Midsummer's eve, meat or fish
Noriko listened to the music from where the youngsters had their own party with the local youth.
There will be a few broken hearts later this summer, she guessed.
She held on to her plate and stood standing in front of the grills Ulf had expertly used. Meat or fish? I don't want to chose. She picked up a slice and Ulf helped her with the fish. Last she got a large baked potato on her plate.
When she returned to the table Ryu was gone. She looked for him but he was gone.
“Looking for your brother?”
Noriko looked over her shoulder. “Yes, do you know where he went, James?”
James smiled and put down an impossible number of glasses he had held in his hands.
Bar, I always forget he never really quit standing behind that counter of his.
“Yes, he'll be back with the fireworks.” James placed the glasses on the table and fished out a couple of bottles he had managed to keep hidden in his pockets.
“Fireworks? You know we don't do those in Sweden during midsummer?” Noriko watched how he mixed drinks with the liquor he had brought and whatever was in the bottles on the table. But he's not winging it, not really. He was a professional after all.
“I don't think that brother of yours cares. Whenever he sets his mind to something he usually just charges ahead.”
She had to admit the truth in that. So fireworks in the summer even in Sweden. An unplanned prolonged stay would make the similarity hilarious.
With the field trip formally at an end Christina concentrated on the remaining shots. She would have preferred to study together with Ulf, but he needed to clear out his last remaining subjects before the next group with paying course attendants arrived.
She hated that, but she went through with her work, and she even built a small reputation for having an uncanny taste when it came to pick out which clothes were best for a certain shot.
After that the positively most boring week in her life. Principal Nakagawa acted as her teacher, and she was the class. The days started at seven and ended at ten in the evening. She only got breaks for two meals, and all the while the hotel echoed with the activity of Ulf and the others running workshops. There was only silence when they were out walking talking.
In three days she nailed her make up exams but for Japanese. Then it was cramming Japanese thirteen hours a day. At night she was so tired she even forgot to sneak out of her room twice, and even when she slept in Ulf's arms she barely had the energy to enjoy a quick kiss and the feeling of safety when she burrowed her back tightly against his body.
Ryu and Yukio never said anything, and neither did Noriko or Kyoko when she stole her way back early mornings.
On the verge of breaking down, after over a week's worth of cramming, she finally passed her last exam. That made her by a wide margin the worst freshman in all of Himekaizen. She didn't care one bit. Cramming hell was over and there were still a few days left of summer break.
She woke to the amused snorts of Ko-chan.
When did I crawl back to my room? She stretched, or rather tried to.
“Careful Christina, those are my eyes.”
What? She opened her eyes. What! She hadn't. Crawled that is. She lay half naked in Ulf's lap showing lots and lots of leg. He had only made sure to cover her torso. By the window Ryu and Yukio sat watching the courtyard. Christina wasn't fooled for a second. Both of the boys were much too adamant at not looking at her now, so she understood that they had taken a good look earlier.
“The snoring beauty,” Ko-chan said.
“Urufu, take this one as well, there's more snot.”
Ulf wiped her nose. “Sorry, now it's gone.”
Christina hurried to cover her legs. “Why is everyone here?”
By the window both boys turned. Yukio gave Ko-chan a guilty look, but she just stuck her tongue out at him.
Ulf bent over her head and caressed her hair. She closed her eyes and concentrated of his fingers in her mind. Feeling his hands massaging her head sent shivers of longing through her, but she quickly sent those thoughts away. She forced her eyes open again. “Ulf, why?”
She felt his thumb gliding along her ear. “Last day. We were planning,” he said.
His eyes were large and brown. A deep, warm and caring brown; a little like her favourite chocolate. And she could see how his hair one day would be just as black as the others in Japan.
“Why didn't you wake me up? What if Nakagawa finds out, or your guardian?”
Ko-chan snorted again, and she was joined by Noriko. “Do you honestly think Sato-sensei doesn't know already?” the latter said.
That made Christina sit up straight. “Trousers Ulf.” He leaned away and shoved them to her under the cover. “Where's my bra?” she whispered to him.
“Here.” Noriko shouted in reply, and the bra came sailing through the air.
If Ko-chan is blushing like that what do I look like right now? Christina gathered up her bra, and after she had slipped into her trousers she quickly left the room and ran for her own.
Maybe sleeping in my underwear with Ulf isn't so smart. But I want to be close to him, and it's not like we do anything. She changed clothes. Underwear and the T-shirt she had slept in went into the pile of dirty clothes. On her way down to the reception she popped in to the room where the others still sat planning and picked up her socks from yesterday.
For the first time since coming to the resort she didn't know what to do with her day.
Maybe I'll look for grandpa. There's so much for us to talk about.
That had indeed been a lot of leg. But right now Ryu was far too interested in grasping the finer points of what Urufu had to teach to care much about his sleeping habits, or Kuri's for that matter.
They were wrapping he gig, and Urufu ran the last kaizen-workshop. The businessmen had done a retrospective, but Urufu apparently disliked the term. Stupid crutch and semantically imprecise, he had said.
“Well, then we're set for the next one should I get another order like this.” Urufu looked at them. “To be honest I believe it'll mostly be more operative workshops where I bring you one or two at a time.”
“Urufu,” Noriko said. “When do you think we can run our own?” She was waving he hand in the air like a middle schooler.
Urufu smiled. “Good question. There are a few you could run independently right now. I'll see about that.” He dug his hands into a bag. “Candy-time!”
Ryu looked up. This would be interesting.
“I learned that it's common to pay high schoolers in cash, so I'll do the same now that I verified that Nakagawa's contract was a real one.” Urufu looked at them and bent over the table. “Kyoko, great work. I like how you're always observant to minute but sudden changes.” He offered her an envelope with both hands. “Yukio, you're loyal and diligent, but learn a bit from that girl of yours.”
