Accusations of Urufu cheating died down, even though they left a dirty memory behind. Jeniferu’s expulsion, however, went through.
Silently Kyoko wondered how Kareyoshi dared, because foreign journalists still clung to both Himekaizen and Irishima High making the scandal fester, and Kyoko agreed with them. It was a disgusting scandal.
She stood, phone in hand and looked at it. Among other news it seemed Jeniferu had made new friends at Irishima High.
And a press conference.
Right now Jeniferu was one of the most hated girls in Tokyo ever since she disclosed details, not only of the gang rape but also about the atrocities the police had made her go through while at the same time dissuading her from filing a report.
The reason Kyoko stared at her phone was the latest news that an opportunistic China had used the incident to warn their citizens off travels to Japan since security for females couldn’t be guaranteed. South Korea was bound to follow suit within a day or two, which, just as Ambassador Cooper had threatened, would make it all blow up into a huge international scandal.
The police report, at least the parts someone managed to dig up, indicated the rape was Jeniferu’s fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong moment. Which meant being exactly where Kareyoshi’s goons had ordered her to be at the time they wanted her to be there.
Isn’t the police supposed to be protecting us?
So in the end Jeniferu got kicked out of school for indecent behaviour. And the online communities went up in flame where ‘foreign whore’ was among the politest epithets attached to her.
Does it mean it was my fault I was attacked? Twice?
In a bad way Kyoko suspected not everyone believed so, because the Stockholm Haven café had two new customers at the moment. Two scary men who had once moved from Japan to Sweden, or at least one scary man. The other was Ai’s father, and he just made Kyoko feel awkward since he somehow was involved in Ryu and Ai breaking up last spring.
One of the men, however, was definitely scary. The father to one of the five Swedish guests they had entertained last summer. Rika, if Kyoko recalled correctly. The former student council president of their sister high school, or at least something very close to a student council president.
She could ask, Kyoko noted. Both Rika and Ai’s older brother Jun were present as well together with Jun’s girlfriend. Three of those five students attended universities in Tokyo, and as far a Kyoko understood, none of them planned to spend all four years here.
The scary man sat talking with the not so scary one, former Principal Nakagawa and Kuri-chan’s grandfather, who by all rights was a scary man himself if Urufu could be believed. From time to time Urufu’s guardian and James joined their conversation, but most of the time they shared their own table with Kuri-chan’s photographer and a very old woman Kyoko had never seen before.
As for Kyoko she stood behind the counter taking orders and serving them. She did so together with Noriko and that university student part timer James had hired for late evenings.
Urufu was in the inner room together with the three Swedish students, of whom two were really Japanese. It wasn’t club activities, because the café proper was filled with club members ever since Urufu booted everyone out from their club room.
Kyoko forced down a very unfeminine growl when she saw Jeniferu in her sailor uniform talking with another Irishima High freshman and Tomasu. Jeniferu should never have had to wear that uniform, or even better, should have worn it from the beginning.
Then Kyoko’s eyes sought out the adults again.
What are you thinking? Half a dozen arrivals in the café. You stand out like a sore thumb. And they did. It was still early enough for the students to be here, and the only adult expected except for James was the vice principal of Irishima High.
Sure enough students glanced at the older people from time to time, and Kyoko sighed with relief when Urufu finally left the inner room together with their former guests and let the grown-ups inside.
“Kyoko, Noriko, could you tell me when you have your next break?”
Kyoko shot their older colleague a glance, and when she nodded approval Kyoko met Urufu’s eyes again. “Now is fine.”
She followed him through the door, and the short delay until the bell rang again behind her was proof that Noriko had joined them as well.
“What is it?” Noriko asked when the door closed.
Urufu turned and faced them both. Behind his back Kyoko saw cars passing by in a steady stream and on the other side of the street her body guard sat in a car waiting as he always did whenever she visited the Haven café. Just one body guard, because Yukio and Ryu were away running errands for the club.
“The old people are planning something dirty. I think it has do do with Kareyoshi.”
“Why can’t they just have him put in jail?”
Urufu grimaced. “They could. To be honest I believe even we could by now.”
“So why not?” Kyoko just wanted the madman gone.
“Because they’re adults. Because they need to know he isn’t replaced by someone equally bad.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Because adults don’t do the right thing or the wrong thing,” Noriko said.
Kyoko turned and looked at her, and in doing so she saw how Urufu drew a deep breath.
“I’m pretty certain they need to negotiate with whoever put him there in the first place,” he said.
“Negotiate?” The word felt strange in Kyoko’s mouth. “He’s involved in the assault of four girls!” The word made her sick. “Negotiate? What’s there to negotiate?”
“It’s not that easy to...” Urufu began. Then he stopped mid sentence and bowed. “I apologise. Adults do disgusting things and call it being pragmatic. I apologise for even thinking like that. You’re right. There’s nothing to be negotiated.”
Yukio saw Kyoko together with Urufu and Noriko across the street and waved. To his chagrin she didn’t even notice his arrival, but when his body guard left for the car and got inside she must have seen something moving, because her hand went up and Yukio saw her looking straight at him.
Something happened? he thought when he saw how dark her face was.
Traffic was heavy, so Yukio impatiently trod his own feet waiting for a chance to cross. It came just as Urufu turned and looked for whom Kyoko was waving at, and halfway across the street Yukio was met by both Urufu’s and Noriko’s hands as well.
“What’s up?” Yukio said as soon he was safely on the pavement on the other side.
Above them daylight had long since given way to night; had done so earlier now when November crept towards December. A sudden bite in the air announced the approach of winter, even though neither Urufu nor Kuri ever accepted that Tokyo had anything resembling winter in the first place.
“Nothing’s up,” Urufu said, and those words had Yukio realise the answer had been late in coming.
“You look a lot morose for nothing to have happened. Spill!”
Urufu’s eyes avoided his, but Yukio saw him glance at Kyoko and Noriko both.
“The grown-ups are playing dirty little games of power inside,” Noriko said instead.
“Who’s winning?” Yukio didn’t feel like waiting for the trio to slowly spit out the story in bits and pieces. Urufu once taught him how to cut to the chase, and by now Yukio felt confident he was better at it than Urufu.
“Winning?” Urufu said.
“The dirty games,” Yukio clarified.
“Eh, I guess we are.”
