Normally Noriko would have grabbed a quick lunch from the cafeteria and brought it to the shaded area between the main building and the gym hall. Because normally she would have appreciated getting away from the crowded chaos around Ryu and Ageruman-san.
Truth be told she would have preferred sitting inside the cafeteria, but it sat flanked by the locker rooms on the first floor in the main building, and the seniors occupied the first floor classrooms in both wings. By the time the freshmen made it down from third floor there were no more seats to be had.
Perks of seniority, she thought.
That was however normally. The day before yesterday she overheard Takeida-san just after soccer training. Now normal concerns, like getting the best grades in school, took a bleak second place.
Thus it was that Noriko found herself by the vending machines outside the cafeteria facing rows of shoe lockers.
She pulled out a few coins and started feeding the machine. Plastic food, yummy. Wonder if the wrapping tastes better than the contents. She knelt and collected what had to substitute for lunch. Next was bottled tea.
“Did you see Wakayama-san?”
Noriko started to turn but stopped mid-movement. Wrong Wakayama.
“Yes. Isn't he the best?”
Yea, wrong Wakayama.
“Mori-san confessed to that Ogawa from 8:1, or she will after school. Super exciting!”
Small blessings, there were small blessings with having her idiot brother and the stunning foreigner in the same class. What should have been a Sengoku period civil war zone had somehow turned into a dating facility.
And even that would have been part of normality.
She grabbed her lunch, or whatever it deserved to be called, and made for the right wing stairwell. There were more students going up than down now. Like her, with cafeteria lunches or booty from the vending machines.
She was heading for the hornet’s nest because she wanted to. Because of no reason at all. Because 6:1 was playing soccer during lunch break. Because she was an idiot. Because she wasn't Ryu who waded through emotional turmoil without ever getting stained. Because she did get stained.
It's just my classroom. Why am I this nervous?
Noriko entered the bedlam that was 3:1. Students from every freshman class in school, even though a majority belonged in the right wing.
There were islets that hadn't been there earlier. New couplings created new groups which were only loosely attached to the centrepieces of attraction.
Find your own classrooms! Crowded here.
There was a sudden commotion by the windows. Noriko started walking there. It was where she wanted to be anyway. Then she saw Ryu literally barging in on her solitude.
He was the eternal clown. He knew that even though he never thought of himself as the laughing stock of anyone.
“Hey, look at that!” One of the Watabe twins shouted from the windows, and sure enough, a few seconds later the other materialised beside him.
One striker and one midfielder, and they were good. Though Ryu prided himself with being good at just about any physical activity, when it came to soccer he was no match. The twins shared a mental link on the field, and even individually each of them was far better than he could ever hope to be.
And they were part of his extended net of acquaintances. He needed it. Hell anyone would need one if they grew up with a larger than life midget as a sister. He had to keep up the illusion of being the centre of the universe. He attracted people, but his sister did so as well, even if she didn't believe it herself. And to top it off, for being so short she sure stood tall every exam he could recall.
Ryu rose and located said midget. A few quick steps and he scooped her up in his arms and threw her over his shoulders.
“Down bro! Let me down!”
He disregarded the protests and carried her to where the twins were standing. From behind his right shoulder the shrieks of verbal trashing continued. He could see Ageruman-san coming to the rescue with Takeida-san trailing her steps like a loyal dog.
“Moron, drop your sister!”
“That translates into letting her down gently, you king of idiots!”
OK, maybe not a loyal dog after all. And I'm a prince. Old people are kings.
“If she can climb down on her own,” he shouted over his left shoulder, a movement that left his older sister flailing wildly. It was time to obey the orders coming from three sources, or those sources would have his hide later.
Takeida-san would have been a handful on her own, but she paled in comparison with his sister. And then there was Ageruman-san. For the first time he could remember he had to fight for his place in the limelight. And he was losing badly.
Not that he minded losing to her all that much.
Not that he minded anything with her.
Ryu shook his head and pretended to look at whatever the Watabes were studying. Soccer, of course it had to be soccer.
Below them, on the field, class 6:1 had their lunch break just before PE, and the guys were slugging it out. Compared to how the Watabes played soccer 'slugging' was an apt term.
“He's pretty bad, isn't he?” one of them commented.
“Yeah, but strong. And he's quick as a snake.”
“Still a crap player. Anyone that tall could be a decent striker.”
Ryu stopped pretending and started looking for whomever had caught the interest of the twins.
“No soccer player that one.” That had to be Okamoto-san, from 1:1 or 2:1, Ryu could never remember which class. “Budoka, and a damn good one. Look at his stance!”
Below them a tall guy jumped and tried heading the ball into the goal, but it flew wide of its target. Then he landed, slid on his feet, swivelled and accelerated back to take part in the defence. Crap, he ought to have bowled those two defenders over. How the hell did he avoid them both?
Beside him Noriko suddenly cut the verbal trashing short and became noticeably silent. A Noriko silent after being manhandled by him was worth taking note of. Ryu looked down to read her face. Oh, that's interesting. He knew that look. He'd seen it often enough on other girls. With himself as the object of affection.
She's crushing hard! Damn, sis looks like someone clubbed her from behind!
He stared out the window. It had to be the guy who had just caught his attention. I've seen him before. Ryu took another look at his sister. Her face displayed the slight blush he expected to find there, and a quizzical recollection. She's seen him before as well?
“Cute, or even husband material, eh?” he teased her.
Noriko turned so red he could have sworn her hair would blush as well. Ryu was about to embarrass her some more when suddenly…
First Takeida-san went sour all of a sudden, and then...
“Man! Did you see that?”
Two defenders had collided and were falling to the ground. Oblivious of the impossible action the tall one slid under them, twisted mid-air and came out rolling on the other side. He was already racing after the ball.
“Yeah. Cool, but he's still a crap player. Midfielder should go for the ball, and he should run for the goal instead.”
“Who gives a… Damn, karate or jujitsu? Both?”
“The bastard's at least a black belt in both an offensive and a defensive style. That's impossible!”
“His age. I'd know who he was. Tokyo's big, but not that big!”
Beside him Noriko had paled, and Ryu felt the colour drain from his own face.
Yes, we both know him. Sis, I'm so sorry!
