Ryu stared at him. “You really don't understand girls, do you?”
Ulf shrugged. Girls weren't his strong side. He knew that. Even Maria dumped an acid comment or two into his face from time to time on that topic, and they had spent over two decades together.
“Sheesh. You're the king of the day. You know that much at least?” A few faces turned their way when Ryu's voice rose.
Ulf nodded. He wasn't stupid. Without him the festival would be in shambles by now.
“That makes you the idiot king of the day. We don't need the girls fighting.” Ryu grinned and waved for the council president to step over to his side. “You won't believe me until I show you.”
“Afternoon President,” Ulf greeted the girl with the student council armband. She shot Ryu a questioning glance and bowed. Ulf returned her formal greeting.
“Council President,” Ryu said and gave Ulf an exaggerated gesture of introduction, “the brilliant mind at my side thought it a good idea to have a random representative of his new-found female fan club serve him food here by the gates.”
That rendered Ulf a glare from the president. What did I do wrong this time?
“Unwise. Besides, aren't you going out with that model?” she said.
He frowned. That model? Christina's turned the festival into a circus so there's no way in hell you don't know who she is. Maybe you just don't like her. Better not rub it in. Ulf nodded affirmation to buy some time. He still didn't understand what Ryu tried to tell him.
The president looked at him as if trying to guess what he thought. “Don't get yourself a reputation as a two timer. I need your leadership tomorrow as well, so don't fool around with the girls.”
She waved at them both and took up her position by the gates again. This time Ulf clearly saw how she looked down the street after someone.
“Still don't get it,” he said. “Why would I cheat on Christina?”
Ryu rolled his eyes. “Dad said some people never learn. Until now I didn't believe him,” he said and sighed. “Damn it, compared to you Yukio is Genji reborn.
The first Yukio did after they cleaned away the fashion show was dragging Kyoko to the plaza, or rather to the soccer field behind it.
“Please don't be angry with me,” he begged her. Belatedly he realised that might not have been the best way to start a conversation.
She looked at him with something akin to worry in her eyes.
I'm an idiot. Better stay an honest idiot then. “Kyoko, I'm afraid the student council president has a crush on me.”
That got her attention. She looked at him again. Then she placed her hand on his forehead. “No fever. He's just delusional.”
“Huh?” She's not angry?
Kyoko switched off her radio, then she hugged him. Or maybe not. He felt her fingers by his belt, and then a snap told him she had switched his off as well.
“This is also our festival. I haven't had a moment for myself,” she said and pulled back.
Listening to her words Yukio suddenly felt how tired and hungry he was. Still, he wanted to get through to her. “Listen, I wasn't joking,” he began.
She put her fingers to his lips. “I know. I saw you through the windows.” With her hand still on his chin she buried her face in his chest. “I don't care. You chose me over Kuri-chan from the beginning. The student council president doesn't even count as competition.”
You trust me that much? I love you. You're the best. He didn't voice his thoughts, but he did wrap his arms around her.
Behind him the sounds of good natured chaos reached him from the barbecue stalls together with alluring whiffs of meat grilling. They had to eat soon or they'd never make the evening.
Right now he could stay hungry for a while. With Kyoko in his arms, a cool wind in his hair and both radios blissfully silent, he revelled in the feeling of standing alone with her. It didn't matter that it was an illusion, that the sound of voices came from mere metres away or that he had to turn his radio back on before someone got frantic.
They hugged some more to the amused smiles of all passers-by, queued for an eternity and ate grilled slabs of meat too large and stringy for his taste. He enjoyed every moment from when her body first came close to his, to when they wiped their hands clean after eating and he switched on his radio and they left the plaza.
From Jirou-sempai's walkie talkie he heard Urufu ask Noriko to schedule breaks for everyone. Jirou-sempai winked at them once and waited to report their free time until they had finished eating.
When Yukio called in over the radio he received an email on his phone instead. It was Noriko suggesting that the view from the rooftop was especially fine right now.
Kyoko blushed more than a little when he showed it to her.
With the help of her key they spent over half an hour watching the crowds on the ground while holding hands.
“Time to go back?” she asked.
He nodded back. “I'll switch with Jirou-sempai. Think you could switch with someone on the plaza as well?”
“Mm, yeah,” she said and opened the door.
Before it closed behind them he heard the gym hall come alive with the sound of an electric guitar. Then the door clicked shut and they were alone in the dimness of the stairwell.
A flight down they entered the freshman floor. Kyoko had an errand in her classroom, and he followed her there before they returned to the plaza.
Thank you, Noriko, he thought before they joined the bedlam again.
Two hours rushed by before they had the rest of the day to themselves.
They spent it watching something strange made by the film club, and after that he bought her some sweets from a stall close to the gates. They ate them in silence, watching the crowd thinning out as the first day of the festival came to a close.
“I don't know where he is,” Noriko lied to the council president.
By her side Nao grinned knowingly, and she gripped his hand harder. The council president looked at what had to be Himekaizen's most mismatched couple and smirked.
“Think he's still here?”
“Maybe. Somewhere with Kyoko,” Noriko said and added some emphasis to 'Kyoko'. Can't you just accept he already has a girlfriend? One of her best friends at that. She wasn't going to assist the third year girl in any way.
“It's been a long day. Maybe they went on a date,” Nao suggested.
Thank you. Noriko squeezed his hand again to show how much she appreciated his help. More than his good looks, his quick wits and ever present consideration attracted her. She grew fonder of him every day since they started dating.
