Home is the place where you happen to live.
That was always the case for Christina. Wherever she lived, and living was being alone. It was, for lack of a better word, practical. Home was clean, because home never stayed the same for very long. For as long as she could remember she had been on the move. First with her parents moving from job to job like a grazing herd, and then she on her own.
From seventeen to fifty. Three years behind the same door was the longest she could recall being in one place. This small room in a different world was maybe less grand than most of the places she had called home, but it was really no better or worse than most of them.
Home is where you grow up.
She was born here. Literally. In the bathroom. Kyoko hadn't known any other place than this one. Within walking distance from both school and cram school. Within walking distance from her old middle school, grade school and elementary school. Within walking distance from her entire life.
Home is where you learn to behave as is proper. Where your parents live proper lives. Home is furnished according to your family's status, is of the proper size for a public servant family and is situated where other families of equal status are likely to be found. Home is – proper.
Home is family.
It doesn't really matter where you live as long as your family is there. Maybe they had moved a couple of times, but the Wakayamas had always stayed together. And they always stood together. Four of them, like the four walls of what others called home.
The latest building that others named their home had seen them playing out their merry antics the last five years. It was, Ryu gloated and Noriko admitted, large. Abundantly so. Both their parents worked, and they were, mildly put, well off.
But this house, or their previous small one, was equally home. Home only when there was family there, because an empty house is a dead thing and not a home.
Home is a tennis court, with a net in the middle.
That net had separated Yukio's life into two halves for the better part of ten years. Like the ball he was bounced between his parents. One lived close to school, and lately he spent most of his sleeping hours there, but his father lived less than half an hour away with train. Occasionally during school days, and usually during school breaks he lived there.
But never on Fridays. Not for half a year. In a sense that café had become his third home. A neutral zone, like where the umpire sat.
Home is sharing and safety.
Home is where those you love stay near you. Home is never loss. Home isn't a place you need to leave behind because you can't stand it any longer.
Home is always in the now. Before that time he had known that home had also been a place he could remember from earlier. But after that time home was always a place that belonged to the here and now.
Home is shared with Amaya. Home is two bedrooms and a living room. Home is where he can make her safe. Home is safety, the safety he can buy, the reason he works and the place where, every day, the same two faces will show up before sleep.
Home will one day become where he can see a future. Not today, not tomorrow, but one day.
There were times when he wanted Yukio by his side. Most times were those times. This time, however, wasn't.
Ulf had stolen inside Red Rose Hell, or Red Rose Academy as the clowns running it preferred to call it. It even had a brass plaque nailed to the gates stating the lie. He wore a stolen senior high school uniform. He was the thief. Now he was on the look for a certain fictional second year student of the Himekaizen Academy.
There was a certain symmetric irony to the exchange of uniforms. One bad deed balanced by another.
If he had been told early October that he would ever set foot here again, he would probably not have believed it. What was probable was that he'd club such a person to the ground for suggesting anything that distasteful.
Last October he had still been scared enough to willingly resort to violence. It wasn't that he had developed gloriously as a person since then. Fifty year old people seldom did. But he did feel a lot more comfortable now, and that made clubbing people to the ground a less appealing option. Which was probably lucky for the student he tried to find.
He wasn't about to use violence if he found him. He was about to hurt the bastard much, much worse.
Nakagawa wanted the problem to vanish permanently. Ulf planned to oblige him.
Ulf had only attended the Red Rose middle school for about half a year, and this was the high school section, so in the end it took him an hour of skulking around in the school. One hour for catching a glimpse, and another five minutes to make it out of the school-grounds.
Ulf waited for his prey a block away from the school. He stalked it for another five. Then he opened up his ambush.
“Sempai, could you please help me?” he said.
The prey stopped, obviously unaware of the assault that was about to follow. “Yes?”
“I'm looking for a second year student from Himekaizen Academy.”
“From where?” But there had been a tell-tale glimmer in his eyes.
“It's this student,” Ulf said and flashed his smart phone to the prey. The photo was a perfect face shot. Much better than anything Ulf could have dared to hope for without the object noticing the photo shot.
Nakagawa's gift was enlightening.
The prey stared at him with the eyes of a deer facing headlights of an onrushing car.
“Within two weeks that person has dropped out of high school, or these pictures will start circulating among the Red Rose parent community.”
Ulf flicked to photos where his prey received a large sum of money from a Red Rose teacher. They showed the prey in a Red Rose uniform, with what was clearly a Himekaizen uniform in his hands.
The prey stopped breathing.
Nakagawa's gift was profitable.
“After dropping out, this person will never, ever, attend any education of any kind again. That is a lifetime condition.”
Ulf flicked from photos to a film where a second year male student hammered Christina Agerman into a locker room wall. The face of that student was splendidly captured.
“This film, and a lot of other interesting data will find its way to the police should that condition not be met.”
The prey was on his knees sobbing.
Nakagawa's gift was instructive.
Ulf called Nakagawa and reported that the gift had lived up to all its promised attributes, and that he had recognised the student after all. It was the limping that gave him away, the limping Ulf had inflicted on him half a year earlier.
All in all it took Ulf the better part of three hours to permanently destroy the life for an eighteen year old school kid. The deed left him with a deep sense of satisfaction.
“I don't understand why she hasn't responded. I mean, if she wasn't interested in the club she could just have said so.”
Club? Oh, it's you two! Kyoko looked at the backsides in front of her and closer to the gym hall. She was looking for somewhere to sit outside the cafeteria. Kuri-chan and Noriko-chan, no you prefer being called Nori-chan, would join her in a few moments.
She found a bench wide enough to house three in the shade outside the school cafeteria. Both wings flanked the area and great canvas sails strung to the walls gave protection from both sun and rain.
“Sorry, but I gave her the letter, OK?” Matsumoto-san's back moved when he shrugged, and so did his short hair at the nape of his neck.
“My bad. I apologise. Should have handled that myself,” the taller of them said.
Behind them Kyoko reddened. Please, don't let them know I'm here! She wiped the bench clean and sat down with her lunch in her lap. It was one of the occasions when a uniform skirt was better than trousers. The boys needed to carry trays to place on their legs.
“Don't worry man. If I'd known she was worse than blondie I'd kept quiet. I decided to confess, so that's my fault, not yours.” Resigned irritation tinged Matsumoto-san’s voice, but it wasn't all that surprising that he hated her.
They're talking about me. I'm embarrassed! I'm eavesdropping! What would father think if he knew?
“Disagree. I bet if I hadn't made you drag Christina into it things would have turned out better.” Hamarugen-san said; because he was a name now and not merely 'the geek from 6:1'. Then he slapped his friend on the back.
