There was, Yukio decided for himself, a certain perverted satisfaction in watching Himekaizen descending to hell while he was doing the watching from the outside.
He never told Kyoko. Even lovers held secrets from each other. Total honesty hurt more than it provided. In her case doubly so since her best friend, and his, both were stuck in that hellhole. She’d be angry with him for being so callous about what Kuri had to live through, and she’d be aghast he held the same attitude towards Urufu’s fate.
Thing was, Yukio couldn’t care any longer. No matter what atrocities the madman playing at being principal threw after their best friends, it didn’t even come close to what they inflicted on each other.
This was the reversal of his and Kyoko’s drawn out shyness from last summer, one that bordered on idiocy. One that kept them from becoming a couple for a full two months during which they each knew their feelings were mutual, and still none of them made a move.
In Urufu’s and Kuri’s case it was a shared love they both decided to destroy, and in doing so they kept hurting each other and those closest to them. In the end Yukio grew sick of watching the horror show.
He’d been on the verge of cutting contact with his best friend when suddenly the lunatic five from Sweden arrived and made everything interesting again. Ai’s big brother Jun who chased after skirt a continent away, and the love chain trio. The chased after skirt was here as well, and despite being a bubbly ball of never ending happy energy Jenny-sempai was by a wide margin the most sane of the bunch.
Secretly Yukio doubted if the honorific ‘sempai’ should be applied to the insane, but they were fun to watch, and something in how they talked and reacted made Yukio suspect that each of them would easily have made it into a prestigious university had they been Tokyoites.
The cut-off was four point three for my year, Urufu had once told him. A high school where the weakest admitted student averaged above four on a scale from one to five was scary. With perfect grades when he graduated, Urufu had merely been one of almost half a dozen in his class, and classes were apparently smaller in Sweden than in Japan.
Scariest of all, while Yukio could accept that Urufu’s English was better than Jeniferu-chan’s, despite her being from the US, that both Jenny-sempai and Alexanderu-sempai matched her was beyond the pale. English was still a foreign language in Sweden, just as it was in Japan.
At the moment he tested his own English out.
“Surprisingly good for a Japanese,” Rika-sempai commented, as she had done several times before. Not only to him, but to just about every junior in the club.
“I had a good teacher,” Yukio said and turned to Alexanderu-sempai to continue the conversation Rika-sempai had just interrupted.
“It was fun, and very cool,” Alexanderu-sempai said, but Yukio felt the graduate had his attention fixed on the girl he was infatuated with.
Why don’t you just move on. She rejected you. But Yukio suspected it wasn’t all that easy.
They stood waiting for the water bus to arrive and take most of the club and the lunatic five to the beach out in the Tokyo bay. With finals looming closer this was probably the last chance they had to spend time together for two weeks.
“So,” Yukio started, “hot springs in this weather made sense after all?”
Alexanderu-sempai nodded, and from the corner of his eye Yukio saw Rika-sempai do the same.
Most of the other students hung around the ice cream parlour a bit away; hardly surprising as it was Kuri’s treat. For once she made them company, which meant the entire place was packed with body guards and Vogue employees.
They’d have a shoot at the beach, and for that reason Vogue paid for everyone’s fares. Kuri must have forced the issue one way or another.
“Sorry?” Yukio said when he realised he hadn’t listened to Rika-sempai’s question.
“Those two, who are they?”
Yukio looked at Kuri and Ryu holding hands surrounded by people from Vogue, but he knew the question wasn’t about Ryu. “Kuri and Nao. They’re models and students at Himekaizen,” Yukio said.
“I think I’ve seen them before.”
They’re plastered to the walls all over Tokyo. Of course you’ve seen them. “They’re kind of famous here,” he said instead. At least that was true for Kuri. She was the foreign teenage femme fatale, which made her a lot more interesting than the well behaved Takado Nao. Cute was the last thing Kuri tried to be.
“Funny,” Alexanderu-sempai said, “she’s got a professional make up. I could have sworn they didn’t know how to do Europeans here.”
We can’t. She had to teach them if what she told me last year is true.
“And she actually looks good in that school uniform. That tall she really should look like a scare crow,” Rika-sempai unhelpfully added.
Yukio looked at Kuri again. He didn’t know fashion at all, but in his eyes Kuri had always looked a little like a scarecrow. He set his eyes on Kyoko from the very start after all.
He let his eyes wander across the pier. By the rails Jun-sempai and Jenny-sempai looked very much like the cute couple they were. Almost by their side, but not close enough to be a disturbance, Ai-chan kept her distance from Ryu while keeping an eye on her older brother.
An occasional gust of wind mitigated the oppressive heat, and Yukio followed a small piece of paper as it danced all the way to where Emma-sempai stood with her ice-cream in her hand and for once seemed to have forgotten all about Alexanderu-sempai. A second year club member from Irishima High made an insincere attempt to hit on her, but she just laughed him away in a way that told Yukio she didn’t mind being friends with the younger student.
You lunatic five, you’re just another side of Urufu. Have you come here to change us a little, to make us more like Urufu himself? Yukio didn’t know from where the question came, but he committed it to memory anyway. It could come in handy later.
With their five guests boarding the water taxi Noriko made a decision. If she wanted to truly get closer to Urufu she had to be a little more like him without ever losing sight of herself.
So, how to change without changing, or rather, how to change while still staying true to herself?
By now she knew Urufu somehow accepted, and even condoned, a certain amount of falsehood, but he utterly despised people who didn’t dare to see themselves for who they were, which probably was the main reason for him breaking down at the very end of their first high school year – he had betrayed himself.
Noriko waited for the photographers to load their equipment before she followed them. Normally she’d prefer to sit indoors, but joining him at the aft wasn’t really something she had to force herself to do.
He made her feel safe. He made her feel giddy. He made her feel strong, but foremost of all he made her feel the full joy of youth.
That he wasn’t hers to have didn’t change any of that, and for that reason alone she’d give this opportunity her all, now when both he and Kuri agreed on taking the worst of all paths for themselves. Noriko suspected she might not get to keep him forever, but whatever time she managed to squeeze out of him was better than no time at all.
