When Noriko opened her shoe locker she found both her shoes shredded. 'Die bitch!' a sign at the back of the locker greeted her.
Nao-sempai, I'll have your hide for this! Noriko punched up a contact on her phone and dialled.
“Kyoko here. You forgot anything?” came the expected answer.
“In a way,” Noriko said. “Could you do me a favour and come down to the shoe lockers with my sneakers?”
She could hear the hesitation in the silence from the other end of the phone call. After all she could just as well have walked back up to their classroom and fetched them herself, but she wanted Kyoko to see this.
It scared her a little bit more than she wanted to admit. She'd never been the target of bullying before in her life, and even though she knew exactly what was going on, Noriko felt like something unknown out there was looking maliciously at her.
She understood that things would hardly degenerate the way they had done with Kuri during their first term. Kuri had been the stunning looker with only one friend, but Noriko was, without wanting it, part of her brother's fan-club from the very start. On top of that their club was up to thirty members by now, and she was one of the top three students among the freshmen to boot.
If things went down the drain for real the school was likely to explode with indignation, or at least all eight, no nine now, freshman classes. Especially 9:1. Rumours had it the new class included a few partially reformed thugs who took it upon themselves to patrol the school grounds in search of bullies.
Given what she remembered from Red Rose she almost believed it. Whatever went down in that hell hole these days couldn't be anything good.
She looked at Kyoko who arrived with a quizzical look in her eyes and a pair of shoes in her hands.
Noriko just pointed at her locker.
“What the bloody hell?” Kyoko said in a voice so far from her usual ladylike one that Noriko cringed. “I'll beat the fucking witches to pulp!”
Suddenly Noriko found herself wrapped in Kyoko's arms.
“I'm not going to allow anything to happen to you. Nothing!”
“Calm down, Kyoko.” But it warmed her that her friend cared so much. “It won't be so bad. I just didn't want to take it in alone right now. That's all.”
She was still wrapped in that embrace.
“Don't talk that way. Don't you even think of handling this alone! Kuri-chan did and I couldn't stop it.”
Of course! Noriko hadn't thought about it in those terms. Kyoko still felt guilty about the assault on Kuri in the locker room, and she'd been attacked herself just a couple of weeks earlier.
Noriko ripped out the paper at the back of her locker and crumbled it. “Don't worry,” she said and freed herself from Kyoko's arms. “I won't do anything alone. I promise.”
She wouldn't. The seed of a plan was already forming in her head. She had to go through it with the others, but she already had an idea how to shoot down this idiocy so hard nobody in school would ever think of going after her again.
Just prior to lunch break two days later the planned event went into action. Noriko wanted to make certain it went down to legend as well.
She slid open one of the doors to 7:2 while the class was still in session. What she was about to do should normally have guaranteed her a suspension, but this time the entire teaching staff knew what was about to happen beforehand, and with Principal Nakagawa's blessing things were about to explode.
It came at a personal price for her, but not one she found unacceptable.
“Sensei, I have an errand here,” she said.
He nodded and walked to the windows.
There were surprised gasps from the class.
Noriko walked up to the blackboard and faced the students. Nao-sempai rose from his seat. This was the agreed upon compromise to make certain he got off the hook as well.
“Noriko-chan, what a pleasant surprise,” he said as planned.
Her heart beat faster even though she knew what was coming. It wasn't just an act from his side, because he was truly aghast that his open interest in her had made her a target. She had to admire his bravery for coming up with this part of the madness.
You've been nothing but kind to me even though you know how I feel for Urufu, she thought, but it was time to repay his kindness with nothing but hard words once again. “Nao-sempai, you owe me for these,” Noriko said and dug up her slashed shoes from her bag and placed them on the teacher's desk. She waited for him to walk to her with a new pair and publicly give her the apology he never really owed her in the first place.
As he started walking the other door slid open as well. Noriko saw Yukio enter right on cue. Behind him students started filing inside, just as they did through the door from which she had entered.
Sixty students, including one of the third years who had assaulted Kuri. Principal Nakagawa had been adamant that she would take part, and both Kuri and Urufu agreed for some reason.
Noriko watched the stunned students in 7:2 twist and turn as their classroom was invaded. They stared at their teacher for help but none was coming. He just stared out the windows as if nothing untoward had happened.
Nao-sempai stood in front of her with her new shoes in his hands.
I don't want to do this anymore. I know it's your idea and all, but you'll be the one hurt anyway. Noriko looked at him and forced down the tears that threatened to well up in her eyes. I have the best friends in the world. Do I really deserve you all? Suddenly her plan didn't seem so smart any longer.
Down, she had to look down on him when he suddenly prostrated himself on the floor with her new shoes in his outstretched hands. That hadn't been part of the plan.
What are you doing? Not like this!
There were giggles, gasps and angry growls bouncing around in the classroom.
“My princess,” Nao-sempai began, and Noriko choked down a sob. “I humbly apologise for giving you grief. Please accept these as a small recompense for what I have cost you!”
Noriko had to get this over with as fast as possible. She had never wanted him to go this far. She quickly went to her knees, and as she did she heard Kuri draw for breath behind her.
“I accept your apology,” Noriko said. She choked down her emotions and took the shoes. Please stand up!
He rose to his knees and looked at her. “I have caused you pain when I wanted you to feel joy. I gave you grief when I wanted to give you my heart.” He stood and faced his class. “I love this girl, but her heart lies elsewhere. I want to go out with her but she already rejected me. If any of you hurt her you'll answer to me.”
There was no stopping the tears now. Noriko watched his back as he walked back to his desk. He was all blurry through her tears. Why did you have to go this far?
“Now if there are still some morons in this class...” Yukio began from the back of the classroom, just as they had planned it all along, but Noriko felt Kuri's hands on her shoulders, and through them she could feel how Kuri fervently shook her head.
Yukio fell silent.
What's going on? Noriko thought and wiped the tears from her eyes with her sleeve.
“Noriko, you have to answer him. Are you going to accept those?” Kuri said from behind her.
