Midsummer's eve, poolside
Ulf wasn't entirely certain that it was safe bathing in the pool given how drunk most of them had become, but Christina had it all planned. The swimming pool stayed closed, but the small spa pool was running.
He walked across the large wooden veranda, listening to the hollow sounds under his feet for every step. Good, pool's covered. Don't want people drowning there come night.
A few of the guests were making good use of the spa, most of them belonging to the younger generation. They sent him polite nods with the message: “Please go away old geezer!”
He shook his head. The spa was smaller and safer, and warmer, but it still counted as the pool début for the year. Rather late this year. And on midsummer's eve, the Swedish version of a summer festival.
Chapter five, twenty four years earlier
Club activities ground to a halt as mid terms came crashing down on them. That two way presentation had already been one activity too many.
The club members made good use of their room for studying after school, even though officially there were no club hours.
There wasn't a teacher who cared. She didn't expect to find a teacher who would willingly tell the students not to study for exams just because they sat in their club room.
She had just opened the door to the Stockholm Haven Café when she heard agitated voices from inside. It was too late to change her mind, so she entered despite recognizing Kuri-chan's voice as one half of a quarrel.
“I told you not to come here evenings.”
“Look, you brat. I was free now so I came here to collect my money. None of your business.”
The middle aged woman that the voice belonged to stormed out of the café.
“Who was that?” Noriko asked Kuri-chan. She nodded affirmatively when the barista questioningly held up an empty coffee cup.
Kuri-chan gave the exit a long stare. She sighed and turned to Noriko. “That was my legal guardian.”
“She's also my landlady. Let's just say she's running a dirty business by the side with orphaned teenagers. Suits me perfectly, but I'm a bit worried about a couple of the other tenants.” She shrugged. “Not my business really. She leaves me alone in exchange for some cash.”
Shouldn't you be worried about yourself? “For some cash?”
“I have a job that pays rather well, but I had to lie about my age. She's backing the story.”
Noriko nodded at the door by the counter. “Want to take it inside?”
Kuri-chan shook her head. “Your coffee is done. Let's sit down by a table here.” She grabbed her glass of water and walked away from the counter.
Noriko rounded some chairs and tables as she followed her rival and friend.
“What kind of job?”
Kuri-chan sat down. “Hostess, part time.”
“Not so loud please. James knows. He's paying her share. I leave the money here.”
So that was what that phone call had been about. “Is it really worth it?” Now Noriko did feel worried.
Kuri-chan shrugged again. “Quarter of a million yen in a good month. A hundred and fifty in a bad one. Pays my living here and I can save a little.”
That was a lot of money. I bet Kyoko-chan knows. It still sounded dangerous though.
“I know what you think. Don't forget I'm fifty. If I get into trouble it doesn't matter if my body is sixteen, twenty six or thirty six. So it's a matter about not getting into trouble, and that's where being an adult comes into the picture.”
Noriko shook her head. “I'm not going to copy you. Our family is rich. I don't need a part time job.” I still don't like it. “How?” she asked.
“After my swimming training.”
That made sense in a perverted way. No one would ask questions about a girl applying make-up and dressing up in a locker room. “Just curious. How old do you look, you know, when...”
“I can push it to a bit over twenty. It's pretty dark after all.” Then Kuri-chan looked afraid for the first time. “Please don't tell Ulf. I know you like him, but...”
“I won't. If I steal him from you I do it by my own merits.” Noriko felt her cheeks heat up. “I don't think I could keep him otherwise.” I don't think I can compete with you. I always forget you're both adults inside, and I'm still a kid.
Kuri-chan looked at her for a long time. “You're more dangerous than I gave you credit for.”
That gave her a start. Dangerous? How?
Kuri-chan waved to James who had started to accept orders from the tables since the club made the café their usual hangout. He nodded and after a while he came out with a caramel coloured soft drink.
Noriko made her orders as he delivered Kuri-chan's.
It was almost dusk outside when the home-grown brothers arrived together with Sho-kun. Noriko still had a bit of a problem thinking of the club members in terms of first names, but both Kuri-chan and Urufu-kun had been adamant on that part.
Soon Sango-chan would arrive together with Jirou-kun. There was a standing bet on who would be seen first hand in hand, they or Yu-kun and Kyoko-chan, and when that event would occur. The winner would be treated to their planned field trip during summer break.
Noriko hoisted her bag and spilled her homework onto the table. She had gotten permission from her mother to sleep over at Kuri-chan's home. Kyoko-chan would join them as well. Your own little rebellion, Noriko thought. Neither her parents, nor Kyoko-chan's knew that Kuri-chan lived on her own.
“Let's start with maths,” Noriko suggested and waved the three newcomers to their table.
The boys wouldn't come tonight. It was the last Friday in May, and Fridays were sacrosanct to Urufu-kun and Yu-kun for some reason. Her idiot brother had chosen to join them.
At least they wouldn't have to listen to Urufu-kun's atrocious choice of music. He liked his music foreign, which was OK. He also liked his music ancient, which was not.
Behind her the bell jingled again, and Sango-chan entered with Jirou-kun. Noriko threw a glance at their hands. The bet was still up.
They split to two tables and started cramming math for all that they were worth. Come Saturday they would study English. Both Urufu-kun and Kuri-chan had promised to join them, but both were otherwise occupied during Sunday.
Noriko felt rather certain it wasn't a date this time. Urufu-kun had talked about his part time job, and now she knew why Kuri-chan often preferred late afternoon meetings during Sundays.
They were on their third round when Kyoko-chan finally arrived for a last half an hour of cramming in the café. At eight o'clock they had to leave, and that was really pushing it a bit. Kuri-chan wanted to be home before nine, and they had some shopping to do first.
After that they'd prepare a late dinner and study until midnight.
Kyoko looked around when her name was called out. What now?
It was the class representative, Okada-san. A girl about her own length with short hair and glasses. She didn't belong to Ryu-kun's fan-club, and she most definitely didn't belong to Kuri-chan's. She was one of the girls who openly disliked the blond foreigner.
