With the unexpected arrival of trucks carrying everything in her wish-list, Noriko dared lean back in her chair and sort out other problems in her enormous inbox.
Stay busy. Stay occupied. Make sure you don't have time to worry about him.
She leaned further back and rested her head on Nao's shoulders. He sat on a chair behind her and hugged her. Had done so since she forced herself to shoulder the broken remains of Urufu's planning. Not once did he comment on how her mind was full of another man.
“Noriko?” Her radio crackled, and the led light stared accusingly at her.
She smirked and pushed the button. “Noriko here.”
“Kyoko here. You can move half the security from the service gates. I don't think the police will leave it before the festival ends. Over.”
“Thank you.” For once Noriko remembered Urufu's instructions from the day before. “Over and out.”
She split the four students from 9:1 into two pairs, had one take a break and the other carry supplies to the stalls needing it most. With a scowl she realised that was just about every stall on the main street.
“Nao, help me,” she said. She sighed and rose from her chair with the help of her arms. All strength long gone from her limbs, she needed physical support to move from their office area to the lounge part.
He didn't answer, but he put his right arm around her and held her waist with his hand. It probably looked a bit indecent, but it allowed her to sag in his embrace without falling to the floor.
It's time for some bad acting. Here goes nothing. “Guys,” she said facing the club members. “We don't have time for apathy now. Urufu worked his arse off to make this work, so why the hell are you sitting here you lazy bastards?”
She only wanted to join them, but in the long run that wouldn't make anyone feel better.
“Shut up bitch!”
“I'll shut up when you start working again. Urufu and Kuri are absent. That puts me in charge here. Get the hell out of here and fill up the stalls!” Does that make me sound arrogant enough? Did I make them angry enough to care again?
A couple of members growled, but stood anyway. “Whatever, you piss-ant,” Nori-kun said. “You heard the midget bitch. Let's get moving before she starts wailing.”
Screw you! Noriko stared at Nori-kun as he led a team through the door. Wait a minute, did you just wink at me?
“Yeah, this room stinks of bad mood. I'm off as well,” Hitomi-chan said and got another half a dozen members moving.
Noriko wanted to thank the beauty in Urufu's class, but something told her the timing was off. I deserved that. Thanks guys, seeing through my act and playing along with it anyway.
After that the remaining members walked out in pairs or small groups, and as the room emptied the festival committee members present got livelier. Slowly the club room transformed into the headquarters it had been before the assault on Urufu.
Back at the desks in the office area two festival committee members threw her searching glances, and Kenshin-sempai, the council treasurer, had a playful smirk on his lips.
Noriko wiped some non-existent sweat from her brow and walked up to the windows. Somewhere out there Rie-sempai was making herself useful rather than stalking Yukio. That in itself earned her a name upgrade from merely being the nameless student council president.
Below the windows Noriko saw the bike-stand that indirectly had brought Yukio and Urufu into her life, even though she now knew Urufu would have contacted Kuri sooner or later anyway.
Almost half a year. Has it been that long already? She put her hands to the window pane and listened to Nao coming up behind her.
“Noriko, I'd better help as well. Call me if there is anything.”
Don't turn around. Her need to have him close to her almost overwhelmed her, but he was right. She duped the rest of the club into work mode, and with that she lost all rights to enjoy time with him.
He squeezed her shoulder gently and left the room.
He knows my mind is full of Urufu. I should be more grateful for his strength when I feel this helpless. She took a step backwards, turned and sat down by a desk. With a pang of regret Noriko pushed the button to the radio and called Yukio for a bird's view report on the situation on the school grounds.
The short conversation helped a bit with taking her thoughts from Urufu and whatever hospital he had been taken to. Checking off the items on her laptop helped some more, and by the time she ordered two club members onto the right wing rooftop some of the joy of juggling the festival chaos returned to her.
Another two hours and we're done.
Two hours of keeping it together. The chaos wouldn't get worse, because with Kuri absent most of the sensation seekers left the school as well. The festival stayed crowded beyond reason though. While many guests left, a lot of those caught in the queue outside the gates opted to go inside for lack of anything better to spend their Sunday afternoon on.
