They were taking their usual Friday walk from school to their mall when Urufu's trousers came alive.
Urufu dug up his phone from a pocket and took the call. “Hamarugen speaking.”
Yukio looked at his friend. Who called him at this time? He took another step and tried listening in on Urufu's call through the sound of ever more insistent cicadas.
“Yes, that's correct. He was one of the four who assaulted Wakayama Noriko.”
Now that's an interesting call. Urufu had stopped dead in his tracks.
“You what? Sorry sensei, I mean would you please explain?”
Yukio couldn't help staring. A teacher calling this late? This could take some time. He picked up his umbrella from the bag. The clouds hadn't looked promising when they were about to leave school. And by now it was darkening faster than dusk could amount for.
“Eh… what do you mean expelled?” Urufu's face had turned white in the lamplight.
What on earth is going on? He's done absolutely nothing!
“I see. Thank you sensei. I'm truly grateful.”
Ah so it wasn't him who was expelled. Urufu, you're so going to tell me later.
“I see. No I'm not familiar with Uyoku dantai.”
“Right wing loonies? Yeah, we have those idiots back home as well. A bunch of them have seats in our parliament hidden in plain sight among a racist populist party.”
OK where do those nut-cases fit into all this? Heavy drops of water hit Yukio's forehead. And here comes the rain. Yukio handed Urufu his umbrella and dug through the contents of Urufu's bag in search for another one.
“They what? Oh shit! Sorry sensei; that is unfortunate I mean.”
Something really bad just surfaced.
“Of course sensei. I'll immediately call it 'oh shit' if you say so.”
That bad? And there was the umbrella. Finally! Yukio pushed the umbrella open and raised it above his head.
“May I tell Yukio? He's already heard half the conversation. Thank you. Yes I'll do that. Bye.”
OK what was that all about?
Urufu gave him a long look. “Yukio, you should sit down.”
This has to be really, really bad. Yukio searched for a relatively dry spot on the low wall they passed and did as Urufu had asked.
“Yukio you remember my reaction when you told me about the racist bullying at Red Rose Hell?”
Yukio nodded. He felt stupid. “Yeah.”
“That's the reason I started cramming Japanese like an idiot.”
“Hearing that crap but not being able to listen because I didn't understand the language. That's never, ever going to happen again.”
In hindsight it made sense. Yukio remembered the silent rage of his friend. “What about the phone call?” He ruffled his hair dry with one hand. Some of that rain hadn't been avoidable.
“Seems some Nazi wannabes have a lot of clout in that school. Like controlling members of the board.”
“What?” Something contracted in Yukio's stomach. Red Rose. I hate that place!
“Yes that was Nakagawa on the phone. He's done some digging, and then some.” Urufu still seethed with rage. “Seems the attack on Christina was some kind of idiot revenge on me.”
“Eh?” Yukio's hands fell to his sides. The rain now had free access to his head and shoulders. He didn't care.
“Some moron over there apparently believed I was collaborating with the Wakayamas and that my coming to Noriko's rescue was part of a set-up.”
What? “Urufu what's going on?”
“They paid one of their own students to make sure Christina was hurt and I scared. The guy who slugged her wasn't one of our students. You know him. You helped me carry him.”
No, no, no, no!
“I helped Nakagawa fix that problem and then he owed me one.”
You have to be kidding me Urufu!
As if from a distance Yukio noted that his shirt and trousers were getting soaked. It was as if he wasn't wearing them.
“Apparently Red Rose Hell is under the control of some nut-case Nazi wannabe club. Mostly because that ultra conservative board of theirs really don't mind all that much to begin with.”
“Urufu what happened?”
“Well Nakagawa pulled some strings, very powerful strings. He called me to say he managed to get the other two remaining rapists expelled as well.”
“That's basically the same as declaring war on Red Rose Hell. Anyway, the last one graduated this spring. Nakagawa asked me to go after him.”
And now for the real reason for me to sit down. Yukio didn't like what he knew would come one bit. “Crap! Why? That makes you just as bad as them. It's almost a year now.”
“I don't care if it's ten years. There's a right thing to do. He's going down.”
Yukio stared at his friend. That wasn't the face of a teenager any longer. Hard bones lined up beneath facial muscles strung tight, and in the poor lamplight Yukio had his first understanding of what Urufu would look like enraged in his full manhood. “Urufu please listen to me! This isn't justice. This is just revenge.”
“Yukio it's not revenge. It's vengeance. It's not personal.”
“I don't like this at all.” At least he had to voice his feelings.
“Yukio now for the reason you had to sit down. I don't act out of loyalty and duty, but you do and for that very reason you're going to help me.”
You're way too slow. I already saw this coming. “How?”
“The goons running Red Rose Hell are nut-cases. They're not sane. They're going to come after us. Anyone associated with me or the Wakayamas is a target. Anyone.”
“Urufu I can fend for myself and you'll protect Kuri-chan so I don't see how you're going to make me… fuck!”
The realisation hurt him as much as it shocked him. Yes sitting down had been a good idea. With the worst shock over and done with he slowly started to feel how wet he was. In a rather futile attempt to shield himself he raised his umbrella again.
“Language Yukio. You usually never use those words. But yes, Kyoko will be dragged into this as well. You're taking sides. Sorry my friend but you are.”
“What are we going to do?”
“I don't know. My trying to find a way home to my old life is on hiatus to begin with. This has nothing to do with my, eh, special background.”
“Sure about that?” So we're going to war with our old school. The thought scared Yukio. Then he saw the irony as well. Seems easier than finding him a way back to his old life.
“Nakagawa promised me. Some of the really, really bad guys are deeply associated with Red Rose Hell but they want to see us arrivals in their control, not in hospital. Nakagawa all but said we have an enemy’s enemy situation bubbling right now.”
Yukio resigned himself to the thought. If you're going after Kyoko then I'm helping Urufu take you down. No problem with that scenario. “OK Urufu, any ideas for what we do next?”