“But it’s taking too long?” Yukio guessed.
Angry nods from Kyoko and Noriko confirmed his suspicion. Kareyoshi’s actions finally made someone willing to bring the axe down on him, or rather several someones, but right now they were probably jockeying for power rather than swinging that blade.
“Urufu, can you promise the end result will be disgustingly awful for Kareyoshi?”
“I can’t promise anything.”
“Then,” Yukio began and looked at Kyoko, “we can’t wait.” He stepped past the trio and opened the door to the café.
“Yukio, wait! What do you think you’re doing?”
Yukio grinned, but he didn’t turn. He did however wait for the bell to jingle to add some extra effect to his next statement. “If you can’t, then I’ll find someone inside who can give us that promise.”
“Yukio, you really shouldn’t...”
“My man! He’s all my man,” Kyoko’s voice interrupted Urufu’s attempt at stopping him.
Still grinning Yukio went inside. They’d been a couple for close to a year and a half now, but Kyoko still knew how to say exactly the things that made his heart go bump in his chest. Behind him he heard the door close to the sound of the bell, and he imagined how Urufu stood staring at it mouth agape.
Now the question was where those playing a dirty game were. The café proper was its usual jumble of odd furniture and students in their gakuran and sailor uniforms from Irishima High mingling with the few Himekaizen uniforms who still dared to go here.
By now anyone here still sporting a Himekaizen blazer had attained an almost mythical status, and Yukio received a much warmer welcome than had been the case a year earlier.
He nodded at James, who stood at his usual place behind the counter, and then he turned to face eyes meeting his. “Where are the really old people?” Yukio said. Some of Urufu’s rudeness had rubbed off in a good way.
“Inner room,” a female voice answered.
Yukio searched for the owner and found Ai. She had dyed her hair again, and once again to a darker brown tone. It was as if she slowly wanted to look as unobtrusive as possible after her crashed relationship with Ryu, and Yukio felt sorry for her. Just sorry though. He wasn’t about to help her, because with Ryu and Kuri dating, and Urufu getting accustomed to being with Noriko, their respective worlds finally stopped being full of thorns.
“Thank you,” Yukio said and made his way behind the counter.
An opened door later he was inside, facing old men who should have scared him a lot more than they did.
“This room is booked for the evening,” a man who had to be Ai’s father said.
They did scare him. He was just a sixteen year old boy after all. Still, he had all but promised Kyoko an end to Kareyoshi’s atrocities. On shaking legs Yukio pretended he hadn’t heard and walked to the grand table and pulled out a chair.
“It’s booked,” another man said.
A very, very scary man Yukio admitted to himself when he met cold, calculating eyes. He forced himself to sit down and plastered a false smile to his face.
“Christmas,” Yukio said. “We’re just kids, and we can’t do much,” he added.
“Christmas?” Nakagawa-sensei asked, and for the first time since entering the room Yukio felt at least a little warmth from one of the men inside.
“We know adults who will help us if we ask,” Yukio explained.
He only got a questioning gaze from his former principal in return.
“After Christmas, if Kareyoshi’s not gone, we’ll ask,” Yukio added.
There was a moment of silence, just a moment, but it was enough for Yukio to realise he had successfully thrown the dice in this dirty gamble of adults.
“Do you actually believe you can threaten us,” the really scary man said. “Do you have any idea of what kind of power we represent?”
Yukio did. If he hadn’t he wouldn’t have dared doing this. “Kareyoshi had Kuri assaulted last year. He put Kyoko, Urufu and me in hospital. Now two girls were raped because of him,” he said, still ashamed he couldn’t recall the name of the Korean girl. “With all that power of yours, what have you planned on doing to us to make us more afraid than we already are?”
This time the silence settled into the room. He had gained what Urufu called leverage. What an ugly word!
Ulf smiled at the people in the café, or at least he hoped it looked like a smile. Then he went behind the counter and followed Yukio into the inner room in hopes his best friend hadn’t caused an uproar.
One look inside told Ulf he had. Nakagawa’s creepy but happy smile combined with the unhappy ones from the two Japanese men from Sweden said just about everything Ulf didn’t want to hear.
“What’s the fallout?” Ulf asked Nakagawa just as Yukio turned to se who had followed him inside.
“Your friend here just told us you’d bring in the big guns if we didn’t act according to your wishes.”
Nothing worse than that? Ulf nodded. He stared at the men from Sweden, the Japanese men from Sweden. “You’re not making things easier by being who you are,” he said. “Back home, if a student is raped on school grounds you start by setting off a nuke. Things can escalate from there.” He kept staring at them. “I don’t bloody care if you grew up with rape laws from the eighteen hundreds. I don’t even care about them still being practised here today. Kareyoshi’s going to jail or shit’s really going to hit the fan.”
Nakagawa just kept smiling, but one of the men, Ai’s father averted his eyes. That left Rika’s father who met Ulf’s stare with a cold glare of his own. Ulf decided to pour petrol on the flames.
“I guess you’d both be fine if Kareyoshi had Ai and Rika done over by some of his goons as well,” he suggested in his most vulgar Gothenburg accent. Switching to Swedish had the effect Ulf wanted.
“Don’t you dare compare Rika with...”
“… the daughter of a US ambassador,” Ulf interrupted. He’d already guessed where this was going. The man was Japanese and not Swedish after all. The social status of an assault victim was of equal importance as the severity of the crime. That he had to use this kind of argument at all made bile rise in him, but Ulf was here to secure the victory Yukio had prepared for him.
To his surprise it was Ai’s father who interceded. “It’s not that easy, so please hear me out,” he said in Japanese.
Ulf decided to listen and sat down beside Yukio.
“We absolutely need to get as many of them as possible,” Ai’s father continued.
“Of Kareyoshi’s goons?”
“No,” Rika’s father said. “Of those who are pulling the strings.”
Ulf smirked. Another excuse to do nothing.
“Listen to me! It’s imperative we get them all. There are some very powerful people involved.”
“What would you know?” Ulf said and snorted. He was sick and tired of people playing his visual age against him and treating him like a kid.
There was no retort. Both men looked at each other, and then at Nakagawa who just nodded.
“They have a runner in Sweden,” he said when none of the other two wanted to explain.
“I don’t know how much you have already guessed, but there seems to be more than two worlds...”