This is about the amount of insanity I can handle. Noriko sighed, but when the last of the air left her she allowed her face to split into a smile. She couldn't do anything about Urufu, but she could do something about the here and now. That was good enough.
Watch me, idiot bro! Watch your midget sister grow into a giant!
Over the radio Ryu heard how his sister got things more and more under control, and by now both student council and festival committee were firmly dedicated to finish the festival in good style.
He decided to spend the last hour and half together with the girl from Irishima High who hooked up with him a little earlier. According to her they had met before summer break, and he owed her a goukon.
Ryu did have a vague recollection of bantering with a group of girls on his way to the old mall, and when she insisted they had already exchanged email-addresses he put her to the test.
That event took place just before he decided to spend the afternoon with her, led to him spending it with her if he was honest with himself. Ten seconds it took before his phone flagged an incoming mail. Ryu's weakness for girls who dared him and won got the better of him.
She had an older brother here, or had had if he understood her correctly. The brother of hers transferred abroad, to their sister school in Sweden of all places.
There was an interesting tale involving a girl to be told, and Ryu made a mental note to himself to check it out later, but right now he wanted to get to know the tomboy by his side better.
He turned in the direction she wanted as yet another slap smarted in his lower back; her very special way of getting his attention in the noisy bedlam around them.
“You know I'll have bruises there if you keep at it?” he said to her.
“Sorry about that Wakayama-san,” she said with a toothy grin that revealed exactly how sorry she was.
Ryu pretended to growl and pulled her to the stall she pointed at. “Something to eat together with the Ramune, Ai-chan?”
She shook her head. “Someone's behaves pretty familiar with me,” she said.
“Prefer Hasegawa-san?” Ryu countered and exchanged some coins for two glass bottles. The girl in the stall gave him a long look, and Ai-chan an even longer one.
Ai-chan shook her head. “First name is fine.”
“Then call me Ryu, like everyone else please.”
The girl in the stall gave him another stare. 'Everyone else' didn't include those outside 3:1, their club or the remains of his fan-club, but he wasn't about to say that.
He had to shield her back from the crowd when they fled indoors, but as they climbed the stairs to the topmost floor the mass of people thinned out. When they reached the last flight to the rooftop he found them ample space beneath the windows to sit down and share a meal.
“Meat-bun?” Ryu asked and picked up some of his bounty from his bag.
Ai-chan gave him a pair of big eyes before accepting. “When?”
Ryu unpeeled the paper wrapping and grinned back at her. “Your third or fourth slap. When we rounded the corner to the main street.” He put his teeth into the food and waited for her to say something.
“Our cultural festival was nothing like this,” she said.
“Missed it. We were busy planning our own.”
Ai-chan nodded. “Juniors told us we never get many guests from Himekaizen. Sucks.”
She joined him in attacking the food, and they ate in silence only broken by two pops when Ryu pushed down the glass beads sealing their Ramune bottles.
Before they ran out of drink he produced two paper wraps with bean paste cake.
“Second last slap,” Ryu said before Ai-chan had the chance to ask.
She grinned sheepishly and downed the cake together with what little soda she had left.
“So how come you have time for me,” Ai-chan asked and pointed at his armband hastily prepared the evening before.
Ryu got to his feet and looked out through the window. He didn't have the time, to be honest, but he also didn't care all that much any longer. “Something came up.”
Ai-chan joined him by the window. “Something came up, and you got more spare time?”
Student council finally got their heads out of their arses, he thought, but I can't say that. “Yeah. A matter of getting your priorities straight,” Ryu said instead. You're our guest, and you don't need to know the one who managed this madness got jumped by those Red Rose bastards.
Ai-chan wiped her trousers clean. In Yukio's 2D world anything female spent every day all year round in short skirts, but in reality the girls were a lot more sensible than that.
During the walk here Ryu had made an effort to remember her. If she was the one he recalled from summer, she had filled out a bit in the chest area since then, as well as grown her hair some. And wasn't it dyed that time?