Kyoko could understand her to a degree. Kuri-chan was visible, very much so and she talked too much despite her poor Japanese. Which was a problem because by now Kuri-chan's Japanese had become good enough for her to put her foot in her mouth from time to time.
“Takeida-san, we're preparing for swimming lessons.”
Pool opening, yes that should be about now.
“We first years are assigned the duty to clean the pool.”
Kyoko could see where this was going.
“Each class has to contribute two students the coming Saturday. Those who are not yet members of a club or are members of a culturally oriented club are less likely to have a full schedule that weekday.”
Which was correct. The reasoning was perfectly sound, Kyoko admitted. That didn't make the prospect of cleaning out the pool any more appealing.
“Our PE teacher will oversee the work. From our class I have assigned you and Ageruman-san.”
There were more students in their class who could have been chosen given Okada-san's earlier reasoning but there was nothing improper Kyoko could complain about.
“I understand, Okada-san. Time?” Kyoko asked curtly.
“Saturday. Ten am. Do you know where I can find Ageruman-san?”
“I'll tell her myself. We have club hours after this anyway.”
Wednesday the first of June. The midterms were behind them and Kyoko was grateful Himekaizen had them a week later than most schools. She had needed that week.
This year it looked like the long weeks when you befriended your umbrella had already started, so the pool would already be moist when it was time for cleaning it out. That was a plus. The downside was that the cleaners would also already be moist when it was time for cleaning.
But secretly she was happy to have been picked out by Okada-san. After a prior run in with his English teacher Urufu-kun had been picked from 6:1 and Yu-kun had received the other spot due to guilt by association.
Kuri-chan wouldn't mind neither. She threw far too many glances in the direction of the left wing during breaks. Whenever it rained during lunch she ate her food in their classroom with destitution written all over her face but if the weather allowed. Well she certainly had the legs to compete with Ryu-kun sprinting down the stairs.
In short Kuri-chan behaved more like a lovestruck middle schooler than the second time high schooler she was.
Like I'm behaving all grown up. Gah! I know Yu-kun likes me. Not even I could be blind enough not to see that but I just can't bring it up after what I did to him.
Kyoko left their classroom and headed through the main building to their club room. They were planning Urufu-kun's insane outdoor dinner and bouncing ideas for a summer break field trip.
Soon they would have to wave goodbye to their Skype friends. Some of them forever but most of them just for the long summer ahead.
The pool was indeed moist as was she. To her right an equally moist Kuri-chan scrubbed the bottom with a brush. Urufu-kun was hanging precariously over the edge scrubbing one side of the pool together with Yu-kun and the two delinquents from 2:1.
5:1 and 4:1 were pouring in clean water from one end while 3:1 (that would be her and Kuri-chan) and 1:1 scrubbed frenetically. 8:1 mopped up the wet and dirty results and 7:1 carried the residue away from the pool.
Normally Kyoko wasn't one to pay too much attention to clothes. But there were two obvious exceptions. She might be uninterested in fashion but you just didn't make friends with the tall bombshell without learning something. And that covered the female part of high school fashion.
Probably covers a lot more that just high school fashion, Kyoko thought wryly.
She put some weight to her brush and watched brown pool bottom become blue and clean water become brown.
“Dive, dive, dive!”
Urufu-kun vaulted clumsily but exactly over the edge and landed on the bottom. He took up scrubbing the sides again.
“There he goes!”
And that was the other exception. He wore, well how should she put it… strange clothes. If she wanted to be kind. Outright harmful to the eyes was probably a better description.
The worst part was that he considered it fashionable casuals from back home. Which she might have believed if it hadn't been for Kuri-chan. In a fit of frustration she had opened up a computer and shown Kyoko what was considered fashionable among teenagers in Sweden. While foreign it wasn't hurtful to your eyes.
Kyoko transformed some more pool bottom with her brush and looked at her friend. She was busy following Kyoko's example and made an obvious attempt not to throw too many glances at her boyfriend. Whenever she failed she shook her head.
Did he have to mix neon orange with olive green? I mean, really!
For once she followed Kuri-chan's example and shook her head.
Both friends took a stare at each other and laughed.
And rain started pouring down.
Moist, you bet!
There was a lot of giggling from where the girls finally emerged. Yukio looked at them with embarrassed apprehension. In their swimsuits they looked, well different. He suddenly felt very self-aware. All the girls were staring at his skinny body with disapproval.
“Well this is where all that training pays off, I guess,” Urufu said beside him.
“Don't worry. Gets more fun when you're fully grown.” Urufu stretched lazily and grinned. “You're just not used to summers at the beach. The girls are feeling just as embarrassed as you do. Besides shouldn't you be watching Kyoko?”
That made him blush. How can you be so comfortable?
Urufu stood in the blazing sun as if the prospect of a deep sun-tan didn't bother him the least. Then he moved to the poolside, and Yukio could see how years of training had taught him to defy the fact that he really wasn't all that athletic.
Easy for you to say. You've already been an adult once.
Urufu jumped into the water with the grace of a log and began swimming. Breast strokes like a child.
So he can swim, but not well. He just makes up for it with that absurd stamina of his.
Yukio watched as Urufu methodically carved out length after length. He was oblivious to the jokes that were thrown after him and finished whatever goal he had set up for himself.
“He's like a brick but a pretty good looking brick.”
“I wonder about that geek show. Must have been some kind of stupid bet.”
“Matsumoto-kun,” did you make a bet or what?
Yukio looked up. It was Kubo-san, one of his former classmates from Red Rose. He hadn't known her that well back then and he still really hadn't gotten to know her.
“Eh no. He went to a really strict place after he was expelled. Maybe just took him some time to get used to our new class,” Yukio lied.
“He looks better out of the water,” Kojima-san noted. She was one of the left wing's two beauties, and would have garnered a lot more attention if it hadn't been for 3:1. She was also one of the girls who showed interest in any guy who rose in popularity.
The sun hid behind a passing cloud and the pool had filled up with students trying out the water for the first time in the year. From the other side of the pool their PE-teacher was shouting out instructions and taking notes of how well they swam.
