Gearing up had cost him almost nothing. Almost two years' worth of shopping had him equipped with most of what he needed. Sure, he had to compensate for growing a bit, but from what he recalled from being a teenager the first time he'd only add a couple of centimetres more.
Ulf checked his bags one last time, and then he did the same with his climbing sack, the one he preferred for long biking hikes. Nothing forgotten, and with a deep sigh he straddled his bike and started west.
Fuck, they'll wonder what happened, but I really need a break now.
Back in their shared data repository lay everything needed for the sessions his customers had already ordered. He'd only accepted facilitation, because he wasn't going to break his friends' belief in themselves. The work wouldn't earn the company all that much money, but it would give the four of them all the pocket money they could possibly need.
When he waited by a red light, a few pedestrians and the driver in the car at his side gave him strange looks. Probably gave his clothes strange looks. Japan might be number one in the world when it came to manufacturing super light weight gear, but very few people wore them. For some reason they seemed to prefer hideously expensive European and American gear of lower quality.
Their loss. I get the best for a discount.
He'd left just about everything he usually carried along at home. His phone he carried in his backpack, but it was shut down. As in had its battery removed and placed in a separate plastic bag. Ulf didn't trust the software shut-down to guarantee he didn't leak some kind of signal.
This was his personal break, and he didn't intend to be found before he was done, no matter how long that might take.
Fuck it. I hurt you really bad. Half a truth. I hurt us both. I'm sorry Christina, but I can't take your life away from you, but neither can I live without you. He needed this break. He needed to find a way not to betray them both after the damage he had already done.
With wind flying in his face his thoughts were easier to collect. He'd get lost from time to time, but he'd also lived long enough to learn to read a map and a compass from a time before GPS was available to everyone. So I can find my way in Japan, but I can't find my way in my own life. Funny that.
A nagging suspicion that he had forced the solution on Christina crept around in his mind. There was a feeling he had neither given her the respect she deserved nor the right to make her own decisions about her future and their relationship. That suspicion was what finally drove Ulf to flee from everything. If he had done wrong. If he had, then he had cost himself the chance of a lifetime, and going by what he read in her eyes, Christina as well.
He sped up and used an uphill run to punish his legs as much as possible. Don't dwell on it. Don't think about it. Just get out of Tokyo and as far as possible.
The way he was right now he'd refuse to employ himself. Mentally unstable people weren't the kind best suited to guide others.
Ulf understood he had another problem as well. Some kind of shit scary acquaintance of the Wakayamas was on a killing spree, and only Urufu's asking Amaya to abuse her indecent powers put a stop to it. Now, offline for the first time since the early nineties he had no way to make sure the body-count didn't rise again.
It didn't help that the shit scary man was Christina's grandfather. But I can see where you came from. Did you ever realise that hard part of you was one of the reasons I fell in love with you?
Thinking of her hurt. Had hurt for over a month now. Ulf wiped tears from his face when traffic allowed, and then he wheeled under one of the highways feeding the west Kanto region.
Been a while since I last hiked like this. Last time was on foot, but damn that sucks! He grinned, and for a short moment there was only the glory of his silent wheels, the wind in his face and the feeling of being in control of his destiny. But am I really?
So much time spent on preparing to change the world around him to the better. The way he had always lived his life, even when it turned out he was wrong. And again that nagging suspicion this was one of those times came eating on his mind.
He skidded to a halt, left his bike and fed a machine some coins. Despite being Mars with optimal temperatures for a hike like this, he'd still consume huge amounts of water. He recalled those vending machines being just about everywhere in Japan, but he didn't want to chance it, so he bought a litre of sports drink. It should suffice for the next two or three hours or so.
The afternoon saw him leaving the parts of Tokyo he knew behind him, and as darkness fell he had made it firmly into the outskirts.
While Ulf didn't have anything against cycling in the dark he decided to call it a day and spend the night at a hotel. A love hotel more precisely. They happily accepted cash and asked no questions. Besides they were surprisingly good value, seldom asking much more than five thousand yen for a night.
Ulf locked his bike and went inside.
It took him a while to decipher what went for a reception, but then he realised the display of rooms worked pretty much like the restaurants where you bought a food ticket and gave it to the waiter.
There was no waiter here, just a tiny hole by the counter that allowed him to pay, receive his keys and leave without neither him nor the receptionist ever seeing each other's faces.
Shoddy living for a shoddy person. Let's see how long I can keep this up.
The second and third day Ulf rode through a less and less populated landscape.
He suffered from bruises after an ugly fall early the second day. Failing to respect his aching muscles he tried speeding up a curve, only to be rewarded by a visit into the nearest bamboo grove. At least going uphill made the fall less than fatal. It still reminded him he was mortal though.
Muscles he had forgotten he even had still ached well into day three, and always, always, the hurt concerning Christina followed him like a ghost.
He tried joking that he had finally become unfaithful to Maria to the degree where he didn't even miss her, but that only made him remember their dead daughter. So he shoved the memories of that life into the darkest recess of his consciousness, but that only had Christina resurface again.
Get over her! Start anew! But there was no getting over her. Some people you only met once in your life, and until he met Christina he always thought Maria was that one person. They spent a good life together after all, and he had loved her, but never with the burning intensity of the last year, or better part of a year.
Ulf ate at the cheapest restaurants he could find, drank from the vending machines whenever water was hard to find, and slept in another love hotel, even seedier than the last one.
There would be one more night in such a hotel. After that Ulf planned to make use of his bivouac. There were shorter routes to the Kansai area, but he wouldn't use them.
Japan might not have the generous unwritten laws about camping in the wilderness that Sweden had, but Ulf suspected he'd get away with squatting for a night at a time as long as he carried his gear out of sight from the road.
The main problem would be fuel for his kitchen, but petrol stations should have the alcohol he needed.
