They were friends made, friends from far, but they were just that, friends from far. As finals closed in on them there was less and less time to meet with the high school graduates from Sweden, and when one day they declared that they’d go touring Japan, Yukio realised it was probably the last time they saw each others for some time.
In all honesty he didn’t care all that much. Irishima High had a good reputation for a reason. Finals would be harsher than anything he had ever experienced before.
And then two weeks of frantic studying and exams kept him from meeting anyone at all. Almost anyone. While the armed body guards silently vanished after he and Kyoko were expelled from Himekaizen they still shared whatever time they could scrounge up. Walking to and from school, and twice studying together.
After that summer’s break hit them with an eerie lack of tasks. Obon came and went in a murderous heat wave and suddenly they were halfway through August.
Having spent part of Obon finishing his home work together with Kyoko Yukio found himself at a loss when two weeks with absolutely nothing scheduled loomed ahead of him. He could enjoy them with Kyoko, but by now Yukio was so used to having his entire life planned that he didn’t know what to do.
That lasted for an entire day.
“Same place as last year,” he heard himself mumbling into the phone. It was an old style land line at his father’s home, and years of using a smart phone made the oblong handset feel strange in his hand.
He listened to Kyoko’s reply, and a few hours later he found himself at the central station. Kyoko already stood there waiting for him.
“A little more comfortable than last year,” she said.
Yukio nodded. Last year they saved on train fares, but this time they’d take the Shinkansen to Nagoya and switch to a regional train there.
From air conditioned station maze to sizzling heat on the platform it only took a few minutes. They waited, dripping sweat, for another few and after that Yukio shivered as he sat down in his seat. Air conditioning on the Shinkansen was taken to the extreme.
The train ride south was a much faster experience than the sleepily rumbling memory he had from last year, and he didn’t spend much time watching the scenery flashing by. Kyoko curled up by his side, murmuring lullabies as she tried to snatch a little sleep.
They got a short nap, but an hour and a half’s worth of ride to a different city really wasn’t enough. As a teenager Yukio was much too excited about going somewhere, and he spent more time wondering what came next than sleeping.
Nagoya, well Nagoya was a baking oven. He’d never experienced heat like this in Tokyo, and both he and girlfriend bathed in sweat by the time they made it to the next platform. Spending an hour waiting there turned out to be impossible and they fled back inside the station area.
Drenched in sweat Yukio led Kyoko to a café and ordered iced coffee for himself and ice tea for Kyoko.
“Better?” he asked after Kyoko had gulped down half her drink in one, long chunk, which he spent in fascination watching her throat move.
She didn’t answer but nodded in the direction of his glass.
Yukio smiled but obeyed. When he put his empty glass down on the table he met a mischievous smile.
“Yours is sexier,” she said.
“You’ve got an Adam’s apple to stare at.”
Yukio growled but admitted defeat. Then he smiled at Kyoko. He felt safe with her. The feelings they shared were no longer as chaotic as last summer, but as far as he was concerned this was far better.
“Love you,” he said instead.
In response a hand slid over the table and took his. Fingers he’d recognise in the dark caressed his.
“Love you too. Always.”
They spent as much time as they dared talking softly. Fingers met fingers, and at one time Yukio stretched out a hand to move a few strands of hair that had fallen over Kyoko’s eyes. An excuse to touch her. An excuse her eyes told him she gladly accepted.
Then they were off to the platform and the murderous heat, and after that sharing seats on a slow train rolling south.
Just like last year they’d be working with Urufu, but this time they and, more importantly, he knew what was expected.
Just like last year the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club was invited, even though its members from Himekaizen Academy only numbered three. Irishima High made out the bulk of the members, even though Yukio heard rumours the expulsions were being rescinded.
The only immediate practical consequence for him was that they could share the taxi fare on four, which really didn’t matter at all since Urufu was bound to pay it in the end anyway.
He nestled closer to Kyoko. In a way he was grateful for the presence of more Irishima High students, even though it meant he and Kyoko would sleep in different rooms. They had shared nights and bed more than once, but if they travelled as a lone couple to an onsen it would be so glaringly obvious that they did.
Yukio fell asleep wondering what Urufu had in store for them.
Christina leaned back in her seat and sighed. In an earlier life she’d been giddy with apprehension and not a little self serving when she flew in a private jet for the first time. Now it was only cramped, bumpy and with just employers turned prison guards as her company.
While she forced a little leeway and occasionally escaped by means of the help she received from her primary body guard, now she had mostly been reduced to one of Vogue’s most valuable assets. Assets weren’t supposed to have a mind of their own.
They were en route to the resort where she spent last year’s summer break. If Vogue got to decide they’d been in Hokkaido by now, but when it came to business decisions she held a lot of clout. Someone must have whispered in an ear or two, and as long as she delivered results what she had to say about fashion marketing held. In this case somewhere in Hokkaido or somewhere in Mie really didn’t matter, but she wove a net of lies about lightning conditions and since her personal photographer, Kinoshita Dai, played along her words held.
The plane banked and Christina forced down her momentary discomfort. A life spent with aeroplanes and helicopters as her primary way of travelling had done nothing to dispel her irrational fear of flying. Fear of heights she had none of, but flying, well it was irrational and she got used to handling the churning feeling in her stomach.
She missed the rattling experience from last year spent together with friends and the man she had just fallen in love with. She missed Ulf even though she felt she was rapidly coming to appreciate Ryu despite their difference in age. She missed being just herself, but there was nothing she could do about it now. This was a life she chose for herself – the only life she knew how to live.
I’m an idiot. I got a shot at a transition and restart, and what am I doing? Reliving my last life. I’m an idiot.
Briefly she wondered if Ulf and Thomas would make the same mistake. Thomas she didn’t know well enough, but she had a feeling he hid secrets from his past that he was hell bent on never reliving. Ulf however, Ulf spent his time manipulating and coercing the people around him. He bent them, not to his own, but rather to their own will, and to do so he needed a platform. Thus far in this life the club was it, and Christina very much doubted he had many reasons founding a middling size IT company this time around.
