28 August 2017, Monday, Evening.
Inaba was by its very nature a small town. It had never been a business or economics giant like the capital in Tokyo, or a cultural centre like Kyoto, or an industrial monolith like Nagoya. It had no primary agricultural trade, nor did it specialize in any technology. The people were typically simple folk, who enjoyed simple – some would say boring, others would say stable; many in Inaba thought of life as both – joys and anxieties and existences. Every year, babies were born; children scraped knees and broke bones; youngsters fell in love and married, sometimes staying in their hometown and sometimes not. For those who stayed, they lived simple lives, too, and – for the most part – died simple deaths. But that was life in Inaba: a cycle of neverending endings and beginnings, each day basically the same as the one come before and the one to come after.
Except on days like today.
For today, in Honshu's Tottori prefecture, the little town of Inaba came as close to being a bustling municipality as it had ever been in its almost eight-hundred-year history.
There were streamers of twinkling and sparkling lights strung up all over town: in front of stores, from streetlamps on the thoroughfares and trees in the parks, and even along the old shopping district street. They created a path of glowing luminescence, to lead the curious traveler toward the epicenter of tonight's excitement and events: Tatsuhime Jinja, with its giant red torii gate, from which hung a flapping banner proclaiming to all who didn't know that this was Inaba's Annual Starlight Tanabata Matsuri! Below that, in somewhat smaller script, was the not-so-quiet reminder that this year's festival was Sponsored by Your Junes – "Every Day Young Life!"
No matter whose name was on the banners, though, the travelers had come in droves.
Many of them were Inaba residents, come to explore this year's specialty offerings from the local shops they knew well; or to see what new twist the bigshots at Junes had in mind to change the festival from its traditional roots; or just to take a relaxing night to walk amongst friends and family in a celebratory setting. These were the regulars, the men and women and elders and children for whom the summer festival offered one more break from the grueling summer work week, or one last break before the start of the new school semester: an opportunity to dress up and let the timelessness of the moment overtake them.
There were other travelers, though, too, whose interest in the little town both started and ended at the queue stanchions placed at the jinja gate. These were Inaba's city cousins, from Okina and Paulownia and Kiyo and further, all come to see the main attraction of this year's festival: the idol Rise-chi.
Even before Chie, Kuma, and Yukiko had arrived at Tatsuhime, they could hear the screams and chanting for Inaba's resident young idol from all the way up the street. The three of them exchanged curious looks (and there was a fair amount of interested giggling that passed between Chie and Yukiko), pausing briefly at the top of the block so as not to be overwhelmed by the crowds waiting to get in and catch a glimpse of Rise-chi.
"Geez," Chie whistled. "There must be at least three hundred people in that crowd! Where'd they all come from?"
Yukiko fanned her face with her ornamental ougi. "Not from the ryokan, thank goodness. We're full up, but not like that." She glanced around. "Do you see anyone you recognize?"
Chie shook her head. Rise was surely already inside, getting ready for the stage show, as was Yousuke, who had left her apartment earlier that afternoon in a nervous rush, nearly tripping over his own feet in his flustered preoccupation to get into his sneakers while he gave orders over his phone to some staff member or other. ("A producer's job is never done," he had told her with a sigh, and then she had taken his face in her hands and laid a brief but calming kiss on his lips, before seeing him to the door.)
"I know Kanji-kun's inside," Yukiko said, her voice pulling Chie back to the present. "But I was hoping maybe we could see Naoto-chan or somebody else."
Chie didn't state the obvious choice of "somebody else" that came to her mind, but Kuma was not even as subtle as Chie, and she said:
"I don't see Sensei, kuma."
Yukiko spared the girl a smile. "I don't, either," she said, "but I'm sure he'll be here tonight. He wouldn't miss Nanako-chan."
Kuma looked down at herself. "I want to show Sensei my yukata, kuma," she said with a smile of her own. "Chie-chan said I would look good in blue, kuma. So that's what I chose." And she lifted the draping furisode sleeves in presentation.
Yukiko chuckled. "Chie-chan does like to make her opinions known," she muttered.
Chie looked at her friend, pursing her lips sheepishly. No doubt Yukiko was referring to Chie's compliments when they were younger, about how good Yukiko looked in the color red, and how Yukiko had quickly taken to adding the color to every part of her wardrobe, from hairbands to dresses to sweaters to earrings. Thankfully, Yukiko no longer held any of that against Chie (if she ever had...Chie had meant the compliment sincerely – Yukiko really did look good in red), forming her own opinions about what looked good on her, and in what way. Of course, Chie noticed that Yukiko still held a fondness for the color red, though if that was from Chie's influence or not, she didn't know.