Behind them the door opened.
“... and sometimes an individual doesn’t live out a full life after arriving but keeps transiting from world to world,” Noriko’s voice interrupted Nakagawa as she closed the door.
“So you had him or her extracted from Japan,” she continued. “But that person shouldn’t be holed up in Sweden now unless you had a need of extensive interrogation. Am I right?”
What? Oh! Oh crap! Ulf stared at Rika’s father. “Kareyoshi’s involved with this shit in the upstream world as well?”
Ulf looked at Yukio. “His suggestion,” Ulf said and pointed a finger sideways. “The world I transited from,” he said.
Nakagawa nodded approval, and Ulf noticed how Ai’s father even jotted down a few notes on his phone.
“Upstream is a good word for it, I guess,” Rika’s father said. “Yes, yes he is, or rather his alter ego there. Principal Nakagawa got kicked out of office there as well.”
It felt strange listening to how there were multiple versions of individuals who hadn’t transited. Ulf knew there was only one version of himself in this world, of Christina as well, but this version of himself was different than the one who had transited. The thought of more or less identical people living parallel lives was somehow disturbing.
“Why is it so important that anyone associated with Kareyoshi gets punished?” Ulf asked.
Ai’s father grimaced. “We’re transferring Principal Nakagawa to Sweden.”
“Oh,” Noriko said. “Oh!”
Damn, I’m supposed to be the bright one! Why the hell… Ulf felt all colour leave his face. “When?” he started.
“Not now,” Nakagawa said. “Maybe never, but if I transit one day I’ll arrive in a world where I never spent my life sabotaging the work of Kareyoshi and the likes of him.”
“How bad is it?”
“If we understood our runner correctly it’s even worse in... ah what did you call it, upstream. They don’t have you or Ageruman-san playing merry hell with their plans there.”
It wasn’t just him and Christina working to make Himekaizen a decent place, but maybe gathering friends in the club made a difference. The club created a network of fairly powerful people, and for that reason it acted as a counter weight.
“Shouldn’t things be better downstream?”
“Hopefully, but we can’t take that risk. However, according to interviews with previous runners it seems that actions taken in one world carry over to the next.”
It made sense. Otherwise the worlds wouldn’t be so similar. “How bad?” Ulf repeated.
“All the way to the diet. We need all, or at least most of them removed before we dare transiting our own people downstream.”
Our own? Ulf glanced at Nakagawa. Ah. Then a thought struck him. So there’s some kind of club for the big guys as well. Seems we’ll have a shot at helping you and Kyoko after after all. He looked at Yukio and grinned but only got a nonplussed smile in return.
Noriko shivered as she took a few steps and found herself a seat beside Urufu.
Adults played ugly games. He’d said as much outside the Stockholm Haven café a little earlier. Just how ugly she slowly began to understand.
She could do math faster than him, but sitting here right now, feeling the need for him to protect her, she realised she couldn’t do people faster than him, if at all. People couldn’t be calculated. You had to go by gut feeling, and that wasn’t her way of coming to conclusions.
Still, the part about ‘our own people’ shocked her. It implied they’d still have unsuspecting people transit downstream into the unknown as long as those people weren’t ‘our own’.
Will I become like them when I grow up? She hoped not. Her mother hadn’t, and her father at least not very much.
“Christmas,” Urufu said. “We don’t care any more. The pig’s gone by Christmas or we’ll act.”
“Do you have any idea...” the scary old man began.
“Not enough,” Urufu interrupted. “Christmas or I’ll call in a favour each from Christina and her grandfather. You really, really, really don’t want to mess with them.”
“Now you arrogant little...”
“You really don’t want to mess with me neither. I’ll blow your cover to Nathan Cooper. He got his daughter raped. He’ll believe anything I say about science fiction style dark operations if I make it convincing enough.”
“Mister Hammargren, you can’t,” Nakagawa-sensei said. “We play dirty, but the Americans would use direct violence.”
“You want to test that theory?”
“You little...” the scary man tried to edge in.
“Shut the bloody hell up! My girlfriend and my best friend here are the only decent persons in this room. I’m not. Push me and you’ll find out just exactly how low I’m prepared to go.”
Noriko watched he ping pong match of words in fascination. Urufu’s words reminded her he wasn’t just her boyfriend but also a man with a lifetime’s experience of power games.
When silence suddenly swept the entire room in an uncomfortable blanket of angry thoughts Noriko decided she needed to voice her own opinion.
“Christmas. We need to. We’re the ones hurting, not you.”
From out of nowhere Urufu’s hand found hers and she felt his grip harden. He’d been there and saved her once. He knew. She squeezed back.
An unexpected giggle reached her from Nakagawa-sensei. When she looked at him the expression she got in return was one of satisfaction rather than irritation.
“Well gentlemen, seems we got ourselves a deadline,” he said, still smiling.
The scary man turned and glared at Nakagawa-sensei. “You really expect us to blindly do what a couple of kids tell us to do?”
Their former principal dressed his face in a harder expression. “The arrivals aren’t really kids, and as for the kids in question, they have a right to expect us adults to protect them.”
“Look, Nakagawa-san, we had no part in your allowing things to degenerate like this in the first place.”
“You do now,” he said. “Since the moment you suggested we stall you became involved.”
“I fail to...”
“You failed to tell us you knew abut the Hitler Jugend central in the other world.”
“Hitler Jugend?” Urufu asked, and Noriko felt his grip harden until it almost hurt.
Nakagawa-sensei met Urufu’s eyes. “In your old world Red Rose is still very much operative, and it seems their version basically bought Himekaizen and merged the two high schools into one disgusting right wing power base rather thinly disguised as a place for education.”
Urufu gasped and Noriko stared at his face. A thin line had replaced his earlier arrogant smirk. “I see,” he said.
“You know something?” Nakagawa-sensei asked.
Urufu shook his head. “Not really know. It’s just a feeling. This world, or at least this Japan seems a little less nationalistic than the one I remember. Just a feeling.”
The scary man nodded. “The runner said the same thing. According to him there is a trend towards a higher degree of openness.”
“How many,” Noriko began, “times has he transited?”
“He says he can’t remember.”
That stunned her. “Not even a guess?” she tried.
“Hundreds of times.”
“Hundreds of… how old is he?”
