“Little Tina. You look just like when you grew up!”
“Grandpa, is that you?” Tina, no-one's called me that since I grew up. Those eyes! It's him! Christina felt her hands fly to her face. It's really him!
Beside her Ulf rose so quickly that his chair overturned. He moved to get in between her and whatever he felt was a threat. She caught his eyes with her own. Are you back, Ulf? She shook her head. It's my grandpa. He's not dangerous.
Somehow he seemed to understand, because he backed away, pulled up his chair from the floor and sat down. She could see him pretend to drink some coffee while she shook hands with her grandfather. She would have preferred hugging him, but there were just too many club members in the dining hall. Hugging could wait.
Christina looked between Ulf and her grandfather until she felt certain Ulf wouldn't try to make a scene.
“Hot-blooded bloke that one,” grandpa noted in Swedish. That was the last piece of reassurance she needed to accept it really was him. A forty year old version of him, with a face she barely remembered from her mother's photo album.
I wasn't even born when you looked like this. I remember grey in your hair.
She got a curious glance from him and all around the table the others leaned back to give them a bit of privacy. “Is he yours?” grandpa asked?
By now Christina was certain he spoke in Swedish to keep the rest of them in the dark. James would have mentioned him if those two had met earlier, and neither James nor Ulf had the looks of someone speaking that language.
You're in for a rude surprise grandpa. “I love him, but he doesn't belong to me,” she said. “Should I call you Sano-sensei? Grandpa is out of the question in this world.” Ulf, did you hear that?
Her grandfather twisted his face into a grimace, but eventually he reluctantly gave her a curt bow. “My name is Mitsuo, but I guess that would sound impolite. I don't want you to be that formal with me, but for the sake of pretence, fine.”
Christina looked at the other adults. Apart from James who was smiling slightly they all seemed to accept that the two of them used Swedish as a barrier.
Ulf stared down into his cup with the apathy he had worn as a cloak the last days, but there was a flickering glimmer in his eyes. Christina's heart jolted with sudden hope when she saw his fingers move like they did when he was planning something nasty. Please, please, please be back again! I need you!
“I believe I should mention I know some Swedish,” James finally admitted from his place.
Sano-sensei smirked and shrugged. “Arrival like us?” he asked and looked at Christina.
James nodded. “Just so you're aware that there are more of us who can understand you.”
“Pity,” Sano-sensei admitted. “Age?”
“Forty, subjectively. Twenty five here.”
Sano-sensei rolled his eyes. “Crap, he's ten years younger than you Tina. Still, shouldn't you reconsider your choice of boyfriend? Don't understand what you see in that kid?” he continued and glared at Ulf.
Christina felt her cheeks heat up and when she turned to look at Ulf she noticed how both of the Wakayama parents shot him disapproving glances. If you two have seen something you don't like, then he's really only pretending. Ulf, you bastard! “What do I see in you?” she asked him in Japanese.
“Don't know,” he answered and offered her that wolfish grin she had longed for so much the last days.
She felt tears welling up in her eyes. She sat down on her knees and hugged him close to her. “You're back! I've been so afraid.” She hid her face in his chest and allowed the tears to take her. Half a week's worth of tension slowly left her as she sat shaking in his embrace.
“He's still only a teenager, you know,” came Sano-sensei's voice. No, this time it was her grandfather's voice. There was no malice in it, only concern. “It won't last, and I'd hate to see you hurt again like in France.”
“I can't promise it will last, but I won't cheat on her like that piece of shit,” Ulf said in her stead, in Swedish. She felt his embrace tighten.
Behind her her grandfather gasped. “You speak Swedish?”
“My Swedish is substantially better than yours. I was born to it. Japanese is a problem though.”
Christina heard James laugh together with the other adults. None of them needed to understand the words spoken to know what an ugly trap Ulf had sprung on her grandfather.
“Just accept it, Mitsuo-kun. You've been had,” Noriko's mother said. “He played you.”
“Fooled by a teenager at my age. Embarrassing.”
Ulf stroked her hair and spoke again. “Mitsuo, did it ever occur to you that I might be an arrival as well?” In Swedish all honorifics fell away. Living in Japan for a year made her realise how strange it sounded when two strangers used names only.
She couldn't see anything, but she could feel how her Ulf and her grandfather stared at each other.
“No,” came the curt reply.
“Well I am, and a year older than little Ina here.”
Ina, I love the sound of that. You're truly back. U-kun. I'll call you U-kun in private. She held him closer to let him know how much that nick-name meant to her.
“Little Ina, what kind of nonsense is that? She's my Tina and nothing else.”
Christina felt Ulf's muscles harden. “She belongs to nobody! I'll call her Ina as long as she allows me to, and the day she says I can't I'll stop. Show her the respect she deserves!”
Christina tensed and waited for her grandfather to explode, but nothing happened.
“Fine, you pass. Stay by her side.”
“As long as she wants me, I promise.”
From all over the dining hall she could hear sighs of relief. The will-contest between the two men hadn't gone unnoticed by the club members, and Christina wondered what kind of rumours would be born from this. As far as the members were concerned their tall vice president had just won a stare-down with an adult. At least that must have been what it looked like.
This is bad. We're in Japan now. I have to get them in line before discipline is shot to hell. If they believe we can behave like this with our teachers the school will come down on us like a horde of those Japanese bakemono.
Reluctantly she let go of Ulf. “Don't use that voice with your seniors!” she barked in Japanese and winked at him.
