Thursday, 21 February 2019

Chapter one, 2018, Hatsumode, segment two


Pre-packaged convenience store lunch in a luxury flat made it feel more like home. It would have felt even more like home if Ryu had stayed the night, but he wanted to escort his sister to the shrine, something that told Christina how he still failed badly in the department of allowing Noriko to live her own life.

Just to give him a little hell Christina sent Noriko and Ulf a message each with a heads up. Now it was up to them how to use it.

Christina loved Ryu. That wasn’t the same as blithely allowing him to behave like an arse, and Noriko had fought hard to get together with Ulf. Even when Christina still was jealous of the midget she always admired the little ball of endless energy. You deserve him.

They deserved each other. Ulf was all too often an insensitive buffoon, and Noriko had a personality eminently suited to handle that side of him; probably because she was an insensitive buffoon herself. Which was, Christina silently admitted to herself, only part of the truth. Noriko had ghosts of her own.

Christina grimaced and finished her make-up. After that clothes were a quick business. She had long since discarded the idea of going in a kimono. That garment wasn’t meant for someone with her looks. Instead she settled for a variant of what she had worn during the Christmas date with Ryu. White and cream coloured with a splash of blue. Very few could wear that since you needed a very distinct kind of blue eyes to hold the composition together. She was one of those few. A luxurious mass of golden hair helped.

For most anyone else thinking those thoughts was bragging or at least wistful thinking, but being the Princess of Scandinavia had been her job for over ten years, and after that she created her own empire of beauty. So she knew how she looked, and right now she wanted to look her best for Ryu without going full battledress.

My body’s eighteen this year. The time for being a beautiful girl was coming to an end. Now fifteen long years of being one of the most beautiful women on the planet lay ahead of her. Just as it had done all those years earlier in the upstream world.

She took the lift down, waved her body guard to her side, and together they left the building. For once she sought out the car with the pair of body guards Vogue assigned to her. There were times for being rebellious, but this was not one of them. Hatsumode was very much a public occasion, and going without very visible body guards was tantamount to attracting accident to happen. She had her share of fanatic stalkers; it came with her job.

The car took them to where she had previously agreed to meet up with Noriko. She left it with one body guard still at the wheel and walked to where she expected to find Ryu all alone.

He wasn’t, there at all, and neither was Noriko. Oops, guess I’ll have to call him and see where he followed his sister. She decided to make that call as quickly a possible. Standing all alone in her outfit attracted far too much attention, body guards or no body guards.

Out of service? Christina wasn’t too surprised. They days around New Year saw the network pushed to capacity.

Then the next problem arrived. Christina saw Hitomi walk up on her, just as much without an escort, and to Christina’s consternation in an absolutely gorgeous kimono. Right here and now Hitomi was competition, which didn’t bother Christina at all. Right here and now they were two supremely beautiful women all alone but for the body guards who still decided between being discrete or behaving like bullying muscle.

Kuri? I expected Noriko.”

Damn! Ryu, or in worst case Nao, would have come in handy now. At least anyone of those two would have taken the worst heat off them.

I’m trying to call Ryu, but there’s no answer.”

Hitomi gave her a calculating stare. “Both Noriko and Urufu failing to arrive in time? What did you do?”

Nothing much,” Christina answered.

A sudden gust of wind crept inside he coat. It might look luxuriously warm, but in reality it was only designed to make her look hot in more ways than one. Clothes that actually did keep the cold out usually didn’t look fantastic on the wearer; Ulf was a shining example.

Kyoko?”

Ah, but Ko-chan said she’d come later. With Yukio I guess. “Oh, they’ll arrive in half an hour or so,” Christina said.

Hitomi smirked. “Half a century’s worth of experience suggesting two dressed up girls stay here waiting alone for half an hour?” The grin turned into a grimace. “Did you leave you brains in that other world?”

A bit further away people were already aiming phones at them. Both body guards outside the car looked uncomfortable and made themselves very visible. Staying here below the stairs to the shrine was no longer an option.

Up for a ride?” Christina said and nodded at the car.

Hitomi tilted her head. “Not really, but anything is better than being ogled here.” She flipped her handbag into her hand and strode away in the direction of the closest body guard.