It was one of the boyish expressions of affection Kyoko just couldn’t understand. The slap was hard enough to hurt.
Even sitting down he was very much the taller of the two, and Kyoko could, in a detached way, understand why she had been drawn to him first. But he had that awful hairdo glued to his head, and that combined with what he had made Matsumoto-san go through extinguished whatever feelings she had once harboured for him.
“Ko-chan, there you are. I thought we'd never find you. Look, there's...”
“Shush, quiet, Kuri-chan!” Kyoko hastily slapped her hand to her mouth and beckoned her friends to sit down in silence.
Kuri-chan gave her a startled look. Then she must have recognised the boys Kyoko eavesdropped on and nodded. Noriko-cha… Nori-chan took her seat in silence as well and gave both backsides in front of them a sullen stare.
Poor kid. You have it bad. I'm over him already, but you've got that bug real bad.
“Who cares? Maybe it's better this way. At least I know what she's like when things don't go her way,” Matsumoto-san said, and his voice turned hoarse.
That hurt, but Kyoko guessed she deserved it. She had behaved poorly.
Kuri-chan gave her a look full of questions. Kyoko nodded back. The two of them didn't need words to confirm something this obvious.
It felt a bit funny, sitting like this squeezed into the middle. To her left the amazingly tall and slender object of admiration she had made into her best friend. To her right the petite sister of the prince of Himekaizen Academy, and she was cute enough in her own way with her short haircut matching her small body. That left her, Kyoko, as the odd one out with her chubby frame.
“Don't be like that. I'd be pissed off like hell if a girl made me look like Ryu's tool,” Hamarugen-san suggested in what was a poorly disguised attempt to put the blame on himself.
Nori-chan looked up, but Kyoko grabbed her hand to keep her silent. “Yes, that's why we just listen,” she whispered to Nori-chan.
It was a peculiar sensation sitting with her friends in silence listening to someone else’s conversation. We really are eavesdropping now. This is so improper, but I want to know.
“Yukio, I'm really, really sorry. I'll treat you Fridays for the rest of the month. And I'll try to find a way to patch things over,” Hamarugen-san said, and Kyoko could hear in his voice that he really did feel guilty about what had happened.
Yes, please do! she thought.
“You know, I'm not certain I can afford any more help from you.” Kyoko could almost hear Matsumoto-san grinning widely. Maybe he wasn't as angry as their conversation led her to believe.
“Man!” Hamarugen-san said, and they both laughed. “Coffee?”
“Yeah, with milk.”
Hamarugen-san handed a can over to his friend. Kyoko heard the metallic click when they opened a can each. Beside her Nori-chan stirred, but Kyoko shook her head. Just a little more.
“It's Matsumoto-san I'm interested in. I'm not looking at Hamarugen-san,” she whispered to Nori-chan. It was a minor bribe, and she felt ashamed for it. Still, it served its purpose, because Nori-chan calmed down somewhat. One rival less for you.
“Yukio, I'll handle her myself, OK?” Hamarugen-san let his words be followed by a mock punch to his friend's shoulder.
“Both guys yours?” Kuri-chan asked in Kyoko's other ear. Kuri-chan mustn't have heard what Kyoko had just told Nori-chan.
“No, he's talking about you,” Kyoko explained silently.
“Me, handled? What the hell?” Kuri-chan swore and made as if to rise.
“Wait!” Kyoko yanked her friend down.
“Thanks for small favours,” Matsumoto-san said. “How do you plan to do that?”
With Kuri-chan and Nori-chan both whispering questions in her ear Kyoko felt an ever rising feeling of the surreal as she tried to hear what Matsumoto-san and Hamarugen-san spoke about.
“Well, she kind of owes me.”
Beside her Kyoko felt Kuri-chan flare up in silent rage.
“I guess that's true,” Matsumoto-san agreed.
That didn't exactly calm Kuri-chan down, Kyoko noted to her consternation. She had to pull on her friend's sleeve to calm her down.
“And you. She should be on her knees thanking you for your quick thinking,” Hamarugen-san said.
Kuri-chan should kneel down in gratitude to Matsumoto-san? How did that happen? By Kyoko’s side Kuri-chan sat down again. Kyoko could feel her curiosity winning over her anger.
“You took all the flak. I just ran around telling people.” Matsumoto-san scratched his head as if listening to Hamarugen-san's praise embarrassed him.
“That's bull. You saw what happened. You acted on it. You even guessed about all that water and had them bring clothes. Damn, that makes you my hero.”
Kuri-chan gave Kyoko a hard stare, and Kyoko shrunk and pointed at Nori-chan.
“Yes, he did. He was off like lightning after you ran back to the locker room. To gather our class,” Nori-chan whispered. “He's your hero in the shadows if you go for that thing,” she finished and glared at Kyoko.
That stung. Kyoko and Nori-chan weren't on the best of terms with each other right now, even if they were still friends.
“What are you going to do?” Matsumoto-san asked.
“Well, if she hasn't read the letter I'll just have to ask her about the club.”
“Club?” Kuri-chan said.
Club? Guess that makes two of us.
“Club?” Nori-chan asked.
OK, three of us.
“I don't understand why she'd dislike a chance to speak that horrid language of yours. Oh, forget about the horrid part! Maybe she just has better taste than you,” Matsumoto-san suggested.
“Oh, shut it!”
“What club?” Kuri-chan asked loudly enough to turn heads around them. She obviously couldn't keep it in any more.
Both boys turned. Both boys grew tennis balls instead of eyes. Both boys dropped their jaws deep enough to make room for those tennis balls, and then some.
“You heard?” the comedy duo spoke as one.
“You weren't exactly discreet,” Kuri-chan said. “What club?”
“Eh, the one in the letter.”
“Oh, that one?”
Kyoko hid from the glare Kuri-chan gave her. Maybe tearing up the letter hadn't been so smart after all.
“Mind if we join you?” Hamarugen-san asked.
Matsumoto-san looked like his friend had suggested they seek the company of vipers.
“Be my guest.” Kuri-chan's words.
“Please.” Nori-chan's offer.
And they had spoken at the same time.
Kuri-chan and Nori-chan exchanged looks. Nori-chan's was less than friendly.
And you just gained a new rival Nori-chan. Sorry, but she's way more dangerous than I am. Nori-chan, I apologize, but you won't stand a chance if Kuri-chan joins the match.
Ahead of them sunlight and shadows played chase as the clouds above them ran over the sky. Kyoko reseated herself and made room with her legs to allow the two boys to join them.
Both of the boys took seats facing them. Matsumoto-san looked away. Kyoko did the same. This was, mildly put, awkward. He hates me. He's right in doing so. I'm awful.