A slap in the small of her back brought her out of her daydreaming and Noriko turned to face her very own idiot bro, who for once wasn’t clinging to Kuri.
“How’s love?” she asked and continued on her way to the door leading out to the planking. An answer wasn’t really needed.
“Just fine, and you?” it came anyway.
Noriko didn’t even turn to answer. She just waved with her hand above her shoulder. Hers was just fine, thank you very much. It was just Urufu who didn’t cooperate when it came to being reeled in.
Right now she didn’t want to talk with Ryu. Rika, or even Jun, were her targets. Oh, I forgot the honorifics! And there it was. A small detail that would make her a little bit more like Urufu. Dropping honorifics when they weren’t really needed. A stupid thing that he was certain to notice even if he never showed it.
Noriko felt a smile spread as she entered the sun. While the sea certainly lowered the temperature a bit it was still oppressively hot, but all five visitors preferred being outdoors whenever the sun shone, much like Kuri and Urufu. A Swedish thing, Urufu had said.
For once Kuri wasn’t, but Noriko saw Urufu’s back where he sat and explained something to Jenny and Alexanderu in Swedish.
Turning right Noriko joined Rika and Jun. She looked after Emma and saw her seated in conversation with Tomasu and Jeniferu. The sight made Noriko smirk a little. Jeniferu definitely had better luck reeling Tomasu in than she herself had with Urufu.
“Excuse me,” Noriko said.
“Yes?” Rika said.
Jun nodded assent as well.
“I have a question about relationships,” Noriko continued.
“Ask him,” Rika answered. “I’ve never been in one.” The last sentence came out so harshly that Noriko wondered if the older girl carried some bad memories as luggage.
Jun gave Rika a long stare as well but said nothing.
“But maybe you know how things work over there,” Noriko tried. She had to tread carefully around Rika. She was all too much like herself, or rather what Noriko recalled of herself before her friendship with the people had changed her during their first high school year. Rika reminded her a little of Hitomi, but without the graceful self assurance that was a natural part of the beautiful girl.
“I guess you mean Sweden?” Jun said when Rika threw Noriko an angry glare.
Noriko waited for the sound of engines to die down a little as they slowly left the pier. Behind Rika’s and Jun’s head the scenery changed to a background of silvery sky scrapers.
She nodded. “Yes, Sweden.”
Jun glanced in the direction where Urufu sat. “Because of him?”
Noriko knew she was fidgeting, but she disliked feeling so transparent. Rather than answering she offered Jun a short nod.
Jun tilted his head in thought. “You know,” he said after a while. “People are people wherever they are. It’s not like everyone is the same just because they come from Sweden.”
Noriko understood that. She stared across the water while she ransacked her brain for a better question.
“Urufu says the sky’s clearer there,” she said, remembering something from last summer. “So there are aspects which are common for a place.” She could just as well accept that they knew she was crushing on Urufu. “He even comes from the city where you live, so if I narrow it down like that?”
“He’s from Göteborg? Then I guess he’s rather direct.”
Noriko grinned. “Yeah, yes he is. Very direct that is.”
“So tell him how you feel.”
That turned her grin into a grimace. “Already did. Several times.”
Jun gave her a thoughtful stare. “If he’s not interested then I don’t see how it could work out.”
“He doesn’t avoid me,” Noriko said. “We’ve even been out together, just the two of us.”
The stare grew angrier. “He didn’t strike me as a player. I suggest you be careful around him then.”
“No. No he isn’t a player.” Noriko thought about what to say. “It’s complicated, but I know he’d never deliberately hurt me.”
“Are you really sure about that?” The words were Rika’s, and the edge to them made Noriko certain Rika had experienced something bad and burned herself.
“Absolutely certain.” Because she was. Worst case she’d be hurt, but that would be her hurting herself because she refused to give up on Urufu.
“Boys always do as soon as they get a chance.”
“Rika! Have you ever seen me hurt Jenny?”
Noriko sighed. The conversation was veering into a strange direction, and she decided to just listen as they made their way out into the bay.
After arriving at Odaiba, a man made island in the bay with a perfectly decent beach, Christina was whisked away to the neighbouring shopping mall with Ryu in her tow.
Ulf swore at himself for noticing how her boyfriend did the only thing decent and tagged along with her for her photo shoot rather than getting some good fun by the water front.
With a thin grin Ulf kept up the conversation with Jenny, Alexander and Emma. While it was a joy listening to and speaking Swedish again, he did so more out of loyalty than anything else, and it grated somewhat inside him since he guessed Noriko interrogated Rika and Jun in search for whatever tidbits she believed would help her in her campaign.
Moron! But a very fun moron. I don’t dislike you, and it’s not like I’m not charmed, but I’ll be damned before I start preying on a child. Because she was, even though she had matured a lot during the last year.
He shook the thought away and returned a half hearted laugh at what had obviously been a joke of some kind before he turned his honest attention to the conversation he was, after all, part of.
A little further ahead Jennifer kept Thomas under close guard, and where Noriko was good company who had to rely on her proving she was a good enough friend to keep around, Jennifer had the ability to blast everyone around her with that amazing charisma of hers. Thomas stood absolutely no chance, and it would hardly be fair to say he was preying on her.
And where’s the difference? Ulf pushed that thought away. There was a difference. Noriko wasn’t Jennifer.
“I don’t get it,” Ulf said to change the topic. “You don’t have a problem being around each other at all?”
Alexander shrugged. “Emma knows how I feel. Has known from the start, but she’s still maybe the best friend I’ve ever had.”
Ulf turned to Emma. She shrugged as well. “If it gets too hard for me I’ll just avoid him,” she said and nodded at Alexander.
Ulf shook his head. It still didn’t make sense, and he wasn’t thinking about the ludicrous situation, but rather the interpersonal balance between them.
“He tries anything funny and I make sure hell caves in around him,” Jenny said, and all of a sudden the pieces came together. She guaranteed balance between the other two, and Rika would never get involved anyway unless she changed her mind about Alexander, in which case Emma would be hurt but the situation defused anyway.
Satisfied with getting a good enough answer for his question Ulf allowed himself to drink a lungful of sea breeze. Brutally hot or not, the sea was still the sea, and getting inside the water from time to time would handle the worst of the heat.