“We don’t know,” Ai’s father replied. “Things get strange with a runner. You transit late June and arrive early April the same year. It’s like a short jump backwards in time, well apart from transiting from one world to another.”
“You mean he could have spent several years reliving spring 2017?”
Ai’s father nodded. “He probably did as well. At least he spent many decades in the twenty first century. Maybe a hundred years in total.”
“When was he born?”
She got a genuine smile in return. “I waited for you to ask that question. 1937 in a world very different from this one. No world war two among other things.”
This time she shuddered. The very thought of being disconnected from reality scared her more than she would have thought. Every deviation, every single one experienced by someone who transited meant that reality was no longer what it was supposed to be.
Somehow she had learned to accept the small changes Urufu and Kuri told her about, and a few not so small ones, but a reality where the most important event of the last century had never occurred made that reality entirely alien.
“I feel sorry for him,” she finally said. “There’s no longer a home for him.”
“There never was,” the scary man said. “He was probably mentally unstable long before he transited the first time. The ancient boy waiting to transit in Sweden is no longer sane in any sense of the world.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s mentally broken. I wouldn’t consider him a functioning human. He’s a repository of memories with a manic need to transit to the next world.”
Noriko wanted to throw up, but with the support from Urufu’s firm grip on her hand she managed by merely shuddering once again.
“There’s something fishy about that story.”
Yukio nodded, and Ryu gave him a long stare as they listened to Kuri’s reaction to what Yukio just told hem. All in all Ryu agreed, but being in that room when the old people told the story about the runner would have been better. As it was he had to rely on what Yukio said.
“It’s too easy,” Yukio said in agreement.
“Aren’t you the one who tries to make everything easier?” Ryu retorted as they passed across the great Shibuya intersection.
Kuri had some kind of job at 109, and being a Sunday the Himekaizen members of the club were all together for the first time in months. They were joined by Jeniferu who tagged along with Tomasu a bit further back. Always a bit further back these days. Something had gone out of her eyes, even though Ryu guessed he was one of the few who saw the feelings she tried to hide.
After searching for Jeniferu and Tomasu Ryu was grateful to find Kyoko together with the pair, and less so for finding Noriko hand in hand with Urufu halfway across the street.
“You know,” Yukio said, and Ryu realised Yukio must have given the teasing retort more thought than in was really worth, “I try to make things as easy as possible while still keeping the important stuff there.”
Now it was Ryu’s turn to give things a thought.
“Interesting, please continue,” Kuri said.
Ryu looked at her, because there had been a warmer tone to her voice than he had expected. Her blue eyes hidden behind that golden halo were always harder to read than those of other girls. If that was because he loved her, or her being a foreigner or her real age hiding her true feelings Ryu didn’t know.
“I guess making things too easy means you have to lie,” Yukio said. “Not lying by telling lies but lying by telling too little of the truth.”
“And?” Kuri passed through a sliding door.
Yukio and Ryu followed her, but Yukio waited with his answer until they were indoors. “It’s just been a little more than a week, but there’s something nagging at me.”
“About their story?”
“Yeah. Ah, man, I can’t explain, but it’s too easy.”
“So they’re hiding something,” Kuri said and entered an escalator.
Ryu followed her a couple of steps below, and Yukio quickly joined. Together the three of them rode it a floor up with people around them staring at Kuri as if they couldn’t believe there was a life sized version of the face plastered to electronic bill boards all over Tokyo.
Smooth, really smooth, Kuri, Ryu thought. Does the word discreet even exist in the thesaurus you use? He shook his head and followed her up the next escalator all the while Kuri’s body guards made a futile attempt to keep the mob of fans from getting too close to her.
At the third floor she signed her first autograph and at the fifth the twentieth. Ryu decided their earlier conversation had to wait.
“Kuri, aren’t you even worried in the slightest?” he wondered during a brief break in photos taken and her signing just about anything people handed to her.
She smiled. “As long as we’re moving my body guards should handle the rest,” Kuri said silently.
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll sign some dirty contract by mistake?”
Kuri’s shoulders swivelled and suddenly Ryu had her face so close their noses touched and her hair embraced him in golden velvet. She gave him a wet kiss and he felt her arms around his neck.
Around them people shouted, some voices in delighted surprise, but others carried an annoyed tone to them. While not a Japanese style idol Kuri still had her fans out there who expected her to live up to the impossible ideal of a sexy virgin.
“I love you,” she whispered when their lips parted. “I love how you care for me. I’m happy I met you.”
Ryu grinned. He felt equal parts elation and embarrassment running though him. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said in an attempt to regain control.
“Autographs,” she said. “I have a legal document where the distinction between my autograph and my signature is made explicit.”
The Billion Dollar Empress. You’re my girlfriend, so I forget who you once were. “I see,” Ryu said. He hoped he sounded calm, but inside of him sensations of anxiety and outright fear quickly built and burned. You’re my girlfriend, and you’re older than my mother.
The short seconds it took for thoughts and feelings to run their course was enough for Kuri to widen the distance between them, and Ryu felt her hand pulling him toward the next escalator.
Behind him Yukio followed. Ryu saw him mirrored in that glittering world of glass, spotlights and cloth that was 109. Further behind Ryu knew the others tried to catch up, but with the mob of fans gathering around Kuri they were bound to be stuck a floor or more below him.
Kuri, I really do love you, older and all, but right now you’re behaving more like an elementary school kid than the seventeen you look. Ryu growled, a satisfied growl he admitted, but a growl still.
He winked at Yukio, turned and followed Kuri up another floor, and then another.
The crowd around them thinned, and Ryu guessed Kuri’s body guards had finally managed to take control of the situation, but then his world changed from one of casual luxury to one of mad chaos.
“He’s got a knife!”
Red Rose uniforms?
“Ageruman-san, watch out!”
But that school is closed.
Legs so white he could hardly see where they ended and her panties began flew above his head.
Golden hair sailed across the escalator.
Ryu’s head connected with a red blazer.
What the hell? “Down Ryu!” Christina backed away from her attacker. “Down!”
From the corner of her eye she saw how Ryu sank down on his knees, and then she jumped over him, down the escalator. It would probably hurt later, but she desperately wanted to get away from that knife.
Below her Yukio screamed at the top of his lungs.
“Kill the bitch!”
