Finals came and went as did any reasonable chance for the golden couple to spend any amount of time with each other.
Together with his sister Ryu created small windows of opportunities. They owed those friends at least that much.
With the help of Yukio and Kyoko Ryu managed to turn the club into a dating central for Urufu and Kuri, and despite failing to make most of those dates come true, a few fell through the tightening net around the two of them.
This was one of them, or rather this wasn't one of them but it was. A freezing morning saw the student body line up for five respectively ten kilometres of wet depression. While the girls ran a different course than the boys, everyone still gathered at the same place before the start. That place being the soccer field.
“Boring!” someone shouted from somewhere in the middle of the crowd.
Got to agree with you on that one, Ryu thought, but he knew he'd place among the best of the first years. Maybe among the top fifty in the school, which was more than decent considering juniors and seniors participated as well.
“I'm worried,” Noriko said.
“Worried about what?” Ryu replied and threw a sidelong glance at his sister.
She looked back at him, eyes hidden under bangs plastered to her forehead by the stubborn rain that seemed to have gone on for over two weeks straight by now. That wasn't true, but there hadn't been many days in December without a downpour, which made for the wettest winter month he could recall.
With a scowl on her face Noriko elbowed him and nodded in the direction of a golden halo that stood out among the students like sunshine at night.
At first Ryu didn't get it, but then he saw Urufu behind Kuri. She was tall enough to hide even his face, but a sudden gust of wind threw her hair sideways, and Urufu's face became visible as he moved to shelter her from the wind.
Always playing the knight. Why are you trying so hard to act like some stupid hero? Because it was outlandish or old-fashioned, and in the case of Urufu perhaps both. Ryu sighed and smiled. It also made him a little jealous of his friend. Daring to be so lame that it was somehow cool came natural to Urufu. He had half a century's worth of experience, and caring about what he looked like to others apparently didn't have all that much of a priority for him any longer.
“Worried?” Ryu asked again. Urufu looked like he was having a blast.
Noriko nodded. “Yeah, look at them. That's all desperation.”
Ryu stared at the pair. Just as she had said something was off. Damn, you're right sis! Wait a moment. “Sis, when did you learn...”
“I didn't. Mom did.”
“We had a talk last night,” Noriko continued. “She told me a lot I didn't know. She told me that she was you and dad was me.”
At first that didn't make any sense, but Ryu knew his parents well enough to eventually grasp what they meant whenever they tried to be cryptic. Still, dad being Noriko he could understand, but mom? You really mean you played merry hell with the boys during your high-school years?
“She told me she almost lost dad after graduation, and that their best friend saved them.”
Looking at Kuri clinging to Urufu Ryu felt something cold slither down his spine. She told you that after meeting Kuri? “Sis, I know they're having a hard time, but that's not why you're worried, is it?”
In response his sister shook her head. “Mom told me Kuri's desperate to show Urufu she'll be able to handle school, career and their relationship, but that she's already given up.”
Then he should act accordingly, Ryu thought. He searched his friend's face for clues, and despite the distance Ryu saw how hyped up Urufu was. Crap! He's going to run for it. He'll want to prove to her that he's worth her feelings.
“Ryu, please keep pace with him. I'm not in love with him any longer, but I still care. For them both,” his sister added after a moment of silence.
He didn't need to be told. Ryu guessed Kuri would pace her marathon well enough, and even if she didn't there wouldn't be any danger, but Urufu. Have you recovered enough for this?
The sound of a whistle woke him from his thoughts, and as Ryu walked to his starting position he made an effort to look for where Urufu and Yukio made ready.
Then everything slowed to a crawl as expected. They had to wait an eternity for everyone to get ready and the PE teacher to run what he hoped was a heart-warming speech, but only forced them all to freeze in the wind for that much longer.
Then the girls were off and Ryu saw Kyoko and Noriko group up together with most of the club members and slog off somewhere in the middle. Kuri, however, caught up with some girls he recognised from the track and field’s club.
So, maybe not pacing it too well. Have fun as long as it lasts.
The girls would be back within half an hour to an hour, Ryu guessed. The winner possibly in a bit over twenty minutes.
After the girls had vanished the boys lined up for real. As usual Ryu felt anticipation rising in him. He was a natural athlete and genuinely liked competitions. He just wasn't interested enough to spend his days trying to become the best.
At long last a subdued boom from the starting gun sent them away and Ryu stretched out to take a position just behind the track and field club members. Then he remembered Noriko's request, but just as he was about to slow down he saw Urufu well ahead of him.
Idiot! You damn idiot!
Pushing a little Ryu made the extra effort to get behind Urufu. From here on he could only wait until the idiot either collapsed or realised the tempo was way too high for him.
“That's just not fair!”
“And she's only a first year. Some people just get everything for free.”
“At least she's not up there.”
“Well, she's a bimbo after all.”
Kyoko grimaced but said nothing as the indignant conversation to her right continued. To a degree she could understand the two juniors.
But it wasn't for free, was it? You kept swimming every week after all. And with those long legs Kuri-chan must have had an easier time eating up the distance. In the end she made the top ten and second best among the freshmen during the marathon.
Sporting a happier grin on her lips Kyoko looked up at the wall. Unsurprisingly Kuri-chan's name wasn't anywhere to be seen, and neither was her own. More out of loyalty than anything else she looked for Yukio and Urufu, but as she knew their names were absent as well. Ryu squeezed in at number 45 and Noriko regained her third place.
They'd all go visit Ryu after school. He lay sick at home with a fever he caught after he collapsed little over halfway into the marathon earlier this week.
You moron! Kyoko thought and glared at Noriko. What were you thinking, forcing Ryu to keep up with Urufu?
'I was worried' the midget idiot mumbled in an attempt to defend herself a day earlier. You'd better be worried. Did it ever occur to you how much time Urufu spends training?
Because in the end Urufu won his bet with Kuri-chan, when he proved the difference between cynical calculation and youthful ambition. For nine kilometres and seven hundred metres he had clung to the backside of a sophomore track and field distance runner, close enough to pull his jersey had he wanted. The remaining three hundred metres turned into a display of applied humiliation. Urufu crossed the finishing line before the second year even reached the school grounds.
