The first call came around ten in the evening, and after the third Yukio convinced his mother to drive him to Kuri's apartment.
For a while he thought of calling Kyoko, but her parents would most likely have gone ballistic if he tried a stunt like that.
Traffic was bad with a lot of people in their twenties driving to parties celebrating that summer was about to end. A lot of university students flocked the streets as well. All in all it took his mother the better part of half an hour to get there. Eleven pm.
It was still warm in the air, so the shuddering couldn't be because he was freezing.
Yukio heard the sounds of walking feet above him. So he's outside her door. Yukio ran up the stairs and found his friend where he had guessed. He grabbed Urufu's shoulders and stared into a rabid face. “What's wrong, man?”
“She's not here. She doesn't take calls and she doesn't reply to emails. I don't know where she's gone. Amaya's coming. She's a police and there has to be something she can do.”
Yukio let the flood of words roll over him. Urufu was frantic, and he probably didn't even know he was talking constantly.
“Man, calm down. Mom's here and Sato-sensei is coming. We'll be fine,” he said. Truth be told he didn't have a clue what the emergency was about. Kuri was out. She had flipped her phone off and thus she couldn't be reached. End of problem. Both Urufu and Kuri were grown-ups anyway. They just looked like high schoolers.
But then crap with Urufu seldom was that easy.
Yukio looked down the stairs. His mother stood there looking back up. She pointed towards a line of vending machines and Yukio nodded. Then she vanished out of sight, and Yukio sat down beside his friend. There wasn't much else to do.
From outside the railings he could hear the muted metallic thumps of cans dropping to the bottom of a machine. Shortly afterwards his mother came up with some canned coffee. When she looked at him Yukio just shook his head. There wasn't anything more she could do, and she walked back down again. A bit later a thin line of white in the dark rose above the railings. He smelled the cigarettes she smoked whenever she felt awkward or nervous.
Urufu remained strangely silent throughout all this. When he was done with his first outburst it was as if he didn't have anything more to say, and a silent Urufu wasn't anything Yukio was prepared to handle. It was outright unnatural.
The sound of an engine saved Yukio from his problem. He rose and leaned over the railing. Just as he had hoped Sato-sensei opened the door and stepped out of her car. He saw her and his mother exchange a few words and then he heard Urufu's guardian make her way up the stairs.
“What's going on kids?”
Not a 'hello', no 'how are you doing' or even a 'good to see you again'. But maybe that was Sato-sensei when all was said and done.
“Don't know, to be honest, sensei,” Yukio said. That wasn't entirely true, was it? “Seems Urufu can't contact Kuri, and he's worried,” Yukio added. This time he had told her all he had to add.
Sato-sensei looked at him. “You're a good friend, but I don't think you have to worry so much.” Then she smiled at him, a friendly smile but very much the kind of smile a grown-up gives a child.
Yukio wasn't comfortable with that, but he had involved adults because he was uncertain what to do. “It's not that Kuri's gone I'm worried about,” he tried to explain. “But Urufu didn't feel all that well earlier, well you know.” More like he had gone totally under the surface for some time, and that did worry Yukio. It was doubly frustrating as he wasn't certain how much the adults had learned or how much he could tell them.
“Thank you for caring. I'll take it from here. I think you can go home with your mother now.”
At that moment Urufu's phone blared to life, and Yukio watched his friend frantically dig around in his pockets for it.
Listening to half a conversation in Swedish was bewildering. Yukio only understood Kuri's name, or rather the unpronounceable version of it Urufu used. His voice rose from concern and worry to anger and irritation; it hovered on frustration, balancing on the edge between resentment and reconciliation until the latter won and Urufu's voice sank back to some kind of mutual understanding and promises. After that it petered out into soft sounds which Yukio didn't need to know Swedish to understand anyway.
He watched Urufu hang up the call, slide the phone back into the pocket where it belonged and stretch out on the concrete outside Kuri's door. He sagged, shrunk as worry ran off him and met the eyes of his guardian.
“I think we can go home,” he said. “She was only working late.”
You should have called earlier, Yukio thought. Dammit Kuri, Urufu deserves better. “You OK with me going home, man?”
Urufu nodded and accepted the hand Sato-sensei stretched out to him. “I'll be fine. Thanks for being here, Yukio.”
Yukio grinned. “You'll be there for me next time. Just go home man.”
There was no smell of cigarettes from below, so Yukio knew his mother already sat in the car waiting for him. He grabbed Urufu's shoulder as a salute and squeezed slightly before he let go. Yukio waved over his shoulders and walked down the stairs. Somehow he didn't think this was the last of it. Rather a beginning of something he wasn't sure he wanted to see through.
Summer break came to an end, and school started anew with all the promises and problems that came with change.
In this case problems came to Christina a few days into the new term. It came in the form of some seniors with more time on their hands than brains.
Christina passed the vending machines outside the cafeteria and headed for the stairwell to their new club room. In her tow Hitomi-chan and Noriko followed, which gave the three of them the airs of a high school queen bitch with her entourage. Entirely unintended as Christina and Noriko ran into the beauty from Ulf's class just moments earlier.
Christina was about to climb the stairs when someone suddenly called to her from the corridor.
“You there, the idiot who doesn't know proper Japanese!”
Apparently a someone who suffered from a defunct short term memory given how the last attempt at bullying Christina Agerman, the billion dollar empress, eventually went down.
She walked over to the senior who made the call. “Can I help you big sister?” Christina said using children's Japanese. This time she didn't plan to allow anything to degenerate as far as it had done late spring.
The speaker and her friend rolled their eyes, and behind them a few of their classmates started giggling. “You? Help us?”
Morons. Don't they ever learn when they're beaten? Well, it's time to kill this one immediately. She hadn't expected anyone to try bullying her so quickly after the last attempt. “My Japanese is bad. You are ugly. I can learn Japanese surprisingly fast, but can you learn to be beautiful?” Christina made an effort to put on her best smile while the two seniors in front of her blanched.
The corridor had gone eerie silent when it was clear that a freshman had not only accepted the challenge but also delivered a counter-attack. Christina decided to make the most of it and walked close enough to the two girls that she had to bow slightly to look down at their faces.