“Quite a catch you got there,” the president said with just a tinge of envy in her voice.
What's with you and other girls' boyfriends?
“I know. I'm happy I got her before anyone else did,” Nao said as if the comment had been directed at him.
Noriko squeezed hard a third time. I could fall even more in love with you for that. Thank you! She felt her cheeks heat up but she didn't care. The council president could watch her flare red for all she cared.
A chair scraped against the floor and Urufu's face popped into existence from their office area. “President, could I have your attention for a while?”
Just before the council president turned to face him Noriko saw him wink at her. Then Urufu's face blanked. “I managed to borrow another six com units, so I'm thinking of making hot links between the three rooms we use.”
“Huh?” the council president said.
“You see, if we pair three sets of walkie talkies on dedicated channels we could...” Urufu grabbed her hands and led her around the bookcase to the desks in the office area.
Noriko listened to his fading voice and turned her attention to her surroundings.
Jirou-sempai and Sango-chan were busy loading the fridge with bottled drinks. Tomorrow they'd start the day with enough to drink for the entire crew.
Sho-kun and Hiroyuki-kun dropped two cases with drinks on the floor and left the club room for more. They met Kichirou-kun in the door when he arrived with a third case.
“Put it on top of those,” Noriko instructed. “Nao, could you call Aika-chan and Fumiko-chan?”
“For you I'll call anyone,” he teased.
Noriko stuck her tongue out at him.
Nao grinned back before he waved her to silence when his call got through.
She opened up a document on her laptop.
On the streets shopping patrols in four cars methodically emptied shop after shop in an attempt to stave off disaster the next day. Noriko doubted it would be enough, but Urufu said even extending the time before they ran dry should help some.
“Can I help you?”
Noriko looked up from her laptop. The student council treasurer arrived with a notebook. He held a pen in his other hand.
“Eh? Yeah,” a sudden thought struck her, “you could tell me your name, and the president's.”
He stared back. “Murakami Kenshin, pleased to meet you.” His voice was heavy with irony.
“Wakayama Noriko.” What else could she do?
“My colleague is Tamura Rie.” He smiled. “Guess we've been too busy for common courtesy.”
Common courtesy, heh. We're in our club room where everyone is on a first name basis despite the fact that we really don't know each other that well. Noriko shrugged the thought away. Our club room, our rules.
“Noriko, Aika-chan is still in the store, but Fumiko-chan is on her way back.”
She looked around and searched for his voice. Nao stood by the windows looking out.
“Kenshin-sempai, you had some friends shopping for tomorrow as well,” Noriko said. She still looked at Nao's tall frame. “Could you write down what they bought, so we have a better idea of our supplies?”
A pointless task. Whatever they brought back tomorrow would still see them running out of just about everything, but if it made him feel more useful... The feeling of being needed was important according to Urufu.
“I'll keep you updated with the supplies we bring in,” Noriko heard the treasurer say.
She nodded at him before turning her attention to Nao again. “Thank you Nao. What are you looking at?” Noriko walked up beside him and looked out as well.
“The bike stand,” he said. He never turned around. “I heard that's where you usually… I mean in this school.”
With a scowl she looked up at his face. “I'm not usual,” she said surprised at her own words.
“I know. That's what caught my attention.” With a huge grin on his face he grabbed her hand. “And you're cute as well.”
Too much flattery. You have it way too easy saying those things. “You're unusual as well,” she said suddenly at a loss for words.
He didn't answer, just stood there looking out. Behind her back she heard club members arrive with more supplies. Then those sounds faded as Nao's presence took up more and more of her mind.
Soon she needed to make Urufu fire up the grills one last time to prepare dinner for everyone who stayed through the evening helping out, but right now she only wanted to stand beside Nao.
Warm hands, you have warm hands, she thought and tightened her grip.
Warm hands, in my dream you had warm hands. And it wasn't just in his dreams. Last night, before they left the grills and went to sleep, Kyoko's hands had been warm and soft in his.
In the door Yukio saw one of the students from 9:1 meet his eyes and shake her head. She must have been on her way to wake him up, but she could hardly know about the internal alarm clock in his head he more or less could set at will when needed.
Yukio shook Kyoko awake. Time to patrol the school grounds; the last patrol before Himekaizen came alive for the second and last day of the festival.
She stirred uneasily under his hands, even tried to slap them away, but in the end she yawned and woke.
“Five,” Yukio answered. “It's our turn now. The guys from 9:1 are already away.”
She crawled over the floor to a corner they made into a small dressing area. It gave some shelter and a modicum of privacy.
Yukio listened to her getting into her school uniform, and when she showed up from behind the false wall she looked a lot more like his girlfriend instead of the zombie from a few minutes earlier.
Guess that's part of loving someone, to feel her morning breath and still think she's wonderful.
As if she had read his mind she waved with two sets of tooth brushes. “You need one as well.”
He covered his mouth with a hand and grimaced. Guess I smell just as awful.
They walked out into the corridor and made their way down the stairs to the locker rooms.
After he was done, and stood waiting by the vending machines for her to finish, he felt more human as well.
He stole a hug and a kiss before checking that his radio was turned on, and then they left through the main entrance and hit the startlingly chill morning air outside. His tooth brush he simply pocketed in his blazer.
A greyness covered the school yard in a ghost like pre-dawn light. But for the clouds above them, and lingering morning mist, it would have been lighter. Every gust of wind crept inside his body, and he pulled Kyoko closer to him more for warmth than a want to hug.
