Midsummer's day, 2040, late morning
Christina tugged at Kyoko's sleeve. “Bad idea.”
“Huh?” her friend said.
“I wouldn't go inside the boat house right now. Let's talk loudly and make some noise first,” Christina suggested.
Beneath them seawater glimmered in the sunshine and the boat house wall was speckled with mirror shaped reflections of the sun dancing around to the broken rhythm of the waves under the dock.
Around them seagulls greeted the summer's day, and any other time Christina would have regressed to childhood for the joy of showing her best friend what the Swedish west coast was like in summer.
Now, however, she needed to make certain they made a ruckus before something really embarrassing happened. Christina had good reasons to believe her daughter was inside letting someone else explore her body for the first time.
“What about a short swim?” Christina said. The sound of bathing people nearby should wake anyone up, and if her kid was stupid enough not to get the message, then the entire party could walk in on the pair as far as Christina was concerned.
“Now?” Kyoko asked, but she was already getting out of her dress. Like most of them she wore her swimsuit underneath.
Moments later Christina watched how Kyoko hit the surface with a shriek. That's your wakeup call kids. Make good use of it.
Her kid insisted on bringing her boyfriend since a couple of months, which in Christina's world was the same as planning for her sex-debut. As a mother she didn't mind at all. He was painfully shy and could need all the help he got from his girlfriend. In a way, but for very different reasons, he was a bit like Ulf.
Chapter one, 2016, rainy days
Ryu frowned and left Stockholm Haven café. Ai-chan had left half an hour earlier, but he needed to wait for his sister to finish her job.
Noriko pointed at the police car on the other side of the street. There had been one every day for a week since some idiots with more muscles than brains from Red Rose Hell threw a homemade bomb into the café.
Despite the seriousness of the affair Urufu couldn't help but guffaw when he disarmed the bomb on the floor. Something about Molotov-cocktails made of plastic bottles and diesel was apparently hysterically funny.
Nonetheless the police came and picked up the gang after the guests in the café went out en masse and beat them down into the street. That was also the moment when the student body of Irishima high finally sided with them and made open enemies of Red Rose.
During that week late autumn gave way to early winter, and Himekaizen slowly started boiling with anticipation for Christmas and the second term final exams, as was the case for most schools in early December. Simply put the students felt the presence of year's end closing in, and Ryu was no exception.
But there was also something he hadn't experienced before. The ambiguous sensation from being part of tearing down Red Rose Hell.
Those were his thoughts when Urufu caught up to them.
“Yes?” she said and turned her eyes from the patrol car to Urufu who had called out to her from behind her back.
Ryu watched him throwing a glance at the police before he made up the entire distance to the siblings and sandwiched Noriko between Ryu and himself.
“Kyoko said to meet with you next Sunday. Looks like a girl thing, because Christina just emailed me. Seems she's reneging on our date.
Sucks to be you, Ryu thought. It wasn't exactly like the Swedish couple got a lot of opportunities to be alone with each other. A few months earlier he'd have applauded the mishap with a gleeful smile, but even before he met Ai-chan and became a couple with her he had come to value his friendship over his unrequited crush on Kuri.
“Are you sure about that? You two haven't had a proper date for weeks.”
“We get by,” Urufu answered. “We see each other during club hours. As for dates I'm more worried about you and Nao. Didn't you have something planned?”
Ryu had to give Urufu credit for guessing that the girls' outing interfered with Noriko's wishes. The tall foreigner was not only one of his best friends but also sometimes painfully inept when it came to socialising with girls. And he was most definitely a foreigner despite his mostly Japanese looks.
“I'll live,” Noriko said and grinned. “We're going to an onsen during winter break, and both Nao-sempai and Ai-chan are going with us.”
Urufu gave first Noriko and then Ryu a long stare. It proved he had at least learned some Japanese sensibilities. “You're going on an overnight trip the four of you?”
“The six of us,” Ryu answered and smiled. “Our parents as well, or I doubt Nao-sempai's and Ai-chan's parents would have allowed it.”
“Ah, OK, the girls in one room and you boys in the other?”
“The women in one room and the men in another,” Ryu shot back just as he realised he'd been had.
Go die sucker! “Yeah, man me.”
“Funny, and here I thought of your dad as a kid with a runny nose.”
His dad was forty, which made him ten years Urufu's junior, which in turn made no sense at all since he and Urufu both were freshmen at Himekaizen. Transitions between worlds and bodies did funny things to the concept of age.
“Urufu, leave him be!” came Noriko's voice, but Ryu could hear how his sister hid her laughter among her admonishing words.
Waiting for Urufu to answer Ryu listened to the subdued noise of his shoes tapping against wet tarmac. Splashing more likely. A short spell of rain had just passed them by and puddles of water glittered in the lamplights.
From time to time headlights dazzled them and when the sound engines vanished behind them Ryu had to blink away the sudden sensation of blindness.
Almost a block they walked before he understood that Urufu had declined to respond.
“I think they're done for,” Noriko said to banish the awkward silence. “Himekaizen just went public with the decision to admit ten freshmen classes, and I think Irishima high will announce that they're admitting an extra class soon enough.”
When did you hear that?
“I know,” Urufu said. “I spoke to the old goat an hour ago. They'll suspend Christina for a week while they decide how to handle her previous part time work.”
“What?” Kuri suspended?
“You haven't heard?”
“Apparently Christina worked part time as a hostess during spring term,” Urufu said. “They're kinda pissed off at school right now.”
No, he hadn't heard. But if this was true then anyone on a vengeance trip was certain to lay their hands on a bucketful of ammunition.
“How bad is it?” Ryu asked.
“Anyone but Christina or me and we'd be talking automatic expulsion,” Urufu said. “They want us arrivals attending Himekaizen for some reason, so that won't happen.”
Because you're some kind of special kids? And just shove it Ryu! They are special. I need to accept that. Ryu shook his head in disgust of his own envy.
“What's the fallout?”
“They'll tack on an extra week of suspension I guess. She'll get drowned in make-up classes and her agency will get one hell of a firmer grip on her career.”
“And why is that so bad?” Ryu wondered.
“Idiot bro! Urufu, I'm so sorry!” Noriko suddenly shot in.
