Midsummer's eve, last punsch
The Wakayama twins were happily giggling at one end of the table. Even a little bit of strong liquor was probably too much for either of them, and the dinner party had seen more than a little bit.
An evening breeze brought the smell of the nearby sea and a drop in temperature that merited a thin cardigan.
Christina spread a blanket over the drunk siblings and received nods of gratitude in return.
No competition there at least. Christina sighed. By now he trusts me. He should, shouldn't he? Over twenty years. She glanced over the scattered plates and glasses on the table and settled her eyes on Ulf's backside, a few meters ahead and years and years back in time. Has it really been that long?
Sitting in a chair across the table Yukio stared at his old style watch in disbelief. It was half past eight and sunset was still almost two hours away.
She drank the last of her punsch. Most of their guests had finished dinner as well. It was time for after-dinner activities. A little bit like club hours back then.
Chapter four, twenty four years earlier
Mid May, and the temperature was reaching summer levels. Ryu wiped sweat from his face. The air-conditioner in their classroom definitely wasn't up to the task.
He jumped down the stairs, half a flight a jump, and bounced to the entrance floor. From the relative light in the stairwell he reached the darker corridor and shouldered his way to the cafeteria. More than a few he passed yelled insults after him, but he really didn't care.
The cafeteria was full, as always. The third years always made it there first. He rushed headlong anyway. They'd have lunch in the shaded area between the cafeteria and the gym hall, and he wanted to make sure they got seats there. By this time of the year any sunny day promised an invasion of the cafeteria backyard.
Behind him he heard Noriko declare his dubious heritage in a voice that carried through both wings.
He zigzagged his way through the cafeteria and left it from the great glassed doors facing the gym hall. Ryu found the seats he was looking for. Now he just had to wait for someone else in the gang to show up before he could buy his lunch.
He just had time to look at the great sails above him before he was greeted.
“Mind if we join you?”
He looked around to see who had addressed him. “Yu-kun, please.”
“Go get your lunch. Urufu-kun and Kuri-chan are on their way here as well.”
Their way? “Uh, sure.” Ryu rose and made for the glassed entrance. Their way?
The queue to the counter had built up while he secured a spot outdoors, and he barely made it to Noriko's space in it.
“Seems we're getting company from the club core sis,” he said. He was probing for a reaction, and he wasn't disappointed. She blushed red and muttered something about not caring the least.
Still, it bothered him that Kuri-chan and Kyoko-chan hadn't joined them in their race for lunch.
“Did you see where Kuri-chan went?” he asked, not certain if he was probing his sister or himself.
“Kuri-chan went with Kyoko-chan to the left wing. She really has to make up with Yu-kun, you know.”
Ryu didn't need a name to know that Noriko meant Kyoko-chan. I wonder who went with whom though. Could it be that Urufu-kun is making a move on her? He's been on a roll the last week after all.
All of a sudden he felt ashamed. I like Kuri-chan a lot, but sis, you've really fallen in love, haven't you?
He couldn't understand what they saw in the geek. It wasn't as if he was outgoing or anything. Well, I can see what Kuri-chan sees in him, he admitted to himself. They're both from the same country after all.
The queue moved a bit forward and they got to make their picks. Bounty in hand they headed for the spots Yu-kun held. Over half a dozen students were already there. Yu-kun must have told them he and Kuri-chan were coming.
Ryu grinned at the girls present when they waved at him. “Good to see this much beauty in one place,” he offered. Behind him Noriko groaned.
Noriko groaned some more.
He took a seat on a bench and made place for his sister. Silently he nodded thanks to Yu-kun for keeping the spots open.
“Aren't we missing a few people?” Noriko said.
So, that's the limit of your patience?
Ryu had just opened his pre-packaged lunch when the students around him fixed their attention on the cafeteria behind him.
And we have incoming.
“She's so beautiful!”
Listen to that choir.
“Who's that guy?”
“Is he? Whoa!”
It had to be Urufu-kun, but the voices were just a bit too surprised for Ryu not to turn and look.
Kuri-chan came walking between the benches toward them. She wore no make-up at all, and her school uniform was in perfect accordance with the regulations. And so was Urufu-kun's.
He walked beside her, carrying two identical bento boxes. He wore no glasses, and he had a totally new hairdo. He looked... normal. And tall. He looked, Ryu acknowledged, like a rival.
Behind them Kyoko-chan tagged along with her cafeteria bought lunch.
“Yu-kun, your lunch,” Kuri-chan said and gave him the third box in a set. She looked flustered.
Ryu had to know. “Did something good happen yesterday?” he asked.
Kuri-chan glanced at Urufu-kun. And shot him a stunningly beautiful but strangely shy smile. “I forgot my birthday. He remembered it. So yes, something good happened.”
That was far from everything she had to say. Ryu could see that, but he wasn't sure how much further he should probe.
“Look at that! Being friends with Ryu-kun make even geeks look good.”
The derisive comment came from one of the girls. Saki-chan? Yes, from 1:1. And she had known Urufu-kun was the geek from 6:1. But you were never a geek to begin with. It was all an act, wasn't it?
“How come Urufu-kun knew it was your birthday? Geek stalker?” And that was the Hitoshi moron from 2:1. If it wasn't for the stupidities he usually spewed out of his mouth he might have been a match for Ryu in terms of popularity.
Kuri-chan replied with an angelic smile that transformed her from a princess to an empress. “Didn't I say? I'm such an airhead sometimes. I totally forgot that yesterday was my birthday, and he was the one who reminded me.”
The implicit meaning wasn't lost on anyone.
“Yesterday? You saw each other yesterday?”
“Whoa! You two went on a date?”
Kuri-chan shook her head theatrically and her hair caught in the wind.
She made it blossom! It's a golden flower!
She hummed tunelessly while she waited for shouts of admiration to quiet down. Then her voice turned sugary sweet. “But he looks so stunning! How could I not?”
Ryu looked at his sister. She had shrunken to almost nothing. For the second time he saw her drop her lunch.