They strolled through the temporary streets between empty stalls. With only the two of them there he felt like walking through a ghost town. Sounds came too clearly, and whenever flags and other decorations moved in the wind he jumped. Skittish like a puppy.
“They should just move the haunted house here,” Kyoko murmured and held his hand a bit firmer.
She noticed as well. “Spooky, heh?”
None of them spoke much, and they did their rounds in silence. Through the plaza, a quick loop over the remaining soccer field, along the fences and a cursory pass by the pool. The two patrols from 9:1 had a good view of the parts between cafeteria and the gym hall, so Yukio led Kyoko behind it, and they arrived at the large outdoor café by the back gates.
He saw a couple of students climbing the gates. They wore the Himekaizen school uniforms and he recognised one of them from 7:2. With a wave Yukio acknowledged their presence and called in their arrival over the radio.
Students would start trickling in from now on, and the need for patrolling came to an end.
He led Kyoko past the bike stands, where she shrunk a little and offered him a guilty stare. “Sorry,” she said.
Yukio didn't answer. He had no reason reminding her of his first confession to her. It had been spectacular for all the wrong reasons.
They reached the end of the left wing and walked under the walkway between the wings until they stood in front of the main entrance. Normally he would have taken the short-cut diagonally across the gravel, but now stalls blocked the way.
By now any remnant of morning mist was long gone, and above them the overcast sky was thinning out. Mostly sunny the weather reports promised.
He watched the main gates open to let a group of students past. Then the security patrol assigned there had them closed again. Urufu wanted it that way in case of an early invasion.
“Go inside and get some breakfast?” Yukio asked.
Kyoko nodded, and they returned inside the same way they left the building earlier.
In their club room sandwiches Noriko had prepared waited for them together with hot tea.
Anything as elaborate as miso soup, or even something as mundane as rice, was out of the question since they didn't have access to the home economics room. The side dishes associated with that kind of breakfast weren't a problem, but the thought of takuan mixing with bread in his mouth didn't exactly make his mouth water.
Kyoko wolfed down her breakfast and wiped her lips clean from breadcrumbs with a napkin. She certainly was well brought up, but the last month she mixed behaving like a lady with breaking all the rules just because she dared.
To prove the point she pocketed her napkin and kissed his mouth clean of whatever offended her.
More than a few of the club members present glared at them, but they were slowly getting used to her antics.
“Still hungry?” he asked when she was done.
“Have another sandwich and find out for yourself,” she suggested.
Yukio played with the thought of accepting her offer, but in the end he decided against it. He needed to prepare the back gates café, and after that Urufu wanted him for some more black magic of his invention.
Man, how are we to manage today? “Help me prepare?” Yukio said to Kyoko.
She nodded and took his hand.
They left the room together.
In the end Kyoko failed to spend very much of the morning together with Yukio. She was needed for handling the incoming supplies, and Urufu wanted Yukio for something else.
Kyoko oversaw offloading the fourth car returning with supplies. More like guarded the boxes dropped by the service gates while two students from 9:1 carried a box each to the plaza.
The car had already left with two of their club members inside. Kondo-sensei drove.
Still early in the morning maybe a few hundred guests were inside. A decision taken by Urufu. He hoped to fill their stomachs and preferably bore them enough to leave before the real invasion started.
There was plenty of time until the official opening hour, and the early guests probably walked between stalls only partly operational or inside the school where most of the events had yet to start up.
“Welcome to the Himekaizen cultural festival,” she greeted half a dozen arrivals and let them inside. She wore a security armband for the duration of her stay by the gates. When all the boxes were collected she'd return to their club room and hand it to Noriko.
“Welcome to the Himekaizen cultural festival.” Another group of guests passed the gates.
She leaned outside and looked down the street.
“Noriko?” she said after pushing the button to her radio.
“Kyoko here. I need the service gates manned. Guests arriving. Over.”
Her radio squelched for a few seconds before the response arrived. “How many?” Silence. “Damn this machine! Over.”
Kyoko had anticipated that question and already stood in the middle of the street. “I see some fifty or sixty coming my way right now. Over.”
Noriko remained silent from her end to the radio conversation. “I'll send down three guys.” The radio silenced before blaring alive again. “Over and out.”
Noriko, learn to use the radio already! Oh well. I wonder what it's like by the main gates now.
She stepped inside the gates and greeted another dozen guests while she watched the outdoor café behind her open for business.
The promised guys arrived, and Noriko had even remembered to have one of them ask for the armband Kyoko wore.
Shortly afterwards several students arrived and carried the remaining boxes inside, and Kyoko left the gates. For the second time that day she passed the bike stand, and for the second time that day she threw them an embarrassed look.
Not my proudest moment. Sorry Yukio.
She wanted him by her side, but over the radio she heard him trying to make another of Urufu's pipe dreams come true.
Through the main gates a mix of guests and Himekaizen students arrived, the latter throwing surprised looks at the guests already inside before they hurried to whatever station they had planned to open half an hour later.
Kyoko saw the council president, Tamura-sempai was it? standing inside the gates greeting an ever increasing stream of new guests.
Over the radio someone requested more people with security armbands to the front gates, and Kyoko heard Noriko promise the prompt arrival of another three students from 9:1.
We can't keep this up on our own. Where's the festival planning committee? She walked to the front gates. For two reasons. Firstly because there had to be two students greeting arriving guests with the numbers arriving, but Kyoko also wanted to study the girl who had a crush on her boyfriend.
