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Damn, why did he have to crash again? Christina fetched a couple of water bottles, and then she went after some tea for good measure.

A few tables away Ryu sat entertaining his court of fans, and the sound of stupid jokes dimmed and rose as the wind carried the voices on and off. If not for Ulf's apathy it would have been a welcome break before they started making food and prepare camp.

Late morning, closer to midday, the weather had all but cleared up, and not even the breeze managed to keep the temperature down to acceptable levels. The sun baked anyone stubborn enough to leave the shaded tables.

She saw Ko-chan and Yukio standing with water bottles of their own staring uncertainly between tables and decided to wave them to hers.

It's OK,” Christina said when Ko-chan fidgeted. “He's been like this since breakfast.” Since I made an arse of myself. “You're not disturbing, and I could use a friend right now. We both could,” she added and shot Yukio a glare.

It's my fault,” Ko-chan said defensively. “I kept him from Urufu, so please don't blame him Kuri-chan.”

Christina waved the self-accusation away. It wasn't like Ko-chan to go all on the defensive like this. “You just met, and I know what it's like to want to share every waking moment with someone. Trust me.” With these two she could afford to show how much she needed Ulf. They were the same. “Besides I was the one who turned my phone off when he needed me.”

There, it was out in the open. She had betrayed him. No-one else had. Ulf was her responsibility.

What are we going to do?” Yukio asked and pointed at his friend. He took the last steps to her table and sat down. Ko-chan followed soon after.

Christina poured some tea into her mug, and as an afterthought she rose, fetched two more and poured for her friends as well. “I don't know,” she admitted after she had sat down again. “I'm going to take a risk here, and I want you two to listen and to stop me if I go too far. OK?”

They nodded.

Ulf, Ulf can you hear me?”

I'm unwell, not dead,” he answered from his place on the bench. There was a weak glimmer of his grin showing. Not much, but still something of his old self.

Christina looked at her friends and began. “Ulf there's something that's been bugging me for a while now.” It felt uncomfortable speaking with him in Japanese, but she needed the other two to understand as well.

Uhum?”

I'd been at building the company, you know Chag, for some fifteen years, and we were expanding like mad. Something went down back home in Sweden when I was in the states.” Christina stared ahead of her. He had hinted at it early on during summer break.

Across the table Ulf just nodded and slumped back on the bench. It was as if he wasn't present. Hadn't been the last days but for the short time during breakfast when he felt a need to protect her.

Something hurt inside her like a thorn stuck in her throat, but she had to know. “Ulf, that was you, wasn't it? I got you involved in my life before we transited here, didn't I?”

Once more he nodded slowly. On the table, just by his right hand a mug of tea stood slowly cooling. He hadn't taken a single sip since they sat down. Christina watched the printed kanji on it. An ad for the resort they visited.

And Ulf kept his silence. At least he shook his head when she asked him questions she knew he should answer in the negative.

Your daughter. Someone went after you and she got shot and didn't survive?” Just asking the questions burned holes in her heart, but she had to do something to wake Ulf from his apathy. I love you so much. I can hurt for you if it helps. Please come back to me!

After he gave her the nod she had feared she would receive she slowly continued her one sided interrogation. “She didn't die right away, did she?”

Ulf shook his head, and Christina could hear Yukio and Ko-chan gasp. I need you here to stop me if I hurt him too much.

How long?”

When she didn't get a reaction she tried guessing.

A week?” A shake of his head. “A month?” Another shake. “A year?” A nod and a slow trickle of tears finding their way down by his nose.

One year! Despite the brutal August heat she felt something cold run down her spine. She took a year to die!

Yukio grabbed her arm and yanked hard, but Ko-chan calmed him down. After a silent negotiation they allowed her to continue.

The guy Nakagawa had you hunting down. He committed suicide, didn't he?”