Urufu's face lit up in a mischievous grin. “Yes that's obvious. First we get that midsummer's party running.”
Magic change of topic! Urufu, there's something seriously wrong with your brain.
It was pouring down. Urufu-kun's anticipated garden dinner would need wetsuits and oxygen tanks. And that was only the food. Any non-suicidal dinner-guest would have to come in a submarine.
In short the prospect of a typical Swedish midsummer's eve outdoors didn't look promising.
From the coast Noriko heard thunder rolling closer.
Well that settles it.
At least the food hadn't arrived yet.
In the gym hall Kuri-chan was doing what Urufu-kun should have done a long time ago. She was begging for one hour, two including preparation and cleaning up.
Any other person and Noriko would have estimated the chance for success to equal the life expectancy of a snowball in hell. In the case of her idiot brother doing the begging, a very large snowball. You had to give him some credit.
Noriko stood under the roofed walkway with an umbrella in her hand. Neither roof nor umbrella helped much. The only reason she saw a possibility to have dinner in a dry school uniform was that she was wearing her PE-uniform. Which was soaked through.
Days like these she wondered why they weren't allowed to roam the school in their bathing suits.
Well it didn't matter. She felt the wind increasing together with the rain.
Then their car arrived with her mother driving. Her idiot brother was in it with Urufu-kun and most of the food. She hoped there were lots of waterproof containers to carry it all in, but given the mental capacity of her brother he probably brought it all in paper bags.
The car came to a stop and Noriko dared the rain. She couldn't be more than soaked. She sprinted over drenched gravel all the way to the school gates. For each step she felt water splash around her legs. When she reached the car her mother already stood beside it under an umbrella.
“Noriko! You certain about this?” That was her mother voicing the brain Ryu lacked.
“Alternate venue,” Noriko answered. She glared at Urufu-kun. “Because someone actually did think ahead.”
Morons with luck. This weather a little earlier and the entire festival we went to would have been at risk. A week. It had rained non-stop for a week.
June 24. It's not even summer solstice. That already passed. Guess it's more important it's a Friday than the actual solstice.
According to Urufu-kun Sweden closed that day, and Kuri-chan had confirmed that the entire nation shut down. And it's not even an official holiday. Are you people nuts?
She started unloading the car together with Urufu-kun and Ryu. The bags were plastic.
They had to run three times each and by the time everything was safely stacked by the shoe lockers Kuri-chan came back from her begging session.
“Made it,” Kuri-chan announced. “Ulf you owe me so much you don't even want to think about it!”
Noriko felt a smile spread all over her drenched face. “Mascot? Photo shoot? Cosplay?”
Kuri-chan just growled back at her.
It took them the better part of half an hour to carry all food, a couple of tables and a mixed assortment of plates and glasses to the gym hall and prepare the dinner. When they were finished Noriko was certain she could have walked into the shower to get drier.
Food. Whatever Moron-sama tried to describe it as, it didn't deserve to be called that. It would be an unforgivable insult to the word 'food'.
Glass jars and cans with pickled fish competed for space with boiled potatoes, really obscure dairy produce from Hokkaido, some strange herbs, bread that had dried until it was hard, rough bread that hadn't dried fully to that degree, bottles with some foul smelling liquid; Moron-sama said it was a non-alcoholic substitute for traditional Swedish midsummer drinks, and more normal bottled water.
That was it.
Sixteen suspicious and extremely wet club members eventually showed up in the gym hall.
They sat on the floor. A Roman indoor style replacement for a Swedish outdoor dinner party.
“What's this?” Dai-kun asked and pointed at a reddish glass jar.
“Pickled herring,” Moron-sama answered.
“And this?” Aika-chan wanted to know and stared at a glass jar that was yellow and opaque.
“Eh, also pickled herring,” Moron-sama answered.
“Whoa, salty! What's in this can?” Fumiko-chan queried.
“That's a salty kind of pickled herring,” Moron-sama answered.
There were a dozen different cans and jars on the table.
“Is everything fishy...?”
“Pickled herring! Great, isn't it?” Moron-sama exclaimed and shone like a retarded sun.
“This milk has gone bad,” Hiroyuki-kun noted.
“It's supposed to be that way,” Moron-sama disagreed.
“It tastes as if it has gone bad,” Midori-chan agreed with Hiroyuki-kun.
“It goes well with the salty pickled herring,” Moron-sama persisted.
“The boiled potato has gone cold,” Kichirou-kun complained.
“It doesn't matter because it tastes just as well together with some pickled herring,” Moron-sama promised.
“You can't expect humans to drink this,” Jirou-kun gulped.
“It's supposed to be drunk with...”
“Pickled herring! We got that!” The entire club responded with faces like the dark side of the moon.
The door to the ramen-shop wobbled slightly in despair. Inside sat sixteen moist high school students, ten of which had ordered food.
Moron-sama sulked in a corner. He was one of the other six.
“Ulf don't be that way!” Kuri-chan said to him. “The,” she lowered her voice to a theatrical whisper, “pickled herring was great.”
Ten faces turned in disgust at her words.
“I'm grateful you gave me this experience,” she cooed. “I had to prostrate myself before the entire kendo club and promise god knows what to have it,” she continued relentlessly.
Ten faces choked on their ramen.
Noriko snorted. It wasn't often Kuri-chan spoke directly to Moron-sama in Japanese, but in all fairness this time she really spoke to everyone else rather than Moron-sama.
Kuri-chan could continue to tease Moron-sama for all she wanted. Noriko had seen her gobble up vast amounts of the by now infamous fish earlier. Yukio-kun, and to Noriko's surprise Kyoko-chan also had their fill during the atrocious dinner.
Now that's the loyalty of friendship for you!
Midori-chan and Hiroyuki-kun it turned out only refused the sour milk. They also belonged to the group of six who felt no need for ramen.
Ten faces slurped their dinner after dinner. Noriko suspected a few of them ate their ramen more to get rid of the foul taste of pickled herring rather than because they were actually hungry.
