Monday, 5 March 2018
Noriko grimaced and stuffed another piece of clothing into her day pack.
A few days earlier she watched Urufu and Kuri show where their hearts truly belonged despite breaking up half a year earlier. The following morning Urufu dragged the entire club into a repetition of last year’s camping session, murderous climb up the hill side included, and Kuri even managed to get a break from her photo sessions to attend.
Noriko didn’t know what do do with her memories. Kuri spent most of the camp together with Ryu just like a good girlfriend should, and Urufu made good use of the senior club members to make the camp go much smoother than last year, which also meant he spent almost no time at all alone with Kuri.
After camp two days being worked to the bones took over her life. It involved getting a bunch of middle managers and senior systems developers on track working together as a team. As far as Noriko could see status and ranking were more important to adults than actually getting the job done. She had spent most of the first day using Kyoko’s deliberate clumsiness and Hitomi’s beauty to coerce their customers to at least start talking with each other.
Urufu grinned like a moron throughout it all.
They got through in the end and now it was time for Noriko’s reward, one she had duped Urufu into promising her.
As far as her idiot brother knew the four of them, Urufu, Yukio, Kyoko and herself were headed for Ise shrine for a day trip. The first part was true. Yukio and Kyoko, however, had already booked a room with the help of their parents to get a precious night alone and away from the rest of them.
Noriko knew how far she could push Urufu, and booking one for them as well was by a wide margin too far.
So they’d travel to Ise, and they’d even enter the compound as a group, but after that Kyoko had promised to make Yukio and herself scarce as quickly as possible. So Noriko would at least have a full day with Urufu all to herself.
I don’t know how many more chances I’ll get, she thought and fastened the clasps before she slung the pack across her shoulder.
She made her way down the stairs, the same stairs as last year, and in the reception she met Kuri on her way out.
Kuri gave her a wry smile. “With Ko-chan?”
There was little point in lying. “Yukio and Urufu as well,” Noriko said.
“Give Yukio and Ko-chan my best.”
You could at least pretend you didn’t take up mind reading as a hobby. “Sure. Any message for Urufu?” she asked.
“I don’t think that’ll be needed. I hope the two of you have a pleasant day.”
“Four of us,” Noriko tried.
“That the four of you have a pleasant morning. My bad,” Kuri said and didn’t look apologetic at all. Her stressing the ‘morning’ part wasn’t lost on Noriko.
“Ryu’s joining you in the water?” Noriko asked instead and made a point of not specifying exactly which water she meant.
Kuri shot her an angelic smile back. “I wish. He’s got the looks, but he’s a tad short for this kind of work.”
Noriko almost, but just almost, suggested she meant after work. “I’m certain he’ll find an opportunity,” she said instead. “He always does.” The last part was grossly unfair of her. Her brother had never taken advantage of a girl as far as she knew, but she was more than a little irritated with the way he got in the way of her life these days.
“I’ll make sure he does,” Kuri said. “Ah, that’s Ulf behind you. Please do have a pleasant day together.”
Noriko watched Kuri turn with her smile turned into a smidgeon of a smirk. They both knew, but Kuri had lost every right she ever had to prevent Noriko from hauling her catch in.
You and Ryu make a good pair. I’ll settle for the better man instead. That was if she could reel him in in the first place, but Noriko trusted her stubbornness. In the end Urufu was just a man, and Noriko knew her looks well enough not to be ashamed of them. Cute rather than beautiful, but combined with exactly the kind of brain Urufu enjoyed battling with. But for the difference in age she’d have won this battle a long time ago.
It didn’t matter. What she wanted she got. Maybe not for free, and maybe not easily, but she had yet to fail even once. She felt a moment of relief knowing she pushed her own wants very, very seldom like this. Few and far between. Those were the rules she set up for herself lest she’d become someone she didn’t like very much.
“Morning Ina. Working?”
Kuri had almost made it to the door when Urufu’s voice forced her to turn around. “Yes. Swimsuits.”
Something in her voice told Noriko she’d just suggested Urufu stay behind and watch.
“Show me the shots tomorrow,” he said.
Kuri’s face clouded over. Then she waved at them with the back of her hand as she walked outdoors.