“Club, shoot! I misplaced the letter before I could read it,” Kuri-chan lied.
Hamarugen-san explained. It took a long time.
“Why me?” Kuri-chan asked when he was finished.
“Not just why you, why all of you. You specifically I want for president.”
That was a lot of different meanings of the word ‘you’, Kyoko mused and smiled.
“I'll handle the real set-up, but it looks better if you're our official face.”
Kuri-chan snorted. “A little child wants me as a puppet? I think not.”
“A little child?” Now it was Hamarugen-san's time to snort.
“Look, I've done...”
“...this kind of job...”
“...since before you...”
“...needed that runny nose of yours...”
Whoa! School just got a new dynamic duo!
Matsumoto-san, Nori-chan and Kyoko stared dumbfounded at the duellists. So did quite a few of the other students around them as well.
“...that oversized attitude...”
They stared at each other. Then both of them burst out laughing.
I'm sorry Nori-chan, but you're not even in the match any longer.
“Aww look, this club is kinda important to me. You be president, and I'll do the vice presidency, OK?”
“As long as you don't try to micromanage me.” Kuri-chan glared at Hamarugen-san, but Kyoko could see an amused smile touching her lips.
“Sure I won't.” Hamarugen-san looked strangely excited for just having been defeated.
“I'm your treasurer,” Nori-chan suddenly decided.
“Why thank you!” Hamarugen-san threw a quick look at his friend, and Matsumoto-san nodded eagerly.
Matsumoto-san likes Nori-chan? Well, it's not like he has a reason to like me any longer. But I want to at least be friends with him, like he wanted when he confessed. “I'll be your secretary, scribe, whatever,” Kyoko volunteered.
“Ryu will be our mascot. He'll join or he'll sleep outdoors until summer break,” Nori-chan said gleefully.
“I guess it's settled then. I have a charter if...” Hamarugen-san began.
“What are we called?” Kuri-chan asked.
“Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club,” Matsumoto-san and Hamarugen-san answered in union, “if Miss President agrees, of course,” Hamarugen-san added shamefacedly.
“Miss President agrees, and it's Christina, or Kuri-chan, whatever you prefer.”
“Christina, it's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Ulf, or Urufu if it's too hard to pronounce.” The last was added for the benefit of the rest of them.
“Call me Yu-kun then. Club members shouldn't be so formal,” Matsumoto-san offered as an invitation.
Hamarugen-san rose and extended his right hand to Kuri-chan. “Christina or in this case miss President, should we go see the student council?”
“Uh? Yes, yes, of course.”
And with that the two of them left for the cafeteria. The remaining shrunken circle of three fidgeted uncomfortably.
Nori-chan, your love just left with the most attractive girl in school, Matsumoto-san likes you, and I, I think I'm falling for Matsumoto-san. What an utter mess!
The student council president gave him a cold stare.
“State your errand!” she said.
“I am, we are...” Ulf fidgeted. He hadn’t expected her to be irritated from the very start.
“We're applying for a new club to be formed,” Christina interrupted him. “I'm its acting president, and Hamarugen-san here is my vice president.”
“This school already has all the clubs it needs.”
This was his cue. “The Sengoku Cultural Studies is down to a single member.” Because three of them prematurely withdrew their memberships yesterday.
The council treasurer nodded in affirmation when asked by the president.
The treasurer took over the interview. “So, a club for cultural studies then?”
“Yes, we want to form the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club,” Christina said as if it had been her idea from the beginning.
You've got some guts girl! Now it's just a matter of how well you remember my priming on the way up here, Ulf thought and dared an admiring smile at Christina.
“Yes. Cultural exchange with a sister club in Sweden. We'll learn each other's cultures from a high school point of view. I have high hopes for members improving their competence in the English language as well,” Christina said unperturbed. It was clear she had remembered everything.
“You want to replace a club due to its low membership. Do you have any members?”
“Five this far. We count on gaining more.”
“I bet you are,” the president said. She moved her cold stare from Ulf to Christina. If anything it grew even colder.
Doesn't take an Einstein to know what she's thinking. Christina as president for a thinly disguised fan-club of hers.
Christina apparently knew which game was being played as well. “Wakayama Noriko has joined the club, and she will make her brother a member as well.”
Make him a member. Do you have any idea how accurate your poor Japanese just happened to be? Ulf smiled gleefully. I've seen battle tanks I'd rather face than that Noriko girl.
The council president coughed. “You're recruiting Wakayama Ryu?” She managed to blush and pale at the same time.
“Yes, and after that we plan to increase the number of members.”
Ulf turned so he could only be seen by the council treasurer. Said treasurer had done the same, and now they shared a secret laughter that threatened to bubble up to the surface.
“After that you plan to increase your numbers?” the president echoed weakly.
“Yes, and we'll make a combined effort to convince the Swedish club to cooperate with us,” Christina responded, and Ulf could hear the glee in her voice.
“A, a, a combined effort?”
“Principal Nakagawa will act as our sponsor until we find a teacher.”
You’re absolutely merciless, Ulf thought. He’d never experienced anyone stating innocent facts as a lethal weapon.
The treasurer was the first to snort, but there was no way Ulf could hold it in much longer.
“When they learn how we cooperate in Japan they can only agree.”
“When they learn… how you cooperate?” By now the president's voice was a mere whisper.
Ulf doubled over and clutched his stomach. It could have been fatal for their application if the treasurer hadn't chosen that moment to fall face down over his desk crying hysterically with laughter.
Noriko stapled a pamphlet to yet another billboard. With the headship leaning heavily on the student council Urufu-kun's and Kuri-chan's meeting the council had been a mere formality.
“Join the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club,” the pamphlet read. “President Ageruman Kuritina welcomes you to taste high school life in exotic Sweden.” After that the current members were named along with what position they held in the club. At the bottom, prominently displayed, she found her idiot brother. “Club Mascot,” was printed in bold letters beside his name.
They would get their new members. Noriko knew that. With her brother backing the tragic and beautiful heroine there was no stopping them.
The teachers hadn't taken any action when the bullying of Kuri-chan started, and none when it escalated. When it finally culminated in a physical assault and the exceptionally public aftermath it was already much too late to put the lid back on.
Kuri-chan could ask the principal to bring stars down for her, and he would only ask how many she wanted.
And I wouldn't care, but you're taking my star from me. That was, Noriko had to admit to herself, not entirely true. To claim ownership of her star she should at least confess first. And confessing wasn't her strongest subject.
Sure, she had turned Yu-kun down in middle school, and that creepy Takemoto, but that wasn't the same as doing the confessing.
Anything else and I could just have studied harder. But this? Noriko shook her head and went for the next billboard. Her feet tapped gently on the floor. Tapped lonely on the floor. There were almost no students in the corridors during club hours.
