Midsummer's eve, heating up
Yukio felt Kyoko's arms around him. It was something he never got tired of. So much love and so much trust in that simple hug. He wanted to hug her back, but looking down at his hands he saw how dirty they had become from handling the briquettes.
Beside him Urufu had thrust what looked like an oversized hair-dryer into his grill and the briquettes were already spitting sparks as they heated up. A minute or so later he seemed satisfied and with a naughty grin he handed the devise over to Yukio.
How hard can it be? Yukio thought. It took him less than half a minute to regret that thought.
He got some help from Urufu, and together they brought the second grill to the temperature where it would take care of itself. All the while Kyoko never let go of her embrace, and Yukio could feel her face buried in his back. It made fixing the grill harder, but he didn't mind at all.
“No games?” he asked?
“No games,” Urufu said. “We're a bit too old for that anyway. The kids can play around by themselves for all I care.”
“Kids,” Yukio laughed. “Some of them are older than we were.” He felt Kyoko tighten her grip on him. Sorry my love. It'll be just fine, I promise.
“Well, we're not putting them to work or anything.”
We won't. Not like they did back then. But even so it was kinda fun, Yukio remembered.
Christina stared in stunned disbelief as business suit after business suit headed for the small reception. A large sign was prominently screwed to the wall. Twin Arc Production, it said. And below it a smaller sign announced workshops for middle management in English and Japanese.
Nakagawa, you bastard! Ulf was in no shape to run any classes for paying customers, and his expertise was very, very different from her own.
She ran up the stairs and through the corridor to the room Ulf shared with Ryu and Yukio. When she slid open the doors she could see how daylight gave way to the short dusk offered in Japan. Within a quarter of an hour it would be dark. Nothing like the endless dusks she had grown up with in another world.
Ulf lay sleeping on the tatami mats. He hadn't even bothered with pulling out a futon from the alcove where they lay stacked in wait for the night. Not that anyone would come here to make the beds tonight. They were supposed to be out camping after all.
Christina threw a guilty look along the corridor before she entered the room. Teenager girls weren't supposed to be that brash here in Japan, but it was still long before bedtime and that gave her a bit of a leeway should anyone come here.
She sat down beside him and pulled his head onto her lap. Slowly stroking his hair she revelled in the luxury of feeling the man she loved under her hands. Even asleep and riddled by nightmares he was still her Ulf, her U-kun. By now she knew he loved two women. Her because she was part of his life, and his wife Maria who was left behind in that other world that was lost to them both.
That knowledge hurt more than she expected. She couldn't compete with a ghost or a memory. In a way she would always remain his second love, because there was no way for him to find closure with his first life. Maria, whoever you are, and whatever you do, I hope you were worth it, because I want him so much to be my own. Maria, I'm sorry, but I'll try to take him from you even if you're only a memory to him now.
There were tears in her face. Some of them of her own misery, and some out of concern for him.
I was going to wake you up, but sleep. Just sleep for a while longer. Reluctantly she lowered his head to the tatami mat. She brought a pillow for him and carefully cradled his head to make place for it under him. I can't get enough of you, but I have to take care of the insanity downstairs.
Christina left the room after giving him a long look. Then she made her way to the entrance floor again. The first person she met was a ridiculously tall man, so beautiful she almost started laughing.
If the entrance had called up images of insanity earlier it was nothing compared to the current madness.
“Sir?” she asked. “What's going on?”
“Ah, Ageruman-san, perfect. We'll do the shots by the waterfront tomorrow. Eight sharp fine with you?”
She stared at the producer for her shots the last week, and then she looked at the crew carrying camera equipment inside the lobby. Nakagawa, I'm going to kick you so hard you have three Adam's apples. Dammit, Ulf's in a walking coma and need all my help, and now you've dragged the entire set for the Uniclo job here. She wanted to scream. That job wasn't supposed to start until September, but Uniclo was way too big an opportunity for her to decline. It's like he's forcing us to hit the ground running. But for her situation with Ulf it wouldn't have been a problem. She had managed far worse earlier, but right now. Right now she felt uncertainty and fear building up in her like it had done all those years ago when she was still a teenager trying to make it into the modelling world for the first time.
There's a difference now. Ulf's the difference. Back then I only had to care for myself. And that was a lie, she knew. Her career had cost her her first love because she hadn't cared about his fears and feelings of loneliness.
Will it be the same again? Would you have me chose between you and my work? Ulf, I need you! I need your honesty and humanity. And she knew what he would have said. She choked down the sobs that threatened to build up in her and accepted that she would gamble her love in an unforgiving game.
“Eight sharp will be just fine,” Christina said before her producer started to wonder if she had fallen asleep or not. “I apologise. I didn't expect to see you here so soon.” I didn't expect to see you here at all, and you bloody know that. “Dressed in set, or prepared for make-up?” she asked and immediately regretted her words. I'm not supposed to have lived this life before. Dammit Christina, play a little more stupid!
“In the bus will be just fine,” he said.
Christina nodded and went for the dining hall where the business suit migration had ended up. Then she had to mentally slap herself again. In this world she had never prepared an outdoor shot in a mobile studio. Just nodding as if the word 'bus' held all the information she needed was way out of character.
When she looked over her shoulder she saw him smiling. Oh well, that cover is blown to hell. He knows I'm pro, and now he knows that I know. She gave him the wave ending with a thumbs up she usually gave her personal crew late in her career before an important shot. He wouldn't know exactly what it meant, but he would know she had done this far too many times for her to remember.
Right now she had more important matters to take care of. She dressed her face in her billion dollar empress expression and marched in on the unsuspecting business men.
That was an ugly stunt you pulled on them. Nakagawa you arse! James brought another cup of espresso to a waiting suit. The resort lacked a professional barista, and given the latest guests sorely needed one. He had taken it upon himself to help Christina's grandfather make a good impression, and thus it was that he found himself in a white uniform better suited for a high end Tokyo coffee house than this old fashioned holiday resort.