Mutely Christina followed. Not the best way to start the day. She caught up with Hitomi. Guess we’ll drive around a little while I call the others.

They reached the car and got inside. Both body guards joined them and with a silent whirring the car left the shrine. Watching the stairs grow smaller and smaller Christina fished for her phone. Ko-chan was priority. Ulf and Noriko were elsewhere, most probably with Ryu in tow.

No service? She glared at her phone and shot Hitomi a questioning stare. The girl opened her own handbag and dug into it. After a short while she wielded a phone with a triumphant smile on her face. Then it darkened.

No service.”

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Chapter one, 2018, Hatsumode, segment one


Aren’t we supposed to visit a shrine together?” Kuri asked.

Ryu looked up from the bed they shared. From the bed they shared with all their clothes on. Kuri sat tailor-fashion dead centre in the bed, golden hair cascading down her shoulders and with those deep blue eyes measuring him. Ryu had draped himself diagonally across it with his head hanging outside. The last being the reason he needed to look up to face her.

Hatsumode? Why not?”

Urufu had worked them to the bones ever since their respective Christmas dates. Well not Kuri; she did the working all by herself as usual.

January the first. They spent New Year’s Eve at his home with Kuri visiting. Celebrating the new year at a shrine would have been the normal thing to do, but gruelling hours of working during the first half of their winter break made certain they were fast asleep long before midnight.

I could call Ko-chan,” Kuri suggested.

Ryu grumbled a little. Things were good between him and the couple once again, but he still hadn’t fully come to grips with them being able to bite as well as bark.

Or don’t you want me to?” she added.

Do I not want you to? That wasn’t really the question, was it? Telling Kuri not to ask her best friend out was something he needed to be careful with. If he wanted to spend some time alone with his girlfriend, well that wasn’t a problem. If he wanted to avoid Kyoko; that was an entirely different beast. “No Hatsumode with friends sounds fine,” Ryu decided. “Why not give sis and Urufu a call as well?” He could just as well be magnanimous.

Sounds fun. I missed out last year.”

You were working last year. With Nao to boot. “So, all six of us?”

All nine,” Kuri corrected him.

Nine?” Ah, of course. “But Tomasu and Jeniferu only makes eight.”

Kuri smiled. “Noriko mentioned inviting Hitomi for hatsumode.”

Noriko mentioned? You mean Urufu, don’t you? Or maybe it had been sis after all. Urufu and Kuri weren’t on the best terms with each other any longer. The drawn out war with Kareyoshi took its toll in the end. “Sure, six or nine, what’s the difference?”

Later today or tomorrow?”

Girls liked to dress up. Kuri just did it with supersonic speed because of who she was. It wouldn’t be fair to the others. “Tomorrow. That way it won’t feel as rushed.” That way her body guards won’t scream bloody murder.

Kuri stretched like a cat and Ryu admired how her body curved in all kinds of alluring ways. Hers was a special kind of beauty, which only made sense considering her part time work. Your average school girl didn’t work as a model, or in Kuri’s case a rising super star. It still sometimes befuddled him walking by her side with her face plastered to bill boards all around them.

He slid down on the floor. His sister making good friends with Kuri eventually led to Kuri standing on the receiving end of Noriko’s endless nagging. By now it finally showed. The flat that was Kuri’s home slowly started to resemble a home. Sure, parts of it was still too sterile, but at least it didn’t look abandoned like it had done when he first came here. Back then she referred to it as her golden cage.

The oversized bedroom they sat in very much looked like where a young woman slept, not to speak of the bathroom attached to it. As he glanced through the door opening Ryu felt a smile come to his lips. The living room no longer tried competing with the school gym for having the cleanest floor. That was definitely Noriko’s doing, or rather her insisting on bringing friends over whenever she visited Kuri. Groups of friends needed somewhere to sit, and in the end odd pieces of furniture slowly found their way there.

There was a kitchen which even sported plates and glasses for more than one person these days; including a pair of cups that would look horribly out of place no matter where they were placed. Those were a terrifying memory of their Christmas date.

The sound of Kuri’s voice reached him through his thoughts, and pushing with both hands against the floor Ryu rose to his feet and looked at Kuri as she spoke in her phone.