I'm so small, and she's so, large? No, that's not it. She's bright like the sun. Nothing can shine beside her. Life just wasn't fair. But Noriko hadn't been truthful. Ryu could shine almost as brightly as Kuri-chan. Would he help me? I don't think so. He doesn't seem to care much for Urufu-kun.
She arrived and brought out her stapler.
“Is that tomorrow?” she heard a question behind her when she had fastened the pamphlet to the billboard.
“Yes, Thursday and Friday at five, and Saturday at two,” she answered.
“Is it true that Wakayama-san is a member?”
“Yes.” Why ask for club activities when you can ask for my moronic brother instead?
Sometimes I wonder if they used two different entrance exams for this school. Noriko stared at the girl. It was their school uniform. She must have passed the exam.
Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club. Right! It's going to be exchange all-right, but 'culture' will have just about nothing to do with what's going to be exchanged.
Noriko bagged her stapler. That was the last pamphlet, and she could go back to their club room. Why did I suggest I join the dating central? As a bean counter to boot. She pouted. At least I get to be near him.
Noriko started climbing the right wing stairs. Tap, tap, tap, went her feet. Dok, dok, dok, went her heart. I'm lost, went the thoughts in her head.
She left the stairwell at the third floor and turned left into the endless corridor that connected the right and left wings. Among all the doors there was one with a sign that still read: “Sengoku Cultural Studies.”
When she arrived she was met by minor chaos.
“What do you mean it's too late for the sister club?” That was Ryu.
“Cause they're all but finished. School's out in a month,” Urufu-kun answered.
“No, school began a month ago!”
“Christina please help me get through to them here! Gods why did I have to end up in a place where school starts halfway through the spring term?”
“Ryu-kun, please listen to me,” Kuri-chan suggested.
Sure enough, he went meek as a lamb in seconds. That's my brother for you. He's mind-controlled by that girl. Why? He never changed because of a girl before!
“Kuri-chan, please,” she said. “We're on a first name basis in the club.”
“Why is that?” Kyoko-chan asked.
Noriko looked at her. Then she turned to Kuri-chan. The answer was actually interesting.
“Look, it's a cultural exchange club with Sweden at the other end, OK?” An endless mass of golden hair accompanied that question.
“The only time you'd use the last name addressing someone is if you're old, old, old people. As in ancient.”
“Or if you're in uniform,” Urufu-kun said helpfully and discovered the school uniform he had worn for a month. “Eh, we don't use school uniforms,” he added equally helpfully.
“He's trying to say if you're in the police force or in the military. That kind of uniform,” Kuri-chan said. “Anyway, normal people back home only use the first name, even to strangers.”
“That's not proper, Kyoko-chan protested.”
“That's proper in Sweden.”
Noriko took a chair and sat down. The room was still in a funny no man's land between clubs.
Strange how unfamiliar some people still were with western naming conventions, she thought. Not that you should use them in Japan, but you could at least be aware of them.
“Kuri-chan, I think you'll have to explain the part with the school year,” Noriko suggested.
While she waited for Kuri-chan to formulate an answer Noriko studied the walls where pictures of medieval Japan competed for space with colour-prints of an exotic, forested landscape with no mountains but lakes everywhere.
“Ah, yes,” Kuri-chan finally began. “In most of the world school starts late summer or early autumn. OK? It's beautiful and romantic and whatever the way you start school in April here, but it's not exactly an international standard.”
“Strange people,” Kyoko said.
“OK, fine, the rest of the world is strange and everyone on this island is normal. I heard that a lot back home as well.” Kuri-chan rolled her eyes. For a short moment Noriko felt something like sympathy for her. Then she recalled that Kuri-chan was monopolising Urufu-kun's attention.
“Sweden has,” Urufu-kun filled in, “a two semester school year. The first starts in late August and ends just prior to Christmas. Pretty much like the second term here. The second starts early January and ends early June. Summer break is two and a half months long.”
“Two and a half?”
That got them. Let them chew on that for a while. They're morons in Sweden for allowing students to forget all about school during summer, but you kids should at least have studied in what way they're morons if you plan to join this club!
“Urufu-kun, when do you think we'll have a sister club to communicate with?” Noriko asked. If the two foreigners wanted to be on a first name basis with everyone else, then Noriko would accommodate them. It didn’t matter what she really thought, but alienating herself from what Urufu-kun believed in would only make her position that much more hopeless.
Urufu-kun looked at Kuri-chan. Then they both nodded. “Officially? Mid-September.”
That's ages ahead! “And unofficially?”
“About three days from now,” Kuri-chan guessed. Urufu-kun nodded back at her.
“A week, tops. They haven't had any chance to plan this, so it'll take a few days to get it all set up.”
Noriko froze. That was plain boasting. “And if they were prepared?”
“Tomorrow. It's Sweden we're talking about after all.”
“I've formed and organised a twenty members club over a lunch. It's no big deal. We're good at self-organising,” Kuri-chan said.
“Prove it!” Ryu said suddenly.
“Yeah, prove it!”
Kuri-chan looked at Urufu-kun.
“Sure,” he said. “It's around nine in the morning there.” He fished up his phone. After he fingered it for a while he tapped in a long phone-number.
He's faking it!
The club room had gone almost silent. Only Kuri-chan moved around. She was powering up a laptop. Yet another of those foreign brands. What's wrong with a Japanese computer?
Urufu-kun said something incomprehensible into his phone. After a while Noriko realised that he must be speaking in his native language. Then he lit up and gave Kuri-chan instructions in the same language.
The screen suddenly showed a strange face. Middle aged and heavily bearded.
“Hi, do you mind if we speak English? My friends here can't understand Swedish,” Urufu-kun said in English.
“No problem,” the beard answered. “My colleague is fetching a union representative. She's running some copies and should be here soon.”
It was English with a peculiar sing song accent.
Then another blond teacher showed up on the screen, and behind her Noriko could see the outlines of long, black hair.
“Are you Skyping us from Japan? That's so cool!”
No way! The black hair had spoken Japanese.
“That was… unexpected,” Kuri-chan said. Then she turned on her biggest smile and faced the laptop. “Did you get the part about a cultural exchange club?”
“Yes, we'd love to. Himekaizen, you said?” the Japanese girl in Sweden asked.
“Yes, you heard of it?”
“Sorry, can't say I have.”
By now Noriko had gotten used to the delays and was staring spellbound at the unreal conversation. Shouldn't those two change places with each other?
She shook her head. She had been lost in her own thoughts and only woke up because Kuri-chan sounded agitated all of a sudden.
“Wonderful! Then we'll arrange some kind of mutual schedule. And your students are welcome to email us during summer. We'll be at school for most of it anyway.”
