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Despite what he had said earlier Ulf didn't like watching Shoji-kun flirting like mad with Christina. Especially as she didn't look like she minded in the least.

To his left some of the modelling crew set up grills, and the rest rigged for some kind of late evening shoot. Or it would have been a late evening shoot in Sweden. The sun set earlier here, and dusk was a less than half an hour long joke when daylight was replaced by darkness in what felt like moments rather than the endless hours he was used to from his earlier life.

Around him club members milled around in astonished apprehension.

They want us as models?”

We're going to be in a magazine?”

He's so cute!”

I saw him look at me!”

Kids! Ulf thought. Then he smiled and mellowed a bit. Who am I to talk? I'd been shitting myself by now if I was sixteen. He looked at the grills and frowned. Morons, that's no way to rig a barbecue. Ulf walked over to the men loading the grills full with charcoal.

Excuse me, do you mind if I handle the barbecue?”

What about it, kid?” The man, in his mid-forties if Ulf guessed right, looked back at him. “You think you know better?”

I don't think, I know. “I'm from Sweden. I've spent most summers doing garden barbecues the last...” careful now “… since I grew up.” Ulf fought an impulse to cover his mouth with his hand.

Sweden you say. She's your girlfriend?”

She?”

Yeah, our princess of Scandinavia.” the man said and pointed at where Christina sat beleaguered by Shoji-kun and most of the other models.

Ulf blushed. He had said he wouldn't interfere, and he did feel confident in her love for him, but right now he only saw his beautiful Christina surrounded by men so glaringly good looking he knew he could never compete. “Yeah, he answered,” more self-conscious than he was used to. “But she's not called that any...” Bloody hell!

But she was, wasn't she?”

What's going on here? “She told you?” Ulf blurted out. He stared at the stubbled face studying him.

No, I reminded her,” the man answered. “I arrived here 86.”

How many of us are there here? Ulf took another long stare at the man. “You know her? Knew her?”

He received a grin in response. “Jealous boyfriend. Priceless! You look like a teen for sure right now.” And the grin subsided back into a smile again. “No, but I knew of her. She made her breakthrough in Japan around that time.”

Lacking a proper response Ulf started shifting the coals in the grill. He stared at his hands and looked around. “Jirou, got a towel?”

Sure, Urufu-kun.” Jirou left Sango who glared at Ulf.

Sorry to take him from you. You make a good pair. “My apologies. I didn't mean to interrupt, but I really need that towel now.” Ulf bowed to her, and the glare turned somewhat less hostile.

Ulf shifted his stare to the man by his side, and then back to where Jirou came with the towel he had asked for. “Mind if I leave some stuff with the two of you?” Ulf asked. “It's kind of expensive, so I'd be happy if the two of you could watch over it.” He stole a glance at Sango who suddenly looked back at him with much more approval in her face.

Yes,” Jirou looked over to where his girlfriend sat and received a fervent nod of approval, “sure we can do that.”

Superb,” Ulf said and started stripping. Quite a few of the members laughed at his act, and the commotion was enough to grab the attention of the models around Christina. That was a welcome bonus. He quickly got out of his jacket and shirt and left the bundle together with his tie in the hands of a befuddled Jirou. “I've got some stuff in my pockets as well,” Ulf said and pointed at the jacket.

Aww, do the rest as well!” Hitomi shouted from where she sat with her new-found fan club. One that had expanded rapidly when he and Christina became an item. “Hot damn! Look at that body!”

That was enough to make him blush. In this life he was more aware of what his strenuous training made him look like. In his first he hadn't understood until he was well into university.

Christina shot him a glance filled with both approving... hunger? … and consternation that another girl had looked that way at him. He waved back at her, and this time her eyes only held disapproval. Damn, I still suck at the boys and girls game. Ulf shrugged an apology to her and quickly wrapped the towel around his torso. There was no point in destroying an expensive suit with sparks from the grill.

He grabbed an iron and moved away the coal from the sides of the grill. The crew had filled it evenly making it impossible to regulate the temperature of anything being grilled.

Lamp-oil, or whatever you call it.”

Here.”

Ulf received a bottle together with the response. He dosed the coal and started working on the next grill. “So you're saying you arrived here thirty years ago?”

Hmm, yeah.” The man stroked his unshaven chin. It looked like a habit of his.

Cradling his bag Ulf poured charcoal down the middle of the grill and placed it in order with his iron. “Here to spy on us, or what?” It was strange that the man hadn't as much as been mentioned during the first conversation with Christina's grandfather.