“I forgot I have something to do. See you at class.” Noriko rose, and with eyes glued to the ground she rushed into the cafeteria.
Kyoko-chan looked at his sister with eyes full of worry, and then she shot her best friend a surprisingly angry glare. Kuri-chan just shrugged in return.
Damn, he beat me to it. I can live with that. But sis, I'm so sorry for you! Ryu rose, nodded curtly at Urufu-kun and followed her.
Urufu-kun, I'll get you for this!
That was about as bad as it could be. Yukio felt for Noriko-chan, but he wasn't about to root for her if Urufu chose Kuri-chan. Honestly, the tall pair was the better match, and he wished them all the best luck should it turn out that they became an item.
Around them the fan-club was in an uproar, and Kuri-chan shone with delight.
But that still was rather uncool of you, Kuri-chan. Now everyone knows how Noriko-chan feels.
And it didn't matter in the long run, because he wished Urufu the best of luck whomever he ended up with, as long as she made him happy. Yukio couldn't remember ever seeing his friend truly happy.
Besides, the unexpected turn of events made his own life easier. If Urufu and Kuri-chan paired up he wouldn't have to go the roundabout way of making good friends with Noriko-chan to get closer to Kyoko-chan.
Now, some might have called him scheming, but he had long since realised that no one would help him with his love life. Not that he had ever had any.
“Aren't you friends with Hamarugen-san?” It was one of Ryu-kun's female fans who had asked. She looked friendly enough. And kind of cute.
Yukio looked at her and smiled, he hoped, politely. “Yes, why?” Honestly, what does me being friends with Urufu have to do with anything?
Kyoko-chan shot him a disgusted glare.
What did I do wrong this time? I'm going to die of old age before I understand her. But even angry she was cute. More than just cute. She was beautiful. Yukio found himself stealing glances at her while he pretended to chat with Ryu-kun's hangarounds.
For some reason Kyoko-chan looked angrier every time he looked at her. I'm so out of my depths here. If only I could make friends with her. Then I'd have a chance to know how I made her so angry.
He looked at her again. She looked away. Damn!
Beside him Urufu and Kuri-chan ran a conversation in Swedish. Yukio liked to listen to the melodic language, but he couldn't understand a word of what they said.
He turned his attention to the contents of his bento box. Kuri-chan's handiwork. It was a peculiar mix of western and Japanese food, and although tastes clashed a bit it still was an improvement over the pre-packaged lunches that were sold in the cafeteria.
Wonder why Kyoko-chan didn't get one. And why did Kuri-chan insist I have one? Yukio shook his head. He noticed how the students around him shot him amused glances from time to time. A set of three bento boxes, not two. Make of that what you will, he thought. And that thought was hilarious enough for him to laugh out loud.
It was a hot day, but they sat in shade and refreshing gusts of wind dispelled the heat. Spring turned to summer and right now nothing, not even an angry Kyoko-chan, could take away that it was good to be young and living out his first high school year together with new friends. He laughed even louder.
“What's so funny?” Urufu abruptly interrupted his mirth.
Yukio swept his right hand over the scene around them. “It's warm, I'm warm and you two are just funny to watch.” He wasn't exactly clear where the words had come from, but saying them made them true, and he burst out in laughter again.
From the corner of his eyes he saw Kuri-chan giving him an amused smile. Then she looked at Kyoko-chan, and her smile widened.
I don't have your problems, or your girlfriend, but I have both my parents, even if they're separated. The thought sobered him up a little. And I have friends, you among them. I wouldn't change lives with you for anything in the world.
Kuri-chan looked at him as if she was searching for something. The smile still played over her lips, a bit more thoughtful now. She looked at him and Kyoko-chan both and her smile grew strangely calculating.
Yukio dared one last glance at Kyoko-chan, and there was a glimmer of a smile that reached her eyes. For a short moment she looked at him with something that didn't look like antipathy.
I have my friends, and I'll be yours as well. If you only let me. I promise.
They sat in silence and finished their lunch. Even the fan-club members had become slightly subdued. A few stray clouds ran across the sky and the bell rang for class.
They were finished with club hours. Ulf planned to invite them all to the café he had stumbled upon the evening before, but first he had to clear something up.
He pulled Ryu aside and pointed the other four in the direction of the worn sign. Christina nodded understanding and walked ahead with the other three in tow.
“Ryu, we need to talk.”
“You're rather familiar with me, aren't you?”
“Look, gaijin and all that. Keigo isn't my thing.”
Ryu nodded. He wasn't going to make an issue of it, and it spared Ulf a lot of problems. His Japanese wasn't anywhere near the level where he could master the nuances without making an arse of himself. He instinctively felt that Ryu came from a very different background.
“It's about Yukio, and Christina. And Noriko, I guess.”
“Uhum, he's more involved in this than you know. And he's not looking for Noriko, which is part of it.”
Ryu raised an eyebrow. That made him look oddly cool.
The prince of Himekaizen. Yes, I can see why. That makes me the king. “You know, the first time we met.”
Ryu's face filled with disgust, but Ulf knew he wasn't the target. “Yes.”
“Yukio was there and helped me clean up after you left. I owe him, and so do you.”
“Yu-kun?” Ryu asked for the second time.
Ulf stepped up on the side-walk and leaned against the wall. Ahead of them their friends had already arrived at the café and went inside. He looked after them, and Ryu followed his stare with one of his own.
“I might behave like a...” What's that expression in Japanese? “… eh rhino, buffalo, elephant?”
“Yeah, yeah, I understand what you mean. Get to it!”
“But I kind of like you all. I care for you, in my own way, and I don't want to lose you.” Because loss hurts. Because loss scares me. “So I want you to understand that Yukio isn't only important to me, but he should be to you as well.”
Ryu straightened and came to attention. “You said he was there the first time, after you saved my sister?” His voice had grown much friendlier. He even made an effort to remind Ulf about the debt the twins shared.
“Yes, he was. He was a clumsy kid, and well-meaning. And he took a great risk for Noriko, because it was important to him.”
“Please, Hamarugen-san, tell me.”
