There were days when Fai really regretted his decision to work in the marketing and advertising industry.
Days like Tuesday, where he’d spent a good three hours sorting out the basket of historical negatives from old advertising campaigns that Kobato (bless her soul) had tripped and scattered all over the floor of the print archive room. Hundreds of black-and-white pictures had fallen across the carpet like so many snowflakes in an avalanche, and Fai himself the poor soul left to pick them up again as the sweet young intern panicked less-than-helpfully nearby.
Days like Wednesday, where a routine meet-and-greet photo op gone bizarre had meant he’d found himself holding a queasy toddler out at arm’s length following the dedication of a new shopping arcade down on the foreshore, as the toddler’s mother mugged for publicity with the star of some obscure soap opera – a truly disturbing man who, while pleasantly good-looking in the way soap stars tended to be, had a very uncomfortable smile and one glass eye – and Fai forced to grin and bear it even as said toddler (whose name was Kyle, apparently, and Fai would forever hate anyone who wore that name) threw up on his shoes with neither warning nor ceremony.
And that wasn’t even touching on the disaster that had been Thursday – the less said about which, the better. It had almost been enough for Fai to give up on his career all together and consider going back to his childhood dream of being a research chemist and blowing up laboratories in the name of mad science, no matter how poorly it paid. (Okay… so maybe he was being a little melodramatic. He loved his job and the people he worked with, and most days he wouldn’t change anything about it for the world. But Thursday had sucked like a vacuum in a hurricane.)
None of that seemed to matter when Friday rolled around, however, and not just because it was the end of the working week, either. The morning dawned balmy and blue, the soft breeze tickling Fai’s hair as he walked from his shoebox apartment to the glass-fronted marketing tower he worked in, and his favourite barista had dropped an extra Florentine biscuit in with his latte when he’d swung by to pick up his daily fix of caffeine. Even the tacky floral display in the lobby looked more cheerful than it had the day before, and Fai found himself damn near whistling as he caught the elevators up – getting lucky with an empty carriage waiting for him, rather than the other way around – and strolled through the doors on the fifth floor.
“Goooood morning, everybody!” he carolled, taking a larger-than-advisable swig of creamy coffee and somehow managing to avoid spilling it down his front like he normally would. “It’s going to be a beautiful day!”
“And I’ve got a project that’s going to make it even more beautiful for you.” The silky purr came from his manager’s office, and Fai grinned as the lovely Yuuko Ichihara herself came into view, waving her hand in a lazy greeting. “Good morning, Fai. It’s good to know you’re ready to get to work, even this early in the day – and especially on a Friday.”
Fai shrugged, taking another sip of his latte. “What can I say? Today feels like something good is going to happen.”
Yuuko raised an elegant eyebrow. “Oh? Well, in that case, I think you’re going to enjoy what comes next.” Slinking through the glass front of her meeting space, Yuuko tossed a set of keys at him that Fai managed to catch with one hand without even looking, just another sign that today really was going to be wonderful. “Get that skinny caboose of yours in the car, blondie – we’re going on site for a shoot, and it’s gonna be hot.”
Hokuto’s exuberant waving met them in the carpark of, out of all possible places, the downtown central fire station, and even as Fai pulled into the parking space she beckoned him towards, he had to wonder what on Earth they were doing here. The massive shed where the firetrucks would normally be kept loomed before them as Fai parked Yuuko’s obscenely red convertible, and Hokuto’s younger brother Subaru – her younger twin, in fact – wheeled past them, huffing as he shoved a large and improbably portable professional make-up case across the gravel, groaning in his efforts to make it mount the ramp.
Sliding out of the front seat of her convertible like a starlet approaching the red carpet, Yuuko swept her sunglasses off and accepted a kiss on the cheek in greeting from her young stylist with the magnanimity of a queen.
“Hokuto, sweetheart. Tell me everything’s going to plan.”
“Absolutely!” Hokuto shot her hand up in mock-salute, winking at Fai from over Yuuko’s shoulder. “We’ve got a great set-up in the warehouse – it’s huge inside, so there’s plenty of space now that they’ve moved the trucks out the back. Tomoyo’s on site and we’ve got her cameras rigged up, and she’s even started taking some preliminary warm-up shots since everyone’s here! Well,” amended Hokuto, sighing a little, a frown creasing her pretty brow. “Everyone but the guy we had lined up to be our Mr July, that is. He got called out to assist the back-up team with a small house fire down on Third Street about two hours ago, so he hasn’t shown up yet. But we can definitely get started with shooting the rest of the months, so even if we have to do his solo last and wait for the group shots, we can at least get our other eleven spreads sorted and a few promo pics besides!”
