Summer vacation was ending. One week from now, the summer vacation of her second year of high school would come to a close; just thinking about it brought a sigh to Chidori Kaname’s lips.
She was a girl with a slender face and well-sculpted features... but right now, she was listless. She was in that time of year after you’d had all the usual summer fun, and your wallet lay empty and bare; these were the dog days of summer.
Kaname wasn’t spending much time with friends, either. One was busy with a part-time job at a toy store, one had a schedule packed with summer courses at prep school, one was going on a trip with her boyfriend... And here she was at school, melting in the heat.
She was preparing for the culture festival, which was still over a month away from now. Dressed in her gym clothes, she was sprawled like a vagrant on a plastic tarp in an empty hallway. It was shady here, and well ventilated, and the floor was cool; the student council room was a steam bath, thanks to a broken air conditioner.
Kaname was lying on her front, flipping through budget documents. Ahh... what’s the point? she wondered. Her eyes skimmed over various items: imitation vellum, packing tape, lumber; each one was attached to some barely-meaningful value. What the heck am I doing here? Right now, Kyoko’s working part-time and learning about the world. Mizuki is at prep school. Shiori is with her boyfriend in the Izu Highlands... ugh, that tramp.
I want some memories, too, she lamented. Something fiery and passionate. Something so impactful that I’ll remember this summer for as long as I live! And yet, summer was reaching its end, and nothing seemed to matter. Those were the thoughts that ran through her mind as she pored over page after page.
Then suddenly, she stopped. “What the heck?”
What had caught her attention was the construction invoice for the “Venue Entry Gate.” This exhibit, which was to be attached to the school’s front gate, was given a new design every year and was one of their festival’s most defining features. Last year, the art club had designed it with a “peace” motif, creating a 3D collage of doves taking flight. Typically, the construction costs ran about 70,000 or 80,000 yen, but this year’s gate seemed excessive:
Entry gate construction cost: 1,476,000 yen.
It was written, nonchalantly, in a handwriting she recognized. His handwriting.
“What the hell are they building down there?!” Kaname felt her body animate with motivation born from rage. She jumped to her feet, flew like an arrow down the hall, and headed for the dojo in the courtyard.
This area behind the dojo had become the de facto place to store materials for upcoming events—and indeed, when she arrived, she found several sweaty male students there, hard at work on building the gate. It would take a long time to finish, so the festival’s executive committee had started on it over summer break.
“Wh-What in the...” Seeing the entry gate in progress for the first time, her eyes widened in shock. It was less of a gate and more of a fortress—a watchtower, even. It had a massive metal frame that stood about two stories tall. It was covered here and there with lead-colored plates, heavy rivets, and long, narrow gunports. It seemed designed for one sole purpose: to intimidate all who stood before it.
The air reeked of burnt iron. All around her sat rows of metal plates, steel bars, electronics, and generators. Her ears were assaulted by the roars of electric drills and blowtorches.
“Okay, who’s in charge? Get out here!” Kaname commanded.
The foreman peeked his head out from behind the steel gate. He was wearing dingy work gloves and a safety helmet with a face shield. Beneath it, she could see disheveled black hair and a sullen face marked by a tight frown; she recognized him immediately as Sagara Sousuke. “Chidori?” he blinked. “What’s the matter?”
“Sousuke!” she said. “What the hell are you doing?!”
Sousuke looked confused. “I’m building the culture festival gate. Just what it looks like.”
“It so does not look like that! Explain this!”
He folded his arms calmly as he looked up at the “entry gate” in progress. “I’d heard that the gate’s motif last year was ‘peace.’ I thought this year’s might be ‘security.’ This gate will protect the public, serving a dual function in both observation and defense. You see similar structures in cities in Northern Ireland and Palestine.”
“This isn’t Northern Ireland or Palestine!” Kaname wailed. “It’s Tokyo!”
“Not an issue,” he responded. “We plan to add emplacements, searchlights, and loudspeakers by the time we’re finished. It should hold out for quite some time against the kind of armed terrorist attack that might target a crowded festival.” Sousuke had grown up on battlefields overseas, and he still didn’t grasp how things worked here in a place as peaceful and safe as Japan. He couldn’t get it through his head that the chance of terrorists attacking a school’s culture festival were almost nil.
“We’ll be more likely to see the police than terrorists!” she howled.
“That’s fine. Not even police equipment will be able to destroy this gate.”
“That’s not what I—”
“Of course, its presence will disincline terrorists to interfere at all. Its greatest strength is as a deterrent,” Sousuke put in thoughtfully. “Festival visitors will rest easy when they see this gate.”
“Rest easy?” Kaname asked incredulously. The looming “entry gate” projected an aura of menace; no one was going to “rest easy” in its presence. “And so you requested 1.5 million yen for this monstrosity?”
“Yes,” he confirmed. “I believe I can get an excellent price on Israeli-made composite armor. A French arms dealer acquaintance of mine told me that typically you’d have to spend over 5 million—”
Whap! Kaname slammed the wad of documents she was holding onto Sousuke’s head.
Sousuke stared in silence. “Where did that come from?”
“You suck!” Kaname yelled. “Don’t you know what our budget is? It’s 1.5 million yen! You know what happens if we follow your crazy plan? We get the most surreal school festival ever! A festival with some looming fortress at the gate and no exhibits past it!”