He saw Urufu-kun climb out of the pool and receive a fair amount of back slapping. They were probably followed by insinuating questions about Kuri-chan.
That couple. Three weeks and the school still talks about it as the most unexpected event of spring term. Yukio however, was less interested in the surprise couple that existed than in one that didn't. Half of that problem shared a classroom with Kuri-chan.
3:1 comes after us. Now that will be a circus. Kuri-chan and Noriko-chan. And Kyoko-chan of course. Thinking of her had him turn around. The present girls would surely misunderstand. And left wing is the best. We can see half the pool from there.
Yukio sauntered over to the pool. He needed to cool down a bit.
It's a circus! She had heard how bad the classrooms in the left wing could be. Had experienced it first hand as well. But this was a circus.
The pool was divided in two halves. Those who wanted to be seen and those who didn't. Kyoko kept with the latter and so did Nori-chan. And to her surprise, so did Kuri-chan even if she had walked over to the other end to gaze along the left wing building. Something, or rather someone hadn't been there to be seen and she came back.
There was something downtrodden about her when she returned.
I see. All that talk about love and heart, but this is what the real you looks like when you're in love. I wonder what I look like.
Bad, bad idea. Kyoko could feel the colour in her face. She slid into the pool and submerged. When she came back up again both Kuri-chan and Nori-chan were in the water. Nori-chan had apparent problems swimming and received help from their PE-teacher but Kuri-chan stretched out in a lazy and eye-catching medley. Most of the boys were whistling and shouting and even a few of the girls stared in admiration.
Of course she moves like a goddess in the water as well. She's not human that girl.
Kuri-chan wasn't just good-looking. She ate the lengths with a speed that would have made her an interesting recruit for the swim team.
What was is she had said? “Two clicks three times per week keeps you in shape.” Clicks? Kyoko watched Kuri-chan eat away another 25 metres. Oh, kilometres! Yu-kun had said something about that when referring to one of his games. She swims two kilometres at a time? Three times per week? She can have that body.
Kyoko climbed out of the pool and sat down beside it. Drying in the sun felt good but it quickly got hot.
There was some commotion a bit away. The boys were shouting louder than usual.
And there he was the cannonball prince. Water splattered all over the poolside when he landed and Kyoko had to make a hasty retreat.
Ryu-kun! Grow up sometime!
She moved into the shade under the roof. The sun was baking them and it was uncomfortably hot despite her being so close to the pool. Maybe she should have let him soak her.
“I'm the bomb! I'm the bombest of bombs!”
No wonder Nori-chan calls him her idiot brother. How can someone that childish be so popular?
Or maybe it was because he was so childish. He radiated a carefree lack of worries and for some people maybe that was the very reason they were attracted to him. Kyoko couldn't tell. She was part of the gang around Kuri-chan and as such hadn't understood that she was supposed to have a crush on Ryu-kun.
She walked poolside and slid into the water. Her eyes sought in vain for her minds wishes.
Her interests lay elsewhere and elsewhere wasn't here. He was back in his classroom in the wing turned circus. 6:1, the second source of rumours. The monopoly held by 3:1 had been thoroughly broken even if nowhere close to overtaken. Ryu-kun was still Ryu-kun and Kuri-chan was still Kuri-chan. Nothing would change that. Not even Urufu-kun.
You are, she guessed, mostly famous for being Kuri-chan's unexpected boyfriend. Good! The last remnants of bullying had ceased when she chose the geek over the prince. Geek, right! They were perfect for each other from the start. They just didn't know it.
On second thought Kyoko suspected that the tall, Japanese looking Swede had no interest in being the centre of rumours. On third thought she wasn't all that certain.
Someone bumped into her from behind. Christina took a step forward and regained her balance by the window in the stairwell.
It was another student. A third year according to her uniform.
“Oh, it's you! I didn't know.”
Christina gave the third year a long stare. Suzu-something. She remembered her from somewhere.
“I apologise for my errors,” the third year suddenly said and bowed deep.
Christina got a good look at where her neckline dropped to where her cleavage was covered by the blouse. You were among those who attacked me! She studied the girl closer. Something was definitely off. Wait a minute!
“How old are you?” Christina asked the still bowing figure.
“Wh… what?” She rose.
Christina looked at her neck and hands.
“What are you doing in this school?” Christina shot off her next question.
“What do you mean. I'm a student here.”
“If you're eighteen then I'm the princess of Japan.”
That hit home. But what is that woman doing here, wearing our uniform an all? The girls attacking her had been suspended for a week or so. That was all. No police, no nothing. But this...
“What do you...”
“Drop it! I'm sure the police would be very interested in your...” What's that damn word again? “Your id.”
“I don't understand what...”
“I said drop it. I'll talk with Ulf Hammargren. He's good at digging things up.” If you call my bluff I'm busted. But there really is no way in hell you're under twenty.
“I can't say anything. Do whatever you want.”
Christina didn't dare push it any more right now. She left and went in search for Ulf. He was most probably in their club room planning a garden part for the middle of the Japanese rain season.
In Sweden, Moron-sama. Nori-chan got that part right, about Moron-sama. 'It's mandatory in Sweden.' You idiot! How do you plan to have them eat sour milk mixed with boiled potatoes and salty herring? Hammer it down their throats? And I even backed him on this!
Sometimes his 'we do it like this in Sweden' really frayed her nerves. He could get used to doing some 'like in Sweden' himself. Like telling her he loved her would be a good start.
As it was now he only made her nervous, and flustered, and all warm inside, and… But that wasn't the point. That was her falling uncontrollably in love with him. She knew that. There was no returning now.
Twice before. When I was fourteen, the first time, and when I was twenty. Twice. She shook her head while she half-ran through the corridor. I promised myself I'd never allow myself to be that stupid again. Christina stopped just outside the door. Ulf, damn you! I'm falling so hard for you I don't know what to do any longer.
She needed to open that door. They were already dating, weren't they? There was no reason for her to feel this uncertain, was there?
Then she found her resolve. Right now she needed his strength and arrogance more than his love. She pulled the door open.
“Ulf, we need to talk.”