“Miss, we’re landing soon. Please strap yourself in.”
Christina looked up and smiled. Then she did as asked of her. The last part of her temporary ordeal was upon her and after that she’d go by limousine or bus. A bus she hoped. A bus at least felt a little more like what the others were riding.
Leaving the plane she walked into a wall of gruelling heat. It forced the breath from her and almost knocked her to the ground.
Crap! We’ll do swimsuits and yukatas first. No way anyone can wear the autumn collection well in this. Hokkaido might have been the better choice after all, but she’d be damned if she’d spend her break without sharing time with those closest to her.
We’ll do shots in the water this time. There would be a price to pay in time, but it couldn’t be helped. The crew needed the relative cool or they’d fall victim to heatstroke or dehydration.
Christina looked at the line of mountains, a ragged line of green slightly out of focus as if there was a photographer in her head who was sloppy with the lens. If the turned the other way she’d watch how the sea was also a little fogged over. Never the crisp clearness in the air she once grew up with. Which Ulf grew up with as well. But in the end she’d never be able to explain it to a Japanese who never left the islands. This was as clear a summer’s day as there ever was to be here.
She smiled. She had worked here in her previous life as well. Things like these had to be taken into account for a shoot. For wearing your clothes as well. Almost, but only almost the same colours as back home. And the same went for make-up as well. Only an amateur believed it was merely a matter of skin tone. Her own make-up was different here than it would have been in Sweden. Well, if she wore any at all over there.
Another smile of hers brought her to her ride south. A bus, just as she hoped.
She climbed onboard and enjoyed the relative space, but most of all she enjoyed a milder air conditioning than was possible to attain in a cramped car.
The ride she spent relaxing and watching the landscape passing by. Voices from the rest of the crew lulled her to sleep, and when they finally arrived at the resort she was the last to leave the bus.
She entered the reception and pouted when she realised she’d been assigned a room of her own rather than sharing one with her friends in the club. Most of all she missed the opportunity for a sleepover with Ko-chan and Noriko. Chatting about everything and nothing until the small hours felt like a distant memory.
I enjoyed playing at being a child again. She shook the depressing thought away. In a sense I’m still a child. Just one that lays golden eggs. And she knew that was true. Her mind was still volatile in a way she understood it hadn’t been just before she arrived in Japan. The truly older version of herself would either have told the people from Vogue to go to hell or hammered down on any want to pout in the first place.
Work was work, or at least it had once been. The old her would never have pouted. She didn’t recall feeling sorry for herself since she got over being cheated on.
But I like feeling like a teenager. I’m more honest this way. Or was she? She brought that question to her room and played with it until it was time for dinner.
The walkway still curved behind him when sand gave way to first gravel, and then to the concrete stars used in Japan to reinforce the beach line. Walking barefoot on the uneven surface hurt his bare feet less than he remembered.
Another benefit of 20 kilos less weight, Ulf thought.
He drank the sound of water crashing ashore and enjoyed the feeling of solitude as the sound of shouting voices grew fainter behind him. Above the sea scattered clouds bathed in crimson red. A momentary glory, he knew. Not the luxurious hours of ever fading dusk from home. He felt a pang of homesickness from the memories, but shook it off. There was a different beauty to the sharp transition between day and night here, neither less beautiful nor more, just different.
The sound of waves breaking against the cliffs was followed by a spray of salty water, and when he wiped his face dry he heard another sound.
“Ulf!” That was Swedish, not Japanese.
He glanced up to where she was perched. “Ina! So you went here as well?” Ulf climbed up an intricate puzzle of interlocking concrete figures and took a seat beside her. “Too noisy?” he asked and pointed towards the beach.
Christina just nodded in affirmation.
He turned his head and looked at her profile. Beautiful, always stunningly beautiful. “You want to be left alone?” he asked and made as if to rise.
“No. No, it's fine.”
They shared a moment of silence. Not an awkward one. Just some time of peace.
“You remember...” Ulf stared at her and broke into embarrassed laughter. They had spoken the same question. “You first,” he offered, still smiling.
“Spending days at the beach.” Christina's voice faded into silence as an invitation for him to fill the emptiness.
“A driftwood fire in the evening,” he answered, the last word a mere whisper. He glanced at her just in time to see her lips start moving.
“Uhum, and sausage barbecue at sunset...”
“Like we were still kids...”
“… when it got cooler after sunset...”
“...getting/offering a jacket from/to the one you're interested in...” Again they had spoken together.
“Those summer romances were so embarrassing.”
“But so cute. And anyway, they were more part of middle school than senior high.”
“So you're saying our friends are kids?”
“In more ways than one, yes.” Christina flashed him a melancholy smile. “They really are adorable.”
“Uhum, yeah they are.”
“I miss home.”
Ulf saw her sag, reached out with his arm and drew her closer. For a little while, while she wept silently, he just listened to her muted sobs and embraced her shaking body.
Memories shared. Memories lost. They had this much left. More than friends, less than lovers.
Then, as he heard voices coming closer, he wiped her tears with the back of his hand. Ulf turned his head closer to her and watched her face. A grieving beauty. You're a world away right now. He bent his head to her ear, close enough to kiss her had he wanted, and whispered: “We're getting company. You'd better laugh at a happy memory soon.”
The closing voices turned into faces, and Ulf rose when he saw Ryu's hurt expression. The unspoken accusation couldn't be turned away by pretending nothing had happened.
“She's not...” Ulf swore and switched to Japanese. “Christina's feeling homesick,” he said and rose to his feet. He jumped down the man made cliff and waved to Ryu. Ryu can't do anything about her being homesick. He can feel jealous, but even he will understand this is a comfort that's mine alone to give. Ulf walked closer to the sea and knelt over a few flat stones.
“Still, just the two of you over here.” Ryu's voice held a sharp edge to it, and Ulf could hear Noriko and Kyoko murmuring in agreement.
