With him at the helm yesterday's afternoon workshops went off without a hitch. Sure, some of the attendants showed some initial disdain at his apparent age, but Ulf quickly put them out of any misconceptions.
Most of them were the same kind of over-aged middle management he remembered holding back much needed corporate change during his first life, but if you hit them hard enough over their heads with working solutions you peeled off the covers they hid behind.
In at least one sense Ulf preferred Japanese upper management to their Swedish counterpart that he was used to. When the Japanese decided to go for broke they were absolutely ruthless with their workforce, especially with their middle management.
He used that advantage just as ruthlessly and forced the entire assembly to climb the murderous uphill hiking path to the camping site he made certain hadn't been disassembled and brought down to the hotel.
Up there he worked them to their bones, and when he finally allowed them to rest most were so tired they just crawled into their tents and fell asleep.
To their horror he had them carry all equipment down the same path earlier this morning, and it was a dishevelled bunch that took a well-deserved bath in the hot springs.
Ulf left them there after he received a long email from Christina, had two bento boxes made for them each and sauntered down to the beach. Work was what he needed, and Christina. And she had written that he was needed down there.
He made it just in time to meet her on the walkway separating beach from road when she was ready for lunch, and learned that Principal Nakagawa apparently had promised her something. They sat down with their legs dangling and arms hanging through the railings. Ulf had the pleasure of watching Christina light up with a grateful smile when he brought out their lunch.
“I've been so scared,” she said.
There wasn't much of an answer he could give her. He hugged her closer with one arm. “Sorry. I won't be like that again,” he murmured.
He'd been in black despair once before, but when he finally crawled out of the bottle after two weeks of the worst binge drinking since his university days he never returned into his private hell. Well, apart from now, he recalled, and for a moment he was back in the ghastly scene with policemen backing away and a frantic teenager waving a gun until he put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
“Ulf? Please, you promised!”
He shook himself out of it and pulled a sobbing Christina into his arms. “No, I'm not going there again.” Ulf watched waves rolling over sand and pulling back again. Just like Christina's breath slowed down to the rhythmic calm and love he had grown used to the last month. “I'm here with you. For as long as you want me.” He hugged her harder and held her until he heard her stomach growl.
She pulled herself free and looked shamefacedly at him. Flicking away hair that had tangled in her face she regained her composure. “What about that lunch?”
Ulf grinned and handed her a paper napkin. Not even a super model was an image of perfection with snot in her face.
Without further talk they dug in on their lunch. Eating made him remember how hungry he really was, and they kept at it in silence only broken by requests for the bottle of water they shared.
When Nakagawa arrived mid-lunch he was dressed for vacation. He had a man with him. Younger, maybe forty.
“Good day,” Nakagawa greeted them.
“And?” Ulf asked, nodding at the stranger.
“Mister Hammargren,” the stranger opened in passable English. “My name is Arata Onishi. Pleased to meet you. Arata is my first name and I'm fine using it.”
Ulf looked at Nakagawa for an explanation.
“Onishi-sensei, sorry, Arata is one of my medical experts. I've informed him about our earlier conversation, well Christina's and mine. A medical examination won't be needed.”
Ulf and Christina looked at each other. She blushed momentarily and Ulf gave Nakagawa a questioning look. “Medical examination?” he asked. He looked at Christina again, but she only nodded as if everything made sense.
“Yes, I'm quite certain,” Arata answered instead. “You see, those reactions you mentioned,” Christina blushed some more, “are natural for your age.”
“We're bloody fifty years old. With the experience to boot,” she growled, and Ulf had to smile. She had just copied one of his own expressions he used when he got upset.
“Your bodies aren't. I won't even agree that you're fifty mentally.”
Christina looked up.
Arata turned his palms up as if he was reciting from a book. “You see, even though we prefer to think that we are in control of our thoughts, a lot of them result from biochemical reactions we can't control. Your brains aren't fully developed yet. Call it hormones if you will.”
Ulf nodded. He had enough of a scientists mind to grasp that hormones most likely only had a part in his problems the last year. But the layman explanation was sufficient. Now he understood what the conversation was about as well.
“You're telling me that we'll continue to behave like teenagers?” he asked, and this time he gave Christina a long look. No wonder it feels like a first love again.
“I'm trying to tell you that, to a certain degree you will behave like the teenagers you are, but with more memories and experience than normal.”
Damn, she's beautiful. I can't stop looking at you. “Please tell me more,” Ulf said and forced himself to look at the man instead of Christina. He hated talking to someone's back just as much as anyone else, and he didn't intend to be impolite enough to have the doctor do that.
“For example, you'll be quicker to anger than before you arrived here. But you'll also have greater resources to use for cooling down,” Arata explained and looked at them both. He had that questioning look of someone talking to children, uncertain if it wasn't too hard to understand.
“How long,” Christina wondered.
“Can't say for certain. When you're past twenty things should be like normal. But age related diseases will be pushed into the future.”
That was a relief. Apart from behaving like puppies in heat for a few more years, they'd basically get to live another thirty or so extra years for free.
With that the topic died, but rather than walking back to the hotel both Nakagawa and Arata sat down on the walkway. Arata brought out two sun hats he had folded in a bag and gave one each to Ulf and Christina. “I'm a doctor after all,” he said as an explanation.
Neither Ulf nor Christina answered, but Ulf sent the man a thankful thought as they finished their lunch in the baking sun.
So we're really high schoolers after all. At least to a degree, he thought and looked at the sea. Reminds me, what are the other kids up to?
“Fireworks?” Kyoko wondered. Guess that's to be expected if we're at the beach.
“Found some, but it's not enough.” Yukio's face split up in a laugh. “Never enough of those,” he said and pointed up the street. “I saw a store back there earlier. See if they have some?”
Kyoko smiled and took his hand. They were on shopping duty for the last evening at the resort. Despite Urufu's sudden retreat into himself and the unexpected work turning up the second day their field trip had been a resounding success this far. At least if she excluded the embarrassing event last night when the home-made brothers made an attempt at peeping on the girls bathing.
It had been a failure until both Urufu and Kuri-chan appeared stark naked from the family bath wondering what was going on. After receiving what had to be the worst verbal bashing in their lives both Dai-kun and Hideo-kun declined an offer to learn proper sauna behaviour from Urufu and Kuri-chan.
