Winter break ended and the short third trimester began. For the second years it came with both a period of enjoyment and a lot of worries. Exams were a lot more important than they had been last year, but long before those the last week of January promised a small adventure with friends.
One long week in the Kansai area. Osaka and Kyoto were on the itinerary, which probably meant a short visit to Kobe and Nara both. Those weren’t places unknown to Christina. She had visited both of the larger cities several times during her previous life, and the hatsumode she never got to spend with Ulf turned into a shoot in Kyoto.
She fidgeted as she packed the last pieces of clothes into a large bag. Most of it was empty, but the section with her clothes bulged in protest of being abused. The empty sections were for new clothes and souvenirs. Her fidgeting however wasn’t the result of a protest. While she had visited the cities before she had never done so together with someone she wanted to share the experience with, and that made her nervous.
Ryu might still be a boy barely growing into manhood, but he was her boy. Lingering feelings for Ulf didn’t change that she had fallen in love with the prince charming of their school. Not because he was prince charming; that was just a part of him, but because he’d been there caring for her when she had no right to expect being cared for.
I always thought I’d make this trip with Ulf. But she hadn’t. Not really. They were falling apart before they even slept together. That first summer when he broke down after watching a suicide held both the beginning and end of that love. In the end she couldn’t compete with the memories of the wife he lost to that other world.
I hope you make the most of it, Christina thought and smirked. A little jealousy always accompanied the moments she saw Noriko and Ulf share together, but these days it was a healthy kind of jealousy, or at least as healthy as was possible. Ulf’s first woman in this world was doomed, and Christina had been that woman. The second only had to compete with that first one.
Only. Damn, Noriko, you make me proud of all strong women out there! Because Christina knew perfectly well what kind of competition she represented herself, and Noriko had bulldozed right through it with all of her a metre and a half. Yeah, my kind of girl! Jealousy be damned. If anyone deserved Ulf it was Noriko. The question was if Ulf deserved her.
The smirk spread into a thin smile, and after that a happy grin. Christina had long since stopped fidgeting, and now she shouldered her bag and left her luxury flat. A home these days. Another thing she had Ryu to thank for. Occasionally they spent their nights here, and Ryu’s parents both knew and accepted it. Ryu, however, didn’t accept that she treated it like a hotel room, and piece by piece it took the form of a home.
The lift dropped her at the entrance floor, she waved at the uniformed guard sitting behind the reception desk and left through sliding doors with her personal body guard in tow. Outside the pair Vogue assigned to her waited, as always, in a car, and the four of them rode, not to Tokyo station, but to the Shin Yokohama one.
While a detour it was also a more discrete way to leave Tokyo. She’d take the Shinkansen from a station that was less likely to be swamped with journalists who knew exactly when the Himekaizen second years departed for their field trip west. That thought brought a growl to Christina’s face. Journalists stalking the students because of the sensational foreign model was one thing.
Damn, if they only stalked me. I’m used to it. Another eight students were shuttled to that station as well. The old gang plus Hitomi. Friends of a girl raped didn’t make journalists drool. Friends of the raped daughter of a US ambassador did. The backlash of that disgusting story hadn’t died down. If anything it blew up again when Kareyoshi was incarcerated.
She leaned back in her seat and caught some sleep. Sleeping on the go was a superb Japanese habit Christina had adapted to as quickly as possible.
Her body guard tapped her shoulder when they arrived, and she left the car and grabbed her bag from the trunk. It hung from her shoulder as she entered the station, not her body guard’s. He wouldn’t be of much use if burdened by her luggage.
Inside the gang waited. One person left it and met her. Ryu. Always Ryu who showed how he cared. It warmed inside of her, and it told her she had been right to move on when her heart broke from her own actions. Thank you Ryu for loving me! Thank you Ulf for letting me go!
Ryu hugged her and moved her bag to his own shoulder. He made it look like it just happened to slide over to him, but she could feel how he snaked under it when he hugged her.
In difference from Ulf Ryu truly was a natural athlete. Christina wondered if he had inherited it from his mother. She always seemed so much more lively compared to his father. The thought of the serious man rolling around on the ground like a cat made her giggle, and she shot Ryu an apologetic smile when he gave her a nonplussed stare.
“What did I do?” he asked.
“Oh, you didn’t,” Christina said. “Maybe your father did.”
She threw an arm around him and followed him back to their friends. “Nothing. Just forget it,” she said.
Ryu’s eyes widened in slight annoyance, but she noticed how he decided not to pursue the matter.
Christina grinned and threw Hitomi a glance. “Isn’t it time we found you someone?” she said in an attempt to get a reaction out of the always calm beauty.
“I don’t think so,” came the curt reply.
“How so,” Christina said. If she had started it she could as well push the provocation a little. Right now she felt an unexplained need to be a little mean.
The girl lit up in a stunning and surprisingly malicious grin. “I don’t think Ryu would like it very much.”
Huh? What? What!
Kyoto station was something to stare at. Where the super capital of Japan offered catacombs the former capital joined the competition with a fantastic view of an indoor skyline.
Kyoko smiled and followed the long line of second year students out of the station area to where buses stood ready to shuttle them to their hotel. Them and half of all second year students in Japan it felt like. Late January saw more than one school running their school trips even though Kyoko knew it was more common that the new third years began their school year that way.
The buses took them through strangely straight streets compared to Tokyo’s eternal maze. Then they left the orderly grid and shortly afterwards they arrived at a large but rundown hotel complex.
She barely had time to find Yukio for a short moment of hands hugging before her class was herded to elevators and up three floors.
Kyoko entered the room she shared with five other girls, four of them almost but not really friends and the fifth Hitomi, and she was most definitely a friend by now. A few minutes was more than enough to dump luggage and switching into something that didn’t smell of three hours worth of travelling.
She even had time for a quick shower in between, and feeling like someone who could coerce a hug from Yukio without feeling ashamed she took a lift to the dining hall. He already waited for her there with arms inviting her to step inside his embrace. A few students giggled and grinned at their show of affection, but Kyoko didn’t care. Being close to Yukio was far more important than a snide remark or two.