“What do you want to do next?”
She looked at him and smiled. “I'd like to visit that famous club of yours.”
Of all things she could have said, that was about the last he had expected, but it made sense in a way. Her brother attended the school on the other end after all.
Ryu dragged her all through the main building corridor to the left wing, past one classroom turned café and another displaying whatever the literary club found interesting or produced themselves. The next door was their club room.
“Sorry if it's a bit chaotic, but we're running the festival from here,” Ryu said before he even realised it came out as boasting.
Ai-chan grabbed his arm before he pulled the door open. “The cultural exchange club runs the festival? What about your student council?”
“We're helping,” Ryu said. The truth wasn't something he should tell an outsider. With that he peeled her hand from his arm and opened the door.
Noriko sat inside and looked up at him when he entered. Then Noriko's eyes wandered to Ai-chan and back to him again. Ryu smirked and shrugged. What could he do? Ai-chan interested him, there was no denying that.
“So, this is where we sit,” he said.
Ai-chan looked at the recharging rack with walkie talkies loading and stared at him. “What on earth?”
“We borrowed some,” Ryu said. Then he noticed the over-abundance of armbands present. He let his eyes walk over three festival committee members and student council treasurer who shared the office area with Noriko. “We help each other,” he added. Because you usually have four members of the festival committee sitting in your club room. Way to make an arse of yourself, Ryu.
A concerto of snores from the lounge area told him Midori-chan and Sho-kun took a break from the madness, and at Ryu's side Ai-chan bent forward to be able to see who produced the impressive sound.
Superb timing guys.
“Nothing more interesting to show your guest?” Noriko asked.
Ryu grimaced. “Most of the festival should be more interesting than this, but she wanted to see our clubroom,” he said and nodded at Ai-chan.
Noriko's eyebrows rose.
“Her brother transferred to Sweden,” Ryu said.
Noriko's eyebrows rose some more.
An hour earlier he pulled open the doors to their clubroom to swap radios and almost smashed into a girl standing by Ryu.
Yukio did swap radios in the end, but he also swapped places with Ryu. Thus it was he found himself on the ground helping guests leave through the service gates, with Kyoko holding his hand her own and waving frenetically with the other to the rooftop, where Ryu and that girl stood looking down.
The festival was all but over. The gym closed for the day, and the guests inside poured out onto the school grounds. Left inside half a dozen students prepared it for the closing ceremony, while Uniclo personnel dismantled their equipment.
This last rush with guests leaving the school was exactly what he needed to stop thinking of Urufu. To keep busy.
“Thinning out?” he asked Kyoko. Stupid question. She couldn't see anything more than he.
“No, I don't think so,” she said. Somehow she must have known he needed to keep the conversation running.
“Fine, I'll call it in.” Yukio did so for the umpteenth time and only received a tired 'OK' and 'over and out' from Noriko for his efforts.
Also with them was Rie-sempai, the student council president, who insisted on being on a first name basis with him. She stood a bit further away. The assault on Urufu shook her back to a reality where she no longer played the parody part of a love triangle, and she once more behaved like a person he could respect.
With most of the insanity quickly becoming a memory belonging to the past two days, the remaining work was of a kind the festival committee had planned thoroughly before the festival. With the help of the rooftop surveyors they closed off section after section of the school grounds, while the mass of guests thinned out.
On the other side of the gym Yukio saw students carrying chairs and tables. Probably the food plaza being dismantled. That was what he saw, but not what he thought of. Only the presence of Kyoko by his side prevented him from running to wherever Urufu had been taken.
She pulled at his arm and he moved with her. A few steps later they came up to Rie-sempai, and together the three of them helped the security detail through the worst of the exodus.
Then the mass of people suddenly thinned out, and the school loudspeakers blared that the 2016 Himekaizen cultural festival was at an end, and all remaining guests should head for the gates. Last came the mandatory 'we hope you enjoyed your stay and welcome back next year' line that was empty of meaning just because it had to be said.
