Entrance ceremonies were supposed to be framed by a reasonably cute pink colour, but this year spring had been surprisingly stingy with its gifts. The sakura wouldn't bloom for another week.
Now, if Wakayama Noriko had been as starry eyed as the air heads around her she might have missed the absent stunning scenery more. But then, if she had been she wouldn't have been Wakayama Noriko.
Entrance ceremonies were supposed to be an occasion where you got your class assignation, listened to some canned clichés dressed up as speeches and got a good look at your home room and your class. In this aspect her first day of senior high was a resounding success. She was placed in 3:1, Principal Nakagawa droned on about a bright future and their home room teacher welcomed them to their classroom as if the bland interior belonged to a luxury hotel suite.
Entrance ceremonies, alas, were also occasions where she had to drag around her good for nothing younger twin brother. Wakayama Ryu. Wakayama Stupid Idiot Ryu. And add a 'kun' to that. Of course it was a love hate relationship, but the never ending stream of girls trying to hang out with him certainly pulled the scales closer to the hate-region.
Well, senior high meant a new and unknown school, and maybe, just maybe…
You can't be serious!
Some of the less scatter-brained girls from Noriko's middle school had apparently managed to pass their entrance exams here. Now they were in a heated argument with a bunch of girls Noriko didn't recognize. And the reason for their quarrel had climbed the rooftop of the walkway and was playing out his antics as usual.
“You there! Get down immediately!” And here come the teachers.
Noriko watched Ryu vault down from the roof, one nimble hand gripping the supports while he gracefully sailed through the air just to land like a cat. Then he grinned at her like saying: “Did you see that sis?” That idiot grin made it hard for her to stay angry at her twin brother for any amount of time, and it was the main reason he broke hearts left and right without actually doing anything wrong. Ryu, grow up some day!
He would be scolded by the teachers later, and the girls would continue their quarrel about who had seen him first, and then they'd start coming to her for advice and then, then… And then Noriko would spend another three years as 'Ryu's little sister', a popular attachment to her younger brother. Sometimes thought of as cute, but never a girl anyone would dare to approach for real due to her status as the 'little sister' of the daredevil Ryu. And of course he had to have grown so tall, so this time around there would be absolutely no end to the admirers.
She sighed and was about to run to her brother to help the teachers scold him when a shadow passed her from behind.
Trousers too short, white socks in cheap loafers, shirt too tight, and yet the sleeves were too long. Even the school blazer seemed to disagree with him. A pair of glasses were firmly planted beneath hair that seemed to be glued to his head. He hadn't managed to get his tie correct either. No matter if he had wanted to get it right or deliberately wanted to have it the cool style – it just hung badly around his neck crowning the overall picture.
Geek squad just got a new member.
Despite all this his hunched back couldn't entirely hide how tall he was, way taller than Ryu. And there was something strange with his hair as well, an oddly off-black shine. Why would a geek dye his hair, and who in this universe would dye it almost black? Hadn't she seen him somewhere before?
The shadow passed, stumbled clumsily over his own feet, regained balance and shuffled towards the gates. He won't have an easy time making friends. But there's something familiar…
“Noriko, teachers want a word with me. Could you help me out?”
“Help you out? Idiot, stupid! You deserve getting your face chewed off. Idiot! Stupid!”
The sakura continued its absence of blooming, Ryu got his arse handed to him by the teachers and Wakayama Noriko turned on her feet and left the school-yard.
A week flew by with students settling into early groups of what promised to be friendship later. Noriko was as usual drawn into a larger cluster of boys and girls. They came from several classes rather than just their own. It was all Ryu's fault. Normal people got normal friends – she got a premium seat to the spectacle that was Ryu's personal fan-club.
The boys were the usual mix of people, who either admired Ryu too much to stay far from him or were too wary of a superior rival to chance staying away. The girls, well, the girls.
Girls usually came in three types. Those who had yet to confess to Ryu, those who had already been turned down but found his easy-going friendship attractive enough to stay around anyway and those who really should have been born boys, and thus followed Ryu for the usual reasons of admiration or rivalry.
That had always been true, and it stayed true for one week.
Then Ageruman Kuritina happened.
She happened the usual way. Teacher kept the door open, mumbled something watered out about a new student who had been sick since school began, and asked the new student to introduce herself.
Exit any 'usual way'.
“I'm Christina Agerman.”
“I'm from Sweden but have lived in Japan for a year.”
“If you find my Japanese poor I'm grateful for help.”
Ageruman-san was, what a foreign businessman would have said, well proportioned. And blond, a rich, golden blond falling over her shoulders and behind most of her back, with strands so fine they almost rode the non-existent wind in the classroom. And tall, as tall as Ryu.
To complete the archetype of a stunning northern beauty she had eyes so blue you could drown in them. If you were a boy. Noriko corrected herself: if you were a human being or possibly anything even remotely related to the primates.
By now their teacher finally understood that she had invited an enemy of at least half the human population into the classroom – and the desire of the other half, and made a half-hearted attempt to restore order.
It was half hearted, Noriko noted sullenly, because the teacher already showed less interest in her students than in protecting the male teaching staff. Probably because she had her fiancée there. Speaking of whom, he had already arrived on the scene to find out what the commotion was all about. And he showed no more resistance to the angelic apparition than any of the other boys in class.
“Wanna date me?”
“Whoa, a foreigner!”
“Taller than most boys!”
For a week there had been a centre of attention around Ryu even during lessons. Now Noriko could feel how it dissolved and moved between the benches towards the black board. Where Ageruman-san stood, effortlessly substituting for Venus de Milo even though she wore an unmodified regulation school uniform.
Ageruman-san could most likely have dressed up entirely from a 100 yen shop and still ride roughshod over all rivals straight out of a fashion house.
Life just wasn't fair.
The new centre of attraction moved to the windows and took her chair at the least popular of all spots. Window, front. Always seen by the teacher yet isolated. Well, Noriko realized, that bench would become a whole lot more popular until the next seating change.
Then Noriko noticed a minor commotion just before Ageruman-san sat down. The girl in the seat behind her rose, and then the two of them exchanged very unladylike hugs.
“Same school, same class and neighbour desks. This is the best!”
“Ko-chan! I'm so happy!”