“Can't be helped,” Urufu said. “With a bit of luck they won't force us to break up immediately.”
“Whoa! Break up?”
“Yeah. They'll want to purify her reputation, make a decent girl out of her and all that shit. Just because you suffer from an epic case of Madonna whore complex in Japan.” Urufu went silent and stared at his shoes. “Fucking third world backwater excuse for a country!”
So the hostess part time stunt had finally reared its ugly face and was about to take a bite out of Kuri's world. Noriko had suspected that something like this would happen eventually, but that didn't make her agree any less with Urufu's outburst.
There were things women weren't supposed to do, and that kind of segregation spoke its own story of a society that in some parts was woefully underdeveloped. She knew that, but she was still a product of that society, and despite agreeing with Urufu Noriko couldn't but help wondering about why Kuri had taken such a stupid risk.
“You know, maybe you shouldn't live here if you dislike Japan that much,” Ryu said.
Noriko hoped he regretted his words the moment they left his mouth, and her reaction was instinctive. “Idiot brother! Of all the tasteless comments I've ever heard!”
“It's not like I chose to live here,” Urufu filled in. “They refuse to hand me a passport, so I can't travel to Sweden neither, and there's Kuri, and...” He palmed his face as he walked. “Sorry for my outburst. It was uncalled for.”
“No!” If anything it wasn't uncalled for. Forcing Urufu and Kuri to break up was so unfair it made Noriko's stomach churn. “You're right. It's disgusting what they're doing to you.”
Ryu coughed silently as if he needed to think before speaking. “I apologise. Still, I don't know about disgusting...”
“Shut up bro!” That Ryu didn't understand made her angry and a little afraid. “They're keeping Kuri hostage because she's a girl.” When he didn't react Noriko pulled his arm and glared at him. “If you don't find that disgusting, then how could I trust you if something like that happened to me?”
“Why would it? I can't see anything like that happening to you. We're the Wakayamas after all.”
For the first time in her life she slapped her brother with the intent to hurt. She hit him open handed, retracted her hand and whirled to slam it into his face with all the force her small body could muster. The second slap never reached its target. For a moment Ryu looked as if he would retaliate.
“I wouldn't if I were you,” Urufu said. “My hands, elbows, knees and feet might slip and accidentally land in your face.”
Noriko saw how her brother sagged before he snorted and grinned. “You might miss, you know.”
“I wouldn't,” Urufu said. “When I slip I always hit my target.”
There was something cold in his voice that made Noriko shiver. Not the overt threat he voiced, because she doubted he'd ever attack her brother. Rather it was a lack of something that scared her. It was a lack of joy, or even life. It was the voice of someone who had resigned and accepted defeat, and a beaten Urufu somehow frightened her more than a horde of enemies.
Ryu slowly released the arm he had caught, and Noriko watched her brother examine her face to see if she intended to hit him again. She shook her head and looked down the way she had done so often when he made that kind of silent question.
“Ryu,” she said, “are you really fine with our friends getting hurt because they're not the Wakayamas?”
He flinched as if she had struck him a third time. For a social genius like him her brother sometimes lacked even the most basic of sensibilities.
“You should listen to your sister,” Urufu added. “I've lived for more than half a normal life, and even if this body makes my head flare up in anger I still know how to evaluate what happened.”
There were a few seconds of awkward silence during which they continued walking towards the station.
“Meaning?” Ryu said.
Noriko wasn't sure if he really needed an answer or if he merely wanted to banish the wordless void.
“Meaning that if I hadn't been me you could easily have lost a friend.”
“Man! Ryu, sure we're past fifty but it's still my girlfriend you're talking about. We don't really belong here, and we really only have each other. Now when we're shitting ourselves because we'll most likely be forced to break up you tell me that's OK because none of us come from an influential family?” Urufu palmed his face. “Screw it Ryu, what kind of brain-dead monkey are you?”
“I didn't mean it that way!”
“Ryu, you're a good friend. You have your strengths and weaknesses. One of the latter is how narrow-minded you are. Yes, you meant exactly what you said. Family is important to you, and you honestly believe people get the families they deserve.”
A dejected shadow passed Urufu's eyes. Noriko didn't like the sight of it one bit. “You sure made a good choice of parents,” he said and increased his steps. A laugh that held no mirth left his mouth.
“Urufu?” Noriko said. She knew the answer to her question before she voiced it.
“I recalled I have something I need to do. You two continue. I have to check something.”
He could just as well have screamed: 'Go to hell you insensitive bastard!' She watched his back vanish down the street. A lonely hand waved over his shoulder, but he never turned to face them in that usual western style of his.
“What's with him?” her brother wondered after Urufu vanished into an alley.
“What's with you? You did something really bad.”
“In what way?”
“Family is important, right?”
“Yeah, so what?”
Idiot bro! Really! “Kuri never had one after she grew up. She said as much. Urufu is her family now.”
And still her brother's face showed no sign of comprehension.
“Ryu, you know that Urufu lost his when he arrived here. They're all alone here in Japan and you just told him he should have been more careful picking his family when the two of them are being forced apart.”
Maybe I should slap him once more. Just to beat some sense into him.
You really did it this time!
Within minutes Ulf would knock on her door, but that was only part of her desperate plans to save whatever could be saved from the mess she ended up in.
You really, really did it this time!
Three weeks earlier Christina flat out rejected her agency's demand that she break up with her boyfriend. They tried to threaten her with cancelled shoots, but with her foreign looks she commanded just as much attraction as a femme fatale as the pure high school girl usually preferred here.
Christina checked the food on the stove one last time. Another five minutes or so.
You really, really, really did it this time!
Then her agency found out just who her boyfriend was. Not that she had tried to keep it a secret. Most of the freshmen at Himekaizen already knew. This time, however, someone fed the rumour mill that the assault on Ulf really was an eternal triangle gone horribly wrong.
In the bathroom two fresh towels had replaced the one she normally used. After a moment's afterthought Christina covered her laundry basket with a third towel and cleaned up the bathroom cabinet for the third time.
That rumour could as well have been the last nail in the coffin. Somehow she salvaged her relationship with Ulf, but from now on she had to keep it a secret.