Yukio sighed and left the gates. Security could handle the last guests leaving through the back entrance, and close the gates when they were done. At the moment more people were needed for dismantling the outdoors café before the finishing ceremony, and after that classes and clubs gathered together for a short self-congratulatory celebration, until the traditional folk dance around the bonfire.
With the exception of the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club. He doubted there would be much in the way of celebration for them, which was grossly unfair.
“Yukio, we're done here,” Kyoko said.
She led him to the main school yard, en-route the confession stands, which made him grimace a little, and her fidget, and they took up positions by the main entrance and directed people to the main gates.
In less than half an hour only Himekaizen students milled around, taking down parts of the stalls and everything inside. The festival committee finally had a chance to shine, and Yukio could focus on cleaning out the food plaza.
The grills would have to cool down before they could dismantle them, but stalls, tents, tables and chairs made their way indoors with stunning speed.
They were more or less done when a loud blare announced that both Uniclo trucks were ready to depart. Yukio called for the main gates to open again, and shortly afterwards he heard the heavy engines roar to life. Above the remaining stalls he saw the glittering trucks leave the school.
Yukio grabbed four chairs and watched Kyoko take another two.
“Let's get inside,” he said.
She nodded and followed him through the main entrance. Inside a festival committee member checked off six chairs on a list and told them to head for 5:1.
Yukio doubted that was coincidence. 5:1 was next door to their club room, and he suspected they were both deliberately let off a bit easier. A silent way to thank members of the club for doing work the last two days that in all fairness belonged to the student council and its attached festival committee.
Kyoko only nodded and carried her chairs to the left wing stairwell and started climbing the stairs. Yukio followed her a few steps below. He could see her up and ahead of him, and admired the view to the fullest.
“Perv,” she said without turning as she rounded the corner to the last half flight to the third floor.
“Indeed,” he answered. “Want me to stop peeking?”
Kyoko entered the floor and turned. “Don't you even dare! Peek at me, and me only!” With that she danced the first steps towards 5:1 so that her skirts lifted a bit.
Nice view, he thought and laughed. “Yeah, I'll peek.”
You're less flustered these days. “Cute.”
“No. You're supposed to say sexy.”
“Fine, cute and sexy,” Yukio said. That August field trip sure got us closer. “I love you.”
Kyoko stopped and turned. The colour in her face wasn't as much a blush as a sign of anticipation. “How much?”
He didn't say anything, but when he came up beside her he let go of his chairs and pulled her face to him. The taste of kissing you. I'll never get enough. There was no need telling her. From the way she met his kiss he understood she knew.
After a lingering kiss Kyoko slid open the doors to 5:1. They had to get rid of the chairs after all. She dropped hers by the desks closest to the door and pushed them under their respective desk.
Two members of the literary club were busy cleaning the classroom, and nothing here told of the book store it had been for two days.
“Good festival?” Kyoko asked more out of politeness than any real want to know.
“Superb,” one of the girls said and turned her head. She ceased wiping the blackboard for a moment. “We sold out.”
Eight thousand guests simultaneously. Fifteen thousand in total. You'd better be sold out. “Good to hear,” Kyoko said and headed for the door.
Yukio dropped his chairs just inside the sliding doors and followed her to their clubroom.
Inside she saw how Midori-chan and Sango-chan had dismantled the walkie talkie stations and were busy packing everything up in the boxes they had arrived in.
Kenshin-sempai, and the three festival committee members she'd never bothered learning their names, were still there as well. Kyoko guessed they'd gotten used to sitting in their clubroom, and there really was no point in relocating for the clean-up.
With tired steps she shuffled away to the fridge and grabbed a can of soda. Just before popping it open she recalled Yukio following her into the room, and she peeped inside again.
Lemon squash. He likes the sour stuff. She stretched an arm inside and took the can. “Yukio, want one?” she asked and waved the can above her head.
“Sure, and one for Hiroyuki-kun as well.”
Kyoko looked at the sofa where Hiroyuki-kun sat waving at her. Fine, guess you deserve one as well. She took out a second can and beelined for the armchair closest to the fridge.