“Bye then.” Kuri-chan closed the laptop.
Wait, what just happened?
Urufu-kun high fived Yu-kun, and then, out of nowhere, he hugged Kuri-chan.
“What just happened?” Noriko repeated aloud.
“Ulf just got his sister club,” Kuri-chan beamed. “That was faster than I had hoped.”
“That was a hell of a lot faster,” Urufu-kun admitted. “But, damn this feels good!”
Four shell-shocked faces exchanged shell-shocked looks.
“Urufu, that company you set up in my name, it's been bleeding a lot of money lately. Care to explain?”
Ulf looked up. He'd been expecting this.
“Well, you know...” He moved away from his tiny desk in the small living room that doubled as his bedroom during nights. “… high school is expensive what with new friends and going out, and new clothes and all.” The last part, at least, was true. And Amaya had gotten used to his… selective… taste.
And his books. One, small, bookshelf was hers. The two full height ones were his. One was half filled with books from kindergarten to grade school. He had just recently started to add fiction targeted at middle schoolers to it. The other, well the other was a poor attempt to rebuild his small library from a previous life. All those titles were in English, and most of them would have had a normal middle schooler grasping for their meaning, Brit or American wouldn't have mattered.
“Half a million yen expensive?” Amaya's voice recalled him to reality.
Should he be defensive or tell her, mostly, the truth? He decided on the latter. “I can't stop dreaming about finding a way back home.” He smiled at her with what he hoped was a suitably guilty look before he lied: “There are people out there with ways of retrieving data. They cost a lot of money, and I don't want you too involved.”
“Because I'm a police?”
“Because I'm a police I know that 'a lot of money' starts at five million yen rather than a half. What are you up to?”
Well, that apparently didn't fly. “We're starting a school club. I'm feeding it a lot of money. Buying laptops and such,” he answered more truthfully. He conveniently avoided telling her about the surveillance and other security measures he paid for in cash. She would dig further, which was why he had started using Yukio for laundering money that was actually honestly earned. He also kept the fact that he received over half of his earnings in cash to himself.
A new topic seemed in order, and he ransacked his memory for one that would catch her interest.
“Amaya, heard the latest?”
His legal guardian looked back at him. She was sloppily dressed as always with her hair partially tied up in a ponytail. He guessed spending the entire day in a uniform took its toll. Especially as the police probably didn't show as much leeway as high school when it came to innovative changes to the intended design.
“No, dear, you haven't told me. Pass me the Kikkoman, will you?”
Ulf slid a bottle with soy sauce to her and opened up on his own food.
“Christina has promised to show me the city. Next Sunday.”
Amaya arched her brows at him. “That's the tall one? The Swedish girl?”
“Little one is going on his first date,” Amaya teased. They were back to acting out the illusion that he was merely a high school kid at home.
“Date?” This topic suddenly travelled paths he hadn't intended.
She gave him a long stare. His face must have shown more than he planned.
“You do know that it counts as a date, don't you?”
Ulf shook his head. Christina had used that word, and then a long list of must dos had flown out of her mouth.
“Oh dear!” He could see how Amaya stopped pretending to be his mother. “Urufu, listen here. There are a few things you should be aware of. She's Swedish like you, but girls are girls everywhere.”
Ulf couldn't remember that being true from his high school years, but then to be honest those belonged to the ancient 80s. And for various reasons he hadn't exactly been the girls' first choice back then. Extreme shyness when it came to girls popped up as one reason.
“Look, I went out with a fair amount of women during university,” he tried and changed the topic a little bit.
She took a bite of her sashimi, chewed thoughtfully and swallowed.
“University,” she said. “Like after curfews, tobacco rules, alcohol rules and first sex?”
She didn't have to be that frank about it. Ulf felt colour rise to his cheeks. He didn't remember blushing this easily since he attended high school the first time.
“Don't worry, I'm not taking you to bed. Now, my little brat,” she really did love to call him a brat whenever he grew too much of an attitude in her presence, “mom's gonna write you a list, and you'll learn it by heart.”
“Yes mom,” Ulf said glumly. There was no point in protesting any longer. He had blithely walked right into it, and there was no way out any longer.
Amaya leaned back and grabbed pen and paper. “This is the list,” she said and made place for it on the table. She began scribbling.
“That's 'mother dear' for you.”
“Ama...” The look she gave him could have turned their sashimi into fried rice with fish. “Mother dear, I… I...” He really didn't want to admit this. He gave up on his pride. “I can't read that.”
“You don't have to. You're going to learn it by heart, remember?”
Usually she was adorable, but right now she had turned into someone he could easily believe making arrests. “Yes, mother dear.”
In the end he learned the list by heart. Humiliatingly enough it was much easier than he had thought. It was, bullet for bullet, a match to Christina's list.
I guess I was the one suggesting this, even if I had to teach him just about everything about a proper formal first date. Christina groaned inwardly. So embarrassing! She sighed again. Well, I owe him big-time.
And that was it. She owed him, but it wasn't as if he really stirred any emotions in her. So, one date. She'd give him one day to shine with her beside him, but he also needed to see that he was outclassed, outmatched and out gunned.
He's just a boy, and a geek to boot, even if he knows how to be a knight in shining armour. That thought did stir emotions in her. In that locker room he had been anything but a geek. More of a frightening avenger.
But in the days since he had reverted back to the shy, clumsy boy. But not during club hours. And she had an opportunity to share memories from Sweden, in Swedish as well, and hearing that language built a hard lump in her throat.
But we did good work with that club of yours. Ten more members, and I wouldn't be surprised if we get a few more. The student council president looked like fainting when she saw the list.
Still it wasn't enough.
I didn't spend ten years on the catwalk to pair up with a little kid.
So, why was she here, standing below that stupid statue and listening to gasps of adoration half an hour early? She should have waltzed in quarter of an hour late instead of standing here with a steadily growing crowd of admirers watching her.
I did the full super model stunt to give him the shock of his life. But now with some of the braver in her audience closing in on her… Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. She started recollecting exactly why she had been surrounded by body guards in her previous life. I don't like this
“You want a real man.” And the feeling of unease grew to fear. After that locker room, always fear.
Around her the circle of admirers shrunk as people felt the mood change.
“She could use more than one real man. I heard foreign girls like it kinky.”
Soon they would grab her.
“Christina, you look astonishing!”
Swedish? That's Ulf!
She looked frantically around her, but none of the teenagers standing in their casual clothes matched his looks.
But I'm sure I heard him! Where?
“I'm stunned! You're, you're more beautiful than I thought possible.”
Where? Where? Wh… No way!