Keeping it a secret. Ha! I'm screwed!
She had been forced to sign a contract which she doubted conformed to any decent international law. The contract was a minor problem since Christina's citizenship was unclear enough for Japanese authorities to refuse issuing her a passport.
The wardrobe was closed and in difference from any other day no underwear littered her desk. While practical she doubted it was a sight Ulf would find especially adoring.
If there was a chance she had been assigned a Swedish citizenship she could abuse laws against unfair child labour and force her agency into bankruptcy. At least that was what her contacts at Vogue Magazine promised her should she chose to change employer.
Those contacts were her golden secret, her emergency exit if things really went south. They were utterly ruthless people she knew from her former life, people who couldn't understand how she managed to play them just the way she had played them as the billion dollar empress.
Ulf I need you! Without you I'll break apart. Without you I'll become a monster.
Then whoever lay behind the latest rumours started attacking Ulf's business with disastrous results. As far as she knew he hadn't had a single job for a couple of weeks.
A last look in the mirror confirmed that both make-up and clothes were perfect. Not too showy, but also not so professionally perfect that he wouldn't notice she had made an effort.
That they went for him instead of her made her livid with rage, but her wrath was nothing compared to the calm hatred the Wakayama parents expressed during a panicked visit she paid them a day earlier.
I hate this crap! I hate this kind of puny power struggle. And that was the problem. With back-alley companies involved in a corporate shoot-out stupid mistakes and chance played too much of a role.
It was nothing like when she manipulated the behemoth Chag into wars of her choosing. Chag alone had been worth over a hundred billion dollars when she vanished, and through contracts and contacts it controlled a global empire worth yet another quarter of a trillion dollars. With Christina Agerman, the billion dollar empress, sitting solidly in the middle of the spider's net.
Looking at her desk she decided against cleaning away all her homework. Nowadays when she didn't cheat with her studies there was no reason to further enhance any idea Ulf might harbour that she was an illiterate moron only interested in fashion.
In her old world she had already made plans to gobble up Uniclo like the small snack it was in global fashion. And then she vanished and arrived in this world. And then she experienced shared happiness for the first time in her life. And then someone dared threaten to take away what was more important to her than Chag had ever been. Christina intended to retaliate proportionately.
When the doorbell rang Christina regretted the thought about Ulf's seeing her as an idiot. He respected her and had proven it time and time again.
Do I look my best? She shook the thought away, rubbed her face and dressed up in the most radiant smile she knew. Then she opened the door.
Outside a heavy drizzle framed Ulf's body in water, and as he usually did he had discarded his umbrella in favour of one of his horrendously expensive rain-suits.
“Welcome Ulf, you're just in time,” Christina greeted him in Swedish. Crap! You look awful!
Because he did. For some unknown reason he'd kept his hood flipped onto his back and as a result his hair was glued to his head and raindrops ran freely down his face.
Then her breath caught in her throat when she met his eyes. She saw her own beauty reflected in a way that no mirror or camera could ever do. She saw herself sketched in lines of brilliant awe and jubilation where every contour and charcoal shadow was drawn with love and tender care.
“You look stunning,” he said in a voice thick with emotion.
Her chest constricted at that sound, and leaving any rational thought behind her she stepped out into the rain and melted into Ulf's icy cold, dripping rain coat. She only felt a wave of heat radiating through her body when she hugged him to herself in an embrace she never wanted to step out of.
She felt Ulf's face move and his nose burrow into her hair, and when she looked up he met her with a kiss, and another one, and yet another, lingering one she allowed herself to drown in.
Ulf couldn't remember when he had last been welcomed that way. Whenever it was, if it had ever been, it lay more than half his life in the past.
Before he managed to break free of that last kiss he felt a burning desire to undress her. She had been anything but shy, clinging to him suggestively enough that they could as well have been naked.
It's been more than half a year. He'd never been together with a girl for that long before sleeping with her before.
“Should we get inside?” Ulf suggested.
“Uhum?” Christina answered, but she didn't let go of him.
“You're getting drenched,” Ulf tried again. “Like really drenched.”
“Uhum,” she offered, this time a statement rather than a question.
I guess I'm not going home tonight. It scared him a little, because it meant taking yet another step away from his previous life. But damn I want her! Which scared him as well.
Whatever mind-reading techniques Christina used must have worked, because she finally let go of his body and pulled him inside her tiny flat.
He had been here a few times. More often than the friends he visited, but still not as frequently as he remembered from his earlier girlfriends. Now as in his previous life that word resonated strangely in his mind.
After close to a quarter of a century spent married to Maria that word only represented a very scant part of his life. Marriage was the normal state, but for the friends he had made in this life marriage was an abstract thing in the distant future.
Looking at Christina's back as she hurried to the small stove he realised that despite being his age she couldn't share his reflections. To her marriage was just as much an abstraction. In her case probably more a matter of a lingering question and possibly regret as she was bound to have wondered when she saw those around her get married and raise children.
The smell of food brought Ulf out of his meandering thoughts and he went to the cupboard and helped setting the table.
As usual her cooking showed more signs of gusto than any real ability.
“It's good,” Ulf said after they sat down to eat, but he knew Christina was well aware of her limits in the kitchen. Hers hadn't been a life where she could indulge in domestic chores. “It's really good,” he said when unexpected flavours mixed in his mouth.
“It is, isn't it?” she said and beamed at him. “I might have overdone things a bit, but I wanted to give it my best shot.”
How long did you spend learning to cook this meal? “I'm honoured you'd do this for me,” Ulf said. He heard how hollow his words were. Rather he would have preferred to tell her how the warmth in his stomach had less to do with the food he ate than the feelings burning him from within. I love you, I really do love you, but I can't tie you down with those words.
“Happy to oblige,” she grinned. She still had some food in her mouth, and when she giggled some of it threatened to come out.
Ulf stared at her when she blushed violently with both hands clasped to her mouth. Her sudden poor table manners just made him ache for her even more.
From there on their meal got more awkward, and it was with a sense of relief Ulf rose and made the dishes.
