Midsummer's eve, after dinner
Walking up the hill they were greeted by a crimson sky and a tapestry of shredded clouds clad in gold and black. The setting sun painted them from below with a divine beauty.
Then they reached the crest, and below them the western archipelago opened up, red sunbeams playing along waves and islet after countless islet, making each a precious gem.
“Yes way,” Christina laughed.
“It looks like the land of gods.”
She turned and flashed him a smile taking twenty years off her. “It looks like home.” I'm happy here. I'm happy in this world. I'm happy that it gave me a transition and restart.
They sat in her room. Christina's futon lay rolled up against a wall and Ulf used it as a backrest. His seat was the tatami mats, and she sat between his legs with him as her backrest.
Her hair smelled fantastic even in the sweltering August heat, and he could stay here forever feeling her fingers caressing the backside of his hands as he hugged her.
The talk, however, had taken a turn for the worse.
“I have family. It's problematic.” He hugged her closer.
“How so? And you never told me.”
They were sharing memories again. In Swedish, but no longer distant memories from Sweden.
“Well, my daughter...”
“Daughter!” Christina turned and pushed herself away from him. Stunned rage played in her face. “You got a kid here?”
Ulf blushed. “N, no, it's n, not that way...” he stuttered. I'm an idiot!
“She's my guardian.”
Careful now Ulf. Tread lightly or she'll never forgive you. “I was assigned a legal guardian as part of my background story in this world.”
Christina's jealousy abated. A little. Very little.
“You never told me.”
“You never asked.” And that was a supremely stupid thing to say.
Once again Christina looked like she was going to explode. A moment later he received a hard slap. I deserved that.
It took him the better part of half an hour to calm her down, and he had to run after her into the streets before she agreed to listen to him. By the end of it it was all out in the open.
“How old is she?”
They were standing beneath some trees and Ulf's clothes were soaked with sweat. No cosy hugging on her floor.
“Thirty. Works as a beat cop, or however the system works here in Japan. Uniformed anyway.”
“Your legal guardian is a police officer, and she's your daughter?”
“She's thirty,” Ulf said glumly. He knew it didn't really make sense.
He had sweated all through his casuals and was drenched from the inside out. Now hugging was out of the question, and even though he had a hard time letting go of Christina, the heat outside proved that her asthmatic air conditioner made some difference. Hugging her he'd soak her clothes as well.
“But why?” she asked, and Ulf could see that Christina was fishing for a reason.
“Amaya, my guardian… She kind of resembles...” How do you manage to stay fresh in this heat?
“Oh, oh. Sorry. I didn't know you had kids that early.”
“I didn't. Ten years ago, well, eleven now.” Ulf went silent for a moment. It was still hard to talk about, but Christina had demanded to know. “She was eight.”
Maybe it was some kind of female instinct. Maybe they had just grown close enough for her to understand, but she flinched and reached for his lips with her fingers. “No! Don't say anything!”
“If she had grown up. I've always wondered what she would look like. And, and, with black hair instead of blond, just maybe...” Shit, I shouldn't have said anything! I got angry and now I hurt you.
“Ulf, please! Don't say anything, please!”
I'm a moron. Christina, please forgive me!
And so he stayed silent, but they both knew, and a small wedge crept between them. Somehow the loss of a child is worse for those who never had one, and this loss was something they couldn't share.
“I heard there's a shot this Sunday.”
“Shibuya,” Kuri-chan said, as if that answer carried all the information she needed.
Kyoko looked at her friend. As an afterthought she gave Kuri-chan a hard glare to slap her back to the domain where friends shared a common language. “Please translate that into something us mere mortals can understand.” Sometimes Kuri-chan could be surprisingly dense, or rather, it was as if she moved into a world where she was surrounded by people who could read her mind.
Kuri-chan took a few steps more while she looked like she was trying to solve a difficult problem. Then she seemed to have arrived at a solution. “It's a magazine, or some other commercial shot. Fashion, and models.” It all came out bits and pieces. A strange mix of English and Japanese, but by now Kyoko was getting used to Kuri-chan's mixing up the two languages without a second thought whenever she got really excited. Besides, her Japanese was getting better by the week. Which helped. A lot.
“So you want to watch the event?”
Kuri-chan tried a few extra steps. It looked like she was trying out a new outfit. In a way she is. Fifty, that girl is fifty years old! Sure doesn't look like it. Kuri-chan bounced down the street, very much behaving like the sixteen year old teenager she was in this world. Carefree, she's totally carefree.
Kuri-chan had turned and was walking backwards. A happy laughter bubbled out of her. Then she met Kyoko's gaze. “No. I want to crash the party.” A gust of wind caught Kuri-chan's hair, caressed it and spread it into the sunlight.
She's planning to make gold out of that gold, Kyoko realized. “You want to get scouted?”
“I was 'The Princess of Scandinavia'. Top ten in the world, for ten years. I can be again.”
“I used to be a super model. In that other world there isn't a catwalk on this planet that hasn't begged for my feet to walk it.”
Used to be. Suddenly those fifty years showed in Kuri-chan's eyes. She's looks like sixteen but she's planning a come-back. She looks like a goddess, but I wonder if there's a boy in this school who's as much of a man as she is. Kyoko blushed. Depends on how you define 'man', I guess.
“Thinking of Yukio much?”
Kyoko's blush burned deeper.
Kuri-chan bounced down the pavement dancing backwards. “Ko-chan, this is important to me. I don't like my current job much, and I think Ulf would disapprove.”
How can you move around like that in this heat? “Can you afford not to?” Kyoko knew how hard Kuri-chan worked to ensure her independence.
“For a while. School paid me to keep quiet about you know what.” Kuri-chan's voice became subdued and small.
The 'I know what'. That was disgusting what they did to you. It had better be worth it.
