Friday early afternoon, February 25th – Waseda University, Tokyo Japan
Waseda University is a sprawling campus with a very active student body. There are very few sports that weren't represented by a collegiate team and because of that, a high number of national champions and Olympic athletes called this place their alma mater. Minami Umeko was one. She had almost been on Japan's Olympic team for softball, and still enjoyed the sport despite her current profession as a Green Line stewardess. The college hadn't changed much since she had been there, which was fortunate since she and Kushieda Minori were currently running at truly dangerous speeds across the length of the campus.
It would have been safer if they had run on the marathon track that wrapped around the perimeter of the campus property, but this wasn't just exercise. They needed to be somewhere quick and they didn't waste any time on circuitous paths. Indeed, they cut through buildings and courtyards. Racing through hallways, leaping up staircases, bounding over obstacles and people, and seemingly taking flight as they jumped down entire stairways. A few staff, teachers, or campus police tried to get them to slow down, but their efforts were ignored by the two girls as they streaked by.
If someone had kept track of their run, they would see that the two had started on the baseball and softball fields at one end of the campus and were making as straight a path as possible for the martial arts and educational sports building. Specifically, they were on their way to the Kendo arena.
"Taiga!" they both cried out as they crashed through the doors into the arena. Several people reacted with a start, but most of them were dulled to someone suddenly yelling. After all, there was a lot of yelling in Kendo.
"Aisaka-san is in the girl's dressing room." one of the students told them in an amused voice.
"Thanks!" they both started to run… in different directions. When they stopped and realized that neither of them knew where the dressing rooms were.
"That way." the student pointed to a set of double doors on the other side of the performance area.
"Thanks!" they both said as they started toward the doors.
"Go AROUND the performance mats please!" the student sounded irritated now.
"Sorry." they both said in unison again as they sped around the mats and headed for the dressing rooms. A hallway led a short distance to where they could turn right and go through red curtains, or turn left and go through blue curtains. Minori went through the red curtains, but Umeko turned the other way and came to a surprised stop just inside the blue curtains. Her face turned crimson when she was suddenly face to face with several boys in varying states of undress.
"Why…" Minori was about to ask her friend why she went into the boy's locker and dressing room.
"Don't!" Umeki said through her rampant blush and tight lips, "That… didn't happen."
"Fine, but let's go!" Minori insisted so that her friend would start moving faster again. But, they didn't have far to go. Taiga was still laying her gear out on a table when they got into the room.
"Minorin!" Taiga bounded over to her pink haired friend as soon as she saw her and jumped into her arms for her signature hug. But then she jumped back just as quickly. "Eww! Why are you all gross and sweaty?"
"We… we ran all the way here! Why are you still in here? Your match is supposed to start just five minutes from now! You didn't give up, did you?" Minori demanded.
"Hell no, I didn't give up!" Taiga's own ire was riled at that outlandish suggestion, "The Karate match went long. Our start time got moved back three hours. I… I sent you a text."
"Ah… heh heh." Minori laughed nervously and scratched her head. After what had happened the previous year, not checking your messages or responding to them – had become a grievous offense with Taiga. Sounding as apologetic as possible, Minori told her short friend, "We both started running as soon as my game was over. I… didn't look at my messages."
"Oh!" Umeko realized that she had both of their cell phones in her small backpack. Pulling it off, she quickly handed Minori her phone while checking her own for messages.
Sure enough, Minori's phone had a message from Taiga about the delay. But Umeko's phone had a message from Ryuuji-sama.
RYUSAMA: I know you wanted us to come to Taiga's match and we really wanted to, but there just won't be enough time to make it there after the girl's get out of school and Ami gets back. But please let me know when the next competition is. We would love to see Taiga perform again.
With a playful smile, she wondered if he might be able to make something happen if he had three more hours.
ZOOMY-UME: There is a three hour delay due to another competition. Show me what you can do, Ryuuji-sama!
Still smiling, she closed her phone and wondered if he would take the bait.
"Well… it looks like you two have enough time to take a shower now." Taiga gestured to the showers at the back of the locker room.
"We don't have a change of clothes though." Umeki pointed out.
"Not to worry, I've got that covered." Taiga said as she pushed her two friends toward the shower area, "Just give me your clothes and I'll get you something perfect. Don't worry about a thing… I've got this covered."
Friday afternoon, February 25th – RAAF Amberley - Ipswich, Australia
"WALKER!" a voice boomed out from the other end of the hangar, "What the hell did you do?"
Walker is a fairly common name in Australia. Because of that, several people put down their tools and came to attention when they heard the shout of the burly Flight Lieutenant. Others didn't come to attention, but they stopped what they were doing to see if they might be in danger of getting caught up in whatever stupidity this Walker must have committed. Previously noisy with the sounds of aircraft maintenance and equipment installations, the huge room became eerily quiet except for the sound of the big lieutenant's heavy footfalls. He was a rather portly middle aged man, but there wasn't a person in the unit that would challenge him. He had the personal strength and the authority to beat someone senseless if they were screwing up, but he was not a bully. Firm but fair, he would defend his people if he thought they were innocent, but he would be merciless if they let him down.
As he crossed the hangar and passed the first person named Walker, an audible sigh could be heard as he and his team relaxed a bit. But the other two Walkers felt their stomachs knot up a little tighter. The second Walker was a young Aircraftsman… who all but fainted when the angry looking lieutenant passed him by, too. There was a bit of clamoring as his mates stepped up to catch him before his head hit the hard concrete floor of the hangar. So, with both of the other Walker's in the unit behind him, the only one left was the tall slender female Corporal.
"What did you do, Corporal Walker?" the lieutenant demanded when he got to within a pace of the young woman. He would like to have gotten closer, but she was almost ten centimeters taller than him and that was as close as he could get without using a stool.