When he returned with a small teapot and two mugs he noticed that unlike the times he had visited Christina before her futon didn't lay rolled up against the wall. That meant it probably lay neatly stacked in its cupboard, and from that thought Ulf gave her flat a closer look.
She really did clean it up this time. Food and flat, hmm. Ulf looked at Christina where she sat pretending to decorate a tray with cookies. I can't tell from your clothes or make-up, your skills are way beyond my awareness. But your desk is disorderly in just the right way for me.
There were a few other signs Christina had spent more than the normal time preparing for his visit. Her small home had been thoroughly made to make him feel welcome, even to the point that he wouldn't want to leave. The suspicions he had on his way here grew stronger, and along with rising anticipation a feeling of discomfort spread through him.
Won't it be unfair of me to sleep with her unless I tell her I love her? But that was the thought of a teenager, and he wasn't really a teenager any more, was he? Shouldn't you decide what's unfair to you or not, the way I decide for myself? And that was the thought of an adult. Each person was responsible for his or her actions and reactions. There was an academic construction, interpretative prerogative, which could be applied to a situation like this.
“Christina,” Ulf began, “how close have we become?”
She looked up from her cookies and met his eyes. That was a question he wouldn't have dared to ask thirty years earlier, and one she couldn't have answered when she was that young.
“We're boyfriend and girlfriend,” she said. “Still in the infatuation phase because we haven't had sex yet.”
Yep, definitely two adults playing teenagers playing adults. Damn this is confusing!
Ulf felt his body reacting to her words exactly the way she had known he would.
“And now is when you want us to take a step further?” he said in a rather failed attempt to play it cool. It didn't really matter. From here on he could only keep up his part of a script with an ending Christina had decided from the start.
“We're not kids.”
“That doctor said we still are, despite our subjective age.”
“I don't plan to take that doctor with me into the shower.”
Damn, you sure know how to play this game. She hadn't as much as loosened her clothes, but Ulf felt the heat rise just from her words.
“I could use a shower,” Ulf said in a last attempt to take control of the conversation with a poor joke.
He shared that shower with Christina, and after that he shared the night with her. In the end half a year's worth of pent up desires won, and his last remnants of reluctance evaporated when she clearly showed him that hers was half of them.
When they woke and spoke she told him that to her surprise there was a bit of pain. While she had the experience her body didn't.
He didn't go home until late morning.
Unlike before their midterms Yukio got together with Kyoko to study for the final exams a good two weeks in advance.
Sitting in the club room they had just finished an English session, which in line with Urufu's suggestion they held entirely in English, and now the room was eerily silent. First Yukio couldn't put his finger to it, but then he recalled how the club had been given written permission to run their activities at the Stockholm Haven café. Their club room was slated for being converted into a classroom come April.
At the moment fewer than half a dozen members lazed in the lounge area. Another five or so had left for a walking talking session, which only proved how far Urufu's stance on self-organisation had penetrated the club.
Yukio turned his head and looked outside. Grey skies and rivulets of water on the window pane told their story of yet another rainy day. If the clothes worn by the students he saw crossing the gravel beneath him were an honest indicator it was a cold rainy day to boot.
“Yukio, what about this part,” Kyoko said in English and showed him a math problem.
He grinned at first but toned it down to a smile. “You're cute,” he responded in Japanese.
“Huh? Oh, sorry.”
“I think we can do the math in Japanese. I don't even know half the terms in English.”
She gave him a sheepish smile and nodded. “Yeah, and I love you too.”
It was easier these days. Yukio preferred it this way when expressions of affection and love came natural to them both. Somehow the world changing feelings from August had calmed down, but instead Kyoko had become his most important friend apart from being the girl he loved.
“They're not here as often as before,” Kyoko said after he pointed out the mistake that prevented her from solving the problem.
They. We don't even need names now, do we? “I guess so,” he said. “Urufu said he's helping her prepare the finals, but he's also doing a lot of work through those strange contacts of his.”
Kyoko's expression darkened, but Yukio knew her displeasure wasn't directed at him. “Same with Kuri-chan. She's spending almost all her free time modelling.” A tentative hand reached out across the table and Yukio took it in his. “I worry, you know.”
He did as well. Since he became an item with Kyoko the two of them gradually saw their responsibility towards their friends as a shared one. Especially after what happened during the cultural festival. Now they more or less agreed that the two old teenagers were children that needed taking care of.
“Is it just me, or does Kuri smile less often now?”
“She's unhappy,” Kyoko said. She turned her attention to the next problem and the two of them fell silent while they solved it, each on their own. “She doesn't tell me, but I can see. I got to learn that expression during our year at middle school.”
Yukio looked up from his booklet and met Kyoko's gaze. “Kuri was unhappy during middle school?”
“Yeah, and no. In the beginning I think she was scared more than unhappy, but that was before I learned who she really was.”
Caressing Kyoko's fingers Yukio waited for her to continue. Sometimes she needed to say something in preparation of what she really wanted to say.
“I was… was…,” Kyoko started. “I was fat.”
Yukio looked at her. She was still a bit chubby, but he liked that part of her. It made her adorably soft to hug, and he couldn't get enough of it. He was aware, however, that not everyone saw her in the same light as he did. Their loss. I get to keep her all for myself.
“When I lost weight some of the boys started looking at me, and there were a few girls who didn't like that.”
Were you bullied? You never told me.
The smile Yukio got was disarming, and he could feel how Kyoko had guessed what he was thinking. “It never got as far as bullying. Kuri-chan didn't like it anyway though. That's how I got to learn what she looked like when she was unhappy.” All of a sudden Kyoko's face lit up in a wide grin. “She's a funny girl that way. It was like she didn't care when people said bad things about her, but no one was allowed to do the same to me. That was when I decided she was my best friend.”
I can see how she won your heart. Urufu's just the same. He has absolutely no concerns for himself. “I understand,” Yukio said and met her grin with one of his own.
Yukio nodded and laughed. Their two Swedish best friends who tried but always failed to become Japanese. Sometimes he wondered how hard they really tried. “And he's not proper.”
“Same with Kuri-chan. She's not a proper girl at all.”