After two years in Japan he wasn't about to suddenly miss out on a decent cup of tea. Or his beloved espresso for that matter. That was his one piece of sheer luxury, a portable espresso brewer.
Ulf forced his way up a long slope. The northern route was a killer to his legs, just the way he wanted. When he arrived in Nagano he'd rest for a day in Matsumoto, after that small roads to Takayama. There he'd decide whether to bike south through Gifu or continue east through Ishikawa.
Avoiding the saner, southern route meant staying away from Shizuoka, Hamamatsu and Nagoya, each large enough to increase the risk of someone picking up on him visually.
Are they looking for me? Probably. Ulf allowed himself a little rest on the pedals when he reached the crest. From here downhill for maybe a kilometre, then another murderous climb. If they set up that secret organisation for us arrivals I guess they're not too keen on one of us vanishing.
He focussed on the road. Going down he quickly gained speed, and here in Japan he had to be careful so that he didn't break the speed limit. On a bike to boot. Still, forty kilometres an hour was nothing for him on a downhill slope. Curves might be dangerous, but he'd paid for a bike that would handle speeds twice that.
On both sides of the road wooded mountains reached upwards in that steep greenery he had only seen in Japan. Sometimes the greenery was broken by a patch of brittle pink where a lone sakura made itself reminded. Murderously heavy uphill or breathtakingly fast downhill his tour never felt boring like biking back home too often was. For that reason Ulf sought out the Alps during his more adventurous years.
He grimaced when a road didn't deliver what it promised. This was the third time he'd taken a wrong turn, and he had to backtrack for over half an hour before he hit the correct one. Without a GPS he'd lose well over a day, but turning on his phone would also squeal his position to anyone who was interested. Quite a few, Ulf guessed.
So he endured the hit and miss whenever he consulted his map. Besides, orienteering the old way was just so much more fun.
And, I won't be found this way. Only an idiot would bring a bike cross country right through the mountains like this.
Because, in a way, that was what he was. An idiot, and a craven one at that. For the first time in his life he ran away from a problem he brought upon himself. But I'm sick and tired of playing the guinea pig.
He grunted and wheeled into something too large for a village but too small for a town. Food. Hungry. Should be a ramen shop or something here.
There was one. While noodles might not be the best for nutrition he had more need for replenishing energy than anything else.
Ulf stopped, climbed off his bike and went inside. It was the usual diner style shack that promised a large bowl of something hot for almost no money at all. It made a burger joint look outright expensive.
South, Ulf decided as he wolfed down his bowl. South after I hit Takayama. It was a risk. He couldn't really avoid Nagoya that way, but there was a village inland of Yokkaichi he needed to go to. The village where his mother had been born. Well, not his mother in this world, but still a place he remembered, despite never having gone there since his transition to this version of Japan.
Nothing rational, just a desperate need to connect with his own memories.
It doesn't matter if they've never seen me before. I'll remember, and I'll get to visit the graves even if they're not really my family any longer.
One way or another he'd make it there, make himself as unobtrusive as was possible in a village, and after that he'd continue his hike west.
She finally got to make use of the make-up kit Kuri-chan had given her in the locker room during the cultural festival. More because it was the way it was supposed to be than any real need; she was barren after all.
The first night of the two they spent in the resort, Yukio made no approaches more than suggesting they use the family bath. The second night Kyoko had enough with his polite refusal to suggest they share more than their bed.
It was warm and sweaty, and it hurt a little; and she'd never wish it undone. Now the connection between them was stronger than ever before.
Come morning he was less shy with her, and she experienced something close to pleasure. It gets better with time, you said. Thinking of Kuri-chan soured her mood a little, but she couldn't live Kuri-chan's life.
As it was Kyoko really didn't want to live that life. As soon as spring break started Kuri-chan was whisked away by her employer, and since a few days she didn't even respond to messages.
Spending a few days at the resort only left Noriko and Ryu back home in Tokyo, because Urufu had vanished just as thoroughly as Kuri-chan.
Idiot! Do you know how worried Yukio is? You should at least have told him.
Kyoko growled and swallowed another bite of delicious breakfast.
They needed to leave early for Nagoya where the first of their sessions was being prepared. Both Ryu and Noriko would arrive in the evening and the coming three days were packed with work for Urufu's customers.
She wasn't worried about the customers. Urufu had made certain the four of them only had to work with people who were long used to having teenagers running the show. Besides, this was the kind of facilitation Ryu could run in his sleep with the backup of his sister.
Why Urufu wanted her and Yukio was a little more unclear, but Kyoko was happy to work together with Yukio. Especially as he cut away content with a brutal ruthlessness, making the presentations she had to produce that much shorter. Urufu never complained, rather he just gave Yukio a stare filled with equal parts wonder and curiousness.
She gobbled down some more food and turned to Yukio. “Half an hour?”
His face rose from a huge mouthful he tried to hide behind a bowl of miso soup. After a frantic and successful attempt at swallowing it all he nodded.
That had to hurt, Kyoko thought. As a reward she gave him what she hoped was a sweet smile. You're so honest. You're the best that ever happened to me. I love you. Just to be on the safe side she gave him another smile.
“Then I'll have a taxi ordered,” Kyoko said. Working for Urufu changed her perception of what was usual in more ways than one. A year ago the very concept of 'taxi' was something she associated with adult. Now, merely efficient when he needed them somewhere with little time to spare. It helped that his company paid for the fares.
Three days. 75 000 yen. I never even thought it was possible to make money like this. And because of that she saved most of her money. Somewhere in her mind she was vaguely aware she earned more per day than she was likely to do after she finished university and entered the workforce.