“You heard the new principal’s joining us?”
Kyoko turned in the direction of the voice. She hadn’t heard.
“He wanted to inspect his troops.”
“’Troops’, yeah, can you believe that. Like some old Showa era commander.” The girl who had said that laughed, and Kyoko watched a couple of seniors beeline for the queue while they continued the conversation that had piqued Kyoko’s interest.
Yukio tugged at her arm and shrugging off the news Kyoko followed him to join the queue. Her hand in his she joined it and mentally shrugged off the snide remarks and disapproving glares from one of their teachers. By now Kyoko had made peace with the repercussions of declaring her and Yukio’s nocturnal activities in front of Noriko’s class late December. If anything, being the pervert couple was a reason for envy rather than scorn.
“What’s he like,” she asked Yukio. Their new principal was shrouded in mystery, and most of the rumours clinging to her and Yukio had faded in favour of guess work pertaining to Kareyoshi’s successor.
“Dunno.” Yukio made it to the tables where food and plates waited for them. “Short they say.”
Short? Kyoko loaded a plate and some food onto a tray. Being a shorty hardly qualified as a mystery. She smirked, filled her plate, grabbed a glass and went to fetch something to drink. Shortly afterwards she joined her boyfriend. One benefit of being one half of the perverted couple was that no one complained when they sat together despite belonging to different classes.
“Card games tonight?”
Kyoko looked up at the voice behind her. It belonged to Hitomi who quickly took the place by Yukio’s other side. For outsiders it must look like Kyoko had gained some unwanted competition for Yukio’s attention, but Kyoko welcomed the presence of the beautiful girl. Next to Kuri-chan and Noriko she had quickly become Kyoko’s best friend.
“Saw him?” Yukio asked as soon as Hitomi sat down.
Kyoko looked up as if their new principal had suddenly popped into existence by their table.
“Saw him,” Hitomi confirmed. “The rumours are true.”
OK, give a little more! “Yes?” Kyoko said and hoped her irritation didn’t show in her voice.
Hitomi just smiled. Then she blinked and opened her mouth. “Short. If he’s a hundred and sixty I’d be surprised.”
That was short indeed. Urufu and Kuri-chan aside, that still counted as a shorty in Japan.
“Still makes me uncomfortable,” Hitomi added between two bites. Since she became one of the closer friends she had discarded just about any trappings of being a princess. “He reminds me of my dad.”
Behaving like your dad is bad? Knowing about Hitomi’s family was one thing, but experiencing her coldness towards them first hand was another.
Hitomi gulped down her tea before saying anything more. “He’s not a bad person the way dad is, but he still gives me the shivers. Dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Yukio’s voice cut in. “How?”
“Look, the creepy guy from down there is bad like my dad, but in difference from dad he’s dangerous all by himself.”
The creepy guy from down there had to be the friend of Noriko’s parents. Kyoko could understand why anyone would label him as dangerous. Urufu had said he came from a very different Japan, and by different he didn’t mean the upstream world. A long time ago this had been a much more violent society. Kyoko grimaced. A long time ago. That depended on whom you asked. Maybe eighty years wasn’t all that much time for some.
“Why does she go for someone like him?”
Hitomi growled and Yukio joined her. Kyoko just shook her head at the comment from two tables away.
“Maybe because she has a good eye for men,” a loud response came from yet another table away.
That brought a smile to Kyoko’s lips. After a year and a half with Yukio she wasn’t all that much concerned by competition, but anyone badmouthing Yukio still ired her. For that very reason praise filled her with warmth. Besides, if Hitomi had indeed decided to make a pass at Yukio it did indeed mean she had a good eye for men. They didn’t come any better than Yukio.
Then, suddenly, Hitomi rose and turned in the direction of whoever had voiced that last comment. “I wouldn’t stand a chance,” she said loud enough for anyone to hear.
Kyoko stared at Hitomi and felt heat flaring up in her face as she blushed from neck to hair line.
A few hours earlier Ulf felt his heart warm up when, first an unknown second year, and then Hitomi decided to stand up for Yukio and Kyoko. He’d felt Noriko squirm when something took place among the liberal arts classes. He barely managed to pull her down to her seat, courtesy of their respective classmates arranging the seating so that Noriko and him just happened to be placed at the far end of each class and beside each other.
There were still students who would have preferred if Kareyoshi had been allowed to stay, but the vast majority abhorred their former principal with a vengeance. In the end Himekaizen was a far cry from Red Rose Hell.
As it turned out Kareyoshi would have been ousted no matter what those in the know had done. Ulf hadn’t been aware of it, but now he was. A group of over two dozen parents took independent action, and by now both the kid who was allowed to escape as well as his diet member father faced trials.
I should have trusted you from the beginning, Ulf thought where he sat in the hotel lobby. Almost thirty parents backed by another dozen of the most powerful parents to students in Irishima High made that diet power base crumble into nothing.
Leaning back in his chair Ulf stared at the ceiling. This being a lower to medium class hotel lights were out, or almost out. If he wanted anything he only had the option of vending machines, but to be honest that wasn’t too bad an option. They were amply supplied with a surprisingly large array of beverages, both alcoholic, which was out of the question for him in this life, and the non alcoholic variants. Something of the latter currently being brought to him by Noriko if he knew her correctly.
This being Japan he still failed to come to terms with girls all too often running domestic errands for him before he had a chance to stop them. It didn’t suit him, and he made a mental note of never allowing himself to getting used to it. He had however, Ulf grimaced at the thought, less of a problem with being expected to pay whenever they were out. That made him just as much of a chauvinist.
With a smirk he leaned all the way over the backrest when the sound of steps reached him. The upside down world offered him a view of a dark shadow transforming into a petite girl in a yukata. It was Noriko, and she was late and she did indeed hold a bottle in each hand.