The teacher's voice cut through the pandemonium. “Seats, take your seats and be silent!”
And with that the last addition to their class started her year. And everything changed.
There were rumours about class 3:1.
Normally there would have been rumours about a few named freshmen in the beginning of a new year. Like, for example, the clown Wakayama Ryu, who had a mobile personal harem swooning for him wherever he went. Or the fashion model with the strange name, Ageruman Kuritina, or something like that. Or the 'magic duo', the Watabe twins, who took an obscure middle school all the way to the district finals in soccer.
In this case, however, they had all been grouped into the same class, and so the halo of fame spread to just about anyone who was a part of that class.
This was, as far as Matsumoto Yukio understood it, a blessing for his friend Urufu-kun. They had officially gone their separate ways when Urufu-kun was summarily expelled after he maimed four students from their escalator high school over half a year ago.
Yukio picked apart his memories from the preceding half a year while he waited for Urufu-kun outside the mall. Their mall. Urufu-kun always took an early train, switched to his bike and rode here where they met up. Because the story about what had happened was a lie. One that Urufu-kun made no attempts to gainsay. Two lies to be more exact.
Urufu-kun had indeed maimed three students, and Yukio had his own reasons to keep that a secret. That the fourth student had been sent to hospital by none other than the popular clown in 3:1.
No wonder the rumours about 3:1 had awakened those memories.
The second lie concerned to what degree Yukio and Urufu-kun really had gone their separate ways. For half a year, during which Urufu-kun was placed in an institution for juvenile delinquents, he had been studying Japanese as if his life depended on it. Despite this he found time and ways to sneak out from the compound.
And that was why Yukio stood in the morning shade waiting for his friend outside what had become their own mall. This was where they always met, and that was the reason Urufu-kun didn't take the train to the station closest to school.
Now, one would have thought that the two mismatched friends would have spent the time together loitering in the city, something they to a certain degree had done. Most of the time, though, the two of them learned a language each. They agreed upon a peculiar system, where Urufu-kun spoke in atrocious Japanese, and Yukio answered in equally awful English.
When the time came for them to find themselves in the same high school class, Urufu-kun's Japanese was merely poor, and Yukio's English was substantially better than just about anyone else's in their class. Well, Urufu-kun excepted obviously.
This morning, after Urufu-kun had locked his expensive bike to a bike stand in front of the mall, the way he did every day, they walked the last fifteen minutes to school. And it was fifteen minutes, not fourteen or sixteen. Urufu had some strange habits of his own, like how he repeatedly pulled back his shirt sleeve and turned up his left arm to check his old style wrist watch.
It was just as stupidly expensive as his bike.
Yukio's thoughts meandered back to the source of the rumours.
“You know, 3:1, they say they need extra chairs there for lunch break,” he said.
They both looked back as they turned a corner, as if to make sure Urufu-kun's bike was safely locked to its stand.
“They say a lot of things about 3:1,” Urufu-kun agreed. “Ryu Wakayama and Christina Agerman play in the main cast.”
Almost right, but you're really supposed to name them more politely. “Wakayama-san and Ageruman-san really are the main source for the news these days, aren't they?” That had to suffice as a reminder of proper naming conventions, Yukio thought.
By now their mutual lessons had taken on a more subtle tone, and they barely spoke in English any more, unless something had to be understood in detail.
He looked at the people they met. It was the usual Tokyo crowd heading to work, or in the case of school uniforms to Irishima High, a rather expensive private school in the same district as theirs. Some of the latter gave away startled giggles or snorts of amusement when they saw Urufu-kun. Yukio, however, had gotten used to Urufu-kun's visual application to geek squad.
If you only knew, he thought when a couple of girls made faces at his friend.
It was a ruse, but given Urufu-kun's past, probably a good idea. The middle school version of Urufu-kun, a tall, sinewy, Japanese-looking foreigner with orange dyed, crew cut hair and strangely angular face would have stood out too much. Too easy to remember.
But you wouldn't have snorted at him, that's a given. More likely given him a wide berth. He wiped a few sakura petals from his shoulders. Two weeks late the season was finally here.
“Don't you ever get angry at the way people treat you?” Yukio wondered.
Urufu-kun kicked at a stone before answering. “It's better this way. Besides, to be honest, this really is more like the original me. When I was fifteen the first time I mean.”
That was news. “I... I had expected you to be the same as back then.” Yukio tried flashing a smile at one of the girls they met, and received a surprisingly friendly one in return.” Why should he be the same? If he's given me this much self confidence in half a year… “Sorry, I should have guessed.”
“I was a...” Urufu-kun searched for words. “It's different in Sweden.”
Yukio gave his friend a quizzical look. Sometimes it was better to let him sort out his thoughts in silence. So he waited, and practised wordlessly getting the attention of girls they met. With varying results. Still, a negative reaction was better than staying the uncertain loner he had been when he met Urufu-kun the first time.
“In Sweden you don't get popular if your grades are good. It's a reason to get bullied. So there's a difference from Japan.”
“People with good grades get bullied here as well,” Yukio said.
“No, it's different. Getting good grades is the very reason itself back home. At least in grade and middle school.”
“Eh,” now that was just plain stupid. “Why would you bully someone for their good grades? Much smarter to make friends for study sessions.”
A throaty laughter drew attention from Yukio and bystanders alike. The mirth made Urufu-kun shine, and he forgot to keep up his poor composure and stretched out in his full length, while he gave air to the unintentional joke.
The giggles around them had a slightly different colour to them this time, Yukio noted. Shyer, with just a glimmer of admiration added as extra spice.
Yukio suspected that Urufu-kun could keep up the ruse for only a little longer. Apart from his reaction to a joke that hadn't been meant as one, his personality shone through whenever his sense of right was challenged. It wasn't honour and duty, something that was familiar to Yukio, but a more foreign concept. It was a code of honour, but one based on the individual's responsibility to do what was morally right rather than standing up for family and friends.
“We're not much for doing homework. Especially not with friends. This is a good thing with Japan,” Urufu-kun admitted when he had stopped laughing.
“You are, or you were?”
Because there was that thing. Urufu-kun was older, by a wide margin, than he looked, and by now Yukio found little reason to dispute that statement. Whenever Urufu-kun spoke about Sweden Yukio knew he had to be wary of which decade was referenced.