The suit took the coffee without as much as giving him a glance. Gotta love my own place. I can talk with my customers there.
James walked to the bar where he could prepare the next order. All over the dining hall waitresses in faux kimonos served beers and stronger beverages while trying to hide the tired faces that came with waiting on tables for too many years.
The old goat, and in this case it really was an old goat, wasn't traditional enough to force his staff to work in the real deal. A kimono would have been suffocating in August. Thinking of him made James feel like a little kid. He's a hundred, bloody hell! Those were subjective years of course. He looked forty, just like the Wakayama parents he had attended school together with. They were at Himekaizen at the same time I was the first time. But in this world, not the other one where I lived.
James' thoughts were reaching the point where he was about to play the 'what if' game when a young woman strode into the hall. She had the looks of royalty inspecting her subjects, and it took a few seconds before he realised it was Christina who had entered. He heard the collective sigh as faces turned in her direction as if commanded to.
She's out of my league. That's not just ten years more experience of living. Damn, she'll eat the poor bastards alive!
“Gentlemen, I'm here to make certain you've brought your bathing trunks. Tomorrow's sessions will start on the beach.”
Surprised murmurs echoed between the tables until one of the more senior members of the assembly rose to address her. “Young lady, what is the meaning of this?”
She seemed totally unperturbed by his haughty voice and just sent him a condescending glare. “My name is Ageruman Kuritina, and I'm the CEO of Chag, an associate of TAP.”
“Twin Arc Production, management consulting,” she clarified in a voice that clearly told them all what she thought of anyone in such poor contact with reality that he was unaware of the obvious.
James choked down a laugh and looked at where old Nakagawa sat. The old geezer almost spluttered his coffee over the table and looked like he was about to have a heart attack. Suits you! The kids take care of their own, and they're doing a damn good job at it. Hot damn, she's superb!
“If anyone of you have forgot to bring bathing clothes mister Nakagawa,” she shot a look at the principal, “will be more than willing to rectify the mistake.”
James turned to make a cup of espresso no-one had ordered. He shook with laughter and glee. Sucker! She's got you now! He shook his head in amazement. Well, when she's angry enough her Japanese is almost perfect. Good to know.
When he turned to face the dining hall again Nakagawa had regained his composure and had risen to bow affirmatively.
“Session starts after breakfast at nine hundred hours. Any questions?”
I thought that Ulf guy was bad, but damn she's the bakemono! Billion dollar empress, hell yeah! James loaded his cups onto a tray and made his rounds. He made certain to give Nakagawa the first cup, which had cooled down enough to merit being thrown into the sink.
James watched Nakagawa grimace as he took a sip. It was petty, but James felt like being petty. What the old geezer had put the kids through was awful, and that he had the audacity to pull more surprises on them right now was just that more aggravating. It didn't matter that two of the kids were in their fifties subjectively. They still felt and reacted like the teens they looked like.
“Sir, anything else?” he asked as he watched Christina leave the hall. She was up to something, but exactly what James couldn't guess.
When he received an affirmative followed by the tired wave only someone in middle management used he nodded and headed for the counter. I hope you pull it off, whatever it is you're trying to do.
He's playing it by ear. Kyoko groaned as Ryu set up yet another stupid game for them. It was obvious to her how unplanned it all was, but he seemed to have an uncanny feeling for what worked.
The club members had spent three hours divided into two, three or four teams, competing in one inane was after another, and how Noriko had managed to scrounge up prizes was beyond her.
They're working like a tag-team. I've never thought of them as scary before, but just look at them!
Beside her Yukio failed horribly at wrapping an erected tent in sleeping pads. That had their team coming in last. Kyoko smiled at him. Even when you fail you're my hero.
She walked over to where Ryu had filled two buckets with water and dropped an apple in each. Beside each bucket a smaller box sat half filled with flour, and if the rumours around her were true, a marshmallow hidden somewhere.
“Oh no, shit!” she heard Yukio's voice from behind her. He groaned and continued: “Someone else represent our team.”
He knows this game?
Kyoko glanced at him. He only stood staring at the preparations with a mischievous smirk on his face.
Yeah, he knows. She took a long look at the set-up again and then understanding slowly dawned on her. “No way! No way I'm doing that!”
She felt Yukio's hands on her shoulders. Then his mouth was just behind her ear.
“I love you, just so you know,” he whispered.
She was about to turn around and hug him when he raised her right hand into the air.
“Kyoko just said she volunteers,” Yukio shouted and waved her arm around.
You! You! “Yukio!”
“Look, she's out of words for sheer joy.”
She shot him a glare she hoped he read promises of horrid retribution into. There was no getting out of it now. With a shrug she let her left arm join her right in a boxer's victory-gesture. “Who's my opponent. Who dares face me in epic combat?” She could just as well play along.
From the corner of her eyes she saw Noriko come dancing in exaggerated bounces. “I'll take on the little girl, with one change.”
Kyoko wondered about the last part until she saw Hiroyuki-kun and Sango-chan approaching them from the camping ground with a bucket and a box each in their hands.
“Founder's death-match!” Noriko yelled. “Yukio, wherever your beloved goes you must go.” She guffawed and grinned at her brother. “Planner of mischief, idiot bro. Show us you can compete in as well as plan these games!” She bowed and swung deep with all the flourish of a French musketeer right out of Dumas'.
All four of us? I'm so not going to end up last!
They lined up. Hiroyuki-kun shouted out the rules, and around them all the club-members gathered hooting and laughing.
With her hands on her back Kyoko felt adrenaline rushing in her as the wish to compete grew stronger and stronger. Yukio, eat dust!
Hiroyuki-kun quickly came to an end with the rules. “Ready! Steady! Go!”
Kyoko threw her face into the water and snapped after the apple. It bobbed away and floated back up beside her head. Another attempt to get a bite of it failed as miserably. What the hell! And she had an idea. Almost diving into the bucket she forced the apple to the bottom. This time she got a good grip of it with her teeth.