She shuddered and rinsed her own mouth with some more noodles.
In their corner Moron-sama continued to sulk and Kuri-chan kept on teasing him. But Noriko saw how Kuri-chan caressed his hands with loving tenderness despite the scathing sarcasm that came from her mouth.
It stung a bit to see the two of them so close but for today Kuri-chan could keep Moron-sama all to herself. Tomorrow, if Noriko decided to be in an exceptionally benign mood, Moron-sama might, just might, be upgraded to become Urufu-kun again.
Ten faces sounded like that was an extremely unlikely outcome.
The door to the ramen-shop creaked in wholehearted agreement with them.
June slid towards July, and with the new month approaching came an end to the remorseless raining. And the next thing just had to be a thunderstorm. Sometimes I just hate this place.
Christina stared out the entrance. Umbrella or not wouldn't matter. This was worse than the downpour that heralded Ulf's disastrous midsummer's party.
I knew it could rain like this here in Japan. It did last summer but I still just can't believe it.
Outside water literally roared down from the sky. Within hours the tamed rivers would become gurgling chaos of brown water thundering to the ocean. But for Christina the here and now was more important.
It was as if an unruly water-god mischievously flicked a switch on and off. Ten minutes glaring sunshine, five minutes staggering thunder followed by the skies dumping drops the size of a swimming pool over anyone stupid enough to be caught outside.
Then a drizzle and after that maybe a quarter of an hour with murderous sunshine boiling the water on the ground. Steam rose and turned the outside into a sauna and the next you knew another round of thunder rolled in and it started all over again.
Three hours she had waited. She wasn't alone. Three hours.
Three hours he had waited. He wasn't alone. Three hours.
But Urufu never showed.
Yukio ordered his third round and looked at Ryu-kun. The latter shrugged and ordered as well.
It was Friday evening and Ryu had joined him in anticipation of meeting Urufu here at their mall.
The two of them spent the time recounting what had occurred at Red Rose Hell close to a year ago. Ryu-kun looked relieved that the girls had decided to go shopping and then sleep over with Noriko-chan.
Yukio could understand that. There were things you didn't talk about with your sister. Especially not those things.
He filled Ryu-kun in on what Urufu had said. How they were forced to wait and how it was likely that any repercussions would wait until after summer break ended.
They talked about what the right wing loonies could possibly do. They weighed the risk of a physical attack. They made a few contingency plans. They built trust and friendship, and they dropped the honorifics.
And they spoke about how there was a fourth one.
One that had to be found. One that he didn't want found.
One that had to be found. One that he didn't want found.
Even though Ulf had pressured Yukio into service he never planned to drag his friend into a disgraceful deed. Some things were the right things to do but the right things to do weren't always graceful.
And Yukio never wanted to find the fourth assailant, the ogre. As far as Yukio was concerned three of the guys had ceased to exist never to resurface. That Nakagawa had managed to get two of them expelled was a nice bonus but even that was distasteful. Going after the fourth personally was tantamount to dirtying yourself and your family. Ulf knew that Yukio truly believed that.
So Ulf passed on their Friday evening for the first time in several months. Unless you counted that unmitigated disaster of a midsummer's party.
The other five could have a friendly chat on their own. It would have been nice to spend some time with Christina but finding the fourth was more important right now.
That was why Ulf used most of his weekend searching for a former Red Rose Hell student. The remaining hours he trained karate and aikido. Saturday afternoon had seen him coaching a middle management team in how to bridge the gap between corporate management and production teams.
He drew blank. He had to find another way.
He drew blank. He had to find another way.
A frontal declaration of love wasn't how to steal Kuri-chan from Urufu-kun. Ryu needed to be more subtle about it.
There was an unbalance to the two of them. It was obvious to him. Kuri-chan had fallen heads over heels in love with her tall boyfriend. She was effectively untouchable for months to come.
For a week Ryu had studied the two of them. And by now he knew.
Urufu-kun twisted and squirmed and he was even cute towards Kuri-chan from time to time. But where she proudly declared her affection for him he only answered with a watered down declaration of overly strong friendship.
Yes they held hands and kissed and at those times Ryu could see how deeply Urufu-kun really loved Kuri-chan.
But the guy probably didn't even admit that to himself, and what was worse, Kuri-chan was a girl who always listened to what was there to be heard. Ryu had never heard Urufu-kun give her unambiguous words of love. And those two definitely weren't the kind of people who beat around the bushes when it came to show affection.
Whatever Ryu saw was most likely what there was to be seen.
Bide your time. Wait and see. He'll do the job for you.
Bide your time. Wait and see. He'll do the job for you.
Kyoko felt more and more certain that Yu-kun found her attractive. If that was the same as liking her was a different question but at least she wasn't displeasing to his eyes.
Kyoko also felt like an idiot. He confessed to you you moron! Of course he was disgusted by the sight of you from the start, because that makes for a good reason to confess to begin with!
So in all fairness it was her turn to return the favour. But she was gutless. The thought of rejection scared her. More so now when they shared a solid friendship. What they had she didn't want to lose.
Those were the reasons they sat together all alone during one of the first really hot days of the summer. A popsicle each and one bottle of water like two children who had known each other since forever.
It was, she reflected, interesting how none of them were concerned with indirect kisses in the least. A common enough manga trope, Yu-kun assured her.
Now while no one in their right mind cared the least, he bringing the topic up suddenly made what had been natural until just moments earlier slightly embarrassing. She sipped her water knowing and he looked at her knowing that she knew.
It was brutally hot and only marginally cooler in the shade.
It was brutally hot and only marginally cooler in the shade.
While Noriko approved of Urufu-kun's walking talking sessions in general, now was just too hot.
His reputation had taken a turn for the worse since that day. There were still herring-jokes flying around. That he relentlessly had stuck to their two hour walks the first week of blazing sun didn't help.
