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In the end Kuri left them to their own devices with another promise to make up with her boyfriend. Noriko felt happy for her brother. Idiot as he might be he still truly cared for Kuri, and as far as Noriko was concerned the two of them made a good couple. That Urufu didn’t get dragged into something dangerous was an added bonus.

Yeah, dangerous, right! You’re just jealous of Kuri. But to be honest Noriko didn’t fear Kuri all that much any longer. Sure sometimes, just like at that café earlier, the tall model made her feel supremely uncomfortable, but those moments never lasted for long.

That was hours earlier. Right now she was panting by Urufu’s side as they climbed Fushimi Inari-taisha, or rather one of the endless gated paths up the mountain. Earlier this day her world had been a green fantasy land of bamboo. Now it was red or orange and made of toris. It was as if the gates stood upon each other.

It was all very beautiful and all that, but unlike Urufu Noriko didn’t have the stamina to climb mountains at a pace like this. Sure, the club’s walking talking sessions did wonders, but Urufu and endless walking was an entirely different beast. He was also clumsy with the small things that Ryu never was.

Too fast,” she panted. “Wait for me!”

He turned. “Sorry.” Then after just a few more steps he was ahead of her again.

I said wait.”

Ah, sorry, you’re slow.”

Really! “You’re an arse.” She loved him, but right now he was a twat.

Sorry.”

He did slow down his steps, and with her hand in his, pulling just a little to show him it was hard work climbing the hill, they made it up the next crest. There was kind of a view, but for all the work getting up here Noriko felt a little disappointed.

I’d like to continue a little more,” Urufu said.

Noriko looked around her. The gates thinned out considerably from here on, and the prospect of climbing even further didn’t appeal all that much to her.

Not going back?” she wondered.

Urufu still gazed at what view was offered. “If that’s what you want,” he said just to prove that he wasn’t oblivious to her presence. There was something forlorn in his voice that had Noriko swallow the affirmative words that already lay in her mouth.

What I want? Shouldn’t it be what we want?” He had suggested they trudge on. She gave him another look. Always straightforward he still wasn’t always honest with what he wanted for himself. Could I hope? “Something you know about the mountain?” she asked and gave the hill a little more credit than it deserved.

He smiled, just a thin line, but it reached all the way to his eyes. “There are less people there,” he said, and her heart jumped at his words.

This is where I’m very careful with what I say. She walked to his side and grabbed his hand again. Pretending to share the view with him she thought about the right words. “I’d very much like somewhere less crowded with you,” she decided upon.

It’s an extra hour,” Urufu said as if he waited for her to change her mind.

She felt wind running through her hair and turned her face to meet him. How he could possibly believe an extra hour spent in relative solitude with him wasn’t worth the effort was beyond her. “My pleasure,” she said and pretended she hadn’t noticed that while her mind was full of him her legs still believed further walking was a supremely stupid idea. Note to self: don’t get angry at him just because you’re tired. She made that note into a promise.

Thank you!”

Thank you? Noriko grabbed both his hands. “You don’t have to thank your girlfriend for wanting to spend time with you,” she said and surprised herself with her boldness. It was of a different kind than when she made her attempts at getting him into bed with her. This was a more important kind of boldness, one of hearts rather than of body.

He just grinned. Finally one of the wolfish grins that had both her and a few too many other girls turn in his direction. This time, however, it was for her alone. “Then this boyfriend would very much want to spend the rest of the day just with his girlfriend,” he said.

For the first time in a very long time she gave him a look where she studied him as if they hadn’t known each other for a while. At the end of his teens he grew a roughness to his face that maybe not everyone found attractive, but those who did couldn’t forget. Sturdier than the sexless definition of male beauty that went these days, but the combination of brilliance and strength was fatal for her. His was not just the beauty of someone who knew how to weather out a storm, but of one who knew how to do it with less effort despite being able to brute force it.

You’re unfair,” she said.

Unfair, how so?” he said, let go of one hand and led her further up the hill with the other firmly in his hand.

Noriko waited a few minutes, just enough to appreciate how he finally matched his steps with her. “You know that I really love you, don’t you?”

He faltered a little. “I do,” he said. “I don’t really understand what I’ve done to deserve it, but I do.”

She snuggled up closer to him. This part of him she definitely liked. “Because you’re you. Because you care and because I feel that you love me back,” she said. It wasn’t even close to describing everything he had done to make her fall for him, but right now it was enough.

He stopped in his tracks, and finally he bent down and kissed her. She grabbed his head with both her hands and kissed him back. Japanese sensibilities be damned. She had longed for this the entire trip.





Ulf stared up the mountain in consternation. After half an hour and five failed tries to reach her phone he was on the verge of giving up on finding Noriko by himself.

One moment they spent their time in blissful solitude, the kind that made a truth of the joke that love is egoism for two, the next she was gone. Well, there had been the part of him scrounging up a vending machine with a little something for the two of them to drink. Noriko was panting heavily and Ulf decided that him spending maybe quarter of an hour in search of the drinks was the perfect excuse for her to get some well needed rest.

An hour earlier he returned with two bottles and two cans, but Noriko was nowhere to be seen. A line message told him something had come up and that she would be away for a short while. After that short while grew into half an hour Ulf tried to text her, then call her on line and in the end on her real number, but all to no avail.

Now he stood at the base of the hill and wondered what to do next. If worst came to worst he could just return to their hotel, pout a little about their date together going into the bin and wait for her to eventually show up. The thing was he really didn’t care for their date going to waste. It was a little selfish, perhaps even childish, but between work, training and school they found preciously little time to spend alone with each other.

Seems she hooked me up good in the end. He surprised himself with how much he had fallen in love with his own little bundle of cheerful happiness. Now, almost two years after he got to know her she was a very different person from back then. On the outside you were a lot more grown up. Ulf grinned at the memories, crossed the street and went for the closest place where he could sit down and gobble up Noriko’s share of the drinks he bought earlier. Well, and find a toilet as well. His own share made itself reminded by now.

An empty bladder later his thoughts were very different, and Ulf silently swore at himself for not having them earlier. Noriko was missing and he never even once wondered if something bad had happened to her. Instead he’d abandoned her somewhere up that hill, because only a moron-sama like himself believed one hour of silence counted as a short time.