Ulf threw a look behind Ryu. Both twins showed pain in their eyes. Damn, I hate seeing Noriko hurt. Ulf needed to change the topic quickly. He flicked one of the stones he had picked up across the water. It glanced across a wave top, bounced off it and dove into the water. He threw another stone, with more power and a flatter arc. Damn, when did I start paying this much attention to her feelings? It hit a wave and vanished. He filled his head with memories from a childhood lake shore and threw the third stone. Damn, she's just a kid. I shouldn't care like this! The third stone touched the surface perfectly and bounced four times before it vanished behind a wave crest.
“… at least answer what I'm saying...” Ryu's voice stopped all of a sudden. “How did you make the stones bounce on water?”
Ulf grinned. The topic had shifted. They live on an island, but they've not grown up with open water. Funny people. But for now that oddity saved him. Still, Noriko. He hadn't expected to feel her pain so clearly.
“You know,” he said, “we've long since broken up. I hope you'll let us share the friendship we have left.” He looked at Ryu, the young brat who had grown into a man so quickly. This was another stepping stone for him to adulthood.
“I know,” Ryu said and failed to bounce a stone of his own on the surface.
Ulf helped him adjust the angle a little.
“It's just that it hurts seeing you so close.”
“And I won't take that away from you two, or I'll lose her.”
Yea, he's definitely growing into manhood.
Behind him Ulf noticed Kyoko glaring at him. The look she gave him didn't need the company of words to tell him what she thought: “Male bonding fuelled by testosterone. Idiots!”
“Ko-chan, climb up to me, please!” Christina's words finally broke the uneasy spell.
Almost. Noriko sought Yukio's company in a way that Kyoko forgave, but still told Ulf how angry she was. Noriko, you shouldn't fall for me. Ryu doesn't want it. And you really are sixteen, both body and soul.
But so was Ryu. So was Ryu. That excuse grew less valid for every week that passed by.
Noriko grimaced and stuffed another piece of clothing into her day pack.
A few days earlier she watched Urufu and Kuri show where their hearts truly belonged despite breaking up half a year earlier. The following morning Urufu dragged the entire club into a repetition of last year’s camping session, murderous climb up the hill side included, and Kuri even managed to get a break from her photo sessions to attend.
Noriko didn’t know what do do with her memories. Kuri spent most of the camp together with Ryu just like a good girlfriend should, and Urufu made good use of the senior club members to make the camp go much smoother than last year, which also meant he spent almost no time at all alone with Kuri.
After camp two days being worked to the bones took over her life. It involved getting a bunch of middle managers and senior systems developers on track working together as a team. As far as Noriko could see status and ranking were more important to adults than actually getting the job done. She had spent most of the first day using Kyoko’s deliberate clumsiness and Hitomi’s beauty to coerce their customers to at least start talking with each other. After that most of the club members returned home, just like they had done the year before.
Urufu grinned like a moron throughout it all.
They got through in the end and now it was time for Noriko’s reward, one she had duped Urufu into promising her.
As far as her idiot brother knew the four of them, Urufu, Yukio, Kyoko and herself were headed for Ise shrine for a day trip. The first part was true. Yukio and Kyoko, however, had already booked a room with the help of their parents to get a precious night alone and away from the rest of them.
Noriko knew how far she could push Urufu, and booking one for them as well was by a wide margin too far. That meant she had to resort to a little bit of subterfuge.
So they’d travel to Ise, and they’d even enter the compound as a group, but after that Kyoko had promised to make Yukio and herself scarce as quickly as possible. So Noriko would at least have a full afternoon with Urufu all to herself.
I don’t know how many more chances I’ll get, she thought and fastened the clasps before she slung the pack across her shoulder.
She made her way down the stairs, the same stairs as last year, and in the reception she met Kuri on her way out.
Kuri gave her a wry smile. “With Ko-chan?”
There was little point in lying. “Yukio and Urufu as well,” Noriko said.
“Give Yukio and Ko-chan my best.”
You could at least pretend you didn’t take up mind reading as a hobby. “Sure. Any message for Urufu?” she asked.
“I don’t think that’ll be needed. I hope the two of you have a pleasant day.”
“Four of us,” Noriko tried.
“That the four of you have a pleasant morning. My bad,” Kuri said and didn’t look apologetic at all. Her stressing the ‘morning’ part wasn’t lost on Noriko.
“Ryu’s joining you in the water?” Noriko asked instead and made a point of not specifying exactly which water she meant.
Kuri shot her an angelic smile back. “I wish. He’s got the looks, but he’s a tad short for this kind of work.”
Noriko almost, but just almost, suggested she meant after work. “I’m certain he’ll find an opportunity,” she said instead. “He always does.” The last part was grossly unfair of her. Her brother had never taken advantage of a girl as far as she knew, but she was more than a little irritated with the way he got in the way of her life these days.
“I’ll make sure he does,” Kuri said. “Ah, that’s Ulf behind you. Please do have a pleasant day together.”
Noriko watched Kuri turn with her smile turned into a smidgeon of a smirk. They both knew, but Kuri had lost every right she ever had to prevent Noriko from hauling her catch in.
You and Ryu make a good pair. I’ll settle for the better man instead. That was if she could reel him in in the first place, but Noriko trusted her stubbornness. In the end Urufu was just a man, and Noriko knew her looks well enough not to be ashamed of them. Cute rather than beautiful, but combined with exactly the kind of brain Urufu enjoyed racing with. But for the difference in age she’d have won this battle a long time ago.
It didn’t matter. What she wanted she got. Maybe not for free, and maybe not easily, but she had yet to fail even once. She felt a moment of relief knowing she pushed her own wants very, very seldom like this. Few and far between. Those were the rules she set up for herself lest she’d become someone she didn’t like very much.
“Morning Ina. Working?”
Kuri had almost made it to the door when Urufu’s voice forced her to turn around. “Yes. Swimsuits.”
Something in her voice told Noriko she’d just suggested Urufu stay behind and watch.
“Show me the shots tomorrow,” he said.