But there was reason to his madness. She found the questions he posed during the walks oddly tantalising. Why finding a root cause to a problem was important and his insistence that analysis was problematic unless you also applied synthesis. She hadn't thought in such terms before. Hadn't reflected if the sum of the parts really constituted the whole or not.
Urufu-kun was adamant it didn't. But his insistence that there seldom were right answers and wrong ones made her question his statement. If he was right it meant he was wrong, and that was no paradox at all. It just made sense.
Academically she was growing at a rate neither she nor her parents would have thought possible.
July established itself and left June as a wet and rainy memory behind it.
I never expected to make friends with Yukio this fast, Ryu thought as they made their way to the mall, or rather the café on its second floor.
Urufu-kun probably wouldn't join them. The last couple of weeks he did his duties as vice president for the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club but there was something haunted over him.
Ryu took a few steps more and when they passed some girls from another school he automatically flashed them a smile. This was part of him. He couldn't help it.
He saw Yukio grin when the expected response materialised. He always lived up to the rumours, because Wakayama Ryu wasn't the prince of Himekaizen for nothing.
While the girls whispered delightedly among themselves Ryu took note of how the sweltering heat had removed the last remnants of fresh greenery. What grew now had attained a deeper green, more mature, and he felt how he himself had lost a little bit of innocence. A high schooler now. The next level from middle school, but it was more than that.
Kuri-chan you're dangerous. Both of you are. And he thought thoughts that were strangely alien to a teenager. Somewhere deep inside I know I'm living in a bubble of youth. If it bursts I'll see the grown up world around it, and you're full of needles. He shook his head and barely remembered to give the girls a mock salute to get them going again.
A few cars passed and only the air-conditioning in them prevented their drivers from looking as lethargic as he felt.
Something new. Something to bring spring back to his mind. Ryu decided he would drop the honorifics between the six of them. It would be a small change but a change nonetheless.
“Yukio, am I friends with all of you?”
Yukio stood still. “Took you a while.” He bit his lower lip. “Yes you are. But you're still a rival of Urufu's. I don't like it but that's the way things are.” Yukio looked him right in the eyes. “I've seen how you look at her. Urufu and Kuri-chan might think it's an elaborate joke but I know better.”
For being so observant you're really blind when it comes to Kyoko. Ryu tasted the unfamiliar sound of just a first name. This is what it will be. Urufu blithely ignores the honorifics anyway and it's starting to spread in the club. It would take a while getting used to though.
“Yukio do you know what he's doing?” Ryu asked and changed the topic. He didn't want Yukio to think too much about the strange pairing constellation between him, his sister, Kuri and Urufu. Hmm Kuri, yes, suits you better than Kuri-chan. Ryu suddenly laughed. Kuri-chan, when you're taller than me. No, Kuri it is.
They were overtaken by the girls they had passed just a little earlier. A couple of them looked at him and when he saluted them they all started to giggle again. Summer uniforms made it harder to pin point schools. They weren't from Himekaizen but without blazers he was at a loss for guessing which school they belonged to. Irishima High most likely.
“I don't know but I'm afraid he's looking for that fourth guy,” Yukio answered belatedly.
The fourth guy. The thought that Principal Nakagawa had ventured out on some strange kind of vendetta felt discomforting. For what they had tried to do to his sister they could spend eternity in the underworld as far as Ryu was concerned. But they had left that school behind them and now it was all coming back.
“Yukio, Urufu already did something bad, didn't he?” Ryu fell silent as they overtook the same group of girls for the second time.
“Hey, call some friends and join us for karaoke!”
Ryu looked at the girl who had come with the suggestion. Cute with short, dyed hair and on her way to becoming beautiful, and obviously outgoing.
“It would be a pleasure but alas we're already booked by other girls,” he said and bowed dramatically. He grinned all the way to his feet before he rose. “Some other time?”
He received a sparkling smile in return. “Lucky girls.” She dug up her phone. “Some other time you said. Swap email?”
Ah, I walked right into that one. “Sure.”
They exchanged mail addresses while Yukio impatiently studied the procedure.
When they left the girls behind them, for good this time, Yukio snorted. “Prince of Himekaizen. I knew you as the prince of Red Rose. You just can't change, can you?”
“About that bad thing,” Yukio continued. “Yes but I can't tell you. Made a promise to Urufu.”
They turned around the last corner before they could see the mall.
“You don't have to say anything. I guess he went after the other three.”
Yukio stayed silent in a way that told Ryu he had guessed right. “I wish he shows up one Friday soon. Then we'll know.”
“Yeah we'll know. Not saying I want to know, but yes we'll know.”
Before they went inside Ryu threw a glance at the bike stands. Urufu's ridiculously expensive bike was missing. I wish it was stolen but I guess you're riding it around the city looking where you shouldn't be.
Kyoko looked up when she noticed Yukio entering the café.
“The tall foreigner isn't with you today?” one of the waitresses asked.
Even the staff take note of his absence. Those two really lived their Fridays here.
Yukio shook his head. He looked downtrodden.
So tired. Does he worry you that much? “Over here!” She rose and waved.
Yukio had Ryu-kun in tow and both boys turned at her call. Ryu shot them one of his patented smiles. Enough of it to make Nori-chan wince by her side.
“Idiot bro,” she muttered.
Yukio's smile was shyer. More honest, Kyoko thought. You can be the prince of Himekaizen for all you want, but for me Yukio is the more handsome. That thought brought more heat to her cheeks than the summer's heat could be accounted for.
There was a small sound and Kyoko looked around. Kuri-chan had dropped her spoon onto the table. Kyoko cold see her looking out the window with an expression of helpless desolation in her face. I'm sorry but I don't think he's coming. Tomorrow, you'll see him at the club tomorrow.
But tomorrow wasn't today, and Kuri-chan had told Kyoko earlier that she was taking the day off her part time job just to see Urufu without the rest of the fan-club drooling over her.
I'll ask Yukio to make you some time alone tomorrow. Her Yukio. In her mind he was already her Yukio.