They rode their bikes. Together for the first time. Not too far from the school but far enough for this to feel like an unplanned date. For once Ulf had taken his bike all the way to school. A ten minutes ride had brought them to a river of sorts with the concrete embankments she had come to associate with Japan.
She had just finished telling him about her encounter earlier when he pulled the brakes and jumped off his bike while it skidded along the tarmac.
You just had to play the teenager like that. But it's kind of sexy. And we're not going there. Flustered she decided to end her monologue and got off her bike herself. “And that's it. She's not a day under twenty.
“How can you be so certain?” Ulf pulled his bike to the side of the narrow road.
Christina rolled her eyes. “Look Ulf, I made a career after I quit modelling. I know what a woman looks like. Just trust me on this!”
Ulf nodded. His face had darkened considerably while she explained what had happened. “I'll use it to put some pressure on Nakagawa then. He knows about us. I guess you also want to know about them.”
Us. He means us two, but he doesn't mean us two. “I wonder if we've ever met, I mean in our previous life.” She suddenly wanted to change the subject.
They looked at other cyclists and the occasional pair walking the road. It was a simple enough question, but Ulf looked like he wanted some time to think it over. He always seemed to want to think things over.
“Really doesn't matter now,” Ulf answered. “I don't think so. We moved in different worlds. Walk down there?”
Christina looked where he pointed and followed him down some stairs that led to the water. He was right. She was happy here and now but she was also more than a little irritated. She had wanted his arrogance but that didn't mean she liked it. “Your world?” she asked. She was still curious about the man behind the boy.
“CEO. Mid-sized IT consulting and education company.”
“Hmm, yeah different world. What was it called?” It just had to be something that dull.
Ulf shot her a sullen look. “Is still called. I'm just absent these days.”
There was that of course. In the other world Ulf's company still existed. “So what is it called?”
“Twin Arc Production, or TAP.”
Christina froze. “TAP?”
“What about it. You heard of us?”
She started giggling. “Yes you could say that. Second time made up for the first though.” All thoughts about an inconsiderate Ulf vanished in an instant. Then she laughed until it hurt.
It was a while later that Ulf demanded an explanation. He deserved it she guessed.
“Christina Agerman,” she said. “Doesn't ring a bell?”
“Of course! Well, nothing that has anything to do with my company.”
“You know you're not the only one to use an abbreviation. I'll give you a hint. Christina Agerman.” She studied his face while he frantically tried to make the connection.
“Sorry, nothing comes to mind.”
Maybe it was too obvious for him to see. “Chag,” she said when she had decided that he wouldn't make the guess.
“Oh shit indeed.” And she laughed again. “Aptly named I'm afraid. Our last line was, well less than top quality. I'm still a bit ashamed of it.”
“You were one of our most important customers back in the days. But we didn't usually do full scale B2C solutions. And, oh, oh shit! Yeah, second time was better. I get that now.”
They sat down and looked across the water. It was better like this, to get away from the school even only for a while. Well, he was waiting for an answer.
“Hmm, you paid back a lot of money for that disaster. Only reason you got that second contract.” She shook some hair from her face and looked at him.
“We sent Niklas the second time as well. He cost me so much money the first time I couldn't afford using anyone else when we got the second contract.” Ulf was still staring at the river. She wanted to run her fingers through all that thick hair of his.
“There was not a sliver of a chance that he'd screw up the second job. It was personal for him.”
Christina thought of it for a while. “Nice,” she said. “Promoting failure as on the job training. I like the concept provided people learn from their errors.” She stretched in the wind and waited for Ulf to continue. For a moment she had become her old self. The fashion empress, the queen in the shadows. That was history. Right now, together with Ulf, she very much wanted to be the young girl she looked like.
“Yeah you have to make sure about that. But as soon as you make people afraid of failing they stop progressing. That's just bad management. Just make sure to fail as fast as humanly possible.”
“Eh?” If I sound like I don't understand I get to hear more of his voice.
“Costs less. By promoting fast fails you identify dead ends in a minimum of time and for a minimal cost. Well I'm boring you.”
You condescending little brat! “You're boring me? You ran a company we could have bought for what we spent in the bar during a promotion event, and you're boring me?” Sometimes Ulf just grew too big a head and he really didn't make it easier for her to stay out of the role as her former self.
“Sorry I apologise.” Ulf scratched his head. “You know that's a difference. TAP doesn't matter all that much, but isn't Chag a major player in fashion and cosmetics?”
At least he knows when he screws up. Christina nodded. “My personal share was one percent and I was good for well over a billion dollars. And that company doesn't even exist in this world. You know two years ago I visited a big opening event here in Tokyo, incognito. It scares me that it never happened in this world.”
“How do you mean scares you?”
“I've been to the place where our first Tokyo store opened. It's an H&M store there now. They're a fairly respectable chain back home but here they're some kind of global dragon in fashion.”
“I didn't know they operated outside Sweden.”
“Northern Europe only back home. This really is another world. I never built my fashion empire here, so someone else did.”
“Talking about fashion empire, thanks for helping me with my outfit the other day. I'm in your debt.”
That had been an act of mercy. He still had way too much of his scary gear. Scary gear of fantastic quality, she admitted to herself, but it still looked like crap. The topic had meandered again. Christina didn't care. She had him for herself. “You sure are. For a moment there I thought you knew your wardrobe.” I can sit here and talk about nothing with you forever.
“I had help,” Ulf murmured.
“I had help, some years ago.”
“You could have used some more.” Christina followed a twig as it slowly floated down the river. “Reminds me that when you delivered that second site we were so satisfied that I had an impromptu reward made for your company. Well, I didn't know it was yours. Anyway, I do remember that second delivery you know.”
Ulf murmured some more. His face was strangely red. He ripped up a straw of grass and fidgeted with it.
“It was one of our best fashion coaches. I'm certain whomever he trained would end up looking the very best.”
“I wonder… Ulf, you're silent.”
And he murmured some more.
That blush could be seen right through all his tan.
Ulf barely had time to enter the café before James pointed at the door to the inner room.
“Inside,” he said.
Ulf trusted him enough to open and go inside without asking any questions.