They were close to their school, having just turned around the last corner, when Urufu-kun stopped and beckoned Yukio aside. Fingers up rather than down. Urufu-kun never learned that it was insulting in Japan. Old habits, I guess. In truth Yukio didn't care any longer. They were friends, and they quickly sorted out any cultural differences that were truly hurtful to the other.
“I have a favour to ask,” Urufu-kun said.
Yukio looked at him. “Took you long enough.”
“The favour or a favour?” Urufu-kun threw a sidelong glance as if to make sure they weren't overheard.
“A favour. I don't know what you want yet,” Yukio answered after a few moments of thought. He threw a glance at the clock. They still had some time to finish their conversation before class.
Urufu-kun grinned back. Then his expression turned serious all of a sudden. “I want to start a club.”
That was unexpected. Yukio looked at Urufu-kun as he fished for his smart phone in his blazer. A plain looking, foreign model. South Korean brand. So we're going to have one of those talks when he needs help translating.
Yukio aimed at shooting down the topic quickly. Urufu-kun was prone to exotic fantasies from time to time. “Yeah, first years always start clubs and get them recognised. In manga, that is. How were you planning to do it in the real world?”
“Look, I'll just do it as in a manga. I'm a fifty year old CEO in my old teenage body, so I see no reason why I should adhere to any real world constraints.”
There was that of course. “No one here believes that,” Yukio tried.
They exchanged glances. Both knew that wasn't entirely true.
“Be that as it may. I have an idea that should have a chance of not getting shot down immediately.”
Yukio let his eyes wander along the sakura trees framing the school yard. “Explain.”
Urufu-kun stabbed a few sentences into the screen and showed the translation. “Cultural exchange. A youth partnership club, secondary education. We'll need one in Sweden as well, but I believe I can arrange that.”
“Two clubs, organised by students. One here, and one in Sweden. Both clubs exist to exchange knowledge and experience for the benefit of their members.
“In the other world, where I'm fifty, I went to a small, elite high school in my home city. They're fairly open minded, so that end shouldn't pose any problems. At least not if they're contacted by a Swedish student from here.”
“You're not Swedish,” Yukio objected, referring both to Urufu-kun's official status as well as his looks. This was turning into one of those strange three part conversations. Urufu-kun, himself and a digital gadget.
“Hence the favour,” came the reply. Urufu-kun hesitated for a moment, as if he was ashamed. “I know this may be a bit too much to ask. But anyway.” He hesitated again. “I understand that you're acquainted with Takeida Kyoko.”
Yukio stared at the sakura rather than facing his friend. “I wish.” And he really did. The busty girl in 3:1 had caught his attention from the day he saw her.
“Come, come. You are… ah, at least interested in being so,” Urufu-kun suggested.
That was true, Yukio admitted to himself. “And so?”
“I'm primarily interested in that Swedish girl, Christina.”
“You don't say,” Yukio laughed. “That makes you unique, along with just about every other guy in this school.”
Urufu-kun smiled. He looked a bit guilty, which only proved he was one of the boys despite his real age. “Ah, yes, that, of course.” At least he had the decency to blush slightly before he continued. “But no, not in that way. At least not for the purpose of the club I'm talking about.” The last sentence could have served as a minor confession in itself, but then Urufu-kun probably shared a crush on her together with all the rest of them.
“Do you think she's all that beautiful?” Yukio asked. He couldn't really see how the skinny flagpole could compare to Takeida-san's generous forms. Ageruman-san was too showy and flamboyant and he much preferred the shyer smile of her friend.
“Yukio, if you're asking something you could at least listen to the answer.”
What? “Oh, sorry man.” Thinking of Takeida-san wasn't exactly the best way to focus on the here and now.
“Yes, I think she's all that beautiful. No matter what you say, I'm still from Sweden. Christina's pretty much a walking definition of teenage beauty from where I come.”
Yukio shook his head. Definition of female beauty. He guessed it didn't change that much over the course of a few decades.
On the street the mass of students heading for Himekaizen Academy was thinning out. They had to hurry up soon, or they'd get late to class.
Urufu-kun sighed. “I need her as a member. If she's the one contacting my old high school, the people over there will say: 'Yes, my lady. When do you want us to start?'”
That was, Yukio admitted, probably true. “And attracting members here would be easier as well,” he said. “At least male members,” he added.
“Girls as well. Gather a bunch of guys aiming for one girl, and you should be able to get a few girls who head for those who get shot down first.”
Yukio stared at his friend. That was harsh. He grabbed Urufu-kun's phone and tapped a few choice words into it. Yeah, that one covers it. He turned the display to his friend. “You're a cold blooded bastard, you know that?”
“I know.” He didn't even make an attempt to deny it.
“So, you want me to talk with Takeida-san to get her best friend to join?”
“No, not really. I want you to talk to Takeida to arrange a meeting between Christina and myself.”
I guess it's all right for him to call a westerner by her first name. “And Ageruman-san would agree to it exactly why?”
“Because you'll tell Takeida that I represent a connection to Sweden. Despite her looks Christina's still just a fifteen year old kid all alone in a foreign country. She's bound to be homesick.”
“Did I say you're a cold blooded bastard?”
“You did, and I am.”
Later that day something was still troubling Yukio. He brought his lunch to their classroom and approached Urufu-kun. They seated themselves on opposite sides of Yukio's desk, making good use of their status as geek and loner friend. Chances were they wouldn't get disturbed. After all, geekiness might be contagious.
“Isn't this a bit too underhanded for you?” Yukio asked, referring to their conversation that morning. “The club and Ageruman-san,” he added to make Urufu-kun get the connection.
They sat in silence while he allowed his friend to muse over the question. Scattered sounds of conversations in the classroom reached him while he waited for an answer. It was, he noted absent-mindedly, emptier here than at the start of the year. Wakayama-san, and later, Ageruman-san were the obvious reasons for their classmates to be elsewhere. 3:1 was probably crammed beyond capacity.
“Underhanded, yes, wrong, no. No one gets hurt,” Urufu-kun finally answered. “Club or no club, guys will make passes at Christina anyway.”
After making sure no one had noticed whom they were talking about, Yukio shot Urufu-kun a long glare.