“Yukio, did Ryu say anything?”
Don't play cute with me! “Yukio!” Kyoko said and pulled his hand.
“They were just talking all the time. Ryu said it was about as exciting as taking a bath at home, and then Urufu said 'good boy', and that was is.” Yukio shrugged, but he did blush a bit.
The Wakayamas hadn't declined that offer, but Noriko's recounting of sharing the family bath with her brother, Urufu and Kuri-chan had been just as boring. Should have joined them. Wonder if Yukio thinks the same?
“Oh, then I guess it wasn't that much to talk about,” she said instead of thinking too much about sharing a bath with him.
Yukio took a few steps and pulled her with him. “Seems the university tradition when they were students was sharing the sauna. I guess they're used to it.” This time he didn't blush when he shrugged.
“Funny people, Swedes,” Kyoko observed as they came close to the shop. “Wouldn't you say so,” she said when he didn't answer.
Pushing aside the curtains Yukio only gave her a thoughtful look. He waited for her to come inside. “I don't know about funny. There must be things we do that seem outlandish to them.”
Kyoko thought about that while they got help to locate what few fireworks were to be had. Are we strange to them? But they live here now. She hadn't heard Kuri-chan complain about Japan, but what if she silently disagreed. Maybe she was just too polite to say so.
They walked back with bags full. Even though they couldn't hold hands they still managed to steal kisses from time to time. To hell with proper behaviour. She wasn't about to compromise with her new-found happiness. Obviously they never went as far as Urufu and Kuri-chan had done that day by the pool. For once those two had a semblance of privacy rather than walking down a small town street, but Kyoko also didn't feel all that comfortable with getting so physical yet. Not that she wasn't curious, and again a picture of sharing last evening's bath with Yukio came to her mind.
“Sorry, what did I do?”
Kyoko realised she had pulled away from Yukio, and now she was blushing furiously. “Nothing, we didn't do anything!”
“We?” he asked and gave her one of those infuriatingly curious looks.
She made an effort to study one of the vending machines they passed, and after that she pretended that a microscopic town garden was the most interesting thing in the world.
“Girls!” he said and increased his steps.
Sorry, Yukio, but we're not talking about that now. Kyoko looked at his backside and tried to catch up with him. Ahead of them the street opened up to the seaside road feeding the town and the walkway on the other side of it. The afternoon sun glared down from over the mountains, but the worst of the August heat was gone.
On the beach she saw club members playing in the water or lazily talking under the shade of parasols they had brought down from the hotel. Funny, I never missed that part very much when I couldn't have it, and now when I can I miss it even less. It felt strange looking at her schoolmates having the time of their lives and not needing to be part of it. Yukio, I love you. When I'm with you I don't need anything else. Even when you're grumpy, she added as an afterthought and ran to his side.
Her parents would disapprove. In their eyes anyone associated with divorce was a failure, but she didn't care. No that wasn't true. If she didn't then she would have told them by now, and she hadn't. She shook the thought away and brushed her hand against Yukio's.
“Sorry,” she said, “but there are things I'm not ready to talk about yet, OK?”
“Huh?” He looked at her over his shoulder and then he smiled. “Oh, I don't mind. I want to share everything with you, but only when you want to.”
Both of them must have realised what he just said at the same time, because they stopped dead in their tracks and stared at each other. Kyoko felt her face heat up and guessed she was turning just as red as him.
“I didn't mean it that way...”
Kyoko stared at her feet feeling strangely disappointed.
“Well, I didn't mean that I didn't mean, but I didn't...” His voice petered out into absolute embarrassment.
“… we don't...”
“… talk about it...”
“… right now?”
She dropped her bags at her feet and threw herself around his neck. It felt less awkward burying her face into his shoulder, and she wanted to be really close to him right now.
A lone bottle of tea rolled slowly down the street. She could hear its plastic thumping, but she didn't care. They could pick it up later. He smelled of sweat and a little of deodorant. He smelled like her Yukio, like what she imagined when fantasies of him came unbidden to her late at night when she needed her loneliness banished.
That thought surprised her. Loneliness. Only after she made friends with Kuri-chan did she realise she had spent all those earlier years feeling lonely, and now when she had Yukio she finally started to understand just how lonely.
“Yukio,” she murmured into his shirt, “don't ever let me go. Don't ever let me wake up one morning knowing you're no longer there.” The fear of being alone again grew stronger now that she knew what it was feeling loved. It didn't matter that it maybe was just a teenage fling; for her he was the most important being in the world. More important than Kuri-chan and even her parents. She clung tighter to him.
“I won't. Wherever you go I'll follow.”
It didn't matter if it was a promise he wouldn't be able to keep in the end. It didn't matter if she eventually would no longer want him to keep it. It only mattered that he had said it to her, right here and right now.
Kuri-chan, what does love mean to you? Does it feel different with all that experience of yours?
Christina turned on her toes and listened to the whirring as hundreds of photos were taken. She knew that modern equipment really didn't sound like that, but she had asked for the sound-effect to make her remember those early days when they wrapped up a day with silly shots using a motorised camera. Neither she nor the other models made any real effort to glide in and out of real poses, but rather played like buffoons.
Sometimes a lucky shot got taken, and if the crew were really lucky they found it back at the studio. They ran around on the beach, sometimes out of, and sometimes in the water. By now anything worn below the knees was thoroughly sogged.
“Wrap it?” the photographer asked, but it hadn't been a question. The more they played around the more work for very little gain they produced.
She grinned at the model who had turned to her for confirmation. “Yeah, I think that's enough with the silly.” She beckoned for attention and the photographer looked up from his display.
“Yes?” This time it was a real question.
“Tonight is the last one for the club. Our field trip,” she added when he showed no understanding. “If you want I think I can convince the others to participate in some group shots for free. If you want something where you display the entire range.”
He stroked a stubbled chin. “Dunno. They're not pros.”
“Mm.” Christina tilted her head. “Just an idea. You could mix in the models I guess, but I can't promise they'll do it for free,” she laughed and pointed at the young man closest to her.