Triumphantly she brought her head back up with her prize in her mouth. Water splattered all around her, but she had the apple. A hand was stretched out and she spat it out.
Without a thought she dove face first into the flour. Where is it? Her world was white, her face smeared with goo and sticky dough dropped down her clothes. It didn't matter. She hadn't found the marshmallow and she slammed her face into the flour again with frenzied vigour. There! Got it! She grabbed it between her front teeth and rose with arms outstretched.
To her right wet sounds told her Noriko hadn't managed to get her apple yet, and Kyoko swivelled left. Yes! Both boys were face first deep in their flour boxes.
Distantly she heard cheering, and it took a while before the understood she had flour plastered to both her ears as well.
“I did it! I did it! Who's the champion!” she yelled.
“And the winner is, let's hear it for her...”
“Kyoko-chan!” the crowd roared.
She was grinning wildly, and it was just a stupid game, and she was filled with elation. I won! That wasn't a feeling she was used to.
Ryu and then Yukio resurfaced with their marshmallows in their mouths and managed to look crestfallen when they realised she had won. Noriko still made strange and watery noises. She hadn't got the hang of fishing up the elusive apple. When she rose for a new attempt she stared at them and laughed.
“You look like idiots!”
Kyoko looked at Yukio and Ryu. She didn't have to say what she planned. A few moments later Ryu had moved behind his sister and grabbed her arms.
“Oh, no, don't you dare!”
“Watch us!” Yukio grinned and at that signal Kyoko grabbed Noriko's box.
She smiled as sweetly as she could to Noriko. “My dear friend. You look hungry. Some dessert?” Noriko pushed the box to Noriko's face while Yukio pulled her head forward. Then all three let go of their friend and backed away.
“Idiot, you said?” Ryu taunted his sister.
“Bro! Idiot Bro!” And with those words Noriko sprinted after her fleeing brother with a box in her hand. The crowd quickly gave way to avoid being smeared with wet flour.
Through the gap opening Kyoko saw a car climbing the road only to stop at the camping grounds. As the door opened she saw Noriko's mother climbing out of the car and search the students with her eyes.
“Ryu, Noriko, over here! Matsumoto-san and Takeida-san, you're wanted as well.”
Noriko ceased hunting her brother, and Kyoko grabbed Yukio's hand and walked towards the car. Wonder what's up?
“Excellent, kids, you're needed at… what on earth… how do you look?”
“She won,” Ryu said and pointed at Kyoko as if that explained everything. The look on his face was so deadpan that Kyoko doubled up and guffawed.
“We'll be right with you,” she said when she had caught her breath again. Looking at Yukio's face made her giggle again.
Noriko's mother shook her head in exasperation. “You can't look like that when… Oh hell, we don't have the time. Jump in!”
When they arrived at the hotel Kuri stood waiting for them. It was darkening rapidly and the lamp above the entrance threw its own gold onto Kuri's. She gave them each a long stare and palmed her face.
“Kids,” she said, but she smiled before she shook her head and led them inside. “Noriko, I need your help with introducing the four of you,” Noriko felt herself being scrutinized, “I really need your help now.”
Introduce? Noriko looked at the three others. If we all look like this I can understand why Kuri needs help. Crap! During the ride down to the hotel most of the waterlogged flour had fallen off their faces, but there was no hiding the stuff that clung to their hair and shoulders.
Still smiling Kuri walked towards the dining hall. “Who's the genius behind your exciting make-up?”
“Eh, I came up with the games, but...” Ryu began.
You idiot! Know a trap when it's dumped before you feet!
“Then you'll be in charge of tomorrow's activities,” Kuri said and gave him an outright malicious grin.
How could you not see how you were being set up for a job? Noriko sighed and waited for Kuri to continue.
“Sure,” he answered without faltering. I'll run the members through some physical exercise. Maybe my own take on a walking talking session.” Ryu looked at Noriko as if to see what she thought of his ability to take things in his stride.
“Not our members,” Kuri answered, and her grin grew if possible even more sinister.
Not our members? Then they rounded the reception desk and entered the dining hall. Noriko stared in stunned disbelief. When did all that people arrive here?
The hall was half full with the kind of people, all men, who usually surrounded her father. At least that was what it looked like. When Noriko gave the assembly a second look while Kuri savoured her last surprise, she saw that the faces lacked the assertiveness and self-reliance the knew from her father's associates. They don't look… they don't look like Urufu, she finally realised.
“Looks like the people who carry out dad's orders,” Ryu commented silently. “What do you want us to do with them tomorrow?” he asked and surprised Noriko with how quickly he accepted the situation.
Bro's becoming like dad. He always admired dad. Noriko glanced at Ryu. He's growing into what Urufu already is. That's the real difference between them. Urufu's already an adult, but Ryu's growing into someone I can't call idiot bro any more. It shocked her more than she wanted to admit that her brother was already in the process of becoming someone she would one day come to respect.
Noriko watched Kuri look at her brother with equal parts surprise and approval. Then she nodded thoughtfully. “I might just have to change my initial introduction,” she said and strode into the hall to get the attention of everyone present.
Her Japanese has really improved a lot this summer. Must be the time she spends with Urufu, Noriko thought, and with that thought came a sudden thorn of unexpected jealousy. And I thought it had stopped hurting. And with that thought came yet another realisation. They're both adults. She's already what he needs, and I'm only just growing into someone who could someday fill that need. That hurt a lot more than seeing him with another girl, because it meant he probably didn't even see her as a woman at all. We're just kids to him.
“Go ahead,” Ryu proposed to Kuri's back, and his words shook Noriko out of her thoughts.
“Wakayama Ryu, our resident clown,” Kuri said and bowed ironically to Ryu after she had got the attention she wanted, “will handle activities until lunch is served tomorrow. He just returned with his staff after arranging games for the students who are currently camping on the mountain. I'll leave your questions to him.”