They followed the beach walk to dressing rooms and toilets, and club members split up to change.
Ulf threw a stare of longing at the beach restaurant closest to them, but he suspected his current body wouldn’t enjoy a cold beer the same way his old self had done. Illegal or not had little to do with taste, and if he remembered correctly he’d been twenty before he really started to like the stuff.
It probably would taste the same anyway. Swedish beer was sweeter, and he’d been smoking a packet of cigarettes per day back then, which certainly didn’t help with his sense of taste.
Dressed in surfer shorts and with all his belongings in his backpack Ulf made his way to where most of the members were already gathering.
This time a bunch of starstruck freshmen gathered courage enough to crowd him. By now his attitude combined with overblown rumours about him and Kuri elevated him to some kind of hero hood. They’d come to their senses soon enough, but at the moment he felt a little awkward.
Then he understood why more than a few of them stood staring at him. Sure, partially his current status helped. But that wasn’t it, was it?
Sunken into deep depression after Christina broke up with him he turned to the oldest of drugs. Two days of brutal training every week became, first three, then four and sometimes five.
It showed. He’d never before, in both his lives, been in better physical condition than he was right now.
So a lot of his fellow club members stared at him. Some in awe, some in envy, and some, he understood gratefully, in disdain.
With far less gratitude he observed that not all of those staring were club members, and just as he was about to dryly observe that they had no reason to, realisation struck him.
He might look Japanese, but the Swedish half in him didn’t just add six or seven centimetres to his frame; it allowed him to bulk up in ways that would have been difficult had he been Japanese only in origin. His idea of being slim despite hard training mirrored his experience from living in Sweden. Here he was visibly muscular.
By his side Emma, Alexander and Jenny arrived – Noriko still tried to monopolise Jun and Rika, but by now quite a few club members had joined her side in an attempt to listen in to what the new star student was talking about with their foreign guests.
Ulf grinned when he saw how she tried to balance being polite with her rising mire.
Then he realised that staring at her lithe body conjured a flashing fantasy of taking her to his bed, and he slammed an iron curtain around his imagination. Breaking up with Christina apparently brought the seediest parts of him to the surface, and he looked down at his own feet in self disgust.
“You know, if you’re not interested, you should just tell her so,” came Jenny’s voice from his side. Then she grabbed his stomach just out of nowhere. “Jun, why don’t you get some of these?” she shouted in English.
What the hell are you doing?
From further down the beach Jenny’s boyfriend looked back at them. He gave Ulf a stare filled with a mix of annoyance and glee. “Sorry. You get the me that is. Take it or leave it!”
It warmed. For the first time that day Ulf filled with feelings of pure joy as Jenny left him for a sprint that ended in Jun’s arms. Some people got it right. He might himself.
Yukio grinned when Hitomi-chan smirked and shook her head so much that her long hair swirled around her head. She was exactly the kind of beauty who didn’t make Kyoko uncomfortable, the slender type, like Kuri.
Right now Hitomi-chan exaggerated a show of disdain for Urufu and Kuri to the joy of their friends.
“She broke up with that?”
Yukio followed Hitomi-chan’s finger with his eyes until the straight line pierced Urufu a little further down the beach. “He was skinnier back then,” Yukio said in Urufu’s defence, or if it was Kuri’s. He wasn’t certain himself.
“Is she daft?”
Yukio’s head swivelled almost by itself. He was just that surprised. Kyoko?
“She’s my best friend. Doesn’t make her immune to stupidity.”
There wasn’t much more to do than agree. Urufu was his best friend after all, and by every deity that ever existed, and most that didn’t as well, that guy sure as hell wasn’t immune to stupidity. He probably used that oversized brain of his to invent new kinds of stupid.
Both Yukio and Kyoko joined Hitomi-chan in the shaking of heads and pointing fingers. It caused a small ruckus, and friends around them cackled with glee in a most unjapanese way. Being around arrivals for too long must be infectious.
“What’s going on?”
Yukio stopped shaking his head long enough to notice Noriko who had walked up to them with three of their guests, Rika-sempai, Jenny-sempai and Jun-sempai.
He quickly explained, which had Noriko join them in the head shaking, much to the surprised mirth of their guests.
“And you call us strange,” Rika-sempai said.
“You’re strange. They’re just sad.”
Yukio glanced at Noriko after she spat out that comment. It was a little like the old, cynical Noriko. “Look, guys, let’s head into the shade for a while.” It wasn’t really like he needed to get out of the sun, but Noriko’s voice just now gave him a sour taste in his mouth.
Just as he was about to leave for the beach walk Kyoko took his hand and shook her head. “If we’re here I’ll swim, and you’re joining me.”
Yukio just couldn’t resist a request like that from Kyoko, so he followed her down to the water and tried to recall his swimming lessons. Almost there they were overtaken by their squealing guests who rushed into the sea and started playing in the water like they had been born in it.
And I thought Sweden was too cold for bathing. Either it wasn’t, or the people living there had grown used to ice cold water like polar bears, because only Jun-sempai looked a little awkward between girlfriend and girlfriend’s best friend. Rika-sempai might have been born in Japan, but she certainly had gotten used to parts of the Swedish which lay beyond Yukio’s understanding.
Then Yukio got into the water himself, still clasping Kyoko’s hand. It was steeper than he had expected, and he soon had to try his skills at swimming.
The water was cool, but in the baking sun that only came as a relief. Still, he only managed a few metres in water that had a life of its own, totally unlike the stale water of a pool. To his surprise keeping afloat was easier in the sea though.
Yukio felt he enjoyed it all, and he regretted not having gone into the water last year when they spent weeks by the ocean.
He let himself be carried by a wave, and when he looked at the shore it was further away than he remembered. At that time Jun-sempai came up beside him.
“You know,” he said and paused to take a breath, “you shouldn’t swim out like this if you’re unused to it.”
Yukio almost answered with an angry retort, but the next wave dunked him and when he resurfaced a smidgeon of worry built inside.
“Jun, get him ashore!”
Yukio turned in the water to see where Rika-sempai’s voice had come from, but he suddenly stared into Jenny-sempai’s face.
“If you can’t swim then please get back, will you?” she said in English.
But I can swim, what’s the problem?