“Am I going to accept what?” Noriko looked at Nao-sempai. He sat by his desk again and gave her a smile filled with sadness... and hope? “Am I going to accept what Kuri?”
The hands on her shoulder tightened. “Look inside your shoes stupid!”
What? Noriko did as she had been told. “What!”
A pair of earrings, one in each shoe glimmered and glittered in the light. Two hearts with a white stone set in one and a red in the other. She took them out. They felt heavy in her hand. “Nao-sempai,” she said and looked across the classroom. “I can't… I couldn't possibly...” I can't hurt him anymore. I won't! “I won't accept these without knowing why I would deserve such a gift.” What am I saying?
He rose again. “I think you know, but just leave them on my desk if you don't want them,” he said and walked for the door. She just had time to see his eyes shift with disappointment.
Is he crying?
A low murmur of surprise rose in the classroom. The earrings were large enough for all students to see what she had been given.
Just as he passed her Noriko's hands acted on their own. She reached out and pulled at the back of his shirt. He must have felt the tug, because he turned and looked at her. His eyes glimmered just like the earrings.
He's crying. I'll make it work. I have to. “Nao-sempai, I like you. Please go out with me!”
“Oh dear!” her brother said from where he stood by the blackboard.
Even the teacher turned and stared at the unexpected turn of events. Noriko could see his reflection in the doors. Then she saw nothing at all, because her face was buried in Nao-sempai's shirt. His hands were on her back and she could feel his fingers, long and graceful like the rest of him.
Whatever comment her brother made was drowned in the shouts filling the room.
What am I doing? Noriko smiled through her tears. I promised I'd move on. I'll make this work. She moved her arms and held the small of his back. Nao-sempai was just too tall for her to reach any higher.
From the back of the classroom she heard Yukio shouting for silence. The second part of their plan was about to unfold, but she could just as well listen to it while embracing. It would be less embarrassing that way.
“Class 1:1,” Yukio said, and his voice was a mix of amusement and anger. “State your errand!”
“I'm Okamoto Akira. Anyone bullying Noriko-chan will answer to me.”
“Class 2:1. State your errand!”
“I'm Kimoshita Midori. Anyone bullying Noriko-chan will answer to me.”
“Class 3:1. State your errand!”
Over half her class had joined and the names kept rolling. “Anyone bullying Noriko-chan will answer to us,” thundered through the classroom. The implicit threat hadn't been lost on anyone.
The class rolls kept coming, and when Yukio began calling up the second years the mood had turned grim.
Nao-sempai never let go of her, not even when he answered for 7:2.
When the Suzuki third year finally answered the roll the class was thoroughly subdued.
The teacher looked at his class with open disgust in his eyes. “I think that concludes the lesson. Class dismissed!”
“I don't like it,” Hitomi-chan said. “First you and now Noriko-chan.”
Kyoko stifled a reflex to defend Kuri-chan. For once she agreed with Hitomi-chan, even though both of them had taken part in the brutal roll call.
“So what? It worked,” Kuri-chan said.
“No,” Hitomi-chan said. “It didn't work. You just turned the bullying around. Fine, you're both scot-free, but damn you've hurt a lot of people.”
“They deserved to be hurt.”
There was something in Kuri-chan's voice Kyoko didn't like to hear. Something hard that hadn't been there, not even when they were called 'the fatskies' early in ninth grade. Sure, Kuri-chan knew she'd become beautiful one day, but months of being called out for being ugly should still have hurt. Kyoko remembered how it sure hurt her.
“Kuritina-chan, please, you want the bullying to stop, not the hatred to start. Just trust me on this,” Hitomi-chan suggested.
Maybe Hitomi-chan wasn't as much an airhead as Noriko would have her to be.
“Shut up! You think you know so much about...”
“No, you stop it, Kuri-chan! She's right,” Kyoko interrupted and grabbed her friend.
Kuri-chan's face flared with hurt anger. “What, I thought you were my friend.”
Gah! How hard can it be to understand? “Kuri-chan, we both are. I'm your best friend, remember. I'm telling you she's right as your friend.”
“Fuck you and go to hell! Why don't you just shut up as well?”
That hurt. Before she could stop herself Kyoko lashed out. “Yeah, why don't I? Just like when you told me to shut up last time.” Pent up anger and fear loaded her voice. Kuri-chan recoiled like a whipped dog. “Dammit Kuri-chan, you know exactly how to hurt a friend.”
From the corner of her eye Kyoko saw how Kuri-chan cringed from the sudden onslaught. I didn't mean it that way. But Kyoko needed fresh air to clear her thoughts, even if it meant running from her friend. She needed Yukio. She needed to feel needed, and loved.
There were no tears in her eyes when she stormed away, and that scared her the most. She was supposed to be the cool-headed one, second fiddle or the wingman. She should have the back of her friend and be the voice of reason, but if she became cold herself instead of cool it was all for nothing.
Kyoko ran down the stairs the way she had seen Ryu do sometimes. Half a flight of stairs at a time. But she wasn't Ryu, and the outcome was a given. Halfway between the first and second floor she missed a step and flew headlong into the wall beside the windows. Another half a metre to the left and she would have vaulted through the glass and fallen to the tarmac.
The impact was still hard enough to make her groggy and she staggered down the last flight and walked into the corridor feeding the main entrance and the cafeteria.
She felt dizzy, and something was wrong with her eyes. Fuzzy figures stared at her, arms grabbing just like she had been grabbed that night. Kyoko veered away from the assault, fell into the vending machines and dropped to her knees.
She threw up on the floor.
Someone grabbed her from behind. There would be no getting away this time.
Yukio I need you. Yukio help me!
The world spun and someone rang with a hammer in her head.
“Will it scar?” a voice asked.
Where am I? Kyoko wondered.
“No, I don't think so. She split an eyebrow, but I could tape it just fine.”
There were curtains around her, and the voices came from the other side of them.