To make it even better she thoroughly enjoyed her part time job. She learned more there than in school, and by now she honestly felt she deserved her salary. She wrote the invoices. Three days amounted to well over half a million yen, almost two hundred thousand a day. Urufu's documents even stated that was a hefty discount because he liked the customers so much.
Then Kyoko decided she had enough breakfast and left for their room. Our room. Thank you mom and dad! She sent a thankful thought to the lady at the inn who hadn't as much as batted an eye when she and Yukio arrived two days earlier.
Packing took almost no time, and when Yukio arrived she had finished with their bag. He carried it down the stairs, limping and all. She could have done it herself, but she didn't want to deny him that little token of manliness if he desired it.
When they reached the entrance floor she saw the taxi waiting for them.
“Yukio, it's here,” Kyoko said as if he lacked the power of sight.
He just nodded and smiled.
The ride to the station was shorter than she remembered from the club field trip last August. The train ride to Nagoya, however, wasn't.
To make up for the agonisingly slow train the circle line subway took them to the conference centre in a breeze, and when they checked in at the hotel Ryu and Noriko stood waiting for them.
“Any news?” Kyoko asked while Yukio handled the formalities. They had two rooms. Urufu had been sensible enough not to push Japanese norms when that might cause them problems. She'd share hers with Noriko.
“News, you tell me,” Noriko said, and a grin that threatened to split her face in two spread over her face. “Ryu, help Yukio!”
Ryu looked at them, smirked, but promptly did as he had been told.
“Kyoko, I want to know everything.”
Oh dear! This is so embarrassing! “What do you mean?” Kyoko said, but she knew exactly what Noriko meant.
Noriko looked at Ryu and Yukio by the counter, and Kyoko saw in her eyes that she just wanted to make sure they couldn't hear. In the end Noriko seemed satisfied with the distance to the boys.
“Did you do it?”
No way! Then an evil demon popped up its head in Kyoko's mind. “Yeah, we went to the family bath.”
The nonplussed face staring at her was worth it.
“No, I mean it.”
There was no point in dragging it out any further. Noriko and Ryu bought the vouchers after all. “Uhum. Yes.”
That had more than a few faces turn in their direction, and Kyoko felt her face flare red. “Not so loud!” But it was already too late. That a few of the strangers looking at them smiled knowingly didn't matter, but Yukio's beet red face gave no wriggle room for misunderstandings. He had heard.
“Noriko, in our room, OK? First I want to know everything about Kuri-chan and Urufu.”
As far as he knew he managed to avoid anyone recognising him. The half a day biking too close to Nagoya for his own comfort had him on the edge, but now he had made it safely south of that city.
Ulf burned with longing for going on-line, but that was just too risky. An old style Internet café would have sufficed, but that meant heading into central Nagoya, and he was certain someone would pick up on him if he did.
Now he was less than a day's ride from his destination, and the morning sun led him in his wanted direction.
Last night, and the night before that he had spent in love hotels. When the population density increased he didn't dare sleeping in the open. Not because it was dangerous, but because someone might call the police, and then his adventure would be over.
Ulf rode small roads and the occasional street. Always south, and always closer to his goal. That village loomed bigger in his mind the closer he got. An illusion, he knew, but an illusion that might help him understand where he had gone wrong with his life.
Just south of the cluttered town he turned west and started climbing the mountain roads. The disorganised splattering of buildings gave way to, first rice fields, and when he got further inland, to tea fields with their rounded rows of bushes lining the slopes.
Occasionally the road cut across a river with concrete embankments and a desolate rill worming its way through the middle.
By now he knew where he was. In that other world he'd come here with his parents from time to time since he was ten. The last years he even brought Maria and their kids.
There would be differences, small ones, but important ones for him. In this world his mother was never his mother, and the few things he'd helped add to the house wouldn't exist.
His legs hurt from too many days of cycling. In this body he'd never done anything like it, and it had barely begun to adapt to this kind of punishment. It should get better within a few days, but until then he just had to live with it. Well, and walking like a lame cow whenever he dismounted.
Then he crossed the last river, made a sharp turn left and rolled into the village. Here there were only rice fields embracing the river on both sides, and old and new mixed together in a dizzying display of how the residents had made more money from selling their fields than growing rice on them. Two golf courses a bit upstream had taken their place and made people rich overnight.
Ulf rode his bike a bit uphill, navigated narrow streets until he reached a small parking place.
There, just across the street lay one of those newer houses. Just one among the others. The building that sat on the spot where his mother lived her first eighteen years.
Now, when he had finally reached his goal he was suddenly unsure about what to do. It wasn't like he could knock on the door to perfect strangers. Ulf shook his head. He felt a little distraught, but then a solution reached his mind. The small graveyard lay just a few minutes away, and he could pay his respects to his grandmother, despite her never having been his grandmother in this world.
With new-found determination he mounted his bike again and pedalled away. Close to the temple, hidden away behind it. Not many people visited it each day, and he hoped to find it empty when he arrived there.
Ulf led his bike the last bit. Arriving on foot just seemed more decent. When there was just one corner remaining he parked it and dropped his backpack. With his hands he tried to tidy up his hair, and after that he started walking the last few metres.
Glorious sunshine followed him to the graves, and when he looked up he saw he wasn't alone. His aunt, or the woman who had been his aunt in his previous life stood there caring for his grandmother's grave.
Pity, poor timing. I'll just wait.
Then she turned and looked at him.
He heard her draw for breath and saw how she dropped the flowers she held in her hand.
“Who are you?”
Huh? “Excuse me, my name is Hamarugen Urufu,” he said in the Japanese way.
“Who are you? Why are you here? You look just like my older sister.”
Crap! Forgot I got my looks from mom. “I do?” he tried.
“You could be her son, but she only had daughters, so who are you?”
So mom married in this world as well? That makes me happy to hear. “As I said, I'm just a visitor.”