I wonder what he thinks, Ryu thought and looked at Yukio. There was only respect to read in that face. Those two dispensed with all bullshit a long time ago.
Noriko had stopped waving her hands and stood gaping at her envelope. “The brightest of you lot and the only one to see through me,” Urufu said and turned to Ryu. “I'll make you our outward face, but I guess you knew.”
Ryu glanced at the contents in his envelope. Crap! “Urufu, that's more than...”
“And there's a small bonus for each of you. There won't be one every-time though, so don't get used to it.”
Quarter of a million. That's quite a lot even for sis and me.
“Urufu!” Kyoko shouted and gave Yukio a frantic look.
And now she just saw her own pay.
“And get me right. I'll differentiate your salaries, but bonuses are split flat. As I own the company I only get the bonus,” Urufu laughed and dug out five ten thousand yen bills for himself. “I've paid you for sixty hours at a slightly higher pay-grade than agreed on because you had to work weekends and evenings.”
Yukio sat with his face in his hands. He was laughing silently. I forget those two aren't used to money this way. Guess it's more than any of them have had in their hands before.
“Just don't quit your other part time jobs. I can probably only hire you for ten hours or less per month once school starts.”
With that Urufu left the room. Ryu wondered if he had gone in search for Kuri. Absent-mindedly he pocketed his pay, but when he looked around he saw Noriko stare at hers.
“Idiot! Why did I fall in love with an idiot?” There were tears in her eyes as she hugged her envelope close to her chest. She met his eyes and shook her head. “Ryu, I'll go forward from here. I can't keep up with him and if I hurt myself this way I'll lose him as a friend as well.”
What's she talking about? Ryu stared at his sister, but nothing in her face gave him a clue about what she was thinking about. He looked at the other two. Both gave him uncomfortable glances in return. They know we're both still in love, but they pretend not to notice. “It's OK,” he said and shrugged. “I'm not making a move on her. Wouldn't stand a chance now anyway.” Then the absurdity of his own situation got the better of him and he laughed. “Besides they're just so much fun to look at.”
“I'm off for the baths,” Noriko said and rose. “You guys want to join?”
Kyoko blushed beet red and Yukio stared down into the table.
“Don't be that way. I'm not interested in him anyway,” Noriko said and pointed at Yukio. That didn't help Kyoko's colour at all. “Sheesh! It's like Urufu and Kuri said that day. Just relaxing and a good way to chat about nothing.” She went for the door, and just as she was about to exit she turned. “Bring towels if it's awkward.”
Ryu smirked as his sister left them. She was right. It wasn't like that at all, and maybe he had gotten used to seeing Kuri undress like an unruly kid before she shouldered her way under Urufu's covers until he hugged her the way she wanted. Funny, the most beautiful girl in school half naked before my eyes most every night and it's about as exciting to watch as looking at myself in the mirror.
He rose. “I'll have that bath as well. You two join us if you want.”
He tip toed past the men's entrance to the family bath. If my parents saw me now they'd laugh until they died. Yukio didn't care about that, but the thought of Kyoko feeling awkward made him feel awkward.
In the end it had all degenerated into a dare game, and now he could hear her barefoot steps behind him. None of them spoke. Speaking was bad. Even breathing too loudly was bad.
What am I doing here?
He pushed the curtains aside and rushed into the locker room. Small and all too open. In an attempt to defuse the situation he poured himself a cup of tea and sauntered over to an open window. Yukio leaned out and pretended to look into the evening darkness.
There were sounds from the room, but he remained hanging out the window. When the sounds stopped he dared backing inside again.
His heart jolted when he saw Kyoko sitting on a bench with a large towel around her. “Why? Why are you still here?”
She smiled. “I'd… I like to watch the view.” And the smile turned into a mischievous grin.
“You'd like to...” Oh man! I'm blushing from shoulders all the way up. “I… I...” Deflated he sat down on another bench.
Without a word she rose and headed for the window. Yukio saw her copy his pretence from just moments earlier and quickly undressed and draped himself in a towel of his own.
You're showing a lot more skin than you think. He stood admiring her back when she looked over her shoulder to see if he was done.
“Should we,” Kyoko asked.
Yukio looked down and studied his feet. “Uhum.” Crap, I can't even look at her face. He felt her brushing past him and then he heard the door opening to the bath. Still mute he followed her as it was about to close.
The indoor bath was empty, but he heard voices from outside. Thanks for small favours, he thought and grabbed a stool. He put it down as far away from Kyoko as possible and turned his back to her. I really want to sneak a look, but I shouldn't.
As he rinsed and shampooed the motions became familiar, and when he showered away residue of soap he had almost forgotten that he wasn't alone. When he stood and picked up his stool he was rudely reminded he wasn't. Still sitting on hers Kyoko stared at him. She had wrapped herself in her towel. A smile played on her face, but she looked more thoughtful than flustered.
For a moment Yukio thought of diving for his towel in panic, but there was no reason any longer. She had seen everything anyway. “Join the others,” he said and tried to sound nonchalant, but even he could hear how the words came squeaking out.
Kyoko took a deep breath, and then she seemed to have come to a resolution of sorts. “Yes, why don't we?” She led the way and as she opened the door she waved a greeting to their four friends and loosened her towel.
Yukio stared in fascination as it slid to the ground. With a few quick steps she was in the water and sank all the way under the surface. Her head popped back up just as he entered the pool.
Urufu flipped him an ironic two-finger salute from where he sat and immediately turned his attention back to Noriko. “And there was even more snot. Had to change T-shirt after.”
“Was not!” Kuri shouted and splashed water over them both. She demonstratively turned her back to him and both Noriko and Ryu burst out in laughter.