"Flight Lieutenant!" Deena, the Walker in question, squawked, "I swear - I didn't do anything!" She was wracking her brains to think of anything she might have done to warrant the old mans' ire, but the only thing she could think of was if they complained of all the posters and pictures in her bunk.
"You can't think of any reason why I would get orders to take you off all of your assignments for the foreseeable?" He asked.
"What? No! I just transferred up here…" Deena was close to panicking, thinking of the upgrade project she had only just begun and would now have to leave to the others. It wasn't that she didn't think they could do it without her, but this was the first time she had been entrusted with something this big.
Ducking his head a little, the older man lowered his voice. "You don't have one in the oven?" he asked, making a vague gesture with his hand towards her midsection.
"Flight Lieutenant!" Deena was shocked that he would say something like that, stepping back, face turning scarlet. Even though the accusation was baseless, merely voicing it bordered on sexual harassment.
"Sorry, Walker," the Flight Lieutenant actually seemed contrite at her response, stepping out of her personal space. "-but the last couple of times I got orders like that… it was always for a sheila that got herself knocked up. And it's not that I thought you're that irresponsible, but I had to ask. Don't get worked up. Sorry."
"Yes… Flight Lieutenant." Deena was still upset, but she knew that he was in a pretty difficult place, too. When orders came from On High it was difficult, sometimes, to carry them out without any questions.
"How fast can you get cleaned up and into your Service Dress?" the Flight Lieutenant asked.
"Huh?" Deena was stunned at his question. The only time the people in her group ever had to wear that kind of uniform was for a parade, or if there was a big event requiring meetings with the higher-ups.
"You heard me right, Corporal Walker. We've got us a date at the Air Commodore's office in two hours, and he ain't the kind to just call you in for some earbashing. So if you can think of any reason why this is happening, you've got till then to come clean with me."
"Flight Lieutenant, I swear… I haven't done anything!" Deena said earnestly.
"Hmpf… we'll see." the old man huffed for show, but he was hoping she was telling the truth. She is a damn good worker. Solid and dependable. Whatever this mix-up is… it just has to be a mistake. No sense worrying about it now. I have to go put on my uniform too. An I'm no show pony, I look like a bloody twat in that penguin suit. Dammit!
Friday afternoon, February 25th – Meji Affiliated High School, Tokyo Japan
Suzume was sitting in her desk and trying to look across the classroom, through the tall thin windows, to the outside world. Even though her desk was in the farthest row from the windows, it wasn't difficult for her to get the view she wanted. Now, at 182 centimeters, she was easily the tallest girl in the class. She didn't claim to be the tallest person in the class since that would hurt the boys' feelings… but she was. In fact, her best friend, Umeki proudly claimed that Suzume was the tallest person in their grade.
In reality, it didn't upset as many people as Suzume feared it would. Everyone knew she was a model and that she performed with Kawashima Ami, Kurosawa Hisako, and sometimes with little Aiko-chan too. It hadn't even been something that she needed to explain. She smiled when she remembered the chaos she had caused on the first day of class in this new school. She knew that she should be embarrassed at the disruption she had caused, but she had enjoyed herself too much for that. Closing her eyes, she remembered the moment well. She was with Umeki and they had just finished with their paperwork in the administrative building. She could hear Yuri sensei's familiar voice from the classroom…
"Hello class, I will be your homeroom sensei for this year. My name is Locke Yuri. I am new to this school so for those of you who have come from the affiliated Junior High School, I would appreciate any guidance or help regarding unique school customs here at Meji. Now, I would like to get to know all of you better so I would like to ask…
"SUZUME!" a startled girl shouted while jumping up from her desk. She was pointing at the very tall girl with long red hair and sea-green eyes who had just come into the room with a shorter girl. The only reaction from the taller girl was a brief smile as the two of them walked across the front of the room until they were standing a little behind sensei. The shorter girl was wearing a Meji High School uniform like everyone else, but the tall girl was in a uniform from some other school. The astonished girl demanded, "You're Minami Suzume, aren't you?"
"Is it really?" "That can't really be her, can it?" "Who is Minami Suzume?" "Baka, she's a famous model." The rest of the class was abuzz after the girl's declaration.
"Sensei, should I…" Suzume and Yuri were student and teacher, but they had also become good friends and she didn't want to upset her sensei and her friend on the first day of class in their new school.
"Please do. We were just starting the introductions anyway." Yuri was about to back away from the center of the front of the room, but Suzume caught her sleeve and kept her close by.
"I am Minami Suzume, but I am not the only celebrity in this class." Suzume told all the students. She gave them a moment to look around at the other students in the room and several looked over the shorter girl that had come in with Suzume. Then she asked them, "How many of you saw me in the magazines that featured Kawashima Ami?"
"I did." "Me too." Almost all of the girls and several of the boys raised their hands.
"If you read the articles, you should know that Ami never went anywhere without her trusted… sensei." Suzume said.
"Huh?" Yuri looked up at the tall girl and wondered what she was doing.
"I remember that article! She was the sensei for you and little Aiko-chan too." the startled girl blurted out again, "Her name was… Koigakubo Yuri, right?"
"It was." Suzume pulled her sensei's arm up in a triumphant gesture and turned Yuri's hand so that everyone could see the sparkly ring on Yuri's third finger. "I was lucky enough to be at her wedding. Her name is Locke Yuri now."
"You were Kawashima Ami's sensei?" another student gawked. His eyes had moved to the embarrassed but proud teacher who seemed dwarfed next to the red haired giantess.
"She still is." Suzume insisted, "It's in our contract that whenever we have to travel a significant distance for a performance, Yuri sensei will go with us. After all, we are all students. And when it comes to our education, we are all in her care."
"Suzume…" Yuri appreciated the acknowledgement, but so much praise was just a bit embarrassing.
"But Kawashima Ami is in college now." "Our sensei can teach college students?" "Is she really that good?" the classroom chattered.