It hurts. Why does it hurt? Kyoko tried to sit up, but she was too weak and a feeling of being disgusting caught her all of a sudden. Leaning to her side she retched, and for some time there was only the heaving and the pain in her stomach.
When she came to again familiar faces surrounded her bed. Somehow she had ended up in the infirmary.
She saw a Yukio she'd never seen before in her life, and a Kuri-chan smaller than she could ever remember her friend having been.
“Happy now? Desert her when she's assaulted and tell her you hate her when she tries to help you? Just die you bitch!”
What is he saying? Don't do that to Kuri-chan!
“I'm sorry. It's all my fault.”
What's your fault Kuri-chan? Something was wrong with her. Kyoko felt it even if she couldn't understand what had happened. It was as if she was dreaming. I fell into the wall, she remembered.
“Just shut up and go to hell!”
Yukio, what are you doing? Can't you see she's hurting?
“I don't want to hear you're sorry. You hurt my Kyoko so just go away and die!”
Why are you so angry with Kuri-chan, Yukio? Kyoko's head began spinning again.
Someone grabbed Yukio. Someone slapped him. Hard.
“Shut up! She made a mistake, OK?”
Why Hitomi-chan, why did you slap Yukio?
Watching Yukio being hurt turned Kyoko's stomach all over again, and she bent to her side and retched.
“Leave her you idiots! She has a concussion!”
What's going on? Why is nurse angry? Darkness took her again.
“I'm not going to apologise.” Yukio still seethed with anger at the memory.
“I don't expect you to,” Urufu said.
They sat under the great sails outside the cafeteria. With only a day until the cultural festival the place had seen a transformation from student hangout to what looked like a festival area with almost finished stalls.
On the other side of the building, close to the soccer field, the international food plaza was also nearing completion, and the two friends had taken a short lunch break.
“You know, Christina was in the wrong this time. I'm not going to defend her,” Urufu said when Yukio didn't say anything.
It wasn't fair to his friend being this stubborn, but Yukio just felt helpless when Kyoko got hurt. “It's not your fault,” he started, “and I don't want to say bad things about your girlfriend, but it's...”
“It is my fault as well,” Urufu interrupted. “Christina's behaviour was out of line, but I agree with her initial assessment.”
When did you start learning Japanese words like that? “What do you mean?” While Urufu's grasp of kanji was still awful his spoken Japanese evolved faster than was decent.
“The bullying has to stop. If we're going to fight Red Rose Hell we can't afford this kind of shit on our own turf. Anyone try to screw you up they have to be put down mercilessly.”
Yukio stared at his friend. “That's harsh.”
“Uhum.” Urufu took another bite of his atrocious noodle sub and swallowed it as if it deserved to be called food. “Look, I didn't get to run a company because I was so damned friendly with everyone. I've fired a few arse holes, and once I made certain an idiot was blacklisted. Illegal yes, but damn that got the attention of any wannabe racists.”
He can be cold sometimes. “Didn't you get into trouble for that?”
“Hell yeah! We had to pay a hefty fine, but the dick stayed blacklisted all the same. Well worth it.”
Suddenly Urufu laughed at the memory, and Yukio stared at him again.
A few students, mostly freshmen, looked in their direction from the stalls they were finishing.
Urufu played in a totally different league. Not for the first time Yukio felt inadequate. “Man, sometimes I just don't understand why you stick around with me. I give you headaches and I'm just a school kid.”
The glare Yukio got in return for his comment was devastating. “Don't you ever ask that question again! I stick around because you're the bloody best friend anyone could wish for. I stick around because you stood up for me when doing so put yourself at risk. Fuck it Yukio! I'm the one honoured to have a friend like you, not the other way around!”
That was about as close to a love confession Yukio had ever heard in his life. The harsh sincerity in the words made his heart lurch even though he instinctively understood there was only a sense of deep friendship behind them.
“Sorry,” he said.
“And don't you bloody sorry me! Your girl got hurt and she's my friend as well. At least to the degree she accepts my friendship. Worst case I'll accept a one sided friendship crush on her if you get what I mean.”
Yukio thought he did. Urufu had absolutely no romantic interest in his Kyoko, but he valued those he considered his friends almost as much as he valued Kuri.
“I wonder,” Yukio said. “Sometimes I wish I could make you smile the way you made me smile, but it's only Kuri who has that power. I'm a bit jealous, you know, if you get my meaning man.” And that was for all practical purposes a love confession of his own. Friendship was funny that way. Two persons. Two he had found he was willing to risk everything for.
Urufu lit up in the grin that made more than a few girls look twice after him the last couple of months.
There's nothing left of your attempt to be part of geek squad, but there's also nothing left of the rebel kid from middle school. The thought was sobering. Urufu must have grown back into the man he had been before he arrived in Japan, even if he sometimes acted just as childishly as Yukio and the others in their gang of friends.
“Look, I'll talk with Christina. She wants to apologise anyway. Kyoko's important to her. It's her best friend after all. Deal?”
“Deal,” Yukio answered.
“Let's head back to our area. The poor sods there don't know crap about organising a large scale event.” With that Urufu gobbled down the last of his bread and rose.
Yukio downed his bottled tea and followed Urufu around the right wing.
No one knows crap about your kind of organising, he thought. Two thirds of the club were grouped into three teams of six members each and each team was given full responsibility of one third of the barbecue area, including coordinating work with the other stalls there. Another group worked with the fashion show and Urufu assigned three of the hardest working members of the club to be what he called the fire brigade.
That had come in handy more than once during the planning and set-up.
Yukio shook his head and followed Urufu to the barbecue area. From the almost industrial planning and set-up it was clear to Yukio that management consulting only played part of the organising here. Urufu must have some prior experience from setting up parties as well.
As they passed into the area Yukio found himself surrounded by people with questions. Most were from other stalls, and he redirected them to their respective culture club team just as Urufu had requested, but a few were internal questions. Among other things something was awry with the fashion show.
“What do you mean by ripped?” Kyoko asked.