Kuri’s face clouded over. Then she waved at them with the back of her hand as she walked outdoors.
“So, where are the other two?” Urufu said.
That was close. “Breakfast. Follow me you oaf!” Noriko said. Silently she smiled just because of his oafishness. How he had failed to read Kuri’s suggestion was beyond her, but he had. There was nothing subtle about the man Noriko had fallen in love with.
That was close.
Fooling Christina and Noriko both was harder than he had expected. Playing the buffoon with Noriko might work, but Ulf needed to make certain Christina got the message that he’d never be her toy.
How he’d react should she make it explicit she wanted them to become an item again he didn’t know. Cave in most likely. He still loved her after all, but her way of flaunting Ryu in his face made it easier to keep a distance.
He gobbled up breakfast as quickly as possible. A trip to Ise seemed like a good way to get his thoughts elsewhere. With a slightly astonished Noriko in tow Ulf made his way outdoors where he grabbed hold of Yukio and Kyoko just as unceremoniously.
Within minutes all of them shared a taxi. He in the front seat, much to Noriko’s chagrin, and her seated in the middle in the back seat. That went a long way to tell Ulf how much Yukio and Kyoko had grown together. The ever present need for physical closeness had faded, but from the way they spoke with each other, always giving verbal room for Noriko, showed an unseen bond between minds which had grown just that much stronger.
I’m happy for you. Half a life ago I would have envied you. Ulf smirked and stared at the road ahead. He still did. A little at least. Theirs was not the sensational love between adults become children again, and neither was it the tabloid version Christina shared with Ryu now. Yukio and Kyoko could enjoy what they shared without gawking people interfering with it time and time again.
With a sigh and another smirk Ulf turned his attention ahead just as the taxi took the last curve and parked at the small town train station.
Less than half an hour’s wait later the four of them rode a train in silence. It wasn’t an awkward silence, nor an angry one. Yukio and Kyoko allowed themselves to become the children they really were and sat on their knees with faces glued to the windows and heads together. It was, Ulf decided, an amazingly cute picture of a young couple in love.
A discrete shutter sound told him Noriko shared his sentiment, and when he turned his head he was met by an exaggerated gesture to keep silent. Not that it was needed. Yukio and Kyoko were immersed in their own world of two. In any other company what they did would have been very rude, but Ulf genuinely enjoyed watching the two of them shining with calm happiness.
A small hand grabbed his, and he was reminded that there was one more here who wanted her part of that feeling.
“Noriko?” he said and glanced at her.
Her other hand forced him to meet her gaze straight on. “Today you’re mine, so pay me some attention will you?”
He had kind of given her that promise. Sure, mostly to keep her lovestruck nagging at bay, but still. If he didn’t honour his part of the deal he was an arse.
Giving Noriko her due he noticed that she had dressed up for the occasion, or at least dressed up as much as a wardrobe in a luggage allowed. Shorts accompanied by heels looked strange to him, but here it was just a natural combination. A part of the doll cute dress code for adolescent girls and young women. Ulf didn’t really agree with it, but Christina had made it abundantly clear that when it came to fashion his opinions were worth less than zero.
A pink top with something fluffy sewn on that served no function at all apart from being decoration completed her outfit. It was summer after all.
In contrast his own khaki shorts and short sleeved, likewise khaki shirt probably made him look like a foreign bum with poor taste in clothes.
A toothy smile told him Noriko knew what he was thinking.
“That bad?” he asked.
“Your clothes? Yeah, they suck,” she said and the smile turned into a wide grin of approval.
“I don’t understand.”
“This way I won’t have any competition. When Kuri picks your clothes you’re… you know, don’t you?”
“Know what?” Ulf decided to play dense. He’d never be the kind of girl magnet that Ryu was, but whenever Christina dressed him up people turned their heads after them, and Ulf was honest enough to understand that all gawks weren’t for her. She had loved showing him off, or rather showing her acute sense of style and fashion off.
Noriko poked his forehead. “Attention!”
“You’re good looking enough to make me feel uneasy.”
“Says the sister of the prince of Himekaizen.”
There was that of course. “Why uneasy?”
Noriko fidgeted and looked down at her hand. The other still held his. “At first I fell for your looks. I’m a little ashamed of that.”
“My very own avenging hero with that delinquent style.”
Oh! She’s thinking of middle school. “At first?” he said to avoid the subject. He still fumed at the memories.
“Then I fell for the geeky you. I know, I have the worst taste in men.”
Well, that hadn’t lasted for too long. When he became a couple with Christina he gave that disguise up. Ulf nodded at Noriko’s words. There wasn’t much he could add.
“But it was the real you. The you who fell in love with Kuri. That’s the you who made me love you.”
The conversation had taken a turn for the worse. Ulf decided against saying anything, but in keeping his silence he had let Noriko keep the hand she had taken in hers.
He leaned back in his seat and watched flashes of summer passing by as the train rode on.
Sometime later Noriko fell asleep against his shoulder, and against his better judgement he allowed her to nestle under his arm.
Urufu was a born leader. At least that was what Yukio had once believed. Now he suspected that was too simple an explanation. Grown into a leader during longs years of adulthood was more likely.
“You know, about Urufu,” Yukio started as they stood in the cramped ryokan reception.
Like most non tourists he would have preferred a western style hotel, but Urufu paid, and Urufu preferred the old fashioned futon, hard and uncomfortable as it was. Or at least he said he did.
Kyoko met Yukio’s stare and smiled. He saw how she knew what he was going to say, but out of respect she didn’t interrupt him this time, and he loved her all the more for it.
“He’s rather socially awkward for being, well...”
“Uhum,” Kyoko said.
“You know, for being Urufu.”
Kyoko’s smile widened into a grin.
“He’s a little, how should I put it, disjointed,” Yukio tried.
Black hair swirled around her face as she tilted her head backwards and nodded. She had let it grow since winter.
She let her tongue play over her lips and gave him an encouraging smile. He took the opportunity and stole a short kiss.
“You noticed as well?” she said after they separated.