Still, the talk among the girls made Kyoko seethe with anger. Kuri-chan wasn't allowed her upset while Urufu turned into an instant hero.
The bimbo in question came up behind her and leaned her head over Kyoko's shoulder. “I don't mind,” Kuri-chan said. “Let them talk.”
The conversation turned into a whisper, and both juniors edged away from them. Kyoko didn't know if they felt ashamed or if they just wanted to get away from Kuri-chan's presence.
“You?” Kyoko wondered and looked up at the wall.
Kuri-chan followed her eyes and smiled. “Two make-up exams. Just wait for the last trimester. I'll get a passing grade all over at my first try.”
“Math and Japanese. Won't be a problem. You?”
“Hundred and five,” Kyoko said. Her sessions with Yukio had paid off. “Yukio made number hundred and twenty, so I beat him again.”
They stood looking at each other, Kyoko silently asking the question that Kuri-chan waited for.
“One make-up exam,” Kuri-chan finally said. “English.”
“English?” It made absolutely no sense. Urufu taught English to the rest of the club.”
Kuri-chan smirked before answering. “He says his English teacher is an idiot. I say Ulf is an idiot for keeping up that private war of his.”
“Ulf thought it was a good idea to point out five errors on the exam paper, in writing. He got slammed for it and called to the teachers' room.”
Yeah, he's a moron all-right. “And?”
“If he says there were five errors then there were five errors. He's the one with a master's degree, not the teacher.”
He's got a master's degree? It was all too easy to forget that both Urufu and Kuri-chan had left their high school years behind them a long time ago. Kyoko hadn't thought about any of them pursuing an academic career in their previous life. But he's still a moron. You just don't talk back to the teachers.
“We come from a very different world,” Kuri-chan said as if she had read Kyoko's mind. “From my experience there's nothing wrong with pointing out a teacher mistake. Sure, Ulf's taking it way too far, but still.”
And you admire him all the more for it. At least be honest with yourself. Kyoko could only shake her head. Urufu and Kuri-chan quarrelled from time to time, but much more often they looked at each other with what was best described as adoration. In a way they were each other's fanatical one-person fan-club.
And what does that make Yukio and me? The question caught her by sudden surprise but also with realisation. We're not the same. Kuri-chan and Urufu are used to being the centre of attraction, or at least Kuri-chan is. Given a closer thought Kyoko decided it was probably true for Urufu as well, even though in a different way.
“You're silent,” Kuri-chan observed.
“I just found something out,” Kyoko said. “About the two of you.” There was no reason to be anything but open with Kuri-chan. Their friendship might have changed since summer, but both tried their best to be honest.
“Winter break next I guess,” Kuri-chan said and looked past the shoe-lockers and across the school-yard.
Now that was a sudden change of topic. Kyoko tugged at her friend's sleeve and pulled her towards the stairwell. Halfway there the sounds of excited, sullen and happy students watching the wall had faded behind them.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” Kyoko asked as they started up the stairs.
“Well, unless you're stuck with complementary lessons,” Kyoko said and managed to squeeze in a rather blunt warning that her friend had better be serious about her make-up exams.
Kuri-chan just laughed and climbed another flight. “I'll have a batch of those, but not because of the make-ups. I'm taking middle school level lessons in Japanese.
Kyoko knew about the cram school her friend tried to keep a secret, so she didn't say anything. “Apart from that. I guess you're not joining the party,” she added and grinned.
“For the singles? Don't think so. I've got Ulf.”
There was something forlorn in the voice that made Kyoko look closer at her. Keep fighting. We'll help you.
“Aren't you going dating on Christmas?”
“As in going out? Why?”
Yukio stared at him. “Lover's day, you know?”
“Christmas eve. One of the number one dating days in the year.”
He received yet another stare.
“Well, unless you've been living under a rock you'd have known that.”
“Now when you mention it. No, I haven't been living under a rock. Christmas is family in Sweden. You don't go out.” Ulf thought about it for a moment. “OK, I don't know about youngsters these days, but for me Christmas is a day you spend at home with those most important to you. You can ask Christina. I think she'll say the same thing.”
Ulf thought about it. Japan wasn't a nation with a Christian background. Christmas and Easter came with traditions back home. If they were celebrated here at all they had to be purely commercial events. Kind of like Halloween in Sweden. Besides he'd spent last Christmas cooped up in that juvenile delinquent institution they sent him to after he got expelled from Red Rose Hell.
And no, he didn't intend to spend Christmas out. Christina had already agreed to spend it with him and Amaya. First she said something about staying home, but Christmas alone was just too sad a thought for him to accept. So he nagged until she caved in.
Yukio looked back at him from across the table. Soon they'd leave their soon to be former club room and walk down the stairs and to the gym for the year's end ceremony, and after that two weeks of winter break.
Former? By now most of what they needed had been moved to Stockholm Haven café, and the room looked pretty much like any other classroom in the school. Apart from the table and the sofa that didn't make the move; three wall mounted whiteboards looked horribly out of place as well. Ulf guessed someone would clean those out during the break.
“What about you?” he asked in return.
“Kyoko,” Yukio said as if that explained everything.
Ulf rose from his seat and beckoned to his friend to do the same. “I guess this is it,” he said and left for the door.
“We made a lot of memories in here,” Yukio said.
The sound of the door sliding shut behind them signalled the end of something. And a new beginning? Well, they certainly had experienced a lot in the room they left. “Yeah,” Ulf said at a lack of words. “The best hangout for second term.”
“Man, what's with that depressing voice?”
Depressed. I guess it shows, but it's not about the club. Ulf forced a smile to his lips. Not going to burden you with my problems. Have a great holiday!
“Nothing. Just gonna miss the old place,” Ulf said and hoped he sounded sincere enough for Yukio to buy the lie.
They walked down the stairs to the entrance floor and were joined by second and third years heading for the gym. A stiff thousand students inside the gym was cramming it, but it was doable. Ulf wondered how they planned to solve that problem come April, but they must have done so many years ago when all thirty six classrooms were in use.
Three more months until I've done my second stunt as a first year high school student. He shrugged and slapped Yukio's back to remove those kinds of thoughts. Real first years didn't think about April just prior to winter break. Real first years only thought of the break ahead of them.