“He saved me, and I never thanked him,” she whispered. “I never thanked him, and then he vanished.” Limply she dropped her lunch to the floor. Her bottled tea bounced under a desk, but the wrapped bread just thudded to the floor and hugged it like a bag of sand.
Ryu bent down. For once it was time to play it with a semblance of tact. “You can now,” he said. She had turned down two guys the last year because of a dream, and now he had seen her fall in love with that dream again. This time before she even recognized him. That makes it a double first.
“I hate it! He scares me,” she said. “I got all warm and cosy, and it was a new guy, and I could forget, and I could make a new dream and, no! Not fair!” Noriko stared at him. “It just had to be the same one. I hate it!”
Ryu embraced his sister. This wasn't a time to be cool, and she didn't need the rest of them to see how small she was. For once she was just a midget and nowhere close to larger than life.
Behind him he could feel Ageruman-san watching him. And Noriko. And Takeida-san. The three of them were being studied like a new and novel specimen at the zoo. Ageruman-san could be cold that way, like she was comparing them to a secret of hers.
Below them cheers rose to the windows.
“Finally! With that speed and stamina even that guy had to score eventually. Damn, he really is hopeless!”
And he had scored. With a kick. Force instead of skill. A kick hard enough to shatter, for example a knee. Ryu knew he should have remembered the guy, but the cheering teenager below them looked nothing like the raging avenger who had saved Noriko more than half a year earlier. The one she had fallen in love with while he was busy being expelled from school.
“Pretty good for a geek, ha.” A bunch of students were entering the locker room, and the comment had come from the door opening.
What's with them? Ulf looked at Yukio in search for a clue.
“Because you're an idiot.” Yukio handed over the plastic bottle with shampoo together with his verbal assessment. “Towel.”
Ulf exchanged bottle for towel, and then they left their locker room. Two more classes, and it would be club hours. If they had had a club that was.
“My lack of brains. What about it?” he asked as they climbed the left wing stairs to the third floor.
“Those were 3:1,” Yukio answered as if it explained everything.
“They're in the right wing.”
“For being so damned old and smart you're really a moron sometimes.” Yukio looked slightly disgusted. “Old geezer, you act on experience when you should be thinking.”
Ulf blushed slightly. This wasn't the first time they had this discussion. One of the advantages with being older was that you had a vast pool of experience to use. The main disadvantage with being older was that you usually used that pool automatically.
“Right wing, so?”
“Their windows face the soccer field. You know, where we played during lunch break when 3:1 was filled with a full two classes worth of students?”
Oh, crap! Ulf could see where this was going.
“You know, when you displayed those amazing athletic skills of yours. Those that you share with every other average member of geek squad.”
“I'm no good at football,” Ulf countered.
“It's soccer over here, not football.”
“Played with your feet, hence football. UEFA, FIFA, notice the lack of an 'S' there?”
“Football is another sports. It's...”
“Played with your hands. I know. Yanks aren't known for their brains to begin with. Had to be an idiot from the states to mistake handball for football.”
Yukio gave him a cold stare, and then they both laughed.
“You're still an idiot, you know that?”
Ulf sighed. Just as he pulled open the door to their classroom he turned to his friend. “I guess I am at that.”
Yukio shook his head, and they entered.
“Think 3:1 lost out on their monopoly?” Ulf asked over his shoulder as he went for his desk.
“No, not yet,” Yukio answered from behind. “But you're pulling too much attention. Someone will start asking questions.”
That was bad. “You don't think she...?”
“I don't know.” Now it was Yukio's turn to blush. “Takeida-san was there.”
That was correct. Ulf had seen the human sun shine from one of the classrooms, and wherever she was Kyoko wasn't far away.
His personal problem was that lately the two large gangs of admirers had merged into one, so if you found Christina you were likely to find Ryu as well. And that meant Noriko, and there was a risk she would remember him.
He was running out of time. If he was found out and rumours started to spread he could wave goodbye to his plans.
If I could only redo! But he couldn't go back, only forward. He wasn't redoing high school. This was a new experience, and as such it had to be handled with the respect it deserved.
Club first. Then have a chat with the Wakayama twins. Because now he had to get them to join as well. That Ryu's fan-club had merged with Christina's horde of admirers had put a huge wrench into his plans. They were no longer as simple and clean as when he had started harbouring them. Ulf hated complicated plans, because those soon grew to become complex. And when plans became complex, well then usually all bets were off.
His thoughts returned to the football field and the teenagers playing ball.
When I was their age the first time, he thought, remembering when he had travelled to Japan with his parents, but no those thoughts didn't match reality. They probably played baseball on that field back then rather than football.
But those kids were fifty now as well. You're not playing baseball any more. Did your kids play football or baseball when they were fifteen? He missed his parents. He missed… Maria, do you wonder what happened to me? Are you alone? Are you taking good care of our kids? His eyes brimmed with tears. Our surviving kids? And an overwhelming feeling of loss came over him. He hadn't been born to this world. In this world, somewhere in Sweden, a Maria who had never met him lived out her life, and their children had never been born. But in that case his daughter had never died, and if so why did he miss her so much?
Ulf blinked away his tears. He needed to switch his attention to something that didn't give him a headache.
“Yukio, what's up now?”
Ulf swore. For one hour he'd be forced to pretend to learn English from that half arsed moron who really should have finished his career at being a student before becoming a teacher. Ulf felt his headache spreading.
English with their home room teacher was a pleasant change of pace from mathematics the previous class.
While Kondo-sensei hammered down grammatical rules and vocabulary, just like their middle school teacher had done, she still made attempts to make the language come to life. She even tried to have the occasional conversation with the students in 3:1, including Kuri-chan.
That was, as far as Kyoko was concerned, the sign of a great heart. Kondo-sensei might not care all that much for Kuri-chan. After all the teacher's fiancée had shown too open a fascination with the foreign beauty, but when it came to the subject she taught she was adamant. The best students were used mercilessly as examples to the rest of them, and Kuri-chan was arguably the best student when it came to English.
If it hadn't been for her grammar, or spelling.
In short Kuri-chan was outright awful until she actually spoke the language. Then she shone, sing song pronunciation and all. And she made the rest of them shine with her. Oblivious to the fact that the teacher should be the one who made corrections Kuri-chan switched to her poor Japanese and tried to explain where and how a mistake had occurred during the course of the conversation.