Ah, she began with Kyoko. I guess it’s a twofer. Calling Yukio wouldn’t be needed. If you spoke with one of them you spoke with them both.

Ryu left the room. His thoughts right now weren’t entirely truthful. Kyoko was Kuri’s best friend. They’d chit chat about absolutely nothing for at least half an hour. He could as well spend that time shopping for something to eat, and there was a convenience store nearby.

On his way out he grabbed his coat and slowly buttoned it up in the lift. He threw the guard a glance, nodded at Kuri’s personal body guard, wrapped his scarf around his neck and walked through the sliding doors.

While warmer than Sapporo, this still couldn’t be called warm. Ryu tugged his coat closer to him as he hugged the walls by the pavement in an attempt to get a little cover from the wind. Another two freezing blocks got him to the convenience store and Ryu greedily snuck into the warmth.

He stayed a little longer than planned, absently leafing through the magazines by the window, to get some warmth back into his body. Coat was all good and well, but by now Ryu regretted not having donned the sweater he left with Kuri.

It couldn’t be helped. He put back the last magazine, grabbed the pre-packaged lunch boxes and sauntered over to the counter where a girl in her early twenties had stood sending him disapproving glances while he went through one magazine after another.

Just because he could, Ryu sent her one of his most devastating smiles and got the expected reaction in return. He paid, she stammered and Ryu was on his way back to Kuri.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

June 24, 2040, on the wooden deck


Ryu wondered what the sounds of laughter was all about and climbed the hill side to find out.

When he reached the house he heard gales of laughter from the wooden deck. Shaking his head the turned around a corner and peeked.

It was Yukio with a cigarette in his hand and Kyoko cradling a cup of tea, and she was laughing so hard some of it spilled.

I wonder what’s so funny. Ryu allowed himself to be seen.

They didn’t even notice. Yukio and Kyoko laughed so hard they had to cling to each other for support. By now over half of that tea lay on the wooden deck.

What’s up,” Ryu asked. He was less interested in the answer than giving them a heads up they weren’t alone any longer.

Ryu! Great! Kyoko’s going on about hatsumode.”

Ryu stared at Yukio. “Hatsumode? That’s half a year away.”

No, not now. I mean then. Second year.”

Second year? What are they… “I’m out of here,” Ryu said when he remembered.

Oh no, you’re staying. You never told us all the details.”

And we really want to know what happened in your end,” Kyoko filled in.

There’s a reason I never told you, Ryu thought frantically. There had to be a way of getting out of this. “Nothing special,” he tried weakly. “I mean nothing worth remembering,” he added. That was true in a way. Hatsumode during their junior high school year was very much worth forgetting.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Prologue, 1993


And she had done it again. Wakayama Tadao stared at the love of his life with eyes and chest full of admiration. Then he met the eyes of the teacher in pursuit of Natsumi.

You little… stop her!”

Fat chance. Tadao grinned at them both.

Natsumi high fived him when she passed at full speed in the school corridor, and Tadao had just as much reason to get caught as his girlfriend. Second floor wasn’t worth the effort of stairs, so barely looking down he vaulted out the window, somersaulted once and rolled on the ground below.

Above him the teacher’s head popped out through the window Tadao had just left. A balding head. A head that bellowed things Tadao was certain a teacher wasn’t supposed to utter.

Moron!”

That wasn’t the teacher. That was Mitsuo shouting his displeasure with Tadao’s gymnastic abilities.

Good thing he made it out of the classroom ahead of us, Tadao thought and laughed.

You want to get us grounded?”

Of course they’d get grounded. That was part of the game after all, and sneaking out of course. Nothing that didn’t include bars could keep Tadao inside if he wanted out, but he had to admit that Mitsuo lacked a little in that department.

Natsumi didn’t. She didn’t lack in any department. The difference in physical strength she more than made up for with one insanely daring plan after another, and it wasn’t just for show. He felt how she lived her life to the fullest whenever they shared a bed.

Mitsuo, we’re out of here!”

We’ll get caught, you idiot!”

Get your bike! Natsumi’s fetching a ladder.”

Tadao ran for the bike stands, and poor Mitsuo couldn’t do much more than follow in his steps.

Ladder?” Mitsuo asked breathlessly when they arrived.