He nodded. “Partly, I think, because I’m growing up.”
“We’re getting older. A year now.”
They were. A year older together. Together. He tasted the word in his mind and decided he liked it very much. He liked most everything with Kyoko.
As he glanced past her face he saw Noriko and Urufu carrying what little luggage they had from the taxi and up the stairs. Yukio booked the rooms, but it was still Urufu’s money. Or at least Yukio pretended he booked the extra room, because both rooms were booked since yesterday.
How Urufu believed that Kyoko suddenly ‘discovered’ a typhoon was about to hit Ise early evening was beyond Yukio. In difference from manga you didn’t get caught by surprise since all typhoons were announced days in advance. Well, unless you were Urufu and blithely ignored watching weather reports in August, which bordered on idiocy if you lived in Japan.
Yukio made certain Urufu and Noriko vanished up the stairs. “Disjointed from reality,” he said and continued his earlier line of thought.
“Sometimes, only sometimes,” Kyoko said. “Sometimes he really does pay attention. Like whenever someone feels hurt or is in need.”
“Sometimes, huh. Unless he’s involved himself. Then he turns blind.”
Kyoko’s smile turned into a smirk. “Kuri-chan is my best friend, but she’s still an idiot.”
“Urufu’s mine, and he’s a moron as well,” Yukio agreed.
“I’m going to root for Noriko. It doesn’t matter that Kuri-chan is my most important friend. I’m sick and tired of watching those two hurt each other.”
Yukio didn’t say anything. Instead he nodded, by now secure Kyoko read him correctly agreeing with her from his expression.
“You think she’ll fall in love with Ryu?” Because that would pretty much solve everything by ending the entire situation.
“I think she already has. At least a little,” Kyoko said. “Ryu’s not the school prince for nothing, and I think he has the kind of personality Kuri-chan needs now.”
Yukio took Kyoko’s hand and nudged her in the direction of the stairs.
Two rooms rather than the one large one Urufu wanted. There weren’t any large rooms free. A lie and a truth. Yesterday there had been, when Yukio booked two rooms. No longer though. Not with the typhoon inbound and train services down for security reasons.
Ise was a hotspot for tourists from all over the world. Tourists, in difference from Urufu, didn’t live in Japan. Quite a few of them had been caught off guard, just like Kuri’s grandfather had told them would happen when the three of them planned the deception.
He was, just as Yukio and Kyoko, dead tired of watching Urufu tearing apart his granddaughter’s heart, with her pouring petrol on the flames to make absolutely certain whatever they once shared burned to cinders.
And yet they both failed. Even an idiot when it came to romance like Yukio could see that. Every glance Urufu shot her, every time Yukio caught her staring after Urufu’s back, every time the two of them exchanged words, or looks, or smiles. Every damn time the love they felt for each other shone through enough to blind everyone around them.
It was painful to watch. It was also obvious enough for anyone to suspect that Kuri and Ryu being an item was a scam. It was, both Yukio and Kyoko had decided, time for their best friends to move on. It didn’t matter if that love couldn’t be entirely quenched. As it was now they were ripping each other apart.
So Noriko got enlisted, and rather unsurprisingly she giddily agreed to play the victim. Anything to haul Urufu in.
“She’s the best part of the two of them,” Kyoko suddenly said halfway up the stairs.
Yukio stared at her back. Mind reader! He didn’t care. If Kyoko read his mind or just guessed. As long as she was right it was fine. “I hope she knows what she’s heading into.”
“She does. That’s what makes Noriko the best of them.”
Them. Urufu and Kuri. It was a shame that Noriko should be the best for the both of them.
“I hope Ryu makes the best of the opportunity,” Yukio said.
Because, just like Urufu had been duped to stay the night with Noriko, Ryu and Kuri were alone back at the resort with the few remaining club members split into two rooms with no space for Ryu in the boys’ room.
Kuri’s grandfather made certain he behaved like the idiot Urufu was, and got caught in Nagoya with no way to head south to the resort. In other words transparent enough for anyone with at least a partially working brain to see through.
But then you could always trust Urufu and Kuri to lack even that much when it came to understand these things.
When Noriko entered her room she grinned as she met Urufu’s surprised stare?
“Sorry, but you’re next door.”
She shook her head. “Yukio and Kyoko,” she said.
Noriko sat down, removed her shoes and placed them by the slippers put there by the ryokan staff.
“You didn’t really expect them to waste this night together?” At least this part wasn’t part of the sham. She’d seen the chagrin in Kyoko’s face when it was clear boys and girls slept separately in the resort where they spent the bulk of the two weeks before the autumn trimester began.
Urufu looked like he was about to protest, but then he threw a glance a the wall to the next room and closed his mouth.
In difference from the resort this ryokan didn’t have a family bath, but instead rooms had their own small open air bath each. The onsen proper was gender separated as was usual. Pricey, and a gift to Yukio and Kyoko decided upon since before they even left Tokyo. Hers and Urufu’s addition made Noriko feel a little awkward. He could afford it, but it was very expensive, and she hadn’t decided how to handle that part.
“Bath and then dinner?” Noriko suggested. She made an effort not to look at their private bath.
Urufu grimaced. “Sure. I’ll head over to Yukio and make him company downstairs.”
Noriko didn’t say anything. The open relief at getting away from the situation was all too clear in Urufu’s face. It was also, she decided, rather rude to her, but in all honesty he’d had the entire situation forced on him.
She looked at Urufu’s back as he quickly changed into a yukata, stepped into his slippers and vanished out the door. He didn’t seem all too disturbed undressing in front of her, but then she had seen him in the flesh last summer. Something about being Swedish and older Noriko guessed.
A few minutes later she followed suit and left to fetch Kyoko, which didn’t take long at all since she already stood waiting in the corridor.
“Well what?” Noriko replied and avoided answering the question.
“How did he take it? Angry?”
A direct assault like this couldn’t be avoided. Noriko gave the questions a thought. Had he really been angry? “No, not angry,” she said. What had there been in his eyes? “Surprised.” That wasn’t it. Helpless! “He caved in,” Noriko said. She didn’t like the memory of equal parts disappointment and resignation in Urufu’s face.