“Hurry up kiddo. We're running late.”
“Yeah yeah, whatever, baldy,” Yukio said, but his grin belied the insult.
Soon they were hugging the school building, and freezing, now when the unseasonal rain finally had abated, and the temperature dropped to more proper and miserable levels.
More or less any other day he'd change in the boys' locker room and walk out the other side of it before going to the gym, which cut the distance to almost nothing. Now the entire school was heading there, and both locker rooms were off limits.
Ulf wrapped his arms around himself when a sudden gust of wind told him they'd rounded the left wing and were heading towards the football field.
“Man,” Yukio began, “did you ever find out why the Red Rose bastards jumped you?”
“No,” Ulf answered. Because there probably wasn't an easy answer. By now he was certain it really had nothing to do with Red Rose, or at least nothing to do with the corporate part of Red Rose. “Friends of friends I guess,” he continued.
Both boys walked almost sideways to avoid the worst of the wind, but it did little to prevent Ulf from freezing his arse off.
“Friends of friends?”
“Yeah, even bastards have friends you know.”
“I don't get you, man,” Yukio said. The words came out a bit whiny, but Ulf chose to attribute that to the bone-chilling wind rather than any dissatisfaction with his explanation.
“We put the guys who attacked Noriko through hell, remember?”
You'd better. You helped carry two of them away. And as far as those people are concerned I'm responsible for that suicide. “I believe it was as simple as revenge. They just wanted to beat the crap out of me.”
Anything else didn't make any sense. Ganging up on an arrival was inviting disaster. Ulf couldn't see anyone creating a covert organisation for handling the likes of him and Christina, and then just accept when their investment was sent to hospital.
But there sure are people who hate us now. I'm afraid we haven't seen all the crap hitting the fan yet. Which was the bad thing. He could handle crap, and if he was honest with himself, so could Christina. It was just that he wanted to protect her. Her needing protection or not just didn't come into the picture. I guess that makes me a chauvinist pig. Then so be it. I love her, I want to see her happy. If that's old fashioned then I'll refuse to become modern.
Yukio recalled how Urufu had fallen silent from just before they joined the year's end ceremony. He'd stayed silent throughout all of it, and when they waved goodbye afterwards Urufu only grunted something that you needed to be a good friend to understand that it was actually a greeting and not an insult.
It put a damper on his planned date with Kyoko. Both his dates with her. After their part time hours at the Stockholm Haven café they'd slowly make their way home and stop at the old mall. A mini date of sorts. The real one was Christmas Eve, and he'd already bought her gift.
I know you said not to, but I did anyway. A knitted scarf, and it had been just as expensive as Kyoko had feared, but Yukio didn't care. She said she had plenty of them, but he'd only seen her wearing the atrocity that didn't even serve as a worn out rug.
He dropped off yet another order at a table and returned for more. By now the cheerful booing and wolf whistles had subsided, and both he and Kyoko were busy moving a never ending stream of orders from counter to tables.
Today their club celebrated the end of their second term, and combined that event with a singles party for club members and their friends. With a bit of luck a few of them wouldn't have to join similar parties on Christmas Eve or Christmas day.
As the only couple present, both he and Kyoko had about heard it all by now, usually accompanied by boos and whistles, but he decided it was well worth it. Mainly because Kyoko shone like a sun and threw him a joyful glance whenever someone laughingly showed their displeasure with boyfriend and girlfriend working together at a singles party.
“Last order?” Kyoko shouted from a nearby table when Yukio picked up yet another tray from the counter.
“Last order,” James confirmed from the opening to the kitchen.
Yukio looked up and met the eyes of his employer. Ashiga James, and after a long time of demands from his side, finally just 'James' even to Yukio and Kyoko. Getting used to call a ten year older person by his first name had taken a toll on them both.
James was also the third arrival Yukio knew of, even though he suspected there were more of them, and that both Urufu and Kuri knew more than they had told him.
“Kyoko, corners first and then change. I'll clean out the tables before I change.”
She nodded back at him and went for one of the trays James placed on the counter.
With his hands full Yukio went for the table closest to the entrance, placed the items ordered on the table and filled his tray with used mugs and plates.
After another two runs he was done, and from there on he concentrated on removing used kitchenware from the café proper. Inside the kitchen James for once had a part timer doing the dishes, and the poor sod would have to prove his mettle for another two evenings.
“Kyoko, ready?” Yukio said as he grabbed his coat after receiving James' go ahead to finish for the day.
She smiled back and shouldered her bag, and together they left the café to the jeering of their club members inside.
“Home or detour?” Kyoko wondered when they had walked a block.
She had changed since he got to know her. These days Kyoko wasn't afraid to come with a suggestion. At least Yukio believed she had changed, but if he was honest with himself he didn't know if this was a side of her she just hadn't shown him earlier.
“Home,” he answered. Don't want to push my luck. We have a date scheduled for tomorrow. Which meant they had a date Kyoko's parents had accepted. Yukio didn't know for certain what would happen to it should Kyoko come home too late.
“Sure, walk me home?”
Yukio hadn't planned anything else. He'd collect the bike he used by the mall, Urufu-style, and walk it all the way to her home. Then he'd ride it home just as they had agreed to with Principal Nakagawa.
“Mail me tomorrow?” Kyoko said as they passed the school and began the route he and Urufu usually took the few days they still returned via the mall.
And they've become fewer. Either he's with Kuri, even if that happens depressingly seldom, or I'm with Kyoko.
“Yeah, I will,” Yukio said, but his thoughts weren't into the answer. Thinking of Urufu Yukio suddenly wondered how his friend had planned to make his date with Kuri come true. A dark car with tinted windows drove her to and from school almost every day.
“Worried about Kuri-chan and Urufu?” Kyoko wondered by his side.
You know how that just makes me love you even more? That mind-reading ability of yours?
“Kuri-chan told me she'll be picked up by Urufu and Sato-sensei tomorrow.”
Someone who can pass as his mother. Yeah, should help some. Somehow Kyoko's words lifted one small burden from him, and he grabbed her left hand and squeezed.
“Thank you. Thank you for thinking of both our friends.”
“'He's your important friend', was what you were thinking? Well, stop it! Urufu's my friend as well.”