What she saw gave her even less reasons to worry than Yukio nurtured before. A flimsy girl who needed reassurance to take the lead, even if that reassurance came from a girl two years her junior.
She was vain, but then most girls were. Kyoko herself wasn't above the need to look good in the eyes of others, 'others' usually meaning Yukio; Kuri-chan even made her money out of it.
Kyoko greeted another half a dozen guests.
A month earlier she thought that Noriko differed from the rest of them when it came to vanity, but since she started dating Nao-sempai, even the hyperactive midget spent her time facing a mirror from time to time.
Another half a dozen, then two couples, then two groups of four friends each. The council president was equally busy greeting arrivals, and from what Kyoko saw greeting any more would soon become both impossible and stupid.
It was time to request more people to the gates. “Noriko?”
Kyoko backed inside the gates waiting for an answer.
“Kyoko here. Front gates is becoming a queue just like yesterday. Over.”
“We haven't even really opened yet… Eh… Over.”
You're not supposed to make spoken reflections over the radio. “I'll leave the gate to our council president, but she'll need two more boys with armbands. Over.” Kyoko grinned at her walkie talkie.
“Over and out.” Kyoko said and ended the conversation. A little bit strange how Noriko stuttered with the radio. She was by a wide margin the fastest learner Kyoko knew, but handling the radios correctly seemed to be beyond her.
The fastest learner, because Urufu didn't count. He just knew a lot, but it was the accumulated knowledge gained over half a century. She couldn't tell if it was a lot or not compared to other old people. Probably was, but she didn't know that. How did you define 'a lot' when you were in your fifties? She couldn't even ask her parents, because they were younger than him as well.
Kyoko shook her head and left the gates. Time to check out the plaza and see if anyone there needed a break. Both Urufu and Ryu said you had to be there in person, because those who needed rest seldom said so over the radios, and those who did all too often didn't need the demanded break.
She walked between booths hastily manned by students surprised to see how guests already filled up the school grounds before opening hours. Most were readying their stalls, and a few had even managed to start cooking.
Their own stalls and most of the grills prepared food more suitable for a late breakfast than the cuisine they had planned for from the start. That in turn probably meant most of the girls were tied up preparing food there.
When she arrived she saw that she could scratch 'probably'. She donned an apron and went to work.
“What do you mean all the girls are down at the plaza?” Ulf asked. “What about the boys?” He didn't want the answer, because he knew it the moment he asked the question.
“You wanted breakfast for the guests. We didn't plan for it so I sent down everyone who could prepare it,” Noriko said and looked up from her laptop.
Outside the windows he saw the pool, since a few weeks drained of all water and left in dry desolation. Memories from summer, especially one which he shared with Christina, played in his mind. Was that really only three months ago?
“Look, Noriko you did nothing wrong,” he said. “It's just that some things here make me so frustrated.”
She looked back at him, and her eyes showed no awareness why he should feel frustration. Not her fault, he decided. Just me who can't wrap my mind around the gender differences here.
There was no time changing that during the last day of their festival. For the moment he needed to accept that here cooking was a woman's chore. Accept. He didn't have to like it.
“I apologise for being so curt. You've done a fantastic job. Keep it up.” He went for the door when he recalled one of his own rules. “You all have. It's a pleasure working with people like you,” he said to the others in the room, including council treasurer and a couple of students from the planning committee.
It wasn't entirely true, but sometimes well timed flattery did wonders, and he needed miracles to pull them through the day.
One hour, maybe two before hell hits us. Ulf pulled the door shut behind him and walked down the corridor. By the stairwell he turned and made it into the main building corridor.
He knocked on the door to the main teacher room. There wasn't any teacher he needed to talk to right now, but their windows faced the main courtyard and he wanted to know what the queue looked like.
A few of the teaching staff looked at him when he was let inside, but by now they were used to him coming here just to walk to the windows with a laptop in his hand.
“Jirou here, you should call Kyoko. Out.”
Ulf followed the main street with his eyes until it ended by the gates. “Kyoko?”
“Ulf here, you'll have your first batch incoming soon. Over.”
“Understood. We're ready. Over.”
“Good work. Tell the rest I'm proud of you. Over and out.”
He looked at the stalls on both of sides of the main street. Too many of them took orders where the students manning them shook their heads and pointed in the direction of the plaza. It didn't worry him yet, but there were more than a hundred guests queuing by the gates and through the tree line bordering the school grounds he saw people walking in small groups or couples as they were redirected to the service gates.
Ulf turned and faced the teachers present. A full hour earlier than I had hoped, but it can't be helped. “Excuse me, but may I have a bit of your time?”
He could only hope the old goat had prepared them for the question he was about to ask. “How many of you have your cars here and some spare time to give us?”
His next insane request would go to Ryu.
'I need the prince of Himekaizen.' What kind of request is that? Ryu shook his head in amusement. You really don't know what makes girls tick Urufu. Right now you're the king of Himekaizen, and the senior girls probably think you're more interesting than I am anyway.
He wasn't sure how he knew, but he did. Urufu's personality, and how he handled the festival was certain to attract more than a few third years. They were preparing to leave high school life behind them, and to a degree they acted in a more adult way than they would as first and second years in university. At least if what his father said was true.
That only means I have to become a more grown up prince. A strange thought, and one he wouldn't have made just half a year earlier. Am I growing up as well?