Two things registered in Noriko’s mind. First the worry in Kyoko’s voice, and second how quickly the rest of the gang had dropped any honorifics after Noriko decided to discard them. Which means there’s one less thing that makes me more uniquely close to Urufu.
“He didn’t look happy about it, but he wasn’t really angry either.” Telling Kyoko the truth was out of the question. She was the best friend one could possibly have, and so was Yukio. If they suspected the real reason for Urufu’s reaction both of them would insist on switching rooms.
Noriko hoped Kyoko believed Urufu was a little more selfish than he really was. Awkward and unhappy was better than giving up so that Yukio and Kyoko wouldn’t lose their only night alone together.
“You sure you’re fine with this?”
Noriko nodded. Then she laughed. “Nothing will happen,” she said. “I just want him to notice me.” And to think about what could have happened, she added silently. To think lots and lots about it. Thinking about him thinking about her made her think about what she wanted him to think about. In an instant Noriko felt her face flare read.
“Nothing,” she spluttered.
That was taking the inquisitive joke a little too far. “Look, I don’t...”
“Have you brought a present?”
“Apart from me wrapped in ribbons?” Noriko blurted out.
Raised eyebrows was the only answer that question got.
“I have,” Noriko admitted when it was clear Kyoko refused to comment the outburst. “Nothing fancy.”
Kyoko descended down the stairs to the communal baths. A floor down she turned and looked Noriko directly in her eyes. “Coming from you it doesn’t have to mean much. Nothing fancy for a high schooler or nothing fancy for you?”
That was unfair. Noriko knew her parents were well off, and maybe her present was a little on the expensive side of what an average student would pick. At least for a friend.
“Nothing extravagant,” she admitted. “Less than a shift.”
Kyoko tilted her head. “A shift?” Then her eyes lit up. “A normal one or one of Urufu’s full day monstrosities?”
“A normal one.” Noriko didn’t have to lie about that. Something told her Urufu’s feelings couldn’t be bought for money. A year ago a more cynical version of herself would have asked what currency to use instead. Now she knew the answer to that question, and for that very reason she had no need to play jaded.
“Left or right?”
She looked up. They had arrived at the entrance to the baths. “Your pick,” Noriko said and followed Kyoko inside.
As onsens went this one apparently took pride in displaying signs of luxury, but that was expected given the price tag attached. For Noriko it wasn’t really anything new, but Kyoko was surprisingly unperturbed as well.
They undressed and chatting about nothing Noriko and Kyoko went into the bath.
Steam rose from the pool and she saw the doors leading to the outdoors section.
This is the normal part. Later comes the not so normal. But what counted as not normal with Urufu? He really didn’t do normal. As if he simply didn’t care. Age, maybe it came with age.
Noriko grinned and poured shampoo into her palms.
“Come on man. Feel proud instead!”
Ulf glared at Yukio. Pride wasn’t exactly the word he’d use. Flattered maybe. Noriko’s incessant attention wasn’t harmful in any way, and it didn’t exactly hurt his eyes looking at her.
He realised his way of thinking might be dated, but from what he had seen good looks still helped a lot among the young, so maybe it wasn’t dated after all.
Beneath him straw gave as he moved his legs. After two years in Japan he was used to sitting on the floor now and then, and being a teenager sure helped. Tatami mats. An altogether stupid construction, and yet so strangely relaxing. Ulf never could decide if he thought it was the epitome of idiocy or a superb blend of taste and function.
“So, what’s the occasion?” Ulf asked.
Yukio had requested that Ulf join him in the room he shared with Kyoko.
Strange. After pulling this one on me I could have sworn Noriko would be adamant about us two having dinner alone in our room.
“Thank you for that one at least.”
“Don’t thank me,” Yukio said. “Noriko insisted.”
Why would she? Ah! I’m an idiot! Ulf said nothing. From here on he could only pretend to be surprised at what came next. Birthdays were a lot more important in Sweden than in Japan. You just didn’t forget them. Hell, they were even part of your identity with your date of birth making up most of the personal number everyone living in Sweden was assigned.
Well, at least for old people. Once again he wasn’t certain about the young. Living among people who weren’t prone to public outbursts of affection didn’t help.
Ulf grinned at the thought of a third of their class suddenly rising from their seats to spontaneously celebrate some poor bastard by singing happy birthday to you. Back home a given, but here, maybe not so much.
He recalled birthdays from his first life, and reliving old memories it took a while until he noticed Yukio tugging at his shoulder.
“Man, Earth calling. This earth.”
“Sorry.” Ulf shook his head. “Noriko huh?”
She had remembered, and when he thought about it, so had she last year as well. Whatever he might think about her advances, it still warmed when someone cared.
“You’re in on this one?”
Yukio glared at him. “Giving her a hand? Sure. She’s not fooling around. Damn, she had a crush on you before you and Kuri met.”
“Well, she moved on to Nao...” Ulf regretted the words as he uttered them.
Yukio grimaced, and they shared a few moments of silence. When it dragged out Yukio poured two cups of tea and offered Ulf one.
“You know,” Yukio began after he’d tasted a sip, “did you ever speak with him afterwards?”
Ulf had, but he wanted to hear what Yukio had to say. “Same school, so kind of hard to avoid.”
“Unless you’re expelled.”
“Unless you’re expelled,” Ulf agreed.
“Well, expulsion rescinded. Some of us will return.” Yukio scratched his head. “Anyway, I had a talk with Nao-sempai.”
“Uhum,” Ulf said and waited. He drank from his cup to show Yukio that there wouldn’t be a further response.
“He never slept with anyone.” Yukio grimaced. “Well, at least not from when he first saw Noriko and until well after they broke up.”
Break up? That’s one way of putting it. Ulf felt something akin to physical pain thinking of how much Noriko had hurt. I know what happened, but what an awful way to end it. Nao’s a bloody idiot!