“So, where’s the other two?” Urufu said.
That was close. “Breakfast. Follow me you oaf!” Noriko said. Silently she smiled just because of his oafishness. How he had failed to read Kuri’s suggestion was beyond her, but he had. There was nothing subtle about the man Noriko had fallen in love with.
Wednesday, 7 February 2018
The walkway still curved behind him when sand gave way to gravel, and then to the concrete stars used in Japan to reinforce the beach line. Walking barefoot on the uneven surface hurt his bare feet less than he remembered.
Another benefit of 20 kilos less weight, Ulf thought.
He drank the sound of water crashing ashore and enjoyed the feeling of solitude as the sound of shouting voices grew fainter behind him. Above the sea scattered clouds bathed in crimson red. A momentary glory, he knew. Not the luxurious hours of ever fading dusk from home. He felt a pang of homesickness from the memories, but shook it off. There was a different beauty to the sharp transition between day and night here, neither less beautiful, nor more, just different.
The sound of waves breaking against the cliffs was followed by a spray of salty water, and when he wiped his face dry he heard another sound.
“Ulf!” That was Swedish, not Japanese.
He glanced up to where she was perched. “Ina! So you went here as well?” Ulf climbed up an intricate puzzle of interlocking concrete figures and took a seat beside her. “Too noisy?” he asked and pointed towards the beach.
Christina just nodded in affirmation.
He turned his head and looked at her profile. Beautiful, always stunningly beautiful. “You want to be left alone?” he asked and made as if to rise.
“No. No, it's fine.”
They shared a moment of silence. Not an awkward one. Just some time of peace.
“You remember...” Ulf stared at her and broke into embarrassed laughter. They had spoken the same question. “You first,” he offered, still smiling.
“Spending days at the beach.” Christina's voice faded into silence as an invitation for him to fill the emptiness.
“A driftwood fire in the evening,” he answered, the last word a mere whisper. He glanced at her just in time to see her lips start moving.
“Uhum, and sausage barbecue at sunset...”
“Like we were still kids...”
“… when it got cooler after sunset...”
“...getting/offering a jacket from/to the one you're interested in...” Again they had spoken together.
“Those summer romances were so embarrassing.”
“But so cute. And anyway, they were more part of middle school than senior high.”
“So you're saying our friends are kids?”
“In more ways than one, yes.” Christina flashed him a melancholy smile. “They really are adorable.”
“Uhum, yeah they are.”
“I miss home.”
Ulf saw her sag, reached out with his arm and drew her closer. For a little while, while she wept silently, he just listened to her muted sobs and embraced her shaking body.
Memories shared. Memories lost. They had this much left. More than friends, less than lovers.
Then, as he heard voices coming closer, he wiped her tears with the back of his hand. Ulf turned his head closer to her and watched her face. A grieving beauty. You're a world away right now. He bent his head to her ear, close enough to kiss her had he wanted, and whispered: “We're getting company. You'd better laugh at a happy memory soon.”
The closing voices turned into faces, and Ulf rose when he saw Ryu's hurt expression. The unspoken accusation couldn't be turned away by pretending nothing had happened.
“She's not...” Ulf swore and switched to Japanese. “Christina's feeling homesick,” he said and rose to his feet. He jumped down the cliff and waved to Ryu. Ryu can't do anything about her being homesick. He can feel jealous, but even he will understand this is a comfort that's mine alone to give. Ulf walked closer to the sea and knelt over a few flat stones.
“Still, just the two of you over here.” Ryu's voice held a sharp edge to it, and Ulf could hear Noriko and Kyoko murmuring in agreement.
Ulf threw a look behind Ryu. Both twins showed pain in their eyes. Damn, I hate seeing Noriko hurt. Ulf needed to change the topic quickly. He flicked one of the stones he had picked up across the water. It glanced across a wave top, bounced off it and dove into the water. He threw another stone, with more power and a flatter arc. Damn, when did I start paying this much attention to her feelings. It hit a wave and vanished. He filled his head with memories from a childhood lake shore and threw the third stone. Damn, she's just a kid. I shouldn't care like this! The third stone touched the surface perfectly and bounced four times before it vanished behind a wave crest.