And I believe they made us both better persons because of that. What was it Urufu called it? Ah, integrity. That's how he tried to explain the Swedish version of honour. Doing what was right even if it meant betraying your friends, because if you didn't stay true to yourself you didn't deserve to be called a friend in the first place.
“You know,” Yukio began, “I think they're trying to learn how to be teenagers again,” he said as realisation struck him. “It's like they're caught in between if you get what I mean.”
Kyoko closed her eyes the way she usually did when she was deep in thought. Then she opened them, tilted her head backwards and stared at the ceiling. “I think I understand. Does that mean they're fighting like adults now but are treated like kids?”
He hadn't thought about it that way. Could it be that Kuri and Urufu had stepped onto the turf of adults where everyone saw them as unruly teenagers? If that was so, could they ever hope to win?
Ryu carried another cardboard box into the inner room. With the help of his mother moving things from their club room at school had gone a lot faster.
The last time he fetched some books and white board markers he saw Yukio and Kyoko study for the coming finals, and as they were in more need to prepare themselves than he was he decided against asking for their help.
He put the box on the table and went for a toolbox that hid in a corner. Principal Nakagawa had made good on his promise to reimburse them for the whiteboards they had to abandon at school, but any assembly had to be done by the club members.
With the help of Kichirou-kun and Jirou-sempai he quickly fastened two large whiteboards to the walls where Urufu wanted them. Setting up the beamer took a little longer, but the audio system got installed a lot quicker than he had hoped. During the work James entered from time to time with coffee or help. He seemed to have a surprisingly extensive experience from this type of equipment.
Ryu gobbled down the last of his coffee and turned to Jirou-sempai before he rushed away to his girlfriend.
“Know when Urufu's expected?”
“Sorry. I'll check with Sango,” Jirou-sempai said and referred to the first year club member he dated. “I think he was here earlier.”
The backside of a blazer left the room and Ryu grimaced before he shot Kichirou-kun a glance. A repeat of the question didn't yield an answer that was any more useful.
Guess I'll have to call you then. Mail first though, if you answer it. You suck at that. Because Urufu did. He positively hated email on the phone and went on about how he didn't really like the Swedish messaging system all than much neither. All in all it was the feelings of an old person.
Now, however, getting in touch with him was a necessity. One of his old customers had been in contact with Ryu. With his father initially, but a phone call later Ryu took ownership of the contact. It seemed there was a need for some kind of validation and what the contact referred to as process re-factoring. Ryu wasn't entirely clear about what that meant, but then neither was the contact.
From the café proper Ryu suddenly heard a roar, and he left the inner room in a hurry to find out what the commotion was all about. When he squeezed himself out between counter and narrow door he saw a group of club members wielding smart-phones like weapons, and by another table three Irishima high students had turned to better listen in on those waving their phones.
“He did it?”
Who did what?
“Look, it says here he left in the morning, and there's even a photo.”
Ryu threw a cursory glance at the boy. Imai Seiichi, one of the last to join the club before Himekaizen got an entire new freshman class. He should have joined them at about the same time as Nao-sempai did.
“Who left in the morning?” Ryu asked.
“Look Ryu-kun! Says Urufu-kun spent the night with Kuritina-chan.”
Crap! Ryu forced a smile to his lips. Well that explains why those two have behaved to strange lately. A part of him cursed Urufu and another wished him good luck. Both groaned at the knowledge that Urufu and Kuri had made the news in the worst way possible.
“They've been a couple since May. Why the newsflash now?” Ryu said in what he suspected was a doomed attempt at downplaying the news value of the incident. You should have been more careful. This is going to be bad!
“But Kuritina-chan is like super famous now.” Sho-kun said and waved his own phone around over his head.
“Who's Kuritina-chan?” one of the Irishima high students asked.
“Kuritina-chan? Ah, the model Ageruman Kuritina,” Sho-kun helpfully explained.
“You know Ageruman-san?”
“Yeah, she's the club president.”
“Ageruman Kuritina is your club president?” a voice from across the room asked.
Hell no! Ryu groaned when a red blazer over green trousers rose from his seat.
“Yes, isn't it cool?”
“And she's in an improper relationship with the boy on this photo?”
“What the hell? They've been going out since before summer. Nothing improper about them.”
Thank you Sango-chan!
With the mood rapidly deteriorating James made a very visible show of taking orders at the tables together with the college student who worked part time here.
With final exams looming closer both Kyoko and Noriko had dropped out from their working schedule. Ryu suspected his sister would take up her work again during winter break.
“Guys, could you please keep your voices down about this?” Ryu said to the group who had started the uproar. “You wouldn't want to make more problems for Kuri-chan, would you?”
Seiichi-kun glared at the Red Rose student and nodded. “Sorry about that.”
Ryu smirked. Seiichi-kun was about as sorry as Sho-kun was, which was to say not sorry at all, but none of the boys really wanted Kuri-chan to get into trouble. Ryu wasn't so sure about what they thought about Urufu though. Urufu didn't have the halo of stardom, so his reputation depended more on what he had done recently, and spending time at a hospital garnered pity rather than glory. The cultural festival was already a long time in the past.
But if you knew what kind of job he does you'd be awestruck. Ryu shook his head. That wasn't true. Most of the club members simply wouldn't be able to grasp what Urufu was doing for a living. There were stories for teenagers with a high school corporate magnate as the main lead. None of those stories said anything about the hard work and time needed to coach a stubborn company to change its way of doing things.
Reminds me I really need to call him. Two reasons why I have to now.
Kyoko pulled Kuri-chan aside as soon as they left their classroom for lunch.
“What are you going to do about it?”
Kuri-chan didn't answer but for a shrug.
Waiting for their classmates to disappear down the stairs Kyoko held on to Kuri-chan's blazer. “Please! Our class knows you're going out with Urufu, but the rest of the school?”
With irritation clearly showing in her face Kuri-chan shrugged again. “Ko-chan, most of the school knows,” she said.
That might be true. With Kuri-chan rising to national stardom the students at Himekaizen were bound to have heard that the photo model had her boyfriend in the other wing. Still, being caught by paparazzi when he left her apartment gave birth to all kinds of rumours, and what was worse, Kuri-chan didn't deny any of them. Rather she had a satisfied smile glued to her face mixed with an aura of absent-minded happiness whenever she spaced out.