Kondo-sensei just followed along and only interrupted when Kuri-chan's Japanese was insufficient to the task.
So in short, Kyoko really liked their English lessons.
The English teacher in the left wing was, if what she heard from some of the hang-arounds was true, a different matter.
“Heard the geek from 6:1 got into a fight with his teacher?” That was Ryu-kun's voice from a few desks behind her.
Now, that registered. Geek, 6:1 and fight were all words that made her flustered. Especially geek and 6:1. Kuri-chan, why did you interfere? Kyoko made an effort not to turn and look for Noriko-chan's reaction.
But fight? Kyoko looked at the teacher and leaned her head. That way she would have an easier time hearing whatever was said in the middle of the classroom.
Kondo-sensei pretended nothing had been said and continued scribbling synonyms on the blackboard.
“Heard he grew up an English snob. Got real angry Queens English wasn't good enough.”
Kondo-sensei turned. She was strange that way. The illicit conversation behind her back had accidentally turned on topic, and she wasn't about to miss that chance.
“RP, or BBC English. That's what we call neutral British pronunciation. It differs from what we teach in Japan, which is General American.”
“You do nothing of the sort,” Kyoko heard from the desk in front of her, in English. Kuri-chan, please keep that mouth of yours shut!
“Please Ageruman-san, enlighten us,” Kondo-sensei said, also in English. The thrown gauntlet hadn't been allowed to stay on the ground for more than a moment.
Now you've done it!
Then she stood up and drew a breath. “With your permission, if I may, Miss Kondo.” Her voice was rounded, full of self-confidence and rich with experience. “While I would prefer not to sully the dear memory of my esteemed, albeit conservative, teacher...” It was an English Kyoko had never heard before. It carried a global empire on its shoulders as if that was the most natural thing in the world. “… in order to give an example I might lend myself to make an exception.” And it changed into a perfect rendering of what Kyoko had learned as the English of the well-educated. “The way fortunes of power may have shifted I also change my English from what was to what is.”
It was well educated, but it wasn't… Kyoko sought for a word. It wasn't elegant. It lacked… pedigree.
Kondo-sensei stood open mouthed. Then she smiled, and then she grinned and looked more like an unruly high school student than the teacher she was. “That was well played, Ageruman-san. Very well played.”
A few seconds later the rest of the class joined the applause their teacher had started.
“Kuri-chan, why don't you speak like that, like always?”
“Bother!” And Kuri-chan sat down with a thump as ungraceful as she had been ladylike just a few moments earlier.
You're crazy. Kyoko knew the episode would give birth to more rumours. 3:1, where things happened. A monopoly on rumours. But that was no longer true. A piece of hearsay had trickled all the way here from the other wing.
Still, Kuri-chan had just countered that one beautifully. And on that thought class ended. Students and teacher streamed through the door. One of their classmates, Sakurai-san quickly returned with a knowing smile and looked for Kuri-chan.
“Ageruman-san, you have a visitor.”
You could as well have said 'yet another visitor' if you're thinking it so clearly. Christina rose and looked for the face that was about to appear.
A second year this time. She walked to the classroom entrance. The convoluted dating game here required her to follow him somewhere less crowded, where he could make a verbal pass at her, and she could decline without too much of an audience. Stupid rules! But those were the rules, so she tagged along after him down the stairs and across the school yard to the bike stand where they could share a modicum of privacy.
A bike stand by a shabby, concrete school building from the 60s or 70s as a refuge for love-struck youths. Yikes! This is where they want to hide their feelings from others.
An illusion of course. By now dozens of eyes were following them through windows on all three floors, and she felt just like the prize her suitor most likely wanted to win.
I really didn't need to risk missing class for this crap.
A second year. Last time it had been a third year, and he had yelled an insult after her when she returned after turning him down. At least the freshmen only gulped silently and studied their shoes. Older students were more comfortable with the school, and they were also a year or two more experienced when it came to the confession game.
“What do you want?” Christina deliberately made her voice as haughty as possible. With a bit of luck he would understand that he wasn't wanted before she was forced to explicitly tell him so.
No such luck. He stared directly into her eyes.
Good looking. A player most likely. He probably thinks I should feel happy to catch his attention.
“I like you. I want you to be my girlfriend.”
About as subtle as a rhino.
“I'm sorry, but I don't want a boyfriend.”
“I'm a lot better than that Wakayama guy. Please reconsider!”
Some guys just didn't understand a 'no'. But this was a new development. It was the first time anyone had made a direct reference to Ryu.
“I'm not going out with him. I said I don't want a boyfriend. That includes him.”
She wasn't surprised to see her suitor's face turn disappointed, but there was an ugly glint to his expression.
“You sure spend a lot of time with someone you're not seeing.”
“Still not my boyfriend,” Christina answered. She knew her voice had gone defensive and hated it. Ryu was a fun friend, along with his sister and the combined forces of their respective admirers. It was just a large gang of freshmen who silently agreed not to show their affections too clearly.
Even though things would have been simpler if Ryu and she did pair up. She knew that would have been accepted.
“Bitch! You think your foreign looks make you special, don't you?”
“Whatever.” She didn't have to accept any more insults.
Christina turned and walked back towards the school building.
She heard his parting words from behind: “I won't forget this, you know.”
She threw her hands into the air in a gesture of raw irritation. Then she turned. “Queen Victoria called and wanted her gender values back.” Idiot!
On her way back across the school yard she met Ko-chan. A worried Ko-chan. Something was definitely amiss. Christina studied her friend's somewhat stocky frame before accepting her hands.
Ko-chan pulled her aside and pretended not to look at the windows. “You're in trouble. We can handle the freshmen, but some second years are targeting you now.”
“Second years? Why?” Christina asked, pretending to have forgotten what had just happened.
“Are you an idiot?” Anger passed Ko-chan's face, but Christina could see something else as well.
Fear? Is she afraid? Of what? “I don't understand.” I really don't understand, and I wish Ko-chan was better at English. Or that my Japanese had improved more.
“Moron, did you have to replace all of your brains with that beautiful face!”
Christina thought frantically but nothing came to her mind. “I don't understand.”