She landed on one foot, lost her balance and crashed down metallic steps still moving upwards. Then all of a sudden she was saved in Yukio’s embrace, and the entire world came to a stop and they both fell.
Yukio let go of her, and she saw him staring up the escalator. Surprise turned into rage in his eyes and then he rushed upwards, stepping on her arm on his way. It hurt, but Christina didn’t care. Somewhere up there Ryu stood facing the attacker she had fled from.
When she followed Yukio’s dash with her eyes, understanding that someone must have pushed the emergency stop dawned on her. That was the reason the world stopped earlier.
Above her a red blazer swirled, then it was hidden behind Yukio’s back.
Ryu shouted, Yukio shouted, and behind her, clearly audible through a bedlam of hard heeled shoes running up the escalator, her personal body guard shouted.
She tried to get up only to be brusquely shoved to the side by her body guard as he ran past her. With both hands against the glass wall she righted herself again and started climbing the unmoving stairs.
Ryu, what’s happening?
Her foot hurt. The foot she had landed on, and her arm hurt where Yukio’s foot had clamped down just moments earlier. Just like she had done during the brutal first years as a model in her previous life Christina pushed the pain away and marched up the stairs.
Kill the bitch? I’ll give you bitch!
She barely made all the way up when Yukio backed into her, almost pushing her down the escalator. For a few moments Christina balanced precariously, feet halfway outside the step she stood on, before she grabbed the hand rails and righted herself again.
She began her ascent again, but Yukio was in her way, and when she tried to pass him he held her back.
She tried to pull away, but Yukio didn’t let go.
“I said stay here!” he repeated. “You should let your body guard handle this.”
“You just ran up there yourself.”
“I’m… I was stupid.”
Christina knew he really meant to say he was a boy and she a girl, but she respected him for changing his mind. Then panic took hold of her again and she forced herself free.
Two steps was all she needed to leave the escalator, and doing so she realised she should have been able to see him even from where Yukio tried to keep her safe.
“Miss Ageruman, he’s safe.”
Christina whirled in the direction of the voice.
Her body guard stood shielding Ryu who sat on the floor clutching his arm. One assailant lay prone on the floor and another two Red Rose uniforms were manhandled by the body guards Vogue provided.
“Ryu, what happened?” Christina said and rushed to him.
“He cut me,” Ryu said and pointed at the prone body.
“I’m sorry for resorting to violence, Miss Ageruman,” her body guard said. His smile belied his apology.
She looked around at an unnatural scene of normality. The place was crowded, but no more so than the mob that usually flocked around her. Nothing smashed, nothing torn down, just her body guards trying to handle everything as discreetly as possible while they waited for police to arrive, and Ryu sitting on the floor bleeding from his arm. Behind the crowd some people were even shopping as if nothing had happened at all.
“Miss Ageruman, if I may suggest, you should probably escort your boyfriend to hospital.”
Christina nodded numbly. Of course, hospital. Ryu was bleeding. Hospital was probably a good idea. She looked at him. He was bleeding.
“What the bloody hell is going on?”
Ulf? Yes, we were going to 109. I have a job to do here. She turned and looked at Ulf for help. They said the job was important. Should I finish it before we go to hospital? No, Ryu’s bleeding right now. She searched for an answer in the eyes she probably would love until the day she died. Maybe just do part of the job?
“She’s going into shock. Get an ambulance here!”
Ambulance? Why? I was told to escort Ryu to hospital.
“Hamarugen-san, it’s on its way.”
“Thank you!” Ulf turned and looked behind him. “Noriko, could you get hold of Thomas and Jennifer? I’ll stay here so we know which hospital they’re going to.” Then he turned again. “Ryu, you OK?”
Ah, I forgot. He belongs to Noriko now. Christina beamed at her friend who came into her field of vision. And I love Ryu now. There was warmth in that thought, and a sense of security. But he’s bleeding.
“Urufu, will he be OK?” Noriko asked, and Christina could see how scared she was.
“Ask him,” Ulf said.
“I’m fine sis. I think.”
At the edge of her vision Christina saw the two standing Red Rose uniforms being led away. They vanished through a door into the heart of the building where only personnel had access.
I should be signing autographs. She rose on wobbly legs and made for the crowd.
“Christina, what the hell are you doing? Stay with Ryu! He needs you.”
“Kuri, do as Urufu says!”
“Kuri-chan, what’s going on?”
Christina’s world went white, and then black.
Christina was discharged from the hospital the same evening as the attack, but Ryu had to stay two nights.
Ulf wondered where things had gone wrong, and now, a full week later with finals looming on the horizon he felt the need to be at several places at once.
Kareyoshi had to go. This time Ulf hadn’t even pretended to be as meek as he usually was when Amaya turned grumpy. He even skipped the ‘mother dear’ part when he demanded to know what happened to the men who attacked Christina.
Amaya sulked since three days, but Ulf got a full feed of news. Assaulting an arrival was apparently a no-go, and this was the third time Kareyoshi had been involved.
Ulf found himself rushing between meetings. Nakagawa, the Wakayama parents, Sano, the creepy duo representing Swedish interests, the Swedish university students, the club, and somewhere in all that he tried to squeeze in time for Noriko and himself to be alone as well as time for studying and training.
Right now he sat beneath the windows in his classroom with Noriko snuggled up using him as her backrest.
Yukio would have been proud. An unseasonal spell of relative warmth allowed them to keep the windows ajar, and the curtains bulged around them like slowly moving clouds indoors. Yukio would have been extremely proud. Even Ulf knew enough manga to understand that the scene deserved a full page.
He was dead tired and dug his nose into her hair. For the first time since forever he just relaxed and enjoyed doing nothing together with the person he needed closest to him.
She healed him, or maybe, as Noriko surprisingly had suggested, Christina did the healing, and Noriko herself enjoyed the rewards. Ulf didn’t agree. He could feel how Noriko made him whole again in a way he hadn’t been since his daughter died. Maybe Christina had started that process, but Ulf knew the day when he was fully healed still lay ahead of him.
It scared him. Not that he had broken apart at the death of his child, but that he hadn’t noticed how broken he became. His pride lay in knowing himself, and he hadn’t.
Ulf hugged Noriko closer. He could feel her breasts under his arms but pretended he didn’t notice. “No, just enjoying what you’re giving me.”