“Let's have lunch,” Kyoko said and led her friend to the stairwell. “Cafeteria mystery food?” The question originated from an occasion early summer when Urufu loudly wondered which specific species of rodent made up most of whatever served as meat. Luckily enough he had done so in English, or the entire gang of friends would have been called to a disciplinary meeting.
They walked down the stairs, indoor shoes slapping against concrete, until they made their way to the main corridor feeding cafeteria, shoe-lockers and vending machines. Sometime during their descent Kuri-chan agreed to the extra mysterious food, and they voided the cafeteria in favour of the vending machines.
Given the taste of what those machines spewed out Kyoko felt rather certain rodents were too high class to make it into the menu, but it was cheaper and quicker than the cafeteria. More so now when Kyoko had made certain they'd arrive last of all students.
She defiled a few coins and received something more suitable to use as replacement PE shoes than eating. To her it mattered little as her stomach had always been a good substitute for a recycling unit of hazardous material. Kuri-chan was no better. Despite a life spent with enough money to run a small city her feeding habits were atrocious enough to make Kyoko grimace.
Kuri-chan nodded and they returned the same way they had come.
“Look,” Kuri-chan said, “I understand you're worried, but I'll fight for him some more.”
Some more? Those two words birthed a chill in Kyoko she hadn't expected. Kuri-chan and Urufu were invincible. They didn't lose to anyone.
“If they really manage to find a way to destroy our lives if we don't part ways...” Suddenly Kuri-chan's voice was the only thing that disturbed the rhythmic tapping of their shoes on the stairs. “If that days comes I'll break up and break down.”
How can you be that cold?
Kuri-chan must have noticed Kyoko's stiffness, because she stopped and pulled Kyoko around. “I'm prepared to live a very different life if I can share it with Ulf, but I can't drag him down with me. You understand that, don't you?”
What Kyoko saw in her friend's eyes was equal parts panic and desperation.
“Why, why would you give him up?”
A few seconds of silence followed when Kuri-chan's face shifted from love-sickness to wrath and back to love again. “Because he's the first I've loved more than myself.” Then she smirked. “Don't misunderstand me. I'm always first in my life, but that doesn't mean I love myself more than him.”
Kyoko felt incomprehension compete with anger in her. “I don't understand,” she said and turned away. A few resolute steps brought her up another half a flight before she stopped and looked down at her friend. “I don't understand, and I don't want to.”
Kuri-chan looked back before looking away. She rested her hands against the windowsill and leaned her forehead against the pane. Barely audible her voice came out, a hoarse whisper mixed with silent sobs. “Ulf gives meaning to my life. He fills it with colour. He's the best thing that has ever happened to me. When I wake up the first thing I think of is him and when I go to sleep I daydream about what we did together or what we could have done.”
How can you even think of letting someone like that go?
“I'm losing him to my job, and I'd lose him if I quit, because he'd never allow himself to let me become less than I could be.”
Something glittered on the sill and when Kyoko looked closer she saw droplets of tears spreading. Choking down her own tears she ran down the stairs to hug her friend.
“Kuri-chan, you're my best friend. Please let me help you in any way I can! I can't stand seeing you like this!”
Tall girl with golden hair never as much as moved, but Kyoko could feel her friend trying to hide the racking sobs that threatened to overtake her through their embrace. They stood like that for what felt like an eternity but probably was only a few seconds. Then Kuri-chan turned in Kyoko's arms and placed her hands on Kyoko's shoulders to push her away far enough for them to face each other.
“Then, as my best friend, please make me believe! Please help me pretend that I can keep Ulf by my side forever!”
You ask of me so little and so much more than I can ever give you. “Yes, of course I'll make Ulf stay with you forever,” Kyoko lied. It hurt more than she had expected, and yet she felt numb. “Ulf loves you, and if you tried to break up he'd know how much you loved him. He'd never give up on you,” she said. As the words left her mouth Kyoko realised it was the second lie she told in a row.
With final exams looming closer Yukio firmly pushed the scandal aside. Besides, apart from their English teacher most of the school staff had been surprisingly quiet about Urufu's and Kuri's rumoured night-time activities.
Now he sat in the inner room of the Stockholm Haven café which had been fully converted into their new club-room just in time for the cessation of all club activities in preparation of their exams.
Noriko sat together with Kuri going through math problems with the famous model turned slut. By their side Sango-chan and Kyoko ran through the same problems but at a distinctly higher pace and without Noriko's help.
“And this one?” Ryu asked from Yukio's right.
“Same. Look, if you replace the numbers with letters it's a lot easier to detect the pattern,” Urufu said.
“Pattern?” That was Nori-kun, and Yukio noted how another two club-members congregated around them to follow Urufu's explanation.
Now this is just hysterically funny, Yukio thought. Urufu the flunkie teaching math. But he's not really a flunkie is he? Didn't he have a college exam from engineering?
“Yes, by token substitution you'll be able to immediately identify equalities on both sides and remove them. Clears the real problem from excess data. See the pattern now?” Urufu said and crossed out almost a third of the information on the whiteboard.
Yukio watched him leave the white-board and walk over to the one where another group were struggling with English. Despite bombing that topic on his midterms virtually every club-member knew his English knowledge was superior to what any teacher at school could muster.
And I think you have a better grasp of Japanese history than I do by now. What kind of study monster are you?
Truth be told the only thing that kept Urufu from popping up on the wall was his written Japanese. By now Yukio recognised the difference when Urufu spoke about or listened to the material they had to study compared to when he was forced to rely on his reading skills.
And you're closing that gap as well. It's scary how much better you are at reading and writing now.
Kuri was the same. Even though she paled in comparison to Urufu her Japanese had improved by huge strides since summer. That realisation made Yukio a bit uncomfortable. He hadn't known how important the preferred language was for grading other subjects.
Would I look like an idiot if I had to go to school abroad? Or even Noriko? Yukio pushed the last thought away. Noriko failing exams was ludicrous. She was one of the best freshmen at Himekaizen after all with results that probably placed Todai within reach of her aspirations.