Ko-chan led them in the direction of the entrance. She was kicking up sand with every few steps. “Look,” she said. “You were confessed to the same week you came here. Several times.”
Confessions. It still felt like elementary school. They did everything backwards here in Japan. A hug and a kiss should come before anything as embarrassing as being dragged away and listening to someone expressing their feelings in words. But not here. Here you were supposed to play the confession game before finding out if you really shared any mutual feelings.
“Are you listening?”
Christina shrugged. She hadn't.
“If you're called out by upper-class men you become a direct rival to the older girls.”
“Not my fault,” Christina said. Yes, she was being stubborn now, and Ko-chan didn't deserve being treated that way. “I'm sorry.”
“It doesn't work that way. I can't protect you if you're ganged up on.”
Ko-chan, in difference from that idiot second year, really was adorable. Protected by a child. With most of the teaching staff here being substantially younger than herself Christina found it more than a little amusing that Ko-chan felt a need to protect her.
And Ko-chan knew. Ko-chan alone knew that the reason Christina lived alone was that she had done so for over thirty years in a world almost like this one. Not this world, where Christina Agerman had never been born fifty years earlier.
That night, after they had split up outside their mall, Yukio had trouble sleeping. It wasn't that his mother disturbed him. She never did. It wasn't that he was afraid of making contact with Takeida-san. He had already experienced being rejected by two different girls during middle school.
It was however more complicated this time. One of those two girls had been Wakayama Noriko, and she was all too likely to be on good terms with both Takeida-san and Ageruman-san.
Yukio shifted uncomfortably in his bed again.
The last thing he wanted was for Takeida-san to mistake him confessing to her as going for second best. Sure she had been at a different school at that time, but with girls you never knew. And asking for Ageruman-san as well. Not good even if it was for the benefit of another guy.
Yukio never understood why Urufu-kun didn't contact the blond bombshell himself. It wasn't as if he was overly shy. Yukio knew that. When they had stolen out late evenings the previous winter he had listened to Urufu-kun exchanging friendly insults and jokes with girls several years their seniors. Well several years Yukio's senior. With Urufu-kun you couldn't count years that way.
And he twisted in his bed again.
Sleep came late that night and morning all too early.
He kept his silence on their way to school. Thankfully Urufu-kun didn't try to force a conversation, and it was clear that he understood what Yukio had decided to do.
When they arrived at school Yukio made for the right wing stairwell immediately after he had changed into his indoor shoes.
Feel like the idiot I am, he mused as he climbed the stairs. Too short. Three floors was way too short. And he was outside 3:1 where he met more than a few quizzical looks. Still no one questioned his right to be there. Now that's funny.
When he wordlessly entered their classroom one of them helpfully pointed at the foremost desk by the window. It was empty but Takeida-san sat by the one behind it.
He fumbled in his pocket for the note he had prepared and headed for her.
“Wrong desk. It's the one in front,” he heard from behind him.
Takeida-san looked up at him and nodded at the desk in front of her. After that she paid him no more attention.
Now that is seriously funny. What are they…? Oh, oh, oh. I'd better bring my brains along next time.
He felt himself blush slightly. Not because he was ashamed but because the entire situation had turned into a bad joke.
With a few more steps he was at Takeida-san's desk. When he didn't move she looked up at him again. “It's that one,” she said and pointed ahead of her.
What do I say now? Better not say anything. He handed her the note.
“Just leave it on her desk. I'm not her errand girl.” She rose and started for what had to be Ageruman-san's desk.
“No!” Yukio had to say something or the situation would degenerate from absurd to awful. “Read it!”
He could see in her face how, with glacial speed, she started to grasp that she and not Ageruman-san was the intended recipient of the note. In the end she even pointed at herself with big eyes and her mouth open in a big 'O'. Beautiful eyes.
Followed by a: “Guys, we have a new winner! He didn't come for Ageruman-san,” he fled the scene.
Smooth, so very smooth. Could just as well have confessed to her in front of them all. Gods, that was awful!
Things didn't improve when he came back to the left wing. It was all too obvious from where he had come. Before he had time to enter the relative safety of 6:1 he had time to hear all the relevant questions.
“You look flustered,” Urufu-kun greeted him when he was finally inside their classroom.
“You say nothing. Nothing. Next two Fridays you treat me.”
“And I won't be cheap.”
Urufu-kun nodded again.
“Geek's actually spending time out?” That came from the back of the classroom.
Urufu-kun grinned and nodded a third time.
Yukio sighed and took his chair. The classes before lunch break went by in a daze, and then it was time for his fifteen minutes of fame by the bike stands.
Love it with the audience in the windows. Not!
“Go for it man!” some helpful moron shouted from 8:1
Takeida-san was already waiting for him. She didn't exactly look love-struck.
“Whoa! She's from the right wing. It's Ageruman-san's friend. Damn you've got some guts!” came the next moronic commentary. 5:1 this time.
As a matter of fact Takeida-san looked less than impressed with the entire set-up.
“Go under the roof and you won't be seen,” a third idiot helpfully added in a gloriously failed attempt to make Yukio look more inconspicuous.
Coming this close to her Yukio could see that she was most likely royally pissed.
He had to get this over with before he lost the courage to go through with it. “Takeida-san, I have two requests. Please listen to them both!”
“He's doing it!”
I'll kill those guys!
“You. Called. Me. Out. Make it short!”
Yeah, experiencing the pain of embarrassment is an activity where time is of essence. Crap! “My first request concerns Ageruman Kuritina and is on behalf of my friend Hamarugen Urufu. It's all in this letter. Please convey it to her!”
“Another stupid go between!”
He couldn't really do much but agree with her. “My second request is my own.”
For the first time she looked at him with something that looked like interest.
“You may not know me, but I've seen you. I'm Matsumoto Yukio.” Yukio recalled Urufu-kun's words. “I like you. I want you to know that, because anything else would be dishonest.” And then for the lesser commitment. “But I still would want to start out as friends rather than have you respond to someone you don't know. Would you care to be my friend?”
Takeida-san gave him a smile that could almost be called friendly. Then she looked at the letter he had given her. “Forget it!” she said and walked past him.
“The letter?” Yukio tried in an attempt to at least salvage something.
“I'll handle it. Stay away from me!”