“Someone broke into our club room and ripped apart the clothes we made for the fashion show.”
Kyoko sighed. This started to look just like what had happened to Kuri-chan early January this year. It had been their last term at middle school, and not everyone appreciated how beautiful the tall and skinny girl had become.
“Envious idiots?” Kyoko asked no one in particular. She got no response, not even from Midori-chan who had just reported the vandalism burglary. “OK, I'll have Kuri-chan handle it,” Kyoko said.
But first of all she needed to calm down a scared club member. She might look like a gorilla with that awful hairdo, but Midori-chan was just as scared and fragile as any other girl.
'Any other person,' Urufu and Kuri-chan would have said. They were kind of funny that way, refusing to accept the normal differences between men and women. Sometimes Kyoko admired them for it. Sometimes they were just a major pain.
Kyoko scrolled up her call history and punched the fifth last number. It should have been either the last or the second one these days. Yukio's normally competed for the other slot, but now things were strained between Kuri-chan and her, and they hadn't spoken much lately.
She quickly told Kuri-chan what had happened. There was a certain relief in hearing her friend's voice, but right now she would have preferred seeing Kuri-chan face to face. After the call Kyoko walked down the stairs to make her way to the gym hall. There had been a rescheduling, and for all effective purposes they now had to run the fashion show both days instead of only once.
Some third years with a lot of clout forced a beauty contest. An embarrassing misunderstanding of the American style prom queen and king, Noriko had said.
Above her Kyoko heard running steps. She knew those steps. Kuri-chan must have been running since she got the call. She did a lot of running between the festival planning room and the two events the cultural club was involved with.
At least 3:1 weren't involved with anything that Urufu didn't handle himself with that monstrous planning brain of his. Kyoko wondered how he kept up with it. 6:1 had a play to prepare, the club had both the fashion show and the barbecue area, and on top of it all another twenty stalls from several other classes depended on him by now.
She sighed and took a few more steps. More carefully now after she had experienced falling down them. With a bit of guilt Kyoko realised she would have preferred if it had been Yukio's steps running down the stairs from above, but he covered Urufu's back, and Urufu had already gained a hero's aura as a demon organiser. He was swamped with requests, and thus she and Yukio got very little time for each other during school hours.
Kyoko turned her head upwards and nodded to Kuri-chan as she bounced down the stairs. “Yo!” she greeted her blond friend.
“Yo! That was some time ago.”
It had been. A year or so. Both Kuri-chan's Japanese and English had been littered with stereotypical American slang during their early days of friendship. Friendship. The word made Kyoko's chest constrict.
“Going to the gym?”
“Yeah,” Kyoko said. They really needed to talk.
Kuri-chan suddenly grabbed both her arms. “Ko-chan, about everything. I'm sorry.” Her face was painted with worry and guilt.
“You're an arse.” Kyoko wasn't prepared to forgive her friend just yet.
“You're an insensitive moron.” And venting her frustration helped a little.
“You're an arrogant bastard.” But that was also an important part of Kuri-chan, and it had become a part of their friendship.
“You're my best friend.” Because in the end she really was, no matter what happened between them.
“What the hell...” Then Kyoko saw the guilty grin splitting her friend's face in two. “You're hopeless,” Kyoko said and shook her head.
“I'm sorry,” Kuri-chan answered and let go of one arm. Only one arm. She hugged the other to herself, and Kyoko found herself escorted through corridor, cafeteria, under the sails and all the way to the gym hall.
It didn't bother her at all. Kuri-chan's stupid antics were a vast improvement over the last days' estrangement between them. But their friendship had changed. It could never again be as innocent as it had been earlier.
“So how do you plan to solve the clothes?” Kyoko asked as they entered the gym.
They had to navigate some props for one of the bands that was going to perform during the festival. And by the scene she saw some freshmen from 6:1 working on the set of their play, but Yukio wasn't among them.
Kuri-chan held her answer while they made their way through the impromptu obstacle course. “I'll handle it with the agency, but there's another solution as well. I'll ask the old goat first,” she said when they were through.
There's only one more student in the school who'd dare to refer to Principal Nakagawa as 'the old goat', but only Kuri-chan would get away with it. “Ask Principal Nakagawa about what?” Kyoko said and acknowledged the livestock referral.
“Remember the fashion shoot last month?”
Kyoko pretended to study the students from 6:1. “Yeah.” Not that she had taken any part in those shoots. She didn't have the looks for it, and she knew Kuri-chan would only grow even more beautiful in the years ahead.
“Should be about time for Uniclo to launch that line about now. And the shoot ended up with a high school beach party special.”
Oh, you meant the last one when all of us were invited? “Yeah?”
“All club members are from this school. I think I can get them to sponsor a Himekaizen special, because it would tie in with that last evening.”
The answer confirmed her unspoken question, and Kyoko could see why that would need a green light from the headship.
You're amazing, Kuri-chan. Still, there were others who were amazing in their own ways, and Kyoko wondered what the Wakayama twins were doing right now.
Normally he would have flirted a bit more with the girls from 9:1. They kind of knew each other from middle school after all, but at the moment he needed them to help out with the chaos 5:2 and 3:1 were responsible for.
Of course he couldn't help flirting a little. He was the prince of Himekaizen after all, just as he had been the prince of Red Rose half a year earlier. Right now he used the latter fact ruthlessly. As long as the newly transferred girls believed they had more right to his attention, because they had shared middle school with him, they were prepared to help him with his plans.
When his phone blared alive he left it on speakers on purpose.
“Ryu here, what do you want Urufu?”
“Some shit happened to our props. Christina's on it, but I'm sending Yukio over to the gym to help out as well. He has to help out with the play anyway.”
Ryu stared at his phone. From around him he could see the girls giving him questioning looks. “OK? Noriko's tied up with sponsors for the rest of the day. I'm kind of busy myself.”
There was a muffled sound from the phone. Is he laughing? “Stop picking up girls already!” the speakers suddenly said. Oh, no the bastard can see me from wherever he is. He's helping me.