“What's with the snot?” Yukio asked and was rewarded with a fountain of water from Kuri. “Come on, get a grip!” he protested and pushed water in her direction.
Beside him Kyoko sighed. “Boys!”
It was almost disappointing. So much apprehension, and then they just fooled around in the bath as kids. But Urufu had been right. There was nothing exciting about it. Just the steaming hot water relaxing tired muscles and stupid conversations about nothing and everything. Well, almost nothing. Yukio did steal a look or two at Kyoko, but for some reason he soon found more to watch in her eyes than anywhere else. Eyes that looked back, eyes that shared.
Evening proceeded towards night and the sounds of a late summer's night filled the air mixing together with water constantly pouring into the pool. Soon summer break would come to an end, and he intended to enjoy what was left of it to the fullest. Yukio sighed and stared into the starry night. Are we looking at the same star? he wondered when he noticed Kyoko looking skywards as well.
Her feet bobbed up and down in the water and with only her nose above the water her hair swam on the surface as if it had a life of its own.
He didn't know how long it had been, but he noticed the silence. Too occupied trying to guess what you're thinking. “Yeah, what?” he said to no one in particular.
“We're done. You two staying here?”
“Eh...” Maybe they should leave as well. He pushed down with his hands to get out of the pool, but then he felt Kyoko's hand pulling him down again. She didn't say anything, didn't even look in his direction. “Yeah, I think we'll stay.”
“Do so,” Urufu said. “Ryu, let's rinse off.”
They rose and headed indoors. Yukio saw Kuri throw a long look after her boyfriend, and so did Noriko. So she still has feeling for him. Poor girl.
Noriko and Kuri looked at each other, and suddenly they giggled at some unspoken but yet shared joke. Shortly after both of them went in the same direction as the guys.
“Kyoko?” Yukio wondered when they were alone.
“Nothing. I just want to be alone with you.” She turned, gave him a quick kiss on his cheek and submerged. When the broke the surface she leaned back and stared up.
“You mind if I sit on the poolside? It's getting too hot for me.”
“No, not at all,” she answered.
Yukio slid out of the pool and sat down. He could see all of her, and he knew he should have felt embarrassed, but he didn't care. Right now he only wanted to talk with her, and to listen to her voice.
They spent some time in blissful peace. Two lovers, two friends, two who shared a late August evening together.
The nightmare had been a bad one. Christina couldn't remember it, but a lingering feeling of fear enveloped her. When she forced herself awake she found herself halfway atop Ulf.
A familiar sensation stirred in her. I've got to stop this, or we'll end up in bed for real. She rolled off him and sat up in the darkness. By her side Ulf was a sleeping shadow, and she could make out the outlines of Yukio's and Ryu's futons closer to the windows. You guys are the best. Not a word of complaint, and hardly any leering at all. She sighed. You're teenagers! I couldn't possibly be angry with you two if you tried to undress me with your eyes.
So dark. Too early to rise. She curled up in a ball and nestled close to Ulf. This time she left some of the covers between them.
When she awoke for real the morning sun glared into the room, and she heard Yukio and Ulf murmuring a silent conversation from the chairs by the windows. They had drawn the curtain to the room to disturb her and Ryu as little as possible.
She got up and put on her yukata. It was the second night in a row she hadn't gone back to her own room, and she didn't care any more. This was their last morning here, and after breakfast they would all start the long journey home. First by taxi to the station, then a local train to Nagoya and this time they planned to jump on a Shinkansen despite the cost.
Another three days, and then summer break would come to an end.
When she slid the door open she saw Ulf wave at her. She waved back, got into her slippers and left the room. She bumped into a back.
“Tina? This isn't your room.”
Damn! Is he going to be angry? Fifty, it didn't matter that she was fifty. This was her grandfather, and for him she was only a small child. Would probably always remain one.
“I just popped in to wake them up,” she lied.
He looked at her with a frown in her face. Disappointment replaced the frown and all of a sudden she received a stinging slap that brought tears to her face.
“I already approved of him,” he said. “If you sleep with him or not is your business, but don't lie to me.”
Christina wiped away the tears and looked down. Now she remembered how he had always hated lies, hated them with a passion. She felt ashamed and elated at the same time. Ulf had passed. As far as her grandfather was concerned Ulf was good.
“I'm sorry. I love him so much and I was afraid.”
“That I wouldn't approve?” She could hear a silent laughter bubble in his voice. “Tina, you moron. You're fifty. It's your life,” and his voice turned serious again, “but your lies hurt me. Especially if you feel you must lie to me.”
“I'm sorry.” No one else can make me feel this small. “I won't, again.”
“Good. Now go get changed and help me prepare breakfast.”
She looked up and on a sudden impulse she hugged him. “Grandpa!” He was from another world in more than one sense. One where loving your children meant giving them a good slap when you felt it was deserved. She would never accept that, but he was still her grandfather.
“Yeah.” She ran off to her room. Memories from a life long gone rose in her. From when she had been a child messing around in a kitchen together with her grandfather. She had loved those times.
“Breakfast is served.”
Why is Kuri-chan working in the kitchen? Kyoko bit her lower lip. Oh well, it's Kuri-chan. Count on her to do something strange.
They were the only guests at the resort, so Kuri-chan pushed a trolley with the entire breakfast for them all. If it could be called breakfast. Somehow part of it looked eerily like Urufu's midsummer's disaster earlier that summer. There was no miso soup and none of the pickled vegetables she had gotten used to during their time here. Even rice was lacking.
Across the table Urufu had broken down in laughter and sat bent over the table coughing his his mirth out while Yukio slapped his back in that friendly and all too hard way that only boys did.
“Kuri-chan, what is this?” Kyoko asked.
“Me and the owner seems to share an interest in cooking, so I helped out.”