“Just a visitor? You're tall like a foreigner, just like all of Akane's daughters.”
Wait a moment, so she married Lars in this world as well? So I have siblings of a kind in this world. Still, being recognised for who he couldn't be was a problem. It was time to be partially honest.
“Well, I couldn't possibly be the son of your older sister,” Ulf said. He was thirty five years younger here after all.
“You could be a grandson. Her daughters haven't visited us since they married.”
Mom's grandson? Yeah, I have a daughter older than myself now. That could work. “I wouldn't know. It's been a while since I met my grandmother.” A partial truth. He hadn't seen his mother for over two years.
“I don't know who you are, but I know you're not telling me everything. Someone looking so much like Akane and wearing her name is someone I must talk with.”
Yeah, she would be Akane Hammargren in this world as well. He bowed acceptance and followed the old woman after she had set the flowers by the grave. It gave him an excuse to pay his respects as well.
The interrogation that was to follow was a price he was willing to pay.
A day after they returned back to Tokyo from their coaching sessions in Nagoya, Ryu got a call from Ai-chan. She needed to meet him, and she needed to meet him right now.
With a lump of discomfort in his stomach he took the train and subway to Shibuya. Ai-chan had taken a liking to wait by the statue of Hachiko.
When he arrived she sat behind the bronze dog. Her eyes were lined with red, as if she had been crying and tried to mask it with make-up.
“What's up,” Ryu asked.
“Not here,” she answered. “Let's go somewhere where we can be alone.” For once she didn't glare at the other girls giving him evaluating glances.
He nodded and took her hand. For a short moment it felt like she was about to take hers back, but then she lodged her fingers around his. They crossed the great intersection and made their way into the smaller streets on the other side.
“So?” Ryu wanted to know when the crowd had petered out into nothing.
“I'm so angry,” she began. “Dad listened to some stupid rumours, and he said you're bad for me.”
So it was like that after all. “And now you want to break up?”
“No! I don't want to at all. I like you. But I'll have to keep it a secret.”
Ryu shook his head. “Sorry, no can do. I'm never ashamed of those I like. I won't agree to hide that you're my girl.”
He felt her grip on his hand tighten. Ryu squeezed back. He really did like Ai-chan. More than like. In a way he guessed he loved her. “Sorry,” he said. “We're either together and face whatever problems we run into, or we're not together at all.” He was his father's son, and his mother's. They'd think less of him if he huddled in the shadows.
“I… I can't. Dad scares me.”
“Look, Ai-chan, I really like you. I won't force you to make a choice, but I'll never hide that you're my girlfriend. I'm proud of you and honoured you wanted me by your side instead of some other boy.”
They reached the H&M shop Kuri referred to as her first clash with reality since she arrived in Japan. Ryu led them down the street to avoid the people around them. A bit further away the street dug under train tracks, and the noise should block out any unwanted listeners.
“I'm so sorry. I love you, but I don't dare having a fight with my dad. Let's break up.”
Ryu bowed and stole a last hug and kiss. “I have to respect that. I want you to know I'm not doing this happily, but let's break up.”
Ai-chan's lips turned down, and it looked like she was going to cry. “Just once more!” she said and pulled him to her. She tasted of salt.
“Friends?” he whispered into her ear when they hugged after the kiss.
“Friends, always,” she said.
He left her there, under the bridge. His chest hurt, and he didn't dare to turn and look after her. If she still stood there waiting for him he wouldn't have it in him to continue walking.
Now that's a shitty way to spend spring break, he thought when he had come far enough up the street to know he wouldn't be able to see the bridge even if he turned around. For that reason he did just that. Just to see if she had followed him. She hadn't.
He felt a pang of regret, but even though he respected secrets, there were still a kind of them he refused to acknowledge. He wouldn't lie about his girlfriend.
Ryu was about to turn back into the small maze of streets that led back to the station when he ran into Kuri. She smirked and stared down the street he had come from.
“I saw that, you know,” she said.
“Saw what?” He hadn't seen her following them.
“I saw her waiting for you with that look in her face.”
Damn! Is it that impossible to hide anything from you? “So?”
“Make up or break up?”
“Let's have a coffee,” Ryu suggested. He could as well get something out of a day that had already gone down the drain anyway.
They found a table at a rather expensive book café that should have overlooked the intersection but for the lack of windows. Expensive or not, it was well within acceptable range for his wallet. Ryu knew he had it easy when it came to money, and even more so with Urufu's ludicrously well paid stunts. He guessed Kuri made even more given her rising fame.
“So, interrogation time?” Ryu said after his coke arrived together with what tried to be a full lunch.
Kuri started digging in on her own food. She just nodded with her mouth full.
Ryu watched her with some admiration. You're perfectly aware of how beautiful you are, but sometimes you're just so sloppy. Then, as he gave her a second look, he noticed that some of that beauty looked stale. Like someone had made a life-sized statue that moved like Kuri. You're still hurting. Have you given up as well?
“Well,” he continued and tried to pretend he hadn't noticed her lifeless eyes. “What do you want to know?”
“Make up or break up?” Kuri said again.
Ryu sighed. “Break up.”
When did you get that sarcastic? “Maybe I am. Neither of us wanted to.”
With a face turned to stone Kuri met his eyes. “Then you know where I stand. I'm sorry for you, but it's also an opportunity.”
What the hell? “Look, if you're going to behave like a piss ant I'm leaving.”
“Sorry, I apologise.”
“I have a problem, and a suggestion.”
Ryu had a feeling he wouldn't like what was coming. He put down his fork on his plate. “I'm listening.”
“The people at Vogue are trying to pair me up with some kind of idol. I'm less than impressed. Would you like to date me?”
It was a desperate plan, but she was trapped if she didn't do anything. No way in hell she'd let the pigs decide who had access to her body next. So Christina found herself with a problem she couldn't solve.