“Lemon squash for Yukio and Hiroyuki-kun, here you are,” she said.
“Thanks,” both boys answered simultaneously.
She barely had time to sink down in the armchair before she heard the dull clicks of two cans opening and the sizzling sound of pressurised air leaving the containers, allowing bubbles to form and rise. Seconds later both boys sucked foam from their cans.
Kids! Kyoko thought, broke open her can and tilted it to her mouth. The first sip was the best.
A quarter of an hour she spent in that chair. A quarter of an hour in blissful silence, when she allowed aching muscles to rest. A quarter of an hour before she began worrying about how Kuri-chan felt right now.
After that more and more club members left the room and headed for the gym. Clubs were of different sizes, most cultural ones too small for having a proper celebration, and for that reason the main evening activities centred on class and school. Clubs only gathered for a short time between cleaning up and ending ceremony.
When Yukio made company with the members recently transferred from Red Rose, she joined him together with Noriko and Ryu.
Too easy, too easy to forget there are more former Red Rose students than those in 9:1. The thought scared her a little. The thought and the secret she had been let in on. Most of her fellow students didn't know Urufu had been assaulted in the first place, and almost no-one knew Red Rose high school students were the perpetrators.
How are you keeping it together, Kuri-chan? Kyoko scowled and admitted to herself that she didn't even know where Kuri-chan was keeping things together. Principal Nakagawa somehow arranged for one of the helicopters suddenly arriving over the school to take Kuri-chan to whatever hospital Urufu had been brought to.
“Thank you,” Kyoko whispered to Yukio when she felt his fingers tighten around hers. Are you as worried as I am?
When they arrived at the gym she had to let go of his hand as they joined their respective classes. With Kuri-chan absent Kyoko gravitated towards the Wakayama twins, and she exchanged worried glances with Noriko before they lined up.
Ryu kept up his stupid antics and got told off by their class rep twice before a scowl from Noriko finally calmed him down.
They're afraid both of them. Just show it in different ways. Kyoko suspected Ryu only knew how to be hyperactive whenever he needed to process something beyond his control.
Around them students she didn't even know smiled and showed her all kinds of approving hand signs. It feels strange, being a part of the admired group. Kuri-chan, you could have told me how to respond. Thinking of her friend had Kyoko's stomach in a tight knot again, but she forced herself to plaster a false smile to her face.
She noticed how a wave of sudden apprehension went through the crowd, and then the student council president entered the stage. Rie-sempai, or more properly Tamura-san for anyone outside the club, grabbed a microphone and served them all what Noriko would have called canned clichés. Kyoko even looked over her shoulder to catch Noriko's smirk.
A second serving of empty words rolled over them delivered by Principal Nakagawa, but in his case Kyoko knew it was all an act. She had no doubts who had called in helicopters and trucks after their frantic attempts at keeping the festival afloat failed, and the entire event cracked and broke apart around them.
When the last words fell silent, the student council president once more took the microphone and congratulated everyone. The entire gym erupted in cheers before the congregated students left for the soccer field, where the traditional bonfire folk dance was being prepared.
So it's been kept a secret after all, Kyoko thought. The jubilation had been too honest for anything else. Maybe it was the smart thing to do. Most certainly it was how Urufu would have handled it, had he been in charge. Still it left her with a bitter taste in her mouth.
Listlessly she followed Noriko to the field, and in the falling darkness Kyoko finally let go of her false smile. She'd save smiling for when she found Yukio again.
With the dance over, and most of the school empty of students, Yukio did a last round to their club room. It had to be a quick one as he'd left Kyoko waiting by the gates.
Karaoke bars all around Himekaizen were filling up with celebrating students, and both Ryu and Noriko promised to organise the club's outing this evening.
He and Kyoko had other plans though.
They failed to pressure Principal Nakagawa into disclosing which hospital Urufu had been sent to, but Rie-sempai was easier to convince, and she soon buckled under the verbal assault from Ryu and Noriko. Maybe he had helped a little himself when he gave her puppy eyes to the best of his ability. Good enough to have Kyoko frown at him at least.