He would never be a super model, as she had once been, but 'handsome' didn't even come close to describing the young man who broke in between the two most insistent of her 'admirers'.
“Excuse me, but I'm here to meet my girlfriend,” Ulf said in Japanese.
Dazed, Christina accepted the offered hand. She stared at an Ulf she had never seen before. An Ulf in a lazily unbuttoned business suit, with a deep burgundy shirt to ironically admit that he had yet to grow into adulthood. He no longer wore any glasses, and his usual, lifeless hairdo had given way to a playful one that didn't even attempt to deny that gel had played an important part in the making.
In ways it was a bit old-fashioned, but Christina liked that. It made her feel less of a stranger.
Italian suit, Swedish shirt, German shoes, Japanese neck tie. High quality but not stupidly expensive. Oh, and that Swiss watch looks gorgeous on him! Damn, that man knows how to dress!
Because he was a man, despite his youthful appearance. Ulf wore his suit as the other teenagers wore their casuals. It looked a part of him, and she knew how many years it took most men to wear a suit the way you wore blue jeans.
Around them the mood had changed once again.
“I don't recognize her. Are they filming a Hollywood production here?”
Christina smiled. Then she gave Ulf a closer look. He was visibly shaken. So I made an impact after all.
“She's stunning, but that's one hell of a guy she's got there!”
“What's with that guy? Like Japanese girls aren't good enough for him!”
“I heard him speak. He's a foreigner as well. Probably why he's so tall.”
All fear drained away from her. Ulf's arrival had been a shock, but now she only felt safe as she snuggled closer to him. At calm again Christina enjoyed the luxury of feeling how the Tokyo spring filled with promises of a summer to come.
As they left the square behind them and ventured out on narrow streets Christina mused on how their date had already taken a different direction than she had planned. And as for her plans… Out gunned? Yes, she knew what she could do with clothes and make-up. Outclassed? No, not really. Outmatched? No way in hell! In Ulf she had met her match.
They walked along the streets, arm in arm like an old pair. She preferred walking this way. Holding hands was so… teenager. But then again they were supposed to be just that. Upon that reflection she released her arm and grabbed his hand instead.
I'll die from shame, but it can't be helped. In this world I'm fifteen for crying out loud, not fifty.
Ulf offered her a surprised look and an uncertain smile when her fingers intertwined with his.
He's striking, but he's still just a kid. I wish I could feel that mix of fear and joy of his right now, but I'm too old for that.
Beside her Ulf blushed slightly, but he didn't let go.
She fully enjoyed walking with him in a cityscape she only remembered from Tokyo, even though a Tokyo from another world. A city of this size wasn’t supposed to be full of two and three story buildings sprawling in every direction until they ended in a cluster of skyscrapers.
“Anything special you want to see?” he asked just when she felt the silence becoming intrusive.
Christina didn't answer. Of course there were things she wanted to see, but what would her fifteen year old self have wanted?
They spent some time in awkward silence as they walked through this capital of capitals. Then, when she took a closer look at him, she noticed that he was frowning as if trying to remember something.
If he doesn't know his way around here I'll just guide him discreetly. Not that he could afford any of the places I went to last time I was here. Not that we would be allowed inside any of those places now. She sighed. My favourite waterholes are probably 'old people' places anyway.
“You know,” Ulf said and broke the silence, “I think I've seen you before.”
What a strange thing to say. “I think most of the people at school have seen me before,” Bah, those are things I'm only supposed to think, not say aloud. Besides there's not a single soul here who has seen me dressed up like this.
“No, before that.”
“Middle school? I went to a different one than you. Close? Which one did you go to?”
“Eh, Red Rose Hell.” Ulf's answer had come in Japanese.
Christina gave him a long look before she translated in her head. “Red Rose Hell?” What was that about?
“Forget what I said! It was a bad place. Don't want to talk about it. Come to think of it, forget anything I said!” Ulf's voice sharpened into a cutting edge.
“Sorry.” You didn't have to be that mean. “I'm just used to people watching me all the time.”
“I apologise. That was uncalled for. Let's talk about something more pleasant. Like how stunningly beautiful you are?”
Christina laughed. Over the top, Ulf. You shouldn't flatter a girl so blatantly. “Ah, let's not.” Actually, let's not. Just for now I'd like to be something more than just my looks. And she regretted dressing up as she had done. Over the top, Christina. “You know, you asked if I wanted to go somewhere earlier. What about something to eat?”
Ulf brightened when she so obviously changed the topic. “I know a restaurant where the food is excellent. The sommelier is an expert as well.”
Christina stared at Ulf. What had he just said?
“Or so I'm told. Not that it matters to us of course.”
“Eh, mom and dad. Back home, during holidays, outside Sweden.”
Ulf was obviously flustered.
“So you travelled a lot before you moved here?” Christina asked. She was grateful that Ulf had handed her a neutral topic, and it didn't hurt if she learned a bit more of his background.
“Some,” Ulf admitted. “I got to taste wine and beer. Small amounts,” he added.
“Preferences?” Christina suggested.
“A full bodied… eh, it's rather the same. Wine is sour and beer bitter.”
Who are you?
“I'm almost sixteen, so it's not as bad as it sounds,” he continued.
It was just as bad as it sounded. “When is your birthday?”
That made 'almost' not nearly as imminent as he had made it sound.
“Yours?” he countered.
“May fifteenth,” she answered absent-mindedly. So, you're Leo. Certainly full enough of yourself to be one, I guess.
“Taurus? Wait a moment. Fifteenth?”
“Yes, why?” Christina said.
“You know you're supposed to tell me small details like that?”
“Why? Because… Bah, follow me!”
What's up with him? Then an image of a calendar popped up in her head. Oops. Forgot my own birthday again. Christina smiled. He's cute. I wonder what he's up to. She walked breathlessly behind him, fingers still locked with his.
“You like biking?” Ulf asked after they had rounded several corners and she was totally lost.
“I've seen that atrocity of yours.” He dragged her through a door opening and quickly scanned the interior.
There were rows and rows with bikes.
“No, Ulf, you can't.”
“Watch me! What about this one?”
He was Swedish for certain. The bike he rolled out was the real thing, not one of the grandmother monsters the kids here used. That I use myself. The one he suggested was a subdued red and black street hybrid of a mountain-bike. Sturdy but lightweight. Eighteen or twenty four gears – she couldn't see from where she stood. She knew she was beaming like a kid in a candy-shop.
“It's beautiful!” There was no point denying it.
“Sir, we'll have this one, and a helmet and an external lock.”
“Happy birthday! Sorry I couldn't wrap it for you.”
Christina panicked. It was too expensive a gift. “Ulf, I can't possibly...”
“You can. Making you happy makes me happy.” And he smiled that wicked grin of his.