Until she saw Ryu with his girlfriend. She looked like she had cried her heart out, and for a moment Christina boiled with anger at whatever Ryu had done to the poor girl. Ai-chan was too lovable to hurt like that.
In the end Christina decided to spy on the pair.
She never got close enough to hear anything, but from what she saw they tried to resolve some kind of crisis. She smiled when she saw their embrace, but a spike of pain shot through her immediately after. Should have been me and Ulf. Ulf, where are you?
Then, to her huge surprise, Ryu left Ai-chan and walked back. Christina saw the girl staring after him with an expression of longing and abandonment in her face. Then she broke down in tears and vanished under the bridge.
What the hell just happened? Ryu, you bastard! I'll wring you dry. But his face combined with his words told her another story when they sat over a table with overpriced food. It was at that moment her plan came to her.
“Would you like to date me?”
The two of them hurting for someone they still loved. It would make it all so much easier to explain.
“What?” Ryu said after he wiped a dumbfounded grin off his face.
“I said, would you want to be my boyfriend?”
“What the hell? OK, I'm off.” He grabbed his jacket and left the table.
Christina calmly collected her own and followed him. Her plan was harebrained enough it might just work. She caught up with him just as he entered the elevator.
“Let me explain,” she said on the way down. “It's not what it sounds like. Well, it is, but still not.”
He didn't try to run away from her, so she made him company to the station. Ryu walked a few steps ahead of her, but she could still imagine his stony face. An honest boy. That was the part of him Christina liked most. He made a good friend to both Yukio and Ulf.
Again, thinking of Ulf bled a razor of pain through her. He would always hurt in her mind.
“Ryu,” she said as they swiped their wallets over the receptor at the turn stile. “I'll always love Ulf.”
That had him stop temporarily.
“Make no mistakes about that. Ulf is the only man I could love fully.”
Ryu slowed down enough to make her come up by his side.
“My employer thinks I'm some kind of property they can have and sell as they wish. Now they're trying to force a boyfriend on me.”
For the first time since she dropped the bomb Ryu's face softened a little. “I'm listening.”
“I refuse. If I can show I already have a boyfriend from what the arseholes here consider a good family I'll be off the hook.”
“So pretend boyfriend?”
And here was the catch. “No, boyfriend. We may not be in love with each other, but I'll only do this for real. If it doesn't work out, or if it's too weird, we'll break up. OK?”
She didn't want Ryu to learn how to behave like a player. If he just pretended to be her boyfriend he'd start having girls on the side, and even if Christina wouldn't feel betrayed, she still didn't want him to get used enough to that kind of life to hurt the girls who entered his life after her.
“So you want me to be your real boyfriend when you're still in love with Urufu and I'm in love with Ai-chan?”
Christina nodded. “Yes.”
Then he surprised her. “Let me think about it.”
“Please do, but not longer than before school starts, OK?”
Ryu nodded. “I promise.”
She watched him take his train. There would be another in a few minutes, and she had to respect him enough to give him some time on his own after her absurd suggestion.
From some distance away her bodyguard, the one who had worked with her for over half a year by now, came up to her. “I couldn't help but hear. Are you sure about this?”
Since she slowly crawled up from the hell hole that was leaving Ulf behind, they had begun talking. Not much, but some.
“No,” she said. “I'm not. But if I can't have the man I love, at least I can have control over my own life.”
“Yes miss. I understand.” He had the look of a worried father on his face. Maybe he was one for all she knew. “Please be careful,” he added.
Yeah, you probably are. I wish you a good life. In this life she had decided to treat those who worked with her like people and not like human resources.
“I'm going home. Ready for that bike of yours?”
He smiled. “I'm ready. Just don't leave me behind.”
They took the next train and left at the station where both bikes stood locked to a stand. For once she kept her speed safe and sane. Ulf's birthday gift to her. Whenever she had a chance she rode that bike.
At a red-light she dug into her pocket and picked up her latest gift. Her ring. I can't wear you for much longer. At least not if Ryu agrees. She put it on her finger. Pretend wife. For a few days she'd be a pretend wife.
When Ryu came home far too early from his date with Ai-chan Noriko got worried. She thought of cornering him, but there was something in his face that made her stop. Instead she sent a message to Ai-chan and asked if the girls could meet up. After that she sent one to Kyoko as well.
Only three of us, or maybe that is three of us again. Messaging Kuri was pointless. She worked and worked and worked.
After some delay they decided to meet at the Haven. Ai-chan could make it in almost no time at all, which just served to worry Noriko even more.
What happened today?
She got into her coat, pulled on her best boots and left the house silently so as not to call Ryu's attention to her.
On her hands she wore thin leather gloves, a White Day gift from Nao that taught her a lot about his absolute eye for what suited her. They hugged her fingers, but she'd have been a lot happier if it was Nao doing the hugging. He spent the break working almost as hard as Kuri.
The road to the station took its usual ten minutes, and just three stops later she left. In theory she could have walked to the café; it was just a little too long for comfort. Well, unless you were Urufu, but that maniac walked or cycled just about everywhere.
Thinking of Urufu soured her mood a little. He still hadn't been found.
From station to haven a mere five minutes, and when she got inside James pointed her to the table where Ai-chan sat waiting. Kyoko still hadn't made it there.
Noriko ordered some black tea and a sliver of a cake and walked to the table. When she was almost there Ai-chan turned to greet her.
Gods! What happened today?
With eyes ringed red in a way no make-up could hide Ai-chan gave her a weak smile. “Hi Wakayama-san.”
Always forget you're not part of the club. Not even our school. Still call my brother Ryu-kun? “Hello, thanks for coming on such short notice.” Noriko took a chair and sat down.
Ai-chan sniffled and smiled again. “Don't thank me. I could need someone to talk with right now, and you've always been a good friend.”