You didn't have to get that polite. But yes, Yukio, you were there all-right. I remember, yes I remember.
Once again Ulf's mind travelled to that day.
“Because I saw it.”
Ulf let go of the leg he held for a moment. The kid helping him drag the unconscious bodies out into the open barely spoke functional English. “Why are you helping me?”
That simple question took several tries to go through.
“I love her.”
That was a simple enough, and probably common enough, English phrase for the stranger to get it right in one try. Stranger? We're wearing the same school uniform. I've probably seen this guy before.
They dropped the wannabe rapist by the swings. Ulf didn't dare to move neither the one with a skull fracture, nor the one with a crushed ribcage, so this would be the last one they dragged away from where the one sided fight had occurred.
“I doubt dragging around the victims of my violence will make her fall in love with you,” Ulf said not caring that the other boy couldn't understand. He already knew the answer to his next question. “Your girlfriend?”
“No. Told two times. Said no two times.” The stranger smiled. A sad smile, but a smile with no regrets.
He was turned down twice. Got to give him credit for a backbone. Bloody hell, that takes courage to get shot down a second time. “What's your name?”
“I am Matsumoto Yukio.”
They do it in the wrong order here. So… “Matsu… Sorry. So, Yukio, I'm Ulf Hammargren.” Ulf looked at the surprised stare he received in return. Did I do something wrong?
“Mister Hamarugen, nice to meet you.”
Crap, they stick to the shit with first name and second name basis. “Eh… eh… Matsumoto-san, the pleasure is mine,” Ulf tried in an attempt to undo what had been an improper way of addressing a stranger.
“Please, mister… Uhun… Urufu, I'm Yukio.”
And now we're two who feel ashamed. Ulf offered his hand to Yukio. “Friends?”
It was a sliver of a memory, and because of that so much more important to him. It was how he had made his first really close friend here in Japan.
“And that's pretty much how we got to know each other,” Ulf said to Ryu and kicked a pebble across the street. “By the way, did he…?”
“Yeah. Sis turned him down a third time before he gave up.” Ryu made a crooked smile. “She really should have given him a chance. He's a good guy.”
They spent a few moments in silence only broken by the tapping of their shoes against the side-walk. Ahead of them the café had grown closer.
“I'm sorry,” Ulf said.
Ryu gave him a quizzical look.
“I'll probably become an item with Christina.”
“I don't want to hurt Noriko. She shouldn't ask.”
“It feels kinda strange to talk with the brother about a girl you're turning down before she even has the chance to ask.”
“I know. I'm glad.”
“I don't want you too close to sis. You're too much of a player.”
“Don't worry. I won't.”
“Doesn't mean I'll give up on Kuri-chan.”
Oh, competition! You're out of your league, kid. But you wouldn't know why. “She decides for herself. But she's from Sweden, just like me. Stuff you'll never be able to share with her the way I am.”
“I'll make her mine.”
You won't. Because I won't. Unless you understand that most Swedish women will never accept being seen as property you've lost the race before it even starts. “I'll settle for making her share her time with me.” Ulf grinned at Ryu. “Good luck to both of us,” he lied.
“Good luck to both of us,” Ryu answered.
He's a good kid. He really is. Pity he grew up with a gender view that belongs in the history books. Ulf sighed. Guess that can't be helped. Besides, I'm the foreigner in a nation where they still live in those history books. I'd better get used to this country, good parts as well as the bad ones. I can change the latter when I've grown up – again.
They had arrived at the café and went indoors. It still reeked of bad taste.
Behind the counter James, the barista, had just finished making the orders for the other four. He looked up and greeted Ulf with a nod.
Ulf looked at the coffee-machine between the mirrors. “A double espresso for me.” Then he smiled at the memory. “And a cake, the same one.”
“And you, young sir?” James said to Ryu.
“I'll have green tea and the cake my friend here ordered.”
James frowned. “We don't serve green tea here. Is black fine with you?”
Ryu looked at their surroundings and nodded. “Black is fine.”
“What kind?” James glanced at a blackboard above the mirrors.”
Of course, this is supposed to be a Swedish café. Ulf waited for his coffee. The cake was already on the counter. Behind him he could hear the others taking their seats by a table at the back of the room.
“What is 'South Mix'?”
What, he really serves the home-made mixtures from Sweden? Ulf took his coffee as it was served and went to join the group. He listened to James' explanation with one ear. Ryu made his order.
“This one free?” Ulf asked and nudged a chair. Four chairs, one sofa. All worn and nothing from the same set. The furniture looked like it was pieced together from the rejected items in a second hand shop.
The entire room was furnished with odd pieces of furniture. Back home this was supposed to be some kind of shabby chic. Here it just looked out of place.
Above them an old air conditioner made an asthmatic try to keep the temperature down. It was sweating profusely at the attempt.
Christina tried to give him a place beside her in the sofa, but Kyoko quickly took that spot.
So you're still angry with me? I guess I'm at fault. He sat down on the chair he had moved earlier and put his espresso and a plate with cake on the table.
Noriko gave him a sullen stare and focused her attention at her tea.
“Urufu, why this of all places you could have found?”
Ulf looked at his friend. “Kinda feels like home.” Seems Yukio finally dropped the honorifics with me. About time.
Ryu joined them.
Ulf could hear the door open and close. Probably James hanging that closed sign up.
Footsteps closed in on them. Yes, definitely James.
“I chose this place away from school,” Ulf said to everyone and no one in particular.
“Chose? You stumbled in here after dark,” James said.
“Whatever. James, can we use the café as a meeting place?”
“You're asking me if I'd allow more paying customers inside?”
Ulf felt stupid. He tasted his espresso to give himself some time to think. It was as horribly bitter as the last time. Is something wrong with me? I used to really love a good shot! Still smells the right way though.
Kyoko poured sugar into her cup and sipped her American style coffee, which was to say a slightly darkened liquid that might have made a very brief acquaintance with a coffee bean or two. To his right Noriko had begun nibbling on a cookie.