“Jenny, get him back. I’ll help.”
Jenny-sempai gave Jun-sempai a nonplussed look, and then her boyfriend laughed and said something in Swedish.
“Yukio, please float on your back. I’ll support you.” With those words she swam under him and came up by his head. “Fantastic weather today,” she said and grabbed him under his arms.
Then he felt her legs moving under him and there was a feeling of being tugged. Yukio could feel her breasts pressing against his back every time she kicked out with her legs. Soon enough Rika-sempai and Jun-sempai turned up beside them and Yukio was dragged upright.
“OK Yukio, let’s get this clear,” Jun-sempai said, “these kids learned to swim in the sea.” He pointed at the three native born Swedes. “If they say water’s dangerous the rest of us had better listen.”
Yukio hardly listened, because as soon as Jenny-sempai could stand she waded to her boyfriend, and now a long string of worried words in Swedish poured out of her.
“What’s that about?”
“You put Jun in danger, and now she’s angry with him, or worried,” Rika-sempai said. “Yukio, the ocean isn’t a pool, not even when protected like this,” she added and swept her hand across the surface to show him how the man made inlet made the beach almost a little like a very large pool. “If you’re careless like this at an ordinary beach it could become dangerous for real.” She smirked. “Jenny’s my best friend. If you make her worry I’ll get angry with you.”
Yukio felt more than a little shame and nodded.
“What are you guys up to?” That was Kyoko’s voice.
He looked at her, but in her face he couldn’t read anything that gave away that she had even been aware of the small drama unfolding.
“If you make your girlfriend worry I’ll be angry as well,” Rika-sempai said and grinned.
Yukio returned a thin smile and sent her a silent thanks.
Through the windows Christina saw Yukio drifting away from the beach just to be promptly returned by Jenny. Watching the petite girl pulling him back with a life guard grip made Christina panic a little, but it was all over so quickly she never had the chance to become really afraid.
Idiot, what were you thinking? It’s the ocean and not a timid little pool. Besides, swimming isn’t allowed here, or wasn’t in the other world.
Christina turned and faced the photographers. Crap, I botched the shot! “Sorry, I saw something disturbing. Retake?”
She saw the man growling silently, and he had all rights to do so. She’d just wasted a good shot with the sun streaming through the windows, and now they needed to wait until it returned from behind the cloud where it was hidden.
Christina glanced at the clouds and ran to the second set followed by surprised stares and more than a few angry glares.
“You’ll want some with neutral light. It’ll be a few minutes before the sun’s back again. What about it?”
Of all those present only her personal photographer, Kinoshita Dai, had the brains to move his gear from the moment she looked at the other set. Kinoshita Dai, an arrival like herself, and one of the best photographers she had encountered during her two lives.
They were inside the shopping mall. Inside a shop for surfing and beach volley attire more specifically. The cost for the shoot most likely surpassed what the shop made during an entire month, but the owner could easily afford it. This was part of a nation wide campaign using the Odaiba beach and mall as a lure for city youth.
Sitting in a chair by the wall Ryu returned her glance. Her boyfriend, but not really the man she loved. Still, she had grown fond of him despite his many shortcomings.
He was an idiot for missing out on the fun at the beach, but in truth she was grateful for his company. For some odd reason it dulled her longing for Ulf.
The shot drew out, and Christina had time to change into several bathing suits before the sun finally graced them with its presence again. By that time most of the club members had withdrawn under parasols, and Christina noted that only their Swedish guests still played along in the water, and of those the tomboy’s boyfriend, Jun, seemed reluctant even from this distance.
That wasn’t, she admitted to herself, entirely true. A bit further out in the bay Ulf clumsily did backstrokes, and had he been born here she would have been worried. As it was she saw how he lazily bobbed up and down on the waves whenever he got tired.
Then he had enough and made for the beach with heavy breast strokes. Just the way he had been taught once, just as they had both been taught once. Now the kids learned how to crawl – it was a more efficient way of swimming after all.
All at once forty years of life slammed into her. She missed her innocence and ignorance. In ways she missed her childhood more than her first youth, because memories from that youth were exactly what brought her to choose her career above love. Both times.
She hated herself.
Strong arms held her from behind, and it took a while before she realised she wasn’t dreaming. It wasn’t Ulf.
Ryu? She turned. Have you grown that fond of me? She smiled through her tears. Thank you!
He was her boyfriend now. Slowly becoming one for real as well, because despite her saying that she refused to feign that relationship, her feelings for Ulf stood in the way of her growing respect for the boy rapidly growing into adulthood who faced her now.
I could learn to love you. I think I already do, at least a little.
In the background a strange mix of angry growls and the endless smattering of a shutter took her back to reality.
Damn, I blew another shot!
“What’s the matter with that kid!”
“What’s the matter with you,” Dai responded. “If you had at least achieved basic competence you’d grabbed some of the best shots in your entire career. Moron!”
“Shoot’s over. I’ve got everything we need.”
“What the hell...”
“Shut up you idiot! That’s Kinoshita Dai!” A third voice.
“I am, indeed. And you’re incompetent. My kids would have done a better job.”
Christina stared at her photographer. I guess they could, if you had any. They’d be, what, thirty, forty? The surreal thought made her grin and as she gripped Ryu’s shoulder harder sudden mirth came out as laughter that freed her from weeks of worry.
She didn’t care about the sound of metal falling to the floor. She didn’t care about the gasps from below the stage. She hardly noticed the whirl when Dai’s camera came alive once again.
Life was wonderful, Ryu was wonderful and somewhere out there Ulf was wonderful as well. Lost to her, but wonderful anyway, and that knowledge didn’t hurt any longer. She’d love him for the rest of her life, but for the first time since she broke up with him she admitted that because she was an adult there was room for another love.
With a huge grin she threw herself around a very surprised Ryu and bit his ear. “I’m falling for you,” she whispered, and through her cheek she felt how he flared red in an instant.
Ryu stared after Kuri when she left the surfer shop for the outdoors shoots and her personal petty revenge on Kareyoshi. Ryu wasn’t certain how visible it would be, but apart from her, Urufu and their Swedish guests there were mostly formerly expelled students from Himekaizen on the beach. Kuri, rather unsurprisingly, had duped her crew into some group shots for a ‘summer with high school friends on the beach’.