Yukio opened the doors to their club room, went inside and retrieved the cell phone he'd left recharging there. With his phone in his pocket he quickly ran down the stairs, switched to loafers and sprinted across the gravel in the darkness, until he saw Kyoko's shadow under the lamplight by the gates.
“Hi,” Yukio said and waved to her.
She waved back, and with a step her dark silhouette broke loose from the gate post, and he could see her features when the street light gained access to her face.
She's beautiful, and she's all mine. Surprised at his own possessiveness, Yukio wiped off the thin smile that had begun to spread over his face.
“Shall we?” he asked.
“Uhum. Tell the guys in Haven?”
Yukio thought about it. “Why not. It's on the way anyway.” Urufu would growl at him if he learned Yukio hadn't dropped a last 'good work' and 'I love working with you guys' before the evening ended.
Thinking of Urufu washed away the last remnants of his smile from earlier.
“Good,” Kyoko said. “Do we tell them?”
Yukio didn't need her to specify what they would tell or not tell. Neither of them had any business dropping by the Haven café and continuing towards the station. That was in the opposite direction from their homes.
“We have to. Not all of it and not all of it the truth.” The thought of lying to the club members didn't sit too well with him.
“Call it an accident?”
He looked at Kyoko. Her suggestion sounded more callous than anything he had expected.
For a while he bit on his lower lip as he listened to the sounds of their footsteps and the occasional car passing.
“Yukio?” Kyoko said when he didn't answer.
He tugged his blazer tighter around himself and silently cursed his stupidity for not bringing a coat. “Yeah, accident sounds good,” he finally said. Accident was probably as good a lie as any other.
“Without Noriko we can't call it a mishap,” Kyoko added.
A mishap. Yeah, that would be Noriko. “Think he'll make it?” Yukio asked the night.
“He has to,” Kyoko answered. “Kuri-chan will break if he doesn't.” She fell silent but he could see her lips moving again. “As will you, and I don't want that,” she murmured.
Yukio suspected he wasn't meant to have heard that and refrained from commenting. “Yeah, he'll be fine,” he said instead. “It's Urufu we're talking about.”
“He's indestructible. All that training just to avoid tripping over his own feet. Guy sure knows how to take a fall. Trust me on this one.” Yukio knew he was rambling, but spewing words was better than handling the silence.
“Our kiddie siblings,” Kyoko agreed and showed him two rows of grinning teeth.
Yukio silently thanked her for playing along. He kept up his rambling, but from how Kyoko answered his hand with her own fingers, he understood she knew the real questions that were tumbling around in his head.
All too soon they arrived at the Haven café, and Yukio opened the door to the tinkling of the bell. A few heads turned in his direction, and a couple of arms waved for him to enter.
“Soz, guys, we have to go,” Yukio shouted at no one in particular.
A, yeah, they know he's hurt. “Yeah, gotta see what happened to him,” Yukio said. He waved at James behind the counter.
“Happened to him?”
OK, not all of them know. “He had an accident. That's why he left during the afternoon. We're on our way to visit him.” And if you buy that you've got bean paste for brains.
“At this time in the...”
“Sure, give him my regards.” The last interrupting words came from Hiroyuki-kun, who didn't look fooled at all.
Yukio nodded a silent 'thank you' to him, shouted a few celebratory curses and left the café with Kyoko. Guess not many people go visiting hospitals late evenings. He'd thank Hiroyuki-kun properly later for covering up his mistake.
“Think anyone believed us?” Kyoko asked.
Yukio stared up at the lamplights ahead and nodded. “Half of them I guess. Doesn't matter. As long as they don't try to tag along it's fine.”
Kyoko nodded. He could see in her face how she imagined what would happen if a dozen of them suddenly showed up at the hospital at this hour.
The temperature continued dropping, and when they arrived at the station Yukio sighed in relief at coming indoors, even if only for a while.
They would have to change trains once, and after that it was a matter of either walking for twenty minutes or waiting for a bus. Given the hour Yukio suspected walking.