Noriko watched her brother shrug the challenge off, and then he dressed up in his most winning smile and walked to Kuri's side.
“Gentlemen,” he said in the voice he used whenever he was allowed to take part in conversations with their father's business partners, “let not our unseemly outward appearance dissuade you.” With a discreet gesture he introduced Yukio, Kyoko and herself. “And please do not mistake our youth for a lack of training in the work we have ahead of us tomorrow morning.”
“What kind of joke is this,” an older man in a conservative business suit drawled.
Over fifty and past his last opportunity to make a career, Kyoko noted. She had seen enough of the men and women who passed though her father's professional life to identify the failures without thinking. And so had her brother, she knew.
“The only joke is a misjudged estimate of time-boxing earlier. The event couldn't be called off despite the need for our presence here. Any more questions” he asked.
He was rewarded with several smiles and a few soft laughs.
So most of them are already tired of the old geezer. Noriko slid behind Yukio and grinned.
“What did you have planned for us?” another man asked.
He might have been in his mid thirties, and the edge in his voice made Noriko come back from her temporary hiding place. Hungry eyes. Careful bro. To her left Kuri looked at Ryu with a predatory, calculating gaze. She's assessing him. That's the look mom has when she helps dad hire the really important ones.
“An appropriate question,” Ryu said. “We'll run you through a physical and mental workshop we call walking talking.”
“Yes?” the man said. He was clearly waiting for Ryu to stumble and make a fool of himself.
“Basically it's a long walk during which you're called to handle cross competence problems in teams. In order to be a good member of a cross functional team one should get used to cross competence thinking.” Ryu took a few steps and Noriko could see how he moved his gaze over his audience to call for more questions.
I never noticed he listened that closely to Urufu's reasoning. Damn, my idiot bro could actually land this one! She knew he had already lost most of them, and that he had done so deliberately. Well done bro. They wouldn't dare to show that they didn't understand a high school kid.
Kuri must have seen something else though, because she cut in before any more questions could be asked. “As you may have assumed by now these four are employed as junior consultants in TAP.” She paused just long enough to awaken the want to pose a new question, but not long enough to ask one. “While they lack work experience from the industry you can rest assured that Hamarugen Urufu, the Swedish CEO, has invested a substantial amount of personal time in training them to the best of his ability.”
“Will we see this CEO of yours?” It was the same man again, and for the first time Kuri faltered.
“During the walking talking? No,” Ryu said, and Noriko saw the grateful look he got from Kuri. “He's otherwise occupied for the morning.”
“He'll make an appearance during the afternoon. I'm afraid I don't know his schedule, but I promise to pass on your question to him.” Just as Kuri was on the verge of saying something Ryu continued. “Would you want me to return with his answer later this evening?”
“No, no that won't be needed.”
Gods! I didn't know you could gamble this way! Noriko sent her brother a thought of respect. Tomorrow afternoon then. You bought us at least that much time. She glared at Kuri to make her keep her silence, and after that the five of them filed out into the lobby.
When Ryu came down to the lobby in the morning he heard agitated voices from outside the hotel entrance. A night's sleep left him hungry and he was torn between what his stomach wanted and his curiosity. In the end curiosity won.
He moved to the doors and tried to hear what was going on. Some kind of heated debate, that much was clear, but he could only hear fragments of it.
“...breaking them! I don't care...” The wind carried away what he recognised as James' voice.
Then an older responded. “...maybe I went too far… can't be helped now...” Principal Nakagawa. Ryu was rather certain he recognized that voice, but it wasn't one he had heard all that often. He risked peeping outside. Yes, that was James and Nakagawa talking. They stood in front of a bench, and Ryu had a vision of how both men had started their conversation sitting down, and how they both rose when agitation rose.
I can't really walk out and listen in on them. Pity. He sauntered across the lobby and went in hunt for his waiting breakfast. In the doorway to the dining hall he met Kuri dressed in a nondescript T-shirt and baggy shorts. He waved at her when the sound of a running engine reached him from the outside. “Who comes here at this hour?” he wondered aloud.
“Not coming. Going. That's Nakagawa,” Kuri said and grimaced.
She moved aside to give room for a few students who for various reasons hadn't camped overnight, and then she gave him a pat on his head. “The old geezer is out shopping for swimming trunks.” She had a glimmer in her eyes that made Ryu wonder.
“Kuri, what did you do?” he chanced.
She resumed her walk and waved over he shoulder. “I told the business suits they had to be on the beach by nine, in bathing clothes.
“You didn't!” Ryu stared after her, but she was already outside. Nine o'clock. Plenty of time, but I have to get the others on-board.
He was just about to enter the dining-hall when he realised he ought to have been surprised by the sounds of people talking. Most of the club was camping atop the nearby mountain, so the hotel should have been all but empty. Well inside he got one reason, but most definitely not the reason.
What on earth? The people inside were mostly adults, but only a few of them belonged to his future problem later this morning. Ruy saw a few young men who were all taller even than Urufu by a wide margin. They moved with the self assurance of those who knew they're more than merely handsome. A bit like me, Ryu admitted ruefully, but I don't flaunt it that way.
They looked like models, and if Ryu's guess was correct, they probably were. A larger crew of people with the looks of technicians and executives only strengthened his assumption.
Back in a corner he saw Yukio chatting with Kyoko, and his sister waved him over. Even Urufu sat there looking morose.
After stacking two plates and a glass Ryu headed for the table. “Morn,” he greeted them as he placed his first run on the table. The he went back for his second. It became a habit getting your hotel breakfast together, but he'd never seen anything like the perfection displayed by Urufu and Kuri the morning before. Another tell-tale difference between already having lived as an adult once and slowly becoming one for the first time.
As he sat down he heard Yukio switching his attention from Kyoko to Urufu.
“Man, feeling better?”