The way Urufu and Kuri impacted his life scared him, but he acknowledged that they did. Easy for them. They have their wingmen after all. Then he accepted why that thought lacked dignity. They earned their wingmen. Sometimes I wish I could be more like Yukio, or Kyoko for that matter.
Ryu turned left after the vending machines and walked almost to the end of the corridor. From here on it was mostly a matter of knocking on doors. Urufu wanted a dozen third year girls to do two shopping rounds each. He would get them, or Ryu wasn't worthy of being called prince of Himekaizen.
Princess of Scandinavia. Once her second name, but in this world she was the princess of Himekaizen, or maybe empress was a better expression. She was neither petite nor cute in the preferred way of a Japanese high school princess.
Yeah, empress it is, she thought when reminded of the task ahead of her.
What Ulf asked of her was far beyond anything that could decently be requested from a high school girl, but that wasn't what he had done, was it? For once he didn't look at her with love in his eyes, and she understood how he spoke with The Billion Dollar Empress instead of his 'little Ina'. It hurt a little, and it made her immensely proud of him.
As long as he understands he can't use the rest of them this way, she thought, but it was already too late for that. Sooner or later some of them would break, and they would resent him because they were unable to live up to his expectations.
But you don't really care. Your reputation will suffer, because they think you're after personal glory. It had to be done, and all because of her. I shouldn't have started the Uniclo circus. Ulf please don't hate me for it!
“Hangers six and seven further back and to the left.”
Christina watched how two more metal frames moved closer to the exit. 'Try it on'. Fifteen minutes of fame. More like fifteen seconds, but adding an ad-hoc fashion show on the football field should secure a lot of guests in one place when the school got crammed beyond capacity.
Five hundred, maybe six, she thought. Perhaps the best of the crazy ideas he had come up with, and it still wouldn't be enough. She smiled to herself. You try so hard even when you know it won't suffice.
There were rumours about him. The magician they called him, and 'they' included teachers as well.
“OK, crew, team one stay here and prepare the planned show. Team two follow me!” If you want me to run two shows I'll make them both better than the one we planned.
Today would put her to the test. Without any professionals by her side she'd try to surpass Ulf's insane expectations. She owed him that much. She loved him that much.
Insane. He has to be insane! Barely lunch hours and over four thousand guests crowded the school.
Noriko staggered when a huge man almost bowled her over. Maybe she should have stayed in their room, but she refused to spend the entire festival indoors.
She had earned her break, but at the moment she regretted coming here. The streets were almost impassable, but soon the first major event in the gym hall should remove some of the pressure on the stalls.
Loud laughing voices and the smell of fast food sold around her belied the frightened faces she saw in some of the stalls. Luckily enough most of the students manning them simply didn't understand how crowded the school had become. She hoped they could stay ignorant for a while longer, because with understanding came fear.
Irishima High had arrived in force. She recognised a lot of their faces, and from the conversations she overheard she guessed the rest. What was worse was the large number of Red Rose uniforms she saw. Almost all of them from her old middle school, but a few from the high school as well.
What's going on? We never spoke of Himekaizen during my years there. That had come later, and only as a suggestion from her parents. Why are you in uniform? It's Sunday.
Noriko waved to a freshman from 4:1 in one stall and was let inside.
“Sorry, but I have to make a call,” she said to the baffled student in a yukata.
“Want a bite?” the girl offered. “Just don't tell anyone.”
Noriko thought for a few seconds. “Thank you. I'd love to,” she said. She wouldn't be able to have lunch later anyway.
Sitting on the ground she wolfed down takoyaki, and from time to time she looked up and gave the girl a tankful look. “You're a lifesaver,” she said after she swallowed the last ball. “Good! You make really good takoyaki.”
“Thanks! Dad runs a small restaurant and I help out some.”
“Send him my regards.”
It was time to make that call. She switched off her radio and dug in her pockets for her cell phone. This wasn't a topic for the open channel.
“Ryu,” she said after her brother answered, “there's an awful lot of Red Rose students here.”
“I know,” he answered. “I've told Urufu, and he's visiting Principal Nakagawa right now.”
Noriko pushed herself tighter under the counter to be as much out of the way as possible. From where she sat on the ground she saw the three students manning the stall frantically trying to serve an ever increasing number of orders.
“Good, then I'll leave it to him.” She crawled out from her corner and rose. “Ryu we're in trouble down here. The main street stalls can't handle this much longer.” During the time she spent eating even more people had arrived.
“What do you want me to do?”
“We can't allow any more people inside until we can fill the gym hall or Kuri's outdoor show is running.” Noriko wondered if they could let more people inside even with the gym hall filled, but she didn't tell her brother that.
“I'll cancel the patrols and send them to the gates then. It's not like they're much use with the school crammed anyway.”
“Could you use Yukio?”
“No,” Ryu said. “He's on a club errand.”
Damn I'm not getting any time alone with Kyoko! Which wasn't true, but he didn't get any during opening hours.
Right now she was tied up with the fashion show again, and would be so for another couple of hours since it didn't stop when the show ended. The beauty contest came right after it. How they were supposed to handle the ballot boxes with so many guests on the compounds was beyond him, but the planning committee said they were on it.
As for himself he walked around the premises with his phone taking pictures and short films from the festival. While he certainly would save some for himself, most were for the benefit of their partner club in Sweden. Cultural exchange club and all, so sending them footage of their cultural festival only made sense, but he really wanted more time with Kyoko.
Besides, this will only give them the wrong impression of a normal school festival. This is anything but normal.