“Besides, it's not a place apart from school,” Ryu said after he had sat down.
“It's directly on she shortest path between Himekaizen and the station,” James said.
Ulf looked around him, Six faces studied him as if he was wearing a clown costume. Even the air-conditioner coughed agreeably in amusement.
“Urufu, you moron!” That was Yukio generously adding to his discomfort.
“His majesty the idiot failed to use that oversized brain of his again.”
“Urufu, this is on the route everyone going by train takes. Well, apart from you.”
The station closest to school. Oh crap!
“Old geezer, what did I say about thinking first?”
Ulf groaned inwardly. He had forgotten about that. But 'old geezer' was just a little bit too dangerous. He was about to reprimand his friend when Christina shook her head.
“Ulf, aren't close friends the best?” she said. “Those you can share everything with?” She smiled at him, and then she gave Kyoko an exaggeratedly fond look.
Oh, oh! Four of us. Need to get Yukio and Kyoko into the loop quickly. Besides, Yukio could use the fact that he has shared a secret with Kyoko.
He should have guessed. Kyoko was as close to Christina as Yukio was to him after all. But the problem with the café loomed darker. Other students would find their way here as soon as it was known that both Ryu and Christina went here. Him being an item with Christina wouldn't change that. Idols could be married and still be idols.
“Mister Hammargren, you look troubled. I have an inner room that can host a dozen people, more if you can cram it,” James suggested with a knowing smile.
Saved by the bell, once again.
“Hamarugen-san indeed. More like Moron-sama,” Noriko said all of a sudden. Then she giggled and she was soon followed by the rest of them. Apparently he was stupid enough for both Noriko and Kyoko for lay their anger aside.
To the left of him Yukio let out a deep sigh of relief.
Ulf stared Kyoko directly in her eyes. “I'm sorry to intrude on your friendship, but Christina and I are the same. Exactly the same.”
The sigh of relief was replaced by a sudden gasp. Good Yukio. I think you got it.
“She's still my best friend. If you hurt her I'll be very angry,” Kyoko said, proving Ulf's meaning hadn't got through.
He could see Christina look at her friend with slight disapproval. Ryu and Noriko understood that something was going on, but he knew that they couldn't possibly grasp what was going on.
“I could give you just over fifty reasons I would never hurt her,” Ulf tried again.
The penny dropped.
Kyoko's face opened up in a big 'O'. She gave Christina a frantic look and clasped her mouth with both hands. Yukio grinned sheepishly. Good for you two.
Ulf studied Ryu and Noriko. Yes, they had realised they were being left out on something, but Ryu was just too polite to ask.
Noriko, not so.
“What secret could possibly be great enough to merit that loony look of yours?” she said to Kyoko.
James shook his head slowly, so Ulf felt forced to nod back to him. They'll learn anyway. They'll learn, but I don't know if they'll believe.
“Ko-chan just learned that she has a lot in common with Yu-kun here,” Christina suggested with a knowing smile. Great! Thank you! So Kyoko has it in for Yukio.
The objects of Christina's teasing turned red with impressive speed and stared at opposite sides of the room. Ryu and Noriko exchanged looks and rolled their eyes. Twins, they certainly were twins.
“Well, with that out in the air, should we proceed?” Do we let the last two in on our secret yet?
Christina shook her head. “Sounds like a plan. James, that was your name, wasn't it?”
It's like she can read my mind. You fantastic girl!
“What about this inner room of yours? Could we have a look at it? And we'll have another round.”
Wordlessly James brought out a set of keys and headed for the counter. He unlocked a narrow door and beckoned them to join. “I'll clean up that table later,” he said.
She'd had enough, but she still played along. When they went to join the barista, after he had vanished inside that room, she walked beside her brother.
She was angry, and hurt. Why did they have to make such a big affair about how much they shared. They're together already. Isn't that enough?
Noriko knew she was sulking, but for once she had good reason. Urufu-kun had been hurtful. The way he talked. The way he looked at them. The way he excluded her and her brother. There was no need for that. And that Kuri-chan, she just had to play along with that arrogant smile of hers.
And Yu-kun and Kyoko-chan, just confess to each other already! It's just painful to look at you two.
She sulked some more, and pouted. Yu-kun and Kyoko-chan, the wingmen. Well, they were nice enough. Good and loyal friends in their own way, she guessed. And Kyoko-chan had even dropped out of the competition for Urufu-kun for her sake.
Noriko was rather certain Kyoko-chan hadn't paved the road for Kuri-chan. Not with those looks you give him. Like he was a viper.
Noriko entered the room last of them all. Barista and the six friends. Yes, they could easily cram in twenty people here. The large table in the centre of the room could only host a dozen, but there were a couple of smaller, foldable tables hugging the wall.
Hasn't been used for some time. Smells old in here.
The barista had left the room. He was probably making their second round of orders. She heard a phone ringing and he picked it up.
This room is different. It's all one set here, not like the chaos in the rest of the café. “Why do you want this kind of privacy?” she asked Hamarugen Moron-sama.
He looked taken aback at the sight of her. “Eh, unless we want that fan-club congregating on us whenever we go here.”
“Why would we go here. We have a perfectly functional clubroom at school.”
“It's good to have a place away from it all.”
“Did Moron-sama forget that this is hardly away from it all?” There, she had said it.
“Noriko!” Yes, yes, her idiot brother could scold her for all he wanted.
Urufu-kun bowed deeply, European style. She could almost see that wide-brimmed hat in his hand, feather and all. “Moron-sama hasn't forgotten.”
Why are you so friendly now all of a sudden? Why did you have to become so good looking? Better if you had stayed the geek.
She looked at Kuri-chan. So tall, and I'm small. Well, not as small as a certain Aisaka Taiga, but then her knight in shining armour hadn't been as tall as Urufu-kun. But he's not my white knight. He belongs to Kuri-chan now. Bro is the closest I have. She shuddered. Unless I'm to spend my high school years as a creepy otaku wet dream we're not walking down that lane.
And that reference really belonged to Yu-kun. He was the connoisseur of everything two dimensional in their group. Even though he didn't look like it.