Behind her she heard Hitomi-chan gasp. She was an airhead, so it couldn't be helped, but she was an exceptionally beautiful airhead. Christina doubted even the seniors would dare to push this too far if two out of the three celebrated freshmen beauties were involved.
Behind her Christina heard Noriko laugh her heart out. She must have come to the same conclusion. The sound of a sharp slap told Christina she had cajoled Hitomi-chan into a high-five. Good girl, Noriko.
A tiny package filled with brains and good looks. How did you become such an important friend to me? It was strange, especially as Noriko was hell-bent on stealing Ulf from her. But I can respect that. You told me so to my face.
Well, it was time to maim these girls for a long time coming. It had to be now when Noriko had set up the scene for Queen Bitch with retinue going to shop. I almost feel sorry for you, but I'm not taking any more crap.
“My, my,” Christina said and turned her attention to the other girl. Christina grabbed her arm before she had time to protest. Yes, it was a skin condition, and one she knew the girl had fought for a long time.
Pretending to study the arm Christina thought of a killer. And had one. She looked the girl straight in her eyes and summoned up all false concern she could conjure. “I'd recommend Tanshin's premium moisture lotion. It could almost help even someone like you.” There's no way she can afford anything Tanshin's.
The eyes Christina held locked with her own filled with tears. “You bastard!”
Christina just smiled falsely. Relentless. I have to be relentless. “You know, I can ask my agency for some. They'll give it to me if I tell them I need to help a destitute friend with a skin problem.”
The third year capitulated and sagged. Both friends had to rely on each other for support as they walked away through the corridor in defeat.
“What the hell?” Christina heard from another third year who stood there waiting for a freshman to be humiliated.
“What happened?” Noriko asked.
Christina turned to answer, but Hitomi-chan beat her to it. “Kuri-chan was really awful.” Hitomi-chan shuddered before she continued her explanation. “She saw how dry skin that girl had, and then she suggested that the most expensive lotion I've heard of won't be enough to fix it.”
“Sums it up pretty well,” Christina agreed when Noriko gave her a questioning look. No wonder Hitomi-chan knew. She's got the looks to explain an avid interest in cosmetics.
“Kuri-chan, I don't agree with what you did. Couldn't you see how much treatment she was using already?” Hitomi-chan said.
You've got it easy. No one ever tried to bully you. Christina placed her hands on Hitomi-chan's shoulders and bowed down to meet the beauty's eyes. “I did. I'm a professional after all. I did exactly what would hurt her the most, wouldn't you agree?”
She received a glare filled with distaste. “Just remind me never to make an enemy of you,” Hitomi-chan murmured before Christina let her go.
They climbed the stairs. In a way Hitomi-chan was right. With her sudden fame came a need not to make an enemy of her, something the seniors from earlier hadn't understood. But what about friends? Those she had were all in the club, and she couldn't even call all of them her friends.
She was respected. Christina truly felt she was, but that was her meticulously arranged beauty in action, and when that wasn't true she still held the position as president for the club. With Ulf as vice-president there were very few complaints about how the club was run.
So why was it so much easier to attract resentment than friendship? She was since long openly a couple with Ulf, so it couldn't be that the seniors thought she was pilfering their hunting grounds.
That voice belonged to the only one anyone could have thought she would pilfer. The latest addition to their club, Nao-sempai who had just transferred in from Irishima High. He was Nao-kun when they worked as models but Nao-sempai in school. Attending class 7:2 where the girls were going hysterical over the new addition to their class. And he had his sights on Noriko.
“Not waiting for the likes of you,” she called downstairs and hurried up.
Christina shook her head and climbed another step. If what Ulf had told her was true this was going to be even more fun to watch than Yukio and Kyoko earlier.
Nao-sempai had already confessed to Noriko and been rejected once, which didn't dial down his courtship campaign one notch.
What a pain! Admittedly a very good looking pain, but still. Noriko slid the door open to their room and entered. Normal club activities were partially suspended now when they had to come up with an idea for the impending cultural festival. Most of the members would be dragged into whatever their class decided to do as well, so they didn't plan anything more advanced than a food-stall or two, or would have but for the sheer size of the club.
Now there were two new ideas floating around, and one of them had a depressingly good chance of survival. Between her idiot bro, Kuri, Hitomi-chan and Nao-sempai they could probably pull the fashion show off. In a pinch even Urufu could be used depending on what kind of clothes they wanted to show off. Even the budget looked fine, as in not a single yen spent fine, because Kuri said she could get all clothes for free.
And there he was again. The good looking pain. Calling her Noriko like they had known each other all their life, but with Urufu in the club no one noticed anyway as that guy didn't use honorifics with anyone.
“Yes, what is it? You don't need to shout,” Noriko said.
“Just wanted to talk with you,” Nao-sempai replied.
“No, you want to touch me, and there's no touching between us two.”
Nervous laughter broke out from further inside the room. Takado Nao had arrived just days earlier and called her out for a confession almost the first thing. Now she was known all around school as the whirlwind rejection, and still he persisted.
“I can wait with the touching. Kissing comes before that anyway.”
“There's no kissing between us either. Nao-sempai, there's nothing between us.”
“There's a conversation between us,” he said and grinned.
“Gah! That's only because you called to me to… Why do I even bother explaining to you?”
Noriko threw up her arms in exasperation. She rolled her eyes, but inwardly she smiled. She didn't exactly like him or anything, but he always behaved like a perfect gentleman whenever he didn't exchange banter with her. And he was very, very good looking, and she did feel more than a little flattered.
“Look, the only thing between us is planning our participation in the cultural festival,” she said.
“See, that's more than nothing,” Nao-sempai said and laughed.
“Whatever.” She wasn't angry with him, not really. She just made sure he kept a minimum of distance.
Less than a week, and Nao-sempai already made as much an impact on the club as the motor mouth. Noriko saw how the girls in the club made advances, and she knew that the second year floor in the left wing was ablaze as well.
“Kuri?” Noriko said to her tall friend.
“Uhum, you two finished with your lover's quarrel?”
“Yes,” Nao-sempai answered.
“No, I mean there never was one… there can't be one… we're not...” Damn you Kuri! Despite the embarrassment Noriko smiled at herself again. I haven't let Urufu off the hook just yet. But somewhere deep inside Noriko admitted that she was slowly doing just that. She still loved him, but he was too far away for her to reach.