And that just proves how naive I am. Crap!
Principal Nakagawa sat waiting by the table. He wore his usual, strict suit, and Ulf felt strangely naked in his high school summer uniform.
“We seem to have a problem,” Nakagawa said. He didn't even bother with a greeting.
Damn, that old geezer scares me. But Ulf's previous conversation with Christina made him better armed than that awful time when he was called up to the principal's office.
“Yes mister Nakagawa?” he said in English. He had no reason to give the old man the advantage of language, and besides Nakagawa had spoken English that time as well.
“You kids are making too much noise. I want you to calm down.”
“I'm sorry...” No way in hell! I'm a fifty year old CEO with full responsibility for the well being of hundreds of employees. “No mister Nakagawa. We're not kids.”
This time he was going to make a stand.
“As far as I'm concerned you're a brat, and I...”
“Want our help with the upcoming police investigation concerning the assault in the locker room?” I'm not giving away the momentum this time. “We can do that. My legal guardian is a police after all. I'll tell her everything.”
“You'll do nothing of the sorts!” Nakagawa coloured with rage and he had risen from his chair.
“Do you really want to test that theory?” Ulf forced his voice into a younger version of what he had used on the few occasions when people needed being talked to rather than talked with. “I wouldn't recommend that. The repercussions would be unfortunate,” he continued. And finally, after over a full year in Oz, Ulf felt in control again.
“Are you threatening me?”
“Yes,” came Ulf's blunt reply. The cards were on the table. Now when he had nowhere to run Ulf felt that sense of calmness that always overtook him in his previous life when he was backed into a corner. He was a fifty year old man with a lifetime's experience of shouldering responsibility, not a frightened adolescent.
Ulf could see Nakagawa fight to regain control of himself. You're good, but this once I'm better.
“I see,” Nakagawa said. “Do you have any idea how much trouble I could cause you if you persist?”
“I do,” Ulf answered. And now for the killer. “But you're the principal of Himekaizen at a time when Japan runs a population deficiency of epic proportions.”
He actually said 'huh'? I've got you now. “Right and left wing designs. I'll bet the school had twelve classes in every grade not that long ago.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Nakagawa looked… interested. As if he was evaluating Ulf.
He's not even angry any longer. He never was. All an act. Damn geezer! “That means you're down to two thirds of the student population you once had. Overhead costs must be brutal. Your budget should be shot to kingdom come by now.”
Nakagawa nodded thoughtfully.
“Add a thorough investigation by police all over the place, with media candy on top, and I'll have you down to six freshman classes next year. When would you prefer to file for bankruptcy?”
“You are an observant one, aren't you.” Nakagawa smiled. “Just about any other school and your game would have worked. Not this one though. We handle the arrivals after all.”
But bloody hell! How many aces does he have stacked up his sleeve? Ulf had only one more card to play, one that Nakagawa had just given him. “Black ops? I bet they'll love have media scampering all over the school.”
Nakagawa smiled again. A genuine smile this time. “No, no they wouldn't,” he admitted. “But that won't happen because I'm not going to push you any further.”
So we've come to an understanding of sorts. Pity I'm totally clueless what it is. Still he had been given a bone, and it was time to be more civil. “Mister Nakagawa, why don't we restart this meeting now?”
“You had a problem.”
“Yes. It's come to my attention that Christina Agerman made a surprising observation.”
So it was that business all along. “Yes, she found out one of the goons was rather overage for being a high school student.”
“Found out? You mean made a guess.”
“No, found out. She made a living out of it you know.”
“You're saying just because she was a model she has the ability to estimate the age of a girl?”
“Make that super model, but no. I'm saying that because she built a fashion empire that would make Uniclo look like a shoddy back street shop. She had to know just about everything, by instinct, brains or black magic, I don't care, but she did.”
“You love her, don't you?”
Where did that come from? “I guess I do,” Ulf admitted. He wasn't certain himself, but it was easier just telling Nakagawa he did. Do I? Maybe, but I'm afraid of falling in love again. It hurts too much losing someone.
“About Suzuki, I need her where she is. And no we can't afford having you bring in the police. I'll pay miss Agerman hush money. A lot of it. She'll accept.”
You cocky bastard!
“Now mister Hammargren, I'm going to bribe you as well.”
He really doesn't have any stops. “Give me your best shot.”
“I'll dig into what really happened at Red Rose, and I'll give you the results.”
OK, that was one hell of a shot. “I'm listening.”
“And sometime during summer break I'll fill you in a bit on what we know.”
You need to do that anyway. Otherwise you can't use us for whatever plans you have. “Still listening.”
“And you can run that club of yours as you see fit as long as your members get the grades I need to argue in favour of such an unusual decision.”
“That will take some time, and both Christina and I will have poor grades.”
“Because your Japanese is poor. I understand that. You'll have your time. Until second term finals. Half a year. Show me some results!”
“Consider me bribed. And in return?”
“You pretend that you believe that miss Agerman was bribed into submission and that you believe Himekaizen is just another corrupt private high school that only cares for its reputation.”
Ulf thought of it. In a few months he'd know more about what was happening, and he'd be given an opportunity to clear up a few educational deficiencies.
If Nakagawa could be trusted. The old geezer was a bastard, but he played with open cards. “We have a deal.”
They shook hands.
Somehow Kuri-chan wound up with a substantial amount of money. A bribe she said, as if it was commonplace for students to receive large bribes. But then she wasn't an ordinary high school student.
Noriko wondered about that. Did I ever stand a chance? He's the same as her. And they're both from that funny country.
But it wasn't in her nature to meekly give up. Especially not as it was so fun being someone's rival. A bit too fun. I never guessed. Almost just almost as fun as having him for myself. The last part she knew was a lie.
They had just left school and were heading for their café. Saki-chan was blabbing nonsense behind them and Hitoshi the motor mouth was doing the same ahead of them. All in all she was hemmed in by idiots. Ryu by her side came to mind.
For once though, he had come up with a good idea. Why not gather the club and watch some fireworks? In June.
Kuri-chan what did you do?
“They're mad about fireworks here,” she had said during one of their Skype sessions. “Everyone watches. Thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands.”