Ryu understood he'd been given a cue, but he wasn't exactly clear what it was. While their friendship had grown rapidly the last month, he still couldn't communicate by silent magic the way Yukio and Urufu sometimes seemed to do. He had to play the cards he'd been given by heart.
“Hard to avoid,” Ryu started. “I'm with the only thing good Red Rose had to offer.”
The girls closest to him giggled with pleased amusement, and a couple of them blushed as well.
“With you saying that I assume you're dating a full length mirror right now.”
Now it was Ryu's turn to blush. Bastard! Then he laughed. “Wall mounted, Urufu. Wall mounted or it would be too small.”
“Yea yea, leave the toilet and get out here.”
So he's pretending he can't see me. OK means I'm playing it right. “No need. I'm with the only real red roses from my middle school.”
That bought him more than a few gasps and shouts of admiration.
Above him the sky had clouded over, but there would be no rain for the length of the festival. He gave the clouds some more stares while he pretended to think about what Urufu had said.
“Ryu, can you handle your side of this. I had a chat with Christina, and I need to get some extra funding to set up a couple of unplanned stalls.”
What's going on? “Sure, I can handle things here. At least with the help of girls I can trust.” And there he played the final card given to him by Urufu.
Ryu only needed a glance around him to see that they had bought it all. It wasn't fair, and it was a bit underhanded. Just like Urufu had taught him to work when time was of essence.
“Superb, I knew I could count on anyone leaving that hell hole,” Urufu said and sealed the deal. With 9:1 you could trust their almost fanatical hatred of Red Rose.
They closed the call and Ryu drew a deep breath. We're building an army here. There's going to be a showdown sooner or later, but I don't know what kind of war Urufu is planning for.
It was time to focus on the problem closest at hand instead. Ryu turned and shot the girls his most charming smile. “I have a small problem with my own class and some juniors. Would you mind helping me?”
“Sure, what is it?” It was a girl from what had been 9 – C or 9 – D in middle school, he couldn't remember which. Cute but not exactly a beauty. Bright though, and he wondered why she hadn't transferred to Irishima High instead.
He looked at her eyes. She bought absolutely nothing of that call, but she's still playing along. Maybe I've got an ally here. “The juniors wanted an outdoor cos-play café here, but they don't want to handle dishes. I need to use some of my classmates for the dishes and they resent it.”
“We transferred here too late for festival planning. I'm sure my classmates would want to take part in anything you need us for,” she said and confirmed his hopes.
“Urufu wants an international cuisine food plaza, and with some extras waiting tables I'm certain we could promise everyone handling dishes some slots waiting tables in fancy clothes, and get some spare time as well.”
She looked at him. “Urufu? There was one delinquent in Red Rose who was caught fighting...”
Ryu laughed. “It's him, but he never was a delinquent.” He looked at her again. “He's running the show, and trust me, he's very good at it.”
“Funny. Guess that's why he turned down patrolling the festival grounds then.”
So the rumours about the thugs are true then. “Patrolling?” Ryu asked to confirm his suspicion.
They had almost arrived at the centre of the local problem before she answered. “Yea. The student council wanted some help and asked some of my classmates they believed were suited to the task.”
Suited to the task. Damn, you're almost as cold hearted as Urufu. “And you just happened to remember Urufu being expelled from Red Rose?”
She blushed a little at that. With a smirk she turned around an almost finished stall and waited for him. “No, no I didn't.”
Aww, shit! Not another one? And he doesn't even try the way I do. Ryu grinned and beckoned one of the juniors from 5:2 to him. “So what brought him to your attention?” It wasn't very nice of him to ask that question, but with the festival about to start he couldn't afford any hidden friction between the members of his staff.
“I had a crush on him, but he didn't know any Japanese so I didn't know how to approach him,” she admitted.
Good thing you didn't. I'm sure he was still in love with that lost wife of his a year ago. But I can't tell you that. Suddenly Ryu felt awkward. “He's going out with Kuri now.”
“Kuri?” And it was as if a glimmer of hope had died in her eyes.
Sorry, but I'm going to extinguish your hopes once and for all. “Ageruman-san. She's from Sweden as well. You don't stand a chance, and I wouldn't root for you anyway, because they're both my friends.” It was harsh, but he didn't have time for anything else.
She threw a hand to her mouth. “Ageruman-san? The model?”
“Yeah. There's nothing coming between those two,” he said. And with those very words he slowly started to accept that it was time for him to move forward as well, just like his sister had done.
If he was honest with himself he treasured his friendship with Kuri higher than the thought of realising his crush on her anyway.
It was abusing her position, but with so little time left she had no choice. A call to the old goat secured the approval of involving Uniclo in the fashion show. Christina didn't tell him she'd call her agency as well. He didn't need to know that.
That was her second planned phone call, but before she could make it her phone rang.
Amaya? “Christina here.”
“Hello, there's something I need to talk with you about.”
What's up now? I don't like that voice. “Yes? I'm a bit busy right now.”
“I'll make it short. Could you please not invite Urufu over to your place anymore?”
What the fuck! “Eh, I don't understand.” Christina felt panic rising in her. She's supposed to be on our side.
“I'd really prefer if you broke up with him, but I understand you wouldn't listen to that anyway. So I'm placing a curfew on Urufu instead.”
Christina stared at her phone. The call was off. She had punched it off without thinking. We have so little time together already, and now this. Why? Why would you want to hurt us this way?
Tears came to her eyes. They did so easily, and they would as long as she was still a teen if she could believe that doctor whom Nakagawa had brought to the beach. There was little reason to believe anything else. She had been something of a cry-baby when she was a teenager the first time.
Still, that call had been blunt to the degree of idiocy. A frontal assault like that was guaranteed to be met by resistance, so why hadn't Amaya been slyer instead of behaving like a pre-teen bully?
It was an important question, but it was one Christina just didn't have the time to handle right now. Later she'd talk with Ko-chan and maybe cry a little more, but now she needed to get a fashion show running from scratch with only hours to play with.
