Who the hell decided hatsumode at a major shrine was a good idea? I mean, what's with this crap?

For the umpteenth time Ulf regretted that he'd allowed himself to be talked into visiting the Meiji shrine because 'that was what someone living in Tokyo did for New Year's eve'.

It was insanely crowded, and he had long since given up on finding Christina among the mass of people surrounding him. In theory he could have called her, but the cell network was brutally overloaded, and his smart-phone only served as a paperweight in his pocket.

Screw this! It was the first day off for Christina since they spent Christmas together, and for the rest of the winter break there would only be tomorrow as a free day. All the others she was booked solid.

Damn, they got her good this time.

Those thoughts didn't help. Ulf pushed his way a little further inside the compound and grit his teeth. While her schedule for all effective purposes created something like a prison, it also accelerated her fame towards the point where her career became stable. That magazine, Vogue, used her, and Ulf could only hope Christina used them in return.

The orderly crowd around him moved yet another few steps, and he let himself be pulled along with it. It would be hours before he could escape, so he could just as well pretend to enjoy whatever went for a New Year's celebration here.

He'd missed out on the last one as a result of tightened security around Christmas and New Year. It had been an institution for juvenile delinquents after all.

At least he was almost half a head taller than most of the crowd, which was a small blessing. He could see what was going on. If he'd been built like Noriko, this would have been a world of coats, elbows and the occasional child.

Ahead of him there were people queuing to get to the shrine, queuing to buy snacks and drinks, queuing to buy their fortunes and queuing just to get out of the area. All in all it was a horrendous waste of time.

But I guess Christina would have loved it. She shines when she's surrounded by people.

Ulf smirked and followed the crowd forward. Another quarter of an hour and he'd be able to make his pick of a queue.

At least he wasn't cold. With so many people gathered human bodies worked like a giant radiator even outdoors.

Wonder if people felt this way during the cultural festival? Ulf grinned. If he was honest the festival had been nothing compared to this. There were literally tens of thousands of people around him.

A little later the quiet mob split into three queues, and Ulf chose the one that fed the stalls. Praying at the shrine could have been a fun and touristy thing to do with Christina, but he had no reason doing it alone.

It took him another half an hour to buy some of what went as fast food in Japan. It didn't taste bad, but Ulf really couldn't say that it tasted well. At least it was warm, which he welcomed.

Damn, I wanted you by my side tonight, he thought when a tall blonde made him look twice before he saw that it wasn't Christina.

I'm sorry Maria. I've fallen in love with another woman. To his surprise that admission didn't fill him with shame or regret any longer. His old life was lost, never to be had again. Accepting it had taken a long time, but Ulf understood that he had finally given up all hope of going home. Then how do I build myself a new home and a new life? Christina, what part can you play in it?

Bells started ringing in the new year. One hundred and eight times they would toll the desolate sound of melancholy longing that Ulf had come to associate with a country that just might become his new home.

Because going home would be even worse, he realised. As long as I'm here I can dream about Sweden as home. He bumped into a woman and they both bowed an apology almost as a reflex. See, I even behave like I belong here, he thought and gave her a faint smile.

Slowly bells rang out the old and welcomed the new, but he felt he was the only one listening to them. No, I'm not really at home here. Back home I'd never notice the church bells. But there was still something that had just clawed itself inside his mind. Yes, going home would be worse. I don't want to live in a Sweden where I haven't already carved out a space for myself.

With the back of his right hand he wiped away tears from his eyes. I miss her, Ulf thought. Standing with a half full box of food he allowed himself to be filled with longing for Christina. It's more than love. You're the anchor in my life that keeps me from going insane.

Suddenly he was afraid of them breaking up, even though he suspected they'd eventually go separate ways despite none of them wanting it. If he stayed with her, he'd destroy the future she struggled for. Unfair! he yelled silently. What has unfair got to do with anything? Get real Ulf! You only look the teenager, but you should know what life's about by now.

But the rational thoughts of a grown man lost to the needs of the him here and now, and with his phone in one hand he pushed himself into the crowd in a frenzied attempt to find her wherever she was. It was futile; he knew that, but right now it didn't matter. He only wanted to see her as soon as possible, to feel her close to him, to listen to her voice and feel how she loved him back.

Fuck it! They got me good this time. Christina swore a little more, and this time she didn't even bother with giving the representatives from Vogue a false smile.

The new year was already an hour old, but any opportunity to see Ulf vanished several hours earlier, when she boarded a helicopter for a flight to a domestic airport where a private jet waited to take them as close to Kyoto as possible.

Another short flight with helicopter later, and an even shorter drive in a gaudy limousine, she arrived at some shrine where her celebrating hatsumode turned into a monkey show with her entering and exiting a freezing tent to change clothes over and over again.

The exhausting shoot took over two hours, and when it was finished she was dragged inside to play the exotic and awestruck foreigner visiting a shrine for a New Year's celebration Japanese style.

They even took her phone away, so she hadn't been able to tell Ulf that she wouldn't show up. He'd forgive her when she explained, Christina knew that, but right now he was probably angry and sullen.

And they'll just keep going. How did I end up in this shit? Winter term would come as a liberator a week down the line, but until then she was tied up with shoots every day.

To make things worse she didn't have Dai, her personal photographer, with her. He was still tied up by his contract with her old employer. Damn arseholes! They sold me like cattle. Christina grimaced. She hardly had any right to complain about that part. After all it was she who had forced the issue. She just hadn't been prepared for them to play her just as well as she had played them.

More or less without thinking she went from pose to pose, each kept to a minimum. It should show she was aware of the camera, but nothing more. It took all her experience from being a super model to make it look like she was chatting with her best friend, who just happened to have a camera instead of a face.

This is my golden prison.

That she was a golden opportunity for Vogue went without question. The number of sixteen year old models with fifteen years experience from modelling was exactly one. Add twenty year's worth of experience from designing and marketing global fashion, and you had a monstrosity that had no right to exist. But I wonder who's the real monster. You or me? Thinking of Ulf made her heart hurt, but the question remained. Sometimes she fantasised about Ulf wanting to change the destiny of an entire nation, and sometimes she wondered if she had fantasised in the first place.