She didn’t move away, so Ulf guessed she pretended as well. Her face turned upwards and her hair caressed him. It was longer now than last summer. Then she turned her head and Ulf felt small hands grabbing his neck. Hungry lips sought his.
“What we’re sharing,” she said after the kiss. “Not giving or taking. You said so yourself.”
Somehow she managed to turn around in their embrace, and now she sat straddling one of his legs. There was nothing sexual about it, or at least mostly nothing. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t notice what pressed against his thigh, but there was no intention.
Ulf hugged her closer and rested his face on her shoulder. “I’m happy you never gave up on me. Thank you!”
“Worth waiting for,” she answered, and he could hear how hoarse her voice had become despite her whispering. “Worth waiting for,” she repeated. She started shaking in his arms. “Worth waiting for.”
He let her cry against him. Too much tension during the autumn, and now when the two of them finally found a moment to relax it all ran off her. He felt no sorrow in her tears. Relief, happiness and a lot of love all mixed together reached him through her sobs.
He just held her and kept his silence.
A moment of shared solitude. A moment of bliss. A moment to call their own. A moment, he hoped, that would stay with him for long years to come.
They fell asleep in each others arms. When Ulf woke dusk was rapidly cloaking the room in ever fading light and he shook Noriko awake as well.
“Time to go,” he said.
She blinked back at him through unruly hair and shook her head. “Just a little more.” Her arms wrapped around him again.
They sat on the floor until all daylight had vanished and temperature dropped.
With a little regret Ulf loosened himself from her embrace, rose and began closing the windows. He took her hand and together they made their way down to the shoe lockers. A bit guiltily he helped Noriko climb the closed gates to the school before he pushed at the rails with both hands and rolled over to the other side.
It had been deliberate, and Ulf greedily drank Noriko’s admiration. I used to like showing off like this back in the days as well. It had worked to a degree. He wasn’t a real athlete in any of his lives, and Noriko grew up with Ryu who definitely was.
“Wow what?” Ulf said, trying his best to sound nonchalant.
“You really are as strong as you’re clumsy.”
So much for impressing your girl. He smirked. “I made it, didn’t I?”
“Idiot bro would have...”
“Yeah, I realised myself,” Ulf interrupted her. “Just felt like it,” he added and took her hand. “Eight o’clock, at Waseda,” her reminded her.
They had a rather well paid two hours of work ahead of them. A hundred thousand, and he needed those jobs since studying and running between meetings cut into the time he had available for customers. With a bit of luck it would lead to more short stunts like this one.
They walked under trees dressed for the coming winter, along more and more heavily trafficked streets until they arrived at the station. For once they took the same train, and Ulf thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to spend a little more time with her. It didn’t matter that the train was crammed. Right now it was easy to pretend that it was just the two of them going somewhere, anywhere.
Noriko wanted the luxury of a long evening with Urufu to never end. Working with him was fine, as long as it meant being together.
She watched her own face mirrored in the windows of a late train, sleepily noticed how it faded in and out of view as they passed between brightly lit parts of the city scape.
Waseda was an intense memory of elderly men and a few women giving them amused stares when they set up the workshop. Those stares had become progressively less amused as it proceeded.
In two years they could be my teachers. She blinked. Or are they called professors at university? She blinked again. Doesn’t matter, does it? With that she leaned into Urufu’s shoulder and resumed watching their reflections in the windows.
The next station offered a surprise when Hitomi unexpectedly entered and took a seat beside Noriko.
“Evening,” Noriko answered. You know I’d like some more time alone with Urufu. Noriko wished she could have said that aloud rather than just thinking it, but she felt a little guilty about what happened to Hitomi after the chaos in 109.
“You know I’m not angry with you,” Hitomi said. “I know you’re a tight group of friends.”
Noriko twisted uncomfortably in her seat. OK, she has something to say. Guess I’ll listen. “But?” she said and sat upright. She felt the absence of Urufu’s warmth as soon as the space between them widened.
The train rattled on with Noriko waiting for Hitomi to continue.
“Father’s been digging up some dirt on Kareyoshi,” Hitomi said when the silence told its clear message that she was the one supposed to do the talking. “Is he daft or something? I mean shouldn’t he at least pretend to hide his actions?”
That did bring a smile to Noriko’s lips. She nodded. “Yep, he’s daft. Urufu’s positive he needs to close his mouth before standing up not to overload his brain.”
“How come he’s not in prison yet?”
“Security by obscurity.”
Noriko grinned. “Another of Urufu’s expressions. Kareyoshi gives moronic an entirely new dimension, he says.”
“I don’t get you.”
Noriko tapped Hitomi’s shoulder when the train stopped and passengers got off and on. There was no need of people overhearing them.
Privacy returned and Noriko raised her voice again. “He’s so incredibly stupid it’s hard to even believe he’s doing what he’s doing. The main problem is making people believe he’s involved.”
“Better believe it,” Hitomi murmured. She stretched her legs, very beautiful legs a small demon of envy in Noriko’s head observed, and gave her shoes a thorough look. “Father says someone in the diet is pulling the strings,” she continued after she was done admiring her feet.
That information leaked as well? “For real?” Noriko hoped her acting was good enough for Hitomi not to notice that was old news. Still, where had Hitomi’s father dug it up? The link between Kareyoshi and the politician was supposed to be a closely kept secret for the simple reason Kareyoshi didn’t know about it himself. “What did you say your father worked with?”
Hitomi smiled. “I probably never did. Business,” she added.
It was as clear a warning as any that Hitomi had seen through her and knew that Noriko had just attempted to interrogate her. There was no longer a reason to be subtle about it.
“What kind of business?”
“The kind where you get to blackmail a lot of people.”
“Nothing illegal, just very dirty. There’s a reason I spent my freshman year as an airheaded beautiful doll.”
And Noriko thought she had been cynical when she started high school.
“But you aren’t, not any longer.” That came out wrong. “You’re not pretending to be one I mean,” Noriko added and snuggled up against Urufu again. She liked gloating a little and showing off what she had gained after so long. Childish? Probably, but she didn’t care.
Hitomi stretched her legs out once more and smirked. “You know, the first week was perfect for someone like me. Always visible but never really noticed.”
“Huh?” Noriko gave Hitomi a careful look. No, she had never been an airhead to begin with. Which mean she represented competition, and Noriko wasn’t about to let anyone wiggle between herself and Urufu.