He grinned. It was summer, and they were on the beach, and they were friends as well as high school students.
“Some people take all the good ones,” a whisper came from behind him.
Ryu didn’t turn. Crew, model or just a visitor, he didn’t know, but he was aware that whatever he lacked in looks compared to the male models he more than made up for in presence, or charisma as some preferred to call it. Still, he toned down his grin. It was an expression he had copied from Urufu in the end. The old Ryu usually smiled, or laughed, rather than grinned.
“That’s a funny thing to say with so much beauty,” someone else said.
“They’re models. He’s he real thing.”
He was, he knew that. His was a good family, which was the reason he disliked Noriko chasing after Urufu. Last year Ryu didn’t care, because he didn’t fully understand. In the end, in this world at least, Urufu had no family behind him at all, and Ryu worried for his sister.
That voice didn’t speak about him. That was a direct question, and Ryu had no other option than turn.
“I’ve been asked to invite you to a meeting.”
Ryu looked at the man in his early thirties. Definitely subordinate. “Yes?”
“If you would please follow me.”
“May I ask who?” Ryu said. He made a point of showing no sign of following.
“Ah, of course. Eh, Uchida-sa… Uchida-san and Hasegawa-san are waiting for you”
What the hell? The first ‘a’ in the interrupted honorific had been much too drawn out. Uchida-sama? What’s going on?
“I’m honoured. Please show me the way!”
Intrigued Ryu followed the man to a nearby office and stepped inside.
Two men in their late forties or early fifties sat waiting by a table, each sipping a cup of coffee. One of them rose and reached out with a hand in the western style of a handshake.
“I’m Hasegawa Mamoru, pleased to meet you.”
Ryu took the hand and bowed.
“First of all,” the man continued, and now he reverted to a traditional Japanese bow, “I need to apologise for the way I’ve behaved to you and my daughter.”
Daughter? Wait, Hasegawa. He’s Ai’s father!
Then the other man rose from his chair. “As a matter of fact I’m the one who needs to apologise.”
Ryu looked at him. He oozed of power. It wasn’t the aura of his father but something that reached beyond it.
What’s going on? Ryu fidgeted, he knew that, but adults very seldom apologised to kids, not even high school students.
“I’m the reason Hasegawa-san was against your relationship,” Uchida-san said.
“Sorry, I don’t get it,” Ryu answered.
“You’re good friends with Christina Agerman and Ulf Hammargren,” Uchida-san said instead of giving an explanation. Then, then… Hey, there wasn’t even a hint of an incorrect pronunciation!
“Kuri’s my girlfriend,” Ryu said to buy some time.
“Is that even legal?” Hasegawa-san said dryly.
“She’s just a high school kid here, just like Wakayama-san here. We can’t apply two sets of rules.”
Ryu decided to take a chance. “Are you, like, Nakagawa-sensei’s goons?”
“Nakagawa-sensei?” Uchida-san said.
“He’s the former principal of Himekaizen Academy,” Hasegawa-san responded. Then he grinned. “He’s part of the local MiBs as well.”
“Men in Black? I see.” Uchida-san turned directly to Ryu. “No, we’re not part of the local civil war. We’re here to put an end to it. Mamoru and I belong to the Swedish section for a better alternative future.”
Ryu stared at the two indisputably Japanese men. Without as much as a thought about proper behaviour he sat down in a chair, leaving the two adults standing. What the hell? “Could you please explain to me so that I understand?”
“You have your secret black ops here in Japan. We’re part of a similar organisation on the Swedish side of things.”
OK, that much made sense.
“Officially I’m head of Sony Northern Europe, well, in fact I am running that section for real as well.”
“Yes?” Ah, he’s Rika-sempai’s father! Then something Uchida-san had said registered in Ryu’s mind. “What do you mean we have a secret organisation here?”
The man’s eyes grew cold and hard. “I’ve known Christina’s grandfather for a very long time, and through him your parents.”
Bile rose in Ryu’s throat. “How long?”
“Once I was his superior officer,” came the answer. “Last time I visited his home Christina was a small child.”
“When… when did you, eh, move back to Japan?”
The predatory grin Uchida-san gave Ryu wasn’t entirely hostile. “I arrived here 1978.”
“Yes. Himekaizen Academy had only been made into a co-ed school a few years earlier. It used to be a girls’ school. You can tell from the name.”
Ryu thought about it. A school for the betterment of young ladies. It certainly made sense when he thought about it that way. “Why are you here now?” he asked instead.
“Partly to apologise to you, and to the daughter of my colleague as well. Even though he works with arrivals he didn’t want his daughter to get involved, and I’m afraid I’m to blame for that.”
Ryu nodded. “And the other part?”
“The Japanese side has allowed things to get out of hand. Rampant racism and arrivals don’t go well together. We’re here to force… to make them reconsider.” Then any kindness in Uchida-san’s grin vanished. “You could consider us friends from far.”
“What do you think?”
Uchida turned and faced him. Uchida. No honorifics. For Mitsuo Uchida had lost any rights to that kind of respect eighty years ago. Eighty long years ago when the older officer made Mitsuo believe in the war crazed ideals of imperial Japan.
“Good enough,” Mitsuo said.
He spent 50 years atoning for his sins in Sweden until the day he suddenly arrived in Japan. He spent six years reliving a very different kind of adolescence in a very different kind of Japan, and then he found out that Uchida hadn’t succumbed to cancer in the late 1970s.
That took a few years to forgive. What eventually sped that process up was when Mitsuo realised Uchida had atoned in his own way. In both worlds.
He always knew what I thought. “Yes, for now.” Mitsuo growled silently. He didn’t like the older man at all. “Look, you try anything funny with the Wakayamas and I’ll have every last goon you’ve hidden in Japan vanish within a couple of months. Are we clear?”
“Are they that important?”
Raw emotions flooded Mitsuo. Feelings of friendship, almost bordering on love soared through him. There was nothing sexual about it, but just as intense anyway. “They’re my friends. They made friends with me even though I never deserved it in the first place. I’ll die for them if I can stop you from hurting them.” It wasn’t even conviction, just fact. He owed them more than his life – he owed them for coming alive again. Only once had he felt that strongly in his life before, and that time it was a tall, silver haired girl who turned his life upside down seventy years earlier.