“You know, I'll ask the producer. It's not a bad idea, and I guess you're doing the fireworks and all that kiddie stuff.” The photographer waved at the model Christina had singled out. “What about it? We're stuck here until tomorrow and I'll throw in some beer and barbecue if we have an OK.”
“Sounds more fun than spending the entire evening indoors,” the model agreed. “I'll ask the others.”
Christina waited for the crew to pack up and walk away. People slowly vanished, burdened by their equipment, climbed the concrete stairs to the walkway and became, first legless bodies and then just heads as they crossed the road and headed to the resort. She wanted some time for herself, but in the end the photographer remained on the beach with her. She gave him a surprised look when he waved for the remaining crew to have his gear carried away. When she gave him another look she wasn't as surprised any longer. It was the ace one.
“You know, I don't believe you just happened to have that idea,” he opened when they were alone. “You've played a crapton of stunts on us that were a hell of a lot smarter than what our producer planned.”
And here it comes.
“What's the deal?” he asked in response to her silence. He looked out over the water and lit a cigarette. “You know way too much of my side of the camera,” he said and blew out a long string of smoke. “First I thought you were studio family, but you know the clothes as well. Now that takes a lot of years.” He fell silent, and she knew he was fishing for a response.
I'll hold out a bit longer. Want to know how much he's guessed. She said nothing and stared at the sand where it glimmered the few metres between land and sea where waves rolled up and back again.
When he took up the one-sided conversation again it didn't exactly come as a surprise to her. “If I didn't know better I'd say you've been in the business for twenty or thirty years, maybe more, but that would be crazy, wouldn't it?”
That was far, far too close. With a few words he had pinned her entire professional life.
“Yeah, that would be crazy,” she said. I should have denied it flat out, but, oh well. She stared at his unshaven face and waited for him to speak. A gust of wind blew life in his hair and she watched bony fingers comb it back in place again.
“There were some strange rumours, when I worked for Asahi Shimbun back in the days.” He drew a deep breath, inhaled some more and exhaled. “Way back in the days.”
He's a bloody journalist? But he's with the big agency here, I'm sure of it. She had to put a stop to this, or learn more. In the end curiosity won. “What kind of rumours?”
“I and a colleague followed a trail of strangeness that led us from Japan to Sweden. Real strange stuff.”
What the hell? “I don't understand,” she tried, but she knew that lie wouldn't float.
“Science fiction kind of strangeness. Nothing we could have published and kept our jobs. Hell, I wouldn't have believed it myself until I arrived back here.”
Despite the summer heat Christina felt something cold running up and down her spine. She slowly turned to him. “What would you not believe, more exactly?”
He stared back at her. “Nothing a school girl would understand. Nothing a cute thing like you should believe.” He drew another lungful of smoke and waited for her response.
She decided to let him finish. Nothing he said should surprise her anyway, but she wanted to know how much he knew.
“But if a beautiful schoolgirl wouldn't believe it, then maybe the Princess of Scandinavia?”
Christina knew she was gaping, but it didn't matter. “You're from back there?”
He kept his stare locked on her. “I arrived here almost thirty years ago. It took me some time to recognise you. Must have been just after your breakthrough.”
Thirty years? I was in Paris then. No, the big one in Japan after I broke up with that creep. That's when I got my nickname. “How old are you?”
She received a grin in response. “Older than you, in both worlds. Forty three here and sixty nine in total.”
Her clothes were already dirty, and it wasn't as if they were really her clothes anyway. She sat down in the sand grappling with what he had just said. “How many of us are there here?”
“I don't know,” he said. He remained standing, but she could still smell his cigarette. “Quite a few I guess.” The smell grew fainter, and Christina could hear his receding footsteps. “I'm not going to make any trouble for you, but I would want to chat with you some other time.”
Christina rose to her knees and turned. “Why are you here? I mean in this town.”
The smile she got was both reassuring and sad. “I'm not here to spy on you if that's what you think. Honestly, I came for the shoot.” He shrugged, and she could see he was far, far away in his thoughts. “Asahi Shimbun was in that other world. Sometimes I miss it, but here I'm a fashion photographer.” Then his face lit up in a naughty grin that made him look much younger. “One of the damned best you'll find. Let's just say I have twice the experience if you get my meaning.”
She felt sad for him, but at the same time this was an opportunity she wasn't about to miss. “Let's say we'll have that chat, and let's say you know who I am. I want you on my permanent crew.”
That had him. “You're one cold-hearted bitch. But sure, if you can prove you didn't end up a mayfly back there.”
A challenge, but one she could match. “Ask my boyfriend.”
“Your boyfriend, what does he have to do… shit!”
“Yeah, shit. He can tell you just how big I made it there.”
“From what you told him?” the photographer probed.
Nice try, but you know what I mean. “He's my age, a bit older actually. As you were saying, let's assume he knew of me when you arrived here.” Christina rose to her full height and slid into the pose that had once made her name. “He followed my career a bit closer than most, both my careers.” And to close the conversation she became the billion dollar empress.
The former journalist blanched at Christina's sudden change. Then he recovered. “I see. Very well, I'll see what I can do.”
Guess I'll have to talk with Ulf about this. Thinking of whom, where are you? Better call you. Christina thought better of it and called Yukio instead.
The feeling of Kyoko's embrace lingered in Yukio's mind long after he had changed for the evening. Their long, long embrace on a narrow street between wooden houses, with fireworks and bottles spilling out on the tarmac, and neither of them caring in the least.
Yukio enjoyed the feeling of falling more and more in love with her, but it scared him a little as well. The emotions were so much stronger than any he had felt before. Sure he'd crushed on a couple of girls, but there was no comparison. Together with Kyoko he felt at home. They had only spent a couple of weeks as a pair, but added together with the months as awkward friends it was as if he had known her his entire life.
Rolling a paper thin wind-stopper Urufu had given him as a gift into a ball he slid the door to their room open and entered the corridor. He pushed the ball of cloth into a leg pocket and stretched his shoulders. Most of the club members were already on the beach, but he wasn't in any hurry.
When he arrived in the lobby he noticed how a small group of the models living in the hotel made ready to join the evening festivities. They were all a few years older than him, and normally his rival alarm would have screeched at full volume, but Kuri's earlier phone-call calmed him down a bit.
“You running that club?” one of them asked him?
He smiled back. “No, Kuri's the president.”