“They paid me a lot. Like, I won't have to work for a year, lot. But I don't want to live through all that money and do nothing.” Christina grinned and danced around the corner to the Asakusa tourist trap. At least they'd leave the heavy traffic behind them.
Kyoko dragged her feet a little. Her clothes were clammy and she felt very unladylike. “So you want to be a model again?”
Kuri-chan nodded. “I was rather popular here in Japan, back home, in the other world, you know.” She must have heard how strange that sounded, because she stopped dead in her tracks and gave Kyoko an apologetic smile. “Even if it sounds strange I'm really a bit too short for modelling,” she said in an attempt to make her earlier ramblings make sense.
“Short?” Kyoko pretended she hadn't heard how flustered Kuri-chan got. I guess living two lives gets confusing.
“Yeah, sounds funny, doesn't it? It wasn't as bad back then. People were a little shorter.” She swept some hair from her face. “I'm still tall in Japan, and in another year I'll have grown into the body I knew.”
“So wait a year,” Kyoko suggested.
Kuri-chan shook her head. “Can't. If I'm to have a running start I have to gain some fame before that. I was lucky last time, and I don't dare to count on being lucky twice.”
“That's not all, is it?”
Kuri-chan looked down. She shook her head. “No. My guardian, the landlady, you know. She wants more money, or… I have to find a way to stay free for another two years, until I'm eighteen.”
“Four years,” Kyoko said. “Twenty here in Japan.”
“Two years, four, whatever. I'll bribe her for another two if it is what it takes to keep my independence. It's important to me.”
You've already lost that independence. You lost it when you met Urufu. Kyoko decided that wasn't a topic she wanted to drag to the surface. The photo shot next Sunday was safer to talk about. “And you want me to come with you?” she asked. More for verification than because she really felt a need to ask the question.
Kuri-chan nodded. “Please!”
Kyoko bowed her head. If it was important for Kuri-chan, then she would be there. Together they headed for the stalls and the open galleria. There was a place serving really good katsudon that Kyoko wanted to share with Christina.
Noriko waited outside the station. “Park side,” she had said.
One Yakobuson Anderusu would arrive together with his girlfriend from Sweden. Anders Jakobsson the name read in her email with the names flipped in the western style. Nesrin Kaplan was the other name other name in her mail. Kapulan Nesurin? Noriko thought. Apparently it wasn't Swedish in origin, but she was his Swedish girlfriend who wasn't Swedish. Noriko didn't understand the naming antics of the people from the wild north.
In reality they wouldn't arrive from Sweden at all. When they learned of the Himekaizen final exams they had simply rearranged their itinerary and spent their first two weeks travelling Kyushu and the Kansai area.
Japan Rail Pass. So much cheaper for foreign tourists, and yet we have so few of them visiting. From exchanged emails Noriko had learned that a similar system existed in Europe where you could go train-hopping from country to country. Apparently it was popular among young people.
You are strange. Boyfriend and girlfriend, and she hadn't even graduated high school, but still their parents must have agreed to them spending a month together alone in Japan.
Noriko shook her head. Different places, different rules.
She waited alone, because her idiot brother was gone for Hokkaido with their mother for a week and wouldn't be back until after the Obon festival. Noriko and her father stayed in Tokyo for the same reason, as they had done two years before. Last year Noriko had gone north with her mother.
Half past one, Saturday the sixth of August. Kuri wouldn't come. She had to plan for tomorrow, and if she didn't show, then Urufu would be absent as well. Probably biking around Tokyo in this heat like the moron he is. Kyoko leaves south the day after tomorrow. She's busy packing. That left Yukio, who had just come back home from the west coast.
So, where are you? Half an hour late, and they'll be here any moment now.
And there they were. “You won't be able to miss us,” he wrote in the last email. What are you wearing? Gods!
Not only did the waving apparition dwarf Urufu, but he had a neon green top-hat on his head. The girl at his side was a dark beauty looking nothing like what Noriko had expected from Sweden. My Swedish girlfriend who's not Swedish. So that's what he meant!
He was pointing at the sign Noriko had in her hands and lumbered in her direction with a huge backpack. The girl, Kapulan-san, carried an equally enormous backpack, but otherwise she wore nothing as horribly out of place as the ridiculous hat Yakobuson-san had.
“Good day, I'm Wakayama Noriko,” Noriko said when the pair came close enough for her to greet them without shouting. Yukio, you little… You'd better teleport here or do whatever people do to flash into existence in the manga you read.
She smiled at her foreign visitors. The club's. They're not mine. They're visiting the club. Gods you're a tall one!
“Anders Jakobsson.” A huge hand shot out and down. It enveloped her small one.
“Nesrin Kaplan, pleased to meet you.” That hand was smaller and came from a more normal height. She was a girl after all. Noriko took the offered hand after Yakobuson-san had released hers.
“You wrote that you'd wait for us here with a friend,” Yakobuson-san said.
Noriko nodded. Being around Urufu and Kuri had done wonders to her English, but the Swedes still spoke too fast in their sing song accent.
“I'll call him,” she said and dug up her phone from her handbag.
“That won't be needed,” she heard a voice from behind her.
“Sorry I'm late.” He switched to English. “I'm Yukio Matsumoto, pleased to meet you both.” Yukio looked up at Yakobuson-san. “Man, how tall are you really? We don't get many like you over here.”
“He's 196, and he's got muscles as well,” Kapulan-san said and snuggled up closer to her boyfriend.
He did. It was like looking at a blond door. You didn't pick that T-shirt by accident. There's something with you that I don't like.
“That's a lot,” Yukio said and turned to the girl. “You two are staying in my father's place. Mom's here with a car to get your luggage.” He took a look at the gigantic backpacks and smiled at Noriko. “Looks like I have to make the trip to the apartment as well. Noriko, they're waiting for us in the park. Could you take them there?”
Noriko looked at the backpacks. It made sense, and she nodded. “Follow me,” she offered to Kapulan-san. “Yukio will be back after he's dumped your luggage. Anything you need from it right now?”