Yukio bowed his head and took a few steps. Scolded by his girlfriend. Yeah, Kyoko definitely had changed since they first met.
“Uhum, same with Kuri,” he said, but that wasn't entirely true. He respected her, but there was something cold to the tall, Swedish beauty that made him keep his distance. Kuri wasn't really someone he'd have made friends with in the first place, hadn't it been for Urufu, and in difference from Urufu her lifelong experience shone through most of the time. She didn't even pretend to be a teenage kid.
“I'm glad you think of her as a friend,” Kyoko's voice said from his right.
The words made him feel a little ashamed, but he still couldn't help how he felt about Urufu's girlfriend.
Christina stood waiting in the foyer to her apartment complex. Hers since less than a month. Her luxury living and her prison.
Outside the car chauffeured by someone on Vogue's payroll stood parked on the other side of the street.
Damn, I was so smart I fooled myself, she had time to think, before her worries about whatever plans Ulf's guardian had in mind took command.
'We'll celebrate Christmas at my place,' Ulf had promised.
She wasn't clear how he thought he could manage that. Her bodyguard, the very same who had followed her like an obedient dog the last months, had taken position by the doors, but he was unlikely to prevent her from leaving on her own. The main problem was the security attached to that car.
Looking at her smart-phone Christina saw how morning marched towards noon, and soon Sato-sensei would be here to pick her up. Christina didn't really understand how she thought she'd manage to bypass security, but then Ulf’s guardian could be really scary when she put her mind to it.
To hide her nervousness Christina walked to a mirror by the elevators and examined herself. Dolled up for certain, but not too gaudy. She hoped she hadn't overdone it. Just enough to show respect for a home you entered for the first time was what she had in mind. A good plan in theory, but a plan based on the life experiences of The Princess of Scandinavia and The Billion Dollar Empress. How did normal people dress up?
Just get here, and we'll see if I can get away from this place.
She twirled and gave her appearance another look. Probably too gaudy after all, but Christina refused to give in to her fears and return to her flat just to change clothes yet another time.
Come on, she thought and shot a glance through the windows. Seeing nothing she dared leave the building. If she cooled down outside maybe the worst of her nervousness would abate.
Three steps, only three steps she managed to walk outside before her bodyguard filed up behind her, and another four until a rear door opened, and another personnel security specialist left the car. That translated to an expensive bodyguard.
Are you for real? But they were. She believed her old bodyguard might sympathise with her. He'd probably just insist on tagging along to Ulf's home, and wait for her there. Vogue's goons were different though.
Then, finally, a car Christina recognised arrived and came to a stop on her side of the street. After a few moments both Ulf and Sato-sensei left it. Ulf went to the rear and opened the trunk, and Sato-sensei walked towards Christina with a smile on her face.
Christina nodded but looked at the gorilla crossing the street to intercept Ulf's guardian.
“Urufu, get her luggage, will you?”
“Yes mother dear,” he answered.
Did you fight on the way here? Christina had heard about the reason for him to be that polite. Experienced it as well that day when she was attacked in her home.
“Mrs, she'll ride with us wherever she's going,” the gorilla announced.
Sato-sensei gave him a scathing glare. “I think not. She's my guest, and she'll go with me.”
“I'm afraid I cannot allow that,” he said and pumped up his chest in what probably was supposed to be a threatening pose.
“That's none of my concern. Leave now!”
“I cannot do that, Mrs?”
“That would be 'I cannot do that, Lieutenant Colonel' for you. Dismissed!”
Christina realised she was throwing glances at them both and moving her head as if she was watching a tennis match. When she accepted she was at a total loss as for what to do Ulf came up behind Sato-sensei and grabbed her luggage.
“Tag along,” he said. “Mother dear will handle this.”
From the corner of her eye Christina saw that Ulf's guardian sported an earpiece, and then they passed her and walked towards the car Ulf had arrived in. The gorilla intercepted them both and made a grab for Christina before Ulf stepped in between them.
“Fuck off kid!”
That was the only thing the suited man had a chance to say before he sagged and was led back to the street by Ulf like a drunk.
I've heard rumours. I didn't think they were true. There was something with the way Ulf held one arm of the would be assaulter.
“Ageruman-san, would you want help with that?” That voice came from her bodyguard before he lifted her luggage and dropped it in the trunk. “May I assume your destination is his home?” he asked and pointed at Ulf who was busy throwing the gorilla into the street.
Mutely Christina nodded.
“If you excuse me I'll get a transport there, please don't leave without contacting me.”
Christina nodded again. “No, no I won't do that.”
Behind her she heard Sato-sensei calling for what had to be some kind of uniformed support. The overblown lies about an unprovoked assault by possible yakuza members made Christina cringe, but by now it was absolutely clear that the Vogue security detail would be impounded very soon.
She shook her head and walked the last steps to the car. Grinning wildly she opened a rear door and took her place in the back seat. It seemed like she would be able to celebrate Christmas after all.
“Stop playing with him!” Sato-sensei's voice shouted from outside the car. It had to be a reference to whatever manhandling Ulf was guilty of.
“I'll get you for this you fuck!” That also came from the outside.
Then Christina saw how two police cars arrived and came to a stop, and the shouting ceased.
Note to self, don't make Sato-sensei angry, Christina thought, but then she grinned and hugged herself. Christmas with Ulf. Yes!
Long before they came back to their flat Ulf regretted the way he had treated the man from that black car. Maybe it was unavoidable, but that still didn't make it right.
While Amaya parked the car Ulf ran up the stairs and hurried inside. There was a little something he needed to do that involved a computer and their television set. More exactly, it involved connecting his laptop to the media-box and making certain all signals went through the way he wanted.
Ulf got his confirmation before Christina arrived together with Amaya, and he hastily closed the lid and hid his laptop behind the TV.
They barely made it inside the door before Amaya threw a hand to her mouth in the worst attempt at acting Ulf had seen for a very long time.
“My my, I forgot the cake! No worries, I'll just leave and get it. Should take about half an hour.”
What are you up to now?
“Ageruman-san that should be enough time for you to take a bath. Thirty minutes.”
What the hell?
And Amaya was suddenly on the outside of the door.