"Kurosawa Hisako isn't a student." one of the classmates challenged. And, by the way she said the model's name with a bit of distaste, it was obvious that Hisako had not yet been universally forgiven.
"She is now." Yuri answered this one, "She is attending a cram school to get into Tokushima University where her friends are already students."
"Are there any other questions?" Suzume snapped to the room. The way the last person had sounded when they mentioned her friend Hisako had upset Suzume, and her mood had not yet recovered.
"Why aren't you wearing our school uniform?" a girl asked Suzume.
"They don't have anything in my size. I must have mine made special." Giving this answer warmed Suzume's heart because she knew who would be involved in creating that specially made uniform.
"I have a question for Yuri sensei." a glasses wearing boy toward the front of the class asked, "Um… if you have a contract to leave whenever they have an event… who will be teaching our class in your absence?"
"That is a good question and one that I have already addressed with the school administration. As I will be your English teacher, I have arranged for someone that will substitute for me who is a natural English speaker."
"Natural… so our substitute will be a foreigner?" the boy asked skeptically.
"That is true, but he is fluent in seven languages and Japanese is one of them. So you shouldn't have any problem understanding him." Yuri boasted of her husband.
"Seven?" several students asked in disbelief.
"Yes, so if you are taking elective classes in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, or Russian – you can get his help with those too." Yuri said with a smile.
"That's only six." another boy in the front of the class asked.
"He speaks two dialects of Chinese." Yuri assured the young student.
"Oh wow. So… how often will you be out?" one of the girls asked them.
"Well… Suzume and her friends won't have that many gigs that will take me away from Tokyo, but… I am three months pregnant now, so my husband will likely be taking over the class after the summer break and until school starts back up again after the winter break." Yuri explained.
"You're pregnant!" several of the girls in the class sounded more excited about this news than they had when they found out they had a celebrity in their class.
"Minami-san!" one of the girls called out to Suzume while others were asking Yuri if she was hoping for a boy or a girl, "Minami-san, when will your next job be?"
"Ami, Hisako, and I have a modeling gig this coming weekend and we will be doing a singing performance with Aiko-chan during Golden Week." Suzume told them.
"That doesn't sound like a busy schedule. I would have thought there would be a lot more going on, since you are teamed up with Kawashima Ami." the girl asked.
"Well she is a college student, you know. And, with her pregnancy, she is having to slow down her schedule a bit." Suzume replied.
"WHAT? Kawashima Ami is pregnant too?" the whole classroom sounded shocked.
"I thought that was already in one of the magazine articles?" Suzume apologetically asked Yuri.
"I don't think it was." Yuri replied quietly.
"Minami-san," a boy called out to the tall model and jokingly asked, "with all this pregnancy going on all around you, aren't you worried that you might catch it too?"
"Oh yeah, do you have someone you like?" another boy asked the model.
"Someone I like?" Suzume only thought about it for a moment before she pulled Umeki in close and proudly said, "Yes. I do have someone I like. And no, I am not too worried about suddenly becoming pregnant."
"Ah!" Umeki cried out at the surprise of being pulled into Suzume's embrace in front of the whole class as much as from the unexpected announcement of their relationship.
That had been almost a year ago and things had changed a lot since then. Ami's child was six months old, Yuri-sensei's child was almost five months old, and Maya-chan's twins were three months old now. Aside from that, Ami's mother in law had personally seen to Ami and Yuri-sensei's physical recovery, and already had them back in top condition. Maya was at a school in another prefecture but she didn't escape the wrath of a self-appointed personal trainer. Hisako took it upon herself to do to Maya what everyone's favorite Onee-chan had done for Ami and Yuri.
And, now that Ami was back in shape, she was itching to do another performance or some kind of modeling gig. Ryuuji had told everyone that he was working on something big and to be ready, but that had been a few days ago and Suzume hadn't heard anything since. She didn't mind so much though. Staying close to home, visiting friends, and playing with the babies was fun too. Except for the part about being so much taller than all of her classmates, she was starting to get used to the normal life of a High School student. But all of that was about to change.
"Suzume! Umeki!" Yuri-sensei called out from her desk.
"Huh?" Suzume's head slewed around and saw that there was someone from the office as well as The Major up at the front of the room. She noticed that Yuri was quickly throwing her things into a bag.
"Pack up your things. We're heading out." Yuri told her. From the tone of it, she knew that it would be another gig that would require travel. Not too long ago, they had attended an event in Osaka and that had been nice since they got an opportunity to visit Maya, Noto, and Nanako while they were there. Osaka wasn't that far away, but they had stayed a few extra days to visit with their old friends.
Umeki was already packing her things up. She didn't really care where they were off to. It was just an amazing thrill to get to go along. In the last year, she had been able to see more of the different parts of Japan than she had seen in all her life up to that point. And it was all because Ryuuji had talked her parents into signing a contract to allow him to take her with the troupe, whenever and wherever Suzume went. She had become the model daughter since then. She remembered to send her parents gifts on their birthdays and their anniversary as thanks for their consideration. And she kept her grades up and sent them copies of all the progress reports. She didn't forget to thank Ryuuji and Ami too. She smiled when she heard some of her classmates mumbling as they wondered where their sensei and the two girls might be going this time.
"Where are we going this time?" Suzume asked aloud. She wondered if they might be making another trip to Osaka. It would be nice to see Maya and Noto's darling little twins again.
"Oh, you are really not going to believe this…" The Major smiled as he prepared to tell the two teenagers.
Thirty minutes later, the teacher and the two excited teens were across the campus in the attached Meiji Elementary School to get Aiko-chan from her fourth grade classroom. But the ten year old wasn't as excited about going to such a far away place as the teenagers had been.
"Australia? Do I have to go?" Aiko-chan pleaded.