And now two Swedish university pyrotechnics clubs were on their way here. Cultural exchange. Maniacs!
Someone over there knew someone with more money than brains. A lot of money. Two colleges here had taken up the gauntlet and a small competition was hastily planned. It was to coincide with a local festival even though nowhere near the festival grounds.
If it rained too much the display would be cancelled, so it made sense not to associate it directly with the festival.
Noriko's thoughts were abruptly interrupted by yet another of Hitoshi-kun's insensitive disclosures.
“And then Kato-san dropped his mobile in the toilet. Told you he was a klutz!”
Hitoshi-kun, you're not gaining popularity points going on like that. He never did. It was a wonder he got so well along with Sakura-chan. He talked for both of them. Poor kid, were your parents drunk? Sakurai Sakura. She must have spent her childhood in pain.
From an adjoining street fans from the go home club came walking laughing and talking. What was left of Ryu's and Kuri-chan's separate fan-clubs had once and for all merged into one loose unit. Most of the impromptu members formally belonged to half a dozen real clubs, and she usually didn't see them together after school hours.
“Wakayama-san! He's here.”
James, you'll have a full house.
“Yeah, where is Kuritina-chan?”
She's back in our room hooked up to Sweden. She and Urufu-kun. But I'm not telling.
“She'll join later,” Kyoko-chan answered in her stead.
The go home club members must have finished their karaoke session. Two rooms at least as there were a dozen of them cavorting down the street. All in their uniforms. So you went directly from school. We did as well, in a way.
Walking talking he called it.
In full view of their teaching staff Urufu-kun had led all club members out of school. And principal Nakagawa just stood there smiling like some creepy grandfather.
They had walked and talked. For two hours with very few breaks. Japanese history compared to Swedish. “There is no right answer,” he said. “Sho, Nori, Sakura, look it up online and refute your text book.” And he handed out tablets like candy.
For two hours.
He trashed the Japanese language, and had four of them look up why he was wrong, from a historical perspective.
“Compare with old Chinese,” he suggested.
He slaughtered math and forced two of them to come up with an alternative solution.
“Change into cylindrical coordinates.” After which he had to explain different coordinate systems.
He even made a futile attempt to make them understand the intricacies coming from comparing Swedish, English and Japanese. That one fell flat though.
Well over a dozen freshmen on the streets in agitated discussions about school topics. She wondered what it had looked like for onlookers. You really feel no shame, do you?
And now they were here. Subdued but also a little excited. You think differently. You always try to understand. No wonder you flunked midterms.
They invaded the café. The inner room might have been generously spaced but there were almost thirty of them there.
“OK look here,” Noriko said after she had brought out a tablet and a projector. Let's see if I've learned anything.
The back wall lit up with her presentation. Kuri-chan had made most of it and Urufu-kun had coached Noriko in how to use it.
Faces turned her way.
“I've sent you all emails with the presentation in PDF-format so please don't take any notes. Those of you who aren't members of the exchange club, I can send you emails afterwards if you want.” Noriko drew a deep breath.
“President Ageruman has invited two pyrotechnic teams from Sweden. They will arrive next week and prepare for a competition against two Japanese teams. The display is planned at...”
Ryu looked around. Kuri-chan had arrived in a dress that was best described as rustic. Yellow and blue. And she wore a white blouse under it. And of course she managed to look stunning.
“National traditional dress,” Kuri-chan explained. “Some of the guys from Sweden brought it for me.”
“What?” Ryu took a few steps to get away from the steady stream of arriving festival visitors.
“In exchange for me being their mascot earlier this week.”
Kyoko-chan frowned. “That's most improper. Freshman high school student all alone with university students.”
“Think so?” Kuri-chan looked genuinely surprised.
“Yes, in this case I'm bound to agree,” Urufu-kun said. “It would be improper back home as well.”
“Boring.” Kuri-chan pouted and stuck her tongue out a Urufu-kun. “Anyway, I can't walk properly in a yukata.”
Urufu-kun did you mean thirty years ago or now? No probably now as well. Some of those guys are over five years older than us. Ryu shook his head. Bet that third year we Skyped with earlier is involved. She said her boyfriend attended university.
“You can't walk?” Ryu said when he had decided to change the topic. Kuri-chan probably knew how to handle both boys and men.
“No. Toes inwards and cuteness galore, like this.” She pulled her dress tight and showed them a perfect display of a beautiful woman in a kimono. “I'd go nuts in ten minutes.”
Kyoko-chan clasped her hands to her mouth. It had been a perfect display, and even Ryu's usually unperturbed sister stared. It took some serious training to walk that way.
“How can you walk then,” Ryu challenged her.
“This dress should be worn like a bell and the wearer is supposed to be a beauty of nature. Like this.” And the dress rang around her, very much like a western style church bell with her legs as bell hammers. “Rustic innocence wouldn't you agree,” she laughed.
So you knew exactly how that dress looked. Who were you in your previous life?
“It's a bit hard with this fabric, but a more elegant dress is usually worn the traditional way.” She let her hands fall along her sides and gathered parts of her dress into them. Suddenly she was more slender and walked away like the model she looked like. She turned on her toes and walked back. Her face challenged the world to look at her and her feet circled and conquered enemies beneath her.
More than a few arriving visitors had stopped to look at the show. A few appreciating wolf-whistles flew through the air followed by raucous suggestions.
Ryu threw an irritated glare after them before he returned his attention to Kuri-chan. Strange, her smile was natural until just now, but it's like she's remembering how to perform an act.
He could hear his sister choking beside him.
Sis, what was that just now?
“Model?” Noriko asked in a voice that had yet to be fully restored.
Kuri-chan looked at Urufu-kun. “I've had a shot or two taken. You saw those?” And she winked at him.
Urufu-kun just shook his head but his eyes never left her. There was something sad about his smile, like he also was immersed in memories.
Noriko looked up at Ryu. “Bro, not fair. We can't follow them there,” she sulked.
So that is the look of memories. But they never told us they met before. In that other world.