In the background he heard Urufu's strangely melodic explanation when he gave examples in Japanese for the English text they were analysing. Whenever he read a sentence aloud for the group to hear the correct pronunciation Kuri interrupted him with a laugh and read it twice. As far as Yukio understood she delivered one version in some kind of British English and then in American English.
Urufu grimaced but never protested. Instead he told his group they should listen to Kuri because her spoken English far surpassed his.
“How good is she?” Yukio shouted when he tired of Urufu belittling himself.
Everyone by the whiteboard turned, and Yukio saw Kuri glance at Urufu rather than the one to blame for the interruption.
“Depends,” Urufu said. “As for pronunciation she bulldozes right over me. There's no comparison.”
“Depends?” Kuri said to test the waters.
“Well, I'd guess your vocabulary is between half to two thirds of mine. What's your take?”
“Spoken, close to ten thousand words,” Kuri suggested and grinned.
“Damn! You're just as good as I suspected.”
“And you? Native level is around fifteen thousand.”
“Native college level, yeah. I'm above that average.”
Kuri's eyebrows shot up. “What kind of vocabulary do you have?”
“The tests couldn't measure above sixteen thousand, so I don't really know.”
Kuri palmed her face. “He killed the test. Why am I not surprised?”
“What tests?” Sango-chan asked.
Both Kuri and Yukio shot Urufu warning glares.
“There were some… ah...” Then Urufu must have caught up with the looks he got from the friends who knew about his first life. “Ah, there are proficiency tests, and I took a few before moving here,” he finished.
You took a few before moving here. Well that's one way of expressing it.
“You took a few tests at college level?”
You're not out of the woods yet. Think, think!
It was painfully visible how Urufu tried to come up with a plausible explanation, but in the end he lit up in a bright grin. “I like programming, and most of the literature is in English, so I needed to learn it to read the books.”
That had to suffice, and from what Urufu had said earlier it partially explained his knowledge of math.
“But you failed your midterms,” came a less than helpful comment from Nori-kun.
Urufu's face clouded over. “I didn't in Sweden,” he said in a subdued voice.
“Huh?” That was Nori-kun again.
“Guys,” Kuri said. “Here in Japan we're graded on how well we can express our English knowledge in Japanese, but neither Ulf nor I are Japanese. When we translate we usually translate from English to Swedish in our heads.”
And that's a lie, Yukio thought. You both told me you don't translate at all any longer. Then it struck him why Urufu had lived through such problems with his Japanese, and a moment later Yukio understood how Urufu's spoken Japanese had developed so insanely fast the last months. You've stopped translating Japanese as well!
With that line of thought something clicked inside his head. Suddenly Urufu's explanation of learning models made sense. 'Learn the rules, break the rules, write the rules' Urufu used to say when he tried to describe what he called analytic-synthetic learning or reverse triple loop learning.
That was way too close.
With a sigh Ulf finished explaining the last problem and looked at the club members present. It seemed they hadn't caught up on his mistake. He guessed that as long as they believed the discrepancy between his real knowledge and his graded knowledge was a result of moving from Sweden to Japan he was safe.
They wouldn't understand anyway. Damn, most people involved in tertiary education won't for that matter.
Content before methods, and methods before context, or else the student would inevitably fail to create new contexts in which to try analysis. That was why he had forced the walking talking sessions onto the club.
And it had bloody better not be either the one or the other, Ulf thought as he walked over to a third whiteboard.
The Japanese education system excelled at content and pretty much nothing else. The Swedish counterpart lay at the opposite end on a scale of criminal incompetence with a stubborn focus on methods without any content to apply them on.
Even an idealised aggregate of the two lacked a systematic application of context, even though Ulf was bound to think Sweden was slightly better off. Those who gained understanding despite twelve years of sabotaged learning tended to have an easier time to apply knowledge and re-evaluate that very application compared to what he had experienced from cooperation with Japanese software developers.
“What are you thinking?” Noriko asked from nowhere, and Ulf became aware he had been caught up in a world of his own.
“I'm thinking I'll make you the best of the best,” he answered.
“Best of the best? In what sense?” Noriko wondered.
Ulf looked at his short friend who had just taken a break from running through some essential data on Japanese history. Essential for the upcoming exams that was. As far as he was concerned it was worse than a monkey see monkey do approach. There wasn't even any doing involved. The exam would test their ability to mimic high performance parrots.
“Knowledge, competence and experience,” Ulf said to give Noriko an answer. He knew he sounded cryptic, but the kids in the club needed to learn how to apply methods to their knowledge before anything else. Some of them already had, and come spring term he'd start giving them case studies to apply those methods on.
With a bit of luck the brightest of them would accuse him of being a first class moron when their second year started.
“You always have those easy three step solutions to everything,” Noriko said.
They're models. Verbalised abstractions, but you wouldn't understand. Not yet at least, but I count on you to call me moron soon.
From the whiteboard he had left he heard conversations in broken English, a broken English that was a vast improvement over the atrocity they had displayed half a year earlier.
I'll give you your results old goat, Ulf thought. Two percent overall for the midterms and I think we'll get closer to five after the finals.
Because he had promised Nakagawa improved test results that day when he was scolded for the locker room incident over half a year earlier. While a five percent improvement wasn't much the club members only had half a year to adapt to his alien views on learning.
I was never this absorbed in work before. Why is it so important now? Then Ulf admitted to himself that he was running from his impending doom, or at least the threat to him and Christina.
I love you, and but for all the crap happening to us I'd tell you in an instant. Still, she'd give up on her career if he told her, and he just couldn't do that to her.
Ulf threw a glance in her direction, filled his mind with her strength and beauty and turned his attention to Noriko again.
“In order to grow you need to know what you don't know,” he said.
Before she answered he looked at Christina again. I'm an idiot. At first I didn't tell you because of Maria, and now when my feelings finally are sorted out I still can't tell you.
Noriko looked as if she was about to voice her answer, but when she followed his eyes she closed her mouth again. Ulf could see how she looked at Christina, then at him and then at Christina again. In the end an expression of determination spread over Noriko's face and she tilted her head and stared directly into his eyes.
“Really? Are you two idiots, or what? She should have dragged those words out of you by now.”