Uchida stared at him. “You’ve grown.”
A sudden sensation of pain in his stomach delayed Mitsuo’s realisation that he wasn’t ill. Then he burst out in all but hysterical laughter.
“Moron,” he said after the attack ebbed out. “The hundred years old tells the ninety years old that he’s grown.”
“You’re ninety five.” There wasn’t even a trace of humour in the voice.
Mitsuo decided to react accordingly. “In this world I’m forty. In this world, and especially in this Japan I’m the one with the power to stab you from behind. In this world I left the worst parts of the seventy years I lived in that other world behind.”
“Talk, just talk.”
“You’re part of those bad parts. Two things of mine, only two, were never tainted by evil.” Mitsuo dug up old memories and sighed. Yes, this was what he truly believed. “My wife, and my daughter.”
Uchida’s eyebrows rose. “And Christina?”
Mitsuo had expected that. “She’s my granddaughter. She was never mine to begin with.” He didn’t dare to tell the older man that she carried memories of deeds almost as dark as his own. He hadn’t dared to tell Ulf when he still hoped that the man turned boy would stay by Christina’s side for a lifetime.
“About young Wakayama?”
Somehow Uchida must have read his mind. Thinking of Ulf made Mitsuo think of the kid who currently played the role of Christina’s boyfriend.
“He knows, as his sister does. He knows that their parents are involved with us, but I suspect that my friends are still unaware of how much the kids have understood.” Mitsuo scratched his chin. “I agree, he’s an excellent bridge between Sweden and Japan, but I believe Ulf’s a better one.”
“He’s an arrival. He should pick one of the nations when he’s grown into manhood again.”
“Because you don’t want him to stand with a foot in each? Is that imperial army fucking major bloody moron speaking, or did you at least learn the basics of what it means to be a decent human being since you arrived here?”
Uchida looked like he was going to explode, but as he calmed down Mitsuo had to accept that the older man probably had. Learned the basics at least.
With a sigh Mitsuo concurred. “This is a different world. Not just because it’s a different world, but more importantly because this is the twenty first century. Ulf’s young enough to be comfortable with globalisation. He’s not one of us.” With a grimace Mitsuo tasted the pain Ulf would experience should he choose to stay in Japan. “Uchida, that boy will carve out a small part of this nation and change it. Unless you want to torment him for the rest of his life, please accept that he needs a connection with Sweden to stay sane.”
Uchida looked thoughtful for a while. Then he shrugged. “Torment or not. I don’t care. If he’s useful or not is the only important thing. An honourable man knows how to fit into society.”
And with those words Uchida proved to Mitsuo that, while he might represent the Swedish side, Uchida’s core represented everything ugly with a Japan of the past that Mitsuo still kept running away from.
“Ulf could teach you about honour,” Mitsuo said with disgust filling his stomach. “I’ll help you with building a power base for young Wakayama, but if you try to fuck with Ulf you’d better keep the body bags ready.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“No, Mitsuo said. “My threats send people to hospital. You’re still standing.”
In the background Hasegawa-san looked like he was going to be sick.
“Don’t worry,” Mitsuo offered him. “In difference from your colleague there are perfectly decent arrivals. If it’s any comfort I can tell you that you should be deeply ashamed of what you did to your daughter. Young Wakayama is a good man.” Mitsuo nodded at Uchida. “I’m just trying to make this arsehole understand that Ulf is an even better one.”
“Enough with the pleasantries,” Uchida said, and finally some of the humour returned to his voice. “Can we agree on cutting that Kareyoshi idiot down to size?”
Mitsuo nodded. Uchida might be a sorry remnant of a past best forgotten, but in this case he was right. “It’ll take some time, and I’ll need your help, but we have to give Himekaizen back to the arrivals.”
“Then we have an agreement.”
Late afternoon saw Nakagawa Akio, former principal of Himekaizen academy, walk along the beach a bit away from where his former students were still playing along with their foreign guests.
Less than half an hour earlier he’d had a thoroughly disgusting conversation with two of their fathers. At least talking with Uchida-san had been awful. Hasegawa-san was a decent person if Nakagawa could trust his ability to assess people.
So now, as much to feel clean again as to finish the first stage of planning, he headed for the seaside pub to grab a beer together with Sano-san.
Now Sano-san wasn’t the kind of person you wanted your children to associate with. At least not until you got to know him better, and while Nakagawa didn’t really know him all that well, he still remembered the boy from high school who never wavered in his loyalty to his two best friends.
And now your kids are in high school, and both of them dragged into this insanity.
That was a sobering thought. A quarter of a century since the old man in a boy’s body helped the Wakayama’s… no she had been Masuda back then, to play merry hell with school regulations. But they had been their twin kids inverted. Masuda Natsumi the tomboy with absolutely no regard for authority and Wakayama Tadao who followed his girlfriend in whatever she came up with.
You were both good kids. Then Nakagawa saw Sano-san waving from a table. All three of you were. Strange as it was Nakagawa still regarded the subjectively older man as the former student he had once been. It didn’t matter that he had been seventy when he arrived. Nakagawa had only seen the teenager, and Sano-san never behaved like an old man in a young body during his years at Himekaizen.
As Nakagawa came closer to the table Sano-san rose from his chair.
“Sensei,” he said and bowed.
Yeah, I guess it’s that bad. Sano-san was only polite when trouble was brewing.
Nakagawa bowed in return and went to buy a beer. When he returned to the table Sano-san sat in his chair gazing at the kids on the beach.
“Irishima High, almost all of them,” Nakagawa said and sat down.
“I made a call.”
Sano-san lifted his glass to his mouth and drank. Wiping foam from his lips with the back of his hand he turned to face Nakagawa. “I called their principal.”
Nakagawa nodded. He’d just wait for Sano-san to continue.
“Summer break. I’ll do the dirty preparations before then, but as soon as the kids leave for the break I’ll have a nice mine-field ready for the bastard.”
“I doubt we can have Kareyoshi kicked out. I’m gathering dirt on him, but it’s not enough yet.”