How can you be this relaxed? How can you talk that way? You're just a kid!
Numbly she received the registration papers and signed them. In the corner of her eyes she saw Ulf handing over more money than she made from her part time job in an extremely good month.
I don't want to be in your debt, you idiot. But it's beautiful. It really is! With this bike I can see so much more of Tokyo than before.
“I like your company. This is partly a gift to myself. I hope, if you'll agree to it, that we can tour the city together.”
At least he had ulterior motives. Somehow she liked him better for that.
Ulf arranged to have the bike delivered to her home. The clothes she wore really didn't agree with leading a bike by her side, not to mention riding one.
When they returned outside it was raining. Ulf brought out an umbrella he had hidden god knows where, and they shared it in search for something to eat.
Date. We're checking off a lot of items on this first date. First? When did I start thinking of this as the first?
She snuggled up closer to him. Who cared? He'd been a perfect gentleman, and that bike, bribe or no bribe, was really beautiful.
Best birthday in years!
Christina still agreed with that assessment after they had finished their meal in a middling class restaurant. She was happy Ulf didn't flaunt his money, OK her gift aside, and kept the cost for the meal within scope of what she could possibly return.
When they passed a vending machine Ulf picked up two bottles. One of the strangely tasting energy-drinks for himself and a coke for her.
“Pick one,” he said, as if there had ever been a question what she preferred.
She took the offered coke and smiled at him. “You knew?”
“Love these dispensers in the streets.”
“So do I. Pity we can't have them back home.”
Christina snorted. “Likely. People would stand in queue with a crowbar to break them open.”
“And then the police would chew the face off the owner for being naive. I know. Still would have been nice in summer.”
“We're in Japan. Ulf. Just accept that everything isn't like home, if Sweden really is home any longer.” She felt a pang of homesickness just saying those words.
“You're right Christina. Every place has its pros and cons.” He hesitated for a moment. “I'm behaving like a spoiled brat. Sorry.”
You always have to compare, don't you? “Don't worry. I like you the way you are.” Now. Did I say like? She passed under the greenery of trees. Christina, get a hold of yourself. He's just a kid!
They were headed into a park Ulf had seen. Steam rose from the streets in the sunshine when his suit suddenly blared.
“Ulf Hammargren, speaking.”
So he knows people here who speak English?
“Mister Yoshida, it's a pleasure hearing from you again.”
Mister Yoshida? Sounds like an adult.
“No, today I'm free. I'm very much the average school kid right now. Thank you for asking though.”
Free? Normal? Christina looked at Ulf in his suit. Nothing normal with a fifteen year old kid wearing that. And it's been used before, as have his shoes. Should have seen that before. He didn't buy any new clothes for this date.
“Sounds like you have a problem with horizontal slicing.”
Ulf was more agitated now. More alive. Seeing him like this definitely stirred something in her. She could stand here forever, just drinking the sight of him.
“No, I believe you're running the entire set as component teams. Basically running a relay.”
Who are you, Ulf?
“Yes, that's correct. But just so we agree, your people won't like my suggested changes at all.”
He's doing business on his phone? You're actually using that suit for work?
“No, from what I've seen the competence profiles are pretty evenly spread. Reorganising into cross functional teams all over should work fine. You still want a fire brigade though.”
I don't understand at all, and I was good for a billion dollars. Who are you, Ulf?
“What? No, I don't think she minds,” Ulf stole a look at her, and Christina smiled back. “Yes. No. No, she's more than cute. She's the most beautiful girl I've seen in my entire life.”
That made her blush. A lot.
“In love? Really, you're not supposed to ask that, Mister Yoshida,” Ulf laughed, and he was enough of a boy to allow his discomfort and embarrassment out. Christina almost forgave him just because of that.
“I'm just getting to know her, and right now she's giving me the evil eye. Yes, she understands English.”
I'll give you more than an eye. Talking about me like that!
“My offer? Eight coaching sessions biweekly, plus preparations and wrapping up.”
Yes, he's definitely doing business. He's handsome. He really is! Christina, stop it!
“That's right. I like working with you, and I'll skip the chaperone this time. I'll give you a discount. Half a million all in all?”
Half a million?
“No,” Ulf laughed. “No can do. That's already 40 percent off.” He gave her a thumbs up and indicated that the call was about to close. “OK. I'll send you a formal offer later today. Mid-June, or earlier? OK, I'll read your reply then. Bye Mister Yoshida, and thank you very much for your call.”
He looked at her with alarm in his eyes. It was as if she had found him with his hand in the cookie jar. “Christina, there's something I need to tell you.”
There was something she needed to ask him first. I think I've seen you before, was that what you said to me earlier? Could you possibly? “How old were you, Ulf? Before you turned fifteen again?” Now, she had said it.
He deflated. Totally. He was so stunned she could have pushed him over with her pinkie. “Eh?”
Well, there goes my secret as well. My asking him pretty much gave it all away.
“Christina, that's an, eh, unusual question.” He coughed weekly.
So my guess was correct after all. Thank God, I'm not alone here! “Forty, fifty, sixty?”
“Fifty, and change,” he whispered. The look he gave her was begging.
I'm not alone! I'm not alone! I'm not alone! “Fifty, no change.” Then she giggled. “That's wrong, fifty one, exactly, today. Thank you Ulf!” She danced around in the gravel. “How do I look? Well preserved?” And then she flaunted her sixteen year old body some more. Life was wonderful and she was giddy with relief.
Ulf looked very much the fifty, plus change, he said he was, despite his body being marginally younger than hers. He sagged on the bench and shook his head.
“You're from back home. I can't believe it.”
“Back home, yes, I guess you could call it that.”
“Christina Agerman, one like me. That's rich.”
“Christina Agerman, one like you.” She had to give him a hint. He would remember her sooner or later anyway. “You know, you probably have seen me before.”
“Christina Agerman. Christina Agerman? Christina… no, no way!” He looked at her. No, he ate her body with his eyes.
“You really should have known by now, at least if you're from the same place as me. Yes, that's me. I'm older, or younger, than I was, but it's still me.”
Ulf just stared at her.
“Like what you see?” I feel like sixteen, not fifty!
He shook his head again. “And here I am holding hands with you. I've only seen you on pictures, or TV, you know.”
Christina laughed. One year of worries ran away from her with that declaration of admiration. “Sorry, can't say I know you though. Will you forgive me?” Why am I being this cute to him? She found no answer but for her body racing with feelings she hadn't felt for years. Years? Decades more likely.
“Forgive you? Half the planet would gladly kill me for this date with you, but you probably already know that.”
“Date.” She reddened. Am I dating him? Are we going out? Would we be considered a couple, even in Sweden all those years ago? “Are we dating?”
