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When Ryu came down to the lobby the morning after his wild gamble, he heard agitated voices from outside the hotel entrance. A night's sleep left him hungry and he was torn between what his stomach wanted and his curiosity. In the end curiosity won.

He moved to the doors and tried to hear what was going on. Some kind of heated debate, that much was clear, but he could only hear fragments of it.

...breaking them! I don't care...” The wind carried away what he recognised as James' voice.

Then an older responded. “...maybe I went too far… can't be helped now...” Principal Nakagawa. Ryu was rather certain he recognized that voice, but it wasn't one he had heard all that often. He risked peeping outside. Yes, that was James and Nakagawa-sensei talking. They stood in front of a bench, and Ryu had a vision of how both men had started their conversation sitting down, and how they both rose with increasing agitation.

I can't really walk out and listen in on them. Pity. He sauntered across the lobby and went in hunt for his waiting breakfast. In the doorway to the dining hall he met Kuri dressed in a nondescript T-shirt and baggy shorts. He waved at her when the sound of a running engine reached him from the outside. “Who comes here at this hour?” he wondered aloud.

Not coming. Going. That's Nakagawa,” Kuri said and grimaced.

Huh?”

She moved aside to give room to a few students, who for various reasons hadn't camped overnight, and then she gave him a pat on his head. “The old geezer is out shopping for swimming trunks.” She had a glimmer in her eyes that made Ryu wonder.

Kuri, what did you do?” he chanced.

She resumed her walk and waved over her shoulder. “I told the business suits they had to be on the beach by nine, in bathing clothes.

You didn't!” Ryu stared after her, but she was already outside. Nine o'clock. Plenty of time, but I have to get the others on-board.

He was just about to enter the dining-hall when he realised he ought to have been surprised by the sounds of people talking. Most of the club was camping atop the nearby mountain, so the hotel should have been all but empty. Well inside he got one reason, but most definitely not the reason.

What on earth? The people inside were mostly adults, but only a few of them belonged to his future problem later this morning. Ryu saw a few young men who were all taller than Urufu by a wide margin. They moved with the self-assurance of those who know they're more than merely handsome. A bit like me, Ryu admitted ruefully, but I don't flaunt it that way.

They looked like models, and if Ryu's guess was correct, they probably were. A larger crew of people with the looks of technicians and executives only strengthened his assumption.

Back in a corner he saw Yukio chatting with Kyoko, and his sister waved him over. Even Urufu sat there looking morose.

After stacking two plates and a glass Ryu headed for their table. “Morn,” he greeted them as he placed his bounty on the table. The he went back for more. It became a habit getting your hotel breakfast together, but he'd never seen anything like the perfection displayed by Urufu and Kuri the morning before. Another tell-tale difference between already having lived as an adult once and slowly becoming one for the first time.

As he sat down he heard Yukio switching his attention from Kyoko to Urufu.

Man, feeling better?”

Ryu wanted to say something. It was his nature to be the active party in any social situation, but for once he sensed it was better if Yukio led this conversation on.

Fine,” Urufu responded with the honesty of a conman caught red-handed in the act.

Ryu studied his friends. The tired look Urufu carried like a shield, Yukio's concern and Kyoko pointedly watching the other tables to stay out of the way. Noriko played her part in the game as well by staring at everything Urufu except his eyes.

Ryu groaned inwardly. He was aware his own crush on Kuri hadn't abated one bit, but that was it. A crush. His sister though, she had fallen deeply in love with Urufu when he allowed her inside his sphere of close friends.

Then you'll help Ryu wrap the walking talking up? And lead the afternoon sessions?” Yukio asked.

Crap, he doesn't know!

Urufu shook his head, and an amused glimmer reached his eyes. “You're walking talking with the club on our field trip? Poor sods!” He leaned his head onto his shoulder and looked at Ryu. “Wrap it up?”

That was more than he could take. Ryu felt a shiver run through him as it dawned on him that the rest of them counted on him. “I'll handle it,” he said, “but I need you for the afternoon.”

Urufu gave him a tired look. Then he slovenly raked the contents of one plate into his mouth. “Eah, ay e ere,” he said with his mouth full of food.

Ryu stared at the vulgar display and hoped it really meant that Urufu planned to be there for him. But if it did then Urufu still believed it was all a matter of handling the club members up at the camping site.

Urufu, man, we have a problem,” Yukio said, and Ryu was grateful that the wingman took some of the burden off him. “It's not the club members.”

That woke Urufu up. “Christina's in trouble? She walked out on us earlier, didn't she?”

I'd hate to be in her shoes, Ryu thought. She saved the day yesterday, and I didn't even know she had this shit coming. He finally realised why the dining hall was full of people in the fashion business. “Urufu, she's fine, but she can't help us right now. Only you can.”

When he looked across the table he saw how Yukio nodded in approval, and even Kyoko stopped pretending her lack of interest and shot him a grateful glance.

In her chair Noriko hastily swallowed the last of her miso soup and looked at Urufu. “I'm afraid my father and Principal Nakagawa messed up,” she said. “There are a lot of TAP customers here as well.”

Ryu wasn't the only one throwing her an angry glare.

TAP customers?” Urufu drawled absently. “That's a long time ago, and it's not like I could go back there to help them now.”

What was done was done. It was now or never. “The hotel is crammed with executive drones,” Ryu said and placed a finger to Urufu's forehead. “I'll handle the morning, but they want to see you after lunch. I don't have your knowledge so I can't even begin to plan the afternoon.”

We need your help,” Noriko shot in. “We'll help in any way we can, but we're out of our depth here.”