Love it when they prepare a home-run for the home team. “Yeah, she's been modelling with you the last days, but she's with us normally.” The words slipped easily from his mouth, even though it had been Kuri who instructed him how to answer should an opportunity occur.
“Damn, the kid's on a first name basis with her. Awesome!”
Thank you Kuri! You sure knew how the guys would react. “We're not that formal in the club. But yes, she's our president.” She's played the crap out of you since you arrived here. It was time for the last favour she had asked of him. “She wanted me to introduce you to our club. But would you mind waiting for Urufu first?”
He should come down soon. Yukio hadn't hidden both of his pair of shoes where it would take too long to find them. Another one of Kuri's nasty suggestions.
“Urufu?” The voice showed consternation both at the foreign name as well as the lack of titles.
Yukio looked up at the asking face. Damn they're a tall bunch! Well, time to nail the coffin shut. “Man, haven't you met her boyfriend yet? I'll have you shake paws with him when he comes down.” Yukio plastered a fake smile onto his face. “He's our vice president. I'm sure you'll like the guy”
“Fuck, Koji-kun said something about a boyfriend.” The smile that met Yukio was equally false. “Well, can't be much of a competition if he's a high school kid, can he?”
Yukio glared back at the model. You're in for a bad one. Kuri belongs with Urufu and not some porcelain doll like you. “Competition. I didn't know he had any?” Kyoko was the most important person in Yukio’s life now, but that didn't change that Urufu was his best friend, and Yukio felt adrenaline surge through him as it always did whenever someone challenged Urufu. Calm down, Kuri has it all planned. Trust her the way you trust Urufu.
“Yukio you bastard! Was it you or Ryu who came up with this brain-dead prank?” the voice Yukio waited for called from up the stairs.
And here he comes.
And here he came. It wasn't a happy Urufu who descended the stairs in the tailor-made suit Kuri had coerced Principal Nakagawa to order when she sent him out to buy swimming trunks for the management people. Yukio had hung it where his friend couldn't possibly fail to see it, and the rest of Urufu's clothes were stashed together with Kyoko's luggage in the girls' room.
It wasn't an Urufu Yukio had seen before. What came down the stairs wasn't his classmate at all, but a corporate leader who lived his life in expensive business suits, and one who for once was severely pissed off when more casual clothes were nowhere to be found.
“Yukio! Not fun at all!” Urufu said and pointed a finger at Yukio.
“You're late man. Some kids here want to meet you,” Yukio said and thumbed the closest model as nonchalantly as he could.
“What the fuck are you calling us?” the thumbed model growled.
“Shut it Shoji-kun! That's some serious money up there,” another said.
'Outward appearance,' Kuri had said. 'Those who live skin deep will only see skin deep,' she had explained. But Urufu wasn't just skin deep. For the first time Yukio saw the man Kuri had been smitten with before she fell in love with him. Shit, Noriko, I feel bad for you, but he's out of your league. He knew Urufu was older, but he hadn't understood the sheer magnitude of difference that experience carried with it.
Urufu walked down the stairs. “What do you want?” he asked the closest model. Just like Kuri he had that scary ability to look down on someone ten centimetres taller than him. “Hamarugen Urufu, pleased to meet you,” he added in the Japanese form and with a voice that clearly said he wasn’t.
It was at that moment Yukio understood that Urufu would be sitting in the sand in the horribly expensive suit later, because it probably was casual clothing to him. Game set and match, Kuri. I know he's an awesome friend, but that's one hell of a boyfriend you got. Yukio studied the short conversation between Urufu and the models and tried to remember as much as possible for future references.
“Screw you! You trying to tell me she’s yours?” one of the models, Shoji-kun if Yukio remembered, growled. There was no mistaking who ‘she’ was.
Urufu sent him a condescending stare. “No, I'm afraid you're mistaken. She's not mine. She doesn't belong to anyone,” he said in a tone that clearly stated that the talk was over.
The guy called Shoji-kun apparently had less brains than the rest. He grabbed Urufu's shoulder and leaned closer than what could possibly be considered polite. “So you don't mind if I'm hitting on her later?”
“Fuck it Shoji-kun! Don't be like that. He's her boyfriend so just leave her alone will you?”
Urufu smiled and waved his rescuer aside. “Shoji-kun, is it? Do what you want, but don't come for my shoulder when you want to cry.” That earned him a few smiles from the other models. Urufu turned to them after giving Yukio a sly wink. “You guys mingling with us down at the beach?”
“Yeah, Ageruman-san invited us.”
What now? “Yes?” Damn it, man, you're playing along like you planned this with Kuri from the start. But he knew Urufu shouldn't have a clue about what was going on.
“The guys here are a bit older than the rest of us. Have you talked with Principal Nakagawa about some beer or wine for them?” Urufu asked as if he had been in the know the entire time.
“Ah,” what the hell, “I think that's taken care of,” Yukio stammered. Worst case it was a lie, but he hoped Kuri had thought of that. He stared out the door opening where it was darkening quickly. They had to go down to the beach soon.
“Then let's join the others,” Urufu said and tried to shake lose the grip on his shoulder. Shoji-kun didn't let go. “You're stuck or something?”
“You cocky little shit!” Shoji-kun said and threw back his other hand for a punch.
Poor sod, was everything Yukio had time to think. He saw the other models move to intercept their friend, but it was too late. A fist came rushing for Urufu's face. It never connected.
Urufu's feet moved across the floor as he somehow moved aside and behind his assaulter. Grabbing the hand on his shoulder he slid in, pushed the grabbing arm upwards in a circle and pushed down.
Shoji-kun would have crashed face first into the stairs hadn't Urufu suddenly pulled back. Instead the model landed hard on his bottom. “Careful there. The floor is slippery, and we wouldn't want any accidents, would we?” Urufu said with a sheepish grin about as trustworthy as Santa Claus in August.
So that's aikido? I wonder if expelling him from Red Rose wasn't justified after all. The rapists wannabes had been horribly maimed, and Yukio realised they never stood a chance to begin with.
Shoji-kun gurgled something and rose for a second round. This time his friends grabbed him and one of them even twisted his arm behind his back. “I think you should thank Hamarugen-san for saving you, OK?” he said and screwed up the arm harder.