Yukio sulked some more and shot a couple of photos through the windows.
Over the radio calls were becoming increasingly frantic as the school filled up and the main street stalls ran out of supplies. The arrival of a few cars driven by teachers Urufu somehow coerced into helping them mitigated the problem somewhat.
Yukio couldn't care less.
He walked down the stairs and made for the gym hall. On the way there he turned off his radio.
It was packed. Only with the help of a security armband he pilfered earlier did he manage to get inside. Of course they weren't supposed to be used that way, but he'd be damned if he missed Kyoko's participation.
People around him hugged ten stripes of coloured paper to their chests, and quite a few already slipped two into ballot boxes. They had made their mind up before the pageant even started.
Yukio looked at his empty hands and forced his way to the ballot boxes. He received his ten stripes, put the one representing Ryu into the boys' box and one for Kyoko in the other. The remaining eight stripes he handed back to one of the girls manning the ballot.
Third year girls. They stared at him when he voted for Kyoko. You probably don't even know who she is. Then they looked at his student book and checked his name on the list of first years.
After that he went inside again and elbowed himself to a place from where he could see the catwalk better.
He made it just in time to see the boys take the stage as they were introduced one after another. Nao and Ryu received the loudest cheers, but Urufu was surprisingly popular as well, despite throwing a glance at his watch as if he needed to be elsewhere.
You probably do, but you're not supposed to show that right now.
After that it was time for the girls, and Yukio felt how he was squeezed tighter in the growing crowd. It didn't matter. Soon the cutest girl of them all would receive her fair share of fame.
Whoever organised the pageant knew what was about to happen. A beautiful second year Yukio didn't know received a huge roar of approval, and after her Hitomi-chan got an equal share. Noriko blushed when she heard the shouting, even though it was nowhere as loud as when the two girls before her took the stage.
Kyoko waved to the audience when she received the politest of the ovations. Yukio knew she'd end up last of the five girls, but just making the short list was a big thing.
Then the loudspeakers announced Kuri's appearance, and the gym hall exploded with cheers even before she arrived into the limelight. The shouting turned painful when she showed herself, and Yukio saw how the four other girls flinched at the sound. The second year stared at the audience with the eyes of a deer looking at onrushing headlights.
Man, that's harsh. The rest of them experienced this yesterday. And there were even more people in the audience now.
Yukio listened to how the announcer tried to prolong the event, just as he had been primed to do in order to keep the hall filled as long as possible. After the contest a school band would play for the largest audience they had ever seen, and after that the fashion show. With some luck most of the audience would wait.
Switching on his radio was pointless now. He wouldn't be able to hear anything.
Yukio pushed his way through the crowd to the scene. He needed to prepare for his small part in the show, and the sooner he was done the more time he could spend with Kyoko.
Now that was a waste of time, Ulf thought. He knew he had better than average looks, but putting him in a beauty contest was a joke. Well, the joke was over, and now he could return to the job that needed to be done.
Ulf rushed to the service gates. With the contest running almost a third of the radios were out of commission, and key stations ran dangerously understaffed. This was the critical phase of the festival, but he had prepared just about everyone with scare stories about the twenty minutes when the contestants took the stage.
Should have told them about the two hours after that. With that thought he continued to make certain the service gates were closed for entrance. With the open grounds deceptively empty it was all too tempting to let everyone inside, and that spelled disaster when the gym hall eventually emptied.
Guests sitting at the tables just inside the gates rose or turned when a roar erupted from the gym hall.
That's Christina for all of you. Ulf smiled as he ran.
Fifteen minutes to count the votes, including all votes collected from ballot boxes strategically placed around the school for those who wanted to make their opinion heard but disliked crowds.
At the gates the security patrol allowed more guests inside in exactly the uncontrolled manner Ulf feared, and he pulled one of them aside and handed her a paper slip with instructions.
She looked at him with questioning eyes. Then she gave the relative calm around the outdoor café a long gaze and stared at him again with even more questions in her eyes.
“Just trust me on this,” Ulf said. “We've packed fifteen hundred guests inside the gym but sooner or later they'll go outside.”
She just shrugged and joined the rest of the patrol. All of them pointed at Ulf when queuing people asked what was happening as they closed the gates.
He waved at the irritated queue and made a time-out sign hoping they'd understand. After that he left an unhappy patrol who pointedly refused to look at him. Even their backsides were unhappy.
Well, I'm the better scapegoat. He smirked and went behind the gym. The back door must have been closed to avoid letting daylight inside and he stood knocking on it for a while before he realised the futility in what he was doing. The cheering from the other side prevented anyone on the inside from hearing him.
With a sigh he prepared himself for a wrestling match all the way from the main entrance to the stage and turned.
Red Rose? What are you doing here?
The first strike fractured both bones in his left upper arm. The second gifted him with a concussion and sent him sprawling to the ground.
Before he lost consciousness he felt two of his ribs crack as he frantically shouted for help into his radio.
Kyoko grinned when she was announced as fifth place together with one of the third year boys. Noriko beat her with less than a ten vote margin and lined up beside the other third year.
Hitomi-chan fidgeted uncomfortably when it was clear she wasn't partnered with anyone. Urufu apparently timed his absence superbly to miss out on receiving his third place prize.
The junior took second place with a solid margin to Hitomi-chan, and the cheering from the audience told Kyoko how popular she was among her fellow second years. Ryu smiled shamefacedly when he was announced as the runner up and joined the grinning second year girl.