Retracing his steps took another quarter of an hour. And just as Ulf was about to start a random search for Noriko his phone vibrated in his pocket and let out a short squeak.

Noriko? He frantically dug for it and flipped open the case. Noriko!

Yell at Kuri! It’s her fault,” the short message said.

It didn’t matter that the words hardly counted as an explanation. The message in itself and a pointer at Kuri meant that she was safe. Safe and angry was still safe, and Ulf let out a long sigh of relief.

Where are you?” he texted.

There was a long pause. Enough for him to feel wind in his hair and look up shortly from the screen and take in the city scape of Kyoto.

Not telling,” came the reply.

Not telling? What’s going on? He smirked and stabbed in a few choice words before sending them her way.

This time there was no reply at all. Irritation grew in him as he gave up and made his way down the hill again. For whatever reason the date had gone south and he walked alone to the city centre. With Noriko by his side he’d picked a local train, but a few kilometres didn’t even count as a distance when he was on his own.

In the beginning he threw down his feet with a little more strength than was needed, but as the brisk walk got his body moving angry thoughts quickly gave way for the exhilaration he always felt during physical activity. This was his drug now, and he needed it since he never picked up the habit of smoking in this life.

Wherever Noriko was she was safe together with Kuri. Come evening they’d meet again and any interrogation could wait until then. Sure, there had better be a good reason for sabotaging their time alone.

He grinned and started taking note of his surroundings. Sightseeing wasn’t his goal, but rather his teenage body came with an appetite that subsided as he grew older and got used to handling a computer all day long. Right now he was ravenously hungry, and if he was to eat alone he could as well go for some food he suspected Noriko was less than keen to share with him. Something with big slabs of meat came to his mind which meant a western style steak house unless those were hysterically overpriced.

In the end they were, and he didn’t. At the central station he found a compromise that had to make do. There was meat, albeit not any big slabs, and there was more rice to go with it than he really wanted. Still, hunger was the best seasoning of them all, and Ulf wolfed down his meal together with a soft drink that was anything but traditionally Japanese.

After the meal he gave his message queue a cursory look. It was as lacking in updates as when he gave up on finding Noriko. With nothing better to do Ulf sauntered down-town for some lonesome sight seeing. He could at least relive some memories from days long gone when his parents brought him here in a world that was lost to him in more ways than one.

He walked straight street after straight street, and every time he stopped to give something a closer look he felt a pang of regret for not having Noriko beside him. He missed her voice and witty remarks. He missed the touch of her hand in his, and that very lack filled him with another realisation. He longed for Noriko and he hadn’t even given Christina as much as a thought. That in itself made missing his girl worth it, and Ulf felt a little less of an arse knowing how his feelings finally rooted themselves where they belonged.





Noriko frowned. That earned her yet another smirk from Kuri who was having way, way too much fun.

What am I even doing here?

Being photographed was what she was doing. Being photographed and making whoever worked with this kind of silly thing throw her stares of despair.

I didn’t ask for this.

And it was all Kuri’s fault. Earlier, just after Noriko barely had time to send Urufu a message saying she was going to be away for a short while, she wondered if this was some kind of retaliation for taking Urufu for herself. In the end it turned out Kuri was just lonely and sulking because yet another of her promised free days turned into a working session.

It was still Kuri’s fault. She decided being clad in spring clothes outdoors in January was a proper line of work. Noriko hadn’t, so why was she here transforming into an icicle when she could have snuggled closer to Urufu in a shared twosome free from prying eyes? Because Kuri didn’t want to be alone was why. Which, if any gods still didn’t get the unfairness of it all, made it Kuri’s fault.

And I thought models had to be tall. Must mean I’m here as some kind of comic sidekick to Kuri’s beauty. That thought popped into Noriko’s mind just as a new series of photos were being taken, and the unsurprising result was yet another delivery of groans and looks of despair. And I probably won’t even get paid for this. Sucks to be me! Other girls might jump at the chance to play model for a few hours, but Noriko wasn’t other girls.

An icy tendril of wind found itself inside whatever flimsiness made a poor attempt at pretending tom be a school uniform. Whoever came up with this idiocy? School uniforms were designed to last three years if the owner didn’t grow. The joke Noriko wore right now wouldn’t have survived a single trimester, not even the short winter one.

That was her other gripe as well. It might look like a winter uniform, but in reality it played the role of a shoddy summer one. Maybe it looked better for taking idiot photos, but it was cold, cold, cold to wear. By now Noriko was certain its only purpose was to make her skin take on a colour better matching the sad excuse for a uniform; which meant a bluish tint that signalled freezing to death rather than whatever cuteness the people here were after.

When the next icy gust of wind hit her Noriko decided to get a grip on her personal universe. She lifted her head and met Kuri’s crew face to face. The reward was an approving nod from the photographer and then Noriko’s world filled with an endless smattering as he threw his camera to his face and started moving in circles around her.

Good! One step forward! Like that! Lean right! Good!”

Noriko did as told. The instructions were easy enough to follow.

Finally! We could use this,” someone in the background said.

Noriko didn’t listen. She just did whatever the photographer told her. It was almost like being lulled to sleep.

Yeah! That’s it! Guess Ageruman-san knew from the beginning after all.” That voice belonged to the only female in the crew.

Noriko wasn’t sure what it was that Kuri knew, and it really didn’t matter. The fewer mistakes Noriko made the sooner she’d get away from here and the more time she could spend with Urufu. Preferably alone with Urufu. She still hadn’t forgiven Kuri for sabotaging their date.

After what seemed to be successful shots Noriko finally got to take a seat where she could enjoy the divine luxury of a heavy coat and a paper mug with steaming tea. Freezing to death apparently made you re-evaluate the concept of luxury.

Kuri, are we done yet,” she complained to the chair to her left.

Tall blonde just smiled and shook her head. Just like Noriko Kuri was draped in a coat, and she also nursed a mug with something warm.

No joking. You crashed a perfectly good date for me.” Noriko felt she deserved the right to sulk. She was probably pouting as well, but right now she didn’t care. Urufu was somewhere else. Hopefully he did his share of sulking, but she wasn’t certain. When faced with a problem he couldn’t solve he tended to dig up another one instead.