Gods, that was harsh. Really harsh. Were you trying to deliberately hurt me, Takeida-san? Saying: 'Sorry but I'm not interested' would have been enough.
He was close to tears but blinked them away.
That was really, really harsh you know.
He couldn't blink them away any longer. He stood there for a while and pretended to study the bikes.
Why? Why did I hurt him that way? It's not his fault that I'm interested in Hamarugen-san.
Shame ran through her veins.
She ripped the hateful letter to pieces and threw it away. Then she changed back to her indoor shoes.
Of course even the tall geek had a crush on Kuri-chan. He was male after all. Well she wouldn't be alone feeling hurt. Ryu-kun's midget sister had fallen hard as well.
She's worse off than me, Kyoko thought. Far worse. I'm really only interested in the guy. OK, and angry with him being the same as the rest.
“He's more your type,” Kuri-chan had said. Well, that opportunity was in flames now. Kyoko had poured petrol over it, struck fire on the matches and set it ablaze. And then she had added dynamite to it all just for good measure. Aww, I won't even be able to apologize to him for at least half a year after this. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
And he had been kind of cute.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
And very polite.
Moron! Moron! Moron!
And after she had mauled him his first thought had been to help his friend.
I hate myself!
And even though she had seen his shoulders shake when she went indoors, he had still stood by the bikes to give her time to get away alone.
Kyoko, Kyoko, Kyoko, how often do you think you'll meet a guy like that?
She climbed the stairs to 3:1, and when she told her friends about the confession, with Hamarugen-san's part carefully censored out, they helped her understand the sheer extent of her epic stupidity. As if she needed help rubbing it in.
At least she hadn't helped Hamarugen-san confess to Kuri-chan. The lazy coward could do that in person if he deemed it important enough.
But Kuri-chan saw right through her as if she was made of glass. For the second time in one single lunch break she was called out. And this time by her best friend.
“What happened?” Kuri-chan asked her after she had dragged her to the stairwell between second and third floor.
Kyoko found her own feet infinitely interesting to study. “I rejected him. Badly,” she added when shame overtook her once again.
“There's no way you'd behave that way even if he looked like an ogre. Did he do something bad to you?”
And that was when Kyoko broke down. Her legs lost their function and she sank down on her knees.
“I'll kill him!” Kuri-chan said, misunderstanding why Kyoko had collapsed.
“No, no please don't!”
Kuri-chan sat down and looked at her. “No?”
Kyoko spent some time pulling at her skirt hem. “I hurt him. They were awful and I hurt him.”
Kuri-chan leaned back against the wall. “Ko-chan, I don't understand. Please tell me everything that happened!”
“I believe,” Kyoko started when pieces of a puzzle finally came into place in her mind, “that he's a loner. People in the windows were bullying him, pretending to help him confess to me.”
“You mean shouting stuff so he would be too embarrassed to go through with it?”
“But he did anyway?”
“Yes, and he was so gentle,” Kyoko whispered.
“Do you have any idea how much bravery that takes?”
Kyoko met her friend's eyes. She hadn't thought of that. “I feel so bad for him. He was crying when I left, but I was so angry.”
“Angry because he confessed to you? You don't make any sense.”
“No, he gave me a letter from Hamarugen-san to you, and I got so mad at him.”
“Oh, Ko-chan! I told you that geek was bad news.”
“I know. I tore the letter apart and threw it away. I'm sorry.”
Kuri-chan smiled. “Don't worry. If he wants to confess to me he can do so directly instead of sending his friends.”
“And if he does?” Kyoko still felt a bit jealous.
“He'd better do something very special for me not to shoot him down to kingdom come.” Kuri-chan grinned. “I hate people who can't run their own errands and hurt their messengers instead.” Then Kyoko found herself in a warm embrace. “Let's see what we can do about that messenger of yours. If you want of course.”
There was a slight tingling in her chest. Relief mostly but also something else. It was a bit embarrassing. Rather than answer Kuri-chan she changed the topic. “Something very special, you said?”
The first sign Ko-chan might have been right was three senior students cornering her by the vending machines outside the cafeteria.
“You're like a nail sticking out.”
“And we are the hammer.”
“Get one freshman guy and stick to him. Right now you're an eyesore.”
Three of them playing an amateurish game at intimidation was laughable, and Christina shrugged the incident off.
The second sign something was off waited for her almost where she had been cornered earlier that day. Going home she found her shoe-locker filled with trash. She shook her head, cleaned it out, grabbed her shoes and went home.
The third was someone trying to push her down the stairs the next day. That made her take Ko-chan's warnings a bit more seriously, but when she reported the incidents to her teachers she was told that she was seeing things. Bullying apparently was even less of an item on the agenda here than it had been when she attended school back home in Sweden. At least physical violence would have created a reaction.
From there it escalated to slashed shoes, torn books and yet another attempt to teach her how to grow wings and fly. And neither teachers nor students thought much of it. Most of 3:1 aside though, and the combined fan-clubs of hers and Ryu-kun's. They were in an uproar.
She was chatting along with Ko-chan after PE when suddenly a second year grabbed her bag and dashed all the way back to the locker room they had just left.
“You little bastard!” Christina stared after the thief.
“Don't, Kuri-chan! It's dangerous.”
Further ahead, by the vending machines outside the cafeteria, she saw the friend of the geek from 6:1 looking at them. Then she decided that enough was enough and chased after the girl who had taken her bag.
And she was inside the locker room. Five girls, all second and third years, waited for her and her bag had been emptied on the floor.
“What the hell do you think you're doing?” Do you know how many hours I had to work extra for that make-up set you just spilled on the floor?
Two of the girls were fumbling with their cell phones.
“That's my bag. Hand it over to me!” I'm starting to hate these girls!
Still no response.
Behind her the door was thrown open and someone entered.
“Wrong room, moron,” she told the second year boy who had arrived. “Get the hell out of here!”
Still the girls said nothing, and that was more than a little strange.
Something is wrong. There's a boy in here. They should be screaming bloody murder.
The first fist took her by surprise.
Is this what you warned me about, Ko-chan?
The second fist threw her head first into the wall. It hurt and she couldn't think clearly.
Then her assailant ran away.
A boy in our locker room, and those girls didn't say a thing?