He and Ryu-kun sauntered over to their table, a waitress in her uniform carrying their orders trailing behind them.
She liked this place, could understand why Yukio and Urufu-kun hadn't given up on it after they found it. It was a place away from school in a way James' coffee shop could never be. That place was part of the club by now and the new waterhole for the fan-club, now when it was known that both Ryu-kun and Kuri-chan spent their evenings there.
She liked the poorly wiped windows here, the tacky, plastic interior, the waitresses in white and pink uniforms that had seen a few washings too many, the very fact that she had been right that evening when she thought a couple of interesting students from her school had sat on the second floor and that it was a place important to Yukio.
Most of all she liked that it was a place within walking distance home for both her and Yukio. Because that meant he lived close to her and that meant safety in more than one way.
“Eh?” Kyoko looked up from her thoughts and saw Kuri-chan do the same.
“Eh, yes sure. Same.” Kuri-chan, what are you thinking of. I'm happy even though he's not mine but you look so sad and Urufu-kun is all yours. The thought gave her a start. Is he really? Sometimes when I look at you two I wonder.
“I'll take my leave,” Kuri-chan said. “Feel like the odd one out. My apologies.”
She rose and left the table.
Kyoko watched her go. A tall beauty on long, slender legs. A worried beauty.
Ryu stood and started after her and Yukio looked as if he was about to try to stop him. Nori-chan grabbed his shirt sleeve and stopped him with a shake of her head.
“He's not… he knows he can't, not now anyway,” she said, and when Yukio made another attempt to follow Ryu-kun she continued: “He doesn't stand a chance. Not yet, so he won't try. He's just worried like the rest of us and she feels alone now.”
You're loyal to your friend Yukio. I like you even more for that but right now Nori-chan is right. “Yukio trust his sister, will you?”
Yukio hesitated for a moment but he sat down again.
They were eerily silent around the table and Kyoko slid to the place by the window that Kuri-chan had occupied until just moments earlier.
After a while she could see Kuri-chan and Ryu-kun on the street below. They were talking but Nori-chan had been right. Ryu-kun never made any attempts to touch her.
“What's happening?” Yukio asked. He was left on one of the seats from where he couldn't see what was happening outside.
“Bro's asking her if she won't come back up again. I don't think he'll have any success,” Nori-chan answered. She took a sip of her soft drink.
No I don't think she'll return. Kyoko felt a little ashamed. By all rights it should have been her following her friend out. But Yukio was here right now, and…
And it turned out they were right. She saw Kuri-chan throw her hands in the air, turn and walk away. Ryu-kun returned inside.
Kuri-chan what are you doing. You told me he was bad news when I had my crush on him. Kyoko sighed, and shook her head when Yukio shot her a questioning look. And now? You shine like the sun whenever you see him and you fade like the night when he walks away. Where did your cool go? That colour on your cheeks when he smiles at you and that look on your face just now. Is it worth it?
Kyoko stole a glance at Yukio. Yes, yes I guess it is. And she smiled.
For once when Yukio looked at her with questions in his face, she didn't blush. She just smiled even more.
“Well I brought Urufu's problems with me,” Yukio said and picked two sheets of paper from his bag. “He said we should time box twenty minutes each for them. “Ryu, can you prep the English conversation on Japanese history? Kyoko you run the preps for comparing Japanese grammar with English?”
She had forgotten. Friday was problem solving. Urufu prepared two or three problems each week for some obscure mix of school subjects. Kuri-chan helped him. “Five minutes preparation and the full twenty for discussion?” she asked.
A few of the guests around them rose to attention when they started analysing the merchants class rise to power in Edo during the eighteenth century in broken English. It was slow going and she and Yukio both had to help the Wakayamas when some concepts grew too difficult to express in English but it was good training.
They laughed a lot, and probably spoke awful English, and they learned something new. Always something new.
Urufu-kun, Kuri-chan, even when you're absent you're changing us.
Next week they'd run the problems by the members of the club in the Stockholm Haven Café and by then Urufu-kun would prepare them for the next batch during his walking talking sessions.
The strange sessions. Two hours of walking, three days a week. There were already rumours about club members asking strange questions during class.
The rumour mill already moved the centre of attention from 3:1 to the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club, and now they had eight more applications for the club, plus the four old ones that had finally been formalised. The club room couldn't handle that many.
New rumours, true rumours Kyoko knew, had it that Principal Nakagawa had ordered one of the unused classrooms in the left wing to be cleared during summer break. They were to be given the same amount of space as a sports club.
Another rumour told that both Swedes were part of some kind of exchange program for adolescence super prodigies, and that Himekaizen had been chosen for validation of the concept. Albeit false that one came far, far, far too close to the truth for any of them to feel comfortable about it.
And I hear that English class in 6:1 looks like Japan right before Sekigahara. Eastern army versus the western. I don't think Tokugawa is going to win this time. If Urufu-kun spoke the truth, and Kyoko had no reason to believe he didn't, his knowledge of English was light years ahead of his English teacher's. Even his old academic credentials were held higher.
English tests in 6:1 had degenerated to the level that they weren't allowed to use the support of hiragana to understand the kanji used. Kyoko wasn't certain that was allowed but she was certain Urufu-kun and his teacher had entered a state of war.
The lines of battle were drawn along the languages. The teacher refused to speak English and Urufu-kun refused to speak Japanese. Both had been called to the principal's office but nothing was resolved. Principal Nakagawa was playing a game of his own.
Kyoko looked at Yukio while he explained something to Ryu-kun. I could just sit here watching your face Yukio, but you look so harried whenever we mention your English classes. I'm happy I have Kondo-sensei.
An hour and another round of drinks later they were finished. The discussions had led nowhere, which according to Urufu-kun was intended, but they all made some peculiar connections between the subjects involved. It was interesting to see that no matter how hard they tried the English language was still sub-par when it came to recounting Japanese history. Are the tables turned when we talk about the rest of the world?