Noriko looked at Yu-kun, and then at Kuri-chan. I turned him down thrice. That means he had the guts to try two times after I rejected him the first time. Am I that gutless that I'll just give up on Urufu-kun?
She felt a new resolve building in her. With steady steps she approached Kuri-chan and stood facing her, looking up.
“You're in my way. I like Moron-sama, and I'm not giving up on him.”
The silence was absolute.
Kuri-chan let out a surprised laugh. It bounced in loneliness around the room. “Oh my!” She said. “Thank you for telling me, Noriko-chan, but don't you think that is for Ulf to decide?”
Noriko looked around. Urufu-kun stood, one hand on the table and his face in the other. “I like you, Moron-sama. I'm not giving up on you.” She turned and looked at Kuri-chan again. “There, better?”
“Is that what you call a declaration of war?” Kuri-chan asked weakly. “I really like your guts. Could we be friends as well as rivals?”
Noriko sat down in a chair. Her legs were almost giving way under her. She needed to sit down if she was to keep her cool. “I thought we were already friends. Did you have a differing opinion?”
“No, not at all.”
Thank gods for small victories! Now she could look at them both. She could even afford blushing at the sight of Urufu-kun, Moron-sama, whatever. It was all in the open anyway. And that was a relief. She wasn't about to copy her idiot brother and his refusal to come clear with his feelings.
She still hurt though. Nothing could make her not hurt. Well, maybe Urufu-kun having a change of heart, but she wasn't certain even that would be enough.
Behind her her brother had sat down as well. She could feel his disappointment oozing from his body.
“That was… intense,” Yu-kun offered from the other end of the table. He took a seat as well, and was comically joined by Kyoko-chan who sat down almost at the same time, but in a chair as far from Yu-kun as possible.
“Ulf, at least she deserves better,” Kuri-chan said and pointed at her with her entire hand.
“They'll share secrets anyway,” Urufu-kun said as if he and Kuri-chan had just agreed upon something. “But I don't know if he has deserved it,” he continued and pointed at Ryu with an equally exaggerated gesture.
Noriko frowned. Is that so? “Ryu, confess!”
“Just do it. I want in on that secret of theirs. Make your pick if you're telling Urufu-kun or Kuri-chan first, but make it quick!”
He really was her idiot brother. “Do I have to spell it out for you?”
He bowed his head and caved in.
The larger than life midget had done it again. Now he stood here with five pair of eyes studying him with amusement glimmering in all of them.
Had he been that obvious?
Well, it was time to salvage what little self-esteem he had. The result of his confession was a given, but at least he could receive his rejection with style.
“Hamarugen-san, Ageruman-san,” he gave them both a bow, “you have heard my sister. It is my sincere hope she didn't offend you.”
“None taken,” they answered in unison. Their smiles told him they were more than aware where this was going.
“While she can be obnoxious sometimes, she is my sister and quite perceptive,” because apparently a blind bat could have seen me semaphoring my feelings, “and on this occasion she is correct. I confess that I have fallen for you, Ageruman-san, and I apologize in advance if that discomforts any of you two.”
Urufu-kun bowed as a sign of respect.
“I'm grateful,” he faced Noriko, “for your feelings, but I'm dating Christina.”
A blushing Kuri-chan turned to him. “I'm equally proud to have your feelings, Ryu-kun. But I like Ulf.” She blushed even more.
Damn, you're beautiful!
“Will the two of you accept our friendship instead?” Urufu-kun asked.
“Will you?” Kuri-chan agreed.
Ryu looked at his sister. She was hurting, bad, but she nodded. Both of them rose. “Yes.”
Then she turned into that explosive ball of energy he had grown up with. “Secret! Gimme, gimme, gimme!”
Urufu-kun and Kuri-chan roared with laughter, and they were soon joined by Yu-kun and Kyoko-chan.
“Secret, as promised,” they agreed after the mirth had quieted down.
That night, neither Ryu nor Noriko got any sleep.
By now it was clear to Yukio that three of their new members had actually joined because they were truly interested in a cultural exchange.
Ando Hiroyuki was a silent boy with a crew cut and glasses from his own class. Shibata Kichirou was Ando-san's opposite from 8:1 with long hair to the colour and dignity of a carrot, and a uniform that always seemed on the verge of falling off.
Yukio tore down a poster from the wall while he tried memorising the new members.
There was Kimoshita Midori who was noteworthy in as much as that she was both a part of Ryu-kun's fan-club and a fervent admirer of everything European. She would have been cute hadn't it been for her long, unkempt hair.
It impressed him how anyone with hair halfway down their back still managed to have bed hair. Gravity ought to have prevented that. But the first year from 2:1 didn't know about the laws of nature, and so her hair branched out in one unnatural direction after another.
It was time for the drawers. He emptied one into into a garbage bag. Did you guys ever use all of this? The crumbled poster followed.
Cleaning out the club room had become something of an archaeological dig. There were, literally, layers of stuff in the drawers. He beckoned to the closest club member to help him and immediately regretted it.
Saki-chan was not there for any cultural exchange. Ota Saki had moved here from Kyoto a year earlier, and it showed in her accent. It shows in your attitude as well.
She was also their latest member, having joined the club after that uncomfortable lunch. When Urufu rose in popularity you suddenly wanted a membership? Or is it because Ryu-kun looks more available now?
Right now she was throwing a tantrum because Urufu and Ryu-kun had left early to buy supplies. It was a very polite tantrum, but a tantrum nonetheless.
“The vice president and official mascot shouldn't have to run these kind of errands. People more suitable for the task, like you, should do that instead.”
OK, maybe not all that polite.
“But the vice president understands Sweden, just like President Ageruman-san,” Kimoshita-san countered, and continued fawning all over Kuri-chan.
The remaining idol in question sat together with Kyoko-chan and Noriko-chan and swapped banter with two girls on Skype. One was the Japanese girl who had helped set up the club in Sweden, and the other was, as he understood it, a third year who didn't look like anything he would have expected from Sweden.