“Sure, I'm selfish. I admit that. Still it's not wrong. I'm planning to make this a club for the benefit of its members. I'm honest about that part.” Urufu-kun removed his glasses and played with them in his hands.
“And,” Yukio said, fishing for more.
“And,” Urufu-kun agreed, “I want to find out what happened to me. Some kind of anchor in Sweden could help me with that. So you're right about that part.”
“Look, you went hiking in what passes for the Alps in Sweden, got caught in a freak snowstorm and wound up in our Alps.”
Yukio watched the glasses pass from hand to hand in front of him. They served no purpose other than giving Urufu-kun the occasional headache. He had perfect eyesight. Well, they helped keep up the illusion of membership in geek squad, Yukio thought as Urufu-kun returned them over his nose.
“About sums it up, disregarding a sudden loss of 35 years, and the fact that the older version of me has never existed in this world.” Urufu-kun grinned back.
The conversation had been interspersed with English whenever Urufu-kun's Japanese was too poor to convey some concepts. You're changing, and in doing so, you're changing me, Yukio thought while he waited for Urufu-kun to continue.
“And how can a club help me to understand? That's your real question, isn't it?”
“I don't know, but I have to do something,” Urufu-kun continued. “Look, it even gives her a way to speak Swedish if it comes to that.”
“If it comes to what?” Yukio teased.
This time Urufu-kun's face went all the way to a deep tomato red. Yukio knew the reason wasn't any ulterior motives but rather the thought of ulterior motives. Urufu-kun was funny that way. One reason why he made such a good friend.
A right way and a wrong one. No simple truths, because truth was relative. Still, a right way and a wrong one. Urufu-kun, a contradiction in terms walking on two legs.
In the end, after school, they agreed upon one week. If in one week Ageruman-san still hadn't joined a club, and Yukio had gathered enough courage to approach Takeida-san, he would venture over to 3:1 and ask not one, but two questions.
“Be honest with your feelings,” Urufu-kun had said, “but suggest starting out as friends. That's the lesser commitment. Still, she should know where your real interests lie. She'll know what you want, but it'll be less awkward this way, and you can let things proceed from there.”
After that promise they parted ways. Urufu-kun unlocked his bike and wheeled down the street.
Yukio watched as Urufu-kun's back vanished behind an office building.
I wonder what's on your mind.
Yes, he was a foreigner despite looking like a Japanese teen with marginally dyed hair. No he wasn't fluent in Japanese. Yes, he spoke English. No, he didn't come from the USA. Yes, there were other places than the USA where people spoke English, hence the term 'English'. No, he didn't come from England.
So tiresome. His plans to keep a low profile didn't seem to work. He was too much of an outsider. Just how much of an outsider his classmates, apart from Yukio, didn't know. Only a few did, including his guardian.
Thinking of her made him ashamed. His legal guardian. Thirty years old and part of the police force. She really was adorable, more like a daughter to him than a younger sister. But she hadn't been adorable when he first met her, and he had hurt her badly.
Ulf turned left at the corner and brought his bike straight into the wind. Has it really been a year already? Those first days here had been madness, and that interrogation hadn't helped at all. He hit the brakes, wheeled into a playground and switched from his bike to a bench. One year ago. Gods!
And in his mind he travelled that year back in time.
“Are you trying to tell me that unless I can express the feeling of loss I'm not an adult?”
Ulf waited for the translator to relay his question. When the unexpectedly callous affirmation was delivered he sighed.
“Look,” Ulf started. “I could talk about a funeral, my grandparent for example, because that's what I assume you expect, but I won't.”
In one corner the female police twisted uncomfortably, as did her older uniformed companion, but the investigator in civilian clothes just smiled condescendingly. Ten years my junior, tops. Probably younger, and more arrogant in his belief that he's seen life. “I could,” Ulf continued, and let his memories wander a decade, “try to make you understand the ugly feeling of relief you feel when your wife calls you from the hospital.”
The female police shuddered and shook her head, silently begging him to stop, but Ulf relentlessly moved on: “You know, it's funny how calm you are in a taxi from work to the hospital when your daughter has her final treatment. You realize that you'll have your life back again.” The older uniform held the hands of his younger colleague in sympathy, and her hands were clenched into hard fists. I'm stirring a bad memory here. The arse facing me could stop this if he wanted, but I'll take him down if he doesn't.
“Did you know that back home in Sweden, when there's no more hope, they let you inside? You can see the monitors spewing numbers that even a layman can understand.” Ulf glanced at the woman in uniform. She was whispering something in Japanese. Ulf didn't need to understand the language to know that she was pleading with the other two to end the interview. The translator had gone ashen as well and translated tonelessly from English to Japanese. There were no longer any phrases to be translated the other way.
“You go thinking: Hey kiddo, when did you grow so small?” Ulf locked eyes with the investigator. “Because that bony ghoul in the hospital bed is still your little girl, and all that plastic tubing makes her look so much smaller than the laughing bundle of chaos you remember from a year earlier.”
The sound of a sudden gasp reached him from the end of the table. Then the female police suddenly turned expressionless as if something had died inside her.
“The numbers get lower and lower, and you watch those damn displays in trance, because that way you don't have to look at your dying child.” But I watched my wife as well. Ulf forced down a lump in his throat at the memory. She sat there staring out the window. She had nothing left by that time, but the shit hole here doesn't need to know how she had to make all the ugly arrangements alone earlier that morning, so that I wouldn't be disturbed during my business meeting.
“And then they unplug your child so the tubes aren't in the way when you hug that cooling, limp body before passing it along. And it weighs almost nothing.” Again Ulf caught the investigator's eyes with his own. “Did you know that in death your daughter's eyes are no longer blue? They're black all over.”
The woman breathed heavily. By now her outward calm only made her inner turmoil all that much clearer. Her companion gave Ulf a murderous stare, and the translator had reeled backwards at the last sentence.
It wasn't that Ulf had described anything they didn't know. He knew that, but the police ran that interview to find out some kind of background for Ulf's absurd claims. After all he very much looked the fourteen year old Japanese school kid they told him he was, and very, very little the fifty year old foreigner he said he was.
Ulf kept the investigator's eyes locked. “Do you want me to describe how you call your friends to your favourite pub the same evening your daughter died, and spend it pulling stupid jokes and enjoy three truly fun hours for the first time in months?”