“Not me. I have my sunglasses and wallet. Anders?”
The tall Swede shook his head. “Maybe I should get rid of this one though,” he said and took off his hat.
Thanks for small gifts. “Maybe you should. It's hot today,” Noriko said. This is going to be interesting. They talk so fast, and my English really isn't all that good.
“Thank you Amaya!” Sometimes his legal guardian was just the best. Right now was one of those times.
Sunday. Today is the day for Christina's mad stunt. Thinking of her made his stomach contract. Christina Agerman. If anyone in Tokyo could pull it off it would be her, but still. If I'm this nervous how mustn't she feel right now?
Through the windows he saw the congested traffic, and normally he would have preferred taking his bike into central Tokyo but Amaya didn't even have a bike. At least her car was equipped with a good AC.
She drove expertly and knew almost all short-cuts from her job. They didn't talk much and Ulf was beginning to enjoy the silence when she turned to him with a question.
“Urufu, this girl of yours. Do you love her?”
Ulf looked at Amaya. I think too much before I answer a question, and she's just about the only one who knows I'm not preparing a lie while I'm thinking. “I love her. It scares the hell out of me but I really love her.”
Ulf laughed. It was a hollow laugh, mirthless. Christina, my heart hurts the first time I see you in a day. I feel like my lungs will explode when I first hear your voice. It's like my body isn't large enough to make room for what I feel, and I'm drowning in you. When we part at evenings I just want to hold on to you so you don't disappear. The days we don't meet I'm lost.
“Yeah,” Ulf answered. He could hear how hoarse his voice was. “Yes, very much.”
Amaya frowned and took a corner. “For your sake I hope she loves you back. You're a difficult one to live with.”
“I'm sorry. I'm grateful you took me in despite the way I behaved when we met,” Ulf said. I hurt you, and you still cared for me even before you believed I was who I am.
She wheeled the car to a revolver style parking house and hit the brakes. “One day you need to give voice to your feelings.” Amaya opened her door, left the car and waited for him to show his head over the roof. “You talk a lot about rational things but you never talk enough about emotions. You have to or you'll lose everything,” she said after he popped up his head.
The car slid inside its box and was winched inside the belly of the parking house. Ulf watched it vanish. “I don't like to talk about my feelings. Words can't be unsaid and I feel vulnerable,” he admitted. Amaya was probably the only one he could talk about everything with. I am really grateful to you. You made me a home in this world.
She studied him with one of those intense stares of hers.
Bloody mind-reader, but that's why I trust you so much. You've never abused your ability to read me. “Yes Amaya?”
“It's mother dear,” she said.
What did I do wrong this time? OK only abused a little bit. “What is it mother dear?” By now Ulf knew better than to push her when she got into one of those moods.
The walked the first street towards Shibuya in silence. Traffic was bad and the heat murderous. The air stank of almost melting asphalt.
“You're still hurt Urufu. You told me how much you lost when your daughter died, and I can only understand parts of it.” Amaya sighed and drew a new breath before she continued. “When sis died I was devastated, and I cried a lot and the world was a black place.” Amaya stopped in her tracks and faced Ulf. “But,” she said and pointed her index finger at him,” and this is an important but. My parents had it worse. So I guess you had it worse.”
Ulf took a step backwards. Amaya ripping into his memories like this opened up old wounds.
“Urufu please tell her what you feel. You're closing in on yourself and you never let anyone inside. It would have been bad enough if it was just a teenage fling, but it isn't, is it?”
And you are way, way, way too perceptive! When did you find out? “Amaya?”
“Mother dear, I told you!”
“Yes mother dear.”
“I hear when you talk about her. There is something off. You two share just too many memories for having met in May, April?”
Ulf nodded and they continued walking. Amaya needs to know. I think she's already guessed anyway. “Christina's my age. As in she's fifty like me and sixteen like me.”
Beside him Amaya smiled and hooked his arm into hers. “If I had any doubts they vanished when you asked me for this favour. Your girlfriend is crashing a fashion shot and wants an adult to back her up when she's offered a job?” Amaya shook her head. “That's not how a sixteen year old thinks.”
She was right. Ulf knew that. Any teenager with that kind of guts would simply never think in terms of a backup. Especially not in terms of 'member of the police force for added credibility' kind of backup.
“You know that I love you, mother dear?”
“Me you can tell, and I know. It's not I who need to hear those words. I'll bet you a week's salary you haven't told her you love her properly!”
Ulf declined to take her up on the bet. I thought this game of love would become easier with age but the only thing that happens is that the stakes increase. He blew out air in a half whistle. I'm together with a girl most men would want as a trophy. But would they love her? Why did I have to fall in love? If it had just been desire I wouldn't be this vulnerable.
If it had just been desire he could have slept with her by now. There had been opportunities. But I want to hold you, and talk with you. I want to listen to you when you breathe and when you talk. I want to watch that laugh and I want to be there to see how you wipe that golden hair of yours from your face with your fingers. He closed his eyes and let himself be led by Amaya for a few steps.
The sound of cars and the smell of asphalt built a background for his thoughts. He could feel Amaya steady his steps when she noticed he was no longer watching where he walked.
Christina, I want you by my side. Always. Christina, the day I tell you those needs will never come, because if I tell you how dependent of you I have become then what we share turns into a cage for you. I love you so much, but I can never tell.
He opened his eyes again. They were almost at the great Shibuya intersection.
Yukio stared at the train of club members who followed him out of Shibuya station. Twenty of them, but thank all gods none in their school uniform.
Surrounded by club members the Swedish giant walked in the middle. Beside him but unseen his girlfriend tagged along with a small tail of admirers of her own.
Yukio gratefully observed that it was busy enough for them to go unnoticed. He had told them there would be a modelling shot at the intersection, and all according to plan both foreign guests had jumped at the opportunity to watch the spectacle in the very centre of Japanese youth fashion.