“He got scared,” Yukio continued.
There was a dull, clack when Yukio placed his empty cup on the table. Almost as if it accused Ulf of drawing something uncomfortable out when it wasn’t needed.
“Scared?” By now Ulf was forced to pretend what Yukio said came as news.
“They play in different leagues is what he said. Sure, he’s a big name now, but when his looks fade Noriko will still be brilliant.”
Nao hadn’t phrased it exactly that way when Ulf spoke with him. The words Yukio echoed were Ulf’s. Ulf’s way of helping the tall model to understand his own fears.
“Well, she’s bright alright,” Ulf said. Understatement of the year. She is brilliant. I think I’m so smart, but bloody hell I envy her her brains! Ulf knew he had reasons to be proud of his head. He had a superb intellect, and he was aware of it. He was easily bright enough to grasp just how far ahead of him Noriko was, even if she still needed to grow into her own capacity as an adult.
Which meant she knew something he didn’t, or otherwise she would have given up on making him her boyfriend a long time ago. If she played both body and brains, then her actions and plans made more sense. Cause damn that brain of hers was sexy as hell.
But did she really understand him that well? Her social register was a little shaky. Empathy, not brains was his real strength. Well, unless he got stubborn and shut everything down and turned inwards in a blindness so total it was staggering.
Like with Christina.
“So, Nao didn’t sleep around, you say?” Thinking of Christina was, as always, a bad thing to do.
“He didn’t, and I think he was in love with Noriko to the end.”
“Idiot!” Ulf wasn’t sure he meant Nao.
“Idiot!” Yukio agreed.
“So, Noriko and dinner, you said.” The conversation was going full circle.
“Yeah, man. Noriko and dinner.” A friendly fist hit Ulf’s shoulder. “After that Kyoko and I want this room for ourselves,” Yukio said and looked at the private outdoor bath.
Ulf followed his stare. “Nice way to spend the evening,” he agreed.
“Sure is, but this year I’ll spend it with just the two of us.” Yukio’s face split in a huge grin. “Nice tip by the way.”
Tip? Ulf’s confusion must have shown.
“Mixed bath. You taught us last year.”
“I did?” I did? “Bloody hell! I did.”
There are those who say you shouldn’t take a bath after dinner. Those had obviously never been to an onsen.
Now, the private bath wasn’t really part of the onsen. Heated tap water and nothing else, but it was still outdoors, with a gorgeous view if you chose to stand up.
With a gorgeous view if you chose to lie in the water as well. Urufu just didn’t get how sculpted his body had become, and enjoying it with her eyes wasn’t just a matter of being in love with him. There was something as pure aesthetics as well.
He had grumbled and pouted and protested, but in the end he wasn’t someone who’d miss out on a lazy evening in the water. Not even if it meant spending it stark naked alone with her.
“You started it,” Noriko said staring at his back.
No response. Even the stringy muscles low on his back looked grumpy.
“Last year you did,” she persisted. One way or another she’d have a conversation with him going. But last year there were four of us in the beginning and all six later. There was a difference in sharing a bath alone with him.
Still no answer, but the way his shoulders stiffened told her he had heard.
“You said it was only natural.”
“Yukio told me already.”
Finally an answer! Noriko stretched and sank deeper into the water. She did feel a little embarrassed after all, and Urufu was bound to turn around any moment now.
“Oh.” How could I forget he’s a boy when I fell in love with him? There were parts of him she wasn’t used to see at all. She sank to her nose in the water. Then she blushed. Much belatedly she realised the surface didn’t do anything to hide her body from him where he was standing looking down on her.
“Just natural, was it?” He smirked. “I apologise.” Then he sat down at the opposite end of the small pool. “Promise, I can only see your face from here, or half of it,” he added and grinned.
That grin reminded her of her second crush on him, before she even realised he was the same boy who saved her from the Red Rose rapist would be.
You didn’t grin much the first time though. Only when you saved me, but not even once after that. He had had little reason to. Stranded in an alien world where he didn’t understand the language of those around him. No wonder he turned rebel. Why he pretended being an introverted geek when admitted to Himekaizen he still hadn’t told them. Yukio probably knew, and maybe Kuri, but Noriko wasn’t certain about the last.
“How much do you train?” she asked. He already knew she was in love with him. He could just as well know she thoroughly enjoyed the sight of him.
How dense can he be? Or maybe he wasn’t. He looked like a teenager, but he wasn’t. Not really. Sometimes her parents shared jokes with each other that she didn’t understand, and it wasn’t just because they spoke of things she didn’t understand.
She gave Urufu another look. He looked like any other teenager now when he had submerged, but she remembered the stares he got that day on the beach in the Tokyo bay. Well, she realised and blushed again, like any other good looking teenager.
“You know, sports,” she said to buy herself some time.
He spent over half a year as Kuri’s boyfriend. Given her experience as a model, or rather as a super model during her previous life, there was no chance Urufu didn’t know exactly in what way he was attractive to the eye. Kuri wasn’t exactly the type to stay silent in matters of looks.
Urufu shrugged, and ringlets of water spread over the surface. When they reached Noriko she became aware she shared a very small pool with Urufu naked.
Don’t think about it! Don’t think about it! To haul him in she had to play older than she actually was. She needed to somehow close the gap that made him look at her as if she was a child.
For a moment, before she stripped and took to the bath, she played with the idea of flaunting her body to him, but then memories of Kuri came to her mind, and she quickly gave up that idea. There was no competing with that body.
Unfair! But life was unfair. She had to work with what was hers to work with.
“Why ask a question if you’re not interested in the answer?”
“Huh” Noriko shook her head. She had been so immersed in her own world she didn’t register that Urufu answered. “I’m sorry. Please, say again.”
“It’s a matter of how you define training,” he said.
The way he usually weighed his words before uttering them was dear to her. She preferred this man to the outspoken clown he became whenever he wanted the club members to act in a given way. The latter might be the one who won admiring glances from the girls, but this was the Urufu she wanted for herself.