“Spreads?” asked Fai, and if he was a little slower getting out of the car it was mostly because not only was he carrying his satchel, but also everything Yuuko herself had deemed absolutely essential for the day (which apparently included at least two bottles of expensive French champagne, a picnic basket of delectable edibles, a feather boa, and a novelty stuffed toy dog dressed as a fireman). “What kind of shoot is this?”
“I told you, didn’t I?” cooed Yuuko, knowing damn well that she’d said nothing beyond drive, hot stuff as soon as she’d got them both out the building and into the car, revelling in the suspense for the whole twenty minutes it had taken to get here. Fai snorted as she dragged him close and threw one slender arm over his shoulders, smirking at him gleefully. In her favourite pair of black stilettos, she was exactly his height, and one elegant hand ruffled his hair even as she spoke.
“We’re doing a calendar shoot, darling – a very special joint venture between our studio and the central fire station to produce a calendar for charity. Our agency has been kind enough to supply the marketing, the photography, the styling and the know-how… and the very fine men, women and genderqueer people who fight fires so bravely for us have kindly agreed to put their bodies on the line once more to provide the subject of our tasteful yet undeniably sexy pictures.”
The smiling curve of Yuuko’s mouth was red and wicked. “It’s all for the sake of the children’s hospital, of course.”
“Of course,” agreed Fai, trying not to laugh.
Yuuko smirked. “We’re going to make a mint from this one, Fai, and every single cent will go towards building a new burns ward and, if we’re lucky, raising a fund to sponsor costs for parents who desperately need the help.” Her eyes glittered dangerously. “And our shameless philanthropy is going to throw our rivals over at Reed Corp into the depths of despair – how many charitable events have they donated their time to this business quarter? Zero, nada, zip!”
The slash of Yuuko’s hand as it cut through the air was purely aggressive, and for a moment Fai wondered what the hell he’d gotten himself into – Yuuko was a genius in all things she applied herself to, yes, but she was also dangerously unpredictable – but at least he wasn’t alone here, as the look on Hokuto’s face had to be a mirror of his own. Eventually, though, Hokuto’s plucky nature won out, and the grin that bloomed slowly across her pretty face was far too much like Yuuko’s own for any measure of comfort.
“You said it, boss lady. Anyway, Fai, you should get inside – you’ve only worked with Tomoyo once before, yeah?”
“Mm. We did the corporate shoot for that big tech company over on the other side of town.” It had been a few months since then, but from what Fai remembered the freelance photographer wunderkind had been nothing but a dream to work with. “It’ll be good to see her again – she certainly knows her way around a camera.”
And wasn’t that an understatement – Fai had never seen photography more emotive and inspiring than Tomoyo’s in all his years in the industry, and it would be an experience to see what she could do with a calendar shoot. And if the firefighters they were working with really were as hot as Yuuko was implying (and that gleam in her eye implied a hell of a lot) then they’d be lucky to get Tomoyo’s pictures to print without scorching out the presses.
“Well then,” purred Yuuko, and the weight of her hand on Fai’s shoulder was a playful shove in Hokuto’s direction. “You’d best get inside and get to work, don’t you think? I’m not paying you to stand around and be good-looking, Fai; that’s what our good people of the Tomoeda Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Service are for.”
Fai snorted even as he stumbled forward. “Alright, alright, I’m going.”
Hokuto snapped out another snazzy salute, even as she hooked her arm around Fai’s elbow. “We’ll see you later, boss – time to go, Mr Creative Services man. You’ve got a room full of hotties to meet.” Hokuto wiggled her perfect eyebrows. “And when I say hot, I mean hot.” She fanned her face dramatically with one hand, faking a swoon and making Fai chuckle even as Yuuko cackled majestically behind them.
“I’ll catch you both later, darlings!” cooed Yuuko, waving them off with all the pride of a mother seeing her children off to school. “I’ve a few things to get on with, but I’ll be back this afternoon to check on your progress. Have fun now!”
Well, there are worse ways to spend a Friday than taking pictures of good-looking people, mused Fai. As in, spending a Friday doing literally anything that isn’t taking pictures of good-looking people.
“Lead the way, Hokuto.”
In the seven seconds it took Hokuto to drag Fai up the ramp and into the shed – more like an aircraft hangar really, considering how damn high the roof stretched above them – Fai was just about ready to believe this was an elaborate prank of some kind (Yuuko had been known to do truly outrageous things on the first of April every year, after all) but it only took two seconds of him actually being inside the cavernous structure and seeing the men and women in uniform chatting excitedly amongst themselves by the far wall to realise if this was a prank, it was the best damn prank he’d ever been involved in.