They promised me the rest of the trip off, but they broke that promise.” Kuri managed to look a little ashamed. “I wanted someone to share the misery with.” A short pause followed during which both of them sipped some tea. “I’m sorry.” And then another spell of silence. “I want to be with Ryu as well.”

Noriko felt a thin smile stretch over her face. Anyone wanting to spend extra time with her idiot bro needed their brain examined. She also knew there were hordes of girls in dire need of such an examination. “You’ve got horrible taste in men,” Noriko tried. It wasn’t entirely true, but Ryu had been such a pest all autumn.

We both do,” Kuri retorted, but there was no malice in her voice.

It hurt a little. Those words sounded like Kuri regretted ever being with Urufu. Still, Noriko understood that wasn’t what she meant. “Urufu is a great man,” Noriko said. Not that he needed any defending from her side, but it was a matter of loyalty if nothing else.

Kuri emptied her mug and made ready to continue the shoot. Coat left on her chair and clad in ludicrous flimsiness never meant for January she stood up and took a few steps in the direction the crew beckoned. Then she halted and turned. “He’s a great boy.”

Noriko let her own coat drop and followed Kuri into the freezing winter. For once she both understood and agreed. In ways Urufu was very much a boy and not a grown man. Fifty years didn’t matter. Fifty years from now that would probably still hold true.





What the? Noriko stared at her phone. There were pictures of her face glaring back at her from the screen. How did they? “Kuri, what’s going on?”

Kuri turned and leaned over Noriko’s phone. “Ah, they’re live now.”

Live? “Isn’t this for a magazine?”

Kuri shook her head. “They’d never agree I bring you for a shoot like that. Way too expensive. This is for some kind of on-line gig.”

That made more sense than Noriko wanted to admit. Just looking around her confirmed what Kuri had just said. While indoors this was nothing like a proper make-up studio. A few hastily thrown together foldable chairs, a rig with industrial lightning, an almost clean tarpaulin to walk on and a closed off part of a shopping mall as background. That was their studio.

Fine, you don’t need professionals, but what’s with me getting photos from my classmates?”

This time she got a smirk before Kuri said anything. “Had to call our teachers or else they’d go ballistic when we returned late.”

That also made sense. Those photos hadn’t been sent by any school staff though.

Guess someone couldn’t keep quiet,” Kuri added.

Things slowly started to make sense in a very bad way. “Everyone in school knows the link to your little fashion show?”

Kuri rose and dragged Noriko to her feet. “Time to work.” She pulled Noriko along her to wherever she wanted them to display some more poorly suited clothes for the season together with a couple of good looking boys who were just as much amateurs as Noriko. “Only the second years,” she added just as the smattering of shutter noise started.

Noriko let out a sigh of relief until what Kuri had said registered. All the second years? That’s the same as the entire school you moron! Cause juniors had senior friends as well as freshmen ones. Like Tomasu and Jeniferu. Jeniferu, gods! She never pulled her stops.

Thinking of that girl gleefully spreading the plague had Noriko make some kind of error she wasn’t aware of. So did one of the boys, and they had to retake the entire shot.

While they were made ready again she threw the display windows around them a glance. There were clothes. While maybe not a perfect fit for Kuri what Noriko saw still suited pretty girls better than herself. There was a world made for those who already looked good. She snorted silently and pushed the thought out of her mind.

The next shot was better, but the approving words that followed it made her remember her own uncertainty. Cute, she knew she got called cute, but pretty and beautiful were words for the likes of Kuri and Hitomi. Sometimes, especially when she was happy, those words could be applied to Kyoko as well. Only Noriko was exempt.

When did being pretty become so important? From when she finally hauled Urufu in was the answer.

Kuri,” Noriko said half naked between two sets of clothes, “why would being beautiful become more important after?” she asked.

Kuri threw herself into her clothes with the speed of a world class sprinter and began helping Noriko. “After what?” she said zipping up Noriko’s backside.

Noriko fidgeted and pulled another zipper, one for her skirt. “You know, after Urufu… after we...”

You had sex?” Kuri said deadpan.

No!”

So you haven’t?”

No!”

Pity.”

I didn’t mean...”

Kuri giggled and Noriko felt a reassuring hand on her shoulders. “I know.” The hand vanished and Noriko felt herself being pulled outside the miniscule privacy offered by a few flimsy blankets on hangers. “It doesn’t work that way. You tried even before you became a couple, but you didn’t know?”

Didn’t know?” Knowing could mean so many different things.

Let’s get this one over with and I’ll explain,” Kuri offered.

There were more shots, and Kuri promised Noriko looked absolutely stunning, and after that they got a decent break, which meant more than a few minutes, for something to eat.

With a tray half full with whatever substituted for food during work like this Noriko glared at Kuri to make her honour her promise.

What?” Kuri asked. She must have forgotten.

About Urufu,” Noriko tried and stuffed her mouth full with bread.

Urufu? Ah, yes.” Kuri swallowed something of her own and stared at her plate. “When Urufu and I still… sorry, before you and Urufu, you know,” Kuri began, and Noriko sent her a grateful thought for changing her words. “You still wanted to look good. Almost everyone does. Thing is,” there was a pause while Kuri looked like she was searching for the right thing to say, “you tried to look good, for your own fantasy,” she finished.

Fantasy?” Noriko had an idea where this was going, but she still wanted it said.

Uhum,” Kuri nodded with her moth full of food. She looked like anything but a super model. “You didn’t know what Urufu liked, and when it comes to him it’s, well, it’s more difficult than usual.”

You could say that. Urufu’s taste in clothes was a disaster in its own right. “You mean I imagined an Urufu and tried to dress up for my imagination?”

Yeah, something like that. Now when you’re together you’re supposed to know him better and you’re guessing what the real him wants.”

The real him. I’ve been in love with several real hims. Which one? “But he’s got horrible taste,” Noriko said. She knew she was changing the subject, but the thought of handling different versions of Urufu made her head spin.

You know,” Kuri said and smiled. “His taste in girls clothing isn’t all that bad. It’s old fashioned, sure, but he’s got a pretty good eye there. It’s just himself,” Kuri added and shuddered. “I wish he had it as easy as me dressing well.”