“What happened?” No point in avoiding the topic now. Ai-chan had as much as invited her.
“I broke up with Ryu-kun.”
Oh dear! “Did he cheat on you?” Despite being the first words to come to her mouth Noriko didn't believe them even as she spoke.
“No!” For the first time Ai-chan displayed anger rather than heart break. “You have a wonderful brother. He'd never cheat on me!”
OK, so then why?
“I love him, and I can feel he loves me back. He's honest and good and kind.”
Don't tell me this is a repeat of Kuri and Urufu! “Why, then why did you break up?” Noriko sipped some tea while she waited for Ai-chan's answer. She must have known the question would come, but maybe an answer didn't come easy anyway.
Biting her lower lip, Ai-chan looked like she had problems deciding whether to tell or not. “Dad,” she said eventually. “It's dad.”
But for the love of all gods! What's with adults and breaking couples up? So it was a repeat after all. “Who broke up?”
Noriko immediately regretted that question. No sobbing, but Ai-chan's face tore open in a silent display of desperate hurt. One tear ran all the way down to her chin and dropped into her tea cup.
“I did. I called him out and broke up with him.” She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “But I still love him! Am I a bad girl?”
No, she really wasn't. Too abrasive by far for Noriko's tastes, but despite that still a sweet girl. “I think Ryu likes you still,” Noriko said. There had been that look in his face when he came back home. No, he really still did have feelings for her.
Over the door the bell chimed, and Kyoko came inside. Noriko saw her turning her head, searching for them both until James gave her a helping hand.
She ordered something and walked between tables and chairs to join them. When she came closer she made a big 'O' with her mouth. Noriko guessed she had discovered Ai-chan's swollen face.
“Is it Ryu? I'll kick him between his legs if he hurt you!”
And Ai-chan broke down again. This time her sobs carried all over the café.
“I don't think my idiot bro is at fault this time,” Noriko said silently. So much easier if it had been his wrongdoing. “I think,” she continued and took a bite of her cake. She barely noticed the taste. “I think this is more of the fallout from what we did earlier.”
Kyoko nodded and sat down. As a supporting person she was much more sensible than Noriko, the latter noted when Kyoko buried Ai-chan's face in a bear hug. “So, so. Just cry.”
A bit ashamed she had lost out in humanity, Noriko took one of Ai-chan's hands in her own. She patted it, unsure what people usually did in situations like these. When Kuri crashed in their old clubroom she had given her a blanket, but she spent that afternoon listening to Kuri crying her heart out from a safe distance. Maybe it's not just a western thing to touch your friends when they're hurting.
Maybe she suffered from some emotional flaw. Noriko couldn't remember breaking down. Not really. She had hurt when Urufu rejected her and chose Kuri instead, but breaking down? No. I always thought only weak people did. But Urufu was one of the strongest she knew, and Yukio had told her his friend crashed into a sobbing wreck late Valentine's night.
Maybe I'm the one who needs changing. Noriko patted Ai-chan's hand. Clumsily, but she kept on patting it hoping it offered at least a glimmer of comfort.
Ryu allowed Mars to turn into April before he made his mind up. He missed Ai-chan, but not as much as he had feared, and that made him a little disgusted with himself. If he was this callous, then he needed someone to watch over him, and who better suited than Kuri, with her lifelong experience from life?
“Are you still sure about this?” he asked her. They sat in the same café as when she had dropped the bomb three days earlier.
“No, she said. I'm anything but sure, but I'm running out of time.”
“So, what do we do, and why me?”
“Look, I'll be absolutely honest with you. I see you as a boy, an honest, decent and good boy, but a boy still.”
Ryu nodded. He already knew that. “So why me?” he repeated.
“Because you have everything that would make you grow up into a good and decent man. Because your have your name, and because in my world your looks could make the idiots I'm working with believe we're really a couple.”
He listened to her reasons, almost a short speech.
“I'll take the good and decent parts,” he said and grinned. “My looks are only a tool. They don't define who I am.”
Kuri grimaced. “They do, to a much greater degree than you can understand yet.” She tuned that grimace into a smile, as beatifically gorgeous as always. “People react to you because of how you look, and you can't avoid being coloured by those reactions.”
Ryu didn't really understand, but he had no reasons not to believe her, even if she was biased because of her line of work. Instead he nodded pretence that he had understood.
“Ulf could explain better than I do. He was always better at explaining.” Her smile turned into one of longing and sadness. “He should have explained better.”
She was miles away. Ryu read in her eyes how she followed him in her mind wherever he had gone with his bike. Probably shared the road with him on the bike he had given her as a present.
Then his eyes fell on her left hand. A ring glittered on it, a large brilliant catching the lights in the café.
She must have seen him looking at it. “Is it time for me to take it off?”
Huh? “Sorry, I didn't mean...”
“Is this the last day I wear the ring?” she interrupted. “Are you my boyfriend or not?”
So it was finally time to voice his decision. “Yes, provided you really are my girlfriend.”
With a bitter smile she put her right hand over his. “Then we're dating.” She couldn't prevent tears from welling up in her eyes, but none dropped as she pulled the ring off her finger. “I'll save this. It's a memory. I'll have memories.”
I wonder what happens next. Ryu pulled her hand over the table and cradled it in his own. She hadn't worn the ring long enough for it to make a mark on her finger. Memories only. Not even a lingering mark to prove you two were together.
He had gained a girlfriend. He had lost a friend in doing so, because he doubted Urufu would accept the sudden turn of events. He hadn't even have time to lose his love. Ai-chan still ached in his heart. I guess it makes us one of a kind. Boyfriend and girlfriend still in love with another.
At least he considered Kuri one of his best friends. At least that, even if they were a couple now. Something they could start from. Something they could share.