Sure, I'll do it.” Urufu shrugged, and Ryu didn't believe a word he had said.

Damn! We could have used Christina if Urufu's like this, but she's probably locked down outdoors for the entire day.


***


Make or break. This was the kind of off season, off set shoot that had built her career all those year ago. They were doing a late autumn set, and Christina was supposed to spend a chilly day by the beach with one or more out of numerous boyfriends or love interests. It all tied in perfectly with the last years' fad with a gaijin prize, in this case with her being the exotic foreigner, claimed by a Japanese man.

She didn't care. Successful fashion was reading fads expertly in the first place, and she once built her empire that way. She did care however about this August being even hotter than anything she could remember from Japan.

Christina threw on a horrible flimsiness pretending to be an overcoat and made certain to wear it just a little bit wrong to bring out her legs underneath it. Then she willed herself to early November and walked along the waterline. The guy holding her hand, a tall and drop dead gorgeous man in his early twenties, lacked her experience and they had to retake the shots. It was about that time she found out that he was drop dead gorgeous only until he opened his mouth and spoke.

Shit, he's a moron on top of being an amateur! She frantically wished Ulf had been there. He'd have been a guaranteed first timer and would have done exactly what she told him. Not this idiot who believed he was a professional model just because someone equally incompetent paid him to be one.

It took them five tries to get the initial shots right, and by that time the camera crew smiled apologetically at her. One of the executives, probably the brain-dead agent of her modelling partner, was breaking down and made an absolute arse of herself when she started screaming demands to the producer.

Christina's agent made a point of sitting at a distance, drinking tea and let her unexpected superstar rookie do the job.

Further down the beach an assembly of middle aged men in swimming trunks gathered, and Christina felt her face splitting into a wide grin. Let's see what the kid will do with this.

She saw Ryu waving at her from a distance and waved back. Some of the management droids were bound to know the advertising firm that had raked in a contract with Uniclo. Top tier material wouldn't have cared, but most of these were second rate executives with unrealistic dreams of one day becoming corporate management. Worst case they didn't even dream any longer.

Then there was that hungry looking mid-thirties guy. He was dangerous, and she had misgivings about how Ryu would handle him. Still, he wasn't alone. He had his sister and Yukio and Kyoko to share his burden with. They are trying to do their job, and I have to do mine. For a moment loneliness crept upon her, but she waved away that thought as a sign of weakness she couldn't afford right now.

She quickly changed for the second set and came out of the bus in a body hugging cardigan that was ludicrously hot in the morning sun. Closer to noon they'd pay respect to the weather and do some more normal bikini shoots for a late summer campaign, even though she harboured a suspicion that it was mostly a ploy to make her take off her clothes. A test of her audacity rather than any want for nudity. They needed to see if she would balk at the thought or not.

Ryu led the business drones on, helped by Kyoko and Yukio. Christina saw Noriko walk from one group of middle aged men to the next. She's clarifying the concepts, just like in class. Strange, what is he up to now? She saw Ryu leading the groups up the walkway and into the small town on the other side of the road.

They had time to finish the second set without any major mishaps and Christina slipped into a decently designed party outfit. She could have made use of it herself but for the all too reddish tinge where hints of earthen colours should have been instead. Shit, this is so poor design! Who the hell came up with his crap? South east Asia, sure, but not Japan!

When she came out of the bus again she saw Kyoko hanging over the railings to a bluff overlooking the beach. They waved to each other and after that Christina walked to the beach for the third set of shots this morning.

She slapped away the first two hands sliding up her trousers, and the owner of the third received a hard glare from her together with the slap. “Enough of that! I have a boyfriend.” That means go burn in hell, but that's beyond your tiny brain. “Let's get the shots finished, shall we? Christina conjured up what she hoped was a shy but determined smile. Playing the diva this early in her career would have her popularity stocks plunge.

Back on the beach she noticed that Ryu had taken everyone down the hill road to the stony part close to the waterline and led them over a stretch of rock walking. She knew it emptied on a narrow stretch of sand a bit south, and from there group after group of men in swimming trunks came onto the main beach. They talked excitedly, each group converging on the tablet Yukio or Kyoko must have equipped them with.

You cunning bastard, Christina smiled. She hooked arms with the model who had been last in turn to try to grope her, pretended she had been dating him for a few weeks and ran laughing over the sand with him trying to catch her. It made for a few good shots.

Behind her she heard the voices from the groups of businessmen as their discipline evaporated. It was soon followed by Noriko's admonitions. Ryu, you really planned to have them walking in on us. I bet you're going to give them a water break now as well. Whatever he was, he wasn't nearly as stupid as his little sister believed.

It was well played. More so than Christina hoped he had truly envisioned, because at his age that kind of human knowledge would make him callous rather than just bright.

Christina decided to make the most of it. She moved so the camera crew would have the crowd throwing envious stares at the male models in the background. One of the camera guys grinned at her. So there's at least one full bloodied pro here. She gave him a discreet thumbs up to let him know she had noticed and pranced for the cameras again. I want the pros speaking well of me. They were the best to work with as well, and they carried a lot more clout than people in the business gave them credit for. A crew could make or break a shoot, so when a good one wanted a specific model they tended to get what they asked for.

Giving the camera crews and her fellow models the best she had she played along, sliding from pose to pose without making it look like she did so. She could feel over ten years' of experience mix with the nervous freshness from restarting her career. And all the time her thoughts went not to Ulf, but to Yukio and Kyoko who had the thankless task of being errand boys.
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