“Stay away from our boys!”
What? What's…? Did you invite him?
Christina felt hands dragging her from the wall. Then she was thrown and fell into the mirrors face first. Something broke and she felt a new sting of pain. Something rang on the floor. Several somethings.
“We don't like you.”
Her legs were kicked away from under her. There was nothing she could do. They were too many. In desperation she crawled over the floor. More kicks followed before she managed to get inside the toilet booth.
“If we see you trying to seduce anyone more we'll make you wish you had never met us.”
It hurt. Something stung in her hands and lower arms. Glass? Must have cut myself when that mirror broke. She started picking shards from her hands. Then she heard the sound of running water. I have to get out of here. But the door was blocked from the outside.
Defeated she sat down on the toilet chair. She could as well remove some more shards. When she started on her lower arms the first bucketful of ice-cold water came crashing down on her. It made her cut herself with the shard she was pulling out.
Scared. Didn't know I could be this afraid.
Another bucket-load of icy water followed, and a third, and a fourth.
She was shivering from cold, and she was still dizzy from the beating her head had taken earlier. From far away she heard a voice. Someone talking? No. Someone roaring. Had he come back to beat her up some more?
The toilet door bulged from a kick. Christina backed into the corner. Then it exploded inwards.
“Christina? Are you hurt? Christina, are you OK?”
A boy? Who are you? She stared at him. What's happening? Why are you speaking Swedish?
He switched to Japanese. “Send Darwin an e-mail for more info on your parents.” He had addressed the girls outside.
“What the hell was that?” The voice belonged to one of the girls who had thrown her into the mirror.
“That was my poor Japanese. Makes it easier for you to understand. Short words. You might find those in a dictionary. Ask a friend if you can't understand them”
Christina stared at him through swollen eyes. Swedish! I haven't heard it for over a year! “Why? Are you mad?” Her own words sounded alien in her mouth.
“Hate bullies. Don't bloody care if they are boys, girls or if they grow fucking antennas.” More Swedish. Vulgar, thick, uncouth, and wonderful, wonderful Gothenburg accent.
He's the geek from 6:1? “They'll get at you as well if you defend me.”
“So, zero eight are we? Should have guessed from that sassy supermodel walk of yours that you're from Stockholm.”
Eh, he didn't even answer me before he added his own insult. “What's with your second city complex?” That stupid joke of his temporarily made her pain go away.
Then he shot her a gorgeous and wicked smile. It was in such a stark contrast to his geek outlook that she could just stare at him.
Further back in the locker room the girls stirred. “Do you know how much trouble you're in for entering here?”
Christina heard him growl before he dug in his pockets and answered in English: “If you Neanderthals think you're scary you're fucking mistaken. I'll rip you each a new one if you as much as look at her again.” His voice hadn't risen, but there was a mixture of menace and disgust to it that kept Christina in thrall, but deep inside she understood that she was the one being protected, not targeted.
“We'll tell the teachers that you're a pervert!”
Christina doubted that they had understood what he said.
“Now if you bitches are unable to understand, I have a gift for you. But first I want you to know that I have enough documented evidence of your filthy shit to have the police ripping you and your families apart. So just shut it!” With that he lobbed a memory stick to one of the girls.
He grabbed Christina's arms and helped her out of the locker room. In the doorway he turned and shot some parting words off in Japanese: “Your English teacher just might be able to translate.”
Outside the locker room a crowd had gathered. They backed away as he dragged her past the cafeteria entrance and to the boys' locker room. Then, to her astonishment, he threw that door open.
“Get out!” Ulf shouted.
This was the boys' locker room after all, but it couldn't be helped. “Girl incoming. Out!”
He helped Christina inside and glared at the boys as they exited. A few showed signs of reluctance and needed some help convincing. “Get the hell out of here! You don't help them when they're in trouble, you don't bloody get to look at them!”
That convinced the last ones.
When did it get this bad? I got photos from her locker and desk, but I never believed they'd actually beat her up.
Christina had made it to the toilet and locked herself inside when he heard voices behind him. “Outside!”
“What makes you...” he started before he thought of listening to the distinctly female voice inside the boys' locker room.
“Look,” Noriko, because it was Noriko with Kyoko in tow, said in a much friendlier tone. “I like your good intentions. Pity they didn't come with a brain.”
Ulf stared at her. Then he stared at the bundle she held in her arms. Dry clothes? Dry clothes! Brains one, white knight zero.
He bent his head and gave his feet a long stare as he shuffled outside.
There he took up guard by the door. Yukio was already waiting, and down the right wing stairs, several steps at a time, Ryu came jumping and joined them.
You get an F for tardiness and an A for attitude. Ryu's face was flaring with rage.
“Teachers coming?” Ulf asked Yukio.
“Hope so. This is getting dirty,” Yukio answered and threw an exaggerated look at the left wing stairs.
Boys from second and third grade were slowly descending on them.
“I'm not moving,” Ryu growled silently, as if he was worried about how Yukio and Ulf would handle the threat.
“You freshmen, get away from there!” And now the threat had been verbalised.
“Make me!” Ulf suggested. It didn't matter any longer. Any hope he had left of maintaining the fiction of being a member of geek squad was already destroyed. Spreading the graces. Bye bye monopoly, 3:1.
“Learn to respect your elders you little shit!”
Now that was novel. The speaker was easily ten centimetres shorter than himself, which put the definition of 'little shit' in a new light.
“Respect where respect is deserved. Doesn't include you.” Ulf removed his glasses and stretched to his full height. There was a time for being polite and one for being intimidating.
“We're going inside, so move it!”
“I'll stop you.”
There were over a dozen of them now. Ulf knew he could handle himself well if it came down to violence, but there were just too many of them now.
The speaker felt the addition of supporters as well. “You and what army?” He eyed Yukio and Ryu over and smiled.
All of them turned to see who had shouted the last words.
Watabe, I bloody love you! Both twins came down the right wing stairs spearheading more or less every member of the combined fan-clubs. By now a fight was out of the question. The last forces to arrive included girls in the double digits. Ulf slowly let out air from his lungs he hadn't even noticed he had drawn.
With the situation finally defused Ulf felt the door behind him budge. Kyoko and Noriko came out flanking Christina in a dry PE-uniform and a bag with her soaked school uniform in her hands.