“Kuri, are we going with the show?”
Kuri shrugged, as did Nao-sempai. Almost magically both of them straightened up and became serious. “We can run with it. I'll handle the details. But I'd prefer we apply for the barbecue as well. Ulf can run that one,” Kuri said, but her business like demeanour belied something deeper.
You've grown considerably considerate about his feelings. What happened last week? Kyoko and Yukio were tight-lipped about it, but something had definitely happened. Enough to take Kuri down a peg or two, well her shooting down the recent, idiotic attempt at bullying excepted of course.
“Fine. I'll draw up the plans and have the groups go through it,” Noriko said. She looked over her shoulder and faced Nao-sempai. “That means you and Kuri are responsible for our application for the show.”
He grinned, but he stayed serious. “We'll take care of it.” There was nothing of his playful flirting left now.
In that sense he was very different from her brother. Ryu simply couldn't resist flirting, and he was living proof that good looks alone wasn't enough to make a prince of Himekaizen. When it came to popularity he and Nao-sempai played in different leagues with Ryu far in the lead.
“Good,” she said. That left the barbecue, but if Urufu got himself involved in planning that request they'd end up with a written application far beyond anything anyone else in Himekaizen had the competence to produce. Especially if she helped him with writing it. His Japanese was still sub-par.
“Hitomi-chan, if we get the show, would you like to show off some clothes?” Now that wasn't really a question, but Noriko had to give the beauty from Urufu's class some kind of mental candy after the episode downstairs earlier.
Hitomi-chan popped out from nowhere, just as Noriko assumed she would. “Yes, I'd like that very much!”
You're just too easy to read. “Then start planning with Kuri and Nao-sempai. We wouldn't want the event to be declined, would we?” And, 3… 2… 1...
“Of course, I'll just get my bag.”
Sheesh! Well, she's taller than I am and she's got the looks. Guess all of us are born with different gifts. Noriko shook her head as she listened to the airhead rummaging around in the lounging part of their club room. Moments later she arrived with her bag, wildly looking for Kuri.
Nao-sempai had already followed Kuri to the office area and Noriko just pointed Hitomi-chan in the right direction.
That left handling her brother, but he shouldn't be a problem. Problems came in the form of their class representative. That girl had stood up by her bench when those roles were assigned rather than duck as much as possible like Noriko. Which worked for half of the spring term. By now the entire class knew who was the brightest, and Noriko had no interest in being dragged into student council business. She avoided it as much as possible, but it would be impossible to do so when the festival drew closer.
Each class had to do something, and a class with both Kuri and Ryu was expected to deliver something outstanding, even if they were only freshmen. Ryu's sister, especially a sister who scored solidly among the top three of all eight freshman classes put together, was bound to be dragged into something sooner or later.
But we have Principal Nakagawa. He's still our advisor. The worst of the heat should pass me by.
“And with that I leave the word to your class representative,” Kondo-sensei said.
Their popular home-room teacher was replaced by their not so popular class representative by the blackboard.
She wasn't mean or anything, and Ryu appreciated how she refused to have anything to do with him or Kuri. It felt refreshing if nothing else.
Outside the classroom windows small clouds played on a blue sky, and it was still hot enough to be called summer.
“Our votes have left us with a cos-play café, haunted house and mud wrestling. I hope you'll kill that last one quickly today,” the class rep said. A loud murmur of agreement told him half their class had absolutely nothing to do with the mud wrestling idea.
She placed a ballot box on the teachers desk and had empty slips of paper passed around in the classroom.
“Now, before you vote, we'll apply for two events. If none of them pass it's either food stalls or competition booths. Understood?”
Ryu grinned. Harsh but efficient. You just killed the wrestling all on your own. He stared at the perpetually sulking class rep as she oversaw the casting of the votes.
When they were all done she marked up three sections on the black board, and long before half of the votes were counted it was clear that the café would win by a wide margin with the haunted house in second place.
Ryu suspected it would be the stalls for them in the end anyway. From what he heard the second years had priority for the more popular events with the third years running any larger arrangements. Well, they'd fight for a slot in the gym for the fashion show, but that was the club and not 3:1.
The bell rang and their class rep went for the student council room. Beginning tomorrow the festival planning committee would get its own planning area in an empty classroom, and they'd see very little of the class reps and the club presidents for those clubs who managed to get an attractive event depending on other events for timeslots in temporary locations.
As he wasn't caught up in student council business he headed over to their club room. On his way there he glanced into 6:1 to see if Yukio or Ulf was there. They weren't, but a few girls gave him hopeful giggles. He smiled back at them, waved for some extra brownie points and walked another two classrooms.
When he entered he arrived into a minor commotion. From the voices it was clear 6:1 hadn't made a choice to the satisfaction of the entire class. At least not those who were members of the club.
Hiroyuki-kun and Hitomi-chan stood by a table in the office area. Another member from 6:1 sat in a chair beside Yukio and Urufu took down notes on a whiteboard.
Whiteboard? When did we get one? Ryu looked around. There were three of them mounted on the walls and another two on wheels. Damn, did Urufu open those deep pockets of his once again?
“What's up,” Ryu asked.
“Huh? Oh it's you.” Urufu finished jotting down whatever he was doing. When he turned Ryu saw he was nursing an aching back. “We've got a play on our hands, well that or a café of some kind.”
“And he just doesn't understand how important this is,” Hitomi-chan complained.
Ryu looked at Urufu, but Yukio got in first. “Hitomi-chan, Urufu has never seen a culture festival before. He doesn't know, but I think we can make him understand.”
Always prepared to defend your friend. Still weren't you in the same class last year? No, that's right. He got expelled, which makes it my problem as well. “Urufu, it's the biggest happening during the year, and Himekaizen runs it for two days,” Ryu said.
Urufu shrugged. “They told me. So it's an all-important annual event. I've seen those you know, in Sweden.”
Yeah, I bet you have. But we can't tell the others. “What's the problem?”
“If we don't get the café we're stuck with a play!” Hitomi-chan said, and Hiroyuki-kun nodded agreement with her.