"But it is a very good color on you," Yukiko admitted to the girl, as she tilted her head in appraisal.
And it was: the pale blue star print brought out the shimmer of Kuma's eyes and the full pinkness of her lips. Highlighted among the blue flowers were little curling gold and silver enhancements, which shone whenever the material moved through the light. And the wide belt – the same kind of white-fading-to-blue color – completed the picture perfectly; Kuma looked like a charmingly real young woman.
Kuma smiled then, and shifted her hair from her shoulders with one hand. She had wanted to leave her hair loose and flowing, though the flaxen tresses were accentuated by a red flower barrette pinned close to one ear, which reminded Chie of the somewhat garish flower that boy-Kuma had used to wear with his frilly shirt and tuxedo trousers.
"Thank you, Yuki-chan," Kuma said with a genteel bow. "You look pretty, too, kuma. Just like Chie-chan."
Yukiko smiled and gave a brief chuckle, while Chie did the same.
Both women were in yukata, as well, with the added complement of geta sandals, just like Kuma. But where Kuma's yukata faded from white to a pale and twilit blue, Yukiko's had a black base and was detailed in a white-and-red crane motif; and Chie's was in shades of apple-green and gold, decorated with bubbly flowers that looked like lilypads.
"We do look good, don't we?" Chie said with a chuckle. Which was a good thing, considering that it had taken both her and Kuma the better part of the afternoon to get dressed; the legendary weaver princess Orihime would have taken less time fashioning an entire wardrobe full of gilded yukata than it had taken to prepare themselves in their own. (Part of the problem had been that Kuma was just by her very nature so fidgety. The other part was because Chie had mixed up the fold of Kuma's yukata, because she wasn't used to dressing anyone besides herself in the garment, and, upon realizing the mistake, they had then had to start over from the beginning. Luckily, Yukiko had arrived – because Chie had thought to call her earlier in the day – and dressing had gone much more smoothly after that.)
"Like princesses," Yukiko said with a teasing smile.
Chie blinked, then shook her head with a light groan. "I'm never going to live that down, am I?"
Yukiko giggled, but if she was going to say anything more, she was interrupted by a lively:
Chie smiled at the sound of the voice, turning to see her old superior moving toward them, his arm upraised.
"Doujima-san," Yukiko said with an appreciative smile. "Konbanwa! To you, too, Seta," she added, nodding toward the younger man.
To the women's surprise, both Doujima and Souji were dressed in yukata, too, Doujima's a black base with simple white cross-hatching, while Souji's was a more formal dark purple pinstripe. Seeing men in yukata usually reminded Chie of the days when, as a child, she would trot beside her father and grandfather on their way to the public ofuro...and then be told she needed to go home because it wasn't a place for little girls to be. But Doujima and Souji looked very different from those memories of her father and grandfather, almost timelessly handsome in the traditional dress.
"Konbanwa, sir," Chie said, greeting Doujima and then Souji with a little bow of her head. "Seta. You dressed for the occasion, huh?"
Doujima nodded wearily, looking not quite so uncomfortable in the yukata as he made himself out to be. "Ah. Nanako-chan insisted. I was hoping my work suit would have been good enough-"
"-But she's very persuasive," Souji finished with a grin.
Doujima nodded again, tucking back an embarrassed smile. "She certainly is."
Chie snickered. "It's my experience that daughters are products of their fathers," she said, earning her another giggle from Yukiko and a look of amused annoyance from Doujima.
"I'm still your superior, Satonaka," the older man mock-grumbled.
While Chie bit her responsive smile behind her lips, Souji bowed his head to Yukiko and Kuma.
"You look very pretty this evening," he said with a gentle smile. He spared Chie a more teasing smirk. "I hope I can say that you look nice, too, Satonaka...without Hana jumping out of nowhere to throttle me."
Chie blushed, but smiled, too. "He's inside," she muttered simply.
Kuma nodded her head, sending sparkles from her temples. "Thank you, Sensei!" she said, clutching her hands together. Then she smiled. "Do you want to walk around the festival with me, kuma?"
Souji blinked. "Ah. I already promised to escort another young lady tonight, Kumada-chan," he said. He glanced at Yukiko, as if to gauge her reaction, which was one of noticeable curiosity. Then he smirked. "But I don't think that Nanako-chan would mind if you joined us. After the performance, that is."
Yukiko chuckled, then looked around at the assembled crowd. "Isn't that supposed to start soon?"
Chie nodded. "Seven forty-five," she said knowingly, and then shrugged when the others looked at her in interest. "Yousuke-chan's been going over those plans for days."