He had not told them why Kuri was absent though. Urufu said she looked different when she was armed for battle, but he was the only one who had seen her like that. Yukio could only guess at the difference, and he suspected that Urufu had been less than modest in his descriptions.
“Damn he's tall!” Nori-kun exclaimed for the hundredth time.
Motor mouth. For once you're useful. Keep them focussed on Yakobuson-san.
Just when they were about to exit the station a crowd had started to build up, and they had to negotiate their way out of the station.
The camera teams were already there and the shoot had started. They had built a scene and on it a few exceptionally good looking and tall men took turns posing.
Yukio looked around. OK tall is a matter of definition I guess. Ulf is a dwarf compared to them, but that monster is a match. Yukio stared at Yakobuson-san when he cringed as he walked into the brutal wall of heat just outside the station. On second thought he was probably taller than the models.
There were scouts making passes at people in the crowd. If what Kuri had told him was true some of them were even legit. But most of them were there to fleece unsuspecting and over eager teenagers.
“Want to be a model?”
Now that voice came from a shorter distance than he had expected. Of course. It was just a matter of time. Yukio grinned at Yakobuson-san. Oh they are targeting his girlfriend as well. I guess she's cute enough in an exotic way.
It was strangely fun in a chaotic way. Only half of the show took place on stage, but the more interesting stories played out in the crowd.
“Yakobuson-san, they want to take your photo,” he called out to his guest. “I won't promise it's not a scam, but you won't have to pay for any shots unless you sign something.” Kuri should know. She's been here before, in that other world.
Some space opened up around their guests. They looked exotic and striking enough to warrant the extra attention.
“Cool! We have models of our own.”
Dozens of smart phones were aimed at the impromptu shot around them, and Yukio just shook his head. “Kyoko, over here,” he shouted when he finally discovered her guiding the last of their members from the station.
She lit up in a smile and hurried over to him. Yes definitely going to tell her today.
“Shouldn't Kuri be with you?” he asked when she came close enough for him to speak in a more normal voice.
Kyoko just grinned. “She said she's doing this on her own. Promised a grand show.”
Grand show? How can you promise something like that? Then he remembered the festival night in June. You transformed back then. I wonder what you look like when you're prepared for real.
“Huh?” That had been Urufu. Where? Ah there.
Urufu came walking with a woman by his side.
Urufu's guardian? Sato Amaya -san was it? Why is she here?
“Christina hasn't shown,” Urufu said. That was a statement and not a question.
“No I haven't seen...”
“Bloody hell he's a big one!”
Yukio followed Urufu's stare. There was no mistaking what he was looking at. Who he was looking at. “That's Yakobuson-san,” Yukio said. Like he didn't know.
“Yeah, I guessed as much,” came Urufu's rather pointless reply. “I didn't expect him to be that huge. Oh well just like old times.”
Forgot he's used to people being a lot taller. We must look like midgets to them. “Good day Sato-sensei,” Yukio said when Urufu's guardian came close enough for a more polite greeting. Why are you here?
“Kyoko, have you met Sato-sensei?”
Kyoko shook her head and introduced herself. Yukio watched her smile and how her hair took flight when she bowed. He wanted to bury his nose in it. Definitely telling her today!
“Where's Kuri-chan? Didn't she say she'd meet us here?” Sho-kun asked.
Yukio was on the verge of answering when Kyoko's face widened in a mischievous grin. “She'll be here. You'll see.”
OK now I'm really curious.
Three things happened as one. Yukio heard shouts from further back in the crowd, and when he turned to find out what was happening he saw Yakobuson-san stop posing for his photographer and stare over all the heads. On the scene one of the models dropped out of her pose and pointed across the crowd.
What on earth?
Both male models stood staring, jaws slacking in shock and one of the camera crew slowly swivelled, gear and all, to find out what why their shot had suddenly gone south.
“And here she comes,” Kyoko said. She grabbed Yukio's shoulder for support and tip-toed to see better.
Close, you're close! Yukio did his best to pretend he hadn't noticed and that it was only natural with Kyoko clinging to him.
“I can't see!” she complained to him. Her face was suddenly very close to his and he was unable to let go of her eyes. They stood staring at each other.
Close, you're too close! “I love you,” he blurted out before he could stop himself.
Her eyes suddenly went very large and her mouth opened up in a big 'O'.
Oops. I confessed! Again.
“Do you want an answer right now?” Kyoko asked in a voice barely audible.
What do I do now? There was no pretending 'just friends' any longer. “You can answer whenever you want. My feelings haven't changed since I confessed to you the first time.”
Kyoko didn't say anything, but she grabbed his head with both hands and planted a wet kiss right on his mouth. Then she backed away. “Do you want me to explain that?” she asked breathlessly.
Yukio shook his head and hugged her close.
“About bloody time!” Urufu shouted from behind. “You're not getting out of this now,” he continued gleefully. “Guys, look who just got together!” he yelled.
Yukio blushed harder than he thought possible, but when he tried to let go of Kyoko in embarrassment her embrace tightened into an iron grip.
“Don't. Ever. Let. Me. Go!”
And he no longer cared about club members shouting encouraging and vulgar propositions to them both.
“Whoa! Two shows in one!”
Two shows? Oh, forgot! “Kyoko, shouldn't we see what Kuri is doing?” he murmured in her ear.
“Don't want to, but yes. I promised. Just don't let go of me!” she murmured back. “Oh, there she is!”
Yukio looked around. They were still hugging but now they looked in the same direction. Gods!
“And the Red Sea is parting,” Urufu said. “That's my Christina. Just look!”
And the Red Sea was parting, or at least the crowd.
The billion dollar empress. Urufu, you called her an empress, but she really looks like a goddess.
Yukio saw her hair before he saw the rest of her. A golden sun shone above the crowd just before it parted and gave way to her, and he saw her face. By his side Kyoko gasped.