A wave of roaring rolled in over the stage when Nao-sempai and Kuri-chan entered the scene. Kyoko guessed last day's fashion show decided the results, because both won their respective first place by a margin so large it wasn't even funny.
Urufu, that was nasty of you. Hitomi-chan didn't deserve to stand here alone.
Truth be told Kyoko felt a little bit betrayed. After a scowl she made up her mind and twisted those feelings into something good. If Urufu didn't think this was important enough for him to drag his lazy arse here, then she could spend the next twenty minutes together with Yukio watching the band.
In front of her Noriko turned and faced Kyoko. “Where's Urufu?” she shouted.
Kyoko shrugged with both palms out. She had learned the outlandish gesture from Kuri-chan, and by now most of the club members used it jokingly whenever they were clueless.
Noriko smirked and shook her head before facing the audience again. Any longer conversations were impossible with the thundering cheers drowning all other sound.
Ah, I like your kindness! Kyoko thought when Ryu caught Hitomi-chan's hand and greeted the crowd sandwiched between two girls. I wish you find someone for yourself.
She couldn't see Hitomi-chan's face, but Kyoko noticed how the left wing beauty stood straighter after Ryu's gesture.
I'll chew your face off for this, Urufu. Yukio and I both will. He could have as much problems understanding girls as he wanted, but what he had just done was just inconsiderate.
She felt bad for Hitomi-chan, and when the ceremony was over she hurried backstage and turned off her radio. Yukio smiled at her all the time and she grabbed his hand and followed him into the crowd.
“Watch the band with me?” she said, putting her lips close enough to his ear that it counted as a kiss.
He nodded back at her and led her through a mass of bodies. They couldn't go too far away or they wouldn't make it back in time for the fashion show. Both she and Yukio had small parts to play in it.
The contest lay behind them, and a school band had taken the scene and were playing for an audience so large it counted as a major club concert. Which was all fine and dandy, and Noriko should probably clap her hands like an overexcited elementary school kid and feel all warm and fuzzy. If it wasn't for Urufu going AWOL.
Noriko threw a worried look at her phone. Urufu didn't answer calls over the radio and this was the third call he failed to pick up.
We're on stage in a few minutes. What are you doing?
“Nothing?” Kuri asked? Behind the stage it was almost possible to talk, at least if shouting counted as talking.
Noriko shook her head.
“Damn! He knew I was up to something.”
Up to something? “What did you plan?” Noriko asked her friend.
“Pissing on a tree,” Kuri answered. “Ulf being the tree.”
Noriko shook her head again. The connotation was lost on her.
“You know, like a dog marking territory?” Kuri tried again.
“You planned to pee on Urufu?”
That stopped Kuri in her tracks. She slapped her hands to her face, but she soon removed them and shot Noriko a very twisted and very knowing grin. “No, I don't think he's into that.”
A sudden visual flashed through Noriko's mind, and this time it was her turn to fly both hands to her face. “I didn't… I mean…,” she stammered.
While it was clear Kuri hadn't heard a word of what Noriko mumbled she still saw teasing understanding glimmer in Kuri's eyes. When Kuri threw her head back and guffawed, Noriko knew Kuri had seen exactly what flashed though her mind moments earlier.
“You have a surprisingly dirty mind,” Kuri shouted when she was done laughing. “But no,” she continued and turned serious all of a sudden, “I planned to show the world we belong together.”
Kuri made her last preparations for the show, and Noriko listened to the school-band guitarist reaching the crescendo that marked the end of their participation.
They couldn't have prepared all that well, because the sound was out of tune, a little like the sound of wailing sirens mixing into the music.
With a thunderous rumble from drums and electric guitars the show finished, and all band members bowed to their cheering audience.
The gym hall fell eerily silent despite the music sound technicians poured out of the speakers while everyone prepared the fashion show.
Urufu, where are you? If he didn't arrive within a couple of minutes Kuri needed to change the schedule. Nao couldn't stand in for Urufu. He was too tall for that. Anyone else?
“I'll bloody kill him,” Kuri muttered from the hangers closest to them both. “Nao-kun, come here!”
Nao-kun. She's calling her senior Nao-kun. Noriko grinned at Nao who came rushing obediently. Guess that's Kuri for you.
“Nao-kun, can you run a double with these?” Kuri asked and fingered two sets of clothes.
Nao looked at them and nodded. “Why?”
“Ulf's not here. I'm tall enough to show off his costumes as a fun gimmick.”
You're not serious!
“I'd love to see that, if Noriko allows,” Nao said. He flashed her a smile that for once had Noriko's heart skip a beat.
I think you're reaching your goal, Nao. She looked at him and revelled in the warmth that spread though her body. I'm really falling in love with you.
“Yukio, Kyoko, prepare for stage. Let's get this show running!”
Kuri's words reached her through a daze. A few seconds more. Noriko let her eyes linger on Nao. Yes, I definitely am.
“We have to tell them!”
Principal Nakagawa looked at the frantic student council president. “No!”
“Don't you have any feelings?”
“No. That's why I'm the principal and you're still just a student.”
She turned and walked for the doors. “You're right. We don't have to tell them, but I have to.”
“I won't allow that,” Nakagawa said. He followed her with his eyes, expecting her to stop and face him again.
With a wave she left his office. Her parting words lingered like a promise: “Whatever. Suspend me, expel me, do whatever, but I'm telling them. Learn to be human!”
Good for you, he thought. You're finally growing a backbone.