"It's almost dusk now," Yukiko murmured, looking up into the western sky, where the bright summer sun was passing down below the rooftops of the houses across the river.
Souji inclined his head toward the entrance. "Well, they're starting to let people in. Let's see if we can grab a spot for the show before all the Rise-chi fans crowd the place." And he extended his arm to Kuma, who immediately accepted the offering with a huge grin. He smiled at Yukiko, too, who nodded and walked beside him, moving gracefully in her yukata and geta...and seeming much more befitting of the title "princess" than Chie would have ever thought herself to be.
Doujima laid a hand behind Chie's shoulder, in much the same way that he used to do when he was showing her the ropes of the police department (the break room, the motor pool, the evidence and file rooms, and – his favorite – the firing range), and motioned her forward with a little push and a nod of his head. "After you," he said, and Chie grinned back, having missed the particular brand of aloof but supportive guidance that Doujima had offered her as a cadet.
They filtered beneath the torii gate of the jinja, both Chie and Doujima greeting Officer Kibuishi, who was in formal police dress, complete with white gloves, for the occasion, and made their way into the interior of the somehow-already-bustling festival.
There were calls of "Irasshaimase!" from a myriad of stall vendors, as well as the chattering of children racing between the couples and families in both traditional and modern dress. The smells of grilled food and heavily-sugared candies competed for attention from the nose, and the lights that twinkled overhead from both the strings through the trees and the individual booths gave the arcade the feeling of a pachinko parlor. But it was giddying and exciting, and Chie was sincerely impressed that Junes could makeover the jinja grounds so spectacularly for the occasion. She had seen this place in a state of rest, but in full bloom of glory, it brought a grin to her face to think that Inaba could compete with the big festivals in the big cities...at least to her perceptions.
As they moved closer to the center of the festival and the stage that was its centerpiece, Chie could more distinctly hear music and the high, dreamy singing of a girl, a voice she recognized from some of Yousuke's recordings. That would be Hitomi's band onstage, then; sure enough – when they had made it close enough to the stage to see past the big speakers on either side of the platforms – there was the four-piece band, playing a bouncy, poppy tune to the slowly-assembling crowd. Even though they were mostly there for atmosphere, the band performed as if they were the headliners, with an energy and unbridled joy that shone through in every jump, every smile, every toss of the head and stroke of the fingers across strings.
Chie watched them for a long moment, grinning at Hitomi and her friends as they enjoyed the simplicity of their music. She was close enough to the stage that she could easily turn her head to see the sound control table, where Yousuke was speaking into his headset microphone, and she smiled. He looked more than a little anachronistic, standing there in his orange-on-black haori jacket and dark hakama trousers, while bathed in the low, bluish light from his laptop, and with a wireless headset on his head.
He caught her gaze and grinned to her, beckoning her over with a wave of his hand even as he kept talking. She giggled to herself and pushed her way through the amassing crowd – past Doujima chatting with shopkeeper Taniguchi about the right kind of flowers for a performer; past Souji, Kuma, and Yukiko trying to get some skewers of takoyaki from the Kiyomoris' stand; and past Kanji and his mother at their table, trading dolls and money and clothes and more money nearly hand over fist – and squeezed over to the edge of the sound table.
Yousuke hustled her behind the front of the stall with an arm around her shoulders, hugging her close to his chest. He closed his fist over the microphone of his headset and leaned in to her to whisper, "You look beautiful."
Chie giggled again, snuggling briefly into him. "So do you," she said.
"Two minutes," the man sitting on Yousuke's other side muttered.
Yousuke nodded, uncovering his mic. "Two minutes," he said into the headset. "Orchestra into position, please. And make sure Kujikawa's on her mark."
"How's it going?" Chie asked, mostly mouthing the words so she wouldn't be too much of an interruption.
Yousuke grinned again. "I can't wait 'til it's over," he said, rubbing his hand over her arm. "You need to get back to Kumada?" he asked suddenly.
She shook her head. "She's with Yukiko-chan and Seta. I can stay here for a while, if that's okay with you."
Yousuke blinked down at her, smiling gently. "Sure," he murmured, and bent his head to nuzzle at the crown of her head, making her giggle one more time. He held her close for a moment, then straightened up. "Thirty seconds," he said into his microphone, as Hitomi's band finished up their number. Then another softly-spoken command, as the last notes drifted from the speakers: "Cue fifteen, set..." he whispered, watching intently as the band took a low bow to smattering applause. "Cue fifteen, go."