Thank you Jesus. Thank you Buddha. Thank you Santa, Superman, Yuuko Almighty. May I never doubt you again.
“Told ya,” said Hokuto smugly. “There’s so much beefcake here, it’s like being at the butcher. So much cheesecake, you could think you walked into a bakery.” In the distance, a spectacularly manly figure of the tall, dark and handsome persuasion stretched idly in the kind of artless pose that spoke of either a lifetime modelling, or pure natural talent. The dark cloth of his tight t-shirt rippled over his muscled back, making Hokuto sigh happily, and the sharply beautiful woman standing beside said Adonis slug him a punch in the arm with a laughing snort.
Fai shook his head but couldn’t hide the grin twitching at the corners of his mouth. “You got any more of those brilliant one-liners, or was that the best you could come up with on short notice? Ow, hey!” He laughed off the slap on the arm even as Hokuto scowled up at him, turning up that dainty nose in mock offence as her eyes sparkled and her pout turned theatric.
“If I think something up, I’ll be sure to let you know,” she sniffed. “Anyway, I better get over and see what mess my dear and darling brother has gotten himself into this time: I heard a clattering noise before that suggests my make-up brushes aren’t going to be found in the pristine condition I left them in. Go make nice with Tomoyo and have a chat about her vision for today – I imagine Yuuko told you basically nothing about what you’re walking into?”
“Got that right. But then, when does our benevolent tyrant ever tell us anything about her latest amazing scheme before throwing us into it? I think I can manage.”
And Fai would do more than merely manage, at that: if there was anything he was good at, it was his talent for improvisation and the ability to pull complete brilliance out of his… pocket (to put it politely). Turning an impromptu feast of the heroically good-looking into a charity fundraiser calendar on short notice was probably the easiest thing he’d been asked to do all week. Fai clapped his hands together once, and rubbed his palms together briskly. “Well. Standing around isn’t going to get me anywhere.”
“I’ll leave you to it then. Give us a shout when you’re ready to get started, ‘kay?” Hokuto laughed, waving Fai off and jogging across the concrete flooring to her hapless brother, pausing only briefly to whistle wolfishly at the firefighters assembled by what was probably the catering tables – definitely the catering tables since Touya from Delectable Delights was apparently there, apron and all, and he’d been a fixture for any of the agency’s major functions since Yuuko had first tasted his hors d’oeuvres at the Christmas party three years back.
Fai gave a wave when he caught Touya’s eye, earning a nod in return and the kind of grin that belonged in the sweet dreams of teenage girls – and boys, for that matter, seeing as Touya had married his highschool sweetheart a few years back, and Fai had seen both the photos of a kindly, smiling man tucked into Touya’s wallet, and the way Touya’s handsome face softened when he looked at them.
“Well, I suppose if Mr July ends up phoning it in, we can always get Touya wearing a helmet and say he’s a volunteer,” muttered Fai, rubbing his chin, and then shook himself out of it at the bright and popping snap of a camera flash pointed in his direction.
“Fai Flowright, looking pensive, which really seems to suit him!” called a light and cheerful voice, and Fai managed to blink the dazzle from his eyes to find Tomoyo smiling at him, camera in hand as she beckoned him closer. “What are you doing all the way over there, stranger? Come over and say hello!”
Tomoyo had set her camera rig up in front of a very large and very polished firetruck – one that just so happened to be sitting in a pool of sunshine spilling down from the skylight above as though under a spotlight, gleaming redly and brassily and all manner of gloriously – and when Fai offered a hand to shake he was instead pulled into a friendly hug. “Hello, Tomoyo. It’s been a little while, but that smile of yours is just as sweet as ever.”
“Oh, stop it! It’s good to see you too, Fai, and even better to have you here on shoot with me today!” said Tomoyo, squeezing him just gently before letting go. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, I promise you.”
“I can believe that,” chuckled Fai. “So you’re all set up and ready to go?”
“Pretty much.” Tomoyo flicked her long ponytail back over her shoulder, pretty face thoughtful. “The big truck here is an excellent backdrop for some poses, and the natural light from the skylight is perfect. Oh, and there’s plenty of space in the training yard out back to work on action shots as well, especially if we want to incorporate some of the equipment. Yuuko talked to the Chief Commander when she first pitched this idea, and we’re cleared to actually light a fire out back if we want to, as long as we take the proper precautions.” Here she paused to grin, looking over Fai’s shoulder at the yellow-clad figures around the food tables. “After all, I don’t think we could possibly be any safer in the face of a sudden fire break out than here with these fine-looking firies today.”
She had a point – where better than to start a fire than in the yard of the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Service? …not that Fai would recommend starting any fires anywhere, unless absolutely necessary.