"Well, a lot of our performances there will be with you singing, so we really do need you." Suzume told her as gently as she could.
"Aiko-chan, do you not want to go to Australia?" Umeki asked the younger but taller girl.
"No… It's just that… it's real far away. Isn't it?" Aiko-chan looked at her friends with tearful eyes. She didn't want to disappoint them, but the idea of going so far away was scary to her.
"Um…" Suzume was about to try and convince her that it really wasn't so far, but Yuri-sensei had other ideas.
"Yes, Aiko-chan. It is very far away. There are lots of places that are farther, but there is no denying that it is a far-away place." Yuri told the child the truth.
"Um… sensei…" Suzume wanted to stop her teacher from making things worse, but Umeki pulled on her girlfriend's sleeve and gave her a look that meant for her not to interrupt.
"But, I think you will want to go if you listen to what I am going to tell you. Will you hear me out?" Yuri took the little girl's hand and held it softly.
"Okay." Aiko-chan would listen to the teacher but she didn't know what kind of thing could be said to make her feel better about having to go so far from home.
"Deena-chan is in Australia." Yuri said with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her lips. Her entire argument was summed up in those few words, and she could instantly see it's persuasiveness.
"Deena-chan? My… My Deena-chan?" Aiko-chan's eyes welled up with tears and her little chin started trembling. She had been terribly upset when her tall Australian friend had to return to her homeland, and she still missed the blond woman who had been like a big sister to her.
"Yes." Yuri answered simply. The teacher was a little worried. She didn't think telling the young girl would have so much impact.
"Will I get to see her?" Aiko-chan pleaded while tears already started making trails down her cheeks.
"Ryuuji-sama is trying to make sure of it. So, yes… there is a very good chance that you will." Yuri told the now sobbing girl. She was about to tell Aiko-chan to try and get a grip on her emotions, but she remembered that the girl, despite her height, was still a child.
Taller than her teenage friend Umeki, Aiko-chan was also only eight centimeters shorter than Yuri herself. But her presence as an adult stopped there. At ten years old she was in that strange time between 'little girl' and 'teenager' that was so difficult to pin down or understand. In this instance, she reverted to 'little girl' while the tears flowed. Her arms came up and she stepped into Yuri. She needed a hug, and she needed a mother figure to tell her that everything was going to be okay.
"I wanna go… I wanna go to Australia and see Deena-chan. Please… I wanna see Deena-chan again." Aiko-chan now implored. All fears of going far away were forgotten. She had longed to see her beloved friend since the day she had left. Now that it was a possibility that it might truly happen, all of those pent up emotions were suddenly released.
"All right. Let's get your things packed up. We won't be back here until the next school year starts." Yuri said as she patted the girl's head and held her close.
"We can take care of that." Umeki said quickly and gestured for Yuri to stay with Aiko-chan in the hallway. She pulled Suzume into Aiko-chan's Elementary grade classroom with her.
The students in the classroom weren't afraid of the two high school girls that came into their room. Umeki and Suzume had been there to pick up Aiko-chan many times before. But the children in the classroom knew that something was different this time. Suzume went over to the teacher's desk to explain what was going on, while Umeki went to pack up her younger friend's things.
"Are you taking Aiko-chan away?" one of the girls who sat near Aiko-chan's desk asked Umeki.
"Yes. She won't be here for the last day of school, but we will bring her back and you will see her again for the next school year." Umeki assured the girl. She could see the sad look in many of the faces around Aiko-chan's desk when she told them that their classmate wouldn't be there for the last day of school and it made her happy that Aiko-chan had made so many friends. In a few minutes, she had everything packed up and Suzume had finished going over everything with Aiko-chan's teacher. By then, Aiko-chan had calmed down enough to come back into the classroom and say goodbye to all of her friends.
As Yuri watched the little girl, she noticed that virtually every student in the classroom was her friend. And, the teacher was sad to see her leave early too. It is just bizarre how much she looks like a big version of Taiga, but is such a totally different person. Kind, gentle, polite… and she is even on good terms with her teacher. If Taiga had even one of those characteristics, she would be an entirely different person. If someone could hear her thoughts just then, they might think that Yuri didn't like Taiga, but that wasn't quite right. It was true that Taiga had often been merciless with the barbs she had stung Yuri with. But Yuri didn't hate Taiga. She actually respected the Palm Top Tiger for her courage to face her problems in the end, and prove her self-worth to herself. It was true that she had made some staggeringly bad judgment calls in the execution of that plan, but the goal still had it's merit.
Friday afternoon, February 25th – Kawashima House in Tokyo
"Yuri-chan!" Yasuko cheerfully answered her phone. The buxom blond had just finished an afternoon run with a few of the neighbors, when her cell phone started singing to her. The neighbors were out of breath and doubled over or lying in the cold grass, when Yasuko answered her cell phone and started cheerily talking with barely a pant in her breathing.
"Onee-chan, I haven't been able to reach Ryuuji. Could you tell him that I have the girls with me and I'm on my way?"
"Sure. How soon do you think you'll get here?" Yasuko asked in a very happy voice. Her neighbors, who were still trying to catch their breath, watched in awe as the chirping blond bounced up the stairs to her front door as easily as if she had all the energy in the world.
"About half an hour. We're not far away, but the traffic is pretty bad." Yuri explained.
"Okay, I'll tell him as soon as I see him." Yasuko told her friend as she hung up the phone and opened the front door. She was about two years older than Yuri, but she still looked like she was barely out of her teens. Most people would guess that she was in her mid twenties at the most.