“… at least answer what I'm saying...” Ryu's voice stopped all of a sudden. “How did you make the stones bounce on water?”
Ulf grinned. The topic had shifted. They live on an island, but they've not grown up with open water. Funny people. But for now that oddity saved him. Still, Noriko. He hadn't expected to feel her pain so clearly.
“You know,” he said, “we've long since broken up. I hope you'll let us share the friendship we have left.” He looked at Ryu, the young brat who had grown into a man so quickly. This was another stepping stone for him to adulthood.
“I know,” Ryu said and failed to bounce a stone of his own on the surface.
Ulf helped him adjust the angle a little.
“It's just that it hurts seeing you so close.”
“And I won't take that away from you two, or I'll lose her.”
Yea, he's definitely growing into manhood.
Behind him Ulf noticed Kyoko glaring at him. The look she gave him didn't need the company of words to tell him what she thought: “Male bonding fuelled by testosterone. Idiots!”
“Ko-chan, climb up to me, please!” Christina's words finally broke the uneasy spell.
Almost. Noriko sought Yukio's company in a way that Kyoko forgave, but still told Ulf how angry she was. Noriko, you shouldn't fall for me. Ryu doesn't want it. And you really are sixteen, both body and soul.
But so was Ryu. So was Ryu. That excuse grew less valid for every week that passed by.
Sunday, 4 February 2018
Christina leaned back in her seat and sighed. In an earlier life she’d been giddy with apprehension and not a little self serving when she flew in a private jet for the first time. Now it was only cramped, bumpy and with just employers turned prison guards as her company.
While she forced a little leeway and occasionally escaped by means of the help she received from her primary body guard, usually she had turned into one of Vogue’s most valuable assets. Assets weren’t supposed to have a mind of their own.
Now they were en route to the resort where she spent last year’s summer break. If Vogue got to decide they’d been in Hokkaido now, but when it came to business decisions she held a lot of clout. Someone must have whispered in an ear or two, and as long as she delivered results she had to say about fashion marketing held.
The plane banked and Christina forced down her momentary discomfort. A life spent with aeroplanes and helicopters as her primary way of travelling had done nothing to dispel her irrational fear of flying. Fear of heights she had none of, but flying, well it was irrational and she got used to handling the churning feeling in her stomach.
She missed the rattling experience from last year spent together with friends and the man she had just fallen in love with. She missed Ulf even though she felt she was rapidly coming to appreciate Ryu despite their difference in age. She missed being just herself, but there was nothing she could do about it now. This was a life she chose for herself – the only life she knew how to live.
I’m an idiot. I got a shot at a transition and restart, and what am I doing? Reliving my last life. I’m an idiot.
Briefly she wondered if Ulf and Tomas would make the same mistake. Tomas she didn’t know well enough, but she had a feeling he hid secrets from his past that he was hell bent on never reliving. Ulf however, Ulf spent his time manipulating and coercing the people around him. He bent them, not to his own, but rather to their own will, and to do so he needed a platform. Thus far in this life the club was it, and Christina very much doubted he had many reasons founding a middling size IT company this time around.
“Miss, we’re landing soon. Please strap yourself in.”
Christina looked up and smiled. Then she did as asked of her. The last part of her temporary ordeal was upon her and after that she’d go by limousine or bus. A bus she hoped. A bus at least felt a little more like what the others were riding.
Leaving the plane she walked into a wall of gruelling heat. It forced the breath from her and almost knocked her to the ground.
Crap! We’ll do swimsuits and yukatas first. No way anyone can wear the autumn collection well in this. Hokkaido might have been the better choice after all, but she’d be damned if she’d spend her break without sharing time with those closest to her.
We’ll do shots in the water this time. There would be a price to pay in time, but it couldn’t be helped. The crew needed the relative cool or they’d fall victim to heatstroke or dehydration.
Christina looked at the line of mountains, a ragged line of green slightly out of focus as if there was a photographer in her head who was sloppy with the lens. If the turned the other way she’d watch how the sea was also a little fogged over. Never the crisp clearness in the air she once grew up with. Which Ulf grew up with as well. But in the end she’d never be able to explain it to a Japanese who never left the islands. This was as clear a summer’s day as there ever was to be here.