“Don’t worry, I’m not really interested in him that way. You at the other hand...”
The smirk turned into a grin. “I’m actually not that interested at all, but if I am I believe I swing both ways.”
That was unexpected. “Why did you tell me?” Noriko said and edged closer to Urufu.
“I’ll tell you later, but I need to explain what happened first. You see, that first week really was perfect. Me and that other girl in our wing and Ryu and the Watabes in the other. Well, I guess Nori as well before people knew he was a motor mouth.”
Noriko listened in awe. That was so calculated. But it did make sense. The two beauties in one wing and the popular boys in the other. “And then Kuri happened?”
Hitomi nodded. “Yes, but it wasn’t all bad. Not everyone from our wing bothered with 3:1, so the two of us had our admirers who never cared to look more than skin deep.”
Noriko could see where this was going. “So you pretended to be the beautiful airhead for the first trimester?”
“Uhum. Urufu was a problem after he got together with Kuri, because then she started coming to our wing, but still not that bad.”
“Oh! And then the club with us getting the new club room in your wing?”
The way Hitomi shook her head told volumes, but at least she smiled. “The entire circus moved right into my turf. Suddenly I was invisible.”
It all made sense. Early the second trimester Hitomi mostly dropped her pretence. “I think I like this you better.”
“I was getting there. I want in, as really in. I want friends.”
“Aren’t we friends already?”
“I mean close ones, which is why I told you all this.”
I don’t understand. “What you just told me could hurt you a lot if it got out.”
“I know. Good friends need that kind of leverage on each other.”
Are you for real?
Ulf woke halfway into an ongoing conversation between Noriko and another girl. If not exactly halfway then at least a good part into it from what he heard. While he recalled the voice he wasn’t entirely certain who sat on the other side of Noriko.
A couple of times he could see slender legs sticking out in the train corridor, but he was facing the wrong way to see her face.
He heard the girl revealing some rather unexpected details about herself while he pretended to sleep, and then she said something absolutely astounding and he couldn’t pretend any more.
He yawned, something that wasn’t an act at all, and stretched his arms. “Sorry Noriko, I fell asleep.” Ulf turned in the seat and hugged her even closer to him. Oh, it’s Hitomi, he thought when he recognised the face behind Noriko’s head. “Hi, didn’t notice you getting on.”
Noriko didn’t seem to dislike being manhandled like this. Ulf felt her burrowing her face into his chest, and her arms wrapped around him in a way that was definitely frowned upon by most here in Japan. He didn’t care.
“Hi, how much did you hear?”
Noriko squirmed in his arms, but Ulf just stared at Hitomi. “How?”
“When the train moved. You started compensating for it.”
I’ll be damned. “Do you study people for a hobby or something?”
“You were awake the whole time?” Noriko had finally made herself partially free from him.
A short laugh from Hitomi made her turn. “About half of the time. Anyway, I want in.”
“And we’re supposed to because you gave us, what did you call it, leverage?”
Ulf stared at Noriko who stared back at him. “You never really had any friends, did you?” he said after a while.
When she only gave him a blank star he realised he had to continue.
“Look, Hitomi, friendship doesn’t work that way. It’s not a fear based transactional system.”
She tilted her head sideways and let her eyes wander between Noriko and him. It made Ulf feel uncomfortable, as if she was assessing them both.
“Hitomi,” Ulf started again, “you don’t make friends because they fear you’ll hang them out to dry otherwise. There’s this thing with enjoying each other’s company and all that stuff.” He shook his head in amazement. “What kind of people do you hang out with?”
“Apart from the club? The blackmailing kind,” she responded without any hesitation.
Ulf shrugged and exchanged glances with Noriko. When she nodded approval he hoped he had guessed right. “You know,” he said and turned his attention back to Hitomi, “it’s your life, but I suggest you ditch those people.”
“It’s not that easy, and besides, why should I?”
There’s a certain kind of naivete that only comes with cynicism. Ulf tried wiping a growing smirk from his lips. “Look, Hitomi, the day you get yourself a girl or boyfriend that kind of people could hurt the one you care for really badly.”
He only got a raised eyebrow in return at first. “So you heard that part?” she said.
What could he do but nod? “What if I did?”
“Heard the part about me being interested in Noriko?”
Ulf shrugged again. This time Noriko moved uncomfortably in his arms as his shoulders shot up. He gave her what he hoped was an apologetic smile while he decided on how to answer Hitomi.
He came to a conclusion. “This is where you expect me to say: I can’t stand dykes? Or: Stay off Noriko, she’s mine?”
Hitomi didn’t answer, but the gaze she shot him was definitely an invitation for him to continue.
“Well I won’t. I’m straight as straight can be, but other people’s inclination is none of my business. So that takes care of part one.”
Hitomi just nodded once for him to continue, and Ulf accepted her response.
“I’d get pissed off like hell if someone made moves on Noriko, but in the end she decides who she wants to spend her time with or not. I hope she’ll keep picking me, and I’ll work my arse off to make it so.”
Two small hands hardened their grip around his arms. “I’m Japanese, not Swedish,” Noriko said and turned to fully face Hitomi. “You stay the hell away from Urufu! He’s mine!”
“And about yourself?” Hitomi asked. Ulf saw a naughty grin spread on her face.
In his arms Noriko was busy giggling. So they’re in on some kind of joke I can’t understand. Oh well, as long as it’s just a joke.
Noriko got her giggling under control. Then she inclined her head as if to gaze at her shoes. “I’m sorry Hitomi, but I like someone else.” And with that she turned and grinned at him. “Urufu, text Yukio and see if I got that line right!”
Beside them Hitomi bent her head backwards and laughed. “That was a perfect delivery Noriko. I’ve read my fair share of manga myself.”
Ulf shook his head but sighed in relief. That turned out to be short lived though.
“So, what’s the secret with Urufu, Kuri, Tomasu and Jeniferu anyway?”
You really really want in! He looked at Noriko who shook her head.
“Not here,” she said. “You decide if she ever learns, but not here on the train.”
That made sense, but Hitomi still shot Noriko a cold glare.
For the third time since he woke Ulf shrugged. This time he made sure he didn’t force Noriko’s arms upwards like the last time. “You’re the only one apart from the old gang who decided to rough it out.”