Her amazing vitality and youthful appearance was something the neighbors picked up on as well. Soon after they had moved into the neighborhood and Yasuko's actual age had been discovered, she had been nominated the leader of the local health and exercise club. The club was mostly composed of retired people, housewives, and a few adults that had work-from-home jobs. It had devolved into a gossip meet before Yasuko took charge, but those days were gone now. Yasuko started their daily program with a stretching session that anyone could do. Then onto a calisthenics routine that most could keep up with. And it ended with… the run. Like her old neighborhood, she had found a place nearby that was perfect for their routine. Well, almost perfect. The university that her son and daughter-in-law went to had a lovely botanical garden nearby. Running there was prettier and safer than running along city streets. But unlike the shrine park near where they used to live, there was no great stairway here. This deep into Tokyo, the region was fairly flat and she would have to drive almost an hour to get to some decent hills to run up.
"Oh my! I almost forgot to tell you." she turned back from the open front door to her gasping neighbors and told them, "I'm really sorry but I won't be able to take you out to the shrine run this weekend after all. I hope you're not too upset."
"No, not upset." We're good." "Another time is fine." "We'll be okay." the neighbors gasped.
"Thanks so much! You're all just so sweet. I promise to make it all up to you when I get back into town. Bye!" Yasuko said as she disappeared into the house.
"Thank heavens, we've been saved." "I think she's trying to kill us all." "I thought I was going to die on that last lap." "But still… my blood pressure is better than it has been in decades." "And I'm a few kilo's lighter." "A few?" "Shut up!"
Yasuko leaned against the front door and listened to her neighbors banter long enough to know that they didn't hate her for driving them all so hard. Then she strode into the house and smiled as she caught a whiff of something delicious that her son was busy making.
"Ryuuuuu-chan!" Yasuko called out as she walked in from the foyer.
"In here, Yasuko." he called back from the kitchen. Then, as he felt his mother's breasts pressing against his back and her hands reaching into his pants pockets, he cried out, "HEY!"
"Oh Ryu-chan, you let your cell phone die again." Yasuko said as she looked at the phone she had fished out of his pocket. She knew she had flustered him, but it made her happy to know that she was still pretty enough to fluster her big handsome college son.
"You shouldn't…" Ryuuji stammered trying to chastise his mother while still paying attention to the cooking tempura.
"I know, I know… I shouldn't do something like that when you're cooking. But you know I wouldn't if I really didn't think you could handle it, right Ryu-chan?" Yasuko said sweetly as she connected his phone to the charging base.
"Uh…" Ryuuji's real objection was that his mom was just too sexy, and he was grown up too much for her to be that familiar with him any more. But, he knew that telling her that would break her heart… "Yeah, that's it."
"Anyway, Yuri-chan called and said they will be here in thirty minutes." Yasuko told her son while she got the dishes out for the dinner he was preparing.
"Ah, good. Ami should already be here though. I hope something didn't go wrong." Ryuuji's brow furrowed while he checked the flame under the pan full of hot oil.
"Something did go wrong. Your phone was dead." Yasuko reminded him. Then, anticipating his next comment, she reached for her own phone.
"Ah, you're right! Could you call her for me, please?" Ryuuji looked up at the clock and hoped she hadn't been trying to reach him all this time.
Ami was riding in one of the limousines owned by the Yamada family. She had just come from a photo shoot at the grand re-opening of another one of Yukiko's re-imaged hotels. This one didn't have the posh rooms of Le Dauphin, but it was perfect for it's intended purpose. She had become interested in the project when Yukiko described it as an inexpensive alternative to the 'tube' hotels. Remembering that Hisako had been so down on her luck that she had been staying in one of those places, Ami had looked into them. Most of them were awful. They weren't cleaned well, their facilities weren't maintained, and some of them had been cited as being unsafe for a variety of reasons. Frankly, staying in one of those filthy tube hotels was just a step away from being homeless.
But Yukiko brought a touch of class to the concept. It was well known that a lot of people came into Tokyo to work during the week, then went back to their homes in the countryside on the weekends and holidays. But that could be expensive unless you rented a place with several roommates. And, as everyone will discover at least once in their lives, roommates are not always as reliable as you might hope. So, Yukiko's concept hotel brought in the miniature living spaces that other 'tube' hotels used, but upgraded the common amenities areas. Whole floors were designated for men or women so that there could be a more efficient layout and guests would feel more at ease.
The Lobby level had a restaurant where guests could get something to eat from a set of buffet tables. The cost of the meals was included with the fare and all they had to do was swipe their room card. Each floor had it's own place to get in a quick work-out, a common bath area, and a place with food and drink vending machines in case the guest missed the times that the dining room was open. Everything was set up for the office worker on the go. That is to say, for the individual who was probably in a hurry, but should have something healthy to eat nonetheless.
Ami had been impressed with the thought that went into everything, but she couldn't help but think that Hisako still would not have been able to afford this place back when she was having a hard time finding work.
"You look disappointed." Yukiko said sadly. She had been able to notice Ami's doleful look despite having to drive through Tokyo traffic. Yukiko had been hopeful when Ami looked impressed earlier in the day, but she didn't seem as happy now.
"No no! It has nothing to do with your new hotel. I really do think it's a good idea." Ami assured her friend. The friend that Ryuuji had arranged for her back when they had made that first trip to Tokyo together. Those were fond memories but…
"But…" Yukiko prodded Ami.
"You remember my friend, Hisako? Do you remember why we brought her to stay with us in your hotel back then?" Ami asked.
"Yes. She was living in a tube hotel at the time." Yukiko replied… somewhat diplomatically.
"She was living in squalor." Ami swept the diplomatic air away and called it the way she remembered it.
"Well, yes. But I had hoped you would see that they don't all have to be like that. I had to fight my own family to get this project, you know. They didn't like the idea of the Yamada name being attached to something like a tube hotel. But I still believe there is a huge opportunity here." Yukiko was getting worked up in defense of her project, but Ami was flagging her down.
"It's not that. I agree with you and I think you've put together something very nice. It's just… I was remembering how tough things were for Hisako back then and… even though your rates aren't enormously higher than the other places, I don't think she would have been able to afford your place."