“You know,” Sano-san started, “back in Sweden the dirt you have would have been more than enough.”
Nakagawa grimaced. “No such thing as a ‘back in Sweden’ for my part. I’ve never been there.”
“You should visit.”
“Some day,” Nakagawa agreed. “What’s your goal,” he said to steer Sano-san back on topic.
There was another drawn out moment of silence as Sano-san emptied his beer. “I’m pretty certain I can have the expulsions voided. I doubt all that many of the students will want to transfer back though.”
“How so?” Nakagawa knew the answer, but he still needed to hear it.
“You old goat,” Sano-san said and grinned. “I’ll surprise you yet.” The grin became predatory. “Objectively Irishima High is a better school than Himekaizen. There’s little reason to downgrade.”
Didn’t think of that aspect. Fine, you surprised me. “Go on.”
“We don’t want the Swedish embassy involved with this. Neither faction wants that, because that means the Swedish section becomes directly involved with the arrivals on this side.”
Which was the answer Nakagawa had been waiting for.
“So you expect the other faction to start kicking around their own people just because you ask them to?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. Or rather...” Sano-san hesitated for a moment. Then his eyes shifted into something that had Nakagawa back away a little. “Or rather because we will ask them.”
“Yes, we. Not as in you and me, but the other we?”
“Stop being cryptic!”
For once Sano-san reacted like the student he once had been, and he immediately wiped off that frightening smile from his face. “We, as in us arrivals. There are quite a few of us, and together we wield considerable power.”
Nakagawa gasped. “You couldn’t possibly organise...”
“Sensei, you forget that all of us have a past in Sweden. We’ve learned to be very good at silently organising ourselves. We just don’t parade down the streets.”
A sudden suspicion flared through Nakagawa’s mind. “For how long?”
The smile he got in return was anything but comforting. “It was all in place when I arrived here. I suspect it has always been in place.”
“A third faction. I should have known!”
“Sensei, you really believed us arrivals wouldn’t contact each other as soon as we had an opportunity?”
Nakagawa shook his head. “Contact, yes, but you make it sound like a club or something.”
“No, not a club. That’s Ulf’s thing. He’s the first who got a lot of non-arrivals involved. Anyway, rather think of it as a corporation. Really do, since in ways it is one.”
“What kind of pressure could you apply to the goons behind Kareyoshi?”
“Really, I thought you had guessed. If they don’t get their shit in order we’ll emigrate. There won’t be a need for factions, because there will be no arrivals in Japan.”
Three dozen arrivals moving to Sweden. Three dozen people who shared the ability to change their surroundings. The Swedish side would accept them gleefully.
“Do you really think you can pull it off?” Nakagawa wondered.
“I don’t have to,” Sano-san said. “I just need to make the other faction believe I can.”
Ulf swore when his phone came alive. He’d spent half an hour discreetly comparing notes about his old school now and then, even though there was the barrier of a world between them as well. Still, for most practical purposes it was a matter of a stiff thirty years.
Those had been thirty perfectly enjoyable minutes in the sun chatting away with an absolutely adorable Jenny, who reminded him a whole lot of his first girlfriend from back then, and her boyfriend.
Rika hovered around them most of the time as well, even though she pretended not to. In the end Ulf silently agreed to pretend flirting with her to give her an excuse to stay with them.
He grinned at the memory. Two gave them ugly glares. Noriko and Alexander.
All in all Ulf would have preferred to stay another half an hour in the afternoon sun with something almost resembling a cool breeze rolling in over the waves.
His phone rang and he felt compelled to fish it up and move away from his company.
“Hamarugen Urufu,” he answered when he got far enough away to at least make certain Jun and Rika couldn’t hear him. Jenny couldn’t understand him when he spoke Japanese anyway.
“Seaside café, behind you.” came an old man’s voice. Ulf was certain he had heard it before.
“Get here young man. Nakagawa-sensei will treat you.”
Ulf heard a low murmur of protest in the background. “Fine, I’ll be there.” He licked his lips. They tasted salty, more from sweat than any sea water by now.” What is the old goat up to now?
First he returned to his company. He gave them an apologetic shrug and explained he had to take an interview, and after that he crammed his belongings into his backpack and shouldered it.
When he entered the wooden deck of the café he noticed how the teenagers had become scarce and were replaced by people in their twenties and thirties.
A quick glance told him covering his torso was probably a good idea if he didn’t want to be ejected. He wrenched his backpack off his shoulder and dug up a shirt with which to cover himself.
“Show-off!” a voice to his left said.
“At least the kid’s got something to show. Wanna join us?”
The girls might have been in their early twenties, which made them his senior by at least five years in this world.
“Picking up high schoolers are we?” Ulf teased. The situation reminded him a little of the winter evenings he had spent together with Yukio in the city while they were still middle schoolers.
“High school? No way!”
“Sorry, but yes way. I’m a junior.” Then he decided he didn’t have time for them. “Look, you’re cute and gorgeous and all that, and any other day I’d take you up on your offer, but I’ve got old people breathing down my neck right now.”
Two pairs of hands flying to their mouths was reward enough. Ulf grinned at them and threw both girls a mock salute before he turned and searched for the old goat. Nakagawa should fit in here like the proverbial snowball in hell.
He did his search from the bar, and just as he ordered a glass of juice and a bottle of mineral water to go with it, he found the table. Nakagawa wasn’t alone.
Crap! So Ina’s grandpa is here as well? Some new shit or just complaints because I didn’t stick to her?
That was unfair. Ulf knew that, but anything Christina brought a sour taste to his mouth. Forgetting her was out of the question, and he silently cursed himself for hurting still. It was unfair in more ways than one. Noriko ate sharp jokes and comments from him just because she did what he himself hadn’t done for Christina – openly and consistently told him she loved him despite his repeated rejections.
He gasped, because with that thought came a new realisation. For the first time since he arrived here Maria didn’t tug at his memories. Sometime since he broke up with Christina his old life must have become just a memory, and pains and fears belonging to that world were just dulled memories.
He remembered loving his wife, but she was gone, as were his children, and for the first time he truly accepted that. Good bye Maria. I wish you a good life.
“Sand in your eyes?”