Just get your bike! You’ll find out,” Tadao said and grabbed both his and Natsumi’s bikes. They probably had less than half a minute.

They sprinted across the gravel in the direction of the gates. Behind him Mitsuo gasped for breath. Good thing you’re tired, or you’d understand. Damn, he’s going to hate me for this, Tadao thought and grinned.

No way in hell! You didn’t!” Mitsuo wheezed.

Ah, he found out. Can’t be helped. Tadao rushed up the ladder Natsumi had left like a ramp from the ground to atop the gate. He still carried a bike in each arm.

Catch!”

Natsumi obediently caught first one bike and then the next.

Mitsuo, your bike, quick!”

Behind them teachers came rushing out on the school yard. You’re too late!

Tadao had to help Mitsuo across the gate, but with Natsumi ready to catch both a third bike as well as their best friend things went as planned.

Don’t you dare!”

Tadao didn’t pay the roaring teacher much attention.

Now my heroes, history is best learned where it occurred. Today we’re going to Kamakura.” He straddled his bike, and waited for Natsumi and Mitsuo to do the same.

When a teacher finally got the gate open they were already half a block away. Another day turned into a field trip, another magic high school day and another day he spent with the woman he loved above anything else and the best friend anyone could ever hope for.

Life was wonderful, living was wonderful, and anything wonderful was worth exploring. What did it matter if they built a less than stellar reputation with the staff back at Himekaizen?

Friday, 15 February 2019

June 24, 2040, coffee and smoke


He belonged to a vanishing minority of smokers, which was a good thing, but right now this minority needed a cig.

Remembering Kareyoshi sure put a damper on the morning.

They put him away. I believe he’s still in some prison somewhere,” Kyoko said and came up to stand beside him with both her hands on the railing.

Just remembering is enough to...”

Please Yukio!”

Yukio grimaced but held his peace. “You know,” he said when he had calmed down again, “didn’t it get strangely normal after that?”

Kyoko gazed out over the sea, but Yukio could see a smile playing on her lips. “Yes, strangely normal. Trust us to make normal a problem.”

He couldn’t remember. For Yukio his second year in high school was forever tainted by Kareyoshi, but the monster got removed just prior to Christmas. That left a full trimester of their junior year. “Were they good times?” Yukio asked while he furiously tried to remember what had happened back then.

Kyoko guffawed and kissed him full on his mouth. “Good times indeed. Great times for lovers of chaos.”

Standing in the morning sun memories finally surfaced in Yukio’s mind. Yeah, those were great times for anyone feeling that falling down a cliff was too sedate. But… there were just three months between Christmas and school’s end. They couldn’t possibly have…

I know what you’re thinking.”

Yukio pulled the brakes on his train of thoughts and turned to face his wife. “Enlighten me!”

You really don’t remember?”

He shook his head. “Not a thing,” he lied, and he knew she knew he lied. It didn’t matter. Right now he was about to enjoy her version of what happened.

Gods! And the only sane thing for us back then would have been to study, do well on our finals and enter our third year, but no, no we just had to… gods!”

Yukio waited for Kyoko to pick up the thread where she had left it off. He waited and enjoyed how the sun played in her hair.

Yukio, really! Hatsumode, and the field trip. And...” she threw her hands to her face, “valentines! Now that was a mess best forgotten.”

Now when she mentioned it Yukio remembered. Yeah, best forgotten. “White day wasn’t much better, or the finals,” Yukio filled in.

Or spring break for that matter. Gods what a disaster that was!”

With a grin Yukio allowed himself to be flooded by memories. Disasters all of them, but fun disasters.

Epilogue, 2017



"Defused?"

“Defused,” Hasegawa Mamoru acknowledged. “He’s being put away permanently.”

“But why alive?”

Mamoru didn’t have the real answer to that question, but he had one answer. “It was an explicit request from Sano-san on the Japanese side.”

“And the mopping up?”

“The rest are being rounded up as well,” Mamoru said in confirmation. “They’ll stay alive as well. Same request,” he added.

He almost had to shout the words. The waterhole they visited might be targetted at people in their forties and older, but it still poured out music at a volume more suited for those in their twenties.