Yu-kun had stood a bit apart under a tree and watched the impromptu show. Now he left the canopy and came closer. “Ladies, beautiful all. I have to admit, though,” he turned to Kuri-chan, “that I prefer the yukata.”
Kuri-chan tip toed and clapped her hands. “I'm devastated, but then how could I possibly compete with her?”
Kyoko-chan and Yu-kun flashed red in seconds, but then in an unprecedented act of bravery he faced Kuri-chan and smiled weakly. “You can't.”
Well done, that was well done. Ryu felt his respect for Yu-kun grow a few notches. There was more to the loyal wingman than met the eye.
Kuri-chan's face opened up in a big 'O' but her eyes still glittered with mirth. “I'm mortally wounded! Betrayed! Betrayed I say!” She threw an open hand across her forehead, rolled her eyes and fell backwards dramatically. Only to be promptly caught by Urufu-kun who had apparently been waiting for the show.
“She's such a stage monkey,” Noriko said, her voice rumbling with disapproval.
I don't care she says she's fifty. I don't care she's a foreigner. I don't care she's taller than me. I don't even care she loves Urufu-kun. She's easily the most beautiful thing I've seen in my life.
Despite everything it was uncomfortable walking between the stalls like this. The four of them taking up most of the street as they walked side by side like something from a B-western.
Ulf held Christina's hand tightly. It felt good with her fingers between his.
And that was the good part of it.
To his left he had a very cute and lovestruck Noriko clinging to him in a yukata, barely leaving him enough room to be decent, and to her right Christina had an equally charmingly lovestruck Ryu. The twins were overdoing it obviously, but they still played those cards a little bit too well.
The fantastic four with superpowers in kiddie love triangle. Quadrangle? It was all very confusing anyway. And embarrassing.
Fantastic four? Where had Yukio and Kyoko gone?
“Guys, I think we lost two,” Ulf said.
Christina looked at him. “Ulf?”
“Christina, have you seen them?”
She looked around, as if they would suddenly pop back into existence. “They were right behind us. Oh well can't be helped.”
Sometimes she wasn't much of a friend. “Christina, shouldn't we try to...”
“I said: Can't. Be. Helped.”
“Huh? Oh, yes of course.” That was a close one. I wonder if she doesn't know exactly when those two got lost behind us.
Ryu and Noriko just grinned. They had been far faster on the uptake than him.
The four of them sat down by a stall and spent an absurd amount of hundred yen coins failing to catch fish they wouldn't want to take home anyway. It was fun of sorts but all in all the festival reminded Ulf more of a children's fair than anything else. Oh well, when in Rome and all that.
The fireworks in Japan were marvellous though, and he was already looking forward to them.
A few crowded stalls later he had filled up with some surprisingly tasty food and a couple of sticks with candied apples that Christina wanted. She was quickly regressing into childhood.
That was the good part. The bad was that after those stalls he couldn't find the Wakayamas, and the crowd was pushing them forward. There was no going back to search for their friends.
Ryu-kun scampered up a nearby fence. After that he took a measuring look at the tree. Then he was flying through the air.
Noriko gasped. “Careful bro!”
Ryu-kun hadn't misjudged. He caught a branch with his hand, and on the upward swing he hugged the trunk with his legs. After that he vanished up the canopy like a monkey.
“Sorry, can't see them,” came a shout from the treetops.
“What about Kyoko-chan and Yu-kun?” Noriko shouted back from the ground. She couldn't see her brother even though he was up there somewhere. Multiple lanterns bathed the tree in a fairy tale reddish light and threw strange shadows around so it was difficult to see what was a shadow and what was a branch.
“No good. Kuri-chan. I hoped to see her hair, but the other two, sorry.”
The tall girl with golden hair. Yes she could understand why he thought it easier to find her in the crowd.
“Come down! I want something to eat. We'll try to find Sho-kun and the home-made brothers.”
She heard rustling from above, and after a while she could see her brother vaulting down between branches as if he had been walking a wide bridge.
When he finally was by her side again she shrugged. “Stuck with you this year as well. I've had worse. At least your harem isn't here.”
Ryu gave her a guilty look.
And another one.
“Wakayama-san, over here! I've found him!”
“Ryu-kun, super! You look great!”
“Isn't that my line?” He had the good graces to at least give her a third look.
Then she saw something interesting. Oh. The bet is off then. And the motor mouth of all people won. Pity, my money was on this day, but I had higher hopes for you Kyoko-chan.
The crowd closed behind them again. Kyoko held on to Yu-kun's shirt for all she was worth. I lose him now and I'll be alone for the rest of the evening.
Just a moment earlier they had almost stumbled into a drunken fistfight and now they were running.
From her right music blared from a couple of loudspeakers, and then the sound grew fainter behind her. Why is he walking so fast?
“Yu-kun, I can't. My yukata.”
He finally slowed down. Her feet hurt from walking much faster than her shoes were designed for. Kuri-chan would have understood. She actually knew about the yukata. Ah, yes she told me she had been in Japan a lot before.
That thought scared her. Before this life. What is it like to live twice?
“Kyoko-chan, are you...”
“I'm fine,” she lied.
“Sorry I ran.” Yu-kun looked shamefaced.
Kyoko stared at him. Somehow he looked younger now, and scared.
“What is it? What happened?”
He looked away. “That fight before,” he murmured, “it was a set-up.”
How did he know? “How did you know?”
He walked them a little bit away. Whatever was on his mind wasn't romantic at all. She could see that in his face.
“You know, us from Red Rose.”
She knew that a lot of the students came from his old middle school. They were spread evenly among all classes, and she had heard rumours. “Yes,” she said, even though she wasn't sure where this was leading.
“We don't talk much about it. Have you heard that we call it Red Rose Hell?”
She had and it wasn't spoken about. “Uhum.”
“There was a lot of bullying, and worse.” He looked as if he was about to cry.
“No you should know, at least part of it.”
Kyoko wasn't sure she wanted to, but if it was important to Yu-kun then she would listen. I want to know you. I want you closer to me. “I'll listen.”
“There was a Chinese girl and two Korean boys. One of them in my class. It was bad and the teachers didn't help.”