There was, Yukio had started to understand, a certain lack of dominance when it came to blond, blue eyed people in that faraway land. And they wore no school uniforms, which was strange considering that Urufu had referred to it as an elite high school.
He listened to the peculiar conversation, part of it in Swedish, parts in English and some of it in Japanese whenever a misunderstanding needed to be cleared up. They really only did use first names in Sweden. Even the Japanese transfer-student spoke with Kuri-chan, Kyoko-chan and Noriko-chan as if they had grown up together.
He really didn't care all that much. What he did care about was how Noriko-chan had grown closer to Kyoko-chan and Kuri-chan since that spectacular evening in the Stockholm Haven Café.
But you're putting up a brave face right now, aren't you? I never guessed you were so into Urufu until Kuri-chan shot you down.
The secret told in the café. That was the reason why Ryu-kun followed Urufu like a subdued puppy wherever he went rather than strangling him.
Yukio smiled and tore down some more decoration from the walls. Cleaning day. It was time for their room to lose all Sengoku reminders and become a tacky dream for prospective tourists in need of a depopulated nation with endless forests, lakes everywhere, a coastline dotted with islands and fairytale towns.
Some of the printouts Urufu had plastered to the wall went as well. Because, Urufu you have sucky taste. Old posters, old music, old style clothes, well, old. He liked what Yukio's father might possibly have liked, and there was a reason.
The door opened and Wada Sango entered together with Taniguchi Jirou. Wada-san was a former member of Ryu-kun's fan-club, but she had taken a liking to the past president and only remaining member of the now defunct Sengoku Cultural Club, after he joined the club in search of a place to spend his time.
There had been a power-struggle for the presidency which had lasted for all of a few seconds, after which Kuri-chan asked him about similarities and differences between the Swedish social democrats and the LDP.
Yukio handed them the garbage bags he had filled and they left the same way they had come. She was part of the 3:1 bedlam, but Taniguchi-san was a sober second year from 4:2. They made a good couple, even though none of them had dared to confess yet.
Like I'm the confession hero. I've hardly spoken with her since she rejected me. And what a rejection that was.
Yes, that was a problem. He wasn't merely experienced in confessing to girls he fancied. He was experienced in receiving a prompt rejection. But I don't want one this time. I like her too much. I don't dare to risk a strike out like with Noriko-chan.
And here he was, inside their club room and together with the object of his affection. And they only shared silence. She was currently glued to a computer screen and he was picking up trash and transforming it into garbage.
Yukio sighed. Two bags out. That meant that the two girls from 5:1, Ito Aika and Inoue Fumiko were on their way. Both solid admirers of Ryu-kun.
That left the home-grown brothers, Tanaka Dai and Tanaka Hideo, and no, they weren't brothers. They weren't even relatives. Tanaka Dai was a walking flagpole. He managed to make Urufu look short, and Tanaka Hideo was barely of average height. They usually hanged around their leader Fukuda Sho. All of them from 3:1 and all admirers of Kuri-chan's.
Hitoshi Nori, the motor-mouth from 4:1, sat by the table talking to Sakurai Sakura from 3:1, whose parents needed their brains examined given what they had named their daughter. Too many pointless jokes had made her silent, and she was pretty much the perfect conversation partner for Hitoshi-san. He talked and she nodded.
There were another four members, but as they hadn't delivered a formal application Kuri-chan and Urufu pretended they didn't exist. The club really didn't need any more people at the moment.
The late afternoon passed in relative calm. The room got clean, the members tired and the Skype call finished. The last topic to be covered had been some kind of comparison between amusement parks.
Liseberg, Kuri-chan had said during club cleaning day. Well, compared to the pictures she showed them this was nothing like the Liseberg both Kuri-chan and Urufu-kun knew from their previous life.
This park was much larger and they had spent a respectable amount of time on public transport to get here.
The maniacs responsible for Liseberg had placed that park near the city centre. Visitors walked there. If Urufu-kun could be believed.
He also claimed that an international capacity athletics stadium and a major indoor stadium were placed pretty much at leisure walking distance from the centre of the city as well. Everyone knew those kind of buildings were always erected in the outskirts, if even that close. Urufu-kun could be unreliable that way.
“So, are we going inside?”
Noriko got seven nodding heads in return. Wada-san and Taniguchi-san had chosen to enjoy their company today.
They had been showered by a sudden downpour on their way here, but right now it was only overcast. Sunday, May 22. A dating day. Spring of her life.
Kyoko-chan and Yu-kun are closer to dating than I am, and those two don't even have the brains or eyes to see what the rest of the club, everyone in 3:1 and 6:1, and probably half the prefecture has known for a while now.
By now it wasn't even painful to watch any longer. You stopped caring for clowns when they hurt themselves for the umpteenth time.
Amusement park. Amusing for six of them at least. Noriko looked at her idiot brother.
Make that seven. You know you're not supposed to drool that way. We'll need a leash.
She paid, as did the rest of them, and they were inside the gates.
“I have a schedule for the rides,” Ryu announced proudly.
Noriko stared at an ice-cream parlour rather than let anyone see her face. Of course you have.
“Bet the ferris wheel is last on that list. Can't miss that scene just before the end of the episode.” Yu-kun pinpointed exactly why her idiot brother Ryu was wrong in so many ways.
“Ferris wheel scene?” Urufu-kun asked.
“Man, not funny. You two,” Yu-kun stabbed a finger at Urufu-kun and Kuri-chan each, “aren't allowed to pretend you don't know. Taniguchi-san and Wada-san are excused.”
And only two out of four have the decency to blush. Kuri-chan, Urufu-kun, you must have done amusement parks as love birds in your earlier lives!
Kuri-chan shrugged and grabbed hold of Urufu-kun's left arm. “Roller-coaster! Joining me?”
“Hang on, Christina, let's see what the others want first,” Urufu-kun suggested.
Kuri-chan gave him a stare of dislike in return. Or rather his clothes, Noriko guessed. She couldn't fathom what had made him wear that.