“What the fuck...”
“Magic word, now!” he said and twisted some more.
“Fuck, it hurts! OK! Thank you, you...”
There was yet another twist, and the last word never left Shoji-kun's mouth.
“He says he's very grateful.”
“I heard,” Urufu said. “Tell him it's no big deal,” he continued as if Shoji-kun wasn't standing directly in front of him.
Yukio shook his head and led his friend outside.
Despite what he had said earlier Ulf didn't like watching Shoji-kun flirting like mad with Christina. Especially as she didn't look like she minded in the least.
To his left some of the modelling crew set up grills, and the rest rigged for some kind of a late evening shoot. Or it would have been a late evening shoot in Sweden. The sun set earlier here, and dusk was a less than half an hour long joke when daylight was replaced by darkness in what felt like moments rather than the endless hours he was used to from his earlier life.
Around him club members milled around in astonished apprehension.
“They want us as models?”
“We're going to be in a magazine?”
“He's so cute!”
“I saw him look at me!”
Kids! Ulf thought. Then he smiled and mellowed a bit. Who am I to talk? I'd been shitting myself by now if I was sixteen. He looked at the grills and frowned. Morons, that's no way to rig a barbecue. Ulf walked over to the men loading the grills full with charcoal.
“Excuse me, do you mind if I handle the barbecue?”
“What about it, kid?” The man, in his mid-forties if Ulf guessed right, looked back at him. “You think you know better?”
I don't think, I know. “I'm from Sweden. I've spent most summers doing garden barbecues the last...” careful now “… since I grew up.” Ulf fought an impulse to cover his mouth with his hand.
“Sweden you say. She's your girlfriend?”
“Yeah, our Princess of Scandinavia.” the man said and pointed at where Christina sat beleaguered by Shoji-kun and most of the other models.
Ulf blushed. He had said he wouldn't interfere, and he did feel confident in her love for him, but right now he only saw his beautiful Christina surrounded by men so glaringly good looking he knew he could never compete. “Yeah,” he answered, more self-conscious than he was used to. “But she's not called that any...” Bloody hell!
“But she was, wasn't she?”
What's going on here? “She told you?” Ulf blurted out. He stared at the stubbled face studying him.
“No, I reminded her,” the man answered. “I arrived here 86.”
How many of us are there here? Ulf took another long stare at the man. “You know her? Knew her?”
He received a grin in response. “Jealous boyfriend. Priceless! You look like a teen for sure right now.” And the grin subsided back into a smile again. “No, but I knew of her. She made her breakthrough in Japan around that time.”
Lacking a proper response Ulf started shifting the coals in the grill. He stared at his hands and looked around. “Jirou, got a towel?”
“Sure, Urufu-kun.” Jirou left Sango who glared at Ulf.
Sorry to take him from you. You make a good pair. “My apologies. I didn't mean to interrupt, but I really need that towel now.” Ulf bowed to her, and the glare turned somewhat less hostile. He really did need one. Daylight was fading rapidly and he didn’t plan to run the grills in the dark clad in a business suit.
Ulf shifted his stare to the man by his side, and then back to where Jirou came across the sand with the towel he had asked for. “Mind if I leave some stuff with the two of you?” Ulf asked. “It's kind of expensive, so I'd be happy if the two of you could watch over it.” He stole a glance at Sango who suddenly looked back at him with much more approval in her face.
“Yes,” Jirou looked over to where his girlfriend sat and received a fervent nod of approval, “sure we can do that.”
“Superb,” Ulf said and started stripping. Quite a few of the members laughed at his act, and the commotion was enough to grab the attention of the models around Christina. That was a welcome bonus. He quickly got out of his jacket and shirt and left the bundle together with his tie in the hands of a befuddled Jirou. “I've got some stuff in my pockets as well,” Ulf said and pointed at the jacket.
“Aww, do the rest as well!” Hitomi shouted from where she sat with her new-found fan club. One that had expanded rapidly when he and Christina became an item. “Hot damn! Look at that body!”
That was enough to make him blush. In this life he was more aware of what his strenuous training made him look like. In his first he hadn't understood until he was well into university.
Christina shot him a glance filled with both approving... hunger? … and consternation that another girl had looked that way at him. He waved back at her, and this time her eyes only held disapproval. Damn, I still suck at the boys and girls game. Ulf shrugged an apology to her and quickly wrapped the towel around his torso. There was no point in destroying an expensive suit with sparks from the grill.
He grabbed an iron and moved the coal away from the sides of the grill. The crew member had filled it evenly making it impossible to regulate the temperature of anything being grilled.
“Lamp-oil, or whatever you call it.”
Ulf received a bottle together with the response. He dosed the coal and started working on the next grill. “So you're saying you arrived here thirty years ago?” he said and turned to the man who had astonished him earlier.
“Hmm, yeah.” The man stroked his unshaven chin. It looked like a habit of his.
Cradling his bag Ulf poured charcoal down the middle of the grill and placed it in order with his iron. “Here to spy on us, or what?” It was strange that the man hadn't as much as been mentioned during the first conversation with Christina's grandfather.
“I'm here on a photo job. Recognized that girl of yours.”
“So what?” Ulf still wasn't sure where the conversation was heading.
“She wants me to move to her team permanently. I want to know if she's good enough, and she told me to ask you.”
Ulf stared at the man. “Are you a moron? It's Christina Agerman we're talking about here.”
“Hello,” the photographer waved a hand, “arrived here 1986. She had just made a breakthrough in Tokyo.”
Scratching his head Ulf looked back. He glanced at where Christina sat surrounded by models. “You know, I can't say. I don't know shit about fashion. She was a super model to the mid-nineties or so. Announced that she was done and started Chag.” She's not merely my little girl. But I love you just the same.
“Sorry.” Of course, if he arrived here 86 he wouldn't know. “Second largest retailer in fashion globally.”
The photographer stared at him. “You're joking!”
Ulf looked at her. He felt heat streaming through his body and how his chest constricted. I love you more than life itself, but I can never tell you. “She's my girl now, but she was known as the billion dollar empress. She's anything but a joke.” Ulf forced his eyes from the woman he loved and stared at the man beside him. “If she wants you on her team it means you're international first class. Take that as a compliment!”