Left inside was Christina who stood facing the door with her arms hanging by her side. Despite watching her back Ulf knew she was grinning wildly, and blushing while doing so.
Take a bath. Sheesh! Thank you Amaya!
Half an hour, it turned out, was more than enough for the kind of bath Amaya had in mind for them when she left to fetch a cake Ulf was certain had never been forgotten in the first place.
Two flustered teenagers, with the experience of most of a full life, each tried preparing food pretending that nothing had happened. In that sense the doctor Principal Nakagawa had brought with him, down at the beach resort during August, was right. All that experience couldn't prevent Ulf from behaving like a teen, and from what he saw of Christina, neither could she.
But you're cuter this way, he thought, and was rewarded with yet another deep red blush.
He sliced up some green vegetables for their mostly Japanese Christmas dinner when he heard keys inserted in the door, and Amaya returned with an overly loud greeting.
You never wait in the doorway like that when you come home. Amaya, you're sweet. Thank you, I really mean it.
Then his guardian must have heard the sound from the kitchen and entered the flat. Ulf could hear her dropping off her shoes in the hallway.
Beside him Christina flared red once again, and busied herself with something that would give her another few seconds before she had to face Amaya.
Christina, in what alternate universe do you believe Amaya would expect us not to have shared a bed until now?
Ulf shook his head and smiled down at the food he prepared. Then he felt his own face heat up and realised he was just as prone to blushing as Christina right now.
Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!
Embarrassed for the very reason that he could still become so embarrassed he left the kitchen and rushed into the small living room. There he busied himself with laptop, cables and the TV.
After a minor eternity he had finished his work and checked the time. Almost three pm.
I hope you like my Christmas gift for you Christina. It's the only thing special for Sweden I could think of.
“Christina, could you come in here? Dishes can wait,” he called.
Amaya stared at the laptop hooked up to her TV. “Why?” she asked. Shouldn't the two of you get ready for your Christmas date instead?”
“Trust me, Ulf said. Just trust me.”
“Can't it wait?” Christina shouted from the kitchen.
“Sorry, no. It's three pm.”
“Eh?” She came out into the living room with hands still wet from preparing food and washing some dishes.
The TV screen flared into life and lit up the room with a very old Disney cartoon.
“Trust me, Amaya, trust me,” Ulf said again. I hope you like it Christina.
Christina sagged in the door opening. “Ulf?” Then she dropped to her knees. “Ulf, no way!”
“I'm sorry I could only get last year's show, but I guess you missed it anyway.”
“Ulf, how could you...”
“How could I not? Merry Christmas Christina!”
She was crying silently when she crawled on her knees across the floor, and she was sobbing loudly enough for Amaya to hear when she grabbed Ulf and pulled him into her arms.
For once I want you to be a little kid again and just enjoy Christmas. I love you, I love you so very much. Merry Christmas.
He cradled her tall body in his arms and met Amaya's perplexed look. “Swedish tradition,” he whispered and nodded at the TV.
“But why?” Amaya mouthed and stared at Christina who lay in his lap smiling and sobbing at the same time.
“When we grew up this was Christmas. Stupid tradition, I know, but the entire nation used to drop everything at three pm sharp and watch this show.”
Amaya smiled and nodded. “And you wanted to bring some of that back to her?”
Ulf hugged Christina closer to him. “She deserves it.” Then he burrowed his face in her hair and revelled in the luxury of slowly drying hair full with the smell of the girl he loved.
“You're a good man,” he heard Amaya say. “I knew that from the beginning. An arrogant and cocky bastard, but a good one.”
He wasn't clear why she heaped this kind of praise over him right now, but he felt grateful for it, and with Christina in his arms some of the feeling of wonder from Christmases past returned to him.
He sat there watching snippets of old animated films flicker on the screen, saw them but didn't really register them. For him that one hour long show had long since become the backdrop for Christmas, and now he just enjoyed silently sharing those memories with Christina.
Somewhere far back in his mind he wondered how the rest of the gang enjoyed their Christmas.
Ryu wondered if Urufu and Kuri had managed to spend their Christmas together in that Swedish style Urufu spoke about. If what Urufu said was true, then he spent Christmas like a Japanese New Year's celebration, well, minus visiting a shrine of course.
If the couple had, then that was two days ago, because apparently Christmas Eve was the big event in Sweden, rather than Christmas Day as Ryu had been taught was the western style.
You give me a headache. Before I met you I could safely assume that 'western' was the one set of whatever was not Japanese. The thought made him smile, because Urufu had tried to smooth things over by saying that most westerners only knew about their own version of 'western'.
Well, he had spent a nice enough date with Ai-chan yesterday, where they even quickly showed up at the Irishima High Christmas party. There he had been displayed like an exotic animal, and for the first time he could remember he felt uncomfortable being the centre of attention.
Ryu glanced at the reason for that discomfort. She had fallen asleep in the seat across his, but she was almost as cute sleeping as when she pulled him into her shenanigans. Almost. That laugh of hers, or her inexplicable shyness belonged to her waking world.
“Sis, when is Nao-sempai coming?” Ryu said and turned to his sister.
Aw, damn! She had fallen asleep as well.
“Mom, the girls are no fun!”
His mother turned and looked at him and Noriko. Then something nasty from many years ago glimmered in her eyes, and she stuck her tongue out at him. “Suits you Ryu,” she said and returned to her conversation with his father who drove the van.
What the? He knew his mother could be surprisingly childish sometimes, but right now she had behaved like a grade schooler.
Smirking he pulled up his phone and mailed Nao-sempai a complaint.
The reply took a few minutes to come.
“They're girls, leave them be. Kuri-chan sends her greetings by the way and wants you to give them her best.”
Ryu decided against calling the junior despite feeling a little uneasy writing on his phone while the van they rode snaked its way further into the mountains. Another hour and they'd be at their destination, an onsen that carried memories for his parents.
“Something happened?” Ryu wrote and fished for some information on what had happened between Kuri and Urufu.
While he waited for an answer, they passed through another tunnel, and by now they had climbed far enough inland for the greenish brown hillsides to become greenish white. From what he remembered there would be snow all over the place when they finally arrived.
“Kuri got scolded, and they scheduled a lot of shoots during winter break.”