Meeting her eyes Ulf just shook his head. “Don't tell her that!” he begged.
Noriko screwed her mouth into a frustrated smirk. “You are two of the most important people in my life. If you believe I'll allow the both of you to hurt each other like this then you're sadly mistaken.”
Damn, this is Noriko here. She'll do whatever she thinks needs doing. Ulf still remembered her confession when she dragged her brother into the scene, not to speak about the spectacle at the amusement park shortly after.
“We need to talk,” he said and grabbed her hand. “Now!”
Dragging her through the door only took moments, but it still wasn't fast enough to prevent someone from shouting.
“Wrong girl, man!” the voice called out, but he was already outside and continued through the main entrance to make certain they were outdoors before he said anything more.
Outside lamplights blinked miserably in a rain that never seemed to stop these days. It was just as bad as an especially awful December week in the Gothenburg he remembered from his former life. For a moment Ulf regretted that he hadn't brought an umbrella, but now it was too late for details like that.
I have to make her understand how adults think. And what great adults we are Christina. What an awful mess!
“Noriko,” he said and let go of her hand. “You really mustn't tell her. If Christina requests I say how much I love her I will, and if I do I'll destroy everything.”
Noriko stared back at him with incomprehension in her eyes.
“Look, if she quits her career for me she'll regret it for the rest of her life.” Noriko, I hate telling you how life works. You should stay a child for a little longer. But Christina was more important to him, and in the end he decided to force his friend to grow up a little in advance. “There's no way in hell the two of us will survive that in the long run. Please, please, please don't tell her!”
Wet sounds under her feet accompanied her walk from the train-station. Her brother, her very much not an idiot brother at the moment, walked a bit ahead of them leaving midget sister and tall model an opportunity to talk undisturbed.
These were the rainy days of Tokyo, and more so these were the rainy days of her heart. While she had all but buried her feelings for Urufu, Kuri had become an important friend, and watching the two of them breaking apart hurt more than Noriko had thought possible.
I don't understand you. I don't understand you. I don't understand you! How two people so obviously in deep love with each other could let what they shared slip though their fingers was beyond her.
“I can't say anything more. I gave Urufu a promise,” Noriko said and looked up at her friend.
“Coming to Japan this way, to a new life in a new world. I don't regret it. I never will,” Kuri said.
Are you really talking with me, or are you just thinking aloud?
“You see, there was never any promises. It's a transition and restart, but there's no guarantee I'll always be happy with it.”
“But...” Noriko began.
“Urufu is an adult,” Kuri interrupted. She made a pause to jump across a suspiciously dark pool of rainwater. “In many more ways than I am he's an adult who lived an adult life.”
“Go on,” Noriko said. Kuri would anyway, so there was no point in pretending this was a conversation. When Kuri was done emptying her soul she'd say so.
“I chased dreams in that other life, and I reached my goals one after another, but I never really grew up.” Kuri smiled and Noriko saw a perfect line of white teeth glimmering in the street lights. They looked just as alone as the rest of Kuri's face.
“What do you mean?”
“I never had to stop behaving like a spoiled teenager. Apart from marriage I got everything I pointed at. Sure I worked hard for it, but I never failed. Not once.”
The billion dollar empress. Yeah I can see how you became a force of nature, like Alexander the great.
“You didn't die,” Noriko said.
“Sorry, I was thinking of something else.”
Kuri tugged her coat tighter around herself and burst out in laughter. “You're a morbid one. No I didn't die.”
Noriko felt a little ashamed that she had forced an end to Kuri's monologue, but she didn't really understand what the beautiful woman turned girl spoke about. Friend, you're my friend despite being older than my parents. That was the most important. Friend. Noriko's life hadn't been filled with those.
They turned left at a red light and followed Ryu along narrow streets leading to her home. Kuri would spend the night with them. Noriko's mother had already agreed, and it wasn't exactly like Kuri had anyone to ask permission from.
Thinking of home made the next question come natural. “What about your new place?”
By her side Kuri flinched, and Noriko guessed whatever came next would be a watered out lie.
“It's the kind of luxury I grew tired of many years ago.”
“Closer to school?” Noriko wondered and immediately regretted the inane question.
“I guess so. Not that it matters. I'll get a driver.”
I'm so sorry. Kuri, I'm so sorry for you!
“It's the kind of high security living only the very rich can afford.” Kuri's voice died a little with every word in that sentence.
Watching her friend so lifeless stabbed at something inside Noriko, and she understood just a little better what it meant to care for a friend. So they made sure Urufu will never get inside. I'm so sorry!
“They even offered a transfer to a private school for that kind of people.” Then Kuri's face lit up in a beautifully malicious grin. “That didn't fly though. It seems us arrivals attending Himekaizen isn't optional.”
No, you're no longer an empress. You gave that up for a chance at living, didn't you? Somehow Noriko grasped that such thoughts weren't for a child of sixteen, and somehow she grasped she had just lost a little bit of innocence.
“And I don't have to pay anything for it. They even quadrupled my salary.”
Didn't have to pay anything? You had to pay everything you idiot!
“I've never been paid so well for being betrayed. There's this magazine, Vogue, and they set me up for life.”
With that sentence Noriko knew Kuri had just put words to the lie.
“Is it worth it?” Noriko had to know. In a way it was a little like the kind of life expected of a daughter to her parents.
“No,” Kuri said, and for the first time since they left Stockholm Haven café her face radiated real happiness tinged with a large dose of love and pride. “No, I'd throw it away in a heartbeat. I already lived this life once, but I never had Ulf before. I'd even become a good Japanese wife and stay home if I could just keep him by my side.”
“Then why don't you?” Despite asking something that went against everything she believed in Noriko just couldn't let go. Frustration mounted in her, and just as she was about to continue Kuri sighed and voiced her answer.
“Because Ulf would throw me away in an instant. He'd never agree to me betraying myself. That's what I admire most about him.” Large eyes, blue even in the poor light of the night met Noriko's. “That's what makes me love him more than life itself. If he was anything less I'd love him less.”
“But you'd get to keep him.”
“And live a life of lies? No, I couldn't do that to him. I'll never play house with him. I'll have all of him or nothing at all.”
Book four: Chapter two