“If you want to. Damn, I'm so embarrassed. I wasn't planning. Yes, if you want, yes.”
She took his hand again. “Yes, I very much want to. To get to know you better, OK?”
He finally blushed like the fifteen year old boy he looked like. He blushed from his neck all the way to his hair, and his eyes were anywhere but meeting her gaze. And then she felt the temperature rising within her as well.
I've totally lost control of my body. This is so, so… unprofessional!
Around them people who passed them in either direction took a look and grinned knowingly. With faces beet-red none of them looked strikingly handsome or beautiful. They could just as well have worn signs saying: “Kids in love.”
She took a step closer. Kissing felt too intimate. They bent forward in a half hug. Hands holding upper arms and foreheads touching. She could only see his eyes, and his blush. His nose was touching hers.
You'd better do something special for me. Did I say that? Something special, indeed!
After changing back to his school uniform later that day he felt a sudden urge. First he bought a brand new uniform, one that was strictly conforming to regulations, and bagged it. Then, as an afterthought he bagged his suit as well. It had to see a cleaner anyway.
He needed to get away from it all, but the blocks closest to school, or any on his way to his bike for that matter, didn't offer anything where there wasn't a risk of other students entering. So he struck out, aimlessly walking the streets in the evening. Better steer clear of the police. They're not too keen on loitering teenagers this late.
Random thoughts raced through his mind.
Did I just get myself a girlfriend? Am I even interested in her that way?
Ulf unbuttoned his shirt a bit and loosened his school uniform neck tie.
He kicked at a stone and continued walking the side streets. I am interested. She's beautiful and all, but that's not it, is it? He sighed and looked up, between tangles of electric wire, at a sky where he knew he would have seen stars but for the ever present night light of Tokyo.
We would understand each other. And we share a world. And we're pretty much the same age. Isn't that a perfect match?
He'd be hated by the other guys. Ryu especially. Ryu wasn't very good at hiding his crush on her, and the few days with the new club had been more than enough for Ulf. More than enough for anyone with even marginal eyesight, he thought sarcastically.
So, why am I not happier than this? I should be giddy with feelings. Am I too old to fall in love that way? He sighed again. Is she? Am I just afraid she won't feel the same way if I fall too hard for her? Is this just the fear of loss?
A cat hugging the wall came over to him and tied itself around his leg.
You're a cat. You'd be a cat back home. A cat.
He bent down and cuddled it for a while.
But I'm not a cat. Stranger in a strange land. That's me. I can't do anything on my own. Couldn't in Sweden for that matter, but more so here.
Satisfied with the attention the cat meowed and left him, as cats tend to do.
Yukio saved us all, and Christina made the club possible, and she's depending on Kyoko. Ryu is the other pole of the magnet attracting all those students, and I suspect that he thrives on the support of his sister.
Ulf looked up into the evening sky. There were no stars after all. The way he was no star.
And I depend on them all. I even depend on Amaya, the one I so arrogantly try to protect. What a mess!
He walked a couple of blocks more. Then he found a run-down coffee house that looked promising. 'Stockholm Haven Café' a sign in desperate need of new paint told him. Worth a try.
Ulf opened the door and found himself in a surprisingly European setting. They might even have decent coffee here. If I can afford it. Almost out of cash. Buying that bike bled me dry. He sat down at a table, grateful that the man behind the counter hadn't shouted a Japanese style welcome.
An ostentatious chandelier hung from the ceiling defying anything resembling good taste. It screamed at him: “We're really, really trying to be a high class old world place here.”
“Hey, you! I'm taking orders over here.”
Ulf rose and walked to the counter. Surprisingly rude for Japan. Maybe this was a bad idea after all. “I'll… I'll have a double espresso,” he said after recognizing the machine hugging the wall between two large mirrors. The café reeked of bad taste.
“You sure about that? At your age, I mean.”
My age? If he only knew. “Yes, I'm sure,” Ulf said, feeling himself blushing.
The barista gave him a long look in return. Then he started preparing the coffee. “If you prefer I could switch to English.”
So, my Japanese is still this bad. “Fine. If it's not too much of a problem,” Ulf answered, taking the barista up on the offer.
“You're not American either. Where you from, kiddo?”
“Sweden. Long story.”
Ulf felt the scrutiny as he was eyed over. “I can see that. Trousers too short, shirt too large. Imported brand glasses was a mistake though. Must have cost you extra to get that combination.”
Shit, busted! “So, what if?” he tried.
“Nothing. Just saying. You talk, I listen. Coffee’s on the house by the way.”
Ulf took a sip by the counter. So bitter! What kind of crap did he give me?
The barista gave him a long, thoughtful look. Then he waved him to the table Ulf had first sat down by.
Ulf followed the man back to the table and gave a start when he swung by the door and hung up what had to be a closed sign.
“Eh, but your customers?”
“It's slow going anyway.” He pulled an ashtray from a shelf and placed it on the table. Then he flicked open a pack of cigarettes and lit one. Ulf gratefully accepted the one he was offered, drew fire from the lighter and inhaled a lungful. The reaction from his fifteen year old body was spectacular.
“Funny that,” the barista said as Ulf tried coughing his lungs out. “Up until that attack I could have sworn you've been a heavy smoker for years.
And busted again, Ulf thought between racking coughs. “Who are you?”
“Ashiga James, at your service.”
“I'd better go home.” Ulf stood up.
James stopped him with a question: “Is that really possible?”
“You still owe me that long story of yours. It's not like I'm going to tell on you. Guess no one would believe me if I did anyway.”
Who is this man? Defeated, Ulf sat down again.
“If you wonder who I am I'll have to disappoint you. I'm actually just a barista these days. I'm kind of reliving my life, if you get my gist.”
How the hell did he know? Is he another one?
James continued as if he hadn't seen Ulf's stricken face: “Funny feeling taking the quick route from Sweden to here, isn't it. That blond girl went with you?”
Christina! So he knows her.
“We arrivals are drawn to each other. I get that much,” James continued. “Tokyo's big, but it's not big enough to explain us all ending up here. Especially not why all of us are connected to that school of yours.”
Ulf stared at James open mouthed. It must have shown, because James suddenly laughed, went back to the counter and grabbed a plate.
“Cake? You hungry?”
“Sure,” and as an afterthought Ulf added: “How much?”
“Still on the house, for this time. Now, your story.” James smiled, taking the edge off his last two words: “Spill it!”
And so they wound up talking. Ulf doing most of the talking and James most of the listening. When, long after midnight, Ulf carefully walked the streets to his waiting bike he knew he had found what he needed. They wouldn't depend on a club room at school. A haven indeed.