As summer heated up, so did school. They were uncomfortably close to finals now but the murdering heat made it difficult to concentrate during class.
Over a week had passed since that peculiar evening at the café. Urufu was absent the next Friday as well but at least this time Kuri-chan hadn't left in anger, which made Yukio feel at least a little better.
We're growing closer by the day. All six of us are dropping the honorifics from time to time now. Just Kuri-chan (Kuri, Kuritina?) and Kyoko who stick to those between them.
Yukio waved at Noriko as she left for the cafeteria and looked for where they sat. And calling her 'Noriko' wasn't an option. You made it clear I don't get to be that friendly with Ryu and leave you on the outside when it comes to dropping the honorifics.
He could see them through the windows, and it should be bright enough for them to see him where he sat under the sails.
Ryu came after her, happily chatting with Kyoko while at the same time trying to juggle with the atrocities he had forced the vending machines to vomit out. He failed, and what looked suspiciously like a sub filled with yakisoba fell to the ground. Suspiciously, because the baker needed to suffer from a hangover to produce that… thing that substituted for real bread. Whatever ailments the cook creating what passed for yakisoba suffered from, that was something Yukio preferred not knowing.
Ryu picked up his wrapped… could it actually be called lunch? Yukio wasn't certain. There should have been laws against it.
Kyoko laughed and caught up with Noriko just as she went through the cafeteria doors.
“Kuri and Urufu?” Ryu asked from where he stood wiping dirt from his… food.
Yukio sat down on one of the benches under the great sails. “Prep, just as I told them,” he answered after he had opened up his bento. He scowled. “In the best of worlds both of them will even believe I spoke the truth when I said the club members wanted them prepared for our activities.”
“In the best of worlds they're snogging,” Kyoko countered. That was a surprisingly blunt and improper statement coming from her but Yukio had seen her trying out a wilder side the last weeks. He liked it. She was more alive this way.
Noriko apparently wasn't as used to it as Yukio. At least not if he was to guess from the burst of tea that left her mouth.
“I stand corrected,” he said. You can correct me any way you want. “Snogging, making out, kissing, whatever. As long as they spend some time alone, together.”
“I don't know about 'whatever',” Kyoko said. “That could be bad.” At least she had the decency to blush at that.
“What's bad about making babies?” Ryu suggested.
“Ryu! Idiot bro!”
“Man, that's awful!” Yukio exclaimed just as he realised that all three of them had reacted in the same way. “It's Urufu we're speaking about,” Yukio needed a way to defuse the situation, “and knowing him they're probably actually preparing club activities.”
Those words seemed to work, but now the sexual innuendo was replaced by a subdued silence of discomfort.
Kyoko was the first one to break it. “No!” she said. “I hate that! Kuri-chan loves him. She needs to feel loved back.”
Yukio looked at Kyoko. You really care that much for your friend. “I'll sneak a look. I left them by the pool. They had their bags open.”
Kyoko groaned but rose from her seat.
The four teenagers left their food by their seats and hugged the left wing wall. Slowly they reached for the corner from where they could see the pool.
“I can't see!”
Yukio peered around the corner. He could see Urufu and Kuri. They were snogging. And then some.
All four of them quickly withdrew their heads and looked at each other. Yukio watched three flustered faces and guessed he presented a fourth.
“I think we can take our lunch to the main school yard,” he said.
“And tell our members that the president and vice president are currently otherwise occupied,” Ryu filled in.
“With the last, ah, touches to their preparation of our activities,” Noriko snorted pointedly.
“And snogging,” Kyoko finished.
“Kyoko! Idiot girl!”
“Man, that's awful!” Yukio laughed, not giving a damn that Kyoko very much wasn't a man at all.
That was… pleasant.
Flustered Christina left the pool side and followed Ulf. They had taken things a little bit too far but she longed for him so much. He was like a stranger these last weeks. Prowling the streets late evenings on his bike. Not once since that day by the river had they ridden together.
She saw the members of the kendo club filing inside the gym hall. One of them turned and waved at her and she waved back. Photos of her in those strange dresses probably floated around the club by now. A price she had to pay for Ulf's failed midsummer's dinner.
Then they rounded the corner and a bit down the slope she saw the football team trying to train in the murderous heat. Christina agreed with Ulf on this one. Football, not soccer. She had been an occasional fan of the Champion's League in her earlier life.
Somewhere down there the Watabe twins were sweating their hearts out to secure a place in the team, something normally only the second years managed but both twins were better than any second year at Himekaizen.
Christina watched the training in silence. Because the two of them didn't talk that much these days. Whatever haunted Ulf's nights followed him into his waking hours and stole his words. It was a wonder that she had managed to at least get Ulf to talk with his hands and lips earlier.
It worried her.
It scared her.
She hadn't allowed herself to fall helplessly in love like this since that horrid disaster when she was twenty. OK I was twenty one when I found out what a creep he was. One lover on the side would have made me sick, but five. Five!
But now she had. Whenever she saw a tall man in a crowd she tip toed to find out if it was Ulf. She turned at voices that sounded like his and once she had even run around a corner to catch up with a Himekaizen uniform that wasn't his.
How did I even become like this. He's good looking but not that good looking. She drowned in his eyes for a while when he heard her draw for breath and turned around to look for what had excited her.
He's arrogant and conceited and he thinks too highly of himself. She felt secure when he was around, solid, always true to what he believed was right.
He's uncaring, unchanging and sometimes he's so socially inept it hurts. She could trust him. Sometimes he was manipulative but he seldom told outright lies.
Is it because he's my only anchor back home? I don't think so. I don't think all that much of home any more.
Christina took another step to catch up with him and took hold of his hands again. They felt good in hers. Warm, with his fingers around hers, like lovers of their own.
I love him. “I love you.”
He gave her an uncertain smile in return. Like he wasn't certain he had heard what she said. A sudden gust of breeze threw his bangs over his head and glued his shirt neck to his cheek making him look like a surprised idiot but she didn't care.