To avoid being misunderstood for wanting to look up her underwear Ulf twisted in his seat and beckoned to her. Palm up, just because she stuck to the Japanese palm down version whenever she wanted his attention.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said when she came up to his seat. She reached over his shoulder to give him his bottled tea and quite shamelessly flashed a small breast leaning over his face.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” Ulf said. He felt his body react, both down below and a rush of heat firing up his face in a furious blush.
“Do what?” With those words she rose above him and quickly walked the few steps to a chair next to his. “Do what?” she repeated after she sat down.
Ulf avoided meeting her eyes. “You know,” he tried. She knew all too well.
“You’re my boyfriend. What’s wrong with making you look at me?”
And that was it. There was nothing wrong with what Noriko was doing. A life earlier for him and they’d shared bed and bodies by now, but that was a life earlier, or an earlier life. For now the discomfort of being in love with a girl not even half his age competed with his desire to share everything with her.
“Urufu?” A small hand found its way into his. “I fell in love with you on my own,” Noriko said. Her other hand followed the first and clasped his fingers. “You weren’t even asked. Honestly, even if I had asked you you probably wouldn’t have understood anyway.”
Despite his discomfort Ulf let out a laugh. No, he wouldn’t have understood, and not just because he didn’t know any Japanese to speak of at that time. “Because I’m blind as a bat when it comes to love?” he asked to confirm the main reason.
To his surprise Noriko shook her head. He felt her fingers grab his hand harder. “No, because you were too hurt back then.”
Ulf searched her face for signs of her teasing but found none. Her eyes were very dark in the subdued night light, almost invisible under her bangs. Her guess was also absolutely correct. That early autumn during his middle school days was too close to his transition and arrival here in Japan. At that time his thoughts were still filled with a desperate longing for Maria.
He used his free hand to grab the bottle of tea Noriko had brought him, but twisting it open with one hand turned out impossible. Just as he was about to withdraw his other from Noriko’s hands she let go with one and helped him.
“I need to feel close to you,” she said when he glanced at her. She leaned over her armrest and into his shoulder, moving his hand onto her lap as she snuggled up to him. “There’s too little of this.”
Ulf didn’t answer. He took a few mouthfuls trying to think of something to say. “I do love you.” Some more lukewarm tea found its way to his stomach while he bought time for something sensible to follow up that moronic statement. “Very much,” he added after he swallowed. “I’m just scared of hurting you.”
“Urufu, isn’t being scared part of loving someone?” Noriko said. She met his eyes and brought his head to hers with her free arm. “I’m scared as well, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she continued after the kiss.
She’s far braver than I am. He gave in to his needs and met her for a second kiss.
The following morning Ryu stood waiting for their home room teacher to arrive before they boarded a bus for Nara. With memories from Hatsumode still fresh in his mind he made certain to handle all bodily needs lest he spend the day trip in a toilet. For the very same reason he hadn’t disturbed his sister and Urufu when he saw them together late last evening.
Nara turned out to be just the kind of postcard experience he had expected with deer, parks and a huge, wooden temple as the centrepiece of attraction. The only cloud on his personal sky was the total absence of anything Kuri.
And I even tried to dress up nicely for you. Ryu threw the end of his scarf back over his shoulder. It made repeated attempts to plaster itself across his face whenever the breeze felt mischievous enough to call out his attention to the surrounding girls. There were girls; lots of them. A Ryu sans Kuri apparently meant he was free for the taking, at least temporarily.
“Of course,” he said to yet another party of high school girls. “No problem at all,” he added when they forced him to join them in a group shot. From what school, or even what city, they were he didn’t know.
“You’re impossible,” one of his classmates commented when the last group finally returned to their own class.
Ryu smiled but refrained from answering. In the background he saw a few of his smaller classmates lining up to crawl through a hole in one of the enormous supports. Then he heard a hesitant voice signalling that it was time for yet another smartphone being turned in his direction. The Todaiji was packed full with high school students from all over Japan. Quite a few of them were probably middle schoolers though, but that didn’t make them any less prone to request photos with him in the middle of a group of giggling girls.
“There he goes again,” his class rep said. There was no venom in the voice. If anything it carried a little pride of wearing the same uniform as the impromptu tourist attraction on two legs.
“Not here? What do you mean by no here?”
Ryu waited for his latest admirers to disperse before he turned after the voice. Something had upset Kyoko. He found her together with a few girls from Kuri’s class just beneath the central Buddha statue.
“Excuse me, could you please tell sensei I’ll be back in a minute,” Ryu asked his class rep. He didn’t wait for an answer but made for Kyoko. For once he shook his head when someone waved with her phone with a question in he eyes.
She met his eyes. “Ryu, Kuri-chan’s gone missing.”
‘Missing?’ “She’s lost?”
“No,” Kyoko shook her head, “she never made it to Nara at all.”
He grimaced. “Kuri, for the love of...”
“And that’s not all of it.”
It gets worse? “Spill!”
“Their class rep says a third of their class went missing together with her.”
That was bad. That was really bad. “A third? How the hell did she manage to misplace a dozen of her classmates?”
Kyoko shook her head. “I don’t know, but there seems to be toilets involved.”
Toilets were worse than bad. Ryu didn’t want to hear anything even remotely reminding him of toilets. He had, after all, taken extra precaution not to this very morning. But still, a dozen students? Whatever Kuri did she did it with gusto.
He left Kyoko with a smirk. It wasn’t like he could help her anyway. She had Kuri’s number as well as Line address just as he had. If Kuri wanted to vanish she’d be invisible to both of them. With a shrug Ryu went in search of his own class. Now he knew that his singular cloud would cover its part of the sun for the rest of the day.
He walked through the bedlam and managed to avoid all but two more photo sessions before he saw the back side of his class rep. As it turned out their teacher didn’t even need any notification, and for that Ryu felt a certain degree of gratitude.
Less than an hour later they left the Todaiji for lunch and the afternoon was spent shuttling between minor attractions in the former capital of Japan. It was shuttling, or at least it felt like they spent more time in the bus than at the places they were headed for.
With a substantially lighter wallet and bags filled with souvenirs to distribute among family and family friends they returned back to their hotel in Kyoto just as evening fell. Ryu left the bus in the last lingering daylight, and when he disposed of his bags in his room it was already dark outside.