I hate this! Christina resolved to give Ulf a call first thing in the morning. After that she had to call the Wakayamas, the older version of them. Either parent would work. Her legal guardian had sold her out, because she doubted Vogue would have dared to fly her from Tokyo to Kyoto for an overnight stay without the written consent of the old hag.

Maybe I should ring Ulf's Amaya as well. Ulf's thirty year old guardian was one of the few persons who could shut Christina up with a single glare. Christina had the utmost respect for anyone who could, and she admired the woman more than she wanted to admit.

Besides, Ulf's guardian knew how to pull strings. The débâcle with Vogue's security detail during Christmas had proven that.

While the camera crew switched positions and waited for lightning to change, Christina looked sideways and sent an apologetic shrug to her right. My bad. I got you caught up in this as well.

Nao shrugged back and closed the distance between them.

I know what you're thinking. I don't mind, the way you do.”

A mug of almost hot tea materialised in her left hand and Christina sipped it before answering. “What about Noriko?”

There was a smile on Nao's face that Christina didn't entirely like. One that she would have loved twenty years ago.

This is the best career chance I'll ever get, but I'll tell Noriko I was forced to. With your New Year's celebration down the drain as well she'll believe me,” he said and confirmed that he was indeed fully devoted to a modelling career.

Careful kiddo, it'll cost you. But then maybe he didn't care all that much. “Why did you confess to Noriko if you're going to lie to her about this?”

Are you going to tell on me?” Nao asked instead of answering Christina's question.

She drank some more of the tea, which had cooled considerably, and slid into a new pose just in case someone was shooting.

No, I'm not,” Christina said after she had swallowed the by now lukewarm drink. “Still want you to answer my question though.”

Nao climbed a peg or two in Christina's opinion when she saw him giving that answer a good thought. At least he was going to be honest about it.

With both hands combing through his hair, and destroying over fifteen minutes of work for some poor sod at make-up, he sucked at his lips before meeting Christina's gaze.

I like her,” he said. “I really do, and I did back then as well, but it's not like I plan to marry or anything.”

Go on,” Christina nudged.

Noriko's like super smart, and I'm not. After I graduate we'll break up one way or another. I'm good at modelling and she'll be good at whatever university brings her.”

Well, there's that. Fair enough. He's just a lot more grown up than I gave him credit for. Reassured that Nao wasn't just another good looking arsehole Christina smiled at him and nodded. “You don't have to lie about it, you know. I think she knows.”

That's what I'm afraid of,” he answered with a sheepish grin. “I don't want to lose her just yet.”

Ah, maybe I should worry about Noriko after all.

When she found out that Nao spent hatsumode in Kyoto, Noriko gave up on having him for herself during winter break. While she still thought it grossly unfair, she also accepted there were times when life just played dirty.

A full two days later than she originally planned she dressed up to visit a smaller shrine close to their home. Ryu had gone with Ai-chan a day earlier, and if it hadn't been for their parents being adamant about going with old friends, Noriko would have tagged along as well.

Now she stood waiting for Kyoko and Yukio, who missed out on their chance two days earlier. Apparently they arrived too late to one of the most important of the shrines in Tokyo, and had to leave before they even managed to get inside the compound.

By Noriko's side Urufu weighed from foot to foot. She forced him to tag along when Nao mailed her the reason why he was in Kyoto.

Because you're not spending a week in Kyoto with Kuri and leaving me alone in Tokyo! So Urufu had to do. Which would have been a lot more fun just a few months earlier.

While she still was fond of him almost all remnants of romantic interest had vanished long ago. Almost, but Noriko suspected that a small part of a first love stayed for life.

You haven't said anything,” Noriko muttered.

About what?”

He really is dense. “About me.”

An expression of incomprehension spread over Urufu's face, but he must have spent enough time together with Kuri to at least get the basics. “Sorry,” he said. “You look fantastic. That kimono really suits you.”

To make up for his clumsiness at least he almost never lied about things like that. If he said she looked fantastic, then he meant it. That made Noriko smile a little.

Really think so?” she asked to prolong the sweet feeling a little more.

Yeah, really think so. I just feel uncomfortable giving you a compliment like that. With boyfriend and girlfriend and all that, you know.”

You really are sweet aren't you? Noriko looked at Urufu. I guess you were never the player after all, she thought. But she didn't know. He'd been married for longer than she had lived. There was nothing saying he hadn't been a player before that.

Noriko, over there!”

She looked up and in the direction Urufu pointed.

Yukio, Kyoko!” Noriko called when she saw the friends Urufu had spotted first.

Kyoko waved back, and after she elbowed her boyfriend, so did he.

Urufu fidgeted, and Noriko couldn't help giggling in anticipation of what was coming.

Kyoko, you look great,” he said when they were within earshot.

She did, but that didn't prevent Noriko from bursting into laughter.

Man, what's with that? Stick to your own girl!” Yukio said. “And what's with her,” he continued and pointed at Noriko, who by now laughed so hard her stomach hurt.

That's hilarious!” Noriko said between attacks. “Kyoko, he's just the best!”

Kyoko only returned a nonplussed look. “Yukio, should we go ahead. It might be contagious.”

He grinned back at her. “Honestly, you two, what's going on?”

Nothing,” Urufu muttered. “She,” and Noriko felt his hand patting her head, “told me I had to tell the girls when they look good, and now she's laughing at me because I did just that.”

Kyoko met Noriko's stare and gave her a look that said: 'Give him a break will you?' Noriko pouted back, but the mirth never left her.

Man, you need to have a talk with Ryu. Dammit, even I could help you.”

What did I do now?”

Kyoko, meet Urufu, our resident moron. He spent fifty years learning nothing.”

That was enough to have Kyoko join Noriko in her giggling, and Noriko grinned when she high fived her friend. Yeah, this could be a good hatsumode after all.

Urufu shook his head, but then he offered her his arm. Noriko gratefully accepted it, and together the four of them walked for the stairs to the shrine.