The upstage lights came up, illuminating the children's orchestra already in place, sitting and smiling in their boys' and girls' yukata. Beside them, also in place at upstage center, was the children's chorus, dressed similarly and standing still, waiting to begin. Hitomi's band moved to the positions they had taken during yesterday's dress rehearsal, at upstage left. Chie heard Yousuke breathe another cue, and then the lights came up on the young orchestra leader, dressed in something approximating a tuxedo.
The conductor led the orchestra in a gentle and quiet lullaby of a tune, to which the children's chorus added their high voices, a humming, soothing sound. The rock band joined in, rounding out the fullness of the opening song. Then the conductor turned from the children to face the audience, amid more smattering applause, while the music played on behind her.
"Konbanwa," the young woman said into her microphone. "My name is Matsunaga Ayane. On behalf of the Ogiso Children's Orchestra and Chorus, and Low Light Metro, we welcome you to this year's Starlight Tanabata Matsuri, sponsored by Inaba Junes."
More applause from the crowd, a polite acknowledgment.
"Tanabata is a celebration of love and longing," the young conductor continued, "and wishes for our future. Tonight's inaugural concert was conceived to recognize our children, held in our arms and in our hearts, for the beauty and promise of all they can be."
There was a little more heartfelt applause, now, from proud parents and siblings and friends.
Chie spared a glance at Yousuke, whose idea it was to have the festival concert in the first place; he hadn't told her it was for that charmingly sentimental reason. Perhaps the reason was simply for show, a way to convince the budget managers that having the concert would create some extra goodwill between Inaba and the mega-store...but she liked to think that it was because he really did have a soft spot for the kids in town, and what they represented.
"They are the stars in our lives," the conductor whispered into the microphone, her voice quiet but carrying, "with talents as innumerable as the stars in the sky." And here she raised her hand above her head, to where the crowd could now see the bright twinkling lights overhead in the night sky, heralding the official beginning of the festival. She smiled, taking a low breath as the music climbed to a significant bridge. "And now," she said, letting her arm fall slowly to center stage. "It is my great pleasure to introduce to you, our brightest star: Inaba's own...Rise-chi."
Yousuke whispered another cue, and then a shining spotlight hit downstage center, illuminating Rise as she immediately began to sing:
"In the season of dazzling burned seas
and in the season of dancing snowflakes
whenever I turned around, you were there."
And the crowd went wild with applause, a near-explosion of excitement at the idol's presence.
Even though Chie had seen Rise perform at the dress rehearsal yesterday (and had seen her perform plenty of times on television, or on recordings that the idol had sent to her friends while on tour), seeing her in front of an audience was an altogether different experience.
Beauty and grace had never been strangers to Rise, but as she sang – standing there in her kimono-like dress, with sparkling extensions in her hair and the silken brocade of her dress creating tiny star-like effects whenever she moved – she looked positively sublime. She extended her hand out over the crowd, creating another wave of applause from both her fans and the regular attendees simply caught up in the moment.
"How many times have I gotten lost?
Every time, the one who extended his
warm helping hand was you."
As she watched and listened, even Chie found herself carried on the wave of excitement, and she had begun to clutch her purse tightly in her hands without even thinking about it. She glanced up at Yousuke as he called another cue – which brought up a row of lights that swung on their scaffolding, to light up the crowd in front of the stage, cheering participants in the show – and the brightness of his smile made her grin, too. He seemed a little giddy, as well, bobbing his head in time to the beat even as he set up another cue for the light crew.
Rise paused and bowed her chin, even that simple action full of presence and beauty, while the band and the orchestra and the chorus filled in a bridge for the final refrain. Then she stepped up close to the microphone again, raising her eyes to the light fixed on her face, so that she almost seemed to glow.
"At the end of this long journey, what will we think?
Everyone is a traveler, wand'ring about in search of love.
Let's walk together, until we find our way."
The idol held her last note, almost impossibly long, and as she swallowed the end of it, the lights on the stage flared, bright enough to change night for day, and the crowd erupted again in thunderous applause.
Chie applauded, too, as did Yousuke, briefly, before speaking softly over his headset:
"That was really nice, guys. Now, let's set up for thirty-seven..." He put his hand over the microphone and leaned down to Chie. "You don't have to hang out here if you don't want to," he whispered. "I'm just going to be calling cues for the next hour or so."
But Chie shook her head. "I don't mind," she whispered back to him as she laid her purse on the table. "You know, if that's still okay."
Yousuke nodded his head head and smiled. "Yeah, of course," he said, and he reached around behind him. He picked up his chair and shifted it over for her. "Have a seat."
She giggled and took the seat, silently grateful for not having to stand there in her geta and the unfamiliar constricting folds of her yukata. "Thanks," she murmured, and he nodded to her one more time before turning back to work.