A glimmer of a hesitation had passed over Kuri-chan's face during the explanation, and Kyoko suspected there was more to it than she said. Kyoko decided it wasn't worth probing. “OK, that's how it was done, but what is it?”
Kuri-chan started dumping plates onto the table. “Cereal, milk and sour milk, bread and butter, ham, pickled gherkins, cheese, boiled eggs and; Ulf listen up, pickled herring!”
That only had him bury his nose even deeper into the table.
Kyoko noted that the trolley had a lower section as well. She nodded at it and shot Kuri-chan a questioning look.
“Later,” Kuri-chan said and emptied the last of the plates onto the table. She sat on her knees and pulled put three metal containers from the lower section and placed them on top. “Bacon, baked beans and scrambled eggs.” She waved and ran for the kitchen.
Am I supposed to eat this in the morning? Frowning Kyoko started loading some of the least offensive items onto her plate. She glanced over the table where Urufu expertly filled his bowl with cereals and poured milk into it. After that he stacked his plate with everything cold apart from one boiled egg.
Funny way to eat breakfast, Kyoko thought and began copying him.
“Salt or sour?” Yukio asked and pointed at the herring.
“Mmm, all sour. Don't usually serve the salty kind for breakfast,” Urufu answered between two mouthfuls.
Kyoko saw how both Ryu and Noriko carefully selected whatever they deemed edible, and then Kuri-chan returned with two pitchers filled with juice.
“Fill up,” she said. “This is your last decent meal this side of Tokyo.”
“Decent?” Ryu murmured, and his sister agreed.
“Shut up silly!”
“Meal?” Noriko pondered, and her brother agreed.
“You're hopeless, both of you.”
“This side of Tokyo?” Urufu shot in.
“Eh, yeah, sorry about that. Our tickets won't leave us enough time to eat in Nagoya. We have less than fifteen minutes.”
“Fill up it is then,” Urufu said and started shovelling food into his mouth.
Yukio followed his example, and faced with the prospect and an entire day's travel on an empty stomach Kyoko reluctantly grabbed a bowl, filled it with cereals and milk and started eating for real.
With that silence settled over the table. It was only broken by Kuri-chan taking her seat and loading food onto her plates. Even the Wakayamas were unusually subdued and made their best to try the odd food out.
When they were done Kyoko quickly made for her room and the last of her luggage. Everyone else's already stood in the lobby, and when she came down again two taxi cars already waited on the courtyard.
It was with mixed feelings she climbed into one. The time at the hotel had seen her grow. She didn't know how, but she knew that she had definitely taken an important step towards adulthood. And she had become closer to Yukio.
She waved to the staff through the window, and shortly after the taxi started rolling she could only see the courtyard through the back window, and after that, not at all.
“See you later.”
Just a few days until autumn term, so 'later' wasn't exactly some distant occasion. Then why did it feel like a farewell? Ryu waved after Kuri and Urufu as they headed for the local trains. Yukio and Kyoko trailed behind because they would take the same train anyway, and both wanted something to eat after the awful train-ride all the way from south of Ise to Tokyo.
He looked out the entrance to Tokyo central station. Their mother would pick them up by car, and after that Kyoko and Yukio most likely took the sub to whatever restaurant district they preferred.
Ryu wondered about that. How quickly they all had gained the trust of his parents and Urufu's guardian. Too quickly. They had been left to their own devices the last week. Sure, Principal Nakagawa stayed to handle Kuri's make up exams, but he didn't patrol the corridors at night to make sure they didn't sneak into each others' rooms.
It wasn't that he disliked it. Freedom meant responsibility, and he guessed he had grown enough to want to shoulder some. Him and his sister.
“Ryu, wake up!”
Sis? Oh, mom's here already. “See you, guys,” he shouted to Kyoko and Yukio. Ryu waved at them when they turned and walked to the subway area.
“Coming sis.” He shouldered his backpack and with the help of his sister they carried the large bag to the waiting car. Mom, you're not supposed to park there, but you never did care much for rules, did you?
He lifted all bags into the trunk and took his seat beside his mother. Noriko opened one of the rear doors and he saw her buckle up in the rear mirror.
“Fun field trip?” she asked as if she hadn't spent the last couple of weeks with him.
“Yes, but I'm tired and hungry now. Mom what's for dinner?”
“Hot pot. Dad's preparing it right now. It'll be ready when we come home.”
Ryu grinned where he sat. By now he longed for a bath and something more normal to eat than the food they had been served at the resort. It had been good food, but in the long run he missed his parents cooking, and especially the bantering around a simmering pot.
“How was work?” his mother asked when they stopped for a red light.
“Wonderful!” Noriko exclaimed from the back seat before Ryu had a chance to respond. She leaned forward as far as he seat belt allowed. “I've learned so much. I never guessed he knew so much.”
“Who?” their mother asked, but it was a redundant question. Neither mother nor son needed to see Noriko's furious blush to know the answer.
“You like him, don't you?” their mother asked when Noriko refused to answer. “Why don't you steal him from her?”
“Fat chance,” came the sullen reply. Then Noriko's voice lit up again. “But I'll move on. I think being friends with him is the most important, and I like Kuri as well. She's a much better friend than I had thought.” There was a moment of hesitation, and Ryu could hear her leaning back in her seat again. “I think she's really awesome when she works, but she seems more like dad than you.”
“I think you're right,” their mother said. “I got a good impression of her, but she can be cold sometimes.”
After some silence Noriko coughed. “Mom, what do you think about Urufu?”
They drove through a tricky intersection in silence, but Ryu could see how his mother mulled over the answer to that question. “He's a good man I believe, but sometimes I wonder if he isn't broken. Something bad happened.”