A few more moments and Ulf was done with distributing the charcoal. He hung the iron on a peg and followed the photographer's look. Christina still sat surrounded by admirers, and behind her Ulf saw Noriko arrive on the beach with an admirer of her own.
“You're a cute one.”
Noriko wheeled and looked up into a chest. She had to bend backwards to see the face. One of the models.
“Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. I apologise.”
“No problem. Shouldn't you be over there harassing Kuri like the rest?” Noriko pointed at where Kuri sat in the middle of a large group made up of most of the models and quite a few of her old fan-club. Urufu stood a bit away fiddling with the barbecue of all things when his girlfriend was being hit on.
“Takado Nao,” the stranger said and reached out with his hand. Noriko shook it. “And no, I don't plan to harass her. She already has a boyfriend anyway, doesn't she?”
“Yeah,” Noriko said and nodded in Urufu's direction. “That one.”
“What about it?”
Takado-san guffawed and turned away from her. “Sorry, but it's just hilarious. I heard Shoji-sempai got his arse handed to him by a guy in a business suit.
Noriko looked at the gaudy towel Urufu had draped himself in and wondered how the model possibly could have confused it for a suit.
“My girl, look at his trousers and shoes.”
I'm not you girl. Noriko did as she was told anyway. Oh, that's pretty much what dad wears. Where's the rest? “I see, and what made you notice?”
“Model here. I work with clothes,” Takado-san answered. He looked down at her, and she could see how he made an effort not to look condescending.
“Wakayama Noriko.” It was her turn to reach out a hand. He took it.
“Wakayama-san is it?”
“Do you mind if I chat with you for a while?”
She shrugged. “I don't mind, but shouldn't you hit on one of the beautiful ones over there?”
That earned her a laugh. “No thanks. I think I'll hit on the beautiful one right here instead.”
“Huh?” Noriko turned to see who had come up behind them before she grasped the meaning of his words. “No way. Quit the bull. Cute, possibly, but beautiful is out of the question.”
Takado-san grinned. “Don't you think that's for me to decide? And just so we're clear here. I am hitting on you.”
That made her blush a little. He was stupidly good looking after all. “I like someone else,” she murmured.
Her heart almost stopped. Am I that transparent? Thank all gods Urufu already knows! “How?”
“I only work part time as a model. I'm a second year at Irishima High. Some of you guys at Himekaizen are pretty famous there.”
She looked at him. “Why aren't you an idiot like the rest?”
“That's harsh,” Takado-san said. “Actually it's only Shoji-sempai who's an arse. The rest of the gang is over there to make sure he doesn't do something really stupid. Besides, why should you complain if she cheated on him?” he added and nodded at Urufu.
Noriko looked at Urufu who was momentarily lit up by flames as he put fire to the grills. Why should I? She glanced at the tall boy by her side. Why me? He should be making passes at Hitomi-chan instead. But it was a little flattering.
She tugged at his sleeve and pulled him with her. Noriko felt sand give way under her feet as she walked towards the group with Kuri in the centre. “Irishima High, you said?” There was something she had promised herself, even though she knew Ryu would frown at her decision. She held a small package tight to her chest and continued walking.
Behind her she heard him following. “Yeah, but I'm transferring to Himekaizen this autumn, so I hope to see more of you later.”
Around them heads turned as they passed scattered groups with club members, and she suddenly felt very self-aware. There were even a few cat-calls flying through the air, but they were good natured as if they were wishing her good luck.
I'm not nice and friendly like Kyoko. I'm not beautiful like Kuri, so why are they treating me so kindly? “Transferring? But Irishima is so close. Why?”
“To be closer to you,” Takado-san said, and she could almost hear him grinning.
“Cut the crap,” she responded, but she couldn't help smiling. A few months ago I would have been overjoyed. “Besides you already know I like Urufu.”
“Dad's company went belly up some while ago. Himekaizen is cheaper, but it still has a pretty good liberal arts section.”
Ah, yes he said he was a second year. Has to pick between science and liberal arts. “You should join the club then,” Noriko said. And why did I suggest that? The answer was different than what she had thought. “I think Kuri could help you with your modelling if that's what you want to do.”
He coughed with amusement. “Ah, yes, she's your president, isn't she?” Then she felt a hand on her shoulder. “But I'm not going to hit on her anyway. Told you I'm interested in someone else.”
Noriko shook off the hand. They were almost there, but Kuri had already seen and flashed her a knowing smile and an approving nod. You're wrong Kuri. I still have my eyes on your boyfriend.
“Kuri, we bought something for Urufu, and I think you should be included.”
“For Ulf?” Kuri asked. It didn't matter how long they had known each other. Noriko couldn't get used to the strange pronunciation of Urufu's name, even though it must be the correct one.
“Yes. We found out his birthday was the fifteenth, but late is better than never I guess.”
“Birthday?” Kuri looked as if she had been struck. “Gods! I forgot!” She leaped to her feet with her hands on her mouth. “How could I? He told me!”
Seeing the look of panic that rose to Kuri's eyes Noriko felt relieved she hadn't chosen the petty solution and handed over the gift from her and her brother where Kuri could see and feel left out. “Kuri. Kuri! Do you want to be party to his birthday gift?”
“Come with me then,” Noriko said and turned. But she still wanted to be at least a little bit petty. “I'll give it to him, OK?”
She couldn't hear if the sigh was one of defeat or gratitude, but Kuri followed her to the grills.
“Urufu, do you have a moment?”
He looked up from his grills and shot her a questioning glance. “Yes, why?”
“We had planned a little something, but with all the chaos we forgot, I'm afraid.” No, I'm not going to be that petty. “Earlier we asked Kuri, and we agreed that you might like this,” Noriko lied. She could feel Kuri hold her arm and tighten the grip. This time there was no question that the gesture was one of gratitude.
“Your birthday, moron-sama!”
“My… oh I forgot myself. Sorry Kuri, my bad.”
“From Kuri, Ryu and me, happy birthday,” Noriko said and held out the gift with both hands.
“Thank you, but where is Ryu?”
“He's here,” Ryu's voice said from the other side of the grills. He scratched his nose and frowned at her.
Urufu stared at the wrapped box he held in his hand. “Something I can open here?”