"That's still okay." Yukiko said.
"What?" Ami couldn't believe that her hotel heiress friend would say that it was still okay for Hisako to live in squalor… so she must have meant something else.
"Until now, there were the cheap but awful tubes, and then there were the more expensive hotels and apartments. But my new place will raise the bar. It is only a bit more expensive than the existing tubes and less expensive than the hotels and apartments. Other places never had to try hard to compete before, but they will now. Existing tube hotels may not have my full suite of amenities, but to be able to stay in business, they will need to fix up and clean up."
"I see. So…" Ami was about to make a business observation when her cell phone rang. Looking at her smart-phone, she saw that it was from Onee-chan.
"Go ahead." Yukiko signaled for Ami to take her call.
"Onee-chan? Is everything okay?" Ami asked.
"It's fine but Ryu-chan asked me to call you and let you know that Yuri-chan and the girls are about thirty minutes away. Well… I guess they are twenty minutes away now. So, when do you think you'll be home?"
"I'm with Yuki-chan…" Ami had to jerk her phone away from her head when Yasuko suddenly screamed into her phone.
"Yuki-chan is coming! I haven't seen her in ages! That's wonderful!" Yasuko turned to her son and asked, "We have enough for one more don't we? Ami is bringing Yuki-chan!"
"Sure, I'm making lots." Ryuuji said with a grin. He had developed the habit of cooking more than was necessary the night of, or the night before an event. It just seemed like something would always come up. Something exactly like this.
"Yay! So, how soon until you two get here." Yasuko said to her phone.
"She is bringing me home now. We should be there…" Ami glanced over at Yukiko who was holding up five fingers, "we should be there in five minutes."
"All right, I'll let Ryu-chan know. Byeeee!" and Yasuko was gone.
"She's still everybody's Onee-chan, isn't she?" Yukiko asked.
"Oh yes… and I guess you heard about dinner?" Ami asked.
"Yes. And I look forward to it. As I recall, my little sister's future husband is an outstanding cook." Yukiko teased.
"Your little…" Ami's brain caught the inference and she smirked, "You're not still on about stealing Ryuuji from me, are you?"
"You bet I am! The Yamada family has dibs on him." Yukiko laughed, "The moment you step out of line, Takasu Ryuuji is ours!"
"Tell me again why we're friends?" Ami grimaced.
"Because Ryuuji said so. And if you go against him on that, I get to count it as you stepping out of line." the oldest, and most businesslike of the three Yamada sisters that Ami had met was actually snickering like a little girl.
Ami wasn't able to maintain her pout any longer. Sitting next to the snickering friend was too much for her, and soon they were both laughing.
Ryuuji and Yasuko were getting the food to the table when everyone seemed to arrive at once. Ami came in with Yukiko and a moment later, Yuri came in with Aiko-chan, Umeki, and Suzume. They all started to chatter, but Ryuuji spoke over their conversations with his announcement.
"We don't have much time. You need to eat and we need to be out the door in less than an hour." Ryuuji boomed.
"What? Did you get plane tickets for this evening? I thought we didn't leave until tomorrow?" Yuri asked.
"I won't have time to pack!" Suzume sounded startled.
"No, the plane isn't until tomorrow morning. But we need to head out for Waseda University in an hour. The Kendo match was delayed so we have time to make it." Ryuuji told them.
"Just a second," Ami said with a pout, "...we have to rush through our meal because you promised your ex-girlfriend…"
"She doesn't know we're coming." Ryuuji interjected with a knowing smile.
"Huh?" Ami's pout turned into a puzzled look.
"Umeko is the one that invited us. Taiga has no idea we are coming." Ryuuji explained.
"Oh really…" Ami's puzzled look now turned into a feral grin. She looked around at the others and saw that a few of them were grinning too. The little tsundere was entirely predictable; she would act angry that they all surprised her, but she would be glad that they were there. But Taiga's initial surprise would be... priceless.
"Ryuuji-sama, are we really going to see Nee-chan?" Aiko-chan asked with excitement. She had taken to calling the older girl that looked like a younger sister of hers, by that honorific. The first time Taiga heard it she was both thrilled and horrified. She thought it made her sound like an older sister and a little girl at the same time. It didn't help that Ami started laughing hysterically when she heard Taiga's complaint. But, no matter how much it might have pained Taiga, she couldn't bring herself to tell the younger but bigger version of herself to stop.
"That's right, but only if we can hurry." Ryuuji replied.
"All right, you heard Ryu-chan! Eat up, everyone. Then, let's go watch little Taiga's competition!" Yasuko cheered.
Friday late afternoon, February 25th – Waseda University, Tokyo Japan
It wasn't that Minori and Umeko should have realized that Taiga was up to something. They knew she was. They just decided to go along with her. So, they hadn't been surprised when they got out of the showers and discovered that all their clothes were missing. And, in their place were two red skirts and white blouses – Miko outfits.
"So, we're going to be her attendants?" Minori smiled nervously while looking at her reflection in the mirror. Having spent most of her life as a jock/tomboy, Minori was always more comfortable in running shorts and a T-shirt, she always felt odd in such a girly outfit.
"Oh… I think it will be fine." Umeko was smiling too, but she was looking at the message on her phone. In fact… this should be a lot of fun!"
"Huh?" Minori wondered why her fellow softball loving friend was suddenly so pumped about being involved in Taiga's Kendo competition.
Umeko was wondering if she should tell Minori about the surprise she had arranged with Ryuuji when she heard Taiga's voice from the dressing room doorway.
"Are you two ready yet?" Taiga called out to them.
"Coming!" Umeko replied as she grabbed Minori by the hand and headed out of the dressing room.
"All right. Whatever you two do, don't embarrass me." Taiga tried to sound gruff as she ordered her two taller assistants.