He's funny, Noriko thought. So socially inept, and then suddenly the perfect gentleman.

She had to lean on him more than once during the climb. The stairs were wet with the occasional patch of what tried to be snow.

For this occasion Urufu was of more use than Nao, she guessed. Where Nao was a tall, gorgeous boyfriend, Urufu was strangely muscular with perfect control of his body. And he oozed with friendship.

Noriko slipped several times, and every time Urufu just happened to move just enough that he didn't have to grab her to prevent her from falling. He was just there to stabilise her. Moron-sama, just how many years did you train that martial arts of yours?

Ahead of them Yukio helped Kyoko, who was just as insensibly clad in a kimono with the associated idiotic slippers. Looks good, but it's really useless clothing. Then Noriko thought about some of the dresses Kuri had worn during her shoots. High heels here, yes that would be a sight. But you'd probably just hover up the stairs anyway. Sometimes I envy you.

A few minutes later they found themselves between stalls, and ahead of them Noriko saw the shrine. It was strangely desolated considering it being New Year's and all, but she was grateful not having to be pushed around in a crowd. She'd never be tall enough to enjoy crowded places.

So, what now?”

Noriko had to tilt her head to look at Urufu. “What do you mean?”

Do we start with the funny clapping thing, or is there something else to do first?”

Noriko rolled her eyes. Funny clapping thing! Then she burst out laughing again. “Guys, Urufu wants to know if we should clap our hands first.”

Urufu, man!”

What? Yukio, what did she mean with… ah, yes, I guess we could start with the shrine. And, and, yeah, and clap our hands,” Kyoko finished. Then she joined Noriko in her laughter.

Yukio shook his head in exasperation. Urufu, I've already told you about hatsumode. With a smile on his lips Yukio tapped Urufu's shoulder. “Thank you, man.” Noriko needed that. You're a good friend.

Urufu turned at the touch, and Yukio saw how he pretended to be just as clueless as before.

Clenching his fingers around Urufu's shoulders Yukio made him to stay, and both girls slowly got ahead of them by a few steps.

You knew Nao never showed?” Yukio asked.

Urufu smirked. “Yeah, Ryu told me, and I got a text from Christina that she and Nao were tied up in Kyoto.”

Two slaps on Urufu's back later, the way Urufu usually expressed sympathy in that strange Swedish way of his, Yukio cleaned away the grimace from his face. “They're trying to break you up?”

He got a nod in return. “But not Nao and Noriko,” Urufu hurried to add. “That's just Nao jumping at the opportunity. Christina told me.”

Yukio couldn't understand why anyone would chose a job before love, but then that maybe was another of those grown up things. “Would you?” he asked, more for confirmation than anything else.

Urufu took a few steps to get closer to the girls ahead of them. “Would I what?”

Yukio caught up with him, but he wanted to know before they joined the girls in the queue. He tugged his cloak tighter around him and gave some time to his line of thought.

Would you prioritise work before Kuri?”

A cough told Yukio the question had been unexpected. “It's not that easy. At least if you're after a right or wrong kind of answer.” Urufu kicked at a stone, and Yukio saw how his lips had become a thin line. “No, I wouldn't, but at the same time I guess I'm forcing Christina to.”

That made no sense, and it stank of misogyny. “Because she's a girl?”

A sudden laugh made him turn and glance at Urufu.

Now what made you think that way? No, don't worry. Never that. It's just that she gambled everything on an opportunity last August. I don't want to make her lose it all.”

I wonder if you're not making her lose more if you push her away, Yukio thought. That thought, he realised, ironically enough was the result of spending a lot of time with Urufu and Kuri. Without their perspectives from being adults caught in teen-aged bodies he'd never have grown as fast as he did.

But I guess being an adult isn't the same as being right, or knowing everything for that matter. After all, his parents had been adults when they married, and that didn't work out in the end.

Suddenly feeling depressed he hurried away and joined the girls. Feeling Kyoko near him helped loads, and for once he wished Urufu and Kuri could just be as childishly naive as him and Kyoko.

What is it?” Kyoko asked.

Sorry,” Yukio said. “Just thinking about Urufu,” he continued and looked over his shoulder to see if his friend was joining them as well.

Urufu did walk, but he kept his distance, and his tall figure spelled out loneliness contrasted against the colourful stalls behind him.

Him and Kuri-chan, you mean?”

Yukio turned his attention back to his girlfriend. “Yeah. I just feel bad for them.”

By his other side Noriko tugged at his sleeve. “Could we please not, not today, please,” she said.

Sorry.” Then the absurdity of his situation caught up with him, and he grinned. A girl at each side of him. Unthinkable only a year earlier, and he couldn't help but feel a little flattered.

Shortly before they came up to the shrine Urufu had joined them, and Yukio left Noriko in his care. Even if she no longer had a crush on him she probably still didn't want do her prayers alone.

OK, time for the funny clapping. Yukio stole a glance at Kyoko to see if she also remembered Urufu's verbal blunder. When she dropped a coin into the offerings box she turned her face to him. It was split in a grin that reached from ear to ear.

They barely managed to keep from giggling when they pulled the rope and clapped twice.

After that Kyoko led him to where they could buy fortune slips, and when Yukio paid they were joined by Urufu and Noriko. Her face was twisted into a grin as well, and it was only Urufu who managed to keep a deadpan expression while he paid for his own fortune slip.

Enjoying yourself?” Yukio asked.

Yeah, kind of. By the way, what do you do when it says your life will suck the coming year?”

Yukio leaned over and looked at Urufu's slip. “Man, that's bad! Kyoko, seems we have to get over to the trees over there.”

She pouted and waved with her slip as well. “That makes two of us,” she said.

You both got bad luck? Isn't that kind of rare?

He led Kyoko to the trees and helped her tie her bad luck charm to one of he branches. On the other side Urufu did the same after he watched what Kyoko was doing.