“It's OK Yukio,” Kyoko said. “For now you're allowed to fall in love with her. I just did that myself.”
The shouting had stopped. They watched in silence when a goddess descended from heaven and blessed her mortal subjects with her smile.
I can't see her make-up! But it has to be there! The angelic face approaching them bore very little resemblance with the Kuri they knew and shared stupid jokes with.
And her clothes. Yukio knew very little about fashion, but he had never before seen a girl wearing anything that looked designed for her personally. This was as far from cute as was possible. The dress lacked colour, yet it slowly shimmered in a fruity red and yellow. It followed every movement of hers, and somehow Christina managed to swing her handbag in perfect rhythm with her ever-shifting dress.
She strode to them on high heels as if she had been born in them.
“Am I late?” she asked, and Yukio saw a glimmer of a deliberate grin aimed at him and Kyoko. “Oh finally! I'm so happy for you!” she said and embraced them both. In her high heels she was a full head taller than any of them.
“Hey gorgeous! Wanna party?”
“We should hang out some while I'm in Japan,” he continued. “You look like my kind of girl.”
What the hell? You're here with your girlfriend!
Kuri looked him over. “It was nice to meet you, but I'm looking for my boyfriend.”
English? She could have spoken Swedish instead. She meant for us to understand. Yukio smirked. Urufu, you idiot! Treasure her! You'll never find a better match in your life.
Yakobuson-san blanched nevertheless. Yukio could have sworn he wasn't used to be told off like that. This was an older version of what Ryu could turn into, had he been just a little more ruthless and a little less concerned about how the girls around him felt.
Insect! Who the hell do you think you are? Christina stretched to her full length and stared down at the tall graduate from Sweden. Stick to your girl you piece of shit! Then she turned her attention to Ulf again. “Ulf!” No! I gave him the black stare as well. Ulf I'm sorry!
Ulf winced visibly, but then he regained his composure. “You look stunning!” he said in a tone that reassured her that he understood what had just happened. “I'm honoured.”
It felt strange to be taller than he was, but it was impossible to move in the right way without her heels. She had come here to conquer after all.
In front of her Ulf stood staring back at her. Spellbound, he's spellbound. He can only see Christina Agerman. Ulf I want you to find me beautiful. Your Christina. “What do you think?” She had to say something.
Something shifted in his eyes. One moment he had been staring at Christina Agerman, Princess of Scandinavia. The next he looked just as intensively at her. “My Ina, you're my beautiful Ina!”
Ina? Oh! Christina, Ina. Yes I like that! “Do you really mean that?”
In response he took a single step and kissed her. He had to tilt his face up to do that. Then he took her face between his hands and looked into her eyes. “What are you doing with me? I can stay in this Japan forever with you Ina.” His eyes were the brownest of brown, soft and caring and she drank herself dizzy with his gaze.
That has to count as a declaration of love. “I'm just loving you.” It still felt strange being taller than him. My little U-kun! “U-kun, I love you! You fill my life.”
The look she got in return was filled with endless love, but also with endless sadness. He looked happy and forlorn, ecstatic and horrified, basking in her feelings and filled with self-loathing. He looked like he wanted to be in two places at once.
“Miss! Miss! Can we have a word with you?”
“I saw her first. I'm her agent!”
“She's signing with us. All contacts will have to go through our agency!”
Ah, the work I came here to do. I don't want to any more, but I have to. Ulf, U-kun, we need to talk.
Christina turned on her right toe, let her left foot follow in a tight circle and set it down toe and heel clicking against the street simultaneously. It sent a calculated shock wave through her body that she used to flick her neck into the terminal pose used on the catwalk just before it was time to turn around and go back.
Toes out, never inwards like Japanese girls did to look cute. She wasn't here to look cute. She had an empire to build.
The crowd was pushing forward to see better, and the formal fashion shot drew almost no interest any more. Christina doubted it was even commencing at all by now. The first half of her plan had gone through without a hitch. Now it was time for the second half, and that one depended on the people she saw elbowing their way to her through the crowd.
A man in his thirties approached her together with a woman in a business dress. Behind them one of the cameramen from the scene followed carrying photo equipment that had been designed for a static shot. This was the real deal.
“We would appreciate if you tell your agency that we disapprove of your disrespectful prank here today,” the woman said.
Too easy. They're making this too easy. “Agency? Aren't models using those?”
“Cut the bullshit. What is a professional model doing here during our shot?”
“Oh my! Why, thank you! But I'm not a model. I'm just a student at Himekaizen Academy.”
“I said cut the bullshit. I can see you've done this for two years or more.”
You piss-ant! Two years! I'll show you two years you rank amateur! Christina slid her left foot closer to her right heel and used the extra energy to let her dress billow out in a wave that followed her body all the way to her shoulders where it snapped out of existence. Just when it did she jingled her handbag to make it look like her dress had sent it swinging.
“Thank you for saying that!” That single move had taken her the better part of seven years to master. A dress hugging her body like this did didn't lend itself to any billowing to begin with. What she had done was effectively impossible. Maybe with the exception for a dozen or so women on the planet. Oops. Forgot that I'm one of them. Christina grinned inwardly. “You're too kind!”
The business woman really was a rank amateur. Christina's act was lost on her, but further back the cameraman stood mouth agape and studied the integrated monitor on his camera.
Christina cooed. “But I'm only sixteen. I couldn't possibly have worked as a model for over two years.” And with a twist of her hand she flicked her pose into 'The Princess of Scandinavia'. A simpler pose, but one that had been her trademark and had helped her stay in the absolute top worldwide for ten years.
“How could a mere high school student interest you this way?” The contract was a done deal. They had swallowed it all, Hook, Line and Sinker.
Difference being that she'd deliver far beyond their wildest imagination. Japan held nothing even remotely worth being considered competition when it came to raw competence, but popularity was a fickle goddess.