To his dismay Kuri still wasn’t to be found anywhere. To his surprise it didn’t look like their teachers cared all that much. That meant they knew something Ryu didn’t, and that in turn indicated something connected with Kuri’s work. Since her job really couldn’t be called a part time one Ryu suspected she might be gone for over a day, if she even returned to their trip at all.
He left his room as quickly as possible. With a bit of luck he’d find Kyoko before dinner. If not he’d try to contact her after their meal.
This sucks! Ryu observed after first having fallen out of luck and then finding out that Kyoko had her phone turned off. He played with the idea of calling Yukio, but Yukio probably was the very reason Kyoko’s phone was off in the first place.
On his way back to his room Noriko caught him just as he was about to take the stairs up.
“Anything about Kuri?”
Ryu shook his head. He searched for Urufu behind his sister, but it seemed Noriko was alone this time. “Can’t even reach Kyoko, so I have no clue.”
“Ah, OK. I heard something about toilets and thought you knew.”
Ryu grimaced and pulled her ears.
“Ouch! That hurts! Idiot bro!”
“You deserved it,” he said and let go.
Noriko stuck her tongue out at him, but her eyes were friendly. “Fill me in if you hear anything,” she said and turned.
“Promise,” Ryu said to her back. At least he knew she’d do the same for him if she learned anything.
Damn, how did it turn out this way? Christina lifted her head and waited for the makeup artist to finish.
Rather than staring out a hotel room window she now faced a mirror in a bus. Her classmates were doing high school student things, and she was doing work. It didn’t matter all that much. Missing out on Nara was the big deal, but the two day excursion to Osaka was something she could do without. Well, the high school student part would have been fun, but she had seen Osaka to death during her previous life. Anyone doing major business in Japan had.
So why did she sit here swearing? Because she put a lot of her classmates in a pickle, that’s why. Her entire crew, including two very famous and very popular male models arrived just when the gang were about to leave a public toilet. She, being the moron she sometimes was, sent a Line message about the importance of the event. “Stuck at the toilet,” her future Nobel prize winning entry read. A wonder of clarity which she shared over her phone just as she was forced to turn it off and get working.
I’m the empress of idiots. She sighed as she remembered the faces of her classmates when they understood that the price for the autographs they had gained was missing their bus for Nara. And then I just vanished from their sight. Gods I’m the queen of responsibility not taken. That was worth another deep sigh.
“Ageruman-san, please don’t move!”
And now I’m making work difficult for makeup. She bit her teeth together and did as told.
The shoot took less time than she had feared but more than she hoped for. That was yet another day she had to spend without Ryu, and Christina started to understand there was more than one reason she spent most of her previous adult life without anything but temporary relationships.
I’ll redo this life in a better way, she decided over a delicious meal with a staff colleague and two men in power who couldn’t decide whether they wanted to bed or make money out of her. That Ryu would stay with her for the rest of her life was unlikely, but she didn’t have to sabotage that remote possibility the way she had done with Ulf.
Why did you want me to pursue this? she wondered; a thought aimed at her ex. Ah, that’s not it, she realised. You wanted me to pursue whatever I saw as important for myself. Idiot man! You should have been more selfish, if not for yourself then for me. Christina hid her smirk behind a fork and pretended to listen to whatever one of the men said.
If Ulf hadn’t been able to, then she needed to treat Ryu better. There was a life’s worth of experience between the two men she had fallen in love with here in Japan. We’re supposed to be sharing field trip as high schoolers and here I am doing work. She’d be doing work, more work and even more work. If she continued like this her life would vanish under an avalanche of work while she excused letting it slip through her fingers with the never ending demand for more work.
“Gentlemen, sensei, I have some sleeping to catch up with and a boyfriend to call,” Christina said as soon as the dinner turned from main course to desserts.
Her superior sent her a sour glare. Letting one of the two men take her to his hotel room would have sold another contract, but Christina refused to let herself be used in that way. Clearly stating there was a boyfriend should put a stop to any attempts in that direction.
She put fork and knife on her table and made to rise.
“Ageruman-san, please accompany us some more,” one of the men said, and Christina saw how he wanted her body more than the money she represented. Early in her previous life it would have made her feel sick, but now she knew what made men tick.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible. The Wakayamas are a little old fashioned, and a late call would look bad,” she said. Hinting at old fashioned usually carried the connotation of powerful in Japan, and she wanted to make certain something bad didn’t happen to Ryu. The last year had seen too many bad things happening to people she cared for.
“Please leave her be. You’re only young once,” the other man said to his business partner. “Ageruman-san, it’s been a pleasure having you part of our promotion. I hope to see more of you,” he added, and Christina understood he chose the money over spending a night with her.
By her side her superior made a happier face. So I’m of the hook this time. There would be other times, more dangerous times, but right now she had the evening for herself without any repercussions.
“Gentlemen, it’s been my pleasure.” She turned and bowed to the happily beaming staff member. “I’ll be ready for tomorrow’s morning shoot.” That should work as a reminder that after lunch she was supposed to rejoin her class and once more become a high school student.
“Is he any good,” the first man asked with a sullen voice tinged by just a little too much alcohol.
“He’s the best,” Christina said. “I’ve never been this much in love in my entire life,” she added. That was a lie. She had, twice. Her first love and Ulf, but here and now she was supposed to be seventeen with an innocent lack of experience. For the first time in forever she forced her mind to, not Ulf but the awkward boy she had fallen in love with an eternity ago. Those memories brought a slight blush to her face, and she hoped it was enough to satisfy the three present at their table.
Christina left the table and went for her room. She really did have some catching up to do in the sleeping department, but first she planned to make good on her decision to spend some time listening to Ryu’s voice.
Kinoshita Dai looked at the photo once more. One of the best he had taken during his entire career, during both of his careers.
Funny. We couldn’t use it for the promotion, and then this.
“I saw you,” it read. From last summer during the Odaiba shoot, from the moment when Kuritina lost herself in memories and regrets, and also a new hope for her future.