Feeling a little down Yukio dragged his friends and girlfriend to a stall serving amazake to make up for the unlikely outcome of their fortune telling. He even made it his treat, for which Noriko complained at first. Then she shrugged it off and led the four of them to yet another stall.

With the hot and sweet drink working its way in his stomach Yukio listened absent-mindedly to Urufu's wordy comparison with some kind of mulled wine specific to Sweden that they traditionally drank during the first half of December.

Urufu might be his best friend, but sometimes his tendencies to compare everything with Sweden honestly got tiring, and Yukio had long since gotten used to turn his ears off when yet another litany was incoming.

They ate some more hot food, listened to Urufu's incessant chatter about the absence of fireworks during the shift of years, laughed at a few bad jokes, and eventually they left the shrine, said their goodbyes and left for their homes. In Yukio's case that meant escorting Kyoko to her home before riding his bike from there.

If they hadn't stopped for a last quick meal. If they hadn't walked that short-cut. If they hadn't stopped to call for help.

Kyoko wished for those ifs, but wishing and doing something about what happened right now were different things.

For the second time she watched Yukio getting beaten up when he tried to protect her, but this time they weren't anywhere close to home, or anywhere close to where they could expect any help at all.

Stop! You'll kill him! Stop!”

She wriggled in arms holding her. In difference from the last time there was no groping. Whoever held her simply made certain she didn't rush to Yukio's help.

Kyoko turned once more in her captor's hands, but his hold was too tight. She tried stomping on his feet, threw herself backwards, but nothing helped.

Only a short distance from her, on the street and curled together like a ball, Yukio received kick after vicious kick from two men. He had long since stopped screaming, and she could only hear the occasional moan when a foot hurt him especially bad.

Stop! Stop! Stop! Did I shout that? No! “Stop! Stop hurting him! Help! Help me!”

A hand made contact with her face when she gathered air to keep screeching. It searched for her mouth but missed. She wriggled again and managed to get her entire face free. “Help me! Help us! They're killing him!”

This time the hands holding her hurt. She flailed some more and screamed some more, until she received an elbow to her head. Her entire world swam, but a tiny part of her brain kept its slyness and she sagged a little more than she really needed to.

For just a moment those hand released their grip, and that was all she needed to break free. Kyoko twisted and ran. Two, three, four steps she managed before her legs were kicked away from under her. As she fell she turned in the air, and for the first time she saw her captor. Why don't you look like a monster? Why do you look so normal? Then she hit the ground and staggered back up on wobbly feet.


One of the grabbing hands had turned into a fist with a knife.

She swivelled to the left, he grabbed after her with the unarmed hand, and missed.

Yukio! “Yukio! Help!” She dove for him, but this time that hand managed to get a hold of her coat. Twisting hard Kyoko broke free once again and stumbled towards Yukio's prone body.

Her captor missed her again and growled.

He stabbed her.

Shouldn't it hurt more than this?

In the distance gunfire echoed. A ricochet grazed her head.

That hurt. I'm tired.

It stopped hurting. Then it hurt again, and Yukio woke.

What's going on. Oh, man, what's with my face? Kyoko!

A slow ache spread from his jaw to the sides of his head, and then suddenly a knife sharp pain when he tried to open his mouth.

Around him the world flashed in red and white light banishing shadows that always returned just after they fled. There were voices, some talking, some angrily shouting, and one, one that was frantically barking orders.

Urufu, why aren't you going home?

Then a man, no three men, in white and grey leaned over him. They grabbed, and it hurt again.

Hospital? This has to be a hospital. Yukio saw lamps in the ceiling move backwards, and it took him a while before he understood that he was rolled through a corridor on a stretcher.

It had stopped hurting. He tried to move his head, but it was stuck, and he couldn't see sideways at all. Some kind of metal towered above him, and from it cables and tubes flowed down onto his body like some kind of frozen waterfall.

Unlike before the world wasn't flashing. It was all white, and the only noise was subdued voices speaking something that sounded like Japanese, but there were all these strangely foreign sounding words he couldn't understand. They weren't English; Yukio would have caught at least something from it after Urufu's gruelling lessons and their walking talking sessions throughout summer and autumn.

Kyoko, where are you? “Kyoko,” he said, but her name came out wrong, and it hurt just trying to talk.

Please be silent. You're hurt and shouldn't speak right now.”

Who are you? Ah, a nurse? A doctor?

Yukio felt tired, and he groggily wondered why as he must have just woken up. The ceiling continued to move backwards and he slid back into sleep.

He's awake. Thank all gods!”

Huh, what?

This time Yukio could move his head, and his eyes found Urufu sitting on a chair by his side.

He felt dizzy, and his stomach didn't agree with him at all. A sudden wave of unease forced him to turn and he threw up.

Shit! Nurse!”

The sound of a door opening made him turn back again, and Yukio saw a woman entering. Then he was covered in blankets, and someone cleaned up beside him.

We'll need a fresh set of bedding.”

I'm on it.”

Bring a seat as well. He needs a shower.”

OK,” the second of two female voices said before it vanished out the door.

I need you to go outside.”

Of course,” Urufu answered, and Yukio saw him leave the room as well.

Young man, you have a concussion and probably a few fractures. Please be as still as possible,” the nurse who remained in the room said.

Where's Kyoko?” Sure, he was groggy and felt like crap, but that was nothing compared to not knowing what had happened to her.

Who?” came an answer he should have guessed from the beginning.

Yukio began from the start. “There were two of us. My girlfriend, she should be here somewhere waiting for me.” Because that was what he hoped. He suspected the nurse didn't know, but at least he had to chance the question anyway.

The look he got in return had his stomach in uproar all again. “She was your girlfriend? I'm so sorry.”

When the first roar blasted through the door Ulf rose and stared in panic around himself. At the second he forced the door open and rushed to Yukio's bed.

What the hell's going on?”

She says Kyoko's dead!” Yukio screamed and pointed at the nurse as if she had murdered his girlfriend.

It might have been comical but for the cold stone of fear that grew in Ulf's stomach.

Yukio, listen to me,” Ulf began.

No! No! No! I don't want to hear!”