Ulf balked. The voice belonged to Sano-san, Christina’s grandfather.
“Yeah,” Ulf said and sat down. He put bottle and two glasses on the table. “Something like that.”
“Tina, or memories older still?”
His lips stretched. Ulf guessed his smile came out as a smirk. “My family,” he admitted. “They’re really gone, aren’t they?”
Sano-san shook his head. A smile mirroring Ulf’s came to his lips. “No, they’re still there. At least I hope they are.” Then his smile was just sad. “We’re the ones who are gone.”
Blinking away tears Ulf reached for his glass. With a few gulps he downed the juice. For a moment the taste of orange mixed with salt when he swallowed tears and memories of a life lost to him.
“It’s strange,” he said. “It hurts that it doesn’t hurt any longer. When did I betray them?”
Again Sano-san shook his head. “They’ll always be with you. You never betrayed them. If anything you were betrayed.”
Ulf met Sano-san’s gaze. “No, I betrayed them. I no longer regret arriving here. I’ve made this life more important that my old.”
“Fool! The life you’re living at the moment is always the most important.”
Ulf flinched. He stared at Sano-san. The man was older than him by far. “What?”
“We need our memories, but we can’t live in them. That’s not living, that’s just a shadow of a life.”
That philosophy would take some time to digest. “You know,” Ulf started to change the subject, “arriving here really was a transition.” Memories from the last two years shot through his mind. “And a restart,” he added.
“What did you just say?”
Ulf stared at Nakagawa-sensei. The old man’s face was ashen. “Transition and restart,” Ulf repeated.
Noriko was just on the verge of joining their Swedish guests for yet another session in the sea when she noticed Urufu’s face a bit further up the beach.
One face among others lit up by the rapidly falling sun. One face a little too far away to recognise this easily, but it was Urufu. She knew that, and she knew why she knew.
By now her conviction that this time she’d hold on for all that she was worth was stronger than her friendship with Kuri.
That the tall goddess would hurt the day Noriko finally managed to reel Urufu in was a given. That Kuri would have a hard time forgiving as well. Kuri being a couple with Ryu didn’t have anything to do with it, and as Noriko gazed at the face she wanted close to hers more than anything else in the world she finally understood why Kuri would hurt.
Idiot. My idiot friend, Noriko thought. Crushes and loves in high school might be nothing more than attributes of the spring of youth, and most often it probably was, but Kuri and Urufu. What they had had, and what they allowed to slip through their fingers was so much more.
Am I willing to take that risk? She knew the answer to that question, and somewhere deep inside Noriko understood she’d never have Urufu entirely to herself even if she made him hers. Would that be enough? That she didn’t know. She only felt how much the hole inside her would hurt if she didn’t even get whatever he could give her, and therefore it had to be enough, and for that reason she just had to take that risk.
With anxiety filling her she left the sand and walked toward Urufu. He sat facing two men, and Noriko saw she had to round the construction and enter facing his back.
More of a surprise that way, she thought and grinned. Grinning was something Urufu taught her. That wide open, defenceless expression of mirth which had captured her heart almost two years earlier.
That time, when he saved her, his face didn’t radiate rage despite the slap he gave her to make her run for safety. It was a grin filled with relief and satisfaction that sent her on her way in search for her brother while Urufu fought her battle behind her back.
Rage and despair came later, and while those expressions had scared her it was the memory of that first grin of his that stayed with her, and she fell in love with him before even understanding what falling in love was. That understanding didn’t come until he was expelled.
I lost him twice. I’m not going to let it happen a third time. And she had to make a move. Warning signals blared in her whenever Rika-sempai got near Urufu. He might be in love with Kuri, but Kuri would never allow sanity to prevail and live out the love of her life together with the only man she could share it with. Noriko knew she could trust Kuri’s insanity.
Rika-sempai, however, was a totally different thing. She had the financial muscle to find out what kind of beast Urufu was, and Noriko didn’t want to take that kind of risk. The day the classic beauty understood that Urufu didn’t act like the two year younger boy he might look like, well that day would see Rika-sempai turn into competition.
Maybe the love stories were usually right about younger girls having an advantage, but there was nothing usual about Urufu.
Noriko smirked and took the nearest path around the wooden deck where adults sat drinking sun and beer, one of them Urufu, even though Noriko suspected he didn’t join in on the beer.
Less than a minute later she entered the deck.
Oh! Nakagawa-sensei, and… it took her a few seconds to recognise the other man. Kuri’s father? No, grandfather. It was supposed to be a secret, but there were very few secrets between the six of them. Can you even say that we are still the six of us? They didn’t keep together like they did until Kuri dumped Urufu.
She waved to her former principal, and he returned a nod Urufu didn’t even notice, because his head didn’t move the slightest.
Then he must have noticed, because just as she came up behind him and made ready to cover his eyes with her hands he turned and shot her a nonplussed look.
And then his face split up in the wolfish grin that made her heart tumble. For a moment every trace of the worries which had etched themselves into his eyes vanished and he looked just like a sixteen year old boy who had an innocent prank played on him.
Stronger, much stronger than the crush she had on him flaring up all inside her an intense feeling of gratitude grew in her. You changed me. You made me feel joy again.
Long gone, just over a year ago, but still long gone, was the cynical Noriko she had made into her persona. Now she only needed her own sixteen year old self. Standing in the shadow of her brother didn’t matter now when she could shine on her own.
“So you’re Tina’s rival?” Kuri’s grandfather said?
Tina? Ah, yes he calls her Tina. Noriko felt a grin taking over her face, one she suspected could compete with Urufu’s. “Yes, yes I am.”
For once mentioning Kuri didn’t cast a shadow over Urufu’s features. “At least she’s trying the best she can,” he said.
“I’m not just trying,” Noriko responded and placed a hand on his shoulder. “After finals, during our summer break. You’d better be ready. I’ll go all out for you.”
“I’ll be waiting,” he said teasingly, but Noriko filled with pure joy at those words. The Urufu she knew was never false. He might not have understood himself, but in those words lay the opening she had hoped for.
“Summer break,” she repeated, and then she surprised herself with an audacity she never knew she had in her. “I’ll make you mine before this autumn,” she added and hugged him.