“To be honest I'd give up on the café,” Ryu suggested. “Second years will get all of those.”
“You're just as bad as Urufu.”
So that was the problem. When Ryu looked closer at the whiteboard he could see that most of Urufu's notes concerned a play. You think you can land that one? “Urufu, you're planning for the play?”
“Yeah, as I told them, if we go for something modern, say West Side Story, we could integrate the play with the show the club applies for. Thematic cohesion should give both applications a greater chance of approval.”
'Thematic cohesion'? Yes, that's Urufu all right. Ryu decided against voicing his thoughts. “Sounds like an idea. Probably won't get shot down like our café and haunted house.”
“You applied for one as well?”
Ryu nodded at Hiroyuki-kun who had asked the question. “Fat chance though. We'll be doing food stalls this year.”
“Ah, on that topic. Try to get something foreign. We'll apply for the barbecue to be the centrepiece of some kind of international cuisine area.”
“Huh?” Ryu hadn't heard anything about that.
“If we can get enough of the food stalls to serve foreign food we can make a thing out of it and concentrate it to one area separate from the rest of the stalls.”
Ryu stared at Urufu. “Why would we want to?”
“Because it's more fun that way, and we could have a small stage and run mini events as well.”
Yeah, that definitely was Urufu. Always planning a little bit further than anyone else. “There's more to it as well I guess,” Ryu said.
Urufu nodded. “Yes. Everyone involved will feel like a part of something larger locally. We'll get an excuse to carry out a lot of tables, and in the end the freshmen will have their café anyway.”
Yes, definitely Urufu. Father said he would make a good CEO. Ryu suspected he had already been one.
“And they're quite angry with us now,” Kyoko said. She stared up at the sky and Yukio got an opportunity to admire how her hair danced around her shoulders.
He gave her another long look. “Why?” he said when the meaning of her words got through to him.
“Well, the cafés all went to the second and third years, and 4:2 got the haunted house.”
He shrugged and waited for the engine noise of a passing car to die down. If it wasn’t any worse than that he could try to calm her down. “Same here,” he said. “Class was a bit miffed about the café.”
“But you at least got the play.”
“Only because the club had the fashion show approved.” Yukio heard how hollow that argument sounded. A day earlier a roar of jubilation rushed out of their club room when both their applications won approval from the student council.
“I know, I know. At least 8:1 had their Himekaizen history approved.” And that was the only freshman class to get full access to a classroom for the entire festival. A full six freshman classes were assigned to food stalls and other booths, apart from the students involved with club activities. Well, nine classes now. There was the new 9:1 that would be in full swing by the time of the cultural festival.
There were more reasons for most of the freshmen to feel resentment. After all the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club, with Principal Nakagawa as advisor, almost exclusively consisted of freshmen. They got a main event approved plus what only initially looked like a food stall. The large area set aside for the barbecue wasn't lost on anyone.
“They're jealous much?” Yukio asked.
Kyoko grimaced. “You ask me. It's 3:1. We're used to being the centre of attention, and I don't think my classmates ever saw this let-down coming.”
They should have. Ryu had even said as much, but Yukio didn't say that aloud. 6:1 had one out of the two major events allocated to freshman classes. The reaction hadn't exactly been ecstatic, but after lunch when the freshmen were able to compare notes his classmates started to understand how lucky they had been. In a way it was a good thing that 3:1 drew blank, but he wasn't about to say that to Kyoko.
Yukio tightened his grip on her hand. They were heading to cram school. For once he had managed to get his parents to agree on something that threatened to involve them both, and they paid half each for his cram school. For his extended time together with Kyoko if he wanted to be honest with himself.
It meant a few missed club hours, but time together with Kyoko was more important than the club. Sure, he'd have to show some results or his parents would pull the plug.
It was the old route he walked. The one he had walked with Urufu during spring term, but they almost never spent their Friday evenings at their old mall these days.
“I miss it in a strange way,” Kyoko said when they rounded the last corner and saw the mall ahead of them. It was as if she had read his mind.
Yukio stared ahead of him, and when he looked over his shoulder he saw Kyoko's eyes searching the same empty spot. Urufu's gaudy bike wasn't locked to the stand. It wouldn't be; Yukio had known that from the start, but it was Friday and old habits were hard to forget.
“So do I,” he admitted. “He's going to Haven Café after club hours.”
“You met here before?”
“Before high school I mean.”
“Yeah, I know that you meant middle school. We did, even after he was expelled.” In fact we started meeting here long after he was expelled, but that's too complicated to explain. “He had this stupid stunt where he pretended he didn't know they waited tables there.” Yukio started walking in a wide circle.
“Yes, exactly like that,” Kyoko said and giggled. “And he'd come almost to the counter before he returned. Did you always take the same table?”
Yukio nodded. “If it was free, but it almost always was.” Second term and we're already talking memories. So much happened.
“I wonder how she's doing.” Kyoko's voice had gone silent.
He didn't answer, but there could only be one 'her' whom Kyoko spoke of.
With Yukio falling silent they walked hand in hand until they reached the mall and turned left. From now on they wouldn't have to part ways here, and he intended to enjoy the most of it.
Cram school wasn't exactly fun, but being with Kyoko was.
“I wonder as well. They're so tied up now,” Yukio said and continued the conversation that had died a few minutes earlier. He liked how they had grown together enough for him to be able to do that.
“I worry a little. She doesn't exactly have good grades, and now she's juggling both her modelling job and the club.”
This time it was Yukio’s turn to grimace. He knew the feeling all too well, and Urufu had it a lot easier than Kuri. “I'll ask him to take more responsibility for the culture festival.”
“Is that fair?” Kyoko asked.
They were coming up to their cram school, and climbing the stairs gave Yukio a few more moments to mull over her question. “It's not a matter of fair any longer, is it? We have to make sure the club does a good job, and there's only Urufu to lead us now.” That wasn't entirely true. Ryu had shown what kind of man he would grow to become during the workshops at the resort.
By his side Noriko held her breath as they entered their destination. “I'll ask Noriko,” she said and verified what he had just thought. “We’ll help each other, OK?”
Yukio felt a grin spreading over his face. Taking responsibility for their friends was new, but he didn’t mind new if he could share it with Kyoko.