Ryu wanted to say something. It was his nature to be the active party in any situation social, but for once he sensed that it was better if Yukio led this conversation on.
“Fine,” Urufu responded with as much honesty as a conman caught red-handed in the act.
Ryu studied his friends. The tired look Urufu carried like a shield, Yukio's concern and Kyoko pointedly watching the other tables to stay out of the way. Noriko played her part in the game as well by staring at everything Urufu except his eyes.
Ryu groaned inwardly. He was aware his crush on Kuri hadn't abated one bit, but that was it. A crush. His sister though, she had fallen deeply in love with Urufu when he allowed her inside his sphere of close friends.
“Then you'll help Ruy wrap the walking talking up? And lead the afternoon sessions?”
Crap, he doesn't know!
Urufu shook his head, and an amused glimmer reached his eyes. “You're walking talking with the club on our field trip? Poor sods!” He leaned his head onto his shoulder and looked at Ryu. “Wrap it up?”
That was more than he could take. Ryu felt a shiver run through him as it dawned on him that the rest of them counted on him. “I'll handle it,” he said, “but I need you for the afternoon.”
Urufu gave him a tired look. Then he slovenly raked the contents of one plate into his mouth. “Eah, ay e ere,” he said with his mouth full of food.
Ryu stared at the vulgar display and hoped it really meant that Urufu planned to be there for him. But if it did then Urufu still believed it was all a matter of handling the club members up at the camping site.
“Urufu, man, we have a problem,” Yukio said, and Ryu was grateful that the wingman took some of the burden off him. “It's not the club members.”
That woke Urufu up. “Christina's in trouble? She walked out of us earlier, didn't she?”
I'd hate to be in her shoes, Ryu thought. She saved the day yesterday, and I didn't even know she had this shit coming. He had finally realised why the dining hall was full of people in the fashion business. “Urufu, she's fine, but she can't help us right now. Only you can.”
When he looked across the table he saw how Yukio nodded in approval, and even Kyoko stopped pretending her lack of interest and shot him a grateful glance.
In her chair Noriko hastily swallowed the last of her miso soup and looked at Urufu. “I'm afraid my father and Principal Nakagawa messed up,” she said. “There are a lot of TAP customers here as well.”
Ryu wasn't alone in throwing her an angry glare.
“TAP customers?” Urufu drawled absently. “That's a long time ago, and it's not like I could go back there to help them now.”
What was done was done. It was now or never. “The hotel is crammed with executive drones,” Ryu said and placed a finger to Urufu's forehead. “I'll handle the morning, but they want to see you after lunch. I don't have your knowledge so I can't even begin to plan the afternoon.”
“We need your help,” Noriko shot in. “We'll help in any way we can, but we're out of our depth here.”
“Sure, I'll do it.” Urufu shrugged, and Ryu didn't believe a word he had said.
Make or break. This was the kind of off season, off setting shot that had built her career all those year ago. They were doing a late autumn set, and she was supposed to spend a chilly day by the beach with one or more out of numerous boyfriends or love interests. It all tied in perfectly with the last years' fad with a gaijin prize, in this case with her being the exotic foreigner claimed by a Japanese man.
She didn't care. Successful fashion was reading fads expertly in the first place, and she had built her empire that way. She did care about this August being even hotter than anything she could remember from Japan.
Christina threw on a horrible flimsiness pretending to be an overcoat and made certain to wear it just a little bit wrong to bring out her legs underneath it. Then she willed herself to early November and walked along the waterline. The guy holding her hand, a tall and drop dead gorgeous man in his early twenties, lacked her experience and they had to retake the shots. It was about that time she found out that he was drop dead gorgeous only until he opened his mouth and spoke.
Shit, he's a moron on top of being an amateur! She frantically wished Ulf had been there. He'd have been a guaranteed first timer and would have done exactly what she told him. Not this idiot who believed he was a professional model just because someone equally incompetent paid him to be one.
It took them five tries to get the initial shots right, and by that time the camera crew smiled apologetically at her. One of the executives, probably the brain-dead agent of her partner, was breaking down and making an absolute arse of herself when she started screaming demands to the producer.
Christina's agent made a point of sitting at a distance, drinking tea and let her unexpected superstar rookie do the job.
Further down the beach an assembly of middle aged men in swimming trunks gathered, and Christina felt her face splitting into a wide grin. Let's see what the kid will do with this.
She saw Ryu waving at her from a distance and waved back. Some of the management droids were bound to know the advertising firm that had raked in a contract with Uniclo. Top tier material wouldn't have cared, but most of these were second rate executives with unrealistic dreams of one day becoming corporate management. Worst case they didn't even dream any longer.
Then there was that hungry looking mid thirties guy. He was dangerous, and she had misgivings about how Ryu would handle him. Still, he wasn't alone. He had his sister and Yukio and Kyoko to share his burden with. They are trying to their job, and I have to do mine. For a moment loneliness crept upon her, but she waved away that thought as a sign of weakness she couldn't afford now.
She quickly changed for the second set and came out of the bus in a body hugging cardigan that was ludicrously hot in the morning sun. Closer to noon they'd pay respect to the weather and do some more normal bikini shots for a late summer campaign, even though she harboured a suspicion that it was mostly a ploy to make her take off her clothes. A test of her audacity rather than any want for nudity. They needed to see if she would balk at the thought or not.
Ryu led the business drones helped by Kyoko and Yukio. Christina saw Noriko walk from one group of middle aged men to the next. She's clarifying the concepts, just like in class. Strange, what is he up to now? She saw Ryu leading the groups up the walkway and into the small town on the other side of the road.
They had time to finish the second set without any major mishaps and Christina slipped into a decently designed party outfit. She could have made use of it herself but for the all too reddish tinge where hints of earthen colours should have been. When she came out of the bus again she saw Kyoko hanging over the railings to a bluff overlooking the beach. They waved to each other and after that Christina walked to the beach for the third set of shots this morning.