Christina had yet another face. One that came after her modelling career, and she flashed it to the business woman, shooting producer and cameraman alike. The billion dollar empress. “It would seem I have caught your interest. Now, what would you do to catch mine?”
The first mail arrived a bit after lunch. The twentieth less than ten minutes later. When he checked his on-line waterholes they had exploded with the news.
At three in the afternoon he grabbed a bit to eat in what was supposed to be a trendy place in Sapporo. Around him young people talked about what had happened in Tokyo earlier that day.
Feels strange, he thought as he gobbled down his sandwich in silence. Where I come from people talk about me, and Kuri. Here I'm a nobody. He rose and went for another round at the soft-drink bar. On the way he flashed a grin at the girls filling up their glasses and was rewarded with long, admiring stares. OK not a nobody if I make an effort.
When he sat down again he noted, not without some satisfaction, that at least one table ran two topics while they stole glances at him. But Kuri didn't even need to be here to take centre stage.
Ryu fought a childish urge to stand up and do some advanced name-dropping. They might even believe me, but that's not the point. The point is that I feel doubly lonely up here when she's down there and at the same time the main menu on everyone's lips.
For the first time he felt locked away. He had looked forward to the trip north even knowing he wouldn't see her for some time, but he hadn't expected to hear about her wherever he went.
Or watch. Pictures and videos spread like wildfire, and the net was ablaze with her images. Images of an almost otherworldly beauty planting her banner in central Shibuya and claiming it for her own.
By nightfall she made it to the major media. It wasn't big news by any means, but late in a TV-newsreel Ryu saw her face flash past again in a short story about noteworthy commotions in Tokyo.
In the middle of the news-downpour he almost missed the really big news. Noriko called him after he failed to respond to her mails. Kyoko and Yukio had finally removed their blindfolds and become a pair.
He mused on that piece of news after they hung up. Lucky bastards! Twice lucky. After Kuri's public stunt you'll be left alone. It suited them better, he guessed. He would have flaunted his girlfriend to the world, but those two were more grounded. More solid. They made perfect wingmen and were both loyal to a fault. Yukio even dared facing off against Ryu when he suspected an intrusion on Urufu's turf. Ryu respected that and he felt genuinely happy for both Yukio and Kyoko.
Does that leave us as the comedy duo, Noriko? Never happened before. But strangely enough he only felt lonely. There was no jealousy when he thought of Kuri and Urufu. Ryu might be in love with her, but they were two of his closest friends. We are the same sis. I see you laughing as well when you pull your pranks on them Noriko. It doesn't hurt as much any more, does it?
The Wakayama twins. The bond they shared stretched thin but not broken by the distance between Tokyo and Sapporo. Obon, and after that I'm back home again.
Three days later he received a mail from Urufu in the morning. It was terse, and to the point: “Found him. Done.”
That started a nightmarish ping pong game of messages which forced Ryu to re-evaluate his friendship with Urufu.
“What do you mean with 'Done' more exactly?”
Two hours later the answer arrived. “Police. Dead.”
“Whoa! Urufu, what did he do? Dead, did you two get into a fight? Was he shot?”
Ryu ate a late lunch when Urufu finally responded. “Worked in restaurant. Married. Prison.”
“Urufu! Please more information!”
And that information waited until three in the afternoon to materialise. “Prey married after school. Pregnant wife. Found him in restaurant. Called police.”
“Urufu. I understand the police part, but what do you mean with dead?”
Ryu deserted his mother in the middle of their late dinner when his phone beeped next time. “Nakagawa nullified marriage. Prey to prison. Killed himself.”
“Urufu! Did he suicide! That's too much. I need to understand what happened.”
The last message didn't arrive until after Ryu had fallen asleep, and it was the first thing in the morning that he noticed. “Lost family. Suicide. Good riddance.”
Almost a day it took. Ryu answering more or less immediately when he received a message and Urufu waiting for hours before he sent one back.
Ryu decided against answering that last message. Instead he called his sister.
“Mom, something bad happened in Tokyo. It...” Ryu felt uncertain how much he dared involve his parents. What can I tell her. She'll call dad if I say too much.
His mother must have sensed that something was awry because she put a hand on his shoulder and looked into his eyes. “Friend in trouble and you can't tell me all about it?”
Ryu nodded gratefully. You're the best. “He needs me.” Ryu averted his eyes and stared at the sliding doors to their room. On the other side lay a corridor feeding the entrance and outdoors cars passed by, the sound of their engines muted by two walls.
No matter how much he loved his parents this wasn't the kind of problem high school students were supposed to have. He couldn't possibly tell his mother that Urufu had been involved in the death of another person, even if indirectly.
“Is it that bad?” The grip on his shoulder tightened. Ryu had to look back.
“Yes,” he admitted. He didn't know what else to say.
“One day we'll talk about this. Promise?”
“Promise.” She would hold him to that.
“For now you're needed elsewhere. I'll change your ticket and call father. Good friends deserve good friends. Go and be one!”
Ryu just nodded back. She really was the best.
“He's in there, with James.” Noriko glanced at the door to the inner room. “I think they're drinking alcohol,” she said quietly so the rest of the members wouldn't hear.
“Kuri?” Ryu asked.
“She's away. Something about a window of opportunity. If she doesn't do whatever she's doing this week she'll never get the chance again.”
When he needed you the most. What were you thinking? It opened up an opportunity for himself, but by now Ryu liked them both too much to want their relationship to end this way. I'll steal you away from him one day, but not like this.
“Ryu, she's in there as well. His guardian. You can't tell anyone. She's a police.”
Why is half the core gone? “Yukio?”
“Club room Skyping with Kyoko.”
“Yes, you really should know, but you never listen idiot bro. She's in Kansai somewhere with her family.”
Ryu winced. Noriko had told him when and where each of them would be spending their summer break. Planning the beach trip would be impossible otherwise.