She smiled. She had worked here in her previous life as well. Things like these had to be taken into account for a shoot. For wearing your clothes as well. Almost, but only almost the same colours as back home. And the same went for make-up as well. Only an amateur believed it was merely a matter of skin tone. Her own make-up was different here than it would have been in Sweden. Well, if she wore any at all over there.
Another smile of hers brought her to her ride south. A bus, just as she hoped.
She climbed onboard and enjoyed the relative space, but most of all she enjoyed a milder air conditioning than was possible to attain in a cramped car.
The ride she spent relaxing and watching the landscape passing by. Voices from the rest of the crew lulled her to sleep, and when they finally arrived at the resort she was the last to leave the bus.
She entered the reception and pouted when she realised she’d been assigned a room of her own rather than sharing one with her friends in the club. Most of all she missed the opportunity for a sleepover with Ko-chan and Noriko. Chatting about everything and nothing until the small hours felt like a distant memory.
I enjoyed playing at being a child again. She shook the depressing thought away. In a sense I’m still a child. Just one that lays golden eggs. And she knew that was true. Her mind was still volatile in a way she understood it hadn’t been just before she arrived in Japan. The truly older version of herself would either have told the people from Vogue to go to hell or hammered down on any want to pout in the first place.
Work was work, or at least it had once been. The old her would never have pouted. She didn’t recall feeling sorry for herself since she got over being cheated on.
But I like feeling like a teenager. I’m more honest this way. Or was she? She brought that question to her room and played with it until it was time for dinner.
Tuesday, 30 January 2018
They were friends made, friends from far, but they were just that, friends from far. As finals closed in on them there was less and less time to meet with the high school graduates from Sweden, and when one day they declared that they’d go touring Japan, Yukio realised it was probably the last time they saw each others for some time.
In all honesty he didn’t care all that much. Irishima High had a good reputation for a reason. Finals would be harsher than anything he had ever experienced before.
And then two weeks of frantic studying and exams kept him from meeting anyone at all. Almost anyone. While the armed body guards silently vanished after he and Kyoko were expelled from Himekaizen they still shared whatever time they could scrounge up. Walking to and from school, and twice studying together.
After that summer’s break hit them with an eerie lack of tasks. Obon came and went in a murderous heat wave and suddenly they were halfway through August.
Having spent part of Obon finishing his home work together with Kyoko Yukio found himself at a loss when two weeks with absolutely nothing scheduled loomed ahead of him. He could enjoy them with Kyoko, but by now Yukio was so used to having his entire life planned that he didn’t know what to do.
That lasted for an entire day.
“Same place as last year,” he heard himself mumbling into the phone. It was an old style land line at his father’s home, and years of using a smart phone made the oblong handset feel strange in his hand.
He listened to Kyoko’s reply, and a few hours later he found himself at the central station. Kyoko already stood there waiting for him.
“A little more comfortable than last year,” she said.
Yukio nodded. Last year they saved on train fares, but this time they’d take the Shinkansen to Nagoya and switch to a regional train there.
From air conditioned station maze to sizzling heat on the platform it only took a few minutes. They waited, dripping sweat, for another few and after that Yukio shivered as he sat down in his seat. Air conditioning on the Shinkansen was taken to the extreme.
The train ride south was a much faster experience than the sleepily rumbling memory he had from last year, and he didn’t spend much time watching the scenery flashing by. Kyoko curled up by his side, murmuring lullabies as she tried to snatch a little sleep.
They got a short nap, but an hour and a half ride to a different city really wasn’t enough. As a teenager Yukio was much too excited about going somewhere, and he spent more time wondering what came next than sleeping.
Nagoya, well Nagoya was a baking oven. He’d never experienced heat like this in Tokyo, and both he and girlfriend bathed in sweat by the time they made it to the next platform. Spending an hour waiting there turned out impossible and they fled back inside the station area.
Drenched in sweat Yukio led Kyoko to a café and ordered iced coffee for himself and ice tea for Kyoko.
“Better?” he asked after Kyoko had gulped down half her drink in one, long chunk, which he spent in fascination watching her throat move.
She didn’t answer but nodded in the direction of his glass.