“Like Kuri-chan,” she asked and remembered.
“Worse,” Yu-kun said. “I was a coward, but the Wakayamas refused to let go.” He looked as if he was making a decision. “I had a crush on Noriko-chan back then,” he said.
Had? Whoa! Had? You're not in love with her any more? “Uhum.” I'm not going to show anything, I'm not! Please!
In the distance fireworks were opening up. They really are flowers in the sky!
“Follow me! I'll find a better spot. Tell you more later.”
They had already moved away from the worst crowd so it was easier walking around, and Yu-kun soon found a place behind a stall. It smelled of food and it was darker here but Kyoko didn't mind at all.
“I'm sorry for telling you this now but if I don't I don't know if I ever will.”
His voice brought her back to his discomfort. Whatever occupied his mind was more important than the festival.
“Please I'm still listening,” she said and used it as an excuse to move just a little bit closer.
“She was too loud so they took revenge.”
She? Oh, Nori-chan.
“Urufu helped. He's a hero you know. The best there is even if he's a moron sometimes.”
She could agree about the moron-part. No she could agree on him being a hero as well. If it hadn't been for him Kuri-chan…
“I know. We both know how he helped Kuri-chan.” We, I said we.
“I don't know if I should tell you this but I will. He got into a fight and was expelled.”
“After that it got worse.”
“The Korean boy in my class was ambushed. I saw it coming but I was too afraid to get involved.”
Yu-kun what happened?
He remained silent for some time after that. Blossoms lit up the sky followed by distant thunder but she wasn't looking at the fireworks any longer. Something bad he had said.
“He transferred. The Chinese girl and that other Korean boy did as well. Personal reasons they said.”
“Yu-kun you look like a ghost!”
He looked at her and there was only sadness in his face. “I wish I was a ghost.” And he looked even sadder. “I was too afraid to stop it and some of my classmates helped with the bullying. Japanese purity they called it.”
“I'm a coward. I laughed as well and made snide comments because… because...”
“Yu-kun!” She could see that he was caught in memories. What could have been that bad?
“Some of the teachers helped as well. And some parents. But not the Wakayamas. They fought back and they saved me together with Urufu. Without them I would have started to believe those lies.”
Kyoko didn't say anything. There were rumours after all. Some of them she had heard from her parents. “We're a superior race. Destined for greatness as long as we don't become improper. As long as we stay clean from foreign influences.”
Improper. Yes, she definitely had heard that before. And two of her best friends were foreigners. More foreign than anyone could possibly understand.
“That's why I knew what was happening you know, with Kuri-chan.” Yu-kun looked at her and suddenly his face lit up in a grin. “You know, I'll strive to be improper in the right way!”
You're no coward. I'll be your friend and maybe, maybe I can mend what I broke between us.
“I had to tell you. Still friends?”
Yes. I'll always be your friend. And if that means being improper then I'm going to learn from you. “I'm your friend, if you allow me to be.”
“Mind if I call you Kyoko?” His voice had turned softer.
Yes! “If I can call you Yukio,” she said. Yes!
“Please do, Kyoko.” She could hear the silence in that sentence. Just before he said her name. As if it scared him.
There were more flowers in the sky. She held on to him. It was a little bit like brother and sister but it was enough for now. Together they watched the fireworks in silence.
“There's something that's been bugging me all this time. We're here together...”
“Mmm, here together,” Christina interrupted and snuggled up closer.
I can feel you right through that dress. And you know I can. “Christina, I'm trying to be serious here.” He gave up and held her just a little bit tighter. It felt good. Really good.
“OK I got it. You were saying?” But she didn't let go.
“You and Kyoko went to middle school for one year, just like me.”
“Doesn't that mean we probably arrived here at the same time?”
Christina did let him go at that. “Yes, when you put it like that. Yes I guess so.” She took a bite of her candied apple.
They moved away from the stalls a bit. The fireworks were about to start, and he wanted a spot from where they could see them better.
“So I wonder, what happened to you. I mean back in Sweden?”
“You mean how I arrived here?”
She looked thoughtful. “I needed a break, so I was out hiking. You see I got this really nice invitation to a spa, and… Ulf?”
“You got this really nice invitation?” He felt the blood drain from his face.
“Ulf, what's wrong?”
“Later, we'll talk about that later, OK?”
“OK. Anyway, I got a bit lost and the wind got stronger. I found a funny cabin built into a mountainside and thought I could get shelter there.”
I saw her. There was a woman outside when I looked out the window. I tried to wave her inside. “That was you! You didn't see me so I went outside, and, well.”
“You were in that cabin?”
“Yes. And then I went out, and...”
“...then you were on that hillside. Naked I guess?” Christina combed her hair with her fingers. “Wearing only this,” she added and grinned at him.
“Yeah.” That was slightly embarrassing.
“There were these two, eh, Jeeps?”
“ATV. One came for me and I saw the other vanish over a crest.”
“There you have it I guess.”
“Someone knew we were coming. They waited for us. Should have known. Nakagawa basically told me.”
“Yes. There's something big going on, and I hate being clueless. He's more than just a principal, but you know that already.”
Christina nodded. “You said you wanted to talk about something later.” She went ahead of him and turned and circled in her dress so it billowed out. Everything was graceful with her.
“The invitations. I got one as well. Guess where that leads us.”
“Someone knew? Back home?” She curtsied and shot him a coy smile. It was apparent she didn't care all that much for the topic he had chosen for the conversation.
“Believe in double coincidences much?”
Christina shook her head. “That makes me afraid. Please, not today. Let's watch the fireworks! Today I want to be sixteen with my boyfriend. Today I'm just a schoolgirl in love.”
She looked at him. Even in the darkness her eyes were the deepest blue. Falling in love. Those eyes. If I fall I'll surely drown. He wanted to resist. He wanted to give in. Christina's presence was intoxicating. He was already falling.
He hugged her closer. Then he kissed her. “For today, teenagers in love. I can do that,” he murmured in her ear. Then he kissed her again. She tasted of candied apple.
The night lit up with man made thunder. Flowers in the sky. He sought her lips again. So sweet!