“So, Kyoko's gone, but why the hell isn't Yukio here. It's his best friend after all.”
Noriko just shook her head. “Idiot!” she said loud enough for some of the members to turn their heads and look at them. There was a low murmur lingering in the café afterwards.
I hate it when she calls me 'idiot' without telling me why. Ryu stared at his sister to make her talk.
She sighed, but she talked. “Bro, you only ever listen to dad. His grand vocabulary, epic ideals and righteousness, huh?”
Ryu nodded. Dad was more interesting than mom.
“I'm not going to say it's only big words,” his sister continued, “because it's not. It's the way we are, all four of us. We stand at the front. Urufu and Kuri even more so.”
“And,” Ryu asked, because it was clear Noriko wasn't finished yet. She was just reloading.
“Ryu, you really should talk with mom more. She would make you understand. You of anyone should. To shine as bright as Urufu and Kuri you need a Yukio or Kyoko at your back. A wingman. You'll need one as well one day.”
“And you?” Ryu quickly asked. Being praised by his sister felt strange.
“Me too, one day. But that's not what's important. Yukio and Kyoko have always stood back, and now for the first time they have someone they treasure, someone for whom they're the hero. Get it?”
He didn't. “Not really, I still think Yukio's an awful friend for sitting at school when Urufu's breaking down here.”
“You really are my idiot brother.” Noriko glared at him. “Of course he is! But it can't be helped. They got together less than a week ago.” She poured a cup of coffee to a member who had arrived at the counter and took a few coins in return. “His first girlfriend. She's more important to him than anything in the world. Hell, a phone call from her is more important than any of us two.”
Ryu could only listen to the onslaught. That kind of all consuming love was alien to him. “I don't get it,” he complained when his sister finally seemed to run out of steam.
Bad decision. She shovelled half a ton of coal under the boiler and went to work on him again.
“Idiot bro! Stupid! Yukio confessed last Sunday.”
That had the club members get into action.
“Yay for Yukio!”
“Good for him!”
Both Wakayamas stared at the members until they returned to their own conversations.
“He confessed during Kuri's grand entrance.”
Ryu noted that Noriko dialled down the volume a notch when she continued.
“You know Kyoko, don't you? Proper and improper and all that?”
“She kissed him at the Shibuya grand intersection. In front of five thousand people, a couple of camera teams and right where Kuri had everyone's eyes glued!”
That's kind of impressive. That's a hell of a lot impressive. Kyoko! I didn't think you had it in you. “OK I get the picture. So?”
“Ryu, what makes you think a small thing like for example mount Fuji erupting would get Yukio's attention when Kyoko wants it?”
Noriko brightened. “Finally!”
And there was doom and gloom in her face again. “But if she doesn't want it? If she tells Yukio get get his arse over here? That but?” she suggested.
Ryu nodded again.
“No way. She wants. She's in love you idiot! Besides the only one she cares about apart from Yukio right now is Kuri. Kuri's gambling everything on this modelling stunt of hers. That's why she can't be here now.”
“Idiot bro, she's not rich like us. That Sunday cost her all her savings. She burned six hundred thousand yen to make it happen.”
“Urufu could help her.”
“Moron. That's exactly what she does not want. She's not a cute little Japanese doll waiting to marry a strong man who can take care of her for the rest of her life. Read something! Learn something! Go Google M-shaped employment and use that head of yours for once!”
Christina dropped her pose and went through a sequence where she allowed the photographer a leisure half a second between shots. He was good enough to be called a professional, but he was still a sad excuse compared to the crew she built her career with in her previous life.
In her previous life. It would be bad to forget that. Restart. You're not 'The Princess of Scandinavia' here. They don't remember you, because they have never seen you before.
She stopped moving when she felt how the photographer dropped out of focus.
“Am I doing something wrong?” she asked to remind him that he was doing a sloppy job. He was tiring faster than she. “Please direct me so you get the shots as you want them!” I can always fake following his directions later. As long as he gets the shots he needs he'll be happy.
He just stared at her with awe in his eyes.
This is bad. I need crew, not fans. “Where do you want me now?” she asked to wake him up.
The reaction she got was about as far from professional as possible. He leered at her.
For crap's sake. It should be illegal to become a fashion photographer before you've shot a few hundred sets with nude, beautiful women and men!
“Don't look at me like that!” Christina squealed in what she hoped was a suitably shy and shocked voice. There was hardly a part of her she hadn't shown the crews in her previous life. Most of those shots had obviously been destroyed, but she couldn't stay among the top ten if she froze whenever a camera saw her naked body.
Idiot! You think I'm working with my body. You'll never be top notch. She slid into a new pose when the photographer finally regained his senses. My body is our tool. You and I have to cooperate when using it. That's why I always work with my brains and not with my body.
Christina really, really detested small minded men. Put a beautiful head on a beautiful body and they automatically deducted twenty points from IQ. But who am I to complain? Made it a lot easier for me to break through. Manipulating morons is a lot easier than handling the crafty ones.
That thought, however, belonged to a later life. She had quit modelling and started out on the road that led to her becoming 'The Billion Dollar Empress' when she began thinking in such terms.
Ulf, will you love this side of me as well? So different from the last two months, my best two months.
Christina fell out of sequence and they had to retake the last shots. Thinking of Ulf too much still made her unprofessional. But I wish I could have stayed that way. Young and in love like a teenager. I felt like one, was one and I loved it all. You made my dream come true, Ulf. For that alone I'll love you for the rest of my life!
They had been shooting for the better part of three days, and it was time to wrap it up. Her photographer was too tired, and Christina kept thinking of Ulf. Spending more time wouldn't make good shots.
She thanked the crew and left for the dressing room. It reminded her of when she had been sixteen, the first time and before she became famous. A dressing room she had to share with all the other starry eyed girls.
This time around she knew to keep a lower profile. The backstabbing was brutal among those who had yet to make it big.