Can I learn to love you again? He didn't know.
“You're silent,” Kuri said. She hadn't pulled back her hand. It still lay in his hand, long, slender and cool to his touch. A beautiful hand, just like the rest of her was beautiful.
The smile he received carried some happiness in it. “And he already begins. Thinking. Don't you dare to copy him!”
Huh? Oh, yes, Urufu always try to think things through. Ryu hadn't thought of it that way. Did Urufu over-think everything?
“Yes he does,” Kuri said. She had this way of almost reading people's mind. A long time ago it had scared him a little, but not any more.
“Should we invite your bodyguard to our table,” Ryu said instead.
“Oh, so you noticed?”
He had. Ryu always knew of the people around him. “He's very discreet,” Ryu said in an attempt to make an excuse for Kuri's bodyguard. He really wasn't, all that discreet that was. Ryu had seen him throw them worried glances for most of their lunch.
Kuri waived him to their table and he took a seat.
“Wakayama Ryu,” Ryu offered.
“Pleased to meet you. I'm afraid my profession prevents me from disclosing my name,” the man said.
“I guess,” Ryu said. “Well, Kuri, now what?” he asked and turned his attention to her. “Do we make some kind of grand announcement, or do we just let it filter out through the rumour mill?
“I got myself a tactician this time. Filter out.”
“I need to know, are Ai-chan and Urufu taboo subjects when we speak from now on?”
“Gods no! Why would I do something like that to us two? You know, and I know.”
He nodded. “But if things change?”
“If things… Oh, I see. Just tell me if your feelings change, will you.”
But you won't, because your feelings won't. OK, I can live with that. “I will,” he said. Poor Ai-chan. When she gets to know about this. But maybe it was better this way. If she got angry enough with him she'd move on faster. “You do the same,” he added to remind her it wasn't very polite implying he was the only one who could have a change of heart.
Kuri gave him a peculiar look in return. One filled with a little amusement. “If that happens you'll be the first to know.” A mischievous grin followed the words.
The last Sunday of their spring break Yukio was supposed to meet Ryu, who wanted to tell him something strange that happened.
The last Sunday of their spring break Yukio sat together with Kyoko, listening to a Sato-sensei livid with rage.
Two older men he had never seen before listened to her yelling, together with Principal Nakagawa; former Principal Nakagawa. He was retired now.
From time to time Principal Nakagawa spiced Sato-sensei's yelling with a few choice curses of his own. They were both very much in agreement.
As for Yukio, he stared at the display in bewilderment, and by his side Kyoko sat looking scared. As scared as he was himself.
A minute earlier her father had stormed out of the room screaming obscenities that would have had him expelled had he been a student at Himekaizen. Yukio agreed with all of them, every single curse accentuated exactly what he felt.
“… don't care what you think you fucking whore-sons! They're getting an escort, and that's final!”
“Please Lieutenant Colonel Sato! Shut the hell up and do as you're ordered! They gave me this rank just because I'd outrank you.”
Kyoko covered her ears.
“Ma'am!” Both men came to attention.
“It's just the...” one of them tried.
“Just the what?”
“The arms. Why an armed escort?”
Sato-sensei stared at the man with thunder in her eyes. “Because they were assaulted by a gun-toting maniac, one who shot and killed a police! Were you two born morons, or did you need some special education to lower your intelligence that way?”
Yukio noted how Principal Nakagawa grinned wildly at the assessment. One of them looked at him for help.
“No no,” he said. “I wouldn't use her language, but none of you two fill the requirements to be accepted to Himekaizen.”
Which was just about the same as using Sato-sensei's language.
One of the men reddened and tried to rise, only to be dragged back down by his colleague.
“Ma'am, we need solid evidence first.”
“Are you trying to tell me Kareyoshi managed to hide even one of the tracks leading back to him? Her bloody father fucking managed to dig him up!” Sato-sensei pointed at Kyoko who still sat with her hands over he ears.
'Her father' hadn't, not really. After he started making questions Yukio made a digital excursion of his own, and with Kyoko's father watching over his back the screen soon filled with an intricate net of information all pointing back at their English teacher. Now Yukio understood what Urufu meant when he said Kareyoshi needed a dictionary to find the meaning of the word discreet, and that he'd still fail understanding it.
“Ma'am, is that armed escort an order?” The protests had gone out of his voice.
“Finally! Yes, with that murderer taking the helm I'm not risking anything.”
And so it was decided. As soon as they could muster the men, Yukio and Kyoko would go to school and leave school with an armed bodyguard. Yukio wasn't so certain the reason was their safety, more likely that Sato-sensei wanted Kareyoshi to know that the other side knew about everything he had done.
Looks like a fun second year, Yukio thought glumly. Well, as long as he had Kyoko he could face anything.
They left the nondescript building that had served as Kyoko's private hospital a couple of months earlier. The surgical facility was still inside, somewhere. He didn't have a lot of good memories from the place and tried his best at forgetting.
“Urufu, heard anything?” Sato-sensei asked when she drove them home.
Yukio shook his head. He guessed Kyoko did the same from the back seat. He didn't have Urufu's technical skills when it came to digging up a presence on the net. His skills lay in his understanding of dozens of communities, and the contacts he made on them. While some of his otaku contacts were bat shit crazy they were still very good at sniffing out stuff online.
“Sorry, Sato-sensei,” Yukio said in case she hadn't understood his gesture. “He's gone, but he can take care of himself.”
She looked at him when they stopped at a red-light. “You trust him that much?”
“We both do,” Kyoko said. “You know, this is the first time I've seen him hurt. He just needs some time to think things over.”
Think things over. Yeah, man, that's what you usually do. But it was a fine mess Urufu put himself into this time. I just hope you're right, Kyoko.
Sato-sensei must have seen his hesitation. “But you're still worried, aren't you?”