The evening shoot was dragging out. This time she didn't plan to replicate her stupid mistake from earlier. Christina asked for a short break, fired up her phone and sent Ulf a short email saying she was going to be late.
She didn't have time to wait for a reply, but at least she didn't just vanish like she had done that time. He still hadn't forgiven her entirely.
And it promised to be a fun date to boot. She'd make up for that one as soon as she had time. If she could. Ulf was always the better one at planning their few dates. He had this uncanny ability to draw up new plans with but a moment’s notice and act on them. Whatever he was doing for a living he was very, very good at it.
I almost never see him any longer. Different classes, her modelling job and now the culture festival planning kept her from their own club room. On top of that she had her own little secret. A cram school where she concentrated on learning Japanese. She couldn't afford another set of disastrous exams like the last finals, and as with Ulf her Japanese was the worst impediment.
All in all it meant she only saw him during short breaks and possibly when they arrived at school. It was driving her mad.
Those thoughts cost her another set of shots that had to be retaken. Kinoshita-sensei growled and she meekly accepted his admonitions. That last set had been anything but professional. Another fifteen minutes delay and she had effectively burned half an hour. There would be no meeting him tonight neither.
Christina made a renewed effort to focus on her job, and the next hour passed without any major mishaps. There were snide comments though. She rose in fame much faster than anyone else, and with her own photographer so early in her career resentment grew all around her.
I don't need this crap. First those idiot seniors at school and now the same treatment here. But it wouldn't go away. She knew from her previous life how lonely this job was. Only the second tier models made good friends, and those came later in their careers when they made safe money but weren't seen as a threat any longer.
After the shot finished she changed clothes. She made sure to check her clothes for needles or anything else that a jealous model could have planted there before she put them on. She sniffed everything she used for removing her make-up for the same reason. Now wasn't a good time to end up with blisters in her face because of some perverted idea of a prank.
When she started out on this road for the first time the dangerous pranks, which were really not pranks, had scared her. This time she took them for granted. Scarring a model's face opened up a chance for someone else.
They might look beautiful, but fashion was an ugly business, and she knew that better than almost anyone else.
She left the studio and entered a late summer's evening. Japan wasn't Sweden. Summer dragged on much longer here. Outside her bike waited with flattened tires, so she brought out the compact pump she always carried with her. At least no one had come up with the idea to slice them open and a couple of minutes pumping was a low price to pay for the career she had ahead of her. After checking that her brakes still worked she pedalled away.
Nothing short of a physical assault scared her much, but since the episode in the locker room that scared her a lot, and now there wouldn't be an Urufu to come to her rescue. That made her treasure his birthday present to her doubly.
But I still want to spend more time with him, she sulked as she took a corner and came up on the streets taking her home. Damn, I shouldn't have stood him up on that date! One way or another it would cost her. She didn't know how, and she didn't know when, but sooner or later there would be a price to pay.
When she came home she fished up her phone. There were three messages. Two from Ulf and one from Ko-chan.
The first was a reply to her earlier email where he hoped she wouldn't be too late and that he'd call her later. The second from Ko-chan asked if it was OK to transfer some of her planning work to Ulf.
The third made her heart jolt. Ulf was coming over and could she please wait for him until she heard him at the door?
Christina dropped her phone to the tatami mats and got out of her baggy clothes faster than she would have thought possible. Seconds later she tore through her wardrobe. He's coming here! Ulf's coming here!
Something nice for him. Not too overdone, but still something to tell him how much she had longed for him.
She had donned a top she knew emphasised her curves and was looking for a skirt to go with it when she heard knocking on the door. She gave that skirt a moment’s thought before she giggled and ran for the door in her panties.
Just as she opened it her phone rang from where she had dropped it earlier. Funny, that's Ulf's signal, she thought as she opened the door. Who? That's not Ulf.
Two hands pushed her inside and when she fell on her back she heard a roar from outside. Someone was sprinting up the stairs, and the stranger who had pushed her vanished.
What's going on? A head showed in the door opening. “Ulf?”
“Did he hurt you?”
Ulf rushed inside and she found herself caught in a bear hug. “I told you not to open the door before I was here!”
“Is she OK,” another voice said from behind Ulf's back.
What's happening? “Ulf what's going on?”
“Amaya, thanks. We got here in time.”
“Ulf! Tell me what's happening!”
They parted ways just after the mall. It was getting late and Kyoko wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Without Yukio the streets felt darker.
Soon she came up on the road winding between the small houses where she lived. Just as she passed the playground two blocks from home she heard voices.
That was not what she wanted to hear right now. She increased her steps and redialled the last number she had used. Fiddling with the cord she managed to plug in her headset and waited for Kuri to pick up.
“Christina Agerman. Oh, Ko-chan, what's up?”
“Kuri-chan, I just want to talk for a while.”
It felt safer to hear the voice of her friend, and it was only a couple of minutes before she was home.
“Sorry, I have Ulf and Sato-sensei here. Can it wait until tomorrow?”
Urufu's with Kuri-chan? With Sato-sensei? But she really wanted someone to talk with. “If it's not too much trouble,” Kyoko said.
“Ulf's here, and something bad kinda happened. I'd really want to chat later, OK?”
“OK.” But it wasn't OK at all. Reluctantly Kyoko hung up and continued walking. You could just have talked with me for a while longer you know.
Behind her steps were catching up and Kyoko decided pretending she hadn't noticed was no longer a good idea. She ran.
The steps ran after her.
Around her houses loomed empty and unwelcoming. There were lights on, but they weren't her home. Panic gave her some extra speed, but she wasn't a match for whoever followed her. A few seconds later the running steps were very close and then someone grabbed her from behind.
“Talking with your boyfriend?”
Kyoko twisted and tried to push him away, but the one grabbing her was too strong. “Let me go!”
He groped her, hard. It hurt, and then a second assailant came up behind her and locked her body in his arms. She felt large hands grabbing her breasts and screamed.
From further down the street another set of feet came running.
“Let her go you bastards!”
Yukio? Kyoko tried to free herself again. Please let it be Yukio!
She heard her phone clattering to the street and the hands that grabbed her arms let go. She was still held from behind, but the first man turned to meet whoever came to her rescue.
“Let her go I said!”