They had made an attempt to fix her up, but nothing could hide her swollen face and cut hands. The sight made the present freshmen gasp, and then the sound of their voices turned ugly again.
“Seniors. They beat her up.”
Shut the fuck up Yukio! You're not helping.
Ulf looked at Christina. She could take a joke, he decided.
“She tripped and fell into a doorpost. Several times,” he said deadpan.
“Clumsy me,” Christina added.
Atta girl! You're my heroine! “My lady, shall we?” he asked and offered her his arm.
She accepted, and together they strode down the corridor in the direction of the infirmary. Finally understanding the game the freshmen filed in behind them.
Called to the principal's office for fighting in the girls' locker room. Although slightly different it still brought forth memories. Well, this time he didn’t send anyone to hospital, but at the other hand he had smashed a door. In the girls' locker room.
It was Ulf’s first time on the main building's fourth floor.
Should I give him a copy of my recordings and photos?
Expulsion, well that might be too harsh, but some kind of repercussions lay in wait for him. That much was a given.
But from what I heard the teachers didn't give a damn about what she had to go through.
Ulf walked through the door, crossed the distance to the desk, and pretended to stand waiting for what was to come.
The principal was an older man with short, salt and pepper hair and expensive glasses. He wore an impeccable suit that made him look more like a successful businessman than someone ending his career chained to a medium-sized high school.
A power monger of the Old school. Door, mat, big desk and a single chair with him in it. If I had been fifteen I'd shit myself by now. But I need to put a stop to the bullying. OK, let's play!
“Good afternoon, sir,” Ulf said in English.
“Good day to you as well,” the principal answered in Swedish.
What the fuck?
“It has come to my attention,” the principal opened the real topic in English, “that you have been involved in some unseemly activities, my laddie,” he continued in an English Ulf would be hard pressed to match.
It was time for a restart.
“Sensei, I'm sorry if...” Ulf started in Japanese.
“Cut the crap kiddo. I'm old enough to have changed your diapers.” Still English.
Haven't I heard variants of that spiel before?
“Cause I swiped the dirty behinds of my siblings as a high schooler.”
Damn, the geezer doesn't keep to my script.
“So, you're forty, forty-five, fifty?”
“Eh, fifteen,” Ulf tried, but he had long since lost this one.
“Yeah, and I sprout wings and do Tokyo by night.”
“OK, what now?” Ulf said, defeated and deflated.
“You accept you're the kid you are. I'm older than you and I have more experience with your, hmm, rare dilemma than you.”
He must have seen Ulf's face radiate sudden hope.
“Sorry kid, I'm the 65 I look. But I've met your kind before.”
My kind! Maybe.
“You'll need contacts there as well, so get that club of yours up and running. I'll find a sponsor. The student council will approve or they'll wish they were never born.”
What's going on?
“Now, as for the mayhem in the locker rooms. You will be punished.”
Well, that was a given.
“We don't condone bullying. We also don't condone vandalism. Your parents will pay for the damage.”
Not Amaya. No! “How much?”
“One hundred thousand yen.”
Ulf fished up his wallet and pulled out eleven bills.
“That will suffice,” the principal said as if every normal high school student carried around a week's salary in cash.
Corrupt bastard. He didn't even blink at the bribe.
“Have to accommodate your prejudices. Public servants in Japan are corrupt and all that.”
Whoa! Didn't see that one coming!
“I'm retiring within a year. Need a little bit of dirt on me or some very bad people will do a thorough search, and we wouldn't want that, would we? Your petty bribe fits the bill, pardon the pun,” the principal said and pocketed ten thousand yen.
I'm way out of my league here.
“Now, two things, or I’ll make your next three years anything but the best three years of your life.”
He's Japanese after all. What bloody idiots remember high school as the pinnacle of their lives? Oh, yanks of course, but they don't count.
“One. The stranger parts of this conversation never happened.”
Ulf wouldn't have called the one-sided affair a 'conversation', but apart from that, item number one made perfect sense.
“Two. Have you seen this student before?”
Ulf looked at the picture of a second year Himekaizen student. “Sorry, can't say I have, sir.”
The principal looked him directly in his eyes. Very slowly, and very softly he said: “Then that makes two of us.”
Ulf thought of what the principal had just said. Hmm, oh? Oh!
“My colleague at your old middle school has, though. I want this problem gone. Permanently.”
“It's all connected. Trust me,” the principal said and slid a memory stick across the table. “You'll find the photos and videos instructive, enlightening and profitable.”
I'm way, way, way out of my league here. He's playing me like the kid I look like. Shit, I'm scared! “What do you want me to do?”
“No physical accidents. We can't have him hospitalized four times, if you get my drift. With your business background I'm certain you'll find a more, ah, elegant solution.”
I'm not leaving without something. At least one small victory. “Why my old middle school?” He had one bullet to fire, and it had just left the barrel.
“I like how you connect the dots.” It was the first time the principal had looked at him with something that resembled approval. “Escalator school.”
“I know. I helped four of their high school students to a prolonged vacation.” Just thinking about that memory made bile rise in him. “I'd understand if they went after me, but Christina? She didn't even go to that school.”
“You're so full of yourself. They're not going after you, or her for that matter. They're going after us.”
That didn't make any sense at all. He needed to think like a CEO and not like a school kid. Business. Money. Oh, crap! “Your welcome speech.”
“I take it your company in the other world was fairly successful?”
Ulf nodded. “That really was a special greeting to us.” He needed to verify his suspicion. “Usually, how many students from my middle school begin as freshmen here?”
And Ulf had known that answer before it came. Maybe not zero, but at least less than a handful. “And...”
“27, out of 40 applying.”
He made a quick calculation. “Fifteen percent of their ninth graders, top performers to boot. Damn, that'll sting in their corporate wallet.”
“And all because they failed to convince everyone that raping middle schoolers is a happy pastime that should be shushed up lest it reflects badly on the school.”
“I didn't know.”
“No, you were expelled. After that they tried to buy the Wakayamas off.”
Ulf thought of the faces he remembered from his old school. 27, and another dozen tried to get out. “That must have backfired badly. Who are the Wakayamas?”
“Old money. Not a whole lot of it, but it's a respectable family.”