Yeah, you could say that. Principal Nakagawa and his manhunt happened, but I don't know if we can tell. Then Ryu remembered the promise he had given his mother in Sapporo. “Mom, he got caught up in a suicide. Principal Nakagawa used him to find one of the guys from last year.” How much can I say? How will sis react?
“Don't worry about me. I'm mostly over it,” Noriko said from the rear as if she had read his mind. “But yes, it ended with a suicide and Urufu had to watch it all.”
“I hope she's strong enough then. Noriko, you should stay away from him apart from your friendship. At least until he's whole again.”
If he ever will be. There are things about him you don't know mom. Things you wouldn't believe or understand. Ryu shuddered, and the feeling of being unable to handle a secret of this magnitude weighed him down. He didn't like telling half truths to his parents. It was almost as bad as lying outright.
They drove the rest of the way in silence, and sometime after he heard his sister snoring softly he must have fallen asleep himself, because when he was about to ask his mother about something he had seen as they passed by he found out they were already home.
The shared dinner, their first shared dinner alone had been fantastic. Not because the food was exceptional, because compared to what they'd grown used to the last weeks it wasn't anything special. And it wasn't the place either. The resort outclassed it in every romantic way possible, but this time it was something only the two of them did together.
Despite feeling sweaty and dirty after a long day on trains Kyoko saw herself as a princess for the first time in her life. Maybe because that was the image mirrored in Yukio's eyes whenever she looked at him.
“We'd better go home now,” Yukio said. He tightened his grip on her hand. “Funny, I've longed for being just normal for a while now, but now. I don't know.”
She looked at him again. Dishevelled clothes and hair that needed washing despite the last day's hot spring bath. He had dirt under his nails, and his shirt sported a stain from their dinner. He was the most beautiful person she had ever seen. And you're all mine! The thought scared her a bit. Does that make me yours?
“I know what you mean. So let's catch a train.” No, it doesn't scare me. Not if it is you.
On their way to the subway she saw students from different schools returning home from cram school. It was still summer, but the faces they met were already preparing for autumn. So much that has happened. And it's only been a month. But from now on we're back to our usual lives. “Yukio?”
“I haven't told my parents about you. Do you hate me for that?” Where did that thought come from?
He stopped and took both her hands in his. “Why would I?”
“I don't know. I'm sorry. It was just a stupid thought.”
He leaned closer to her face. “Don't call yourself stupid. I can't talk with my parents about my parents, if you know what I mean.”
She thought she understood what he was thinking. “Uhum.”
“There are things we don't want to talk about. Not the same things for everyone, but I believe all of us has something we feel uncomfortable talking about.”
Yes, she had understood. We think alike. This isn't just me falling in love. I can love you and be friends with you at the same time. “I want to introduce you, but I think you'll get a cold welcome. That scares me.”
“As long as you prepare me for what they don't like it's fine.”
Kyoko felt frustration rise in her. “It's so stupid. They're like really old fashioned, and for them a divorce is because those involved were bad people.”
“Maybe they were,” he grinned. “It ended up in a divorce after all.”
“Yukio! Don't joke about that! You've never said anything bad about your parents. Just that they can't live together.”
“Yeah, sorry my bad. I didn't mean to make you angry.”
She sighed and let go of one hand. The other she kept in a firm grip as they started walking again. “I'm not angry. It's just that… It's just that I want them to like the one I like. Ah, that didn't make any sense, did it?”
Yukio laughed and pulled her close. “It makes a lot of sense. I often feel that way myself.” He turned silent. “You know, when I find someone who makes me laugh I want the entire world to laugh. When I found you I wanted everyone to love you as well.” He blushed at his own words. “But I wanted you to love me more than any of the others.”
Kyoko smiled. Those words filled her with warmth and a tingling sensation of being special. “I do.”
“Yeah,” he whispered. “I dare to believe that now. I really love you.”
They got on a train, slept a little shoulder to shoulder and got off at a station where they changed to a local train that took them to their station. From there it was half an hours walk home. It was a little heavy with their bags, but she didn't mind.
When they passed the mall where she had seen him the first time she absent-mindedly noticed that Urufu's bike wasn't locked to the stand. And it shouldn't have been. She knew that, but seeing that bike under the café had once meant that she could find Yukio upstairs. Now he was by her side.
“I wonder how they're doing,” she said. “Urufu and Kuri-chan I mean.”
Yukio dropped his bags to the ground, looked up and stretched. “I know what you mean,” he said. “Let them out of sight and you never know what stupid things they'll do.”
They shared a laugh at that.
“Sometimes Kuri-chan feels like an unruly little sister that I have to take care of,” Kyoko said. She looked at Yukio and saw a knowing smile play over his lips.
“Urufu, my little brother. Yep, that's about it.”
And they laughed again, loud enough for some people around them to frown. That only made them laugh some more.
Her apartment was dark when she came home. Like it always was. Earlier the small one room flat had meant independence and safety for Christina, but now it only felt lonely.
I've grown used to spending my nights with you. Even if in a room shared with others. She hadn't expected to feel so sad about coming home to her empty home, and it did feel empty. I miss you already. I never believed I'd fall in love like this again, but you're so easy to love.
And that was a lie. Ulf was anything but easy. She knew his life was a jumble of broken shards, had found out in a way that scared her. He's in love with two women, and how am I to compete with his wife if he'll never be able to see her again?
Because he was married. At least somewhere in his mind he was still a fifty year old father settled into what she guessed had been a good marriage despite the tragedy a decade earlier. You made it through it. Must have meant something, something strong enough to rebuild a life around.
This new life was somehow easier for her to accept. She had only invested in power and money. What she had lost in transition was superfluous, and more importantly it was something she could regain on her own. Alone, don't forget alone.