Rise did another welcome to the festival, then went back into idol mode for another, more lively musical number with the rock band as backup. The children's orchestra added little flourishes from the reed and brass sections, that elicited amused laughter and rounds of applause as they rose to the challenge. A couple of the trumpet and trombone players even ventured further downstage with Hitomi and her bassist, to have a playful little back-and-forth of melodies, garnering them a cheer from the audience, as if everyone present was all part of the same party, no matter if they were onstage or not.
Chie laughed, too, and offered both kids and teens applause, and next to her she heard Yousuke snickering and chuckling as he called more cues. She glanced up at him, watching the way that his eyes moved over the stage with pride and enjoyment but without longing, as if being part of watching the spectacle was enough, without having to be up there onstage with the performers. Then she smiled to herself, settling back against the chair to watch the rest of the show.
When the second number finished, Rise passed center stage over to the children's acts – a short play recounting the legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi; a Bon Odori performance by several graceful young dancers that got a rousing round of applause from especially the older members of the audience; and several musical acts. Nanako and Kimiyo went on during this time, the young Doujima singing charmingly (if a little nervously) while the youngest Hanamura played accompaniment on a keyboard.
Chie giggled to herself at the song that Nanako and Kimiyo had chosen, a childlike story of a tune that made her try and find Yukiko in the crowd of familiar faces.
"My puppy isn't here
he has white feet and a white tail
we were together all the time."
Standing by the Tatsumi Textiles booth, only about five meters away, Yukiko managed to look over at Chie at the same time. She giggled, too, a visible crinkling of the corners of her dark eyes. She must have also been reminded of the day that Chie had found Yukiko huddled on the side of the road with a white-furred puppy in her arms, trying to run away from home because her parents had told her that she couldn't keep a dog at the ryokan. Chie had never been sure if Rise had written the song because she had somewhere heard the story of how Chie and Yukiko had come to be friends with the help of a fluffy little mutt, but it made her smile on the inside to think that that might have been the case.
"Rainy days and windy days
but everyday I know
I want you
so hurry, come back."
When Nanako finished singing and Kimiyo finished playing, they took their bows, and Chie was sure that the two girls got more of a crowd response than any other, if only because Souji, Kanji, Kuma, Yukiko, and herself were cheering and clapping so loudly. Chie looked around for Doujima, and while he applauded with the other parents, he seemed too overcome to be able to voice any support at the moment. Even Nanako and Kimiyo blushed from their places, before moving aside for Rise to take the stage again.
This went on for an hour or so – Rise coming onstage between children's acts to perform a number with the band and orchestra, more often than not in a new outfit (Chie still didn't know how she made those changes as quickly as she did) – until they came to the closing act, a bridging musical number that started out with the simple, traditional Tanabata theme, then bled seamlessly into the rousing song of love and hope and yearning that they had listened to at the rehearsal. The crowd went nuts again at Rise's stirring performance, and as soon as she had given her thanks (and a nice plug for the Tatsumi specialty dolls, though without commenting on Kanji's appearance), she led a round of applause for all of the performers, raising her arms high above her head like a cheerleader.
"Enjoy the rest of the evening," Rise giggled into the microphone, giving another wave to the crowd as they tried to drown out her farewell with their hooting and applause. "Good night!"
And as Rise stepped away from the microphone, beside her, Chie heard Yousuke suck in a long breath:
"And...black!" he said, and as the stage lights went dark, he gave a short laugh and clapped his hands gently. "Nice show, guys," he muttered into his microphone. "Thank you. There's drinks at the Konishis' booth for everybody, on me. Okay, I'm off." Then he slipped the headset from over his ears and turned to Chie with a grin and a sigh of relief. "Whew!"
She stood up and offered him a smile. "Wow!" she said, raising her voice to be heard above the still-roaring fans around them. "That was great! You did a really good job...!"
He chuckled and gave a shrug of one shoulder. "We've got a good team," he said, laying the headset on the top of the table. "But, thanks."
She grinned. "There's no way your dad won't be impressed by this," she said, taking his hand and squeezing it firmly.
Yousuke smiled back at her, a light blush forming across his nose. "Thanks," he said again. He glanced over his shoulder for a second, then turned back to her. "Listen, I've got some stuff to break down, but then I'm pretty much free. Why don't I meet you over at Shimazawas' stall in twenty minutes or so – we can get some food and walk around the booths a bit. Sound good?"
"Absolutely," Chie replied, rolling up on her geta to plant a pecking kiss on his lips. She picked up her purse from the table and gave him a wave, holding his gaze for a long moment before shifting back into the crowd.