She slapped away the first two hands sliding up her trousers and the owner of the third received a hard glare from her together with the slap. “Enough of that. I have a boyfriend.” That means go burn in hell, but that's beyond your tiny brain. “Let's get the shots finished, shall we? Christina conjured up what she hoped was a shy but determined smile. Playing the diva this early in her career would have her popularity stocks plunge.
Back on the beach she noticed that Ryu had taken everyone down the hill road to the stony part close to the waterline and led them over a stretch of rock walking. She knew it emptied on a narrow stretch of sand a bit south, and from there group after group of men in swimming trunks came onto the main beach. They talked excitedly, each group converging on the tablet Yukio or Kyoko must have equipped them with.
You cunning bastard, Christina smiled. She hooked arms with the model who had been last in turn to try to grope her, pretended she had been dating him for a few weeks and ran laughing over the sand with him trying to catch her. It made for a few good shots.
Behind her she heard the voices from the groups of businessmen as their discipline evaporated. It was soon followed by Noriko's admonitions. Ryu, you really planned to have them walking in on us. I bet you're going to give them a water break now as well. Whatever he was, he wasn't nearly as stupid as his little sister believed.
It was well played. More so than she hoped he had truly envisioned, because at his age that kind of human knowledge would make him callous rather than just bright.
Christina decided to make the most of it. She moved so the camera crew would have the crowd throwing envious stares at the male models in the background. One of the camera guys grinned at her. So there's at least one full bloodied pro here. She gave him a discreet thumbs up to let him know she had noticed and pranced for the cameras again. I want the pros speaking well of me. They were the best to work with as well, and they carried a lot more clout than people in the business gave them credit for. A crew could make or break a shot, so when a good one wanted a specific model they tended to get what they asked for.
Giving the camera crews and her fellow models the best she had she played along, sliding from pose to pose without making it look like she did so. She could feel ten years' of experience mix with the nervous freshness from restarting her career. And all the time her thoughts went not to Ulf, but to Yukio and Kyoko who had the thankless task of being errand boys.
Yukio wondered how Urufu was doing, but he admitted that working with Kyoko was a pleasure.
“Noriko's mom is at the walkway with tea and fruit. Help me?” she asked before she made for the road.
She didn't have to. Yukio grinned at his girlfriend, my girlfriend, I love that expression, and nodded. “Sure. We'll be off to get you a small meal,” he shouted to a nearby team and ran after Kyoko. He barely noticed how they waved understanding.
“They're all looking at Kuri-chan,” she said when he caught up with her.
“Uhum,” he agreed. “A nice view during your next break. So that's what Ryu meant when he gave that promise.”
Kyoko laughed and grabbed his hand.
She looked great, filling out her clothes in a way neither Kuri nor Noriko did. Not that he was going to tell. Not yet at least. “You're beautiful,” he said instead.
She stopped for a moment and looked at him. “Do you really think so?” There was something vulnerable in her eyes, and he could see her looking down at the beach where Kuri showed off one otherworldly stance of female perfection after another.
Yukio looked at Kyoko, studied her carefully for some time before saying anything. Now was not the time to give a wrong answer.
A gust of wind blew life into Kyoko's hair, and glimmers of sunshine traced paths between strands of hair and caressed her face. They mixed with pearls of sweat and reflected back on eyelashes and cheekbone. How can you possibly doubt your beauty. You shine with life and you allow me to bask in it. “Yes, I really think so. From the moment I saw you walking beside Kuri I had my eyes on you.”
He felt Kyoko pull his hand around her and grab his other hand in an embrace. “That early?”
“You should know,” he teased. “You tried to make me confess to Kuri you know, that day when I made a fool of myself in your classroom.”
“Unfair,” she whispered into his chest. “Don't make me remember. I'm still ashamed about that.”
It had been the right thing to say. Doubly so, because he felt the truth of his own words echo throughout himself. I love you. You're perfect. “It's still what I feel,” he said and buried his nose into her hair.
They stood like that for a long time. Yukio knew they should run to the road and fetch the bags waiting for them there, but right now he didn't want to let go. A moment of perfect happiness, and he was graced with the fortune to share it with the girl he loved. In the end Kyoko showed the responsibility he chose to lack.
“Yukio, Noriko's mom is over there.”
He felt Kyoko's face peeping out under his arm and dared to look around. Noriko's mother did indeed stand beside her car, tapping her fingers on its roof, but she smiled at them. “Mmm, guess you're right.”
They let go of their embrace and walked to the car, but Yukio made sure not to let go of the hand he held. Kyoko's fingers hugged his and with every second step she squeezed just a little. You wanted to stay there as well. Thank you!
“Green bottles are tea. The others water. Thermos coffee,” Noriko's mother greeted them with a business like voice that belied her huge grin.
I wish my mother was like that. Then he felt ashamed of himself. His parents tried as hard as they could. They just couldn't stand each other, but none of them had ever allowed that antagonism to disrupt his life. Despite their feelings of mutual dislike they always made sure to pretend they were still a team whenever he was involved. And now I'm lying again. Whenever I'm involved they don't just pretend. Give them the respect they deserve!
“Backpack for me and bags for Yukio?” Kyoko asked.
Her question brought him back to the work ahead. “Yeah, heavy bags for the man so I can be all manly and all that.”
“You? Man?” That one came in tandem from both Noriko's mother and Kyoko. “You wish!” they shouted and laughed.
Guess I deserved that. “Me man, me carry,” he said and flexed some muscles he didn't have.
Kyoko rolled her eyes and shouldered her backpack. “You man, you carry. Now move on before our customers lose their patience.”
Yukio waved to Noriko's mother before grabbing his bags. As they walked back to the beach he felt a pang of regret they prevented him from holding hands with Kyoko, but she made an effort to walk close to him and they touched hands she eventually grabbed his pretending to share his burden.