“Please do,” Ryu said.
Kuri gasped when Urufu had torn off the paper and held up a box. It had been their father's idea. Something apparently only adults could understand. “Guys, I can't accept… this is too much...”
Noriko didn't understand what the big deal was. It was only an old fashioned pen named after some mountain in Europe. But apparently Kuri knew, and if Ryu's gaping jaw was something to go after, so did her brother.
“Urufu, you bought her a bloody bike, so don't you dare to complain!” her brother came to the rescue.
You really did grow up, didn't you bro? Is it that expensive?
“The kid gets a Mont Blanc. Are you for real?” a stubbled man beside Urufu laughed. “You win, kiddo. If you can afford that kind of birthday gift I'll join your team.”
Your team? What just happened? How expensive is that toy really?
“I'll treasure it, and I promise to use it. Thank you!” Urufu turned and hugged a stunned Ryu, then to Noriko's great discomfort he hugged her as well. He smelled of charcoal and some kind of men's perfume. The embarrassing hug finished all too soon and she saw him pull Kuri into a tight embrace. “Thank you, Christina. You know me better than I thought.”
Over his shoulder Noriko met Kuri's eyes. They were bathed in guilt, but they were also smiling still, and filled with tears. Behind Urufu’s back Kuri made a thumbs up gesture and shortly after her face appeared beside his arm. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Kuri mouthed silently, and tears ran freely down her face.
Kuri, you're a great friend. I'm happy I decided to bring you in on this, Noriko thought. She only felt relief that she hadn't taken the easy way out. On the other side of the grills Ryu stood with disapproval clear in his face, but Noriko didn't care.
Sis, I wouldn't have done that. Only proves you're a better person than I am. Even so Ryu didn't understand why Noriko let Kuri in on the gift. And he didn't understand why his father had chosen anything that grossly expensive. Hundred, hundred and fifty thousand yen? More? He shook his head.
It was time to drop the bomb to Urufu as well. The club would return back home tomorrow, but the six of them were to remain until school started. Principal Nakagawa even brought the last make-up exams Urufu and Kuri needed to pass.
Kuri already knew, and her shoots would continue for another two days. After that she needed to study.
Ryu waited for Urufu to serve another batch and prepare the grills again. Two grills weren't enough for this many people; the charcoal burned down and had to be replaced.
“Urufu,” he said when the grills were lit anew. “We need to talk.”
He looked over the beach. Club members mingling with models. Some played with fireworks and others changed clothes handed out to them by some Uniclo representative. Even if they're not that expensive, that's still well over a million yen in clothes thrown all over the beach. Guess it's not that much money for them, but still.
“When the rest of the gang return to Tokyo we'll stay,” he said to Urufu who had wiped his hands clean on the ridiculous towel he wore instead of a shirt.
“The Nakagawa gig. It's only the first of five.”
Ryu looked at his friend. Is he still a friend? Yes he is, but I'm going to be a lot more careful around him from now on. “Yes, you'll have another eighty people arriving the coming two weeks.”
“What the hell? I need to study and I have work to do.” Urufu didn't look at all pleased with the change of plans.
“Calm down,” Ryu said. “You'll get paid. A crapton of money if I got it right.”
Urufu sighed. “Ryu, I respect you, but you're a kid. Crapton of money means different things for you and me. I don't think you understand exactly what kind of income I have.” He looked like he was about to continue, but Ryu had to interrupt that.
“I'm aware of what a lot of money is. I'm what you'd call a rich kid. This gig will make you more money that you've seen the last year.”
There was another sigh. “Ryu, I charge premium consultancy fees for a single person company.”
“Shoot!” Urufu was way too arrogant. It was time for him to be brought down a peg or two.
“Returning customers pay me fifty per hour. I can't afford doing this for free.”
Ryu stared at Urufu. That is a crapton of money. Who the hell had the audacity to charge that kind of fees? Shit! “OK, how much have you made this far?”
A glimmer of uncertainty showed in Urufu's eyes. As if he was uncomfortable with the truth. “Almost seven million.”
Bloody hell! But the gig was still worth more. Ryu forced himself to calm down. “Not too shabby,” he said and tried to sound like he was used to seeing that kind of money lying around in his drawers.
“Not too shabby? It's more money than I'm supposed to make working full time after university!” Urufu stared back. “What's this stunt worth? A million, two? It's still crap pay for running a hundred people.”
Ryu gathered up his last reserves of pretending to be unperturbed. “Yeah I know. Especially as you're paying salaries and the cost for the hotel as well.”
“Salaries? The cost for the hotel? For one hundred guests? Are you insane?”
“I know, and the course is at a discount as well.” Urufu looked like a man beaten into the ground. It was almost humorous to watch him. “Still, the contract is a hundred per participant, so you should still come out in the black.”
Urufu stood absolutely still. Then he suddenly had the looks of a much older man in his face. “Ten fucking million yen?”
“Expenses paid, you said. So I end up with, lemme see, two or three million net gain. Fine, that's fair enough. Even if one hundred is a steal.”
“After our salaries?” Ryu teased and looked over the beach again.
Urufu returned to his grills, but his eyes never left Ryu. “Salaries. What the hell did you cook up while I was out?” He moved around some coals with an iron he had picked up. “Ryu?”
“We had a few contracts made. Kuri backed it up as well.”
“Spit it out!”
Ryu couldn't stop chucking. “You've got yourself four employees, and you're a partner with dad now.”
“Fucking hell!” Urufu turned to face him. “Christina backed it up?”
“Yeah.” It wasn't anything Ryu felt proud of. They had signed away a lot of control to his father, and Urufu hadn't even been asked. “Principal Nakagawa required that an adult stand behind your company or the school wouldn't agree to your part time job.”
“Nakagawa huh. Cunning bastard. Fine, I'll do it his way. How much am I paying you, because I assume I got saddled with everyone but Christina?”
“You're the CEO. Our salaries are your call.”
“And what did I employ?”
Ryu laughed. “Junior consultants. Dad said we're junior consultants or the deal is off.”
Urufu suddenly grinned. “I'll work you so hard you'll hate the guts out of me. And I'll make sure you earn every yen you make.” He gave Ryu a hard glare. “This is work, real work. If you think you can handle it you'll get paid accordingly.”