It was Yukio.
He came flying trying to tackle his way through to her, but the man who had turned simply sidestepped and tripped him.
“Boyfriend to the rescue. Pathetic!”
Kyoko saw how Yukio received two vicious kicks lying down and all sense of fear left her. She grabbed one of the hands squeezing her breasts and pulled it up. She bit down on it hard and chewed with all her strength.
A pained yell later she was free.
Yukio got kicked again and then she was climbing the back of his assailant. She never had a chance, but at least he stopped kicking Yukio. Something slammed into the side of her head and she fell to the ground. Too groggy to see what happened she tried to get up on her feet, but a fist to her abdomen forced all air from her lungs and she rolled on the ground writhing in agony.
And then it was over as suddenly as it had started. In the distance someone was yelling for police and her attackers ran down the street.
Her entire body hurt when she crawled over to where Yukio lay on the street. She could see blood on his face.
“Yukio, please what did he do to you?”
“Hurts,” he said. “Are you OK?”
You came for me. You tried to save me. “I'm fine.” She sat up and caressed his hair. “Thank you!”
A hand landed on her shoulder, and she twisted away as fast as she could.
“It's me. Are you OK?”
“It's me. Let's get you home,” her father said and pulled her up by her hand.
Kyoko stared at him. “Yukio's hurt. We need to help him!”
“Leave him. The police can handle that trash.”
“No!” For the first time in her life she disobeyed her father openly and tore herself lose. “He's not trash. He's my boyfriend and I love him,” she said and sat down beside Yukio again.
“Kyoko! Stop that nonsense at once. I saw him. He's just a violent thug.”
Kyoko looked up over her shoulder and glared at her father. “He tried to save me you idiot!”
The slap stung, but it didn't hurt nearly as bad as watching Yukio prone on the street. Kyoko lifted her arm to protect herself from another slap and bent over Yukio's body. She'd protect him even from her father if need be.
“Honey, he's badly hurt. We can't leave him like this.” That was her mother's voice. She must have arrived shortly after her father.
“Whatever. Call an ambulance and get him off the street.”
“Boy, can you stand?” Her mother's voice was filled with concern, and she showed a lot more of common sense than her father.
Beneath her Yukio's face darkened in the lamplight. More blood? No. Oh, he's blushing!
“I can stand. Matsumoto Yukio, pleased to meet you,” he added and got up on his knees.
Kyoko could see how much it pained him doing so. “Here, let me help you,” she said.
He staggered a little, but with her help he got on his feet. Kyoko's stomach still hurt, but she tried to pretend it was nothing and together they took a few tentative steps toward her home.
“Honey, behave like a man and help the poor boy!”
“Whatever.” But her dad did give Yukio an arm to rest on.
“Matsumoto Yukio? Yukio-kun then? Kyoko's boyfriend you say?”
Kyoko sighed. He hadn't said anything of the sorts. She had, but when her mother went into interrogation mode there was no stopping her. It was going to be a long night.
She looked at her father and waved her phone. When he nodded approval she punched Kuri-chan's number again.
After he had given Yukio a heads-up and a warning over the phone Ulf returned to Christina and Amaya. She was all police now.
A few minutes into her interrogation Christina's phone came alive and he saw her walk outdoors to take the call. She came back shortly after.
“Anything important?” Ulf asked.
Christina shook her head. “Nothing that couldn't wait.”
Amaya took up her questions from where she left off when Christina got her call.
Ulf sighed with relief. Good. Yukio should have caught up with Kyoko by now and then he can get her home. And it looked like the corporate credit cards would come in handy now. Ulf guessed he'd have the taxi fare for having Yukio safely home again written off as travel expenditures. And I'll bash your bloody head in if you try so save me money and walk home.
“Amaya,” Ulf said.
“Yes?” She turned to him and interrupted her interrogation of Christina.
“The old geezer warned us about this,” he continued and smirked.
The smile he got in return told him everything he needed to know about what Amaya thought of Principal Nakagawa. “Is that a proper way to address the old goat?” And her answer only verified it.
Christina looked at them both with wide eyes. “I thought… in Japan and all...”
“He put my little boy in danger!”
“Little boy.” Christina laughed so hard she had to curl up in a ball. “You two! He calls you his daughter and you call him your little boy.”
“Is that so, Urufu?”
Oh crap! “Amaya, I'm technically twenty years older, and...” Ulf started in panic.
“It's mother dear.”
“Did you hear me, son?”
“Yes mother dear,” Ulf answered defeated.
Christina looked at them again. “Damn, she really is your guardian. Damn! I like you a lot more now. Keeping that inflated ego of his down and...”
“I'm not finished with you yet girl!” Amaya's voice could have been used as an emergency freezer.
Ulf stared in astonishment at how Christina went from threatening volcano to deflated balloon in seconds.
“Yes Sato-sensei,” she said meekly. She even cast down her eyes and stared at the floor like an obedient girl.
“Now Urufu, you were saying something earlier.”
“Yes mother dear.” He hadn't forgotten he wasn't on her good side yet, “It's Red Rose again. We're caught up in something bad.”
“Continue,” Amaya said and opened a new note on her tablet.
Ulf was halfway through a lengthy explanation when Christina's phone blared again.
“Crap! I asked her to wait until tomorrow. Excuse me, I'll make it short.” Christina took the call.
Ulf could see her preparing to cut it short when she suddenly paled and dropped her phone to the floor.
“Fuck!” she said. “They attacked Ko-chan and I told her she shouldn't disturb me. What have I done?”
Ulf snatched up the phone. “Kyoko, what the hell happened?” he shouted into it.
He listened for a short while, and rage flare to life within him as Kyoko described what had happened.
“Make sure he gets to hospital and stay with him!”
There was a reply.
“I don't give a damn about what your dad's saying. If he doesn't agree he'll answer to me.” Then an idea came to Ulf. “No, he'll answer to mother dear. Give him the phone!”
Ulf started handing Christina's phone to Amaya. “They hurt my friends. Mother dear, please I beg you!”
He only got to the 'hurt my friends' part before Amaya's face screwed up in an ugly grimace and she reached out with a hand and ripped the phone from him.”
“Sato Amaya here.”