Yukio smiled but obeyed. When he put his empty glass down on the table he met a mischievous smile.
“Yours is sexier,” she said.
“You’ve got an Adam’s apple to stare at.”
Yukio growled but admitted defeat. Then he smiled at Kyoko. He felt safe with her. The feelings they shared were no longer as chaotic as last summer, but as far as he was concerned this was far better.
“Love you,” he said instead.
In response a hand slid over the table and took his. Fingers he’d recognise in the dark caressed his.
“Love you too. Always.”
They spent as much time as they dared talking softly. Fingers met fingers, and at one time Yukio stretched out a hand to move a few strands of hair that had fallen over Kyoko’s eyes. An excuse to touch her. An excuse her eyes told him she gladly accepted.
Then they were off to the platform and the murderous heat, and after that sharing seats on a slow train rolling south.
Just like last year they’d be working with Urufu, but this time they and, more importantly, he knew what was expected.
Just like last year the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club was invited, even though its members from Himekaizen Academy only numbered two. Irishima High made out the bulk of the members, event hough Yukio heard rumours the expulsions were being rescinded.
The only immediate practical consequence for him was that they could share the taxi fare on four, which really didn’t matter at all since Urufu was bound to pay it in the end anyway.
He nestled closer to Kyoko. In a way he was grateful for the presence of more Irishima High students, even though it meant he and Kyoko would sleep in different rooms. They had shared nights and bed more than once, but if they travelled as a lone couple to an onsen it would be so glaringly obvious that they did.
Yukio fell asleep wondering what Urufu had in store for them.
Thursday, 21 December 2017
There was a night here. It wasn’t long, and it really wasn’t dark enough to merit being called night.
Urufu said it was a filthy habit, but Yukio had seen him smoke occasionally. Apparently he was a heavy smoker reformed.
Reformed. Only you would use an expression like that, Urufu. Transitioning into this world and a body that had yet to taste a cigarette.
In a few days Yukio would do the same. He and Kyoko.
What will it feel like? He drew a lungful and watched the tip of his cigarette grow brighter. With a flick of his finger he twisted ash from it and stared into the night.
A little closer to the shore someone spoke silently. Yukio strained his ears to hear better. Eavesdropping didn’t make him feel ashamed at all. Not any longer.
A few days more. After that almost everyone he knew would be gone. Or rather he would be gone.
Those aren’t words. Not even in Swedish. Then he understood what he was listening to. Someone sobbing.
One of the kids drinking too much? Yukio killed his cigarette and began walking down the hill to find out.
Halfway to the sobbing sounds he stopped in his tracks. It was Kuri. Well, he guessed she counted as one of the kids drinking too much. So you’re remembering what you did? What you both did. Because that was the problem. Both of them. Urufu and Kuri. So much effort spent scarring each other in an attempt to protect the other. And so many others hurt because of that.
Urufu might be his best friend still, but Yukio refused to place all blame on Kuri. For being so brilliant both had behaved like first class idiots.
Why, you two? Why make it so difficult? The question brought his thoughts to Kyoko. What’s so hard about falling in love with a wonderful girl and then stick to her no matter what?
Tuesday, 19 December 2017
Christina tugged her coat tighter around her. Last week in June and an already miserable attempt at summer surprised her by reaching an atrocious low.
The invitation to spend a weekend at a resort had been a welcome break in days filled with work, and as Chag’s Swedish main office ground to a halt after the Midsummer’s celebrations, just like most business in Sweden did, she decided she could afford herself a little luxury.
Afford referring to time. She had all the money she could ever wish for and none of the pleasures she once dreamt came with it.
I’m growing old.
Their last collection was a failure. She knew that. Only murderous marketing kept the numbers up, but she would have refused to wear most of it as a teenager herself.
And yet I gave the green light. Damn! Her fault. The collections were her responsibility. Billion Dollar Empress and corporate management be damned. Chag did fashion. Christina bloody Princess of Scandinavia Agerman did fashion. If she didn’t, who else would?
For once she had kept the axe hanging despite demands that heads rolled. At least this time she wouldn’t place the blame for her own mistakes on anyone else.
She was so lost in thought that she almost missed that trees had given way to grass. With trunks no longer protecting her wind caught in her clothes and she had to grab her coat with both hands.