“If you excuse me, but how do you know?”
“Children of old friends. I owe them.”
He knew their grandparents. I guess that counts as old friends. Ulf looked at the principal with a lot more respect. “I'll see what I can do, sir”
“You can't tell anyone, you know.”
“I know.” On impulse Ulf bowed deeply, Japanese style. It was, he felt, the right thing to do.
On his way out he met a third year. One of the girls from the locker room.
Have fun. He'll eat you alive. Suits you.
After the problematic Hammargren boy had left his office Principal Nakagawa nodded to the young woman in the door opening. She went for a chair by the wall, grabbed it and sat down across him.
Young people today. No manners.
“Suzuki-san, what on earth did you think you were doing?”
She crossed her legs and played a little with her hair. “Things didn't happen the way I planned. I'm sorry.” Suzuku moved her hair away from her face with her fingers. “I was busy filming. Never expected him to assault her.”
“You could have interfered.”
“Oh?” she said. “And blown my cover?” She pouted.
That was the problem, Nakagawa admitted silently to himself. He inclined his head slightly in approval of her course of actions.
“No, I need you where you are. We haven't flushed out their plant yet.”
Suzuki grimaced. “I don't like it myself. Forgot how mean high schoolers can be.”
“Forgot? Can't have been that long. How old are you really?”
“21 in October. University is different.”
University, high school. He had attended both, but a life spent working after that left him with very uncertain memories about what the differences were. Sure, on an academic level, but as for what it felt like. Besides, it might be different these days, and probably was.
Then Suzuki’s personal situation surfaced in his mind. “I'm sorry about that. We'll make sure you won't suffer for skipping a year.”
“What about the two arrivals? I guess that's why you called me here.” She hardly made a pause between the two sentences, but despite that she still had time to play around with her hair.
Nakagawa grinned. A very improper grin for an old principal, he knew. “You're called here to receive punishment for bad behaviour. You'll be suspended for a week, along with the other idiots.”
“Why only one week? I thought we'd have the police crawling all over the place by now.”
“Because we need to look like a rotten and corrupt school that prefers protecting its good name rather than protecting its pupils.”
“That's cold. And the real reason?” she said, and Nakagawa noticed how she suddenly turned interested. Her hand left her hair and joined the other in her lap.
Good girl. You know you're only acting out a role. It's not you who's being punished. “I want you to speed things up with the formation of a club. We need an existing one to go defunct.”
“Why do you help him that much? He can make the arrangements himself.” She was sulking visibly now.
Nakagawa smiled. Officially an adult, she was still a young girl after all. “He's not only off by three decades. He's a foreigner as well. Absolutely no clue about how we do things here.”
“He could have studied us.” She was still sulking.
“You know,” Nakagawa began, “there's a difference between studying and learning. He grew up elsewhere. He became an adult elsewhere. He made a family elsewhere, and when he was about to crown his career he got caught in transition. This is a restart for him.”
“But he still has the advantage of experience.” Suzuki let her fingers flutter over her lips.
Going cute on me won't change my mind. “Experience from elsewhere. When you're older you'll understand.” Nakagawa mentally congratulated himself for not having said 'when you grow up'.
“What about the Ageruman girl?”
It was obvious that Suzuki tried to change the subject.
“She'll be fine. We managed to keep her away from Red Rose. Hamarugen is the more important player, though.” He's a mover, but Red Rose. What horrid luck! We need him on our side.
“Anyway, I guess I should thank him for handling the situation after I lost control,” Suzuki said. She must have understood that he didn't intend to allow the conversation to veer away from Hammargren.
“You should, but you won't.”
“I know, I know. I'm supposed to be one of his enemies.” By now she had ceased her childish games at seduction.
Nakagawa smiled again. Not your enemy. He's far too old for that. As far as he's concerned you're a problem that has been defused. “I hadn't expected him to be so violent,” he said instead. “But that was probably only to be expected.”
“Last year's incident?”
So she remembered what had happened at Hammargren’s middle school. Well, there hadn’t exactly been anything discreet about it. “Yes. Damn that Moltke.”
“European history. Look it up. Should be instructive.”
“I planned to set him up for a minor offence, and then the other side upped the ante with that attempted rape. They must hate the Wakayamas real bad.”
Suzuki looked at him.
He had told her what role the Wakayama family had played earlier, so she should be aware that the assault on Wakayama Noriko wasn't merely a coincidence.
Suzuki looked like she was still trying to understand where Moltke fit into the situation. Then she apparently came to a conclusion. “Still, the results were what you had planned anyway. He got away from Red Rose.”
Nakagawa nodded. “But not the way I planned.” He had to tell her the bad news now. “At the moment the other faction has gained the upper hand,” Nakagawa continued. “I just told Hamarugen I'm getting ousted. Well not in those terms, but I think he understood.”
“I'm retiring in a year. Not voluntarily. Bad thing is they'll be in control of the school. Good thing is we'll know about one of their major players.”
Nakagawa remembered something and dug up the bill he had pocketed earlier. It made company with the other ten, and after giving it some thought he added five thousand yen of his own.
“This school. Always this school. What makes it that important?” Suzuki looked at him when he stacked the money.
That was a good question and deserved a proper answer. “The arrivals. We place them here,” Nakagawa said and put the money in an envelope. He put it in the safe behind him.
“But? Oh. I see.” She looked at the safe.
“Perceptive. From college and onwards they're dispersed again,” Nakagawa said just in case she had misunderstood.
“Arrivals. You make it sound there are a lot of them. And what's with that money?” Suzuki added and glanced behind him where the safe sat on the floor.
“The kid believed I'd make him pay for the damage he did.” Nakagawa sighed. “Anyway, you're right, but there are enough. Or used to be. Apart from those two the youngest is 25, and he's a local. From 30 and up there are over three dozen though. Enough to fight over.”
“I didn't know there were that many?” She still looked at the safe. “But you still took his money?”
“It might come in handy one day.” That bribe wouldn't fly anyway. He'll never tell anyone, so it'll be our private secret.
“You'll understand.” If I had given him time to think he'd have seen through my act.
Suzuki nodded and faced him again.
“As for the number of arrivals. Now you know. They're important to us.” Nakagawa met her eyes. “And to the other world as well.”