The dating couple had kept up a low grade quarrel about his choice of casuals, or 'function clothing' as he called it, since they met. Kuri-chan was less than impressed. Noriko agreed with her.
They hadn't moved far from the gates and were still standing by a small tree with benches in a circle around it.
Right now the crowd was waiting for Ryu's reaction. It was kind of comical to watch. Her brother was at a loss for whom to obey. Kuri-chan or Urufu-kun.
“If the beautiful princess says roller coaster then I'm for,” he finally announced.
“The empress has decided,” Kuri-chan joked. If it even was a joke.
So, your hero worship takes a beating when she calls. I didn't expect that. But in fact Noriko was still reeling from the new knowledge. Fifty, they're ancient!
Roller coaster it was, eventually, decided. And then another. Noriko slowly began enjoying herself more than she had planned. Some of the it because of Kuri-chan's and Urufu-kun's good graces when they occasionally split up and allowed the Wakayama twins a breather from each others.
Urufu-kun and Kuri-chan chained speed-rides one after another without even looking at the slower ones where they would have had a chance to spend some time chatting with each other.
You guys really suck at romance.
And in the end they really didn't seem to care who they rode with. Noriko sat with everyone but the latest couple in the club.
You're strange, both of you.
She enjoyed a watery ride with Urufu-kun behind her when she realised that there was more to it than just her being in love with Moron-sama. She wanted to know more. Not just about what had happened, but about what it was like to see a fifteen year old world through fifty year old eyes.
Ahead of her she saw her brother with Kuri-chan. Was he only pulling pranks or did he ever nurture those thoughts? You should, you know. Now when you can.
She asked, and Urufu-kun answered after ability, or at least as much as he allowed her to know.
After the ride, when they were munching something that passed for food while drying, she heard some unwelcome voices coming closer.
Fan-club incoming. Only half of them club members. The already marginally awkward outing turned into a zoo in a theme park.
Her idiot brother soon found himself surrounded by girls and only looked happier for it. Kuri-chan didn't seem equally thrilled, even though she played the role of princess with gusto.
Noriko took that chance to get closer to Urufu-kun. Just to talk, she told herself.
“Cotton candy?” he asked when she tugged at his sleeve.
“Eh, yes, sure.”
“Come along and help me carry some then. I think I know what the rest of the gang wants.” He waved to Kuri-chan, pointed in the direction of some stalls by a restaurant area and dragged Noriko along.
Won't she be angry? Noriko didn't care and followed in his wake. Behind them Kuri-chan waved back.
By the stalls he ordered a massive amount of sugary treats and soft drinks to go with them. He really only wanted her as a pack horse.
Noriko ground her teeth and allowed herself to be stacked to capacity.
You're enjoying this way too much.
She felt his presence behind her as they both returned with arms and hands full of treats and drinks.
“I can't change how we both feel,” he said suddenly, “but I'll treat you the same as before until you say I'm too close for comfort.”
So he had noticed after all. He was married once for crying out loud! He's got kids older than me. Of course he'll notice! She pretended to shrug. Why do you have to look like you do? Why do you have to be so caring? A new thought built in her and she let her shoulders slump. Do you see me like a daughter? I don't want that.
She had to respond. “I can live with you loving Kuri-chan, but please see me as a friend!”
“I will, and I do.”
Noriko wasn't entirely sure he was speaking the truth.
They distributed their booty, and she glued a smile to her face. Discomfort haunted her long after they had finished eating.
On their way to the next attraction she decided she'd had enough. She nudged her idiot brother in a way he had learned, the hard way, meant “follow my lead”. As expected his eyes turned wary enough for his fan-club to notice.
“Something wrong, Wakayama-san?”
“You sister said something bad to you?”
“Not yet,” he croaked and gave her a panicked look.
Sorry, bro. Scrap that, I'm not sorry in the least. Noriko giggled and snuggled up to a surprised Urufu-kun. Kuri-chan stared at her from a position by Urufu-kun's other arm.
He was thoroughly sandwiched.
For once you don't know what's going on, Kuri-chan. Noriko watched how her brother frantically tried to guess what she was up to.
“Noriko, what are you doing?” Urufu-kun asked as well.
His body felt warm. She didn't mind dragging this out for a little longer.
Oh well, it couldn't be helped. Kuri-chan's fan-club had finally noticed that her boyfriend received more than his fair due of attention.
“Yes?” Noriko said in the sweetest voice she could manage.
“You shouldn't. He's Ageruman-san's boyfriend.”
“But I know that.” Noriko flashed Kuri-chan a smile and felt two thoughtful eyes meet her own. “But I like him anyway, and I've told them both I'm not giving up. She,” Noriko swept her hand in an exaggerated introduction of Kuri-chan, “is my rival.”
“Fat chance,” came the expected reply.
And that was when her idiot brother for once obediently stepped in. He snuggled up equally close to Kuri-chan and smiled at Noriko.
“But guys, sis has me for help.”
“The Wakayamas are scary!”
Urufu-kun frowned at Ryu, but apart from that he didn't do anything more than look uncomfortable with the situation.
“Ryu-kun, that's not cool, stealing his girlfriend like that.”
Her idiot brother knew his cue after all. “But I like her, and they both know I don't intend to give up.” And with an equally over the top gesture he invited everyone present to take a good look at Urufu-kun. “He's my rival.”
Kuri-chan and Urufu-kun clung closer to each other, both with a sibling each hanging on to them.
“Ulf,” Kuri-chan began, “Those twins are bad news,” she finished. But she was grinning widely.
Urufu-kun just smiled weakly and tried to pry Noriko loose. She tightened her grip. It felt good being this close to him, but more importantly, she had paid him back for making her into a pack horse earlier. From now on he would know she wasn't to be trifled with.
As the time for calling it a day grew closer it also became abundantly clear that more than a few had saved the ferris wheel ride for last. With their oversized group that event looked more like a clown parade than an embarrassingly cute but still somewhat romantic finish of their outing.