On the beach he saw Kuri running ankle deep in the sea splashing salt water that had to play havoc with the clothes she wore. Yukio wondered a bit about it. None of her clothes made any sense to be worn outdoors, and no girl he knew would have worn anything that heavy for summer. It looked a little like the manga style fantasies he read, and watched whenever they got animated.
That he used to read and watch. He stole a glance at Kyoko. She knew about his preferences when it came to fiction, but he didn't know if she wanted to share them with him, and spending time with her was far more important than the 2D world he liked.
When they came back with drinks and fruit Noriko gave him a look with equal measures of disdain and approval. He just smiled back and started to distribute the contents in his bags in accordance with what their customers wanted. Customers, never thought this kind of people would be my customers. He smiled and handed out yet another bottle of tea.
They'll keep staring at that model shot for a while longer. Guess I should use the time to see what Ryu's up to. Yukio swung his almost empty bags over his shoulder and walked over to Ryu. “I have tea and a few oranges. Water's out.”
Ryu looked up from his touch-pad and smiled. “Thanks,” he said and accepted Yukio's last bottle. “She's fine with this?” Ryu asked and looked at where Kyoko stood pouring coffee from a thermos.
Yukio looked at his girlfriend while he peeled an orange. Let his eyes linger on her if he was to be honest with himself. “Yeah, we're both fine.” He turned to face Ryu. “When we've learned more we'll want to be more active with the workshops, OK?”
“Sure,” Ryu answered and dove into his tablet again.
Yukio could see Ruy was rapidly running out of ideas, and as he had no qualms about asking Noriko for help he did so in Ryu's stead. She just shook her head before she headed for her brother. Yukio and Kyoko cleaned up after the break and with a wave to Noriko and Ryu they left with the trash and to prepare the next station that Noriko had planned.
When the camera crew took at short break Ryu called for attention and had his groups walk past the set. He made a show of walking over to Kuri and exchange pleasantries. In reality he asked her how Urufu was doing, but that wasn't what it looked like.
As an added bonus he received a few murderous stares from the male models, especially after Kuri saw through his ploy and gave him a friendly hug in the Swedish fashion he still had problems getting accustomed to. Urufu was just as bad and usually hugged people left and right when greeting them.
He high fived Kuri and made off with two groups before Noriko came up to Kuri and repeated the process. She got no murderous stares though, but Ryu felt rather certain a few of the crew leered at his sister. He'd seen her get her fair share of looks in school, and compared to what the models here wore she could as well have been undressed.
“That's my friend and she's off limits!”
Kuri's voice confirmed his suspicions and he turned, prepared to interfere. There was no need. How do you manage to look down on someone half a head taller than you? The next sight caught him by surprise and he slapped a hand to his mouth to stop the laughter that was bubbling up. Way to go sis! And you're even shorter than Kuri is.
“Gentlemen, let's proceed to the next station,” he said to the members of his two groups who stood studying the silent exchange between the girls and the models. “On our way there I want you to find a solution to the last problem, but this time the setting is Normandy a generation after the invasion of England.”
“You have your tablets. Look it up! Noriko will help you with locating any specifics you believe are needed.”
Running a walking talking session was more fun then he would have believed, and Ryu began to understand why Urufu put so much effort into them. By now it was clear that the problems themselves held less importance than the process of solving them. The answers, right or wrong, mattered little.
“I have a question about late eleventh century banking in Europe,” one man said.
Grinning Ryu waved his sister to him and had her help that group.
The next step would be harder. Collecting and understanding process data was beyond him. Urufu always did that work, and Ryu had noticed how even Kuri sometimes was left flabbergasted. That guy sure knows his crap. I'll steal her from you but still keep you as my friend. How he would succeed with that was still an unknown, but solving social problems was what made him tick. In a sense he suspected he was a lot more similar to Urufu than he wanted to admit.
I'll need you after lunch. Kuri's busy so I guess I'll have Yukio get you down. Ryu kicked some sand into the air and silently cursed Principal Nakagawa.
Around him the middle managers were occupied with the problem he had invented and this time both Yukio and Kyoko were able to participate. They had done a thorough reading on medieval Europe when Urufu forced the club to compare Heian era Japan with Saxon England less than two weeks earlier.
Noriko shone as usual. That day she had left Urufu laughing curled up in a ball when she caught him in some kind of error where he painted himself into a corner. Exactly what was so funny about it Ryu never understood, but she had made a conclusion that had Urufu laughing helplessly while at the same time giving her a look filled with admiration.
I can see why you're in love with him, but he's wrong for you. Too old and too cynical. And that thought had Ryu reflecting on his own feelings for Kuri. But she's not cynical, just awfully cold sometimes.
He had to admit Urufu and Kuri made a good pair, but Nakagawa's latest brainchild only served to drive them further apart. Now, there's a cold man. We're just tools to him. But I think he cares for us in his own twisted way.
Feeling depressed he wondered how his parents had gotten involved so closely with the principal. They were alumni of Himekaizen, Ryu knew that much, but Nakagawa couldn't have been their principal back then.
Gods! I need a nice chat out with some of the girls. Karaoke would have been nice. Damn, they should be on their way down from the camping site by now. He wondered who had taken command now that none of the founders of the club were present.
Caught up in his thoughts he almost missed their next station. It was a simple thing with foldable chairs and tables. A few bags held large sheets of paper, post-its and marker pens in different colours.
“This will be the last task before lunch,” Yukio said to the questioning faces looking at Ryu for instructions.
Thanks Yukio. It felt good knowing he had his back covered. Wingman. I think I understand what sis meant when she told me you need one to shine.
Kyoko helped her boyfriend with setting up the tables, and Noriko quickly instructed the groups one by one.
“What's the point with this exercise?” For once it wasn't the old goat who had complained about just everything the entire morning, but the mid thirties something Kuri had warned him of.