Because you really have it easy, and you just had to say it to my face. Noriko sulked, but then resolve built in her. Resolve was good. Resolve was what she had in spades. Resolve, she believed, was part of what Urufu found attractive in her. I’m so going to pump you for everything I need.





Her phone filled with pictures, or rather her message queue did.

Who gave away my line-id?

Long before dusk draped Kyoto in a dirty yellow, only to give way to night mere moments later, Noriko received her first message from someone unknown. By now most of the pictures came from people she maybe wouldn’t know even if she saw their faces. Kuri, you’re going to pay for this!

They were outdoors again. That meant they were freezing their butts off just as they had done when the insanity started. That also meant Noriko could wave goodbye to any hopes of at least spending the evening alone with Urufu.

There’s nothing left of this trip. I hate this! But in reality she didn’t, not really. The way they were studying she could always call upon Urufu to help her, so time alone with him was just a matter of acting on her longing rather than stay home and pout.

The shoot was more interesting than Noriko wanted to admit. That was where her shame came along. She wasn’t supposed to enjoy working this hard for something as shallow as mere looks. It didn’t matter that she had asked Kuri about it earlier the same day. Looking good for Urufu was one thing. Looking good in general was an entirely different beast.

She posed for the camera and received a disapproving frown from the photographer as a reward. In return Noriko stuck her tongue out at him. This is hilarious! She guffawed until she had to lean on Kuri for support. In the background a smattering of shutter sounds reached her like a distant whirlwind. That made her laugh some more, and this time one of the boys had to stop her from falling over. Noriko grinned at him and regained her balance once again.

Why didn’t he stop me? she thought and stared after the photographer. The staccato from his camera never ceased and she met a grin as wide as her own.

Something moved behind her. “Next set, Kinoshita-sensei?” Kuri’s voice asked.

The photographer nodded. “Yeah, can’t cram out anything better from this one.”

Fun, definitely fun, Noriko admitted. If she couldn’t be beautiful she could at least pretend to be, and if the got a huge laugh out of it, where was the fault in that?

Exchange line?”

The question brought Noriko out of her thoughts. She turned, looked behind and sought after the voice who had asked the question. To her surprise Kuri’s face showed no reaction at all.

Tell him you’re together with Ryu,” Noriko suggested and continued looking for whoever believed the shoot was a good opportunity to hook up with Kuri.

You tell him you’re together with Urufu instead,” Kuri said. This time her face definitely showed a reaction, and a huge grin at that.

Huh?”

Kuri threw one arm across Noriko’s shoulder and turned. “She’s not available.”

Huh?

Aww. Of course a cutie like her already has a boyfriend.” This time the voice got a face. One of the crew who’d spent the day scurrying around with all kinds of equipment.

Me?”

Yeah, you,” the man said. He smiled at her and shook his head. “You thought I was aiming for Ageruman-san? Not happening. That’s the fast track to unemployment.”

When Noriko looked at Kuri’s face for an explanation she got a nod in return. “I’m working. There’s no time for fending off admirers. Besides, some of them could turn into stalkers, and that’s scary just thinking about it.”

It made sense. Modelling wasn’t just about having fun after all. Then Noriko’s mind travelled back a little. Me? She blushed but brought her scrambled thoughts back in control. “Sorry, but I already have a boyfriend.” Years of being brought up to behave at least decently kicked in. “Thanks for considering me, though. I’m flattered.” She was, or else she wouldn’t have blushed like that.

Yep, a real cutie,” the man said, but the teasing tone in his voice promised that he’d back off.

Noriko smirked but played along. If he didn’t push it any further she could live with him having the last word.

It was time for yet another freezing change of clothes, and while Noriko failed miserably at keeping up with Kuri’s speed she noticed how her phone came alive again, and again and again. After an approving nod from Kuri Noriko dared looking at it.

The usual teasing message with photos attached to them lined up her queue like dancers on a festival. Noriko grinned as she read them until she happened upon one from Jeniferu. A photo with Noriko clinging to one of the boys in the shoot came accompanied by a message with a sobering effect.

You sure Ulf approves of this?”

Gods! I haven’t contacted him even once. I suck! Noriko frantically brought up his line-id and started typing. “Got caught up with Kuri. Sorry!”

Being dragged into Kuri’s shenanigans was bad enough. Being caught hanging around a boy for everyone to see with a smile like it was the happiest day in her life was a lot worse. I need to explain this. I hope he isn’t angry. She quickly sent another apology after the first, but before she had a chance to send a third explaining why the second one was so incoherent Kuri dragged her away for the next session.

This is bad! This is really, really bad!

Several long minutes when Noriko made her best to pretend her stomach wasn’t a jumble of unpleasant feelings passed, and in the end Kuri sent her back to the chairs with a worried look. All of a sudden playing model wasn’t fun at all.

I hope you’re having a good time,” wasn’t the message she had hoped for. Was he serious, or was he just seriously pissed off? With Urufu you couldn’t know. By now she knew his loving her didn’t prevent him from being angry with her at all.

I’m sorry Urufu. Please forgive me! Noriko wondered if she shouldn’t express that thought in a text to him, but before she had a chance to act on it they were all shoved into cars headed for the finishing part of the evening.





I hope you’re having a good time,” was maybe not exactly what he felt, but Noriko’s messages spelled discomfort and Ulf wanted her to know that she had his support when Christina pulled her into whatever craziness Noriko had to endure. Most likely she was dragged from shop to shop in search for clothes she didn’t need in order to look beautiful in his eyes. Possibly in search of clothes for him, and, well, most everyone were adamant about him desperately needing new clothes to look appealing, or even like a human being.

Still, for once he had prepared something of a dating planning and most everything in it went down the drain the moment Noriko vanished.

Guess she needs some girl time. Knowing that didn’t make him sulk any less. Studying with her was all fine and well, but sometimes Ulf just wanted to share a day of sheer stupidity with the girl closest to his heart.

There was a time for work and a time for leisure. The latter were few and far between. Still, I’m whining like a teenager, which, he reminded himself, the doctor a year and a half ago very much had said he actually was.