The outdoors cityscape of Gothenburg might be silent in a way Tokyo never was, but indoors was a very different matter. Apart from that Gothenburg was strangely similar to Tokyo. An abysmal winter, wetter here than at home, but still the same kind of windy almost winter that drowned the city lights in dreary darkness. Illuminations all over the city mitigated it somewhat, but Mamoru grimaced at the thought of staying here late January when they were all taken down. Sweden was dark in winter.

At least the speakers blaring out foreign music, foreign for him at least, made certain they could speak undisturbed.

“You look like you would have preferred seeing them dead,” the other man said.

Mamoru clenched his fists under the table. “I have a daughter in another school in that area. Thinking it might have been my little Ai...” The cold smile he was rewarded with made Mamoru regret he ever got involved with this organisation.

“There never was any risk. Your daughter is Japanese.”

If being Japanese is the reason Ai-chan was never raped then my own pride in being Japanese just crashed. He chose not to respond, but a feeling of distaste lingered in his mind. “And the outcome?” Mamoru asked. He was genuinely interested, but it was also an excuse to change the topic.

The other man shrugged. It was a thoroughly western expression, which made sense since he was just as tall, blond and blue eyed as any stereotype of the concept of Swedish would want you to believe. “We’ll see. We’re sending to their eighties, or at least we believe we do.”

That was further back than I thought. Mamoru pretended the information didn’t surprise him. “So our readings are from the fifties?” he suggested.

“Probably. It’s a double blind. We don’t know exactly which year in the... What did your contacts call it? Yes, upstream world we’re sending to. We sure as hell make certain they don’t know which year we’re sending from.”

That made sense. “And it’s the same with the… ah… downstream world?”

“Probably. I mean, if we’re sending a bit over thirty years into their past, then it just makes sense we’re receiving from some thirty years ahead in the downstream future. We get hints about what kind of people they want transited and we deliver.”

We deliver. What a disgusting way to put it. “Why?” He could just as well ask that all important question.

“Economic and technological trends some ten to twenty years ahead. It keeps both Sweden and Japan afloat of the rest of the world.” The advertisement for a Swedish male grimaced. “Well, if the idiots over there could get their collective heads out of their arses Japan would be on top as well.”

“There have been major mishaps in Sweden as well. At least if I remember my history books,” Mamoru tried.

Half a beer later the other man smirked and showed Mamoru a toothy grin. “He have our share of idiots here as well. We get the information from downstream; doesn’t mean people in power always listen to it.”

“Why removing Kareyoshi? Pigs worse than him have been allowed to stay in power.” Mamoru said and changed the subject. He could just as well gain some more clues to the riddle.

“Because those in power upstream suffer from the same kind of decency as we do. The last time we allowed things to deteriorate like this they plugged the bottle for fifteen years.”

“Fifteen?” Mamoru was certain one of the arrivals was in his mid twenties objectively. He sipped his own beer and let his eyes wander over the rustic tackiness that served as decoration around them.

“Ashiga James was an accident. He was never supposed to transit.”

So that’s what happened. They’re not fully in control of the transits. But…

“Yes, we have accidents here as well. Or rather we believe those have to occur. Some of the people who should transit probably never get identified. Call it fate, or karma. Whatever.”

The interruption was brutal, but it told Mamoru just about everything he didn’t want to know. Some people got caught in transition as accidents, but most were manipulated into leaving the world they knew for another, and the man on he other side of the table, with a beer in his hand, still dared talking about decency.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Chapter six, 2017, Christmas carols, segment ten


Why here?”

Because I love winter,” Kuri said.

Ryu shook his head. Going to Odori Park was excessive just to celebrate Christmas. Or rather flying from Tokyo to Sapporo was. To top it off it was freezing cold, literally so. The snow he had expected, though, was absent.

This is winter?” he had to ask.

At his side Kuri shook her head. She grimaced a little. “Well, it’s not too uncommon you’ll have to wait until January for the snow back home.”

Home’ wasn’t Tokyo. Ryu knew that. At least not right now. For him snow was something you visited, but the way her eyes dimmed when they landed in a bare landscape told him she must have grown up with white winters.

Back then,” he began, “how did you spend Christmas?”

She smiled and gave him a peck of a kiss on his cheek. “Thanks for asking.” She brightened and he could see the child she had once been. “Before modelling, with my family. Just like everyone else.” Then something sad covered her eyes. “After my nomadic life began, well anywhere I guess. I tried to get home whenever possible though.”