He’d cut away the swim suit to focus on the woman, and he got permission to use the result for a photo competition. Her face, hair, neck and shoulders. Nothing more, and yet the very definition of youth lost. The bittersweet first steps into adulthood. Just Kuritina Ageruman. Of the model there was nothing left, just a young beauty caught in transition and restart.
I have to call her. He wasn’t sure she knew the world of photo awards. And she doesn’t know she’s part of it now. There was a certain amount of shame in that thought. She had chosen him to be her main photographer, but he hadn’t even told her about the photo he sent in for a competition. Because this photo is private. I caught something I shouldn’t have seen in the first place.
Calling her would reach a mere one floor away in the hotel they shared. Calling her would reach a world and a life away. Calling her would reach all the way to the man she once shared that world with, and Dai wondered if he had any right to do so. Then, did he have the right not to? Damn, how did it get this messy? He knew she hadn’t let go of her feelings for the man who, just like herself, got caught in a new world eerily like the one they left behind.
But it was too late now. In a much smaller universe than the one belonging to models and fashion that photo spread and created an uproar. In difference from Kuritina’s current universe this one was global. Dai had already received reactions from Europe, and while most of them concerned his prize winning entry quite a few wanted to know more about the girl in the picture.
She’s got a new boyfriend now, and if he sees this he’ll know. With a sigh Dai decided he couldn’t avoid it. He had to make that call.
Grabbing a beer from the minibar Dai contemplated when would be the best time to make that call, but in the end he realised he was just procrastinating. Another sigh later he punched up her contact on his phone and waited.
His third sigh was one of relief. She was busy with another call, but Dai accepted that he couldn’t postpone it for much longer. In anticipation of Kuritina finishing her phone call Dai fired up a web browser with all the relevant sites side by side, stacked the booklets with his prizewinning entry and emptied his beer.
The next call went through.
“Kuritina, we should meet,” he said after she answered.
“Yes, now. Would the lobby work for you?”
There was a moment’s hesitation. “Sure. I’ll be there in five.”
Dai was already prepared, so he left his room and took a lift down to the entrance floor. This being a top rated hotel, in Kyoto to boot, they served a fabulous array of tea and traditional Japanese confectionery. While most people preferred their western counterparts Dai had taken a liking to the intensely sweet cakes. It had nothing to do with being conservative. He just liked the taste and how it contrasted with green tea.
Just as he received his order Kuritina left the lift, searched the lobby until she recognised him and approached. One look from her told him that she most definitely didn’t approve of his tastes. She had even less a reason than most since she was from Sweden. Westerners usually blinked and offered as polite as insincere a lie after they forced themselves to swallow a bite.
“Please have a seat!” Dai said and gestured towards the sofa on the other side of the table.
Kuritina said nothing, but she sat down opposite him. He waited for her to make eye contact with the staff and noted how she picked a cup of strong coffee and some nondescript snack to go with it.
“So, what’s up?” she asked when her order had arrived.
Dai said nothing. He just pushed the booklets to her side of the table and opened up his laptop. After a few seconds it made them company, the screen facing her.
“When?” was the only thing she said after she had studied the material for a few minutes.
He couldn’t tell if she frowned, or if she even cared. For being a model she was eerily expressionless whenever she was deep in thought.
“Last summer. Odaiba,” he explained.
She looked up at the ceiling. “In the sportswear place?”
Dai nodded. “I cut away almost a third of the photo.”
He shook his head. “No, I got permission.” He bit his lower lip. “I forgot to ask you though.”
She shrugged and took a sip of hastily cooling coffee. “I don’t really mind. See any problems coming from this?”
Dai frowned while he mulled over that question. Problems from a business point of view? No, more like opportunities. “No, not for you as a model,” he said. “You might be contacted from abroad, so it’s mostly a matter if Vogue wants you to broaden your repertoire or not.”
Kuritina shrugged. “It’s not like shoots in the US or Europe is anything new for me.” Then she grinned, a beautifully malicious grin. “I’d be happy to be contacted. Make certain they contact me as well as Vogue.”
Kuritina emptied her coffee and let the last of her snacks accompany it. “I love to change the power balance. Europe is the real world for a model.”
She said Europe, but Dai knew she meant Paris. Paris was the Rome of the fashion world – all roads led there. He nodded. “I’ll do so.” He hesitated for a moment, but there was a second question that couldn’t go unasked. “Privately, what’s your feelings on this?”
He got a searching stare in return. “Privately? Privately I never knew I looked like that. I’m amazed Ryu stayed by my side.”
So she hadn’t been entirely happy after all. The worst part was that she was more unhappy with herself losing control than him saving that moment for the world. He had, Dai thought, done her both a service and a disservice.
“Will you forgive me?”
Ryu looked at the photo once more. All of Kuri’s longing for Urufu lay bare for the world to see in it. Still, it was the longing of over half a year ago.
“There’s nothing to forgive,” he said. He hoped he had learned a little from Yukio. “I promised I’d never take away the place he has in your heart.”
To his surprise Kuri threw herself around him. “I love you. Thank you Ryu! You’re really, really the best!”
That was enough, or more than enough. That faraway day in Odaiba she still hadn’t come to terms with herself. While Urufu would always occupy parts of her heart she had left that relationship behind her, and Ryu honestly felt how he had become the man she turned to first. But I’m still jealous. He shrugged, just like Urufu used to do. I still managed to give her the answer she needed.
It never ceased to amaze him how much of an uncertain teenager she was despite having lived a life before she arrived here.
“So,” he began, “you’re free for our unscheduled day?”
Kuri managed to look up at him from her embrace despite being taller than he was. “I’m free from work for the rest of the trip,” she said and smiled. “Spend the day with me?” she added and gave the street feeding their hotel a meaningful look.
“I’ll be in your care.” He would be. Kuri probably knew a lot more about Kyoto than he did.
“I’ll be in yours,” she said and dispelled his thoughts. “Look, I’ve seen my fair share of Japan. Sadly it doesn’t really include things for high schoolers, and right now I want to be one.”