Ulf saw her frown as she listened to Kyoko's father on the other end.
“You are to have Matsumoto Yukio transferred to hospital immediately. Takeida Kyoko will accompany him.”
Amaya listened and then she pulled the phone from her ear and stared at it in her hand as if she didn't believe what she had heard. Something cold glimmered in her eyes and she put the phone back to the side of her face.
“That's Lieutenant Colonel Sato for you. This is not a request. It's a direct police order. If you fail to comply I'll have a patrol fetch both you and your daughter, is that understood?”
That's a military title? But she's in police uniform? What the bloody hell is going on?
Amaya hung up the call and handed back the phone to Christina. “Well, now that's taken care of.”
“Cool,” Christina said.
“Amaya, mother dear, what's happening?” Ulf stared at his guardian.
She looked back at him. “I told him to obey.”
“Don't pull that crap on me!” Ulf didn't care if he got his face chewed off later or not. “What's with the military?”
“Military? I'm in the police.”
“Yeah, and Sweden didn't run me through fifteen months of conscript service when I was nineteen. I know military officer's grades are different from the police.”
“This is not Sweden.”
“Amaya, please, just stop it! I am, or rather was, a conscript captain until the system was abolished some years ago.”
Ulf sighed. He hadn't told anyone since his arrival, and he had hoped he never would. “Look, with my high school grades I was assigned to the translator unit. It's effectively an interrogation unit. I still haven't forgotten my Russian.” He stared out the windows before he continued. “We might look like a naive and backwater nation to you, but we were taught methods on the darker side of grey when it came to interrogation.” Ulf gave Christina an unhappy look. “It's called torture. I had to know just about everything about military strata to know how valuable a prisoner was. It's nothing I'm proud about, OK?”
“Ah I understand.” The glare he got from his guardian was anything but friendly. “During your summer break I was transferred from the police. I'm going to be your handle from October onwards. For both of you.” She sent a glare Christina's way as well.
Ulf heard Christina gasp. Of course she had a handle as well. It was a part of the sham around their false identities. One part prison guard and two parts horribly powerful contact if things really went down the drain. Ulf's handle made his management consulting possible, and Christina's should have made her life easier as well if she hadn't been so frantic about her independence.
“Amaya, how much do you know?”
“More than you,” she said. “Enough to know you're both better protected and less protected than what's decent. I know about the surveillance you set up. I even had parts of it extended here.”
“Crap!” Ulf said. Then his thoughts returned to Yukio, and his frustration at not being able to prevent what had happened flared to life. “Christina. Next time Kyoko calls you bloody well take that call! She was all alone and scared and you told your best friend to wait a day. Fine friend you are!”
All of a sudden he regretted his words. Christina looked as if struck. “Yes,” she whispered. “I will.” Then she broke down in tears.
“Ko-chan is hurt as well. She didn't say, but I could hear her breathing.”
It only took a few minutes to get them all into Amaya's car, and during the ride to the hospital Ulf had all the time he needed to wish he could take back his words. Christina lay in his lap whispering that she was disgusting and had betrayed her friend. Nothing he said would change her mind and another wedge crept in between them.
There were rumours about their club. A few months earlier those rumours would have been about 3:1, but Noriko didn't care. After all it wasn’t all that much of a difference for her since most of the main characters stayed the same. There was one major addition though, and he was busy working for two. Urufu ran the planning for both of their events until Kuri returned to school a few days later.
Kyoko and Yukio were still absent though. An accident they were told by their home room teacher, but in Urufu's eyes Noriko could read that something disgusting had happened. Especially as he refused to return her glances. It didn't take a genius to understand it was all connected to his war with Red Rose. That scared her, but worse it hurt. It hurt that he didn't trust her, and it hurt that the boy she still loved didn't want to look at her even as a friend.
Planning and working with the cultural festival was supposed to be fun, but with Urufu at the helm it turned into work. He was efficient, and the club members got a lot more individual responsibility than the members of any other club, but it wasn't fun. To add insult to injury not once did his face flash into that wolfish grin that made her heart lurch.
Whenever she wondered if she wasn't imagining things, she only had to watch Urufu's face reflected in Ryu's to know it wasn't just a bad dream. Her brother knew something, but he refused to share with her, and in Yukio's absence he turned into Urufu's wingman without a single thought of his own status.
Idiot bro, I don't want to see you grow into a man this way, she once thought, and she even started to miss his inane antics. The brother she had learned to love to hate rapidly vanished and was replaced by someone harder, and with nowhere to turn Noriko silently assumed Kyoko's duty as Kuri's wingman.
It wasn't lost on anyone in the club.
Where Noriko had assumed summer's break to be the end of something, the start of their autumn term signalled a more important end, and one she refused to accept. When they started school in April she behaved like the most mature of the six of them, but now she wondered if she wasn't the only child remaining.
A few days later she overheard a whispered conversation between Kuri and Urufu and learned how Kuri had been attacked at her own home. Knowing that four of the six of them were being dragged back into her old nightmare made Noriko sick with fear.
Then a final insanity occurred that made her force the issue. There were transfers. A small class of transfers. Three weeks into the term class 9:1 finally came into existence. Twenty five new students; all from Red Rose Academy. Another ten were rumoured to still be in the process of transferring.
That quickly added to the rumours about their club. Of the transferees half a dozen immediately applied for membership and were accepted within minutes after Kuri entered their club room. Not a single one was of Japanese origin and all of them wore silent faces telling tales of a school they despised.
With close to thirty members in the club Noriko finally had a reason to go to the student council. Formally to apply for an increased budget, but in reality she was hell-bent on finding out what was going on.
She stormed into the office and was surprised to find the entire student council there in a conversation with Principal Nakagawa and a third year student she only vaguely recognised.
“We'll increase security, but you'll have to report any outsiders on school grounds,” Nakagawa-sensei said to the student council president.
“Yes sensei,” she answered and looked at Noriko who had just interrupted them.
Principal Nakagawa looked in Noriko's direction as the door slid shut behind her. “I'm aware that… Girl, we knock before we enter. Oh, it's you.”
There were several more pairs of eyes looking at her now.
“Did you need anything?” the council president asked.
Noriko met her gaze. She could just as well have said: 'Please leave!'