Slug him? No, bad idea. His face is already all beat up. Hastily running out of options Ulf regressed to how he'd handled problems the first months since he arrived in this version of Japan. “Shut the fuck up kiddo!”

It worked, to a degree. Yukio retreated back in his bed as much as his prone position allowed.

Yukio,” Ulf started again. “There was a woman who died, but it's not Kyoko.” But Amaya lost a friend, and I don't think I should tell Yukio that just yet. And then there was the reason Ulf had a stone of fear in his stomach. “Kyoko got hurt, Yukio, but she's alive.” I hope she is, because I don't know what to do if she dies. He had to tell his friend. “Kyoko got stabbed. She's in surgery now.”

Waiting for his stunned friend to say anything Ulf mulled over Amaya's whereabouts. Probably running around Tokyo on a private manhunt pretty much like he himself had done half a year earlier. But this time it wasn't instigated by the old goat.

Kyoko's alive?”

Yes,” Ulf said. It didn't matter if that was a lie or not right now. What he needed was exactly the look Yukio just made of deflating totally in his bed.

So she's OK?”

That was the problem. Ulf didn't know. “She's in surgery. They'll tell us more later,” he said. He didn't even know if that was true or not, but he had to say something. You look like crap. What the hell happened?

For the first time Ulf got an idea how worried his friends must have been when he got assaulted behind the gym during the festival. And Christina. He had to call Christina. She didn't know about Kyoko.

Yukio, I was asked to go outside,” Ulf said and looked at the nurse who nodded assent. It wasn't the real reason, but he really, really had to make that phone-call.

Screaming bloody murder, threatening Vogue with horrible publicity every talk-show and making just about everyone understand that quitting modelling suddenly was a very real option for her, well that took two hours. Flying back to Tokyo took less.

In the end it turned out she forced her rushed return in vain, but Christina didn't care. Even if she wasn't allowed to visit Ko-chan, she could at least while away her time in the waiting room. She had done as much when Ulf got rushed to hospital. And, as a huge bonus, she found him doing just that when she arrived at the surprisingly small clinic.

Why here?” Christina asked, rather than the more natural 'How is she?' or 'Did she make it?'. Still, the hospital looked more like a small office than anything related to medical care.

Military treatment,” Ulf answered. “Kyoko got stabbed and shot, and Amaya pulled rank. She's stable now,” he finished, and Christina didn't need an explanation to understand that it wasn't Amaya who was stable.

Thank all gods! She's fine.

Only after delivering the message Christina needed to hear, did Ulf rise from his chair and faced her in the door opening. “I'm sorry I dragged you all into this,” he said. “I missed you,” he continued. “I want to hug you,” he finished and walked into her embrace.

Christina didn't need asking. “I've missed you as well. I love you,” she said when she wrapped her arms around his back.

Inside his world, in those arms of his, always so strangely strong and confident, pressed against his body and holding on to him for all she was worth; now she could afford to let out all the fear she had carried with her since Ulf made that first call.

He didn't let her fall even a little bit towards the floor when she sagged, and then first sobbed, and when she felt secure, opened up the flood dams and wailed like a small child. She clung to him, cried her heart out, blew her nose in his chest, cried some more and attached even more snot to him, and all the while Ulf just stood there like a warm rock holding both her body and sanity above water.

How long she stood there she didn't know. In the end it was Ulf who loosened his arms around her and led her to a chair. After that he went for the bathroom, probably to clean up his stained sweater from all the unsightly things she had put there.

Christina got all the time she needed to study her surroundings, and as she did so she realised no matter how little or how much time she had it would have mattered very little. The waiting room defined the very word 'nondescript'. It took effort to create something as unmemorable as this.

She rose when he returned, and it was at that time she saw, for the first time, how worried he was.

Ulf, is there something you didn't tell me?”

He smirked, but his gaze didn't leave her eyes. “It's Yukio. He got badly beaten up as well.”

Your best friend got beaten up and you went to this clinic for my sake? “Ulf?”

He'll be fine. A few fractures. Nothing compared to what happened to me.”

That Ulf downplayed Yukio's damages by comparing them to his own made Christina want to puke.

How bad?”

Not all that bad, I promise. In fact he should be on his way here as soon as they patch him up. A day or two at most.”

Christina sat down again. Do we keep the Wakayamas out of the loop? was the first thought that struck her. Then she realised it wasn't important. At least not right now.

Christina?” Ulf said, and she broke out of her thoughts and met his eyes. “Amaya's really angry this time. I don't think I can stop her.”

With only a few days left until the short third school term Ryu returned to his senses after over a week's worth of luxury spent with Ai-chan.

He liked her enough to disregard everything that happened around him when he was together with her, even though he admitted that his prior crush on Kuri had been deeper.

Hence it was a rude awakening when he noticed that his sister was far too polite and silent for being her usual midget sized ball of opinionated energy. It wasn't until he asked her to join him for a double date with Ai-chan and Nao-sempai that he understood something was wrong.

What do you mean he isn't answering,” Ryu asked as they walked out of the Shibuya station to pick up Ai-chan. Noriko had spent both local train and subway in sullen silence, and by now Ryu was thoroughly tired of her attitude. He hadn't done anything wrong.

Faced with a direct question she couldn't ignore it, and he watched her screwing a smile to her face before she replied. “He's in Kyoto. With Kuri.”

He's what? Ryu wondered if he should poke some more or wait until Noriko continued of her own volition. In the end he settled for the latter as he saw Ai-chan waving at him from a bench close to the statue.

Nao got caught up with whatever punishment Kuri received for spending Christmas with Urufu,” Noriko said, something that Ryu barely registered when Ai-chan rose and hugged him.

When Noriko and Ai-chan greeted each other Ryu took a look at his surroundings. Even though it was a clear day, January was as stingy with its warmth as usual. A lousy two degrees barely kept things above freezing, and anything even resembling a gust of wind blew right through his coat and chilled his bones. For once he wished he had one of Urufu's atrocious jackets.