Once again Ko-chan and Yukio gasped while Ulf nodded. They hadn't heard all of it then. She decided it was time to grab Ryu by his ears to teach him when to keep his mouth shut and when to trust his friends, but that would have to wait.

Ulf, did he use a gun?”

This time it was Ko-chan who pulled Christina back. Yukio gave her a furious stare instead. Too far, I went too far.

Ulf looked at her. His eyes were large and empty, so large, so very large. With a clumsy move he rose and staggered away. The mug with cold tea he hadn't drunk from fell to the ground and shattered. Christina could see the tea spill out on the stone like so many tears. When she rose to follow him both Yukio and Ko-chan pulled her back.

No more! It's enough!” Yukio growled.

Defeated Christina sat down again and watched how Ulf almost fell into the garbage depot before he threw up.

Students from other tables rose and rushed to his aid, but Yukio and Ko-chan held her back. Too far, I went too far. The thought echoed in her mind as she helplessly had to watch Ulf heaving when he tried to empty his stomach of what was no longer there.

Please!” she pleaded and tried to pull herself free. “I want to help him.” His daughter, he's reliving the death of his daughter!

In the background she heard engines running. Someone, most probably Noriko's mother, had arrived with tents, sleeping mats and things needed for dinner. Distantly in her mind Christina knew the car would have to make two or three more runs to deliver all they needed, and she wondered why such thoughts occupied her mind when all she wanted was to run to his side.

Yukio and Ko-chan finally released their grip on her arms, and she ran to the crowd standing around Ulf asking what was wrong.

He's sick,” she shouted. That had to be a new low-score for overstating the obvious, but somehow it worked and they made way for her. “Ulf, how are you?” And she realised she had just managed to surpass yet another low.

Ulf groaned and shakily rose to his feet. “I'm fine,” he murmured in Swedish, and Christina realised she had spoken Japanese all the time. It was the first time he had ever answered her in a different language than she had used.

He's somewhere else again. I made it all worse!

Maria, I'll bring her back. Somehow I'll bring her back.”

Maria? His wife! He's back in the other world. I can't reach him. “Ulf!”

There was no response at all.

She had to take a chance. “U-kun, please let me help you!”

Around them the students smiled or laughed at her overly familiar nick-name for him, and once again she noticed how she had spoken in Japanese.

Ina, please help me!”

Japanese, he's speaking Japanese. He's back! She held him tight to herself. “U-kun, my U-kun. Come back to me! I need you and I love you.” Frantic thoughts passed her mind, and Christina knew she had encountered a rival she couldn't beat. Maria. She carried the child you lost. How could I possibly compete with that?


***


What are those idiots doing now?

Noriko stood and looked at where her mother had parked the car.

Yukio and Kyoko had just stopped grappling with Kuri, and she ran like mad for where Urufu was puking his guts out. That left her brother, and that moron just kept on spewing out one stupid joke after another to keep his harem by his side during the bedlam.

With a sigh Noriko started walking to the car. She waved a few members to her side, the few who hadn't been caught up in the insanity that played out around them.

High school, where you prepare for being an adult. Yeah, right! “Hiroyuki-kun, we need those tents on the ground. Mom's gonna drive back and fetch the rest.”

Somewhere inside her she felt she was being unjust, but Urufu had taken his self-loathing a step too far. There was a difference between showing weakness and indulging in self-pity. It didn't matter that she was crushing hard on him. That wasn't the same as being blind. I need to take control of this madness.

From behind her she heard Ryu finally coming to help, and he had his girls in tow. Together they carried tents and charcoal, and in the time needed for that task the situation around Urufu finally calmed down.

Club members started acting as parts of a whole and she saw some of them erecting the tents while others began preparing food. Within a surprisingly short time Noriko had her troopers offloading another batch of tents when her mother returned.

Kuri had Urufu seated in the car, and the two of them rode down to the hotel with her mother when she returned for the last batch.

Ryu, get over here!”