Then her phone rang again. Unknown number? “Ageruman Kuritina,” she said in the Japanese way.
“My name is Alice Kerringer. I'm calling from Uniclo concerning our autumn launch,” a voice said in English.
“We're going live today. We've been in contact with your agency, but they told us to call you directly. We're interested in an event, but as you're still a high school student we got the impression there might be some scheduling issues.”
For the second time in a day Christina stared at her phone. Now that's what I call superb timing. “Yes, but I was just about to call you about a problem we have.” She sat down on the floor uncaring that her skirt would probably be stained from her doing so.
“Yes?” Now it was the other side's turn to ask that question.
“Ms Kerringer, our cultural festival is about to start, and some jerks destroyed our props for a fashion show.”
“Yes?” Christina could hear the rise in interest through the phone.
“I've cleared with our principal, and I was just about to call you to see if you had any interest in sponsoring us. Thinking how close it was to the launch and all that.”
“Ah, but we wouldn't want to seem partial to one school.”
Now that's just haggling, and a poor start to boot. “Ah, Ms Kerringer, the finishing shoot was with students from here, so it would fit in rather well. If I may say so.”
There was a short delay. “If I understand those kind of events only run for a few minutes. It's a lot of work for us for so small an audience.”
Got you now! “There are two events. The second one is a beauty contest, and that one should attract the interest of everyone for the duration of both days.”
Once more there was a delay of hesitation. The Kerringer person probably spoke with someone else right now. This was the final part of negotiations, and anyone downplaying Christina Agerman when it came to negotiations usually didn't last long in business. Or hadn't in her previous life.
“Unless we can have a camera crew there I don't see the use for us.”
You're way too easy to read. “That's cleared as well,” Christina lied. “The original plan was for my agency to sponsor the event with stock clothing, but I understand why they asked you to call me directly now.”
And that was about as far from the truth as possible, but Christina knew her agency would prostrate themselves and cry hallelujah, or whatever people in Japan cried, at the opportunity for a public display together with a local behemoth like Uniclo.
“We're not paying any fees.”
“Of course not. This is a school event after all. I'm doing this in my role as club president, but we would really like to be able to display your autumn line before it's in the stores.”
And that was another lie. Uniclo sold clothes about as sexy as Chag had done the last years, which was to say cheap and not sexy at all. Maybe not entirely a lie after all. It would be clothes that weren't available at the shops yet, and that counted for a lot.
Christina sealed the deal over the phone, and after that she quickly placed a call to her agency. She almost heard the hallelujah cries over the phone, and with that their show was on track again.
Now there was the matter of scheduling her models. All of them. Especially the one who didn't have a clue he'd be forced on-stage.
Her fame was about to explode, and she had already experienced breaking through once before. Whether she would become a national icon again or not was uncertain, but for the coming three months she'd become one of the most famous faces in Japan.
Ulf however didn't understand how fast his own fame was rising. Sure it was contained to Himekaizen only, but for all practical purposes their school was their world, and Christina planned to make her claim on him very, very, very public. Public enough to make certain it wouldn't be contained to their school any longer.
Amaya's call scared her, and it angered her, and it made her decide to put Ulf on the stage together with her. No one had the right to break them up. If their relationship broke down it should because of their own faults.
With new determination Christina punched Ko-chan's number. Amaya's call still made her need to cry a little.
Most of all she wanted to feel Ulf's arms around her, but he was probably too busy for that right now. With that thought in her head she busied herself for a few hours before she found a reason to go outdoors.
Ryu's delivery had been beyond expectations. Not only was the fight between 5:2 and 3:1 resolved, but they had gained another ten students from 9:1, and with that Ulf's remaining staffing problems dissolved.
He smiled remembering Ryu's heads up. Apparently a girl in their middle school with amazingly poor taste in boys had nurtured a crush on him before he was expelled. It was a little flattering, and he wasn't above feeling his self-esteem rising a bit.
Maybe Christina wouldn't think it was as fun, even though he trusted her to be mature enough to laugh it away in the end.
They hadn't been able to share all that much time together since the night he spent in her apartment. By any normal standards they should have been lovers by now, but that night they only slept together just as they had done at the resort her grandfather ran together with his wife.
There was no mistaking why she called him over, but when he got there he was just too emotionally drained to do anything, and in a way he valued her closeness more than sex.
Ulf rehashed that evening as he had done several times by now. They slept together and nothing else but was that what she wanted? Had she wanted more, and if so was she angry with him now?
Gah, I'll just ask her when we meet. No point in worrying on my own. This was one occasion where fifty was much better than sixteen. Knowing that in order to avoid misunderstandings actually talking things over was a perfectly acceptable solution.
When he had been sixteen, the first time, talking something specific over hadn't been the main problem. Talking with a girl at all was. He spent his two first years in high school with his tongue perpetually glued to the back of his mouth whenever a girl approached too close.
Third year less so after a second year took a fancy to him and tired of waiting. She made him her boyfriend with all the finesse and subtlety of a stereotypical caveman. She crowned her whirlwind campaign by kicking in the door to his classroom mid lecture, declaring she had come for her boyfriend and frenched him before he had a chance to rise from his chair.
Ulf grinned at the memory. It only lasted a little over a year, but before they grew apart she had reshaped him into a very different person.
His first. There was something about firsts.
He shook the memories away and turned to look for whoever had spoken to him.
A junior from the liberal arts section, but which class he couldn't tell. “Sorry, I spaced out a bit, what can I help you with?”
“We're the Latin seafood stall.”
Ulf dug up his phone and made a search. “The grill?”
“Yeah. There's a problem. We wondered if we could extend the barbecue instead. We could use the stall for sales only.”
There's no way they came up with this on their own. They're not club members so no one told them to think independently. “Who told you to ask me?”
The junior pointed over his shoulder with a thumb. Behind him Ulf saw Christina talking frantically into her headset while still making time to wave at him.