I don't want a life without him. Even if I have to start all over from the beginning in this world I'm doing so together with him. She found new resolve in that thought and took both his hands in hers. “I've fallen helplessly in love with you. Please be careful with me!” There, she had told him how much he meant to her. Her entire world.
He shot her another of those uncertain smiles as if he was thinking about what she had said. Then that smile turned into one of those grins that made her heart lurch. “I will,” he promised. “I'll never knowingly do anything to hurt you.”
He threw his arms around her back and hugged her close to him. Drew her into the warmth of his world. His shirt was a little salty to her lips.
And yet you do. I want to hear those words from you. I want to hear you say that you love me. “I'm happy,” she lied, and smiled into his chest. It hurts you know, to need you so much more than you need me. To love you so much more.
That wasn't entirely honest. He loved her back. She knew it, felt it whenever he touched her. But something held him back. A fear of something she couldn't understand and therefore couldn't compete with.
With some regret she loosened herself from his hug and stared into his eyes. What is it that stands between us? She found no answer there, only a pair of eyes with a longing for love that mirrored her own.
Christina took his hand and led them on.
They rounded the right wing hand in hand, and when they arrived at the main school yard they saw their club members. Under the walkway they stood or sat waiting for them. A few rather racy wolf-whistles greeted them. Someone saw? No! Someone saw!
“Here they are... all prepared!”
“Ageruman… -san… -chan!” they chanted.
I'm so embarrassed I'll die of shame! They saw!
The summer heat was sweltering but that didn't prevent her from flaring red from her collarbones to her hair.
It was the last Saturday with the club before summer break. They would spend a long walking talking session riverside, and after that another two the coming week. Then club activities went into hiatus in preparation for the final exams.
The clubs closed down for spring term. One week was all that separated them from finals. After that summer break.
All six of them gathered for study evenings, which really wasn't all that different from club activities. But walking talking sure is a lot more fun.
At the moment Ryu was spending time with his sister. In their kitchen. Any other time he would have refused but this time they were standing here preparing food for ten. The club core, which meant even more time with Kuri, was coming.
Also expected were Sango-chan with Jirou-sempai and did they make a cute couple, or what?
More unexpected was that the motor mouth had announced his arrival together with Sakura-chan. Talk about a mismatched couple. But whatever floats their boat I guess.
“You're strangely happy idiot bro,” Noriko said.
He had been silent for a while.
Behind them two large stashes of vegetables and meat threatened to merge into one. This was the main reason they were both so busy cleaning and chopping vegetables.
“Last time gang's getting together like this before exams,” Ryu answered. “I like the club a lot more than I had thought.”
Noriko cleaned out some shiitake and put them in a plastic bowl. When she put the bowl on the second table she looked at her brother. “You like the club or like Kuri?”
Ryu didn't even take the bait. He just continued cutting up salad. “Both,” he smiled.
After another quarter of an hour they were ready to fire up two hot-pots, and shortly after that the doorbell rang. He saw them through the window. All eight at the same time. They must have taken the train together.
Noriko was busy making the tables so he went for the door.
“Welcome to our imperial residence,” he greeted them to take some edge from the impact of the oversized house.
Urufu and Kuri failed that test badly. As in it was clear they hadn't even noticed how large the building was. What kind of places did you two call home?
After that Ryu's home turned into a friendly chaos of hungry teenagers planning to spend the evening studying.
Soon the ingredients lay simmering in the two pots and hunger set the pace for the conversations. From the occasional word or grunt while they still gorged themselves to fragments of statements and then full sentences as gluttony gave way to satisfaction.
“That was,” Sakura-chan beamed, “exactly what I needed.”
The motor mouth was still busy eating but even he stopped chewing as he watched her in amazement.
“You know I am able to talk. I just don't overdo it.”
She had spoken a second consecutive sentence without letting anyone in.
“Did he do anything to you?”
“Should we beat him up?”
“Nori-kun what have you done to her?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! I in' o any'ing!” he said and looked for some sympathy. Talking with his mouth full of food did little for his cause. “'agura-an, 'elp me!”
“Nori-kun, silence becomes you better,” was Sakura-chan's merciless reply to his plea.
That bought her a round of laughter from both tables.
Well that's a good way to finish dinner. “Books everyone. One table English and the other Japanese.”
It was as Kuri would have said, time to get down to business. But not the way Urufu wanted to. They couldn't afford to do it right. At least not according to his standards. If they did they'd all fail their exams.
Guys it's good to see you here. One last race before finals and then we break up for summer.
And another failed exam. Summer break promised to be just as tedious as last year. With both an M SC and an MA, with a major in English literature for the preceding BA to boot, in his pocket the subjects themselves didn't present any problems. The Japanese language however was a major obstacle.
English, I failed English. I could bloody teach the half trained monkey who poses as an English teacher here. Ulf sighed again. Another week, another twenty kanji to master. At this rate it would take him a year before he would receive grades that at least remotely resembled his real knowledge.
But still, English. That hurt. According to the local tests his vocabulary ranged in the low one thousand, which was a far cry from the stiff sixteen thousand words every decently designed international test indicated.
What was worse. They weren't taught functionally useful English at all here. That would have to be rectified in the club. Another piece of evidence as to why dubbing television is bad for your mental health, and they're even worse off here than the Germans.
Well, he could whine as much as he wanted. Complaining wouldn't yield any results. Next week, another twenty kanji. Two years, two thousand kanji. Ought to suffice.
Yukio counted his steps as they walked from school. The last Friday. The droning from the terms end ceremony still echoed in him. Tomorrow was summer break, and even if they met at their shared haven it wouldn't be for sharing school. He had passed all his exams, and Urufu most definitely hadn't.
At least this time Urufu was with him.
He listened to the sound of distant cicadas as they came closer to their mall. Another block and he wouldn't be able to hear them any longer.