Ryu gave her what he suspected was a nonplussed stare. To avoid unwanted attention from their respective classmates he hugged her close to him, but not closer than allowing him to speak silently. “My memories from Kyoto are a kids. What about a compromise? We help each other?”
“No!” she said in a voice loud enough to catch the attention of everyone around them. “No way!” Kuri giggled and snuggled close to him. “Your call. You get us away from here discreetly?” she mumbled into his clothes.”
Ryu looked around them. Just about everyone, student, teacher or hotel staff didn’t matter, stared at them. “And exactly how did you think I’d manage that?” he whispered back at her.
He could feel Kuri grin into his cardigan.
“You’re the Prince of Himekaizen. Your helpless little girlfriend just has to trust her beloved hero.”
This time he felt how she shook from laughter. You asked for it.
Despite how he usually behaved Ryu was a natural athlete. He’d lucked out in the lottery of parents. His father’s body and his mother’s social skills combined proved that life was unfair. Some people got it all, and he was one of them.
This time Kuri’s shriek was honest, but he didn’t give her a chance to wrestle free when he scooped her up in his arms. “I’m taking this one. For today she’s all mine,” Ryu announced and carried her down the street.
“Down, let me down!”
“You got it wrong,” he said and kept walking. “Noriko always shouts ‘down this moment!’” he added. Just to make certain Kuri wouldn’t dare to protest for real he swung her around full circle. “My girlfriend. She’s the best!” he announced for the entire block to hear.
“Idiot bro!” he heard from just outside their hotel. There was no venom in the voice. Noriko probably agreed with him that Kuri got what she deserved.
Bounty in his arms Ryu continued down the street to the jeering of school mates behind him. While Kuri protested loudly he didn’t feel her resiting at all. If anything she clung to his neck in a way that balanced out her weight between his arms. His suspicions proved true when they rounded a corner and she simply jumped out of his arms with a happy grin on her face.
“That was fun,” she said. “Let’s do that again!”
Ryu shook his head and shook his arms to get rid of the leaden feeling. Kuri wasn’t exactly light weight, being taller than himself and all, and a few blocks with her in his arms was more than his muscles asked for.
“Don’t say it!” Ryu muttered when he saw Kuri’s lips starting to move. Urufu probably wouldn’t have felt the need to loosen up his arms. By now there was an almost ten kilograms difference between them, and all of it was muscles and bone. Where Urufu found time to study Ryu simply didn’t understand, because the tall boy never gave up on his training.
“Ryu,” Kuri began as they made their way into the city by foot, “I might have to spend a year touring after I graduate.”
Graduation still lay over a year in the future, but Ryu had gotten used to the arrivals planning further ahead in their futures compared to those who really were as old as they looked. “What about it?” he asked. Kuri wouldn’t have opened the topic if it didn’t concern him.
“I’ll take a one year break before entering university, and I’ll pick one where I can concentrate on my modelling.”
“Yes?” Ryu glanced at his side and searched Kuri’s face for clues.
“We’ll be apart, and I won’t even join your university when I come back home.” She met his eyes. “Are you fine with that?”
I’m not sure you’re even aware of it, but you said ‘home’. Ryu grinned. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine with that.” He knew she didn’t understand the real reason for his mirth, but it didn’t matter. If wherever he was counted as home for her, no then he didn’t mind at all. “Just make sure you keep in touch.” He hesitated a little. “I’ll try to visit you from time to time. Comfortable with that?”
The smile he received from Kuri lit up his heart. “Yes, I’m very, very comfortable with that.”
Noriko shrugged once as her brother vanished around a corner with Kuri in his arms. She might not be entirely on speaking terms with her brother yet, but most of the outright antagonism from last autumn was gone now. Most of it due to a huge debt she owed Yukio and Kyoko. There were still rumours about the oversexed couple floating around.
The next time Noriko shrugged was the following evening when Ryu and Kuri failed to show up at their hotel. As far as Noriko was concerned the couple could take some of the heat from Yukio and Kyoko. Besides, Noriko had no doubt about who were the really oversexed ones – she herself most definitely didn’t belong to that group.
That thought filled her with more than a little consternation. Urufu was painfully slow in that department. When asked, a week or so earlier, Kuri confirmed her suspicions. It wasn’t that people born in Sweden during the 1960s shied away from sex during their teens. Kuri was adamant that Urufu behaved like the king of morons. If he spent half a year with a girlfriend who wanted nothing more than to get close and cuddly with him and still not took her to his bed then something was seriously wrong with him.
Like I needed to be told that, Noriko growled silently. There was so much wrong with him she sometimes wondered why she had ever fallen in love with him at all.
She stared at him where he stood surrounded by angry teachers in the lobby and tried to explain why the world wouldn’t go down in flames just because Kuri and Ryu hadn’t arrived yet.
But there is so much right with you as well. Angry at her brother as she was she still filled with warmth at watching how Urufu chose to stand up for him.
“Did you turn in your plans?” she asked on her way to his side. It was a deliberate attempt at taking some of the heat away from him.
“Huh? My plans for after graduation?” he asked and turned. So did half of the teachers as well.
“Yeah, I’m curious you know.”
Urufu copied her earlier expression and shrugged. “I’m dropping TIT. Not my cup of tea.”
“TIT?” one teacher asked and Noriko knew she had them.
“Yeah, tech institute.” Urufu met her eyes. “You know I want to go to the same place as you. Why don’t we just take the exams and match results? We can pick one after that.”
“Tokyo Institute of Technology?” the same teacher added.
“Uhum. Not interested any more. Toudai, Waseda or Keio. That way her parents can’t complain if we go to the same place.”
The teacher’s eyes bulged. “What did you mean by match?”
“If one of us fail one we just skip that place. Besides, exams might be on the same dates, and then we just have to agree on one of them,” Urufu said and turned his attention to Noriko again.
Yup. That’s why I love you after all. He was oblivious to how insane his statement sounded. One didn’t just make a pick of one of those three universities like it was a matter of candy flavour.