“Fine, we'll do so. Get your grills out of the booth and set it up at one end of the two lines.” Ulf drew a quick sketch on the ground with the two lines of grills and where he wanted the last two set up at one end. “Got it?”
He received a nod in return, and the junior returned to make the changes.
Christina. I should have known. But Ryu's getting damn good at this as well, so it could have been him. Ulf started walking towards Christina. If nothing else he could get a hug and a kiss from her before they were swamped with more work.
He made it halfway to her.
What's up this time? The girl looking up at him was a complete stranger. “How can I be of assistance?” Not much point in pretending I don't know she's looking for help.
“I'm from the tea club and we've been told to cooperate with the espresso stall.”
“Yes?” How bloody hard can it be?
“We don't know how. Just because both stalls serve hot drinks we're not the same.”
Ulf looked over her shoulder to where Christina still stood. She threw him an ironic smile and waved to let him know she'd wait for him a bit longer.
“OK, split down the middle.”
When he saw the girl's face mimic a question mark he pulled out the umbrella he had used just moments earlier.
“Like this,” Ulf said and drew two boxes on the ground. “You're organised in two groups like this at the moment. Split each group in two this way and merge the two halves. Got it?”
She nodded understanding.
“Each new group continues planning like before, but this time both groups will have knowledge about serving tea as well as coffee. Should solve your problem.”
The freshman girl, because her uniform gave away that she was one, gave him an uncertain look as if she couldn't believe such a simple solution would do any good.
“Trust me on this. If it doesn't work you can always come back. OK?”
“Thank you Hamarugen-san,” she said.
He was about to leave her when she suddenly tugged at his shirt sleeve. Ulf looked up and saw Christina glaring at the girl, and just then she let go.
“Anything more?” Ulf asked, but she shook her head and ran away.
When he started walking to Christina he saw how she had already made the distance to him. Amused worry played over her face, and Ulf had an inkling of an idea what it was about.
“Sorry about that,” he said to Christina, “but I don't do two girls at the same time so you don't have to worry.” But isn't that a lie? Isn't this cheating on Maria?
She smirked. “I hope you understand that 'doing' a girl means something else. Besides, you all that certain she was going to confess?”
So you didn't catch up on my lie? “You glared. If I wasn't sure before I was after that.” It wasn't a topic he wanted to spend time on. Instead he drew her close and let go of all thoughts. Her arms around his back and her body pressed against his was all that mattered.
I can never get enough of this. If I didn't know how much I'd hurt your dreams I'd declare my love for you from the rooftop for the entire school to hear. He knew he wasn't in the clear yet, but at least admitting to himself that there were two women in his heart meant he was moving forward another tiny step.
“Ulf,” she murmured into his shirt, “do you have some free time around two pm day after tomorrow?”
Reluctantly he let go of her. There was something in her eyes, like she had thought something over and made a decision. If it's important for you. “If you need me at two pm I'll make time.”
He was rewarded with a smile that almost made his heart stop.
Then Christina's phone blared and she had to take the call. After she affirmed something Ulf didn't understand he heard how she called Noriko.
Noriko ran to her brother and demanded all extra hands he had available. Outside the back entrance a truck stood waiting.
A truckload of clothes, literally. You gotta be kidding me!
She didn't really have time to explain anything, because the truck blocked most of the street.
More than a few faces turned their way when she ran together with her crew past the gym, across the pool area and to the service gate which no one had found a teacher with a key to.
It was late enough in September for the last remnants of summer to have vanished, and the end of the festival would see them change into their winter uniforms. Right now she was happy they still wore their summer ones as the rush to the truck was sweatier than she had expected.
Of those most concerned with the load none were present. Kuri and Nao-sempai were busy preparing for the show. Apparently walking the catwalk entailed more than just naturally looking good.
Noriko didn't know. She'd been part of Urufu's fire brigade from the start, and things like the sudden appearance of the truck was exactly what she handled. In all fairness Ryu should have been part of it as well, but as the festival loomed closer the more occupied he became with the fashion show. It was a given that he would participate, but Kuri said you could create a fashion model 101 course based on everything he misunderstood.
Just as she saw the truck her phone signalled an incoming message. Nao-sempai, or maybe just Nao now, she thought. They were dating after all. That thought had her fingering her ear where a dazzling piece of gold and ruby adorned it. The pain from piercing it was all but gone, as were the memories of the verbal bashing she received when she first arrived home with her earrings.
She led half her crew around the gates thinking of the tall junior. Nao, her Nao. It was a cosy feeling. Not the burning longing she once felt for Urufu but rather a sense of safety.
“One bundle at a time,” she shouted. “Over the gates, stack them over there and you four start lugging it to the gym hall!”
It took them a quarter of an hour to offload the truck, and when they were finished a short line of cars with irritated drivers stood waiting for the large vehicle to get moving.
After that they carried the boxes to the gym hall, a little like a caravan of ants with their load. Another half an hour gone when they had so little time left, or so she thought when they arrived with the second set of boxes.
'An increment must comply with a definition of done', Urufu said, 'and a definition of done should always result in something practically useful', but Noriko never understood what he meant by that until now.
Inside the gymnasium Kuri already had her models clad in whatever clothes were in the first set of boxes, and Noriko heard her instruct them how to wear those clothes and how to walk.
When Noriko and her porters arrived with the third set the modelling crew received instructions in new attire. All in all the loss of time could be counted in minutes.
As the stash of boxes by the gates shrunk the hangers in the gym hall filled with clothes tried on, and by the time the last of the clothes were carried inside the models looked as if they had a pretty good idea about how to change between sets in an absurdly short time.
While the exercise served its intended means, it also became a show of its own. An audience gathered, both boys and girls, ogling the models as they changed. Noriko heard Kuri shout a choice set of Swedish words to the boys, and there was no need to understand the language to get the message across.
Hitomi-chan looked more embarrassed than beautiful, and Noriko understood her perfectly. Changing clothes as a model meant spending a lot of time half naked in front of others, and no matter how much they tried to shield her with blankets, some of the boys always managed to sneak a peek or two while she wore nothing but her underwear.