There were so many questions, but until Urufu decided to talk he'd keep silent. Failing just about every exam had been hard on his friend. Yukio couldn't recall ever having seen him this morose. Angry yes, but not depressed this way.
Noriko promised to help out with the make-up exams, and given her scores Himekaizen literally had no better study buddy. Kuri grinned her usual 'I don't give a damn, but thank you anyway' -grin and promised to do her best in return. In difference Kyoko gracefully accepted the offered help.
Graceful has to be your second name. OK, that was way too much syrup. But I can't but help liking your good manners. Call me stupid for that if you want, but I won't change.
So what should he do for a month? His father offered him to join a five day trip along the west coast, and his mother even promised him extra pocket money should he agree. Club activities? But that would only be a few days more. They weren't a sports club with all that entailed in long hours of training during summer.
Maybe he could convince Urufu to hang out by the sea for a day or two. It mattered little that their planned trip would be by the sea as well. Coastlines seemed to be all the rage in Sweden. Apparently the population spent their days there all summer. At least if he could believe the tourist ads they had plastered all the walls with in their club room.
A few hours in their café, and then Urufu would ride his bike to the station, and spring term would truly be over.
Kyoko. There are a lot of days. Could we share some of them? Summer break spoke of a new beginning.
Kyoko followed Yukio and Urufu, but she made sure to keep her distance.
I'm stalking him. Gods, when did I degenerate into this kind of a person.
But she couldn't help it.
Yukio hadn't exactly done anything to make her believe he hated her any longer, but lack of hate was a far cry from like, or love.
Love. I'm behaving like a middle schooler with a major crush. But then she had been a middle schooler only a few months earlier.
Two weeks ago she would have joined them, but without Noriko and Kuri-chan at her side she didn't want to. Don't dare to. Be honest at least! Especially not as this was the first time in almost a month that Urufu made the route together with Yukio.
Summer break. She'd visit her grandfather to show him proper respect. And after that they'd visit her mother's parents for the same reason.
And, and, summer school. The verbal bashing had been bad enough, but her feelings of failure were far worse than any scolding she received from her parents. Properly raised daughters didn't fail exams. That made her improper. Her. Her parents weren't at fault. They had brought her up the way a daughter should be raised. So she had failed them.
Shame competed with anger in her. One point. It had only been one point between failure and a passing grade. In two subjects to boot. But one point was one point. She had disappointed her parents, and nothing she tried to say in her defence could clear that away.
She would make up for it, and she would attend to at least the minimum of club hours that was appropriate.
And, if she was lucky, there would still be a couple of days she could use as she wanted.
Summer break. Redemption.
Well, those results were disappointing, but she had already gained Noriko's promise that they'd study together during the break.
And Ko-chan needed to attend summer school for a couple of subjects as well. And Ulf. She wouldn't be alone.
School during summer break, who cares? I get to see him almost every day. Same class for a month. Happy! Happy! Happy!
Christina kicked with her feet, giggled and hugged herself. But lying curled up like a ball soon got too hot. Her small flat didn't have an air-conditioner worth its name, and the night was clammy.
She wondered what Ulf was thinking about. They hadn't come any closer to finding a way back home to their version of Sweden. Hadn't really come closer to an understanding of what had happened to them. But, she wondered. The most important question.
Do I really want to go home?
She had come closer to building a new life here, and for each day that life grew brighter, and for each day her old life felt more and more like something she would willingly leave behind.
I lived alone and felt alone. Now I live alone, but I'm in love. Do I really want to return home?
“What are you going to do?”
Ryu looked at his sister before answering. “Do about what?”
She pushed with her feet and swung backwards. “Summer break.”
He kept looking at her. She was still small enough to use the playground like a child. The swings were already too narrow for him to be comfortable, so he sat still and watched her going back and forth.
They were close to their house, and this close to midnight they had to ask permission to go outdoors. Ryu looked over his shoulder. He could see their living room windows. Getting permission hadn't been all that hard.
“Apart from Hokkaido?” he asked.
“Yeah, that's only one week.”
That week was important. He looked forward to it. Mom and the exotic north. But his sister seemed to have grown distant from that need. You're so small, and yet you're growing ahead of me. Sis, you're getting all grown up.
“I don't know. Club activities I guess,” Ryu suggested. He hadn't thought all that much about summer break and now it was here.
“Can't do that for three weeks, you know,” she responded. “With our new friends English conversation school just got obsolete.”
Despite the discomfort he pushed his swing into motion.
“We should get the gang together. Go to the beach or something.” Yeah, definitely go to the beach!
“Ryu! Can you use your brains instead of your libido? Of course you'd want to go to the beach, as long as Kuri comes along.”
“And you wouldn't want to see Urufu?” he answered defensively. You really should let that hair of yours grow. Right now you look like a boy.
Noriko said nothing in return. She kept on swinging. For some time the silence was only broken by the metallic squealing of the swings. Then she seemed to have reached an answer. “Fair enough, idiot bro.”
“You?” Ryu let the insult slip and let her know he wanted to know what she had planned for herself.
Noriko hesitated for a while and picked up more speed before she answered. “I've promised to help Kuri and Kyoko with their summer school.”
“I'll stay away from that. I passed with good grades, but I had to put in a lot of work. You have it easier.” Noriko would have to admit that truth.
“Not even for Kuri?” she teased.
“Not even for Kuri.” Ryu grinned. He grinned so wide he knew she'd see his teeth in the dark. “And no help for poor, poor Urufu? That's mean.” And he couldn't help but laugh, even if it disturbed their neighbours this late.
“I don't think I can help him,” Noriko said silently. “Yukio says he's different. Ryu, they're different.” She was all serious now. “Idiot bro,” She fell silent and gathered speed. “why did we have to fall in love with the two most impossible persons on earth?”
Ryu jumped off the swing and turned to face her. “Sis, we're the Wakayama twins. How could we possibly fall in love with anyone else?”
It was after midnight. Spring term had ended. Summer break started.