Ulf drew a lungful of breath.
“Or do you want me to describe the loss you feel the day after when you find all those hospital supplies in your kitchen? When your hands mechanically start making that damned, hated breakfast which is the only one your kid is allowed to eat. When you remember that you'll never need to make that breakfast again. Do you want me to describe, in detail, how that feels?”
The investigator, finally, backed down.
Ulf fought his thoughts back to the present.
I wonder why she suggested she step in as guardian for me. I hurt her so much. I knew she had lost someone. Ulf sighed. Her little sister rather than a daughter, but we share the same kind of loss.
He had moved in with her a few days later. Legally mother and son, but in his thoughts father and daughter.
And behind the scenes government officials fabricated a background for an Ulf Hammargren who had never existed in this world. Even though they finally believed him when he told them he was a fifty year old Swedish corporate CEO (mixed background, naturalized Japanese mother, Swedish father), he still looked like an early adolescent kid with a runny nose. Albeit a tall one. So they needed to go for the teenager story.
Officially he was Hamarugen Urufu, with a string of katakana to go with the alien sounding name, but he would always remain Ulf. They even tried to make him use the unfamiliar letters to sign his name. Sometimes he did, but for well over thirty years, before retina scans and fingerprinted passports, his old signature had been his formal identity. It wasn't something you could just let go of.
And here he was, an orphan of two divorced parents he had never seen (both deceased in accidents that had actually occurred). He had been told he was in the transition between a Swedish citizenship and a Japanese one, because albeit Swedish officials apparently had been helpful in fabricating their end of the lie, Sweden didn't see him as one of their own, and thus Japan was left with the booby prize. At least that was how the story was told. However he knew that immigration laws in the two nations really should have left him in Sweden rather than in Japan. Something smelly was being played out, but he wasn't in any position to dig deeper.
He left the bench and straddled his bike. Another five minutes to the station, ten minutes with the train and a few more to the apartment complex where he lived.
Amaya, you're trying so hard. He'd pop into a speciality store he knew on his way home. This evening he'd treat her to something very Swedish. His mind's adopted daughter, his legal guardian.
Two days later he received one of those phone calls. In school. Luckily it came during a break, or the teacher would likely have gone ballistic. As it was it only served to undermine his persona as a member of geek squad.
“Ulf Hammargren speaking,” he answered in English.
He listened to the request while he walked up to the blackboard.
“My first time fee as a temporary employee is 5000 hourly. If you want to sign me up as an independent contractor it's 10000 hourly. Minimum one hour whenever I initiate work.”
He started taking notes on the blackboard, fervently wishing it had been a proper whiteboard instead. Sure, the chalk felt nostalgic in his hands, but it was a poor substitute for a set of differently coloured whiteboard markers.
“Yes that's correct. I'm sorry but that part isn't open for negotiation. I've received too many urgent emails and phone calls forcing me to be on standby.” They always try to pay for the aggregated total, but I'll be damned if I'll do five minutes here and ten minutes there all over the course of a day and getting paid peanuts.
He jotted down the main outline of what the other party wanted. Pacing back and forth in front of the blackboard he quickly estimated the scope.
“Twenty hours, including lectures. I'll bring a chaperone who stands in as contractee on my part.”
The blackboard showed a schedule for a day of preparation, two workshops, two lectures and a few hours to wrap it all up.
“Eh, yes, you'll be billed separately for the chaperone. I don't employ any personnel.”
Ulf wiped all superfluous data from the blackboard.
“Thank you. You'll receive a formal offer by email later today. I'm available from next week, but I strongly suggest we schedule the events for next month.”
With that the phone call was done, and Ulf photographed the blackboard.
When he was about to wipe it clean he heard the murmur from the classroom. Bloody hell, they heard my business voice! In English to boot. My act is falling apart quickly now. People were certain to start talking. He had to act quickly to get the club set up before he broke the 3:1 monopoly on rumours.
Behind him his classmates had already started talking. It was only his perceived being a geek that prevented any of them from approaching him directly.
If I can keep it together until summer break. That was probably the outer limit. Sooner or later they'd find out he worked part time as a management consultant. And eventually they would learn of the exorbitant fees he charged returning customers. Between 30 and 50 thousand yen per hour.
When the teachers eventually found out he averaged well over half a million yen a month there would be hell to pay, because that was a lot more than their salaries. Worst of all, Amaya would find out he paid for the extra security she believed was part of the increased rent. He didn't want that. She needed to feel that she could care for both of them.
Daughter mine, you always try to be my mother. I'll keep you safe. I won't lose you as well. His legal guardian, his daughter.
Yukio looked up when he saw his friend enter the café. Their café in their mall. Somewhere on the street a floor below them Urufu-kun's bike was safely locked to a stand, and they had a couple of hours available. Club hours for most of Himekaizen's student body, and he was meeting Urufu-kun to plan how that would become reality for them as well.
“Over here,” Yukio mouthed and waved his friend over, palm down.
Urufu-kun nodded in affirmation, took his usual wide half circle in the direction of the counter before he shook his head and walked to Yukio's table.
“Sorry. Never learn.”
Yukio grinned. “Half a year and you still try to order at the counter.”
At that moment a waitress arrived to further accentuate how wrong Urufu-kun had been. As she, or one of her colleagues, had done last time they were here, and the time before that, and… By now Urufu-kun's navigational mishap was part of the weekly routine, and the girls just waited for him to see his errors before they went to their table.
Urufu-kun smiled sheepishly in response. As he had done last time, etc., etc. Yukio wasn't certain that their weekly game really was a matter of bad memory from Urufu-kun's part, or if it was a joke that he allowed to be played out on him.
It was time for the standard excuse.
“They don't wait tables at cafés back home.”
And there it was delivered. It was as if Urufu-kun just had to point out minor differences between Sweden and Japan. That habit of his had been first interesting, then irritating but by now Yukio felt a strange gratitude. He was being made aware of how what looked like obvious truths weren't truths for everyone. How others played things differently. Not better, or worse. Just differently. Palm down, dammit! he thought, and laughed.
Urufu-kun stared at him from the other side of the table and shrugged his shoulders in incomprehension.
The waitress returned with Urufu-kun's order. One coffee, one awful piece of strawberry cake and one bottle of French mineral water. The same order as last week, and, and…
“Can you funnel some funds?” Urufu-kun asked after the waitress had left their table.