Taking a few steps more in silence Ryu watched the madness around him. Kuri certainly had picked a place as sickly illuminated as any of the more well known Christmas dating spots in Tokyo. He guessed girls liked it. With the possible exception of his sister of course, but then she hadn’t really begun behaving like a girl until last year.

She was with Nao then. And that turned out just splendidly, didn’t it? Ryu swore silently and looked ahead. He’d promised himself he’d leave his sister alone as much as possible lest Kuri walked away from him. Yukio’s and Kyoko’s mad gamble had paid off. Hats off for them. After his anger subsided Ryu admitted he admired their bravery.

You don’t really celebrate Christmas that way here, do you?” Kuri sad, but her voice held a quality to it that revealed she was still in that other world.

Ryu looked up and glanced at her. “No,” he admitted. “It’s mostly a dating event for couples, well and small kids receive presents.”

Did you get any?” she replied at once, and the teasing giggle that followed made him smile. She was back once again.

Prince of Himekaizen here. Princes don’t get to act like kids.” His own words rang false. He had, behaved like a kid that was, and deep inside he knew he still was. The only difference from earlier was he wasn’t entirely certain why he disliked Noriko’s and Urufu’s relationship so much.

She turned down Yukio three times during their last year at middle school, but Ryu was certain he wouldn’t have reacted this way had Noriko chosen otherwise.
The part about her boyfriend being a foreigner was something Ryu had already rejected; he didn’t care about it when it came to Kuri after all. In fact he no longer noticed anything but how much he cared for her. The same went for the age difference, or at least mostly so, because Ryu suspected Urufu saw something in Noriko he himself couldn’t see, and maybe the resentment lay there.

It’s a lot more gaudy than what I remember from home,” Kuri said. She was still giggling, but she became serious again. “There’s a lot that’s different from home.”

If she was back in this reality then that reality included the hell they had been through the last year. “I wonder what the next one will be like,” Ryu said and pretended to be interested in the knick-knacks sold in one stall.

Kuri hugged his arm closer to herself and made a show of taking a more active interest in tackiness on display. “The next principal?” she asked between a poorly painted earthenware mug and a glass that failed utterly at looking like crystal. “We’ll have this one,” she added to his horror and chose a pair of the mugs.

Unbidden an image of the mugs being used in her luxury flat came to his mind, and he shuddered. He was part of that picture.

Ryu stared at the woman by his side, because she very much was a woman. This time he did notice her foreignness. The kind of clothing she wore, almost white, including a fluffy something covering her golden hair, would have looked awful on anyone born here. Kuri, however, looked like a princess supervising this illusion as if it was only natural for her.

Yes,” he said. “The next principal.”

The princess smirked and shrugged. “I don’t know. Normal I hope.”

Normal? Yes, I can see why you’d want normal. Ryu let go of her arm so she could sign something a fan put under her nose. From the start since they entered the park she had been bugged by fans, and only the discreet intervention of her body guards allowed them a semblance of a date for two.

Ryu didn’t mind, but he felt a little sorry for Kuri. He might be the Prince of Himekaizen, but with the madman Kareyoshi at the helm there had been precious little time to be a prince of anything. He still had the chance to vanish into the shadows whenever the need became pressing. As for Kuri, the only shadows she ever saw were those she cast herself.

Is it worth it? Or is this the only life you know?

With one fan a happier person and an autograph richer Ryu took the chance to move closer to his girlfriend. They managed to walk another two stalls before the next group of fans were allowed near them.

One of the girls hunting for Kuri’s signature shot Ryu a shy smile, and he reflexively returned it with a trademarked one of his own. From the corner of his eye he saw how Kuri lit up in a thoroughly professional smile.

Christmas carols from different speakers mixed and competed for attention, Kuri handed out Christmas presents in the form of autographs, and the two of them pretended to enjoy a date for two with preying cameras noticing everything they did.

Tomorrow some of those cameras would make someone famous for an entire day. Tomorrow Ryu would help Kuri look like a high school girl living out her winter break. Tomorrow Kuri’s normal life would continue with cameras, fans and body guards.