Is it colder where you used to live? Ryu doubted the polar bears, but Sweden was pretty far north. Maybe like in Hokkaido, which meant freezing your butt off.

Ryu, I heard rumours, are they true?”

Rumours? “There are a lot of rumours about me,” Ryu said and grinned.

Ai-chan gave him a playful box on his arms. “Not about you, stupid!” She smiled and laughed. “I heard some people from your school got caught up in gang violence.”

Huh? “No, not that I know of. Noriko, you?” He didn't exactly expect her to answer. It wasn't like his sister followed the rumour mill; she was just a bit too studious for that.

A sudden tug at his jacket made him turn around. Noriko stared at him with worried eyes. “Ryu, I was about to say. Thing is, none of them are answering.”

'Them' could only mean one out of two things. Urufu and Kuri, or all four of their closest friends. “Kyoko or Yukio said anything?” Ryu asked to narrow down the options.

Noriko shook her head. “I can't get through to them. I was going to ask you if we should contact Sato-sensei.”

Sato-sensei? You're worried for real, aren't you? “Don't you think it's a bit rude to disturb them during break,” he said instead.

He looked at Ai-chan where she stood and looked a little abandoned. To make up for his chatting with his sister he took her hand and squeezed. He was rewarded with a smile and the feeling of her fingers hugging his. 'Don't worry,' they seemed to tell him. 'If it's your sister it can't be helped,' her smile said, but Ai-chan's eyes didn't agree.

This was our date. Sis just tagged along after we failed to reach Nao. “Sis, this isn't really a good time,” Ryu said. Noriko was the only girl he could be inconsiderate with. That was what siblings were for after all.

Noriko nodded understanding, and Ryu felt he should at least show her the courtesy to stay waving with Ai-chan until she vanished back inside the station.

After that he and Ai-chan started hunting for shops, just as they had planned from the beginning. He got a new pair of casual trousers, she a new jersey and a fluffy something only girls could really think was cute, but boys had an obligation to say was. At least if the boy wanted to be seen as someone who knew the basic rules of the boy meets girl game, and Ryu was one such boy.

He even allowed her to make him buy a pair of mittens that he wouldn't be seen with outside dates with her. It helped that today was abysmally cold and that the knitted horrors felt warm on his hands. It helped doubly that they had room for her hand as well.

So all in all it was a pretty good date.

But there was something.

Going down the escalators in a department store he finally caved in and grabbed his phone with his free hand. He and Ai-chan made it well into the next section before he gave up on calling any of the four of their shared friends.

Something to drink? My treat,” he offered.

Ai-chan shone up, and he left her at a table with their bags. It really was an ugly excuse to get some time away from her, but Ryu didn't want her to listen in on his next call. He didn't intend to call Urufu's guardian, but rather Principal Nakagawa, who knew all about Urufu's and Kuri's real backgrounds.

This is Wakayama Ryu speaking. I wonder...” Ryu began after the old man answered his call. He got no further.

You're needed at the clinic,” Principal Nakagawa cut him off. “Your sister as well.”

After the call there was time to gulp down the drinks, but after that Ryu spent the extra cash on a taxi and made sure to pick Noriko up on the way. Ai-chan rode with him. Given the contents of that last phone-call he wasn't going to let her get back home on her own.

They're on their way here,” Sato-sensei said.

Yukio looked at her from his bed. By now he had recovered enough to walk around, but the nurse wanted him lying down as much as possible.

They?” Yukio wondered.

Sato-sensei looked at him. “The Wakayama twins, and the girlfriend.”

Girlfriend? Ai-chan?

OK, this is it. Up you go, kiddie.”

Yukio gave her a tired smile. With some luck he didn't look like a monster grinning at her, but with the bruises covering his face that was rather unlikely. At least they didn't hurt any more.

He shifted in his bed, moved his legs outside and stood. He was still a little wobbly, but both legs were comparatively undamaged. A fractured rib and another fracture that kept his left arm in a sling were all the lingering results from the attack. Sato-sensei said they hadn't really tried to inflict damage on him, just to scare the living daylight out of both of them. Then something went horribly wrong.

Kyoko?” he croaked.

Yes. Now or never.”

The two of them left the room and entered the corridor. Urufu and Kuri stood waiting for him there, and Yukio nodded his thanks to them.

Two days they had spent here. Two days for him and Kyoko. Who could wish for better friends?

The doctor should be here soon,” Sato-sensei said.

Yukio could see how both Urufu and Kuri flinched at those words. He had been warned. Kyoko wasn't safe yet, and after her parent received the final verdict he and his friends had been promised to be told as well.

A tall man in a white coat came walking down the corridor towards them. He looked anything but Japanese.

The doctor is a foreigner?

He was, and he approached Yukio. “She'll live.”

Days of fear ran off him in a moment. Yukio sank to his knees. Let me look like a girl. I don't care. She'll live. Kyoko, Kyoko!

But she'll never bear children. I'm sorry.”

Who cares, she'll live!”

Yukio! That's awful!” Kuri rushed to the doctor. “Does she know? Ko-chan I mean.”

The doctor shook his head. Yukio still didn't understand what all the drama was about. Kyoko was saved. Who cared about anything else?

Urufu grabbed his arms. “We're going to have a conversation about what you're allowed to say about women and childbearing.”

Yukio didn't understand what was happening, but both the doctor and Kuri inclined their heads to Urufu. A sure sign of approval.

For every item you fail to grasp I'll personally use my fist and slug one tooth out of that grinning mouth of yours,” Urufu continued.

Yukio looked around himself for help. It didn't seem to be coming.

I'd advise against that,” the doctor said.

Finally a sane person!

Wait until I've called for a dentist.”

Kuri nodded in fervent approval.

What the hell? They just told us Kyoko's going to be all-right, and suddenly everyone's going comedy central on me!

Doctor, what the young lady here just asked,” Sato-sensei said.

We will, but first we want her to wake up properly. Allow her a day before giving her that kind of shock, OK?”

At his side Kuri gasped and clutched Urufu closer to her. “Poor Ko-chan!”