Scolded? Good for you two, Ryu thought. The only reason people would be pissed off with her was that she had indeed managed to save her Christmas date with Urufu.
“And you got caught up in it?”
It took Ryu three attempts to send that last mail, and when it was away they had left the last of the tunnels, and the entire world around him was covered in snow.
“Yes. I'll join you tomorrow. Please convey my apologies to your sister if I'm unable to reach her myself!”
Noriko would sulk, that much was for certain, but with a promise that Nao-sempai would show the day after, Ryu didn't think the sulking would be all that bad.
But I don't remember why mom and dad wants to go here? Ah, of course. Staring out the window Ryu saw a small winter's resort. It was nothing compared to the major resorts in the Japan Alps, but it was definitely enough to enjoy a few days away from Tokyo.
“Send my regards to Kuri and make sure you're here by tomorrow. I'll keep sis off your back.”
The mail Ryu received in return was only filled with smiling emojis.
Well, maybe you'll get some time off for New Years. I'd like to spend hatsumode with the two of you. If he understood correctly Kuri and Urufu were used to spend the midnight of New Year’s outdoors watching fireworks. Well, there were rarely any New Year's fireworks in Japan – fireworks belonged to summer, but people spent midnight outdoors here as well.
Then they were almost at their destination. A steep slope, barely cleared enough of snow to allow their car to climb it, a strangely oversized parking place and a woman in a kimono who waved them to the entrance, that was it. Ryu slid the door open, climbed out and woke Noriko.
“Make sure Ai-chan wakes as well,” he said and grabbed two small bags.
On his way to the entrance he heard how his girlfriend made sleepy sounds of protests behind him. Then the sound of the trunk being opened reached him and he met two porters who hurried to the car. They'd handle all the heavy luggage, which as usual included a lot more than what was needed.
You're funny, he thought. His parents were exemplary in their efficiency packing for work related trips, but whenever it was time for a vacation they tried to bring the entire home with them.
As an afterthought he mailed Urufu as well and wondered about life and the universe in general. The answer arrived just about the same time as their luggage and Ai-chan came inside the hotel foyer.
“Got a break. Bogged down with work. Feels good.”
That was so very Urufu. Concise to the point of being hard to read.
Ryu sent a reply and made his way to the table where they'd receive some tea, while their luggage was delivered to their rooms. His phone vibrated almost immediately.
“Don't worry. Christina works as well. Good time to make money.”
That was the constructive way to react Ryu guessed. It wasn't like Urufu could prevent his girlfriend from taking part in her shoots, and burying himself in work should make him better prepared for when they finally had some time together.
December 29, but I'm afraid they'll push it. Worst case she gets December 31 and January 1 off, but that will play merry hell with the rest of the employees. Ryu shook his head and met his father's gaze. “Sorry, was thinking about work.”
“Do you have any work to do now?”
“Sorry, not me. I was thinking of Urufu and Kuri,” Ryu said and added one name to the truth. Where's sis? he thought to banish his worries about his friends.
Having arrived yesterday, but without Nao, Noriko felt a little nervous when she shakily navigated the slope down to the short road that connected skiing facility with the small cluster of hotels where they lived.
Nao was arriving by bus and should be here any moment now, and Noriko didn't plan to miss out on more time with him than needed.
Suddenly her feet shook more than usual, and as they had done with depressing regularity, her skies betrayed her again. She was left as an undignified heap on the ground.
Noriko suspected she spent more time getting back up on her feet than skiing and cursed whoever had decided that alpine skiing was a fun way to spend your free time.
After she managed to get back on her feet again, Noriko reluctantly left her dignity behind her and punted her way to the parking place.
The bus arrived, but Nao didn't. Another arrived an hour later, but still no Nao, and he didn't even reply to her mails.
Distraught she went inside the foyer, bought a cup of tea and seated herself by the windows, from where she could see the buses arrive. Three cups later and another bus without Nao, she gave up and took the elevator to their room.
Worst Christmas ever, she thought as she dragged out a futon and threw herself on it. Noriko knew she behaved like a spoiled child, but it just wasn't fair that her idiot brother was out there having the time of his life with Ai-chan, while she had to wait for a boyfriend who didn't even have the grace to tell her he was late.
Sucks, she sulked.
But even sulking got boring, and in the end Noriko tired of playing the lonesome orphan. She sent Nao a choice nasty mail and went down for the last few hours of humiliation on the slopes.
Well outside she couldn't stay angry for long. Despite making a habit of falling on her butt with the grace of a lame elephant, the whiteness surrounding her was simply breathtaking.
With temperatures at a friendly minus two or three she was never cold, and with renewed vigour she finished her lonely skiing day and returned to the hotel. Nao or no Nao, after a day like this taking a hot bath outdoors promised to be heaven.
Noriko slipped inside the women's locker room, stripped and brought her towel into the bathing area. Ai-chan was already there rinsing off before the baths, and so was Noriko's mother.
“Hi mom,” Noriko said and sat down on a pallet.
“Where were you all day?”
“Waiting for Nao, and failing. Yeah and trying to ski, and failing.”
Both mother and brother's girlfriend displayed raised eyebrows.
“Nao didn't come, and he hasn't mailed me.”
Ai-chan dunked herself with water and moved to the exit. Noriko's mother followed her, so Noriko found herself in a sudden hurry. Outside she sank into the shallow pool and waited for the interrogation to continue.
“Does he usually do that?” her mother wanted to know.
Noriko was prepared for that question. Her mother positively detested people who didn't communicate.
“No, he only does during a shoot, because they're not allowed to have their phones on,” Noriko said. Crap! Don't tell me he got dragged into whatever problems Kuri brought onto herself! Still, that only made sense, and if so Noriko feared Nao might not show up at all.
“What's with that face?” her mother said.
Noriko pouted and slid deeper into the water to hide her sulking expression. This was her own problem, and nothing she wanted to drag her parents into. But I wanted Nao here. Stupid Kuri! First you took Urufu away, and now Nao as well.
She submerged to wash away that thought. Kuri hadn't taken anyone away, and Noriko knew she was being unfair. OK, maybe you didn't, but I'm still the only one without someone now. And that thought was a lie as well. If Nao couldn't join them, then that meant Kuri and Urufu had no way of meeting as well.