He managed to get permission to stay out a little longer than the curfew. Not that he really needed to apply for permission, but from what he saw the new principal wasn’t an arse which meant Ulf could do well to keep up a modicum of good behaviour as well.

Permission granted Ulf felt fairly certain their new principal was in the know about the arrivals. Fifty year old men usually didn’t ask if they were allowed to roam the streets during evening, and Ulf had absolutely no interest in neither seedier activities nor any consumption of alcohol. Visiting night clubs, sober or not, came in his twenties the last time he grew up, and it wasn’t like he would have been able to talk himself past the bouncers now anyway.

New life and all, he thought. Night life in Japan belonged to the white parts on his map. Or at least night life for younger adults did. He’d spent a few nights out with his wife, but that came at an age when he’d lost interest in booming music and large amounts of the cheapest alcohol available. Guess Haven’s the closest to nights out I’ve seen, and the Stockholm Haven café closed at eleven.

Right now he slowly walked past burger joints and cafés. Crammed in between were places he still had to wait a few years before he was welcome inside. The streets were eerily empty, maybe because a lot of what attracted those looking for somewhere to spend a late evening was grouped together in two large entertainment districts. High school students like himself weren’t welcome there.

Wonder what she’s doing. Ulf imagined Noriko sighing and trying on yet another piece of clothing she didn’t need, all the time surrounded by tall blonde and the body guards that came with that girl. Poor sod! Still, he could see himself walking between rows of hangers, pulled along by Noriko in search for something she believed wasn’t hurtful to the eyes of their surroundings.

Would you sigh if I was there? Somehow he hoped not. Making her happy had become increasingly important ever since he allowed himself to let his guard down. With Kareyoshi gone they could afford thinking about living instead of merely surviving.

What a year! A black one, and it hadn’t even been a full year. Ulf knew very well why the darkness in his mind stretched to a full one. Kareyoshi wasn’t to blame for the first two months. He wasn’t certain he’d made it through all of it by himself. You saved me, you know that? She was never merely a cute girl lovestruck with him for reasons he couldn’t even fathom. Without Noriko Ulf suspected he would have reverted back to the violence he found himself capable of shortly after he arrived here.

A door beckoned to him and he went inside. Something hot to accompany his thoughts seemed perfect. Damn, wrong place! He’d entered exactly the kind of place that catered to people like him. Large with sections like a diner, well lit and most probably not too expensive. Clusters of high school uniforms everywhere, sometimes mixed up by a bunch of middle schoolers and the occasional group of young people in their own clothes.

Should I leave? If he picked a more high end café he’d be able to have that something hot for double the price, which he could afford, but it also meant finding one in the first place. Screw that! I’m cold.

Ulf found himself a table for four and sat down. For once he was grateful for the drab diner design since the sections limited how many could see him. His nondescript uniform made him stand out like a sore thumb. The kids inside wore an assortment of just about everything that would have looked better than the beige and black of Himekaizen.

Good looking uniforms definitely didn’t make the list as to why anyone would pick the school. Possibly if you hated the gakuran and sailor uniforms enough. He smirked. Even so, if I didn’t know better, I’d probably go for Red Rose Hell. Their red and green was distinct enough to signal a student who belonged somewhere special. That it was special for all the wrong reasons didn’t matter.

There was no Red Rose Hell these days. At least not for high school students. We got that right. But then the plague spread to Himekaizen instead. Funny that it never took hold over Irishima High. Ulf guessed both staff and parents found the strength for integrity in the identity that came with that school. Means we need to make Himekaizen something special as well.

He grinned. It wasn’t his responsibility, not really, but still. One more year. I’ll show you what can be done in a year!

From the next table a smile was sent his way. The girl probably failed to pin point his uniform. Ulf returned her smile and dug for his phone. He could as well try to find out when Noriko’s shopping session ended.





Night club? It was. It even came with a small stage. No way! But, as usual whenever you got too close to Kuri, it was too late for any regrets.

Usually Noriko disliked getting caught in a crowd gawking at something. It just didn’t ring well with her idea of collective stupidity. Right now she was neither in a crowd nor gawking. Instead she was part of that something. If possibly it was even worse.

Gods, this is scary! Cameras were one thing. Cameras meant some sulking and a shot that had to be retaken. You could redo and pretend the mishap never occurred. An audience was different. No remakes.

While this wasn’t the first time for Noriko, the madness from a year and a half ago was for pretend. A school festival meant students pretended being something they weren’t. This was different. Sure, she most definitely wasn’t a model, but the shoot was real, which means the fashion show right now was real as well.

I can’t do this,” Noriko complained. She stared at the glittering darkness where young people moved to booming music in an almost night.

Kuri’s fingers dug into her shoulders. “Can’t do what?”

Go out there. They’ll know I’m not the real thing.”

Kuri shook her head. “You’ve already done this once.”

Shaking her head Noriko gave Kuri a pleading stare. “That was pretence. This is real.”

She only received a glare in return. “Pretence? In what way?”

That was just our cultural festival. It wasn’t for real.”

The hand on her shoulders hardened. “Are you daft?”

Daft’ wasn’t a word Noriko used to hear applied to herself. She shook her head. ‘Brilliant’ possibly, but not daft.

Kuri stared at her. “Look, if you believe I played house with Uniclo, my own career and an audience in the four digits, then you’re sadly mistaken.”

Huh?”

Moron! That fashion show was very, very much the real deal. We even had two pros, including one superstar.”’

Sometimes Kuri was just too much. “Superstar, you!”

Superstar me, yes. They just don’t know it. I’ve done all the big European events more times than I care for, and trust me, our festival show had a huge audience for this kind of work.”

Kuri’s words didn’t convince Noriko. Something that happened in their own gym hall didn’t feel real. School was school, and reality lay elsewhere.

The rhythmic carpet of noise changed into a soundscape with different sources, and Noriko realised someone must have lowered the volume. Now there were voices mixed into the music, jeering and cheering, and she turned to find out what had changed.

I look better than I speak, but you knew that.”

Another round of jeering.

But then I look damn good!”

And one of cheering.

Tonight I’ve brought some friends, so let’s have fun and watch some real nice clothes from Nimata’s latest collection!”