Christina took a seat in the corner and quickly removed her make-up. Then she dressed in a baggy set of clothes that didn't do her justice at all. She had spent over an hour to find exactly that set. It came in handy when she needed to be left alone. And after that she powered up he smart phone for the first time in three days. Christina needed to have it off for her concentration, and now she wondered what kind of gossip her friends had shared during her absence.
What she read sucked all air out of her as if she had been slugged in her stomach.
Ulf, what have you done? What have I done? He's hurting and I wasn't there. The one time he needed me and I wasn't there!
Christina was sobbing with fear when she threw open the doors and dashed out of the studio.
Ulf had spent the night in a drunken stupor, and when morning came he went after the bottle again. James stopped him, but that he had allowed it in the first place stunned her.
Sometimes it's not between right and wrong. James knew that. He bought the run down coffee house five years earlier and turned it into Stockholm Haven Café. Arguably just as run down as earlier. Because he needed to.
Halfway to a bachelor's degree he realised he didn't want a BA for the second time in his life. True, the first time it had led to an MA and doctorate studies in Sweden – and nothing.
A Ph. D. in history wasn't exactly what corporate business looked for, and he took up cross country hiking and a lot of odd jobs. And he was on his way to thirty when he vanished one day only to end up naked and half his age in this Japan.
So James needed a new life, and owning a café with just enough customers to keep him alive was new. And so was meeting the first two new arrivals in ten years.
But Ulf didn't need new. The fifty year old boy needed something very old. A good old senseless binge drinking night when he could blow off all the steam that almost had him bursting.
James had seen how Ulf built up more and more pressure the last month, and when it finally blew up he made sure Ulf spent it all in a drunken stupor in the café rather than doing something really stupid elsewhere.
Of course he had to stop Ulf from hitting the bottle again come morning. He watched Ulf sleeping the hangover off in the inner room, and shortly after Ulf crawled to the toilet to puke for the second time James heard the bell chiming followed by an angry roar. It was the golden girl, and she was coming to get herself a pound of flesh. Or at least enough of his hide to make a pretty carpet.
James heard the Wakayama twins take the first brunt of the attack, which was kind of unfair considering they had played almost no part in it at all. Then the door to the inner room was forced open and Christina stormed in.
While James realised he looked like twenty five and was in fact forty he also knew when he was beaten. The battle tank forcing its way inside the room showed a face James had never seen before.
“Where is he? What have you done to him?” she screeched. “You!” She stabbed a finger at him. Then she saw Ulf.
Bakemono! James had never seen anyone transform so fast from a vengeance demon to a lover sick with worry. She's not from this world. Kitsune? Because she's not merely an arrival like him and me.
“Ulf, Ulf please forgive me!” Christina rushed to where Ulf lay on the pillows James had scrounged for earlier the same morning.
Maybe she's really fifty, but right now she looks like a hurt kid. Damn I should have made sure she knew the hell he's been through. Suddenly James felt very ashamed of himself. Old Nakagawa would most likely help Christina to a part of his hide.
Ulf groaned from his corner, and then he was covered by golden hair and long arms hidden under baggy clothes.
“Stupid boy! Why didn't you tell me?”
James winced when he saw her crawling all over her boyfriend. That had to hurt even if the worst of the hangover had abated. “He's not a boy, not really,” James tried, but he had little hope Christina would listen to anything he said. “I'm afraid that principal of yours set him on a job he wasn't prepared to do.”
Christina looked up from where she was cradling Ulf. “Nakagawa did? He got Ulf involved in the death of another?” Suddenly the vengeance demon was back.
James took a step back. He didn't know if she was about to get violent or not. When she showed no signs of leaving Ulf he calmed down a bit.
“You really have to talk with Nakagawa about that. I don't know what happened more than that it hurt him a lot.” James finished the sentence nodding at Ulf. “I don't think Ulf did anything more than find a person he was looking for. Well, and calling the police.” That explanation wouldn't be enough, but it had to suffice for now.
Christina seemed to understand. She settled down with Ulf's head in her lap, slowly stroking his head and looked like a hurt child again.
“Red Rose,” she said. “His middle school. He called it Red Rose Hell.”
“Sorry, haven't heard of it,” James muttered in agreement. “Sounds bad.”
Christina nodded slowly. During their last exchange her eyes never left Ulf. “Something bad happened there,” she said after a while. “I was attacked in school, and I believe there was a connection with what happened to him at Red Rose. Ulf doesn't want to talk about it.”
James made a mental promise to himself that he'd pressure Nakagawa for information. The old principal kept his secrets far too close to himself, but James was an arrival himself. He could use that. If nothing else he could threaten Nakagawa with involving his government handler directly.
I'm ten years younger than those two subjectively, but I'm still twenty five in this world. Has to count for something. “I'll help you,” he said. He was taking sides. For ten years he had avoided doing so, but somewhere down the line he knew he had to make a stand. The two new arrivals had only speeded that process up.
On the floor Ulf was slowly waking up for the third time that day. James saw him groan. Then Ulf looked up at Christina's face hovering above his own. The second groan was filled with shame and self-loathing.
This is where I pick the side I really knew I would pick from the beginning. I'm grateful to you both, James thought. Open Japan or closed Japan. Such a simple choice. Seems I didn't spend those years in Sweden in vain after all. We have to change. “If you want my help you have it. Start with changing Himekaizen. It's my old school as well, and Nakagawa is on your side even if it doesn't always look that way.”
Christina lifted her head for the first time in a while and looked at him with blank eyes.
“It's what he needs.” James pointed at the awakening body in her lap. “If he can't create change he'll destroy himself.”
She still didn't look like she understood.
“He's not like you and me. We change ourselves and sometimes that changes people around us.” James knew he was out on a thin limb, but he was also certain he had guessed correctly. “That boy of yours is unchanging. He only changes the world around him.”
Book two, prologue
Book two, chapter two