When she came back up above the surface for a breath her mother was waiting, and Noriko noticed how Ai-chan just waited for an answer.
“Spill it!” That wasn't her mother's friendly voice. That was the voice of her mother the few times Noriko knew she could outmatch Kuri.
“I want to know as well. We're involved now?”
“Involved with what?” Noriko's mother said, and by now her tone had taken the quality needed to cut through stone.
“There's a lot of students at Irishima High...”
“Yeah, and a few teachers as well...” Ai-chan continued.
A few teachers? Idiot! You got your principal salivating all over the place at the chance to sink Red Rose.
“Yes… we're kind of not friends with Red Rose Academy now,” Ai-chan said, and Noriko coughed when she heard that understatement.
“Noriko,” her mother began. “You're going to tell me exactly what you've been up to. I know some of it, but I didn't know you got Irishima High involved as well.”
Tonight will be no fun at all. Then Noriko spilled all of it, or almost all. The secret about Urufu and Kuri living their lives for a second time had to stay a secret.
As she talked she saw Ai-chan raise her eyebrows from time to time at some choice details that hadn't made their way to her yet. It wasn't as if Noriko had tried to keep them secret from her or anything, but so much had happened that some parts just got forgotten.
She began from the attempted rape, continued with Urufu's expulsion, glossed over Kuri's dangerous stunt as a hostess and the assault on her in the girls' locker room the previous spring. She told them about the revenge mission Principal Nakagawa had sent Urufu on, about the suicide and the attack on Urufu behind the gym during the cultural festival. Last of all Noriko told them about Kuri's smear campaign, and the dirty war that followed.
Talking about it all made Noriko remember. Parts of it she relived, sitting there in the hot spring water, but other parts she hadn't experienced herself. It's been a long year. A long year and a half. Was it worth it? Yeah, I fell in love and broke my heart. Then I fell in love again, and I made friends with you all.
The strangest of her new friends were Yukio and Kyoko, maybe because they were so normal. I hope you had a good Christmas date.
Three days earlier he had spent a fantastic day together with Kyoko. From morning to late evening, and even her father had sent them away with a smile when Yukio came to pick her up. That blessing alone kept her grinning like a happy fool for half the day.
Yukio remembered how he spent more money on one date than he usually spent over an entire month, but with his New Year's gift within sight he could afford it.
The only shadow on their date was Kyoko's grumbling when he gave her the cashmere scarf, but as Yukio had guessed she stopped grumbling the moment she felt it around her neck.
He in turn frowned when he received a pair of gloves that must have bankrupted her, but damn they felt good on his frozen hands.
At the moment both of them were busy working off their debt to Urufu, because Yukio felt he'd be damned if he'd allow his best friend to buy him clothes, even if Yukio knew he really didn't need the set of high class, elegant casuals he had received a day earlier.
Neither did Kyoko, but glancing at her when she distributed the fourth set of documents to half a dozen men in business suits, Yukio had to agree that she looked stunning.
“Gentlemen, before we welcome our guests; that would be your employees and your customers, let's start by answering a few 'why' questions.”
Yukio looked at Urufu who had fired up the beamer. He was the only one of the three of them who wore a business suit. If Yukio remembered correctly it was the insanely expensive one Kuri had ordered for him during their summer break.
Makes sense, Yukio thought. I could never wear anything like that. He wasn't as certain about Kyoko, but Urufu had been adamant that he'd never dress her up like an old style company secretary. Yukio wasn't sure what Urufu meant by that, but he was happy to see Kyoko in clothes she could use on dates as well.
“Urufu, the new slides are up. Kyoko cleaned up the charts for you,” Yukio said and nodded at his girlfriend when he spoke the last words.
Urufu didn't say anything, but he gave Kyoko a thumbs up and prepared the slides.
A tap on his shoulder made Yukio turn, and he remembered the man beckoning him from the first session Urufu ran after rumours about his half a year in an institution for juvenile delinquents leaked onto the net.
“Yes?” Yukio asked.
“What's the difference here?”
Yukio looked at where the man pointed and tried to remember what Urufu had said. “Let me see. Vanilla agile is mostly based on the idea to deliver more value early, whereas lean software development focusses on removing waste.” Ah yes, I even understood this one. “Basically it's an aggressive viewpoint contrasted against a defensive one,” he said.
To a certain degree Yukio wondered how something Urufu had managed to teach the gang in less than half a year could be so horribly difficult for adult professionals to grasp. Maybe Urufu was right when he said it was simply too easy to understand.
The businessman stared at Yukio as if he had been some kind of ghost, and earlier it would have made him feel uncomfortable. This group, however, was one they had seen several times since the chaotic days during summer break.
They seemed to have gotten used to the young staff, and Urufu and team no longer thought twice about running the sessions.
“You know you're a lucky one, kid,” the businessman suddenly said out of nowhere.
Huh? “Pardon me?”
There was something pained in the expression of the man. “Japan's changing. I'm one of those who can see how we need to adapt to those changes.”
“Yes?” Yukio didn't say anything else, because it was clear there would be more to come.
“You won't need adapting. You'll be one of those who lead that change. I envy you.” The last words came as the businessman turned and threw Urufu a long and thoughtful glance.
You don't know half of it. James said Urufu's unchanging. He might lead the change, but unless he adapts he'll break under it himself. The thought surprised Yukio. He knew it to be right, but he couldn't understand from where it had come. Am I growing up?
“I have a good teacher,” he said instead, because that was probably what the man in front of him wanted to hear.
Around the conference table those seated adjusted their chairs when Urufu coughed, and the two who had stood around a small table laden with sparkling water and fruit quickly grabbed a bite each and returned to their chairs.
That was their signal. Both Yukio and Kyoko bowed and left the room. As the work on whatever case Urufu had chosen progressed, Yukio needed to process the data with the help of Kyoko, who had proven to be far more meticulous than he was. On top of that Kyoko knew how to make it all come to life with her sketchpad.
An ugly part of him resented that her abilities already had overtaken his. It made him feel like the least important of them, but Urufu promised that he valued Yukio's special talent just as much. That talent was yet unknown to him, and sometimes Yukio wondered if Urufu just tried to be kind.