And I’m a liar. I fell in love with a rebel who looked like something my mother really ought to warn me to stay away from. Somehow Noriko suspected her mother wouldn’t. There was something about her mother and father that hinted at a wilder youth that they wanted to admit.
Urufu shrugged again, and once more ringlets of water spread towards her. This time she didn’t care.
“Formal training. Maybe six hours per week.”
He grinned and her heart jumped. “I train at a karate and an aikido dojo. Nothing much. Maybe twice a week each.”
The words registered, but they didn’t say much. Foreigners might believe everyone in Japan was crazy about budo, but that was very, very far from the truth.
“Is that much?” she asked.
“Dunno. A bit more than usual back home. A little bit.”
“Enough to explain that body of yours?” Noriko said amazed at her own daring.
“Good catch!” And another one of those grins than almost made her heart stop reached her from across the surface. “No.”
Noriko waited for Urufu to continue. Sometimes he needed the silence, but it didn’t mean he was finished.
“I bike around a lot, and walk,” he continued. So say another eight hours a week. “Maybe ten. Let’s call it fifteen hours a week all in all.”
“Is that a lot?”
“For a school kid? Yeah, it’s a lot. Still only half the time an athlete would spend.” Urufu’s grin thinned to a smile. “I like being active, but I’m not good at sports, so I don’t have any aspirations in that direction.”
Good! She wanted him for herself after all. Now all that remained was having him for herself for the evening in a way that would get them closer to each other without forcing his hand.
During the life he left behind Ulf took his first real girlfriend to his bed after some hesitation, or rather she took him to his bed. He’d been far too awkward to understand the repeated invites she gave him, so in the end, during a late evening alone with each other, she took to the offensive in a way even he wasn’t able to misunderstand.
Now was different.
While he and Christina had shared their bodies on a few occasions it was still a matter of adults in teenager bodies, or at least as much adults as their bodies allowed.
Noriko, however, was very much still a child. At least in his eyes. Ulf was thoroughly grateful she hadn’t tried anything in that direction. Spending the moments before they entered the pool together was bad enough, but she defused it by walking away before she took off her clothes.
It wasn’t like he wasn’t interested at all. She was cute, and he didn’t really have any body type preferences. Had he been the age he looked he probably would have tried something bad, or good, depending on how you looked at it.
As it was he wasn’t ready for neither love nor making love, and Noriko deserved the full attention of the man who shared that sensation for the first time with her.
So in the end he was grateful for the pool as well. It was very much the same as a sauna during his university days back home. After a while the conversation drew most of his attention, and he felt his misgivings fade away as he revelled in how she handled different topics in a way that lay far beyond her years.
Ulf enjoyed talking with Noriko. Problem being he had enjoyed talking with Christina as well since she quickly dispelled any notions he held of her being all looks. He’d been guilty of some severe preconceptions about beauty and brains.
Still, Noriko was different. She gave him a run for his money. Her mind moved so quickly he needed all of his experience to catch up, and only by playing a dirty game of steering conversations to where experience mattered more than pure brains did he manage to keep up.
They talked and laughed, and talked some more. After a while he forgot that neither of them wore any clothes, and from the way Noriko acted, so did she.
A little too much time in the pool it turned out.
Dizzy from heat and fatigue Ulf left the water, grabbed his towel and got rid of the worst of the water. Then he draped himself with a yukata, not even bothering with the obi, and checked that Noriko didn’t fall asleep in the pool or anything equally stupid and dangerous.
He needn’t have worried. She stood, towel in her hair, with water dripping down her body in the light of their room and almost only a pitch black night as background.
Whatever lit the terrace was more for setting the mood than anything else, and Ulf was rudely reminded that this was, after all, not the same as sharing a sauna back home with friends.
Small breasts, narrow hips and yet a body that had decided to grow into adulthood, and all framed by her thin arms and a white towel furiously dancing around in her hair.
Ulf looked down in embarrassment but his body had already reacted, and he pulled the yukata tighter around himself and quickly took a few steps in the direction of the water boiler.
Damn. I’m getting turned on. Shit! I’m a creep after all.
“Could you pour one for me as well?”
Ulf refused to turn around and meet her face. From her voice he could hear that she was oblivious to how his mood had changed. “Sure, green or black?” he said with a voice you could curdle milk with.
“Sorry, I didn’t get that.”
“Black, sure I’ll get you one,” Ulf said and pretended he had misunderstood what Noriko said.
There was no way he could show her his expression now. Instead he fidgeted with two cups, teabags and spoons.
“Urufu, did something happen?”
“Nothing,” he murmured.
Quick steps behind him almost had him turn around anyway. Then two small hand tilted his head backwards where he sat on the tatami mats. He looked up and met Noriko’s worried eyes.
It was at that time he realised she could see a lot more than just his face, and when she suddenly let go of his head and leapt backwards he knew she had.
Shame got the better of him, and he knew he was being unfair even before the words left his mouth. “You did. Wasn’t this exactly what you planned from the start?”
To his surprise her indrawn breath wasn’t followed by a scathing reply. Her words lay hanging in the air for a few seconds before they were voiced.
“I didn’t expect… no… yes I did, or rather hoped.” Then some more silence. “I don’t think I knew what to do if everything went as I planned.”
And there it was. In several aspects she was most definitely still a child.
“Urufu, thank you,” came the unexpected continuation of her thoughts. “You proved I can affect you.”
“Bloody hell, any cute girl probably could,” Ulf admitted.
“Urufu, thank you, or at least your body for noticing me as a woman.”
What could he say to that?
“Urufu. I’ll give you the space you want. At least until next term starts.”
She sat down behind him, and once again those two small hands found their way to him. This time as a hug. “You want to come to some kind of conclusion with Kuri. I won’t pester you.”
Ulf let out a sigh of relief.
“On one condition.”
That night Noriko proved to him how shameless she could be when she wanted, and it took all his willpower not to act on the sensation of her body next to his. Every time she moved where she lay half atop him she must have felt exactly what his body wanted to do rather than sleep.