"Of course not. But… whatever you do, don't look at the third row of the stands, opposite your entrance." Umeko smirked.
"Huh?" Taiga's eyes were, of course, drawn straight to the third row of the bleachers where the audience had gathered to watch the competition. Her mouth dropped open and her cheeks went crimson when she saw who was there. Just about everyone she knew except Noto's group in Tokushima, were several meters away looking back at her. Most of them calmly waved at her, but there was one that couldn't bottle up her enthusiasm.
"Neechan! Neechan!" Aiko-chan was jumping up and down and waving madly. The smile on her face revealed so much pure joy that Taiga found it impossible to scream, throw a rude gesture, or do anything to show how annoying it was to have all of them suddenly show up like this.
"How… how did they know?" Taiga hissed through a forced smile as she weakly waved back at her friends.
"The events are published on the school's web site, you know." Minori replied quietly.
"Or, it could be that I told Ryuuji-sama all about it." Umeko admitted with her own smile… that was in no way, forced.
"You what?" both Taiga and Minori gaped as they turned to face the turncoat.
"Taiga, this competition is your test to make Second Dan. This is a crucial event in Kendo. You won't have another event like this for two years. Do you really think it was fair to exclude your friends from something so important?" Umeko lectured.
"But… I might not win." Taiga's self doubt always surfaced around her competitions. She was easily the shortest contender in the competition and that gave her an inferiority complex. But, as her coach had pointed out, it could also be an advantage. The valid targets were her head, throat, torso, and wrists. But, for a taller opponent, it would be difficult for them to reach her torso. In fact, the head would be such a perfect target that Taiga could concentrate her defenses there and give more focus to her own attacks. It had worked out well in concept and practice, but now it was the time to put that theory to the test in actual competition… but Taiga had doubts.
"You'll do fine!" Minori assured her long time friend. Then she raised the gloves and helped Taiga to put them on.
"Did you know that Aiko-chan told me that she wants to be like you when she grows up?" Umeko said as she lifted the helmet and carefully placed it over Taiga's head.
"That's ridiculous! She's already grown more than me." Taiga pouted that the ten year old girl was already taller than her and… had larger breasts too.
"She wasn't talking about height. She respects your confidence, your willpower, and your indomitable spirit." Umeko told the Palm Top Tiger.
"She's nuts!" Taiga laughed.
"No, Taiga. It's true that she's still a child, but Aiko-chan is a smart girl and that's the way she sees you. And… to tell you the truth, that's the way a lot of people see you." Minori rebutted her friend's self-disparaging comment.
"Now Taiga," Umeko said as she grasped the Kendo helmet and stared into the shorter girl's wide open eyes, "you take that confidence, that willpower, and that indomitable spirit – mix it up with all that training you've been doing, and go win this thing!"
From the stands, her friends watched as Taiga left the company of the two Miko's and approached her tall, Amazonian opponent. Just from looking at the two figures in their armor, it looked like a child was about to fight an adult. The smaller opponent wore a strip of red on her back and the taller had a strip of white. The tall girl still seemed immeasurably larger as the opponents went into their squat and waited for the referee to signal the start of the match. The three referees each held a red and a white flag for the actual judging but for now, they all took a few moments to observe each contestant's form. When they were all satisfied, they moved into their positions and were ready for the center referee to signal the match to commence. As soon as he did, there was an eruption of sound and a blur of motion.
"DO!" Taiga's scream could be heard echoing off the close walls even as the bodies rapidly moved. Her scream was followed by a loud smack from the sound of the the tall girl driving her Shinai hard onto Taiga's helmet. The big girl's blow had been powerful and Taiga had been driven to her knees… but all three referees were holding up red flags.
"What happened?" Yasuko asked. To her, it seemed like she blinked and it was all over.
"Onee-chan, look up there." Yuri gestured at the ceiling over Taiga's head. Fortunately, the college had a large monitor above the contest floor that could replay the scene in slow motion. All eyes went up to the screen to see how Taiga had scored the point.
With the motion slowed down, they saw what had happened in the mere second after the referee had given the signal to begin. Taiga launched herself at her opponent as if her legs had been boosted with strong coiled springs. The tall girl instantly reacted with a blow to Taiga's head, which impacted a moment before Taiga's stroke impacted her opponent's torso armor.
"But… it looks like the other girl got in the first blow. So, why did Taiga get the point?" Aiko-chan asked.
"Look at where the Shinai hit Taiga's helmet." Yuri explained, "Do you see the white tape on both of their swords?"
"Yeah." Aiko-chan could clearly see the white tape on the monitor.
"The blow has to be between that tape and the tip of the Shinai. Taiga closed the distance to her opponent so quickly that the blow to her head was in the wrong place and it didn't count." Yuri finished her lesson, but didn't sound like a teacher. There was admiration in her voice for the little girl that tried such a gutsy move.
"Wow… she moved real fast!" Aiko-chan said with apparent admiration.
"Yes, she did." Ryuuji was impressed too. There had been many times that he had been on the receiving end of one of the Palm Top Tiger's attacks and he knew just how fast Taiga could move.
"So, she's going to win, right?" Aiko-chan asked brightly.
"Maybe… she did get the first point. She only needs one more, but that kind of attack isn't going to work again. Her opponent will be on her guard now." Ami said. She would have liked to have said more too, but little Aiko-chan didn't need to be overly worried. Ami did not like the way the big girl had hit Taiga on her head so hard that she had been driven to her knees. She was a little surprised that the referees hadn't given the large opponent a penalty for that. But the main reason she said nothing was that it was Taiga. Had it been any other small girl, she would have cried foul. But Taiga wasn't one to be bullied so easily. In fact, Ami thought she could detect the Palm Top Tiger's barely controlled rage even from up in the stands. If that Amazonian thinks she's intimidating Taiga, she is making a very serious mistake.