What's the big deal? But Yukio understood that he was being pigheaded one way or another, and watching the stricken looks on all adults present, including Kuri and Urufu, not having children apparently was a bad thing, or possibly 'Bad Thing' with capital letters. He'd ask them properly when the rush of giddiness left him. Kyoko would live. Who cared about anything else?

About the same time as the doctor turned on his heels and returned from whence he came, a door opened behind them and let angry voices into the corridor. Yukio turned to better see the disturbance.

Where are they?” Ryu's irritated voice carried over the one of an older male, who apparently tried to stop him.

In here,” Sato-sensei said.

Through the door Ryu, Noriko and Ai-chan came running.

Been a while. How was hatsumode, man?” Yukio asked and hoped he sounded cool.

Yukio, what have they done to you?” Noriko answered instead, and suddenly he was covered by midget arms and bosom. “Where's Kyoko,” she said, and there was just a hint of accusation in her voice.

Shit, she doesn't know.

Takeida-san is otherwise occupied,” Sato-sensei said.

Yukio shook his head. He didn't want to downplay it like that. “Noriko, she got hurt. Badly. It was I who couldn't be by her side, not the other way around. This is nothing.” Now when he didn't care about sounding cool any longer, Yukio realised he probably did.

Kyoko, hurt?”

Yukio looked as Noriko and Kuri exchange looks. The three girls had grown so close the last months that he no longer could tell who were best friends with whom.

A few steps further away Ryu and Ai-chan held on to each other, but they didn't try to join the chaos closest to him. Ryu had something guilty in his eyes, but mostly his face showed wrath. Ai-chan looked worried more than anything else, but then she hadn't been involved with everything since the start.

Yukio grimaced. There was one thing he needed to verify. He looked at Kuri and Urufu, then at Ryu and last at Ai-chan. The third time he repeated the sequence Ryu shook his head, and Yukio had to suppose Ai-chan still hadn't been told about the arrivals.

Crap, I'm tired. I want to talk with you guys, but not with her here, he thought and looked at Ryu's girlfriend. And Kyoko's fine, or mostly fine. This time he threw a self-conscious look at Kuri and Urufu. We have to get rid of this Red Rose crap once and for all. I hate those bastards!

Because he had deduced from what Sato-sensei had said earlier. Once again Red Rose had been involved with attacking them. For the first time in his life Yukio agreed fully with Urufu's version of honour. They were going down, and this time forgiveness and redemption were no longer an option. 'While you may occasionally break your promises, never, ever, break your threats' Urufu had said.

I'll see you dead or in prison for this. I'll never rest before I do.

Kyoko barren as a result of her stab-wound shocked Ulf. He just couldn’t wrap his mind around a life where you weren't even given the choice of having a child or not.

'One day,' the doctor had said. Well, it had been one day. All of them returned home, which was a welcome respite for Ulf, or rather his underwear, which he quickly hid in the laundry basket before he took a shower.

Christina followed him home. She had refused to return to an empty flat, luxury condo or not, and with Amaya in control anything but bringing her home was out of the question.

While Ulf and Christina showered separately, they slept together, and sleeping was the only thing the did, apart from hugging. When the hug turned into fretful sleep he couldn't remember.

When morning came Christina received some underwear from Amaya that were serviceable, if nothing else. The rest of her change came out of his wardrobe, and even though she muttered and swore she ended up dressed for a late autumn camping hike. Everything was a bit large for her, but their difference in size wasn't huge. Once again the word serviceable came to mind.

Ulf, well he only had business suits that were clean, so it was a rather mismatched pair that made their way to the clinic.

Long before they arrived, Ulf had his misgivings about the day, and the lump in his stomach just grew heavier the closer they got. While he could understand Yukio's relief, Ulf suspected his best friend simply lacked the experience to understand why what was coming probably was a life-changing disaster to Kyoko.

One look at Christina told him she silently shared his thoughts. It didn't matter that she hadn't left any children behind in the other world. What mattered was that she knew that she herself had chosen not to have any.

Ina, who's going to stay with her?” Ulf asked when they left the car, and there were all too few steps until they were inside.

He felt her fingers claw into his right arm. “I can't help her. I don't even know how Ko-chan will react.”

Ulf threw a glance at Amaya, who had driven them there, but she resolutely shook her head. He had suspected she would, and for the same reason as he himself. The feeling of loss, even if it was the feeling of a potential loss, was simply too frightening.

Damn, I'm going to betray you, but I don't have the guts for this. To prevent Christina from even asking, he stopped and pulled her close. “I can't. I'm sorry, but I can't. It's too close to my memories.”

Christina's eyes displayed equal parts disappointment and understanding.

For once Ulf felt the kind of childish regret belonging to a child. He wished 2016 hadn't ended, because if this was the way the bells rang out the old and welcomed the new, he wasn't certain he wanted any of it. With regret came more fear, but there was no delaying it any longer. Ulf clung to Christina's arm the way she clung to his, and together they entered the clinic.

He barely made it into the corridor before he heard wails, as if someone was being slaughtered alive. Without thinking he left Christina behind him, ran through the corridor and tore open the offending door.

Behind it he saw Yukio and the tall doctor from yesterday, and in the bed Kyoko sat straight up screeching her lungs out.

They told me I can't have a baby. That I can never… Bwah, ah, ah, ah...”

Ulf opened the door and went outside. He left Yukio inside.

Christina sat waiting on a chair in the corridor, and Ulf sank down by the wall. Through the door he could hear Kyoko's wailing.

Nothing we can do now. She's paying for my mistake. He felt drained.

Ulf looked up and saw Christina sobbing silently. Tears ran down her face, and then, finally, he allowed his own helplessness to take control. His cheeks were wet and Christina sat on the other side of the corridor, or an eternity away. Two metres. A chasm he couldn't bridge.

By the door Amaya had taken position. She leaned against it and looked at him. “Urufu, I have the news you need but don't want.”

What are you talking about? Right now he only wanted to crawl over to Christina.

I know who's behind it, but I can't prove it.”