“Kuri, club room,” Noriko suggested when she understood that nothing Kuri shouted would help.
Hitomi-chan gave her a grateful look in return and stared pleadingly at Kuri. When Kuri started to shake her head Noriko grabbed one of her arms and yanked.
“Club room. This isn't Sweden. We're not used to having boys stare at us that way.”
“If you want to work as a...”
Noriko didn't allow Kuri to finish that sentence. “This isn't work. It's a school event, and Hitomi-chan shouldn't have to go through this.”
Kuri backed down at that. Almost. “But the clothes?”
It made sense. The ones they planned to use from the start lay in the burner after someone shredded them. “I'll assign people to guard duty here, OK?”
Kuri nodded, and shortly afterwards Noriko watched her leaving the gym hall together with the models. They carried a box each. Enough to continue training, but most of the clothes were still here. Another half an hour later saw all boxes empty and the hangers filled to capacity.
Now the time had come for the more difficult part. Kyoko was bound to scream bloody murder when she found out.
Kyoko stared at the bulletin board. Is this a joke?
Signed by the student council the short-list for the beauty contest sat neatly nailed to the official slot only the council could use.
During the last days' worth of frantic planning she recalled voting for Kuri, and mostly out of loyalty, for Yukio as well. She felt some heat rising to her cheeks. In her world he deserved a spot among the five, but she also preferred having him to herself without any competition.
She read the list of girls again. Kuri-chan first with close to a third of all votes, but that was expected. That she'd end up the winner was a given. After her name Kyoko read a second year unknown to her. Hitomi-chan's name after that wasn't exactly a great surprise, and after their show of strength ending the bullying attempt, neither was Noriko's. The last name, however was a major surprise.
Why the hell am I on that list?
There had to be something wrong, and she hoped it would be cleared up soon. As an afterthought she threw a look at the boys' list as well.
Ryu's first with over ten percent of all votes and after him, with almost as many, Nao-sempai's name looked down at her. So far no surprises. Urufu at third place would have been an impossibility a few months earlier, but given his rising fame the last weeks Kyoko wasn't really all that surprised to find his name there.
The list petered out with two third years as unfamiliar to her as the second year girl.
I just have to find the clown who put my name on that list tomorrow morning, before the real voting starts. But first she needed to join the rest of the club.
An hour of negotiation earlier that evening, between headship, student council and the club saw Urufu in charge of patrolling the school grounds in addition to his other chores.
Kyoko remembered watching the first real quarrel between Kuri-chan and Urufu before she left for home to wash and collect some clothes in a bag before returning to school.
Her parents scowled, but the signed slip from Principal Nakagawa was enough to silence their protests, and now she was back in school with the underwear and toiletry needed for two nights on a hard floor.
After making her way up the stairs she walked through the empty corridor and slid open the door to their club room.
What on earth?
The lounge area had given way to a sea of futons, air mats and closed foam pads.
“When did this happen?” she asked into the air.
“Dunno, but I know Hamarugen-san is who happened,” a voice answered. There was a tinge of awe in it.
Kyoko turned in the direction of the voice. A freshman she couldn't remember seeing before sat by a desk in their office area. An enormous freshman with spiky, orange hair, irregular school uniform and an armband in his hands. She wasn't certain but it looked like the kanji for 'security' on it.
“Who are you?” she asked, too perplex to be afraid.
He rose so quickly he almost overturned his chair. Then he gave her the most formal bow she had received in her live. “My name is Goto Daisuke. I apologise for my unseemly appearance Takeida-san.” His choice of words changed to the extreme formal as well.
He's sure got the build for it, Kyoko thought and shot the hulking frame an amused stare. Wait a minute, why does he know my name?
“You're not a club member, so why are you in our club room?” She really wanted to fish for an answer to her earlier question, but she couldn't think of a polite way to do so.
He slowly rose to his full length. “Matsumoto-san told me to lay out the beds.
Kyoko looked at the lounge turned sleeping area and nodded. Urufu placed a few phone calls and this stuff magically appeared here. She shook her head as pieces of a puzzle slowly came to place in her head. One question would confirm her theory.
“Yes. I'm honoured that Takeida-san knows me,” the giant said and bowed deep again.
Confirmed, but I don't really know you. I only guessed. Kyoko chose not to phrase that in spoken words. There was no point in insulting him. So the rumours about the former Red Rose thugs were true after all. She should have known, but 9:1 had their home room in the left wing and she had little to no reason visiting them during school hours.
Behind her the door slid open and a few club members arrived. They must have come with the same train. Another half an hour and she expected to see the club room alive with its usual club hours’ chaos even though it was far too late for any normal club hours.
They'd take turns patrolling the school grounds twenty four hours a day until the end of the cultural festival. For most of the club members two nights sleepover at school would be an adventure.
While she understood Urufu’s irritation at being saddled with yet another responsibility, she also trusted him to calm down in the end. To make sure of that she sent Kuri-chan an email ordering her to apologise to her boyfriend and make up with him.
After all Kyoko guessed she was the only one allowed to slap her tall friend around in that manner. She suspected not even Urufu dared doing so, but allowed to or not he was still the one paying with additional work for Kuri-chan's request to get the clothes provided by Uniclo secured. They couldn't afford another sabotage.
When Yukio finally returned from his father's home with a large backpack she only allowed him to dump it in the club room before she led him upstairs by his arm.
Below them almost half of 9:1 had joined the club members for the overnight stay, and three pairs with flash lights and radios were already patrolling the school.
Kyoko didn't care. She'd team up with Yukio in two hours, and she didn't plan to sleep until then. Not with the bribe in her pocket. The rooftop key she received from the student council president in return for nudging Kuri-chan to request added security. Kyoko almost felt a bit guilty on Urufu's behalf. Almost, but two blankets in one arm, Yukio in her other, and the prospect of two dark hours alone with him quickly brushed away any concerns.