“You mean my returning to Himekaizen? Got nothing to do with you. I just hate being told what to do.”
Ulf grinned. “You’re a hard one being friends with. I think you’ll be just fine in our little group of dysfunctional maniacs.”
The train stopped at a station, let people off and on. Tired travellers passed them in the corridor, and Ulf used the time to allow Hitomi to chew on what they had said. Guess we’re telling her. He blinked. Haven’t I said that once before? Oh, yes, when we let Ryu and Noriko in on our secret.
“I could call my guardian. It’s cramped but there’s space for the two of you to spend the night.”
Noriko might have wanted to spend it alone with him, and he himself definitely felt those urges more and more often, but that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Ulf looked at her to see if there were any signs of anger or disappointment in her face.
To his surprise there were none, but there was a mischievous smile. “Sounds great! Hitomi, join us!” she said.
Cramped was the kind version. The smaller bedroom in Urufu’s flat had been used as a storage for a long time, and it showed.
Noriko stared at the futon barely fitting into the small space of floor she just cleaned up in hopes that it hid how her lips turned into a thin line of disapproval. Guess I did hope we’d sleep all three in one room. But that had been a rose coloured fantasy of hers.
Sato-sensei gave them all a questioning look filled with misgivings when they turned up together earlier, but she didn’t protest. She just made certain both girls had the approval of their parents.
By now Noriko had all but given up on bedding Urufu in the near future. She’d get her opportunity one day, but not now with their lives in turmoil.
“You look very young for being Urufu’s mother,” she heard Hitomi say from the living room that also served as Urufu’s bedroom.
“That’s because I’m not. I’m his guardian,” Sato-sensei answered in her no nonsense voice.
I really like that woman. When I grow up I want to be more like her. Noriko smiled and eavesdropped some more.
Urufu stood behind her. He didn’t touch, but she could feel his eyes on her back.
“You fine like this?”
“We’ll make do,” she answered.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she heard Hitomi say from the other room.
“Don’t apologise to me. Urufu’s the one with dead parents,” came Sato-sensei’s cold reply.
Noriko slapped her hands to her face. With some luck it would serve to mute her giggling.
“Amaya, dammit, she hasn’t done anything wrong. Don’t be like that, please!” Urufu’s voice, and she heard how he turned his head while delivering the admonition.
A pity Urufu couldn’t see how funny it was. Well, they were planning to spend the night here. Bullying Hitomi might not be the best course.
“Secret, Urufu,” Hitomi said, and Noriko felt how his attention left her and turned to the other room.
With a sigh she gave the futon a last glare and joined him.
“Urufu?” Sato-sensei’s voice was filled with worry.
“We’re telling her,” Urufu said. “She came back. That kind of backbone should be rewarded.”
Noriko found herself a place where she could feel Urufu close to her. Across the table she saw a small bookshelf, the kind you’d expect to find in any home. Then there were two big ones, from floor to ceiling. She threw them a glance, and then another one.
One was stacked with children’s books. A wild mix of picture books, adventure stories for grade schoolers, light novels and the occasional easy to read classic. It lacked the right to exist in this home, but then Urufu’s personality solved the riddle.
So that’s how you learned Japanese. She stared at him. You never do things half heartedly, do you? Noriko was about to throw her arms around him when the contents of the other bookshelf caught her interest. Ah, the other you.
She knew she shouldn’t be surprised, but she was. Volume after volume hinted at secrets unveiling unto anyone who would dare to read. All in English, and all about a corporate world that lay years ahead of her understanding.
Hitomi’s sudden outcry banished Noriko’s inner bookworm and drew her back to the reason they were here. So he dropped the bomb?
“You were the one who suspected something wasn’t right,” Urufu said. “Yes. Another dozen years in the Sweden I know and I’d retire with a healthy pension.”
“You’re saying that you’re… No! Drop the act! I’m not an idiot.”
“He is,” Sato-sensei said. “And it’s not as easy as you believe. He didn’t time travel back into his youth.”
“I don’t understand.”
Noriko didn’t expect her to. She once spent an entire evening listening to Urufu and Kuri explain what had happened to them. It had taken Yukio’s and Kyoko’s combined persistence to convince her and her brother that the two foreigners weren’t merely foreigners but that they came from another world.
“Hitomi, listen. You don’t need to believe me yet, but let’s pretend what I said is true. Let’s pretend there are forty or fifty of us here.”
Hitomi shook her head, but she smiled. “Fine, let’s pretend.”
Good girl. Noriko allowed a giggle to slip out and rose to help Sato-sensei who had gone to the small kitchen.
The two of them prepared a late snack and tea while Noriko listened to Urufu as he tried to convince Hitomi of the impossible.
“What if that kind of people were very successful, or at least very good at what they were doing before arriving here as teenagers?”
There was a short pause, and Noriko was tempted to look over her shoulder to see Hitomi’s expression.
“Imagine that kind of people being given a chance to do it all over again. Then imagine the kind of people who would want to be in control of that happening.”
This time Noriko shivered. It didn’t matter that she lived in that reality. Hearing Urufu state it with that voice, cold and void of emotions, almost forced a scream from her. He was broken when he arrived here. Wasn’t that what they said?
She had to turn. With Sato-sensei’s hand on her shoulder, sending warmth, worry and sympathy along her fingers, Noriko ate Urufu with her eyes. I’m so happy I won you to my side, but what did you have to give up? And the answer made her cry. An entire life. You lost your life. Sato-sensei’s finger dug deeper into her, and Noriko leaned back into them for support.
“I’m going to pretend I believe you. I’m going to, because then my father’s actions make a lot more sense.”
“What did he do?” Sato-sensei said from behind Noriko’s back.
Hitomi looked at them. “He paid a lot of scary people a lot of money. There’s a diet member protecting Kareyoshi.”
Noriko felt Sato-sensei nod. They already knew that much.
“He has a son. One of those who attacked Kuri. They got caught on security camera.”
That was bad, or good, depending on point of view.
“My father managed to dig up something else as well. He can trace that son to the rapes.”
Noriko gulped and Urufu swore.
“If you’re smart you’ll let the swine run,” Hitomi said.
“Why?” Three voices. Urufu’s, Sato-sensei’s and Noriko’s.
“As long as he gets away then Kareyoshi’s support goes away as well.”