“I'll need increased funding with six more members joining the club,” Noriko said, stating her official errand.
“We'll handle that later.” That reply worked as a repetition of the previous, unspoken command.
Noriko was prepared for it, and this time she turned directly to Principal Nakagawa. “I'll also need directives concerning how the club is to handle the current confrontation with Red Rose Academy,” she said.
Principal Nakagawa frowned back at her, but he didn't say anything.
“I have one member hospitalised and another who won't come to school. Our president was assaulted at her own home. That counts as a problem for me.”
“Girl, this is none of your business,” Principal Nakagawa said.
Noriko hadn't expected to see him here, but it made things a lot easier for her. She would force his hand by dropping a bomb. “My club members being targeted by the same people who paid for raping me isn't my problem?”
Well, that got the attention of the student council. Try to keep the lid down on this one, old goat!
“My office, now!”
Noriko followed her principal through the corridor. She tried to look properly abashed, but this was a fight she had already won. She'd be scolded and there would be some kind of punishment, but the real battle was won. While it might look like she was marched through the corridor like a prisoner of war every step echoed a march of triumph. She knew that not all battles would be this easy. There were grown-ups involved in some kind of power game, and she had neither the experience nor the clout to fight them toe to toe. But she could help Urufu and Kuri with the fight. They did have the experience if not the ability to pull rank.
I can't figure out how to help them right now, but I'm good at figuring things out sooner or later. Bro got all the charms, but brains is my department.
This was a fight she had lost from the beginning. The moment she betrayed her best friend she lost, and for Christina there was no way of undoing it.
Ko-chan wasn't badly hurt, but their friendship was strained to the point where Ko-chan refused to attend school until Yukio left hospital and they could go to school together.
It's my fault Yukio got hurt. Knowing more of what had occurred didn't help at all. Ulf called Yukio to warn him at the same time I refused Ko-chan's call. Damn, there was someone stalking her in the dark and I told her to hang up. I'm rotten!
Christina went through her usual routine of checking that nothing dangerous had been hidden in her clothes, got into her baggy set of clothes and left the studio. Outside a bodyguard her handle had forced onto her stood waiting. It echoed eerily of her previous life, but at least it was something she had been used to.
“Where to?” he asked.
“Home,” she answered and watched him pull out his bike. He looked like an idiot with his earpiece, dark suit and grandmother bike. His entire being shouted: 'I don't belong here and I look really funny and out of place.'
She didn't care in the least. If she had a bodyguard shoved down her throat he made a lot more sense if he stood out like a clown on a funeral. At least he was professional enough to understand that any normal thugs would stay away from anyone with an overdressed bully tailing her on pedals.
It helped that he avoided conversations as well, but she still preferred the thought of Ulf on his bike beside her. According to some overblown rumours he knew how to fight as well.
Christina plugged her headset to her ears and dialled him before she brought her bike to speed. Behind her the bodyguard frantically tried to keep up on his inadequate cycle.
Her heart jumped at his voice. It always did, and more so now when they had so little time to see each other. Especially after her betrayal of Ko-chan.
I'm losing him. Can he forgive me? She coughed away the lump in her throat. “U-kun?”
“Finished for today?”
“Yes. I'm on my way home.” She'd rather be on her way to Haven Café where she knew most of their club had retreated when school closed down for the evening. “What are you up to?”
“Just back from a walking talking session,” he said. “Right now we're running workshops on presentations. The kids don't even know how to work with standard software.”
So typical of her Ulf. Two hours of intensive mind gymnastics followed by even more schooling. “How are they doing?” Talking about the club was safer than the other, darker topic.
She rounded a corner and stopped for a red-light. Behind her the bodyguard finally caught up with her as she waited for the light to turn green.
She heard Ulf calling out instructions to the club members over the phone. “Learning slowly,” he said. “Christina, we need to talk.”
No! Please call me Ina! “Yes?” She felt panic rising in her.
The light turned green and she numbly pushed down a pedal and crossed the street. Is he going to break up?
“It's about Noriko. I don't want Kyoko to know.”
Huh, Noriko? “OK, when and where?”
“It's going to be long. Look… eh...”
Ulf, I can hear you blushing on the phone. What's up? “I'm still here,” she said when he remained silent.
“Look, I've spoken with Amaya. She says it's OK if you're fine with it.”
What on earth are you talking about? Amaya allowed you to exactly what? Oh. Oh! “I don't understand,” Christina said, but she was bubbling with joy. There was only one reason for Ulf to sound that uncomfortable.
“Eh, I won't be able to see you and get home. It's too late.”
She wanted to tell him to spit it out, but it was a little bit cute the way he avoided the topic. And I'm so not going to suggest a taxi. “Want to meet somewhere?” she teased.
She could picture him fidgeting with his phone as she made her way uphill. If he didn't say anything she'd lead him on when she rolled downhill after the crest.
“Is it OK… I mean… would you agree to me...”
You're really dense sometimes. Ulf, don't you understand I want to? “I can't hear you. Could you say again?”
“Can I come over to your place?”
Finally! Her heart took a giant jump and she had to clear her throat. “This late?” she asked, more to force a confirmation than anything else.
“Yeah,” he said. It sounded as if he was choking, “about that. I won't be able to go home, and… no, maybe it's better if I...”
Oh no, you don't! “Come home to me now!” Christina shouted. When she looked behind her the bodyguard stared at her from atop his bike. Thank all gods I spoke Swedish!
She could hear Ulf running, and there were muted shouts of surprise in the background. “I have to go,” she heard him saying to someone where he was. “I'm on my way,” he said to her in Swedish.
Real smooth Ulf. Just start shouting in Swedish to make sure no one understands you're going to meet the only other Swede in school. Idiot! My precious idiot. Christina kicked up speed. Now she only wanted to get back to her apartment as fast as possible.
He's staying over! I can make this work again. I can make you stay by my side. Ulf, I love you!
With her heart filled with joy she pushed her bike to its limit. She'd been given another chance at the love she valued so much it hurt her every evening she spent restarting the only career she knew she could master.
It was a strange feeling loving this strongly. It was stranger still that she managed to spend so much time apart from him, but tonight she would have him all to herself. A chance to give their relationship a transition and restart.