Or rather, I'm not allowed to. This time it's someone on the inside.”


When I became your handle they told me about the two factions. This time it's someone belonging to the other faction, but it's still someone belonging to the JSDF.”

What the fucking hell are you talking about?” But he didn't need to ask. He already knew about the dirty infighting, had guessed the day he was called to the principal's office after kicking in a door in the girls' locker room.

Amaya flinched, but she never left the door. “I'm afraid you won't be able to avoid him. It's Kareyoshi Takeshi.”

And that made absolutely no sense at all. “Kareyoshi-sensei? The baboon trying to teach English?”


But, even though he's an imbecile he's still Himekaizen.”

Wake up, moron!” Amaya glared at him and bent down a little. “So every student from Red Rose is a disgusting rapist, including you?”

Ulf backed away from his guardian, and on the other side of the corridor he could see how Christina had dropped some of her apathy and eavesdropped on Amaya's admonishing.

No, no of course not,” he mumbled.

And every teacher in Himekaizen is an angel who wants nothing more than filling the students with divine wisdom?” Amaya continued relentlessly.

Kareyoshi. For the first time an enemy had been given a name. Kareyoshi you fuck! Ulf stared at Christina. “We have a name.”

You can't go after him,” came Amaya's silent voice. “I asked, but they forbade me.” When Ulf listened a second time he realised her voice wasn't silent because of sadness, it was silent due to hatred. “You have to convince the others as well, and,” she looked at Christina, “There's another thing. I've been given orders to break you two up.”

They must have joined the opening ceremony together, because they were still together, standing in the staircase just inside the door to the roof. Ulf knew they had, but he wasn't sure, because he was still in a daze from the news just days earlier.

He didn't want to put the lid on, but Kyoko's father had, rather understandably, been in a fury, and he had the contacts needed to dig deep enough to unearth Kareyoshi.

Because the moron is not merely a first class arse, he's an imbecile arse to boot.

How anyone with such an epic lack of braincells had been entrusted with the knowledge of the arrivals was beyond Ulf, but he was, and as such untouchable.

Yukio leaned on the crutch he had received, more for comfort than any real need. It was the kind of antiquity still popular in Japan and the US with the support in the armpits rather than around the lower arms. “And why are we here?” he growled.

Time to lose a friend, Ulf thought. “You can't. Until we have the proof needed we can't start a manhunt.”

Who cares about proof?” Ryu wondered. He was as furious as Yukio.

You should, you know. Then Ulf regretted his actions last summer. Even with solid proof, manhunts were best left to the police. Society seldom benefited from vigilantes. “Because it's not the right thing to do,” he said and prepared for the worst. “Besides we're told not to.”

Yukio let go of his crutch and hammered him to the floor in response.

Ulf stood up just to be docked once more. The pain was nothing compared to watching the faces of his best friends.

Where's your loyalty?” Ryu asked.

We don't go after him because there are better ways.” Ulf touched his bruised chin with his hand. It hurt. He deserved it, but that didn't make ambushing Kareyoshi any more right. He'd have wanted to, but Amaya's explicit orders combined with his memories from last summer told him to stay his course.

You had no such qualms last summer.” Ryu gave him a disgusted look and stormed away. A few moments later Yukio followed.

You shouldn't have said anything,” Christina whispered. “You could just have told them to wait. That you had a plan or something.”

And lied to my best friend? Would that have made things better? To betray him later?”

Whatever. I'll talk to them.” And with that Christina ran after their friends.

Only Noriko remained.

Aren't you going as well? Family and friends first, and all that.” Ulf knew that was uncalled for as soon as he said the words, but he sullenly refused to apologise.

You're hurting. That's why you're mean. Family and friends, and all that. That's why I'm staying by your side.” She gave him a look filled with sadness. “I don't agree with your thinking, and you not with mine, but I'll stand by you in this. Because it's important for you.”

But I would have preferred Christina by my side. The moment the thought ran through his mind he regretted it. He gave Noriko a grateful glance before looking down. “I should probably go to the infirmary and tell them I fell.”

So the school staff is OK lying to?”

Ulf glared at Noriko. “You know as well as I do that school staff is directly involved with the lies.”

She flinched at his words.

Sorry, that was mean of me. Yes, I'm afraid I'll have to tell a lot of lies. That we all have to.” The worst lie being that Amaya stood behind all those lies when he knew she was spreading rumours among her old colleagues.

She hadn't told him a lot, but apparently Japanese gun-laws more or less guaranteed that the police eventually would hunt down the gun-toting killer, beyond the grave if needed. First your sister and now your friend. I'm so sorry, Amaya.


He looked at Noriko's concerned expression. “Yeah. I'm off for the infirmary, and you'd better find Nao lest he starts thinking we're doing funny crap behind his back.”

He wouldn't,” came Noriko's curt reply.

He probably wouldn't, Ulf silently agreed, but he wanted to be alone for a bit.

I wonder how long Christina and I have left, he wondered as he walked down the stairs. Noriko followed him for two floors, and then he heard the sound of her footsteps vanishing into the left wing second floor.

Infirmary,” Ulf told a teacher who wondered what he was doing in the corridor after class began.

A month, two? Doubt two. They'll schedule her to death if we don't break up, and that'll have her fail her exams for sure. Fuckers! It was unfair, but life was unfair. Guess we have to make every moment count. He grinned despite his dark thoughts. Make a lot of memories as they are so fond of here?

But in the end he accepted that he had very little reason to despair. Whatever he felt paled in comparison with the hell that was Kyoko's life at the moment. Gods I wish there was something we could do! I wish this shit never happened, but that's a bit late now.

With that line of thought he had passed vending machines, locker rooms and cafeteria, and he stood outside the infirmary. It was time to lie his heart out. Like how he had seen Christina do a few times he plastered a stupid smile to his lips and slid open the door.

Anyone here?” he called. “I seem to have had a little accident.”

He got no answer, and when he looked inside it was empty. Smirking he rummaged through a cupboard in search for something to apply to his chin. After that he'd have to wait. There would be a lot of waiting from now on.


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