“Oh, but you should meet everyone here, too!” said Tomoyo with a grin and a wink best described as saucy. “After all, I’m going to need your help to find out what suits them best and you’ll need to know them if you’re going to make them look gorgeous.”
“I honestly think most of them won’t need my help at all for that,” Fai murmured, but followed along in Tomoyo’s wake anyway as she steered them back towards the catering tables and into the circle of firefighters chatting amicably by the tea-urn as they picked at the delicious spread of nibblies Touya had laid out.
“Hello everyone! Ladies, gents, non-binary peeps – can I have your attention please!” Tomoyo’s cheerful voice rang out clearly, loud enough to draw attention but still pleasant to hear, and as one the group let their conversations trail off and turned to look at her and Fai. “My name, as you probably know by now, is Tomoyo Daidouji, and I’m the one with the camera who’ll be taking your pictures today.” It should have been slightly unnerving to have so many pairs of eyes focused and attentive, but Fai could see that the tallest member of the group – a very tall, muscular man who somehow managed to resemble a friendly bear as much as he did a herculean figure of awe – was trying to sneak a cupcake from a dainty platter while looking forward, and he had to hide a chuckle by clearing his throat.
“This nice young man next to me is Fai Flowright – the Creative Services Manager for Ichihara Marketing and Advertising, and he’s here to help me turn this photoshoot into a calendar we can be proud of.” The flourish Tomoyo made in his direction was probably unnecessary, but Fai waved all the same, trying out a smile for the sake of their audience. “We’ve planned seven individual spreads, and five group spreads for today – that’s one individual shoot for each of you, so if you have any ideas for how you’d like your shoot to go, please feel free to bring it up with us. We won’t bite, I promise.” Tomoyo winked, and much to Fai’s amazement, the other tall man hanging out at the back of the group (the one with the oddly familiar face and the cheekiest kind of grin) winked right back, albeit with several degrees more flirtatiousness.
“I’ve already spoken to the K-9 Rescue team about incorporating their dog into their personal shoots, which I think is a fantastic idea. Cute puppies can only help us sell more calendars for charity, am I right?” The general consensus was that Tomoyo was indeed right – at least judging by the happy murmuring, and the two people Fai had to assume were the K-9 Rescue team (namely, the bear of a man who was still sneaking cupcakes in the back and a cute young lady half his size with a trendy bobbed haircut) traded cheerful grins and slapped a high-five. “As we’re still waiting on our Mr July to join us–” and that earned a ripple of laughter; evidently Mr July, whoever he was, had something of a reputation here “–I was thinking we could start with the individual shoots, and later on when all of us are here, move onto the group ones.”
Which made perfect sense to Fai.
“Alright then,” said Tomoyo sweetly. “Are there any questions? No?”
Not one hand of six was raised, but the smiles on the (very attractive) faces before them were open and friendly all the same. “Okay! Now, I’m going to go have a quick chat with the lovely Hokuto – you can see her over the back there, with her equally lovely brother Subaru – about what we might need in terms of make-up today; in the meantime, if you wouldn’t mind introducing yourselves to Fai and giving him a little run-down of your roles within the Metropolitan Fire Service so he can start thinking about how to make your individual photos unique and special, that would be fantastic. And remember, we’re here to have fun today, so please come and talk to us if you have any concerns or questions.”
The smile Tomoyo favoured them with was dazzling, too bright in the spill of sunshine pouring in through the skylight, and Fai would have sworn before a jury he could see the stars in the eyes of their gathered audience. “I’ll leave Fai in your capable hands then. Be nice to him, okay?” Seven people, all of them clearly besotted, nodded as one. Tomoyo turned that dazzling smile in Fai’s direction. “I’ll see you in a bit,” she said cheerfully, and swanned off, somehow managing to make it look more graceful than any prima ballerina dancing for royalty.
“Is she always like that?” asked the young lady with the trendy haircut, her eyes wide and sparkling. She looked a little like someone had offered her a free puppy and a lifetime supply of double-fudge caramel-ripple chocolate-chunk ice-cream, which was generally the effect Tomoyo seemed to have on women.
“Pretty much,” said Fai. “At least, every time I’ve worked with her so far.” Which was exactly once, but none of the firefighters here needed to know that. “Anyway. As mentioned, I’m Fai, and I’d like to get to know you all a little – it’ll help us make sure today really is as wonderful as we can make it, and all the pictures we take look fantastic.” Not that they could really be anything other than fantastic, considering how high the hotness quotient of the fire department in general seemed to be set, but a little effort couldn’t hurt.
Deep breaths. Big smile. Showtime. “So. Who wants to go first?”