Yukio nodded and accepted the two 500 yen coins he was offered. It would take less than an hour to spread the money across the accounts he had set up, so 1000 yen was a rather stiff fee. Still, Urufu-kun insisted that a job well done should be rewarded in kind. 'Keep friendship and business apart,' he used to say. Yukio wasn't entirely clear what was meant by that, but he had accepted that when they made the money transactions they were partners and not friends. It was important to Urufu-kun, and thus it was important to Yukio.
“How much?” Yukio asked when the coins were followed by a 5000 yen bill. That was a first.
“I need a bit over a million yen moved.”
Yukio coughed up the tea he had just started sipping. “You what?” He stared at his friend. Where had he come up with that kind of money?
“And I'll need plastic. In your name I'm afraid.”
Yukio looked around them to make sure none of the waitresses could hear what they were talking about. He tried to remember what Urufu-kun had taught him the last half a year. “I want security.”
Urufu-kun smiled. “Good laddie. How about a hundred thousand deposit and a monthly five thousand rental fee?”
“OK? Yes. Is that good?” Yukio added as an afterthought.
The smile turned into a grin. “You're really not supposed to ask that question to the other end of the transaction, but yes, it's good. In fact 60 thousand yen a year is highway robbery, but I'll expect your maintaining the accounts as part of the service, so it evens out.”
Five hours a month then. Yukio could do this as a part time job just as well as something else, and he felt a whole lot more confident that Urufu-kun would pay up than some of the employers he had been in contact with earlier.
“Eh, just shady, or outright...”
“Neither,” Urufu-kun said. “Apart from the plastic at least. The money is mine. I just dislike having that kind of money in cash.”
Yukio nodded. Somewhere in his mind he knew that it was a lot of money, but not more than his parents were paid over a couple of months. It was however a disturbingly large amount for a fifteen year old kid. Then again Urufu-kun wasn't really fifteen, was he?
“How?” Yukio wondered. Urufu-kun still looked fifteen, so where had he gotten that kind of money?
“Part time job.”
“You made a million yen from your part time job?”
“No, I made five million yen from my part time job.”
That was… unexpected.
Yukio found himself gaping in astonishment. “What kind of job makes you that kind of money?”
“Corporate management consulting kind of job makes that kind of money. If you look fifteen, and are alone. Really should have been ten times as much, but then you need a high profile company backing you.”
Even though Yukio understood the words he heard he still didn't understand what Urufu-kun was saying. “Grown up thing?”
“Grown up thing,” Urufu-kun affirmed. “But you're too old to fail understanding all of it.”
“Eh?” Yukio fished up the papers on their planned club while he waited for Urufu-kun to explain.
“You pay more for brand name products.”
“Yes?” Yukio admitted. “Because they're better.” He placed the papers on their table.
“No,” Urufu-kun shook his head. “Because they're branded. You just believe they're better. Sometimes they are, but that's not part of the question.”
What his friend said did make sense in a way. Now Yukio was supposed to prove he had a brain of his own. “And this consulting of yours can have a brand name?” he tried.
“Good. Correct.” Urufu-kun smiled. “There's a whole lot more to it as well, but you've understood the important basics. The perceived truth is the only truth. Now, let's have a look at our baby.”
Yukio pulled out the suggested charter, the official one, and then he placed the real one beside it. “This one takes into account that teaching staff and parent organisation will be an active part of the Swedish club and,” he moved his hand to the official charter, “this one keeps up the illusion that the club is independently run by the club members, with only a minor influence from student council and teaching staff.”
“Good. School doesn't need to know that there's no way in hell the student council would be given the kind of power where they can pull the plug on a club in Sweden.”
“And that students aren't entrusted to run their own club,” Yukio retorted.
“Not really true, but if they're going to hoist the name of their school on a flag, yes you're correct,” Urufu-kun admitted. “World champions in non-profit clubs. That's Sweden for you, but the vast bulk of those clubs are independent, or members of some kind of national umbrella.”
“Nothing important. Just saying if there are twenty clubs for watching butterflies in summer, chances are there's a national central organisation for butterfly viewing. We're kind of funny that way.”
Yukio shook off the strange impression of a people who felt the need to organise everything up to a national level. “And this is the charter for our own club. We only need one.”
Urufu-kun finished the last of his coffee. He had long since downed both mineral water and cake, and looked up to order his usual extra cup of coffee. The waitress was already at their table. She had seen Urufu-kun empty his cup. The usual way, as he had done last time, etc., etc.
“Agreed. That account, by the way,” he added and pointed at one item on the list of accounts he had asked Yukio to set up, “will be used for the club.”
Yukio took the chance to get himself an extra soda while he looked at the numbers. He had more cash on himself than usual anyway, and with the planning ahead of them they were likely to remain here for longer than normal. Unless Urufu-kun wanted to cut down on the time they spent studying, something he had never done before.
It was, Yukio thought, kind of funny that they had found their routine studying here once a week, every Friday, while they still went to different schools, if you could call Urufu-kun's institution a school to begin with. Those occasions had also served as a lesson in contrasts to Yukio. Urufu-kun wasn't all that good at learning the important parts for exams, and his poor Japanese didn't help either. He was however a master when it came to place things in context. Another of them grown up things, Yukio guessed. Anyway, Urufu-kun always wasted a lot of time trying to understand stuff rather than just learning them the right way. And it showed in their grades.
“Don't you think they'll ask questions if the club has this much money?”
“We could get funded by the council,” Urufu-kun suggested.
“If we're accepted it's because we'll be dirt cheap to maintain. We'll get next to no funding.”
Urufu-kun nodded. “Then we'll just use my seed money carefully then.”
“A quarter of a million yen. Seed money. You're crazy, you know that?” Yukio shook his head.
“Talking about stuff that belongs in the beginning. I have to decide if we contact Ryu or Christina first. You still plan on contacting Kyoko?”
Oh, he's in work mode. All business and no polish. “I'll talk with Takeida-san,” just saying those words made his heart jump a little, “and set up that meeting of yours with Ageruman-san.” Yukio glanced at his friend. “Why Wakayama-san all of a sudden?”