The cheering rose and drowned the music, very much like it had done during the festival, but Noriko had to admit this was nothing like the brutal wall of sound from back then.

You’re up. Just out, wave and get back!”

When did you… Noriko stared at Kuri who magically appeared by her side almost finished changing into a new set of clothes. A slap on her back forced Noriko onto the stage, and only closer to two years of experience being around the mayhem that was Kuri and Urufu prevented her from freezing like a statue.

Hi, I’m one of the friends,” she said. The sound carried clearly around her, so someone must have done a decent job with the microphones. “I speak better than Ageruman-san, back there,” she turned as her self confidence came back, “but then don’t all of us?” With those words Noriko waved at a floor filled with faces and walked off the stage. To her immense relief the entire room filled with a roar of laughter.

You’re on after me.” Kuri’s face flashed a huge grin. “Well done Noriko. Love your guts.” And with that Kuri was back on the stage she so mysteriously had entered during their short talk without Noriko even noticing.

After Kuri one of the boys entered the stage. Just looking at his backside Noriko hoped she didn’t make that kind of impression. After him, Kuri again, and after her the other boy who made a much better job at playing a model.

How Kuri managed to throw herself into new clothes in no time at all was beyond Noriko, but before she had a chance to ask it was her turn once again. She staggered onto the stage, turned with a closed fist and pretended being angry at someone invisible back there who had forced her out into the lime light.

Stupid kids. They promised I only had to do this once,” Noriko said and was rewarded with more laughter. She waved and decided against trying another joke. That would be pushing her luck.

Back behind the stage she changed into a new set of clothes and made ready for her turn. Three sets, they had said. This would be her last. After that she’d have Kuri’s face for dinner, or at least her wallet. There was no way Kuri should get out of this without paying. That Noriko enjoyed herself immensely had nothing to do with it.

Her third and last time onstage went by without mishaps. If anything Noriko received a loud departing cheer when she said she’d been the fool for the third time and needed some serious learning. This time the braver of the boys also managed a joke and returned with a grin on his face accompanied by the sound of approval from behind him.

Well, it was time to change back into her uniform, to once again become the usual Noriko and join her classmates back at the hotel.

Pick three,” Kuri suddenly said in the dressing room.

Pick three?”

Three pieces of clothing from today’s shoot. You’ll get paid properly as well, but I want you to have something extra.”

Like three socks?” Noriko said and smiled.

Kuri shook her head. “You could, but please don’t.”

Noriko felt her smile slowly fade away. “The second set,” she said. “All of it.” That meant five pieces of clothes, but Noriko had really liked it. Wearing it almost had her try a second joke after all.

Kuri nodded approval. “Skip the socks?” she asked.

Noriko smiled again. The socks would be piece six and seven, and she had already kind of promised Kuri not to go for the socks.





Christina looked at the midget girl across the table. The clothes she wore looked stunning, or rather Noriko made them look stunning. Nimata, the customer who paid for today’s stunt had built themselves a respectable name in a high end line for young males. Today’s live shoot launched their line for females, but truth be told they simply didn’t have the same eye for what girls wanted.

Noriko, no matter how girly she really was, sometimes looked very much like a tomboy rather than a young lady, and for her the clothes were a perfect match. At the moment, however, she definitely behaved like a lady.

Looks good on you,” Christina said. She had to speak softly, which took a toll on her since her hearing still hadn’t fully adapted from the night club bedlam earlier. This restaurant wasn’t a place for shouted conversations though.

Noriko nodded and swallowed a small bite of exquisitely prepared fish. It all came out of Christina’s pockets, but since over a year ago they were well lined. That was a good thing as she never asked their customer for permission before she gave away three sets of clothes, one for Noriko and one each for the boys.

Unless they took leave of their brains they’d smile and let it pass. Live marketing was, after all the best. However, if Nimata obstructed Christina would have to pay them a whole lot more than she made from the gig, and if so that was the last time she did any work for that company.

When Noriko dove into a glass of expensive mineral water and couldn’t see what Christina was doing she decided to take the opportunity to glance at her phone. Noriko was far too observant so some underhandedness couldn’t hurt.

Damn! Well, I’ll decline and keep her safe. A few messages already included questions about the tiny model. Christina made a mental promise to keep Noriko out of that world. It ate young girls alive, and Ulf’s girl had a bright future ahead of her that didn’t require her to use her looks. But you’re much more beautiful than you give yourself credit for. Christina guessed Noriko never noticed how she had matured the last year. She was already much more than merely cute.

Like it?” Christina asked. The short question was a deliberate ruse.

Noriko looked up from food and drink. A small smile played over her lips. “Dinner or clothes?” She placed fork and knife soundlessly on her plate, a supremely well behaved action in stark contrast to the clothes and mischievous smile she wore.

Yeah, should have guessed you’d see right through it. “Both.”

Tilting her head so that shoulder length hair bobbed around a little Noriko met Christina’s eyes. “Food is superb, thank you, but you already knew that. I like my new clothes very much.” A faint blush gave colour to her cheeks. “Can’t wait to show Urufu,” she added, and finally her ladylike expression wavered a little.

Christina filled with warmth at the last sentence. You’d want him to say something nice. I can see why. She made a mental note to give Ulf a reminder later. He was more dense in that department than was decent. Noriko deserved all the kind words he could scrounge up, and if Christina had to give him a pointer or two then so be it.

Then her thoughts soured a little. Ulf could do with some cooperation from Ryu as well. He really should support the happiness of his sister’s better. Damn Ryu, that’s one of the few times where you could learn from Ulf when it comes to play nice with people. Cause Ulf had chosen to stay away when he was still burning with jealousy. Staying away Christina could respect. Ryu’s incessant interfering was something else.

What’s on your mind?”

Boyfriend,” Christina said.

Idiot bro did something stupid again?”

Christina eyed Noriko over when the small girl continued her meal rather than openly wait for an answer. No he hadn’t, not for some time at least. “Just me being resentful.” She copied Noriko and picked up her meal again before it cooled.

They both finished in silence, and Christina had ample time to glance at her surroundings. Suits and dresses, silent conversations and much less ogling than she had become used to the last year. Much less still meant there was some, and she received a few angry glares from women whose partners didn’t keep their attention where wanted.