She dropped her bags inside the door. Laundry would have to wait for tomorrow. Right now she wanted a bath, and just a few months earlier she would have revelled in the luxury of being undisturbed. Just like she had for thirty years before that. But no longer.
The need for his presence grew almost painful. But I chose my career. I could have chosen to stay by your side instead, but I didn't. Every day spent modelling and building her reputation was a day spent without him. Every day together was a day when she didn't solidify her shaky foundation. In a few years it would be solid enough, but not now.
It was maddening. She shouldn't have to chose between her career and her love, but she had to. Am I doing the right thing? What's most important to me? For a fleeting moment she played with the idea to just abandon anything that had to do with fashion. But she knew Ulf wouldn't accept that she threw away the chance she had been given. No, not given. I created it myself, and I think that's something he respects.
So now her love conflicted her love. It was definitely enough to drive her crazy.
Christina started tapping water into her bathtub and went back into the room where she unpacked her bags.
No matter what I do I'm caught in a trap. But I don't want to lose you! She yelled a few choice obscenities into the night and continued to empty the bags. She gave them a glare as if they were somehow involved with her frustration and fear. Recognition of what her feelings was jolted her upright. I'm afraid of losing you. I don't want to spend my life without you. It scares me.
How had she become so dependent on him? Why? And yet the answer was so easy. Because I love you.
She pulled the lamp string twice so only the night light was on before going into the tiny bathroom. The door stood ajar when she slipped into the bathtub. It was one of those strange habits she could never have explained, because she didn't know herself why she wanted the door half open to an almost dark room.
This time she cheated as well. Normally she would have showered before the bath. It hadn't taken her long to adapt to the traditional Japanese habit, and she liked going clean into a bath, but now she just needed the feeling of hot water caressing her. Lithe body or not, she wasn't built for strength or stamina, and carrying heavy bags over long distances wasn't exactly where she shone.
As always she sat facing the wrong direction. She was too tall for the deep bathtubs, and sometimes it just felt good dangling her legs outside even if it meant sinking to the bottom like a drunk frog.
With the worst of her stiffness gone thoughts of Ulf returned once more. She wanted him here, wanted him so badly tears welled up. That was new as well. She couldn't remember crying so much over nothing. Maybe it was as that doctor had said, that they were truly teenagers in part. But she couldn't remember crying like this from her first time as a teenager either.
Maybe being sixteen again is only part of it, she thought and started lathing herself. Soapy water was soon followed by shampoo and after that she pulled the plug, showered quickly and towelled herself dry. The thoughts lingered though. If it's only part of it, then what would the rest be?
And once again the answer came as obvious as frightening. It's you Ulf. You're special to me. She had been in love before. She had cried her heart out when she found out she was cheated on, but she had never before allowed herself to depend on anyone but herself. I've lost control over my life. No, I gave it away to you. Why would I ever do anything that stupid?
When she had pulled out her futon and gone to bed she had an answer to that question as well. Because I wanted to. Because it's the only way to love you. I don't want to live alone any more. I want you here!
“Your plans for today?” Amaya wondered after breakfast.
“Club activities,” Ulf answered and slung his backpack onto his back. “Culture festival late September, and it seems the clubs are supposed to take part in it.”
Amaya frowned. “You couldn't participate last year.”
“No big deal. We're over twenty people in the club, and I guess we'll have to show off something supposedly Swedish and that's about it. See you!” And with that he was out of the door. He ran down the stairs five steps at a time and walked the last bit to the bike stand. Today would be a long ride, but he hadn't wanted to leave it by the station for the duration of the field trip. Lucky he didn't. Four days had turned into two weeks.
He played with the thought of biking to their old mall and leave it there, but with some luck Christina would show at the school, and if she did he had hopes for cycling around the city with her. So he ended up locking his bike to the confession stands outside their wing and walked the gravel to the entrance.
After a few moments of confusion he found his shoe lockers, dumped his sneakers in it and pulled his indoor slippers out of his back pack. Starting today he'd leave them in the locker when he went home. There were only a couple of days until school started anyway.
The corridor was empty, but he heard muted voices from the stairwell he was heading for. He looked through the windows to the closed cafeteria, passed the boys PE locker room and climbed the stairs. Whomever the voices belonged to had long since vanished when he left the stairs for the main corridor.
What the hell? The club room was empty. As in wiped clean. This is way too much for a burglary, so what happened?
“Urufu, you idiot! Moron-sama!”
OK, that's Noriko for sure. Now what? Ulf left their club room and stared in the direction her voice had come from. Sure enough she stood in the stairwell waving at him. Ah, not waving, beckoning for me. Damn palm down. I'll never get used to that.
With a sigh he shut the door and sauntered in her direction. What's she doing in our wing?
“What's with you today? Getting senile already?”
No, I'm not, That doctor of Nakagawa's promised as much. Wonder what I forgot this time though? Probably just didn't pay attention to something. “Yeah, must be. Advanced age and all that.”
When he closed in on her she turned on her feet, climbed the stairs and headed into the corridor to his classroom. That had him even more confused until she walked past it.
Ah, that's right. We were given a new room. Ulf started running after her and caught up just as they passed 5:1. He wondered if they would be able to see all of the pool from their new room.
Half a dozen club members were busy adding the finishing touches to the former classroom converted into club room. They must have spent a lot of time since the field trip here, because the room had been carefully redesigned for lounging, office work and even small conferences. There was even a very small kitchenette in a corner. Bookshelves lined two walls, and four shelves cut the room into two sections separating the lounge area from the workspace.
“Whoa! You guys rule!” Where did the money come from? I seeded quarter of a million yen, but that's nothing compared to the furniture they brought here?
“Like it, Urufu-kun?” Midori asked proudly. Not waiting for an answer she continued. “Found out a week ago both my parents and Hiroyuki-kun's own furniture stores. Between us we had a lot of damaged goods we could take.”