I'm here on a photo job. Recognized that girl of yours.”

So what?” Ulf still wasn't sure where the conversation was heading.

She wants me to move to her team permanently. I want to know if she's good enough, and she told me to ask you.”

Ulf turned and stared at the man. “Are you a moron? It's Christina Agerman we're talking about here.”

Hello,” the photographer waved a hand, “arrived here 1986. She had just made a breakthrough in Tokyo.”

Scratching his head Ulf looked back. He glanced at where Christina sat surrounded by models. “You know, I can't say. I don't know shit about fashion. She was a super model to the mid-nineties or so. Announced that she was done and started Chag.” She's not merely my little girl. But I love you just the same.

Chag?”

Sorry.” Of course, if he arrived here 86 he wouldn't know. “Second largest retailer in fashion globally.”

The photographer stared at him. “You're joking!”

Ulf looked at her. He felt heat streaming through his body and how his chest constricted. I love you more than life itself, but I can never tell you. “She's my girl now, but she was known as the billion dollar empress. She's anything but a joke.” Ulf forced his eyes from the woman he loved and stared at the man beside him. “If she wants you on her team it means you're international first class. Take that as a compliment!”

A few more moments and Ulf was done with distributing the charcoal. He hung the iron on a peg and followed the photographer's look. Christina still sat surrounded by admirers, and behind her Ulf saw Noriko arrive on the beach with an admirer of her own.


***


You're a cute one.”

Noriko wheeled and looked up into a chest. She had to bend backwards to see the face. One of the models.

Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. I apologise.”

No problem. Shouldn't you be over there harassing Kuri like the rest of you?” Noriko pointed at where Kuri sat in the middle of a large group made up of most of the models and quite a few of her old fan-club. Urufu stood a bit away fiddling with the barbecue of all things when his girlfriend was being hit on.

Takado Nao,” he said and reached out with his hand. Noriko shook it. “And no, I don't plan to harass her. She already has a boyfriend anyway, doesn't she?”

Yeah,” Noriko said and nodded in Urufu's direction. “That one.”

Him?”

What about it?”

Takado-san guffawed and turned away from her. “Sorry, but it's just hilarious. I heard Shoji-sempai got his arse handed to him by a guy in a business suit.

Noriko looked at the gaudy towel Urufu had draped himself in and wondered how the model possibly could have confused it for a suit.

My girl, look at his trousers and shoes.”

I'm not you girl. Noriko did as she was told anyway. Oh, that's pretty much what dad wears. Where's the rest? “I see, and what made you notice?”

Model here. I work with clothes,” Takado-san answered. He looked down at her, and she could see how he made an effort not to look condescending.

Wakayama Noriko.” It was her turn to reach out a hand. He took it.

Wakayama-san is it?”

Noriko nodded.

Do you mind if I chat with you for a while?”

She shrugged. “I don't mind, but shouldn't you hit on one of the beautiful ones over there?”

That earned her a laugh. “No thanks. I think I'll hit on the beautiful one right here instead.”

Huh?” Noriko turned to see who had come up behind them before she grasped the meaning of his words. “No way. Quit the bull. Cute, possibly, but beautiful is out of the question.”

Takado-san grinned. “Don't you think that's for me to decide? And just so we're clear here. I am hitting on you.”

That made her blush a little. He was stupidly good looking after all. “I like someone else,” she murmured.

Ageruman-san's boy?”

Her heart almost stopped. Am I that transparent? Thank all gods Urufu already knows! “How?”

I only work part time as a model. I'm a second year at Irishima High. Some of you guys at Himekaizen are pretty famous there.”

She looked at him. “Why aren't you an idiot like the rest?”

That's harsh,” Takado-san said. “Actually it's only Shoji-sempai who's an arse. The rest of the gang is over there to make sure he doesn't do something really stupid. Besides, why should you complain if she cheated on him?” he added and nodded at Urufu.

Noriko looked at Urufu who was momentarily lit up by flames as he put fire to the grills. Why should I? She glanced at the tall boy by her side. Why me? He should be making passes at Hitomi-chan instead. But it was a little flattering.

She tugged at his sleeve and pulled him with her. Noriko felt the sand give way under her feet as she walked towards the group with Kuri in the centre. “Irishima High, you said?” There was something she had promised herself, even though she knew Ryu would frown at her decision. She held a small package tight to her chest and continued walking.

Behind her she heard him following. “Yeah, but I'm transferring to Himekaizen this autumn, so I hope to see more of you later.”