The idiot brother of hers obeyed without asking and left his stash of vegetables to Jirou-sempai where he stood beside Sango-chan.

Ryu, knife!”

He stopped in his tracks and gave her an uncertain look.

Leave the knife you moron!” Swap some of your charm for a brain!

The message finally hit home and Ryu returned the kitchen knife he hadn't left with the vegetables. Sango-chan gave Noriko an ironic salute when her boyfriend received the sharp tool needed to start chopping the vegetables Ryu abandoned him with.

Sometimes I wonder if we really have the same parents. Noriko shook her head and waited for Ryu to get to her side.

More tents went up and watching how the club members attacked the work at hand without asking, Noriko felt confident enough to drag Ryu out of earshot. What she had to tell him couldn't be part of the club.

Bro,” she said when she felt certain no-one could hear them. “Kuri and Urufu went back down again. He's in a pretty bad shape and I don't think we'll see more of him today.”

Alone together Ryu showed her a very different side than the role he played out with the other girls around him. “I saw, but there's nothing we can do about it.”

What about the night out?” Noriko asked.

What about it?”

Noriko looked for somewhere to sit but found nothing but the ground. It had to do and she sat down cross-legged. “Cooking food takes another half an hour. One at most.”

Ryu nodded understanding.

Kuri and Urufu had planned some games to pad out the hours before we pretend to go to sleep.”

That brought a laugh to her brother. “You really should try to voice the illusion, sis. You're cleverer than I am by far, but you're not very smart.”

Huh?” Where did that come from?

Sis, at least try to act as if you didn't know everything from the start. When we go to sleep we go to sleep.” He joined her on the ground before he continued. “That's it. If some members prefer chatting or going out with their flash-lights you don't have to sound like you knew it would happen, OK?”

Noriko felt that she had an inkling where he was going, and it wasn't somewhere she was too keen to follow. Am I too rigid? Does it make me boring?

So, what did you want to talk to me about?” Ryu said.

The question brought her back from her thoughts. “We have to make it look like Kuri's and Urufu's absence isn't that big a deal. I just don't have a clue how.”

She got a smirk from her brother. “I'll handle that. I can keep them occupied for a few hours, but that wasn't really why you brought me here, was it?”

Bro, when did you start growing up? Maybe he wasn't the simpleton who could never see behind human duplicity any longer. “Lucky guess?” she tried.

He shook his head. “Sis, I've always been smarter than you. Not as clever, but smarter. Do you really think I'm this popular by accident?”

Noriko took a long stare at her brother. His unruly hairdo wasn't an accident. Their favourite hairdresser was anything but cheap, and even Kuri had once made a comment about professional taste. But did he really think things through?

I learned during middle school. Some of my pranks made people angry, and others just made me more friends.” He grinned at her. A friendly grin. A warm one, but none she could understand why it would make girls flock to him like moths to the light. “That's my friendly grin. I have another for the girls,” he said and shattered any remaining illusions she had harboured.

Noriko shuddered. I've known you my entire life, and you managed to keep this kind of secret. Gods!

Sis, the real reason, now. Your idiot bro has a harem to care for, isn't that how you see me?”

You're being unfair,” she protested. Then she felt herself grinning wildly as years of need to take care of her brother ran off her in an instant. “Ryu, we need to slip information about our new part time jobs to them. Not too much in one go, and it's important it sounds it was all dad's idea from the beginning.”

He nodded. “I thought as much. I was so angry yesterday, but it made sense. I'll play the clown then. It's really a part of me by now. Not all show, you know,” he added and laughed loud enough to make a few faces turn in their direction. Then he was all serious again. “You take care of the real business until Urufu is himself again, and use Kuri. She's not just beautiful. She's got the experience as well.”

OK, not really grown up yet. Did you find out that just now? Kuri's the real pro of all of us. She's way ahead of Urufu. “I will,” Noriko promised. She felt relieved her brother hadn't turned into a totally different person. There were still blind spots to his observations.
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