“I see,” Ulf said just as he thought it. That made sense. Two dozen of us now. We'll need this space. And I just love how they've planned the place for workshops in small teams! Super kids! “It's perfect. You've made us a new home here. Christina's going to step dance all over the place when she sees it.” Thinking of her he wondered where she was.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. “She called in,” Midori said after a while. Her hair grew if possible even more unruly as if it wanted to share in her shame. “I'm sorry, but she won't come.”
Ulf forced a smile to his face. “Girl, it's not your fault. Besides, she should have called me instead. Thanks for letting me know,” he added to underscore that he really thought that Midori had only shown consideration.
But it was still a bummer. It wasn't like she had promised him anything, but he had hoped. During all of summer break they had spent less than a day alone together. Ulf shrugged. At the other hand they had spent far more days in each other's company than he had dared hope for to begin with, even if they had shared that time with others. And he would be a poor friend if he didn't give his friends the time they deserved.
And you're rambling. Making excuses when you know that your need for her is endless. He threw Midori and the others an ironic salute and walked to the workspace. Some time on his own while he pretended to work seemed like a good idea.
Noriko had seen through his ruse. She always did, but with a bit of luck she'd play along. He knew she had a crush on him, and he knew he was abusing it a little right now, but he really needed to sit on his own and think things over.
She stared after Urufu when his shoulders sunk and he walked around the bookshelf to the office area. If they had been alone she wasn't sure she could have kept herself from hugging him.
That modelling job had better be worth it. You're hurting him, even if he's trying his best to hide it. A couple of months earlier that thought would have come with equal parts shame and glee, because Kuri hurting Urufu brought them that much closer to breaking up. Now Noriko only felt sad. Urufu hurting hurt her as well. That hadn't changed, but her own plans had.
I'm moving on, Kuri. If you break him I can't promise I'll be here to pick up the parts. It wasn't that she had stopped loving Urufu, but there was no coming between Kuri and him as long as their relationship worked. It was exactly because Noriko still loved him that she had to move on. To be the friend he needed she had to find someone else to love, or at least to get along with well enough to substitute for love.
Cold and cynical her brother called her. Well, no one tried to rape him. No one tried to take his body for money. That was probably the worst of it. They failed, and she had been rescued by not one but two knights in shining armour, so the feeling of helplessness left her long ago. But they had been paid. The bastards hadn't even tried to rape her because they wanted to rape her. Her body wasn't even worth taking unless you were paid in advance, and that still hurt.
Deep inside her she knew her self loathing was a lie. Yukio had confessed to her – three times. And that model, Takado-sempai, singled her out that evening on the beach. And when she wasn't around Kuri boys stole glances at her, but then nobody could compete around Kuri. Not true. You could, Kyoko. Yukio never looked at Kuri that way.
Sometimes she wondered if she shouldn't have rewarded Yukio's persistence, but at a closer look it wouldn't have worked. He lacked the hardness of character she required.
“Noriko, what's up?”
Someone was speaking to her. “What?”
“Noriko, you should leave him alone. Everyone here can see that you like him if you stare after him like that,” Midori-chan said and placed a hand on her shoulder in sympathy.
Noriko blushed a little. Midori-chan had misunderstood some of it after all, but she was probably right when she said Noriko wore her feelings like an overcoat right now. “It's all-right, I've already confessed,” Noriko said. “He knows and he rejected me,” she continued and looked at Midori-chan's stunned face. “Don't give me that look. It's not like you didn't know anyway.”
“You're awesome. You're so cool!”
That put a smile on her face. Cool was good. Awesome was better. She could live with that. “Sure, but it's nothing you need to announce. Will only make me look like stupid, you know.”
“I wouldn't dream of it!” Midori-chan promised.
And it'll be all over the grapevine within days. Oh well, she's an airhead, can't be helped. “Thank you, that really makes me feel better,” Noriko lied. She took a few steps into the lounge part. That sofa by a low table looked really inviting, or maybe one of the arm chairs.
In the end she settled for an arm chair. More members were on their way and even though she was a midget, sleeping on the sofa would still have occupied three seats.
There would be some harsh words come autumn. Their club already attracted a lot of attention, and with their new room from out of the blue it would become clear they had a better contact with the principal than was normal. The student council had a lot of clout, but nothing near ordering the remaking of a run down classroom. It even had an AC better than the one in their classroom.
Time to plan for the culture festival as well. I'll have to do most of the planning I'm afraid. Urufu never got to experience one, because he was incarcerated for saving me. Se really did owe him. He'd even saved her brother from the fallout.
The door opened and Ryu arrived with parts of his and Kuri's fan club in tow. They carried bags with food and drinks and snacks. That left Yukio and Kyoko who had their own scavenging patrol. They had promised something great, but Noriko had no idea what it was.
When the door opened the next time two of the girls entered with a microwave. They were met with jubilation but just kept smiling as if they'd been let in on some great secret.
“Peeps, need some guys out here for the carrying slings!” Yukio's voice shouted from the corridor. Noriko watched some of the boys leave the room.
“Whoa! Man!” she heard a while later.
It took a minute. It probably took several, and when Kyoko opened the door again Noriko heard the sound of people carrying something heavy. Then she saw one end of something shiny. Are you nuts? Are you for real?
The room filled with a roar of approval when the full height fridge was carried through the opening.
You're absolutely wonderfully insane you lot! With guys like you I'll never be able to keep my cool. For once she didn't try to avoid her brother when he came sailing through the room with a high five prepared.
“Man, we've got cool, cause we are cool.” Yukio shouted from somewhere, and during the commotion Urufu came out from his hiding space and smiled at what he saw. With a calmer face he met Ryu's high five. Calmer, but he still met it with one of his own. It had to be some kind of male thing.