So,” Noriko began after she had received some tea to go with her dessert, “what’s the real reason you pissed me off today?”

Silent as the question was Christina still flinched a little. “You looked like you enjoyed it in the end.”

In the end, yes. I admit that, but that doesn’t change you stole a day alone with Urufu from me.”

That could mean two things. Christina decided she needed to shoot one of them down immediately. “I’m very much in love with your brother. Enough to be angry at your calling him idiot bro.”

And Urufu?”

A friend.” Noriko would know the partial lie in that statement, so Christina hurried to complete it. “I believe I’ll always keep a little of my love for him, but I promise I’ll never try to come between the two of you.”

Noriko looked like she tasted the meaning of those words. “Never is a long time.”

Not for as long as I...”

I’ll settle for this lifetime,” Noriko interrupted.

What? Christina shook her head. With Noriko you had to be careful with what she said. “Please explain!”

I’ve heard Yukio and Kyoko talk. It sounds disturbing to me, but it’s their life.” Dark eyes stared at the table separating the two of them. “Just so you know. I love Urufu more than anything else, but I’ll live this life and die an old woman.”

I don’t understand,” Christina said.

A shadow of sadness passed over Noriko’s face. “One life is enough for me. I don’t think I could stand doing it all over again.”

Understanding finally dawned on Christina. “Look I want to grow old with Ryu myself. Death doesn’t scare me they way it did when I was young.”

Noriko nodded and Christina saw a glimmer of respect in her eyes. “Thank you. It’s Urufu though. I can’t see him dying until he’s done with whatever he needs doing with his life. If that means him transiting again in the future I’d hate to die knowing he’s alone.”

Suddenly Christina’s world went icy cold. “I can’t love the way you do. That’s unfair! Please, I’ve found a life I can call home with Ryu, so don’t take it away from me!”

Noriko’s eyes were grim. “I’ll do almost anything for Urufu. We’ll continue this conversation another time.”





Maybe it wasn’t fair, but she really would do almost anything for him. Building a life just to leave it behind and starting all over again, however, wasn’t included in almost. When she got older she might change her mind. People did change after all, but right now she couldn’t see herself marry, have children, watch them grow up and just one day desert them the way Urufu had been forced to do.

Marry, when did I start thinking about marry? When Urufu started talking studying together for more than half the life she had lived, that’s when. We haven’t even slept together, so what gives me the right to think about marrying him?

The random thoughts were all excuses. She might have forced the topic upon Kuri, but it wasn’t one she liked to linger on. Noriko admitted it to herself. She wanted him, she wanted a life with him, she wanted kids with him, but most of all she wanted him to want her. Maybe it wasn't healthy, but it was what it was.

Short legs and long streets were, as always, a reason for her to be tardy, but now jumbled thoughts made her steps even slower than usual. Half an hour earlier she declined Kuri’s offer to share a taxi to their hotel, and by now she already had to apologise quite a few times to people she walked into.

Attention on your surroundings. Urufu would have said that. He did, more than once, when they walked in magic greenery to meet Kuri earlier.

She stopped to pretend looking at the view offered by a wide boulevard. In truth it was a rather boring view with an endless line of temples darkening one side and the Kyoto Tower far behind her. She was reminded of an old paper back fantasy her parents had in their shelves, or rather a lot of them, all in hideous colours and written in English. Pratchett or something like that was the author, but a memory lingered of her mother telling her the real author of that scene was far older still.

Kuri’s world. Those books belong to her world, and my parents’. That meant they belonged to Urufu’s as well, and Noriko sulked when she allowed that admission to climb foremost to her mind. That world wasn’t hers.

How do I make mine his to share? She dug in her pocket for her phone. Why not call him and ask?

Gods! The inbox looked like as if she had stayed bedridden for days. What’s going on? Jeniferu! There were several messages from the charismatic little monster, and while she was more subdued since her disgusting experience she still retained that natural ability to make friends. Lots and lots of friends. Most of the circles where Noriko kept acquaintances swollen by dozens of new members told their story of Noriko’s new won fame.

It just never ends, does it? Among the comments were several which still echoed of the chaos last year. While Noriko suspected her life lost most of its familiar obscurity with only her test results being part of the rumour mill, the sheer magnitude of her blindness shocked her. From the moment she got involved with the arrivals her life was turned upside down.

No, that’s not right. From the moment she made true friends she wanted around her for years and years ahead she became part of their lives. I might as well admit it. She added her own share to the insanity they called high school days. Being one half of the twins including Ryu was more than enough to elevate her fame.

But I never knew about you. Or rather she never accepted how much Urufu influenced those around him. Kuri’s stardom created an illusion of obscurity. Noriko shook her head and smiled. So she was famous among the Irishima first and second years as well now. She had no right being surprised. They made up the majority of the club after all.

Third years? That can’t be right. Those names definitely belonged to their seniors. Ah, of course! The first cultural festival. There were messages from members of the student council from that time. There was also one from Nao. Noriko stared at her phone. I almost forgot. Reading his name hurt more than she thought it would. Idiot! You should just have told me. But they would still have broken up. If not now then when he left school to pursue whatever dreams he had.

Her steps brought her out of the perfect grid making up most of central Kyoto. Her hotel lay close by. Whatever thoughts she needed to digest in solitude had to be handled right now. Time’s running out. Should I tell Kyoko? That wasn’t the question. Urufu? Could couples keep secrets from each other?

Waiting for a taxi to pass her Noriko played with that question in her head. What would the adult answer be? It had to be the adult one, or else she wouldn’t be able to stay by Urufu’s side.

Gah! My head hurts! I’m still a child after all. Suddenly all her wants felt like grand delusions. Life, marriage, children. Such grand dreams when she didn’t even know the answer to such a simple question. Two answers. Yes or no. What right did she have to aspire to a lifetime together if she couldn’t pick one out of two?

Urufu’s voice rang in her head. His admonishing voice, his loving voice, his scared voice, his arrogant voice, but foremost of them all, his caring voice. “Does it have to be easy?” it said. “Must there be just one answer?” it added. “I’ll listen to you even you have no answer.” The last promise came with a timbre she knew all too well. Almost, she almost had her answer.