Ryu bent over the man's shoulder and resorted to more or less quote Urufu. “Called retrospective. Basically four quadrants representing what worked, what didn't work, which processes should be used in the future and problems that need fixing.”
“And the purpose being?” the man said smiling. He didn't look malicious, just interested in a condescending way.
“It's a powerful tool for teams adhering to an ideal of continuous improvement. Primarily for processes,” Ryu said not knowing exactly what it meant. “If I'm unclear Noriko would be better for clarifying the underlying concept,” he continued and hoped it would be enough to let him off the hook.
She had heard him and came over. Sis, you're also covering for me. This gang is the best!
A short conversation between Noriko and the man told Ryu how much better she had grasped Urufu's teachings. Whenever it was a matter of knowledge she was brilliant in a way he would probably never become.
The time at the station ran to its end, and Ruy sighed with relief. Exhausted, he wouldn't have guessed how tiring it could be. The baking August heat didn't help neither, but the knew it also made the businessmen less alert in catching up on the errors he must have been guilty of the last three hours.
Now he only needed to get them all to the dining hall, and that should buy them another hour. After that it was a matter of make or break with Urufu either handling the afternoon or staying like a zombie. Zombie would be bad, very bad.
Maybe he had pushed the kids a bit too hard, especially those who were really the age they looked. Still, with the Red Rose situation brewing he couldn't afford doing anything else. A suicide was unexpected, even if he secretly was satisfied with the outcome. Rapists deserved death. It was that simple.
Nakagawa looked out through the window and saw how the fashion shots were wrapping up for lunch. Around him the dining hall filled up with their middle management guests and through the door opening to the lobby he could see how the Matsumoto kid ran up the stairs to the rooms. Yukio, was it? Yes, I think so.
The Wakayama twins went straight for his table with the sister giving her brother a bewildered look. You kids aren't supposed to sit here. Ah, my bad, you're not the kids right now, you're in charge of today's events. The brother apparently had a much keener sense of the social game than his sister.
He greeted the twins as they arrived. Today they were colleagues, not principal and students.
“Wakayama-san.” It felt strange to address a student as a peer.
Further back in the hall the Takeida girl stood searching for her friends among the tables with a forlorn expression in her face. Nakagawa rose and waved to her. “Matsumoto-san is upstairs on an errand,” he said to save her some face.
She turned and gave him a surprised look. Then she must have seen the twins seated at the table and hesitantly walked up to them.
“Ryu, have you seen Kuri-chan?” Takeida-san looked at Nakagawa after asking the question. “Sensei.”
To his right Ryu smiled and nodded. “She should be coming back from the beach soon enough. I had Yukio check up on Urufu.” Then he turned his head and looked Nakagawa straight in his face. “I'm out of tricks. If Yukio doesn't manage to get Urufu down here I don't know what we'll do.”
“That makes for an interesting dilemma, wouldn't you say,” Nakagawa said. There wasn't much else he could do. When duty called, and when friends were in trouble, Hamarugen-san would either rise to shoulder the burden, or he was so deeply traumatised by his experience that they'd have to call in experts.
A waiter came with their food and all four of them started to eat. It gave him some time to think about what had happened and give it some context.
And I can only wait and see. Ten years since Ashiga-san arrived and we failed so badly at bringing out his full potential. That was a sobering thought. Meddling was needed, but in Ashiga-san's case it had been the new arrivals who had made his make a stand. Infuriating as his pranks were Nakagawa still preferred to see his old student having a direction in his life once again.
“Is there anything I can do if we have a situation?” Nakagawa asked. He wouldn't be party to actively crashing Hamarugen-san's fledgling business if avoidable.
The Wakayama girl gave him a stare. “Sorry, sensei, but I doubt it,” she said between mouthfuls. “I don't know what your speciality is, but I doubt it involves proactive processing in an event driven environment. After all our educational system can hardly be called a complex ecosystem.”
Nakagawa stared at her. Hamarugen-san, what are you doing to our kids? Changing Japan, starting with this school, wasn't that what you were saying? “That's a novel standpoint,” he observed in lack of anything else to say.
At that time the Matsumoto kid arrived with a frown on his face. He went straight for their table without a semblance of hesitation.
“Yukio?” Takeida-san asked. She looked as if she couldn't decide whether to be happy to see her boyfriend again or worried about the message he brought.
“Sorry, but he's not coming down here.”
“What do we do now?” Takeida-san asked after sharing an exchange of looks with Matsumoto-san. “Where does he want us instead?”
What are they talking about? And they don't seem very worried.
Matsumoto-san shrugged. “He didn't say, but we can't use the dining-hall anyway. The rest of the bunch are coming down the mountain for late lunch, and after that I guess they're off for the beach.”
“Yukio, sit down and eat. I'll take care of it. As long as Urufu says he'll run the afternoon events I really don't care what he's planned.”
The Wakayama twins grinned, and Nakagawa saw how their worries ran off them. With the vigour of youth they started devouring their food, and there was very little conversation around the table after that.
He had another promise to take care of, one he had given to Ageruman-san. Thinking back on how Ashiga-san had developed over the years since his arrival her request made sense, even though Nakagawa was certain she had nothing to worry about. Still, hearing that from a medical expert would be the best way to feel secure.
With a sigh he rose from the table and went in search for Ashiga-san. He wanted someone he trusted to handle the local logistics before he took a taxi to the local airport.
With Hamarugen-san back in action and Ageruman-san never out of it he felt reassured the Red Rose situation could be contained at least until school started again. After that all bets were off and with one of this years arrivals experiencing personal hell in that rat hole Nakagawa could only hope that the problems could be resolved during autumn. After that it would be touch and go with him going into forced retirement.
But first he had that promise to keep. For the first time in over twenty years he was going to ask the enemy for help. They owed him anyway. They had as little interest as he with the direction things were taking at Red Rose, but they were just too involved with that school to afford getting involved with some dirty problem solving.
Book two, chapter two
Book two, chapter four