“Yes, yes we are. I wonder where he is.”
When Sato-sensei didn't say anything, Yukio took his phone and sent Ryu a message. Maybe they could still meet, even if it meant being a little late.
By the time they reached Kyoko's home Ryu still hadn't answered. He still hadn't when Yukio unlocked his own door. That was reason enough to call him, but now Ryu's phone was out of service, just like Urufu's.
Well, they'd meet tomorrow. If it wasn't important enough for Ryu to keep his phone on, Yukio guessed whatever it was Ryu wanted to talk about could wait another day.
Yukio announced his arrival, but the flat was dark. His mother was probably out shopping. With the flat for himself he drew a bath and prepared to wait for her. At least he had someone to wait for.
Urufu, damn it! What the hell are you doing? Where are you?
Just outside Hiroshima Ulf heard a voice calling his name. His real name, not the Japanese pronunciation of it.
What the hell?
He stood by his bike outside a convenience store, and there just wasn't any way he could pretend he hadn't heard.
How did they find me? Oh well, I guess it was bound to happen.
“Who's asking,” he said.
“I am,” a man in his forties answered in Swedish.
An arrival? Bloody hell, it's Christina's grandpa!
“You took ages to track down, but just vanishing off the net won't stop someone like me. I'm too old for that crap anyway.”
He would be. Ninety, a hundred? Well, something like that. “What do you want, Mitsuo?” Ulf said, likewise in Swedish.
“They're looking for you, your friends you know.”
Ulf nodded. He knew. “What about it?” He couldn't depend on their friendship just yet, so he tried to sound as callous as possible.
“I heard you hurt my Tina.”
So he's here on a revenge trip. “She hurt herself. I helped,” Ulf admitted. Thinking of her ripped a hole in his heart.
“I heard she hurt you,” Mitsuo said.
OK, so not a revenge trip after all. “We weren't too smart, I guess,” Ulf said. “Too late now.”
Mitsuo shrugged. “I disagree. When they're dead, or you've transited, then it's too late, and sometimes not even then.”
Ulf suspected Mitsuo thought of how he met Christina in this world. “That's not why you had me tracked down, is it Mitsuo?”
Mitsuo smirked. “No,” he agreed. “It's not. I think you're both idiots, but I'm no matchmaker. I need to speak with you about killing.”
“I already made it clear that murders are unacceptable.”
“Does that include those directly involved in the attack on your friends?”
Ulf took a deep breath. For a moment he hesitated. Those directly involved. That would include the one who shot Amaya's friend. For a short time he fought a battle in his mind. His Swedish pacifist upbringing versus what had happened.
“Ulf, I need an answer.”
“Wait!” The morally right thing to do, or the right thing to do? “Kill them!” he said to his own surprise, and for the first time since the kidnapping attempt he remembered the sound of gunshots in the car he rode. How his daughter received the wounds she eventually died from. “Kill them all!”
“Whoa! Now you wait a moment. What do you mean by all?”
“Only those directly involved. Take them out. No torture, no talking, no nothing. Just kill them!”
“And those responsible?”
Ulf smiled, and then he felt his smile widen into a grin. He saw how, for a moment, Mitsuo flinched before he regained his composure.
“Sano-sensei,” Ulf said, for the first time using the polite way of addressing his senior, “I don't want them to die. That's too easy. I want them to live long and horrible lives.”
Mitsuo took a step back. “I can see why Tina fell for you. I hope you were good to her, because she never was to herself.”
“You'll have to ask her,” Ulf said. He heard how harsh that sounded, but talking about her hurt. “I can't presume to know, but I tried. If I was enough I don't know.”
“But you think you tried your best? That will suffice for me.” Then a calculating grin spread over Mitsuo's face. “Who's the most important for you, you or Tina?”
“I am.” Ulf's answer came immediately. His daughter's death taught him the hard way that the people depending on him would fall if he didn't take care of himself. If he didn't, who would?
“I'd die for her.” That answer also came immediately. When the loss was absolute he'd step aside. Besides, a world without Christina, even if she was no longer his girlfriend, was no world worth living in. It would be, some day, Ulf knew that, but not today.
“So you really are a being of two worlds,” Mitsuo said. “Like my daughter.”
Ulf knew what he meant. Not this world and the other one, but Sweden and Japan. He was Swedish through and through, but sometimes he looked upon life in ways that was different from those around him.
That had been harder when he was a child, but as he grew up more and more people around him shared the sense of standing with a foot each in a different world. The new generation of Swedes.
In the end Ulf just nodded consent. Mitsuo knew, but he could never truly understand. He had moved from one world to another, not stayed his life in one, always listening to a shadow of the unknown.
“Did you get the answers you came for?” Ulf asked. He wanted to end the conversation and continue his hike.
“I did.” A darkness fell over Mitsuo's face. “Don't take too long. They need you. My Tina needs you.”
What? “Why, what do you mean?”
“She's dying inside. I met her. Even if you two can't be a couple, she still needs you close to her. Please, if not for yourself, then for my little Tina!”
Ulf dropped the food he had just bought into his bags. He didn't need to hear that Christina was hurting. “I can't promise anything. When I'm ready I'll return.”
“If that's the best you can do then I'll have to settle for that.” First Mitsuo made as if to leave, but then he stopped. “May I tell your friends?”
Ulf had known that question would come up. “I'm sorry, but you can't. I need this time. This is my spring break.”
“I know, let's just call it an extended spring break.”
Mitsuo bowed. “I acknowledge you,” he said and left the parking place.
Ulf stood left behind. The meeting with Christina's grandfather had signalled an end to something, and a new beginning. Now Ulf needed to reach that beginning before he hurt his friends even more.
Not tomorrow, but a few days more. I'll heal. I have to heal. Christina, I love you.