“I...” and then he got it. “I apologize President. Sano-sensei, I humbly ask for your forgiveness for my overstepping,” he said as he rose and bowed deeply.
Her grandfather looked nonplussed for a moment. Then he turned into Sano-sensei and nodded. “Apology accepted.”
Need to remember we're high schoolers in this world. That thought reminded her they were supposed to climb the nearby mountain before noon for an overnight hike, high school style.
Ryu turned and gave Fumiko-chan a helping hand. She hadn't brought a proper day-pack and staggered as they climbed uphill.
Ahead and behind of them a long line of club members slowly ascended the mountain path to the camping site.
A brisk breeze from the ocean climbed up the mountainside and made the day bearable, but it was still uncomfortably hot.
He wiped sweat from his face, allowed Fumiko-chan to pass him and reached out with his hand to help Nori-kun navigate the difficult climb. After that Ryu continued himself. The motor mouth would stay and help Sakura-chan.
A little further up Ryu saw Hiroyuki-kun help Noriko climb over a log that had fallen across the path. Good man, I'll switch with you when I get there, Ryu thought and forced his burning legs upwards.
He was astonished so few of the members complained about the murderous climb, but it seemed like Urufu's walking talking sessions earlier that summer had given them stamina as well as the ability to start thinking outside the box.
We've become a real club. Urufu, you did it! They're helping each other without asking. For a moment elation rose in him, but then thinking of Urufu soured Ryu's good mood. What happened back then? You still haven't told.
He passed in and out of shade as he made his way upwards between tree trunks flanking the path. The thinner of them offered his burning legs a little respite whenever he pulled himself up with his hands.
Halfway to the log he caught up with Fumiko-chan who was panting heavily and staggered with her arms hanging by her side. She looked like she could use some extra motivation. He tapped her shoulder and prepared a smile. “Fumiko-chan, Aika-chan is ahead of us. Climb to her and have something for me to drink when you get to the summit, will you?”
The girl stopped in her tracks, turned and blushed. “Would you share it with us, Ryu-kun?”
That's gutsy of her. “Of course, how could I live without the company of two beautiful girls?” Ryu said and flashed her a grin. She averted her eyes, but he could see the smile playing over her lips. Prince of Himekaizen, and of this club. That's my job. “I'll join you after I've helped everyone.” Well, they're both pleasant enough. I could do with worse company.
He watched her scamper away to where Hiroyuki-kun still stood ready to help people climb over the log.
I've thought of us six as the core, but we're not really the core of the club any longer. He gave Hiroyuki-kun a tired smile and waved him onwards. Half the members take action by themselves now. Urufu, you really changed us. Ryu shook his head and took the position Hiroyuki-kun had held just moments before. Looking back he could see Nori-kun arriving hand in hand with Sakura-chan. The motor mouth would help the girl he worst case was crushing on, or best case was dating, without Ryu's help, so Ryu just waved him on after Sakura-chan was safely over the log.
Wonder who's next? So tired I didn't even check who replaced Nori-kun down by the rocks. Ryu wiped more sweat and grime from his face with his arm.
Kyoko arrived helped by Yukio. Another pair that wouldn't need his help.
“Who's down there helping people up?” Ryu asked.
Yukio looked up and grinned. “Kuri. She's almost as strong as us boys. Urufu's down there taking a rest as well.”
Taking a rest? From what I've seen he should be able to run up the trek. Ryu blinked. He'll piss the third years off when it's time for the marathon later this autumn, because I don't see anyone in Himekaizen matching his stamina. “Sure about that?”
Yukio managed to smirk despite his fatigue. “He's back to his bad self again. Kuri will help him up when all the rest have passed.”
Ryu sighed and made space for Yukio. He watched him help his girlfriend over the log, and after that they vanished up the path, still holding hands. I envy you a little, but I'm happy for you both. You of all people deserve it.
Heavy panting from below had him turning his head, and soon afterwards he was helping one of the new girls in the club. Have to learn their names.
It was slow work, but member by member he saw them all passing the log, and shortly afterwards Kuri and Urufu came walking up the path. Ryu only waved at them and started climbing up himself. Kuri would help Urufu anyway, and she'd only complain if he offered them any help.
It didn't take him long to overtake the trailing members, and some cajoling, a few insults and the occasional insubstantial promise later he saw them to the summit. Fumiko-chan and Aika-chan stood waiting for him with a bottle each in their hands. That wasn't an insubstantial promise he had given earlier, so he grinned at them and followed them to the table they had chosen. Gratefully he received the first bottle and downed it in one go.
“Thanks, I really appreciate that. You're angels, both of you,” he said, and for once he really meant it.
“Isn't he just adorable?” Aika-chan suggested to her friend.
“And charming, a real prince charming,” Fumiko-chan agreed, and both girls burst into laughter.
“Hello! I'm here you know,” Ryu protested.
They just looked at him, and after Fumiko-chan handed him the other bottle both of them started laughing again.
He couldn't help it. He loved the company of girls, even when they made fun of him, and he soon joined them in their merriment as if it was the natural thing to do. To him, he realized, it probably was.
Mood rising and the worst of his thirst slated he watched how Kuri dragged Urufu the last metres to a waiting table. She sat him down and went for something to drink.
I wonder how they keep it together, Ryu thought, but he had pleasant company, and Urufu was in good hands after all, so Ryu allowed himself to enjoy the atmosphere and continued joking with the girls. Rather unsurprisingly they were joined by two more, and then by a couple of the guys.
A good day for some innocent flirting, cooler up here than by the seaside and it promised to be a pleasant camping experience.