Around them heads turned as they passed scattered groups with club members, and she suddenly felt very self-aware. There were even a few cat-calls flying through the air, but they were good natured as if they were wishing her good luck.

I'm not nice and friendly like Kyoko. I'm not beautiful like Kuri, so why are they treating me so kindly? “Transferring? But Irishima is so close. Why?”

To be closer to you,” Takado-san said, and she could almost hear him grinning.

Cut the crap,” she responded, but she couldn't help smiling. A few months ago I would have been overjoyed. “Besides you already know I like Urufu.”

Dad's company went belly up some while ago. Himekaizen is cheaper, but it still has a pretty good liberal arts section.”

Ah, yes he said he was a second year. Has to pick between science and liberal arts. “You should join the club then,” Noriko said. And why did I suggest that? The answer was different than what she had thought. “I think Kuri could help you with your modelling if that's what you want to do.”

He coughed with amusement. “Ah, yes, she's your president, isn't she?” Then she felt a hand on her shoulder. “But I'm not going to hit on her anyway. Told you I'm interested in someone else.”

Noriko shook off the hand. They were almost there, but Kuri had already seen and flashed her a knowing smile and an approving nod. You're wrong Kuri. I still have my eyes on your boyfriend.

Kuri, we bought something for Urufu, and I think you should be included.”

For Ulf?” Kuri asked. It didn't matter how long they had known each other. Noriko couldn't get used to the strange pronunciation of Urufu's name, even though it must be the correct one.

Yes. We found out his birthday was the fifteenth, but late is better than never I guess.”

Birthday?” Kuri looked as if she had been struck. “Gods! I forgot!” She leaped to her feet with her hands on her mouth. “How could I? He told me!”

Seeing the look of panic that rose to Kuri's eyes Noriko felt relieved she hadn't chosen the petty solution and handed over the gift from her and her brother where Kuri could see and feel left out. “Kuri. Kuri! Do you want to be party to his birthday gift?”

Please!”

Come with me then,” Noriko said and turned. But she still wanted to be at least a little bit petty. “I'll give it to him, OK?”

She couldn't hear if the sigh was one of defeat or gratitude, but Kuri followed her to the grills.

Urufu, do you have a moment?”

He looked up from his grills and shot her a questioning glance. “Yes, why?”

We had planned a little something, but with all the chaos we forgot, I'm afraid.” No, I'm not going to be that petty. “Earlier we asked Kuri, and we agreed that you might like this,” Noriko lied. She could feel Kuri hold her arm and tighten the grip. This time there was no question that the gesture was one of gratitude.

Huh?”

Your birthday, moron-sama!”

My… oh I forgot myself. Sorry Kuri, my bad.”

From Kuri, Ryu and me, happy birthday,” Noriko said and held out the gift with both hands.

Thank you, but where is Ryu?”

He's here,” Ryu's voice said from the other side of the grills. He scratched his nose and frowned at her.

Urufu stared at the wrapped box he held in his hand. “Something I can open here?”

Please do,” Ryu said.

Kuri gasped when Urufu had torn off the paper and held up a box. It had been their father's idea. Something apparently only adults could understand. “Guys, I can't accept… this is too much...”

Noriko didn't understand what the big deal was. It was only an old fashioned pen named after some mountain in Europe. But apparently Kuri knew, and if Ryu's gaping jaw was something to go after, so did her brother.

Urufu, you bought her a bloody bike, so don't you dare to complain!” Her brother came to the rescue.

You really did grow up, didn't you bro? Is it that expensive?

The kid gets a Mont Blanc. Are you for real?” a stubbled man beside Urufu laughed. “You win, kiddo. If you can afford that kind of birthday gift I'll join your team.”

Your team? What just happened? How expensive is that toy really?

I'll treasure it, and I promise to use it. Thank you!” Urufu turned and hugged a stunned Ryu, then to Noriko's great discomfort he hugged her as well. He smelled of charcoal and some kind of men's perfume. The embarrassing hug finished all too soon and she saw him pull Kuri into a tight embrace. “Thank you, Christina. You know me better than I thought.”

Over his shoulder Noriko met Kuri's eyes. They were filled with guilt, but they were smiling still, and filled with tears. Behind his back Kuri made a thumbs up gesture and shortly after her face appeared beside Urufu's arm. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Kuri mouthed silently, and the tears ran freely down her face.

Kuri, you're a great friend. I'm happy I decided to bring you in on this, Noriko thought. She only felt relief that she hadn't taken the easy way out. On the other side of the grills Ryu stood with disapproval clear in his face, but Noriko didn't care.
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