Noriko! I was worried.”

Huh? That didn’t sound like a ghost in her head. Noriko looked up from her phone. Urufu! “I felt like walking,” she said.

He rushed to meet her. “Noriko, where have… Noriko, I hope you had fun.”

There it was again. This time for real and not just in her head. Urufu’s voice held both uncertainty and worries. Ah, I understand! He’s just older. He doesn’t know everything. He worries. Noriko opened her arms and allowed herself to be swallowed in his embrace. No, small as she was, she swallowed him up as well.

So that’s it! You’re not an adult because you know everything. You’re an adult because you keep living despite not knowing anything at all. She made her decision.





Kyoko pouted. She felt in her bones how she was left out. Kuri-chan knew something, something she shared only with Noriko. Kyoko could live with that. Or rather she could almost live with that. Despite being parted from the science classes by two cars Hitomi acted on her curiosity and left theirs in search of Noriko. She’s got more guts than I do.

Something had happened. Well that was an understatement. With their Line circles swollen with new members and most every message covering only one topic since Noriko’s unexpected stunt, to say that something had happened would be the understatement of the year.

That something, however wasn’t what had Kyoko worried. Kuri-chan might be a former global celebrity, and she might become one again. That just meant she knew how to look more beautiful than just anyone else – she still sucked at keeping it a secret that she kept a secret.

How the hell did you build a business empire if you’re a danger to yourself at the poker table? Kyoko sulked some more when the answer came to her. You just steam-rolled everyone into submission. Maybe the world of fashion wasn’t one of subtlety. All gods knew Kuri-chan’s earlier campaigns of infamy lacked just about everything in that department.

Outside the landscape rolled by. With Nagoya a station behind them there wasn’t all that much time until sprawling Tokyo made itself reminded again. While large in its own right Kyoto still couldn’t compare with the insanity that was the capital. Rather Kyoto never felt the need to.

Hitomi having the guts to act on her curiosity wasn’t the only reason Kyoko sulked. A gutsy Hitomi meant a Hitomi two cars away, which pretty much left Kyoko alone with her class. Until a month earlier that wasn’t bad in itself. Sure, taking a stand against Kareyoshi meant most classmates didn’t dare being associated with her, but a substantial minority never accepted their insane principal.

A month ago she made a very public announcement together with Yukio however. Now anyone complaining about it could go to hell, but it still left her with very few who sought her company, or at least very few she wanted to keep company with. To add insult to injury more than one boy had appeared out of nowhere with one suggestion dirtier than the other.

Should I push Kuri-chan a little? Kyoko smirked. That would do no good. Kuri-chan never budged once she took a stance. Just leave it be? Probably the best alternative, one that respected Noriko’s privacy as well, but good friends kind of didn’t bother with privacy all that much in the first place.

Just as Kyoko made ready for another silent round of complaints the door to their car opened and Hitomi returned from her mission. She promptly sat down in her seat two rows behind Kyoko’s.

Kyoko rose and walked to her friend. Smug as her face had been at her return it meant very little. In difference from Kuri Hitomi wasn’t anyone Kyoko ever wanted to play poker with. The benefits from a thoroughly polished bad upbringing Hitomi once called it. That bordered on cynicism of the first degree, but Kyoko never questioned the results.

Switch with me?” she asked the girl beside Hitomi.

Kyoko got a polite nod in return and watched the backside until she sat down in what had been Kyoko’s seat just moments earlier. Infamy went a long way towards making people do as you wanted.

Spill!”

Hitomi’s smug expression turned into a more neutral one, just as if the beauty had anticipated Kyoko’s actions. As if. My arse. She knew.

Nothing to tell,” Hitomi said.

Nothing?”

Nothing.” Hitomi tore open a small bag with snacks and offered Kyoko some.

Staring over the bag while her hands accepted the gift Kyoko watched how rice paddies suddenly got replaced by hillsides, and moments later they were in a tunnel. Shinkansen was nothing like the sedate local trains in Tokyo.

She put half her booty in her mouth and chewed. Salt and sugar mixed, and somehow the experience of mixed tastes only got stronger from feeling the roughness of what was left in her hand.

Nothing at all?” Kyoko probed.

For the first time since returning Hitomi smiled. “Explicitly so, as Urufu would have said. Noriko told me whatever happened would remain a secret.”

That meant part of what had happened. The main part was anything but with photos of Noriko racing the net to whoever was interested in the midget who received Kuri’s blessing.

But something did?”

Hitomi swallowed her discomfort when they left the tunnel and air pressure suddenly changed again. “Yes, something did. She sat with one of her classmates and I didn’t see Urufu anywhere.”

Kyoko nodded. The two classes had gone to extremes, just as hers and Yukio’s had, when it came to accommodate a famous couple. Well at least she and Yukio were famous before the trip started. “I don’t think they angered anyone,” Kyoko mused.

Hitomi shook her head. “Noriko certainly did. A lot of people want their fifteen minutes you know.”

But that’s not it,” Kyoko filled in.

A small portion of nuts and rice crackers travelled from bad to Hitomi’s hand and then into her mouth. “No,” she agreed after she had swallowed. “Even if it had been an issue you just don’t piss off the number one among the second years.”

Especially not when she’s an item with the hero number three. “Urufu wouldn’t keep his distance,” Kyoko said.

Hitomi guffawed loudly enough for a few faces to turn in their direction. “He just pretends to be aloof. But for all of Noriko’s clinging to him like a stamp he’s really the needy one.”

He is, isn’t he?”

The two girls exchanged grins of agreement.

No, this once Noriko needed some lonesome,” Hitomi said.

Kyoko mulled over the last sentence while the train rushed into yet another tunnel and left it mere seconds later.

I wonder if it’s something bad,” Kyoko said when the windows once again displayed small towns and an occasional glimpse of the sea.

Can’t say. Look, Kyoko, I need to catch up on some sleeping.”

Kyoko had to respect that.

It’s not Vegas, but…” Hitomi’s voice started sleepily.

Vegas?

I guess we have to accept that what happens in Kyoto…” Hitomi never finished the sentence, and the two of them spent the rest of the ride to Tokyo in silence.

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