“Toudai sounds boring,” Noriko teased.
There was some more bulging.
“Fine, you make the pick. I’ll just tag along. As long as we’re together I’m happy.”
The bulging continued.
“She thinks Toudai is boring. Well, with her grades and all...”
Noriko looked at the newcomer who had just commented the episode. Ah, the new principal. “What about it?” she asked. She didn’t like how Urufu was excluded. His grades were just about as excellent as hers.
“No no. Nothing. If you’re happy with someone like him I guess you could just share another four years at university,” he said.
“Nine years,” Urufu shot in.
“Yeah, I’m not entirely clear about the system here in Japan, but four for the BA, another two for an MA and three for the PhD, or am I wrong?”
PhD? Did you plan to stay in university for like forever? Then what Urufu had just said dawned on her. And you want me to get that doctorate together with you? That’s pretty much the same as asking me to marry you.
“That’s some serious long time planning,” their principal said. “Takes someone like you for it I guess,” he continued.
Wait! He knows about the arrivals? But then so had Principal Nakagawa and Kareyoshi. Which meant Himekaizen really was a grooming institution for the arrivals after all. The thought of attending a black ops institution disguised as a high school wasn’t all that dear to Noriko.
Urufu shrugged again. “Dunno about long term. It’s less than half of our academic careers,” he said and faltered a little at the end. Noriko could see how what he said finally registered in his head. Seventeen year old kids really didn’t plan the next coming ten years.
“What about you enjoy your last year here first,” their principal said and smiled.
“Yes, sensei. I’ll do just that.”
Noriko grabbed the opportunity to drag him with her. For now the problem with Ryu and Kuri was forgotten, and she intended to get herself and Urufu away from here before it resurfaced.
Dinner beckoned, and with a bit of luck their respective classmates had arranged for her and Urufu to be seated next to each other. While they weren’t explicitly an official couple most of their classmates knew well enough.
She shared the lift with Urufu, and for once he held her hand as they entered the dining hall. Usually he lacked a little in the department of showing affection. He was, most would have agreed, a good and traditional Japanese man in that sense.
As far as Noriko was concerned he could do with being a lot more Swedish. She loved him and no other. If he showed his feelings a little more often she’d get a little less interested glances from boys in the other classes. If he showed his feelings a little more often he’d get a lot less glances from girls in the other classes.
Urufu being Urufu never noticed though. Or at least he pretended he didn’t notice. Noriko wasn’t sure which, and it made her pout mentally more than once.
Ryu got his arse handed to him by the teachers, and only Christina’s blatant lie about him being dragged into an impromptu shoot saved him from further repercussions.
She regretted that a little. There had been an impromptu shoot, one that she hadn’t wished for at all. He had been asked to leave, and he had refused. Christina accepted that she loved the boy turning into a man, and his refusal only increased his stocks in her eyes.
In the end he stayed and watched. In the end Christina noticed how even in Kyoto he attracted more than his fair share of attention despite the surplus of male models at the set. It made her feel proud. In that sense she was anything but Japanese. Ryu at the other hand stared with open disapproval at how just about every male present ogled her.
It took some cooing on their way home, and a very thorough biting his face off by some teachers to make him forget his discomfort just to have it replaced by another.
Right now they weren’t on speaking terms. He really hated it when she saved him rather than the other way around, and that was a part of Ryu that Christina disliked.
Idiot! But the Sweden she once grew up in had shown more similarities than it wanted to admit. I’m an adult. Of course I’m going to help you when you need it. But she was also his girlfriend. At least she should treat him as her peer. Damn, I’d like someone to chat with. The solution came to her just as she voiced the need in her head.
“Sure, but I’ll be there as well,” Noriko said when Christina called her.
“You really don’t need...” Christina tried, but Noriko cut her short.
“It’s my boyfriend and it’s my brother. I’ll leave the two of you alone when I’m certain you’re not going on one of your crusades.”
An hour later Christina found herself in a crowded tourist trap. She’d been there before, in her previous life. Just after dawn, long before the horde of tourists invaded, freezing her butt off for a shoot while pretending it was another and much warmer season.
Crowded or not, the Arashiyama bamboo grove still enveloped her with an otherworldliness she normally never found anywhere. Apart from people around her world was green, and the never ending chattering still didn’t manage to dispel the sound of wind gusts trying to find their way down from the canopy.
Then one face turned the crowd into background, and by his side Noriko walked, hand in his, staring at the greenery and totally oblivious of how Ulf saved her from walking into strangers time and time again.
I don’t get you, but I’m happy for you. The smartest person he’d ever met, Ulf said, but she sure wasn’t street smart at all. Even a parent would have admonished a five year old for walking without paying attention to the world around.
“Noriko!” Christina called to save Ulf from his daycare duty.
His girlfriend finally looked ahead and made her way to Christina without endangering their surroundings. Behind her Ulf let out a sigh of poorly hidden relief. Christina understood him. Even as a friend you just felt the need to protect Noriko whenever she ended up along a lot of people. That need had to be multiplied if you were in love with the petite girl.
“Why here?” Christina asked when Noriko was close enough to be patted on her head, had Christina had those inclinations. “It’s not really a good place for me.”
“Cause it’s fun to tease you,” came the response. “Besides you won’t be able to use your work as an argument with all the people here.”
I never knew you were that scheming. “So you want the rational me?” Christina said and looked past Noriko, briefly met Ulf’s eyes and let her eyes walk across the gorgeous greenery surrounding them.
Noriko nodded back and then Ulf came up by her side. Side by side like this they looked more like big brother and little sister than a couple. The school uniform told a different story though.
“It’s Ryu. He wants to treat me like, well, his girlfriend.” That came out wrong. “In a bad Japanese way, I mean.” And why don’t I just insert an entire boot in my mouth while I’m at it?
Ulf just grinned with mirth at Christina making her best to win the award as the most moronic tourist in Kyoto this week. To her huge surprise Noriko didn’t look offended at all.
“I know what you mean,” she said with her head tilted slightly to one side. “One of my idiot brother’s worst sides.”