For the first time Ryu felt interested. “Accordingly?”
“Yeah. You tell the others their salaries. I'll handle back-pay if I ever see the money for this.”
By now Ryu wanted to know what Urufu had in mind. He hadn't needed any part time jobs this far, but he had a pretty good idea about what high school students made. “OK, will do,” he said.
“I'm not paying a yen more than you deserve. Yukio and Kyoko start at two hourly. I have to train them before they can get a decent pay.”
That was a lot more than he had suspected. “Noriko and I?” Ryu said.
“You're more useful, for different reasons. Three thousand per hour. Make me proud and it'll show in your wallets.”
What the hell? That's over triple what's normal! “That's more than I expected for high schoolers.”
“I don't give a shit about high school. You're junior consultants. I can't make an arse out of the company.” Urufu started loading meat and vegetables onto the grills. “By the way, what's the name of my glorious company?”
Ryu thought for a while. The English words were strange in his mouth. “Twin Arc Productions, or something like...”
“Fucking yeah! TAP, the bloody bastards had me restart TAP. You wonderful bastards!” Urufu shouted and grinned. More than a few faces turned in their direction at his outburst.
Ryu saw two perfect rows of teeth when Kuri grinned and threw Urufu a thumbs up sign.
She owed them big-time. No, that wasn't true. She owed Noriko big-time. You're my rival and yet you saved my sorry arse. And you've got one hell of a good looking admirer there.
But good looking wasn't the same as good. He was the youngest of the modelling crew by a wide margin, and the most inexperienced. Christina didn't know much about him more than that she had had to help him a few times during the shoots.
Christina helped her club members taking their pick of the seemingly endless supply of clothes. The Uniclo crew were as professional as any representatives of a large scale retailer chain could hope to be, but they weren't Chag. Hardly surprising after all. This was a company big in one country rather than the multinational monster she had once shaped, and the difference in size was staggering. Chag had been five times the size of Uniclo, and even the Swedish replacement in this world was four or five times larger.
She thought about that for a while. H&M hadn't been able to match her aggressive stance in that other world, but here they were just as efficient as Chag had been.
“Hiroyuki, not blue. You should wear red. Better with your complexion.” Moving from student to student she quickly assessed their ability to pick clothes that would make the photographers happy. Too many of them chose things they personally liked rather than what would make them look good in a night shoot.
By the fireworks models mingled with awestruck students and made the shoots both a welcome laugh and a nightmare for the crew.
It was time for a good old northern style illusion. Christina gathered a few students and called the professional models to her side.
“I want the sea in the background. Can you rig the lights to make it look like moonshine from over the mountains?”
“I'll handle it,” the journalist turned fashion photographer shouted back at her.
He was an absolute marvel to work with, and as the evening proceeded she took command over more and more of the event. A shoot with amateurs needed feeling and she used every ounce of her knowledge to make it happen.
She was working in tandem with her number one photographer now, but as she glanced up at the walkway she saw the producers looking down at the beach and taking notes. Their heads glistened in street lights, but their faces were dark, and Christina was reminded of how quickly day broke and night took over. Am I overdoing this? Screw that, just make it a good shoot!
“Kuri, are these OK?”
She looked at Sango-chan who still sat bundled together with Jirou-kun. “Perfect!” They're so cute together! Wish I could sit like that with Ulf, but he's busy with the barbecue.
A team intruded on their privacy, and even if Sango-chan looked happy Jirou-kun showed signs of discomfort. Something is missing. “Shoji-kun, get over here!” She disliked the conceited model, but he was the best for this part. “We'll be the background couple.”
“Shoji-kun,” her photographer said. He hugged his stomach tightly and guffawed. “Ageruman-san, he's at least five years older than you, and you call him 'kun'.”
Oops, forgot that. Well, can't be helped. “He behaves like a spoiled brat, so why not?”
“I'll couple with you anywhere,” Shoji-kun grinned.
“Not much in the way of boobs, but down there I guess...”
“I'd advise against sexually harassing a minor,” the photographer said.
“Kinoshita-sensei?” Shoji-kun quickly turned to Christina. “Ageruman-san, I apologise. I was out of line.”
She looked at her photographer. So that's your name. “Kinoshita-sensei,” she said as if tasting the name. “Should we get some lights rigged further down the wall? I think it's possible to make it look like it's lit up by a fire.”
“I'm not entirely certain I understand what you're after,” he answered. He gave her a look that was as much question as a test.
She was up to that challenge. “It's a typical scene from Sweden. Late evening, camp fire by the beach and the gang having a great time together. Our fantasy dream of how we spend our summers.”
Kinoshita-sensei scratched his chin. “And you want to see if we can build that kind of appeal here as well?”
Christina nodded in reply. “If it doesn't pan out it's just one scene anyway.”
It was rigged, and they got the shots, and Sango-chan was adorably cute sitting in Jirou-kun's lap. At least after they finally got him to stop blushing. And Shoji-kun groped her exactly as the shots were taken and she couldn't move away.
Christina slapped him, but it was still she who had to drag Ulf away from meeting out retribution. After that Kinoshita-sensei sent Shoji-kun back to the hotel.
The evening flew by. Ulf kept grilling and she worked herself silly with the shots, and when all was done and over she realised she hadn't spent as much as a minute alone with Ulf. There was a pang of regret in her chest, but mostly sadness. With less than two weeks left of summer break there wouldn't be many more opportunities, and with the changed schedule she wouldn't even have the luxury of spending time together with him during summer school.
She watched his back as he picked up his shirt, jacket and tie. What's the point in being young again if you can't spend time with the one you love? “Ulf, wait a moment please.”
He looked over his shoulder and met her eyes. “For you Ina, I'll wait forever,” he said and gave her one of those wolfish grins that always made her heart jump a little extra. “I'm the cheesiest.”
“Moron. Yeah, moron-sama. Noriko was right from the start, you know that?” But it didn't stop her from walking up to his back and hug him.
Still looking over his shoulder he kissed her, and then he turned in her arms and met her embrace.
The last of the crew dragged a few boxes away from the beach. She could hear the sound of the ocean breathing behind her, but most of all she felt Ulf's skin close to her, held him under her hands and shared a kiss that lasted an eternity.