Urufu-kun sighed. “Because since Ryu, sorry, that Wakayama kid, took an interest in Christina...”
He still refuses to call her by anything but her first name.
“… I don't think I can get her aboard without Wakayama in her wake.”
That made sense. Urufu-kun was just as sensitive to changing moods among the students as he was himself. Well, whenever he wasn't a blind moron oblivious to anything that happened around him. That fortunately didn't happen all that often any more. “But we start with Ageruman-san?”
“Yes, yes. I have to decide if Wakayama is a disturbance that needs handling or not.”
Yukio stared at his friend. “Man, that sounded, eh, a little cold.”
“Sorry if that didn't come out right.” Urufu-kun looked up from the charters and met Yukio's eyes. “Work mode here. Not seeing him as a good guy or a bad one. He's just another stakeholder, and I don't know if he's a primary or a secondary.” He looked down at the charters again.
“And please translate that to Japanese for the rest of us,” Yukio growled. Urufu-kun's last sentence hadn't made sense at all despite being delivered in easy enough Japanese.
Urufu-kun looked up, and Yukio could see in his eyes how he dropped out of work mode. “Let's see the club as a product in development.” Urufu-kun had opened his smart phone to help him convey whatever corporate theory he was about to lecture Yukio about.
He took another sip of coffee, and Yukio drank some of his second soda. “Whenever the development of something gets complex you'll make a project of it. Anyone who's potentially affected by, along with those who could potentially affect, the project are called stakeholders.”
It was one of those times when the older man behind the boyish face shone through. Yukio nodded to show Urufu-kun that he followed his explanation this far.
“Depending on how important to the project those stakeholders are, or how much they're likely to be impacted by the project, you classify them into primary, secondary, etc.”
Urufu-kun flashed the display of his smart phone for Yukio to see. The translation made sense, even if a lot of the Japanese words were unclear even for him as a native.
“So, the student council and our sponsor would be primary?” Yukio tried.
Urufu-kun grimaced. “Members would be primaries, along with the sponsor, I guess. Council? Let's make them secondaries, even if they can pull the plug on the entire project.”
“Because they're not directly involved?”
“There's hope for you yet!” Urufu-kun said and smiled.
Yukio smiled back. He didn't fully understand why the club was so important for Urufu-kun, but it was enough that it was that important. He would help make that dream come true, and besides it gave him a reason to contact Takeida-san.
“Training tomorrow?” Yukio asked, referring to their weekly bouts. It was another of their weekly routines, and asking about it gave him an excuse to change the subject. Corporate theory wasn't all that fun.
“Uhum, yes. Gym during break.”
“I'll pick you up here then. What about Sunday?” Yukio said happy that his friend agreed to the sudden change of topic.
“Sunday? Dojo. Four hours plus biking.”
“Is that enough?”
“No,” Urufu-kun answered, “not really. Proper training once a week keeps my skills up to date, but I won't develop.”
“I thought you would sound more disappointed.”
Urufu-kun smiled. “I never had time to train two styles anyway. It's enough to keep myself both soft and hard. After all I grew too old for competition so I kind of lost interest in that kind of training.”
It's so easy to forget he's really fifty years old. “I never asked. How much time does it take?”
“Oh.” Urufu-kun's eyes showed that he was lost in memories. “Twenty hours a week, but it wasn't all karate. Anyway, I didn't pick up aikido until after I dropped competitive karate, and I wasn't all that good to begin with. Nidan when the really good ones with my training years were sandan.”
Yukio shook his head. “Didn't you say you won a lot?”
“Yeah, but that's only because I was tall for my weight and quick. When I'm fully grown I'll be 181 or 182 with the weight of a midget.”
Yukio laughed. “Midget? Care to define that?”
Urufu-kun grimaced. “Sorry about that. But the average Japanese is kind of short in Sweden. I'm just about average back home.”
An entire population of walking towers. No wonder they needed all that space.
“Why did you stop competing?”
“Hello, fifty years old over here. I'd get smashed. Besides my work took too much time. I took up aikido because there were no competitions.”
“So you dropped karate.”
“More or less. A friend was a trainer in a dojo, so we met a couple of times a month. Nothing serious.”
It was time to finish their planning. “So, what about field trips?” Yukio asked and changed the topic once again.
As darkness fell they sketched out activities for the club, a rough communication plan for how to keep in touch with their Swedish counterpart along with some ideas for how Urufu-kun should coach Ageruman-san to make the initial contact to begin with.
It all looked very grown up, and Yukio wondered if Urufu-kun wasn't having all too much fun overdoing the set-up of a simple school club.
Urufu-kun absent-mindedly plugged bill after bill into the cup where the stack with receipts grew as they ordered more and more beverages. While in work mode he handled money like it was really just pieces of paper, and Yukio was once again reminded that Urufu-kun came from a very different world.
It was quite a while later, when he was studying mathematics, and Urufu-kun had opened up his books on grade and middle school Japanese, that he looked out the window. Below them he saw Takeida-san walking back home from her cram school. Tired from using too many formulas he rested his eyes and mind on her back until she vanished out of sight.
Cute. Even from a distance, in the lamplights, she's beautiful. He looked at Urufu-kun from the corner of his eyes. No, he hadn't noticed how Yukio's mind had wandered elsewhere. Weekend now. Monday I get to see her again.
Second fiddle. Cram school was the only place where she was just Takeida Kyoko. Otherwise she was an accessory. Friend, or even best friend. That was how she was normally seen.
In the beginning she had been happy to be associated with Kuri-chan. Part of the exotic glory spilled over to her. Two outsiders befriending each other. Later she resented it a little. To play second fiddle and be part of someone else’s life rather than making her own.
But in the end Kuri-chan was just too good a friend. As they got to know each other better Kyoko's strengths came to light even if no one else saw them, and Kuri-chan displayed quite an impressive array of faults of her own. Even if no one else saw those.
In the eyes of the masses Kuri-chan was a goddess. Flawless.
Yesterday Kyoko had been on her own, walking home from cram school in a slight drizzle when the sight of a ridiculously expensive bike locked all alone to a stand caught her attention. It wasn't the first time she saw it. Usually it stood out among its company when she was on her way to cram school, but that evening it was still there all alone in the rain.