Everyone was watching carefully when the referees gave the signal to begin again. This time was a little different. There were a few seconds of batting at each other's sword tips before the big girl rushed at Taiga. Neither could get their Shinai in position and they ended up with their swords vertical. The big girl used her mass and strength to push Taiga around on the competition floor. It looked as though she might be about to push her out of the competition area when she suddenly slammed the hilt, or tsuka of her Shinai into the face of Taiga's helmet and sent her flying out of the fight area. Normally, one would get a penalty for leaving the designated fight area, but the three referees signaled a penalty to the big girl instead.
"I don't like her. She's bullying Neechan!" Aiko-chan shouted.
"Why did she get the penalty?" Umeki asked.
"That kind of roughness isn't allowed in Kendo." Ryuuji told her.
"Yeah, if she wanted to throw people around, she should have taken up Sumo or Judo." Suzume said with a little contempt showing in her voice.
"Oh, so you can beat each other on the head with sticks all you want, but you can't push someone down?" Umeki said sarcastically.
"That's right." Ryuuji chuckled at the girl's well crafted witticism.
"It doesn't seem right to me." Umeki mumbled. Of course, Umeki had never been a fan of violent sports, anyway. She didn't hate them, but she wouldn't have come to a competition like this, if one of the contestants hadn't been someone she knew.
"Well then… when we get back to our room I'll be sure to push you down." Suzume said with an exaggerated leering smile.
"Eep!" Umeki suddenly blushed across her full face when she realized the context of what that meant in the setting of their shared bedroom.
"What did Suzume-senpai mean by that?" Aiko-chan innocently asked.
"Nothing. It was a joke. Watch the match." Ryuuji said while turning the young girl's head with his hand so that she wasn't looking at the misbehaving teenage girls any more.
This time, when the referee signaled for them to begin, the room once again echoed with Taiga's scream.
"TSUKI!" Taiga startled the big girl with her scream even though she still hadn't moved from her starting position. She waited until the giantess recovered enough to take a swipe at her, and then it was time to make her move. The swipe had missed her head by centimeters and once again, Taiga was inside the big girl's reach. But this time, she didn't cross swords with the big girl, and she didn't give her a chance to punch her in the face again either. The tip of her Shinai came up in a powerful thrust not many would believe a girl as small as Taiga could muster. It crashed into the taller girl's throat guard and hit with so much ferocity that the big girl was lifted off her feet with the impact. This time it was the giantess that fell to the floor with a crash. Flags came out again, but they were all red… and Taiga had won the match.
"Huh? But Taiga knocked the other girl down this time. Why did she get a point for that?" Yasuko wasn't against the idea of cute little Taiga getting the win, but she was confused about the scoring.
"Taiga announced that she would hit her opponent in the throat when she yelled 'tsuki' at the beginning. So her hit was a legal blow." Ryuuji told his mother.
"Oh… so what happens now?" Yasuko was watching as the two girls dressed like shrine maidens helped Taiga out of her gloves and mask. She smiled when the mask came off and she could see that Taiga's familiar and cute face didn't seem to have been hurt. Well, at least she couldn't see any blood from up here in the stands.
"Now we get to go congratulate her. She won her match. She is a Second Dan now." Ryuuji said in a voice gilded with pride.
"Hey there, remember me?" Ami elbowed Ryuuji in the ribs.
"What?" Ryuuji looked at his wife in surprise.
"You sure are sounding proud of your ex-girlfriend's victory." Ami pouted.
"I am proud of my friend's victory." Ryuuji corrected the sentiment, then added, "You never got upset when I was proud of Suzume, or Hisako, or Aiko-chan?"
"Yeah well… that's because they're not Taiga!" Ami snapped.
"No…" Ryuuji knew where this was going and decided to capitalize on it instead of fight it. He reached out to his fuming bride and pulled her in close while he quietly said, "… and you're not Taiga either. You are Ami… the love of my life, my wife, and the mother of my child."
"Ah!" Ami looked down so Ryuuji couldn't see how fiercely his words had made her blush.
"And I, Takasu Ryuuji, will walk the same path as you." Ryuuji said in a louder voice.
Ami was startled with a jolt of recognition when she heard those words. She looked up at Ryuuji and was unprepared… but didn't fight it, when he kissed her in the middle of the noisy recreation center. Both of them were peripherally aware that many people were taking pictures of them with cell phones and cameras, but they had gotten quite used to that in the past year. Ami hadn't done that much modeling or entertainment work recently, but her highly publicized marriage and pregnancy had done a lot to boost her celebrity status. And, Ami knew that – through thick and thin, whenever she needed Ryuuji – he was always there for her. Deep inside, she admitted to herself that her little emotional anger just now was completely unwarranted. When their lips parted from the kiss, Ami was about to apologize for her little bout of jealousy but he put a finger to her lips.
"It's just that I'll be one step ahead." Ryuuji completed the quote with a smirk.
Air Commodore - O7, equivalent to a Brigadier General
Aircraftman - E2, an entry level enlisted rank in the Royal Australian Air Force
Corporal - E5, a mid level enlisted rank in the Royal Australian Air Force
Dan – a ranking system used in martial arts (Kendo, Judo…), strategic games (Shogi, go…), and also cultural arts (flower arranging, calligraphy, and tea ceremony). First Dan would be the first rank of expertise, similar to a first degree black belt.
Do – Torso (Breastplate on a set of Kendo armor)
Earbashing - nagging, non-stop chatter
Flight Lieutenant - O3, an officert in the Royal Australian Air Force
Service Dress uniform - shiny black shoes, dark blue slacks, light blue shirt, rank on epaulets
Sheila - a woman
Shinai – a sword made of bamboo for use in Kendo
Show Pony - someone who tries hard, by his dress or behavior, to impress those around him
Tsuki – throat (Throat Guard on a set of Kendo armor)