This time she made sure to fire up her smart phone immediately after the shots were done. Once was more than enough, and Christina didn't plan to exemplify some concept of stupid Swedes if one existed in Japan.
Nothing major. She had missed out on today's festival planning, but it might run late, so she decided to chance it and head for school.
It was, she admitted, a mistake to email Midori-chan rather than Ulf, but she had known he would run late. She was the club president after all, so someone already inside the school should know. But maybe she should have emailed Ulf as well. Or text as he said when he started rambling about how Japan needed to join the twenty first century when it came to digital infrastructure. He was a geek, and she didn't understand half of it, but apparently something irked him. He did have almost all of his electronic gear imported, so apparently something was wrong with what could be bought in Japan.
Her studio wasn't too far away from the school. At least not with her new bike, and after she had changed into the all too hot but properly baggy set of clothes she used for avoiding being recognised, she made good speed on partially empty streets.
It had been a good day. Good shots and crowned by the message that Kinoshita-sensei was transferring studios on the condition he could work exclusively with her, or at least prioritise her whenever she was available. The two younger photographers in the studio were ecstatic at the news, and the oldest not so much. Probably because he just had his position as the most senior usurped.
Less than half an hour, about the same time as she would have used riding trains, it took her to get to Himekaizen. She locked her bike to the stands and made her way into the school. By the shoe lockers she realised she had forgotten her slippers, but she decided to risk it and climbed the stairs to their new club room. Midori-chan had told her where to find it.
It wasn't empty, but there was no sign of Ulf, so she made a polite round and signed a few papers concerning the upcoming cultural festival after she confirmed that the club would only apply for running a few food stalls.
In the end she was coerced into following Ryu and some of the less sane members of their fan club to the roof where they fired off a few very illicit fireworks. It was very stupid, a little fun and it probably strengthened her reputation as the daredevil beauty of Himekaizen.
After that she left the school feeling a bit disappointed. Should she call him? Maybe not. He was probably angry by now, and she was tired and didn't want to risk a quarrel over the phone when the only thing she wanted was to hug him close to her and just cling to him forever.
An email though. She had the next day off. She wrote a short message before unlocking her bike. Ten am by the statue they had used for their first date. That small square had become important to her. Stupid and childish, but that was how it was.
As she was riding home she felt her phone vibrate, and when she made a quick stop in a park there was a new email for her from Ulf. Ten am was perfect and did she want to go to the cinemas?
Christina sat down on a swing. She was far too tall for it, and her heels dug into the sand even though she didn't attempt to swing. Yes, the cinemas would be fun, and did he have time to make it a full day's date with their bikes?
And he did. And he longed for it. And Christina felt her heart jolt when she read that email. He wanted to be together with her. Alone with her, and he longed for the time they shared.
She sat there a bit longer than she had planned. Crying silently, but these were tears of joy. Slowly she started to accept just how important his words were to her. This last email would take her though another lonely night smiling. She couldn't understand how easily she had allowed herself to become spellbound by him.
Ulf rode his bike to the square feeling giddy with joy. It was over an hours worth of cycling, but it was worth it if he could have a full day with Christina to himself.
Tomorrow would be the traditional dating day for teenagers, but Saturday morning wasn't as packed, so he brought the bike all the way to the statue and leaned on it while he waited.
Half an hour early was maybe a bit excessive, but he didn't want to risk being late and last time she had waited for him here. Besides the morning was warm, and he enjoyed watching the street-life even when there wasn't all that much of it to watch.
There was something he needed to clear with himself as well. Maria. The reason he flinched whenever Christina came too close was because he felt he was cheating on his wife, but she was lost forever in that other world. Did it count as cheating if they could never meet? Did it count as breaking up, or divorcing, if you walked out the door one day never able to return?
And he couldn't even send her a message. He couldn't let her know he was fine, or at least mostly fine. He couldn't tell his children that he wasn't lying dead in a ditch.
And because of all that he couldn't tell Christina that he loved her. But he did. Maybe more than life itself. And there was that other thing. She couldn't know how he lived for her, because she had become his reason for living. Guilty thoughts of Maria be damned, and there just was no way he could load Christina with that kind of a burden. No one should feel responsible for someone else's life. OK, your own children, but not a grown up person.
Ulf chewed on his lower lip. If it made him look girlie so be it. He hadn't cared much the last thirty years, and his attitude garnered him both enemies and admirers during his university years. It permanently built him a reputation as someone with integrity. He had spent half his life deserving it.
Lost in thoughts he didn't notice how half an hour had passed, so now the real wait started. Last time she had been early. He could as well kill some time while he waited, so he rolled up his arms and gave his bike some much needed maintenance. It didn't make him too dirty and it was kind of fun working with his hands for a change.
When he was done there was still no sign of Christina, and now she was half an hour late. Ulf called her but only got the message that her unit was off service. He emailed her in case she could read but not talk.
Another half an hour passed, and another, but she never arrived. After two hours and five failed attempts to call her he gave up. By now he was more than a little afraid and also a bit angry, so he rode to her apartment and knocked on her door in a very pre mobile phone era style. There was no response but her door was locked.
Ulf was scared enough now to entertain the idea of entering by force, but it was unlikely she'd be inside unable to hear him hammering on her door, so in the end he abandoned that idea.
He did call Kyoko, but she knew nothing. On a whim he called Ryu and Midori as well, but neither of them had heard anything.
There was nothing to do. He walked down the stairs, locked his bike and returned back up. Some time he could spend looking over the railings, but there was nothing to see but the equally dull apartment complex across the street and in the end he sat down outside Christina's door and prepared himself for a long wait.
Book two, chapter four
Book two, chapter six