Not that Noriko had any part in it. She might wish all she want, but she was honest enough with herself to understand that that ride belonged to Urufu-kun and Kuri-chan. If it weren't for another dozen of their friends lining up by the attraction.
“I'll pass one this one,” came Urufu-kun's surprising declaration.
“Yeah, you go on. We'll sit down here and watch,” Kuri-chan equally astonishingly agreed.
Yu-kun stared at them, and even Kyoko-chan had the wits to give them a quizzical look.
Wada-san and Taniguchi-san had already gone far enough in the queue to miss out on the unexpected development on the ground, and one couple were even on the ride.
“You two can't go to the park and not ride the ferris wheel,” Noriko said. Normally she'd happily see the two of them void any romantic scenes together, but this was just too absurd.
“But it has to be the most boring ride in the park,” Urufu-kun complained and looked at Kuri-chan for help.
“Apart from the merry go rounds,” she added.
They're actually agreeing on this? Are they even human?
“Don't tell me that you don't have ferris wheels back home! No, thinking of it there's a huge one in the pictures of that Liseberg place.”
“Eh, sure, but only old people and families ride it. Or gangs of drunk friends.”
“What?” Noriko could see Yu-kun's reality falling apart. Even Noriko knew the basic rules; ferris wheel meet couple, couple meet ferris wheel. But you really don't know any longer, do you? That was over thirty years ago.
More and more of their friends wound up on the ride.
“You really have to.”
Kuri-chan shrugged and rose. She extended a hand to Urufu-kun and they joined the queue together with the other four in the club core.
How did I end up here? Oh well, can't be helped. We'll get Yu-kun alone with Kyoko-chan as a bonus. I guess that's worth having to spend the time with my moronic brother.
And they did get Yu-kun and Kyoko-chan alone after the two of them much too late realised what was happening.
Then Urufu-kun tried to pull a last stunt by attempting to get the remaining four of them together into the next basket, and it was only Ryu's discreetly shaking his head that averted such an outcome.
Looking behind her Noriko could see Urufu-kun and Kuri-chan spending most of the ride merrily chatting about things they saw from their basket. That has to be the two most unromantic people in the world.
On their way out of the park she noticed how Yu-kun and Kyoko-chan were obviously flustered, but Urufu-kun and Kuri-chan only returned uncomprehending stares when they received pointed questions.
Old people. Must be because they really are old people.
A week passed, and the contacts with their Swedish counterparts grew more sporadic. Apparently the third years were busy partying.
Ryu didn't understand fully what was going on in Sweden late May, but Urufu-kun promised that the third years spent most of May and all the few school days in June in a frenzied haze as graduation grew closer. The haze resulting from large amounts of legally questionable alcohol.
Skype conversations with their first and second year contacts only confirmed what he said.
A long summer was looming closer in Sweden, and most of the students there were openly concerned about being scattered for over two months. As far as he could understand they had no club activities to build continuity with, but apparently a few in the exchange club planned to stay together during summer break.
One of them was even headed for Japan mid July and wondered if they could meet up. He was a bit taken aback when told about final exams, but early August presented an opportunity.
On the Japanese end things were progressing smoothly, and Urufu-kun was planning something for late June together with Kuri-chan.
Summer solstice held some special meaning for people in Sweden, and both of them wanted the members of the club to have a shared dinner outdoors. Kuri-chan even went as far as saying that voiding that dinner was tantamount to sacrilege in Sweden.
“So, Urufu-kun, what's up?”
Urufu-kun flipped open the lid to his laptop and it flashed alive in a second.
You sure got expensive taste. Never even seen one of those.
“I'm setting up the Skype call, but this time we'll need a projector.”
Urufu-kun fished out a compact device from his bag.
“That's a projector? Looks like speakers.”
“Yeah. Wireless. Love it. Projector's built in.” Urufu-kun was setting up the box with the eyes of a child in a candy shop.
“Why?” Ryu asked.
“You'll see. OK, people we're ready. I'll call Sweden.”
Shortly afterwards a face surrounded by blond hair waved at them from the wall. “Ready?” the projector blared.
“We're ready in our end, run your presentation,” Urufu-kun answered in English.
On the wall the face was replaced by a white screen, and then the screen wasn't white any more.
The Japanese exchange student stood by it. The word 'Welcome' was replaced by it's counterpart in kanji, and she started her presentation.
Principal Nakagawa nodded at Hamarugen as the presentation proceeded. The kid had been right all along, and whatever doubts remained from their conversation yesterday vanished.
In terms of relative competence the students from Sweden were light years ahead when it came to present concepts in a readily understandable way. Glumly he admitted that the girl on the screen probably was better at it than most of his teaching staff. And she was Japanese with only a few years experience from a foreign educational system.
Still, that system performed atrociously on average. At least according to international tests. But Hamarugen had something else in mind.
Nakagawa listened and watched, and understood. How the planned summer schedule would mesh with the one in Japan. Because on this end Hamarugen and Ageruman had fired up their own thoroughly professional presentation. That they would be able to was less surprising. He knew their backgrounds after all.
But those Swedish high school students. That was troublesome.
“Until you find another teacher,” he had said. That was no longer an option. He'd stay on as advisor for as long as possible. Hamarugen had suggested they use the exchange club as a learning platform based on his experiences from providing educations in his previous life.
I knew the arrivals were important, but I had forgotten their impact when they're there in real life.
Obviously a lot was thoroughly rotten with the foreign education system, but stealing what worked was pure brilliance. You'll have your 'walking talking' sessions. As long as your club members perform better than average. And they would, he knew that. Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club was turning into a thinly disguised cram school. No, something different than merely a cram school.
Somewhere deep inside Nakagawa realised Hamarugen wouldn't stop there. “I can't transform Japan by myself, but I can create those who will, and I will start here,” he had said. Kiddo, you know, you might just be able to.
Nakagawa watched how the Swedish students tried to adapt to the pacing of a near perfect, professional presentation given by two persons who had done this for a living. He watched how those students made a frighteningly good job at it.
You two, you're inside this small room in Tokyo, and you're changing people on another continent. You scare me.