A bit further ahead a cabin hugged the mountainside. It almost looked like it had been dug into the very bedrock.
Then a freak gust of wind tore at her hair and Christina let out a surprised shriek.
Of course we’ll have a Summer’s storm on top of all! This June’s breaking every bloody low score yet. She grinned and grimaced. Somehow the abysmal weather made her laugh, but as the wind grew stronger she decided it wasn’t the time for mirth.
Woods or cabin? Cabin!
Just as she made her mind up the wind caught strength with a sickening roar, and for the first time she felt fear running through her. Out here she was totally unprotected.
She dropped to her knees and started crawling towards he mountain side. Out of nowhere windy weather had turned into a hurricane and she couldn’t see anything at all.
Her world turned white.
One moment gusts of wind tried to rip her coat to shreds, the next her coat was gone.
So were the rest of her clothes, and any remnant of wind as well.
Christina stared at bony fingers. Then she stared again.
She vaguely remembered that hand. It was hers, but not hers any longer.
Standing up she felt earth welling up between her toes, and she looked down.
What the hell?
Naked wasn’t anything special to her. She spent fifteen years of her life without any privacy. Ten of them without any privacy even away from cameras.
Naked and young, very, very young, however, was.
The ugly me? I had forgotten! What’s going on?
Then the sound of engines grew closer and she stood staring in the direction from where they came. From the sound she guessed she’d see the vehicle in a few seconds.
She was surround by mountains seen nowhere in Sweden.
A flash of a thought begged her to do something about her nakedness, but years of experience firmly shoved that thought down into the nothingness it deserved. She was naked. She had no clothes around her. There was nothing to do about it.
When the military looking car popped over a crest a little later she decided to cover her private parts with one hand and her breasts with the other. There was something called modesty after all.
Feeling her breasts under her hand she discarded that idea. There weren’t much to feel anyway.
Whoever drove the car cut the engine, and in the distance she heard another vehicle driving somewhere unseen to her.
The doors opened and two men emerged.
“Excuse me, but could you please tell me where I am?” she said to the one closest. English. English would do almost anywhere.
“You have arrived in Japan. We will take you in,” he answered and offered her a blanket he had been carrying. “There are clothes back there as well,” he added.
Christina wrapped the blanket around her. The flimsy cloth partially covering her body strangely enough made her feel more naked than before and she averted her eyes from his.
“What’s going on?”
“Sorry, mz. We’ll drive you to a facility where you can get some privacy and change into better clothes than those we have here.”
That didn’t answer her questions at all.
“We’ll answer your questions there as well.
That had to suffice.
Sunday, 17 December 2017
Midsummer’s day grew to a close, and while the last two days had mostly been filled with memories experienced and memories shared, some beautiful, some horrible and some just nostalgic, these very two days laid themselves to rest among other memories.
We were so young back then. Even I were much younger than I understood at that time. Experiencing a second youth had been much more than going through the motions. She had been young once again, young and unprepared for the new life ahead of her. So many mistakes, so many regrets. Ulf, I hurt you so much. How could you ever forgive me? Did you ever really forgive me?
There would be reasons to remember again soon. Three more days. That was all they had. After that some of the would be gone, would transit to the downstream world. Not all of them. At least not now, and Christina suspected a few would live and die in this world by choice.
To become a teenager again sounded less appealing the older you got. To accept that you wouldn’t be treated like an adult, to actually partially regress into adolescence.
Better now, sure. Much better now when the dirty infighting was gone, if it was gone in the downstream world as well. That was the risk with transiting. You didn’t know exactly what that world would be like. Almost the same as this one, just like this one was almost the same as the one she left quarter of a century earlier. But there were differences, differences that tore her life apart because she tried to grab control over it.
Christina stared into the night sky and glittering stars. They shimmered through tears welling up in her eyes.
Ulf, even if you can’t for real, please pretend you’ll forgive me! U-kun, I wish I could call you that again.
She choked down feelings of misery. I lost the right to feel sadness back then.
Christina looked back at choices she had made. Some made her proud, some surprised, and the one she recalled most clearly right now, just disgusted with herself.
How could you ever fall in love with someone like me?