“Something for me yet?” Kyoko asked from her laptop.
Yukio firmly shoved his thoughts away and sent her the highlights. “Uhum, here.”
“Thanks. Eh, Yukio, why did you remove the organisation chart?”
He looked at his screen. “They're setting up the new process Urufu talked about earlier.”
“Won't they need an organisation for that?”
Damn, did I do something wrong? Yukio took a second look at his screen. Hell no! “That just has to be backwards. If they do it in a new way they'll have to restaff anyway. If we leave it out they'll create new teams based on the process.”
Something itched inside of him. “Let's put it this way Kyoko. If we send the old chart back, won't they try to plug a square hole with a round peg?”
Kyoko looked back at him with big eyes. “OK, I'll use your data.”
Damn, I wish Ryu was here, or even better, his father.
Wakayama Tadao looked at Natsumi when she let loose another barrage at Mitsuo.
There's no stopping you when you're like this. Then he smiled. I guess that's why I fell in love with you.
Love or not. He still felt a bit bad for their friend who got caught in the crossfire.
Both their kids, Noriko and Ryu, were out skiing, or more accurately, Ryu was out snowboarding with his girlfriend, while Noriko stumbled around in the children's slope alone.
Tadao grimaced. Noriko's boyfriend hadn't shown up because he got swamped with some kind of model job back in Tokyo. That was the reason his Noriko was all alone, since she had inherited Natsumi's acrobatic skills, which were all but non-existent.
Ryu, however, got his from him, and while she had been like a frenzied monkey during their high school years Tadao knew the difference between monkey and natural athlete. My beautiful monkey, Tadao thought and smiled at his wife.
“I know you said you'll stay out of it, but I'll have none of it. I need those one hundred years of experience you have, and I'll have them, or else your wife is moving in with us come January.”
Give up Mitsuo. You married Natsumi's best friend so you had it coming sooner or later. Because if Natsumi placed one phone-call his wife would leave that onsen back at Ise and get right back to Tokyo, and there just wasn't anything Mitsuo could do about it.
A light snowfall obscured the view of the mountainside, but it was nowhere dense enough to prevent Tadao from seeing the kids in the slope closest to the hotel. One of them had to be Noriko, probably one of those sitting on their butts.
Well, it was time to come to the rescue, and in so doing to betray his best friend.
“Love, go easy on him. We're supposed to celebrate hatsumode together in a few days.”
“We are?” Mitsuo said, and from the look in his face Tadao saw a glimmer of recognition.
“Yes. Three or four of us. What would you prefer?”
“You bastard!” Mitsuo said as the trap closed around him. “I need our place staffed over New Year's. Three, three of us.”
“Isn't that wonderful?” Natsumi said and gave Mitsuo a cheerfully false smile.
Poor sod. Your fault to begin with. You taught us manipulation when we were kids. Which was the one area where Tadao had caught up faster than his girlfriend. She was just too gleefully open with whatever she did. So of course she trapped him and married him. Not that he had ever been hard to trap to begin with, he knew that, and he didn't regret a single day they had shared together.
“You could at least tell me why,” Mitsuo said.
Tadao saw how his wife looked around to make sure no-one was within earshot.
“Some moron had the two arrivals targeted.”
Mitsuo sighed and bowed his head. “I know that, but I know it had nothing to do with the factions, so not good enough.”
It was his time to nail the coffin shut. Tadao swallowed a mouthful of lukewarm tea and turned to his friend. “It does now.” Hot damn! What did they use instead of tea?
“The kids brought that Red Rose asylum down pretty much on their own,” Tadao said. He licked the inside of his mouth to get rid of some of the awful taste. “Sure, they got some help from Nakagawa, but your granddaughter turned out to be a monster when she got angry enough.”
“I would expect nothing less. She's my family after all,” Mitsuo said, and Tadao could see how proud he was of the girl.
He sighed and made the mistake of drinking some more of the swill. It was just as disgusting as before. “Someone pulled rank. They got a member of the diet involved. It was all I could do to save Hamarugen-san's company.”
A flash on anger flared alive in Mitsuo's eyes and vanished. “OK, I accepted him as her boyfriend, but he'd better run his own business. What's it to me?”
“You met him, didn't you?”
“Sure, so what?”
“Would you picture him as someone who'd crawl around begging for help?”
Mitsuo grimaced. “No, he's way too arrogant for that.”
“Well he did. While they dragged his company down, he was pleading for me to help your Tina.” For the first time Tadao felt irritation at his friend's stubbornness. “If you're not willing to help Natsumi, you'd damn better be prepared to help the man who was willing to sacrifice his future for your granddaughter!”
It was like watching someone turn on a switch. Mitsuo's face froze into an absolutely neutral expression. You had to have known him for years to know how he expressed rage.
“You're going to tell me everything that happened. And by everything I mean everything, got it?”
Tadao flinched but nodded. Across the table Natsumi did the same. When Mitsuo looked this way he was scary, but only the two of hem knew exactly how scary he really became. And they needed that hidden demon.
“I promise,” Natsumi said. “We both do. You can trust us.”
“What do you want,” Mitsuo growled.
Tadao felt something cold crawl down his spine, and from Natsumi's eyes he knew she felt the same.
“I want that diet member destroyed. I want every remnant of the lunatics behind Red Rose permanently disgraced...” Tadao began.
“I want you to side with us,” Natsumi interrupted. “The other faction is going down, and you'll help us pull them into the abyss.”
You always had a flare for the theatrical. I must have caught some of it, Tadao added in his mind and grinned.
“You won't like what you'll see. I did some things during my previous life that I'm not very proud of,” Mitsuo said, and Tadao saw something in his friend's face that belonged to another man from a very different time.
Tadao understood part of it, and right now he needed that part of his friend. “We'll have your back, like we always did. We're your friends.”
A little bit of life left Mitsuo's eyes. “I hope you will still be when we're finished. With your help I'm going to hurt a lot of people.”
Even though he had requested it, Tadao still shivered despite the foyer being anything but cold. “I understand,” he said and met his wife's eyes.
“No you don't,” Mitsuo said. “When we're done you will. It will haunt you for the rest of your lives.”