Ah, forgot you had to fight that part of him the entire autumn. “I don’t know what to do. I really do like him, a lot, but, well.”
“So you’re in love with the idiot kid and want him to grow up?”
That pretty much summed it up. This time it was Christina’s turn to nod.
Ulf remained silent the entire time, and what had once been planned as a chat with him more and more looked like a conversation with Noriko with Ulf as audience.
“He doesn’t deserve it, but you need to give him something in return. Ryu’s kinda stubborn that way.” Noriko’s smirk told Christina everything she didn’t want to know about what the short girl thought of yielding to Ryu when he was in the wrong.
“Give him a bone, you mean?” Christina said. It wasn’t as much a question as her thinking aloud.
“Yup,” Noriko said and shone like a sun. “Pat him on his head and say: Good dog!”
But it doesn’t really solve anything. Maybe she couldn’t resolve the problem by talking with Noriko alone. Something was missing, something important, but Christina just couldn’t find out what it was.
From Noriko’s side a voice reached Christina’s ears. “You could always break up with him,” Ulf suggested deadpan.
Urufu dropping a bomb like that turned out to be the starting point for some Kyoto shenanigans which eventually made the field trip quite memorable.
Right now, however, Noriko had yet to experience any of those, and she reeled from handling what Urufu suggested an hour earlier.
Right now the three of them sat freezing over cups of coffee and tea, watching what had to be a gorgeous view come spring. Now the river felt naked somehow, lacking the greenery that was to come later.
“So, no I don’t have any plans to break up with Ryu. You taught me the hard way what an awful thing it is to give up just because it’s hard,” Kuri said between sips of coffee. She had said that several times, but this was the first time she added something akin to regret for breaking up with Urufu a year earlier.
Noriko clenched her fists in her lap and pretended she hadn’t understood. Kuri was a good friend, but she was also an eternal rival. She was one Noriko needed and yet was scared of. Without Kuri she herself would never have been given a chance with Urufu, because without Kuri and Urufu being an item he’d have stayed forever in that black world of his where he lost wife and children.
Urufu allowed an almost smile to curve his lips and stared down at his coffee. Almost regretfully he lifted it and drank a little. The cup hid his eyes and Noriko wondered what passed his mind. A gust of wind that played in his hair later he let the cup down again and it met the table with a brittle sound.
“Fine, you’re not breaking up,” he said and looked up.
Noriko noticed how his eyes met Kuri’s, but that little something that had her worried wasn’t there. Love for certain, but neither the kind of needy greed of someone staring at his crush nor one half of the shared happiness of one in a relationship.
Urufu shot Kuri another glance after her outburst. With a cup of lukewarm coffee once again in his hand he smirked and studied the sky. “What about you make up? What about you apologise even though it wasn’t your fault?”
“But I didn’t do anything...”
“Isn’t he worth it?”
Noriko stared in fascination at the exchange of words. Silently she felt grateful the both of them had chosen Japanese rather than the sing song Swedish they used when the rest of the world was best kept in the dark.
“What do you mean with worth it?”
Urufu sighed and put his cup on the table. This time for the last time. There was nothing left in it. “Do you love him enough to make use of a white lie occasionally, even one that hurts you a little?”
“One that hurts me?”
“We’re the same, you and me. Too damn proud when it doesn’t matter.” Urufu shot her a bashful smile. “There’s a difference between integrity and stupidity you know.”
What, Urufu admitting a fault of his own? That was a novel thought. It’s almost as if he’s ready to learn something new. Which was grossly unfair, but he was rigid enough to merit being that unfair from time to time.
“I’ll get something warm,” Noriko said and rose from her seat. “Please talk things over!”
Kuri gave her a worried look when she left for the entrance. “A tea for me,” Kuri said rather than ask her not to leave.
You need to talk anyway. I need you to talk, or else I’ll always be afraid of you taking him from me. “Don’t worry. I won’t be long.” Noriko gave Kuri a smile that maybe wasn’t entirely honest and went inside.
A waitress behind the counter gave her a curious look when Noriko beelined directly for her, and with a self-conscious smile Noriko realised she had grown too used to the Haven where you either ordered at your table or by the counter depending on your mood. Or on the mood of whoever worked the tables that day for that matter.
Ordering something warm was quick business and she spent the short respite looking out the windows. Just outside Urufu and Kuri were busy talking about Ryu. Noriko didn’t need to hear their conversation to know. Behind them a street with more pedestrians than cars separated café from river. Walking the river upstream with her eyes she saw the famous Togetsukyo Bridge, the main reason for anyone being here in the first place.
Should have been the four of us. That was wishful thinking. More wishful thinking had her and Urufu alone here. Still, this was better than the circus back home in Tokyo. If she asked him discreetly maybe they’d share the rest of the afternoon together.
She barely registered a group of four girls from their school who passed outside the window until one of them returned and stopped by the table Urufu and Kuri shared. Even from inside the café Noriko saw how the glare Kuri received was anything but friendly.
With the door closed Noriko couldn’t hear anything, but she saw a mouth moving in agitation and Kuri reeling from the verbal onslaught.
That’s strange. Kuri hasn’t been up to any of her usual stunts where she turns strangers into enemies. Noriko quickly went to the counter and picked up her order. Once again the waitress gave her a perplexed stare, but Noriko decided that right now wasn’t the time to remember that orders were served at the tables.
With a small tray in her hands she pushed the door open and went for their table. Whoever the angry girl had been she had rejoined her friends, and Noriko stared at her receding backside. So did Urufu and Kuri.
“What’s up?” Noriko wondered and put the tray on he table.
Urufu guffawed and Kuri frowned, but she didn’t look angry.
“Fine, I’ll make up with him,” she said.
“OK, fill me in,” Noriko said and sat down on the chair she had occupied until she went for refreshments.
“I just got told off for not treating Ryu well enough. She told me she’d take him from me if I didn’t shape up.”
Noriko stared at Kuri. “That, eh… that sounds unlikely,” she finished.
Urufu just kept on laughing.