“Hmm...” he frowned.
“No armor plating! Use plywood! Yeesh...” Kaname muttered, walking around the metal gate. She had to admit that the framework looked solid. They’d obviously been working hard on it, but...
Why does he have to spend all his energy in the most pointless directions? After letting out her umpteenth sigh that day, she was just about to stroll through the gate itself, when...
“No! Chidori, don’t—”
“Huh?” Her right foot stepped on some kind of button. The bare nozzle just above her head began to tremble, and she was hit with a cloud of red particles. It was some kind of paint, spraying her from all sides. Soon, she could see nothing but the crimson fog all around her.
“Too late...” Sousuke whispered, dispersing the mist with the blueprints in his hand. As it cleared, they could see Kaname standing there, pitifully, as red as pollack roe.
She coughed. “Wh-What did you...”
“You accidentally triggered the marking system,” Sousuke explained calmly.
“What... is that?”
“It reacts to outsiders trying to bring weapons into the festival,” Sousuke explained. “Even if they try to escape, the red paint will let them be identified at a glance. I see it still has room for improvement, but—”
“You... you...” Her entire body began to tremble, and her now-crimson hair stood on end.
“Calm down, Chidori,” Sousuke said soothingly.
“Don’t... you... dare say that to me!” She thought about charging at him and kicking him over. But before she could, Kaname felt a wave of something else sweep over her; she sniffled. It was a feeling of sorrow. A sorrow... not quite deeper than the sea, but deeper than the school pool, at least. Her current pathetic state must have sparked a resurgence of the emptiness that had overtaken her earlier.
“Chidori...?” Sousuke peered, puzzled, into the face of the slumped-over, weeping Kaname.
“It’s just... too much...” she bawled.
“There’s no need to fear,” he told her, “The paint is non-toxic.”
“That’s not what I mean!” Smack! Kaname ended up socking Sousuke one after all. He spun around like a top, slammed the frame of the fortress gate, and then slumped to the ground.
“I’m feeling sad, okay?” she lamented, ignoring the sight of Sousuke lying limp on the ground. “I just realized that my summer is going to end like this... That this is all there’s going to be to my youth... to my second summer of high school. Run ragged by an insensitive war-obsessed freak, painted red like a Char custom, crying my eyes out under this metal monstrosity...”
Sousuke hummed to himself.
“You can’t understand, can you?” she sighed dolefully. “Summer vacation is a special time for girls.”
Sousuke stood up abruptly. “Is it?”
“Yes! At least, it is in manga and dramas and stuff... But it’s fine; never mind,” she sniffed. “I’ll stop getting my hopes up for anything special to happen. I’ll spend my last week until school starts just hanging around my house. At least then I won’t have to look at your stupid face...”
Sousuke watched cautiously as Kaname wailed and moaned. At last, he asked, “You’re saying you’re free for a week, then?”
“Yeah, I am. You got a problem with that?”
“Hmm...” Sousuke put a hand to his chin and fell into silent thought. He looked around at the other working students, and whispered low enough that they couldn’t hear. “In that case... would you like to go on a trip with me for a few days?”
It took her a few solid seconds just to say, “Huh?”
“Accompany me to a verdurous tropical island,” he coaxed. “Away from the others.”
“Are... Are you being serious?” she asked. Kaname couldn’t believe her ears; Sousuke had never invited her anywhere before. And the two of them... all alone, on a tropical island?!
“Yes,” he told her. “Don’t worry about the travel costs; I’ve been waiting for a chance to ask you for some time.”
A few days... In other words, they’d be staying overnight. Two young people, alone, on an overnight trip... The suddenness of the invitation had shaken her badly.
“Hey. Are you... um... well...”
“You don’t like the idea?”
“I-It’s not that, but...”
“I believe you will find it very satisfying.”
“Um... ummm...” Kaname hemmed and hawed and flapped her mouth. What do I do? What can I do? Sousuke’s never been this aggressive before. I figured he’d never just ask me right out; I’m not emotionally prepared! But if I say no, I might not get another chance... Still, isn’t there an order you’re supposed to follow with this stuff? I mean, it’s not like we’ve even... you know. But still... Her thoughts chased each other, around and around, and she could feel her face going pink.
“What do you think?” he asked anxiously. “Should I call it off?”
Kaname glanced at him sidelong for a minute. Then she whispered, “You won’t do anything weird?”
“I won’t do anything weird,” he promised.
“It won’t be dangerous?”
“It won’t be dangerous.”
“There will be proper places to sleep?”
“Hmm...” That was right. Now that she thought about it, they could sleep in different rooms. And if she stayed home, she’d just be lazing around the apartment all day... Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing to seek a little stimulation, here at the end of her vacation. She hadn’t done her summer homework, but who cared about that? That’s right... she told herself. I did want to have a little adventure, at least...
Kaname shrugged before answering him. “F-Fine, then,” she stammered. “If you insist, I guess I’ll go along.”
“All right. It’s decided, then,” Sousuke agreed. “I’ll come fetch you in the morning two days from now.” And with that, Sousuke went back to work.
Unfortunately, the trip he proposed would turn out to contain more than “a little” adventure.