She wouldn't reach them in time to create chaos, and he wouldn't punish her for her insubordination. Hers was the morally correct choice and his the only working one. He needed the ambulances to leave through the service gates before the fashion show ended to avoid panic.
“How bad?” he asked the council treasurer, who had remained in the office.
The gangly third year frowned before he answered. “All eight Red Rose students hospitalised. Hamarugen-san and Ueno-san as well.”
“Yes. He's the captain of the karate team. The rest of the team suffered superficial injuries at most, but we're sending them to the hospital just in case.”
Nakagawa scowled and rose from his chair. Looking out the windows he watched the absurd crowd on the school grounds below. Eight thousand or more according to the last report. Both gates were closed for new entrants, and irritation grew by the minute. She said another four thousand expected. We can't let them in.
In a way the assault was a blessing. With police present on site people in the queue were unlikely to force the issue when denied entrance.
He waved the treasurer to his side. “Look at that,” he said and nodded at the gates. “Murakami-san, make sure Ageruman-san finishes her show in good order!”
The treasurer looked at the moving mass of people on both sides of the school gates. Nakagawa could see uncertainty and fear competing for space in the teenager's eyes.
What I did earlier was indecent, but this is inhuman. Nakagawa shook his head and dismissed Murakami. Forcing the arrivals to handle a situation like this was bad enough, but they were fifty years old mentally. Now that burden fell on the student council.
He'd help from the shadows of course. When Ageruman-san rose from the abyss, and came after them like a vengeance demon, he'd make certain the brunt of her attack was directed at him. With her rising fame she had the power to permanently terminate the future for both council president as well as its treasurer.
Well, all bets are off now. You went after one of the arrivals despite our agreement. Rage rose in him, a seething, smouldering rage. I'll give her free reins for revenge, and if Hamarugen-san survives I'll channel my hate through him. You'll find out westerners have a very different definition of hell than us Japanese.
At the moment there was very little he could do for the arrivals. Nakagawa looked at the phone on his desk. There was one thing. Despite working miracle after miracle the exchange club finally found themselves at wit's end to solve an impossible logistical problem.
He tapped a contact and placed the call. Abusing his power didn't even come close to describe the order he gave. For what it was worth the festival wouldn't run out of supplies.
Yukio hugged Kyoko closer to him. The blanket barely managed to keep the autumn cool out, but he didn't care. Up here on the rooftop they could be alone at last. He hadn't even bothered bringing their radios.
“She said she hated me!”
Yukio relived his anger at seeing Kyoko's bruised face. The face Kuri struck so hard that vessels burst. Tomorrow it would look like she had used her fist, but Kyoko promised it was a slap.
“She can go to hell!” Yukio said.
Kyoko shook her head. He could feel her nose rubbing his chest. “No. We turned our radios off.”
Yukio stroked her hair and looked down. Late afternoon wind played in it and her blouse.
“Look, Kyoko, we couldn't have heard anything. Kuri didn't, no-one with a radio inside the gym did.”
Deep inside he realised Kuri's wrath expressed her fear and helplessness more than anything else, but still. She had slapped his Kyoko.
Deep inside he was scared witless, but he couldn't say that.
His fingers moved through Kyoko's hair while he listened to her sobs. But for her need to believe him a solid rock of strength and safety, he'd have joined her crying long ago.
Are you OK man? Are you going to die on me?
Over the other rooftop a helicopter slowly rose to vanish away from the school. The third to do so in short time, and at the service gates a small truck had just arrived with desperately needed supplies; and Yukio didn't care at all.
The cultural festival had become a meaningless display, one that slowly degenerated into chaos now when most members in the club had fallen into apathy.
“I'm scared,” Kyoko whispered.
Yukio pulled the blanket closer around them. From below he heard the rumbling murmur of thousands of guests milling around the school grounds. Sometimes interrupted by a shout or a loud laughter but always there in the background.
He knew the student council and the festival committee belatedly tried to do the job they should have done from the very beginning, but without the club they didn't stand a chance. Without Urufu if he was honest.
“Kyoko, I'm here. I'll always be here, OK?”
She hugged him tighter and rubbed tears away from red rimmed eyes. “I know. Thank you!”
“Kyoko...” Yukio fell silent. He wanted to stay by her side more than anything else. “Kyoko, you're my hero. Help me be yours!”
She took his hands in hers and rose to her feet. Together they walked to the railings and looked down.
“Yukio, they need us now, but could we stay here for a while longer? Please!”
He looked at her for a long time. “Yes I think we can,” he said and smiled. Smiling was good. Smiling made his fears take a back seat. “In fact I think we have to.”
An icicle of wind cut through his clothes and reminded him of the season. “Will you help me?”
Kyoko nodded back. “Yeah. If I'm with you I can do anything.”
Yukio grinned at her. My girl! He thrust his hand into his pocket and pulled out his phone. Noriko picked up on the second signal.
“Noriko, could you have someone come to the rooftop with two radios and a blanket?”
He waited for her surprised affirmation and the anticipated question afterwards.
“Why? Because the festival committee can't find their own arses in the dark, and that's not good enough for Urufu.” Yukio laughed when Kyoko slapped a hand to her mouth. “Noriko, we started this madness. Let's finish it the way we planned. I'll stay on the rooftop with Kyoko and help you get the show running again.”
He almost finished the call there and then, but as an afterthought he put the phone to his ear again.
“Noriko, tell that idiot brother of yours to keep the council president off my back. I only have room for Kyoko on it.”