She never stopped or anything, but she did look up and through the windows to the café located on the second floor of the old fashioned mall. And she saw blazers from their school. For a moment she entertained the idea of entering the café just to find out whom they belonged to, but that bordered on stalking, and in the end she just passed below those windows.
Today when she brought a bag with supplies to the soccer club she once again saw a pair of blazers separated from their owners.
It's funny how your mind sometimes plays pranks with you, and on this occasion hers did, and on this occasion it happened to be true. Kyoko decided that those two blazers were the ones she had seen yesterday, and for that reason alone she had to find out.
The kendo club was on lunch break, but the sound of voices in training still reached her from inside the gymnasium. So she sneaked away to the opening to see if the two piles of clothes outside it had anything to do with what was happening inside.
Two boys, freshmen if the clothes outside the gym told the truth, were training. If that could be called training. A small loudspeaker with what looked like a smart phone on top of it spewed out foreign music, and they were… dancing?
“No, no, no!” the taller of them laughed.
Kyoko sat down beside the door not knowing if it was OK to eavesdrop on the boys or not.
“If I do it like this?” the other answered and flailed around like a helicopter on its terminal way down to its doom.
What on earth are they doing?
The tall one sat down on the floor and hugged his stomach. He was literally roaring with laughter.
“Sure,” he shouted, “you'll get the girl.” Then he slammed a fist to the floor and laughed again. Tears of mirth ran from his eyes. “You'll get her because you just downed her partner. Victory by attrition!”
There was, Kyoko thought, something odd with his accent. As if he had learned Japanese rather than grown up with the language. But apart from his oddly coloured hair he looked Japanese. She knew she ought to walk away from here, but something drew her to the two boys and their antics.
His accomplice in what passed for dancing sat down on the floor as well and poked his friend in the chest. “No good?”
“Plenty good. You'll have no rivals if you knock them all out.” The taller of the two grinned back, a wolfish, mischievous grin.
Wow! That smile. I want one from you as well! She had seen him somewhere. She was certain of it, but which class?
“Yukio, we have ten minutes. Best get out of here before they return.” The tall one rose to his feet, and before he faced the opening on his way out Kyoko hid behind the doors and walked to the soccer field.
Who are you? And that smile, please make it mine!
When she arrived at the field the Watabe twins were already playing, and even Ryu-kun had been given a place in their team. The soccer club wanted the Watabes, and the rest of them were merely accepted as tag-alongs. Well, Kuri-chan excepted of course. They'd want her as a mascot. Anyone would want her as a mascot.
“Ko-chan, here!” Speaking of which, a pair of arms semaphoring in the very opposite way of what was proper, ladylike behaviour told her where she was supposed to go. As if anyone could have missed the blond flagpole rising above the other girls.
“Hi,” Kyoko said when she was close enough not to have to shout her greeting. “How's training?”
Kuri-chan swept over the field with her hands. “Fine, fine. The Watabes are fantastic, and Ryu-kun should have a place on the team as well.”
Kyoko looked at where Ryu-kun had taken advantage of how the opponents paid too much attention to the older Watabe. The younger brother grinned wildly and lobbed a pass over the heads of badly positioned defenders.
Nicely done! Even I can see how you got them fooled.
A Ryu-kun alone with the goalkeeper was too much even for defenders concentrating on Watabe the older, and they turned and ran for him. Seemingly scared of the attention Ryu-kun kicked the ball into nowhere.
Oh, my bad, maybe not nowhere after all, Kyoko thought when she saw where the ball was going.
The older Watabe had already made a run for it. At top speed he met the rolling ball, picked it up with his left foot, rounded the goalkeeper and lazily rolled the ball into the net.
“And that is called paying attention to the game,” Kuri-chan said.
“If he's that good, why isn't he invited to the team?”
“Has to join the club first, but even then. Seniors don't like him too much.”
“Eh, why not?”
“Seniors' girlfriends like him too much.”
That was Kuri-chan for you. She was right of course, but you really, really didn't say those things aloud. Around them girls turned their heads and blushed. If you could at least keep your voice down! Half of them are the girlfriends you just spoke about.
“Hey, kendo club finished already?”
Kyoko turned to see what Kuri-chan was looking at. Oh! “No, those two just happen to come from the gym.”
The two friends Kyoko watched earlier had apparently washed off their sweat outdoors, because their hair were dripping water. The taller of them walked with a strange hunchbacked posture, far from how he had looked in the gym hall. Beside him his shorter companion looked outright striking.
Strange, I could have sworn the big guy was the most handsome.
“Cute shorty. Your type, Kyoko?”
“Eh, not really. I preferred the tall one. Earlier at least.”
Kuri-chan gave her a strange look. “Preferred? Earlier?”
“He looked good in the gym,” Kyoko tried weakly. That didn't come out right.
“You got strange taste in men. Isn't he the geek from 6:1?”
Kyoko stared at Kuri-chan. “You know him?”
“I try to keep track of anyone who stands out. Part of the job being me.”
Part of the job… In the world of Ageruman Kuritina that probably made sense. Kyoko was suddenly reminded of how her Kuri-chan only existed for a few of them. To most she was an object of admiration, desire and resentment. It was all too easy to forget that, and Kuri-chan probably couldn't afford doing so.
“6:1, you say. Come Monday they'll take the field during lunch break. They have PE before us,” Kyoko noted in what she hoped sounded like an offhanded way.
“I know. You should take a better look at the shorty. He's more your type.”
And you're not supposed to say that. Like I can't decide on my own, or like someone is out of my reach. If I didn't know you so well I'd be hurt. But Kuri-chan almost never meant anything bad. She just spoke what she thought, and sometimes she didn't even bother with the thinking.
Behind them the training match had ended, and the players were already on their way to the girls. Of them Kuri-chan and Kyoko were probably the only ones who looked in the other direction, at the two companions locked in friendly banter and outrageous laughter. As for the rest of the girls, well Ryu-kun had already started sharing his experience from the game with them.
Maybe not all of them. From the corner of her eye Kyoko saw Noriko-chan staring after the vanishing companions.
How long have you been looking at them? Blushing? I thought you weren't interested in guys. And it had to be those two. Kyoko turned her head and looked more closely at Noriko-chan. You're way too short for me to stand in your shadow. Kuri-chan can have your brother for all I care, but I get to make the first pick between those two.