“You fine with this?” he asked Kyoko. They wouldn't be allowed to see Urufu, but Kuri sat waiting at the hospital as well, and Yukio didn't know in what shape she was.
“Yes, I'll be fine. If anything she needs me right now.”
I always forget she's as close to Kuri as I am to Urufu. “OK, let's do this then,” he said and led her to the platform.
Kyoko held onto his hand, and he could see her hair flying when they ran down the stairs. The next train would arrive in mere minutes.
Apart from her breathing her world was silence.
She'd once seen those eyes in her earlier life. The eyes of doctors who hadn't given up but were too worried to answer straight.
He might not make it. Ulf, stay with me!
Tomorrow was school, and after school a photo shoot. She'd skip both. Normally the penalty for bunking could be quite harsh, but she doubted anyone would dare doing anything to her now.
Coming down on the girlfriend at hospital when you don't know if the boyfriend will survive. No one would do that. Christina shook her head. I did that. Crap what a disgusting person I was!
Cause she had. When she was the Billion Dollar Empress, and he hadn't survived.
It didn't matter that the boyfriend in question had it coming with drug-dealing and burglaries on the territory of another gang. Not even Christina was out of the loop enough not to know that was suicidal in Paris.
It still didn't matter, because the teenage model was a wreck, and could have used some help instead of being slammed by the hammer of God Almighty from Chag.
Shit, I really did an awful thing. Is this my punishment?
Five hours. Five hours since they rushed Ulf inside the ICU.
She hated being this helpless, being this scared, being this lonely.
Five hours and two minutes.
Unable to contain her fears Christina finally slid from her chair and collapsed on the floor. She was alone in the waiting room, so at least she had her dignity intact for whatever that was worth.
Outside the hospital her bodyguard stood waiting. Maybe he should have been inside with her, but he was just as human as she, and for once he gave her some time alone. Did she want it? Did she need it? Christina didn't know, couldn't know, with her mind a jumble of fear, self-disgust and scattered memories.
Do I still deserve friends?
She threw a glance at the clock on the wall. Another minute.
Behind her glimmers from the Tokyo half night reflected in the windows, like stars never seen here where real darkness was shunned more than anywhere else in the world. Man-made constellations replaced those she knew from her childhood. Memories from another life and another world, memories somehow shared with the man she was slowly losing.
If he lived or not wouldn't change that. For every day they grew closer together, and for every day they grew closer to the moment when their bond would break. Waiting in the hospital only made that fear much more immediate.
With a shake of her head Christina forced that thought away. It wasn't entirely true. If Ulf died she'd lose it all, but if their love broke she still had a chance to repair their friendship enough to at least share memories of that love.
I don't want to live alone again. Was that too selfish a wish? Maybe, but she didn't care.
Christina put her hands to the floor and got up on her feet. A bit further down the corridor she saw a vending machine. Exchanging a few coins for something to drink should kill a few more minutes, and she was desperate to make time pass.
Funny that. These could be the last moments Ulf is with me, and I just want them to go away.
She put another copper coin into the machine and watched a range of buttons light up. Soda or tea? She made the adult choice and picked tea. Almost immediately she regretted it. Alone in the corridor she wanted to pretend to be a child again. That way she wouldn't be as involved, wouldn't carry as much responsibility for what had happened.
Christina, you never ran away from your fears before, she admonished herself. And that was a lie, she knew. During her modelling career she had done just that several times. After she created her Billion Dollar Empress persona, less so.
The cold tea tasted bitterer than she remembered. October in a hospital corridor wasn't really the place for a summer's drink. She grimaced and gulped down some more. She didn't need to quench her thirst, only to kill time. Every mouthful of tea left more seconds behind her, and seconds became minutes.
She blinked away tears of fear and brushed down her soiled clothes. Once or twice on her way here she must have tripped, but she couldn't remember when. Once or twice since she abandoned her promise to Ulf, that she'd make the impossible come true and deliver a festival they'd both be proud of.
Why is that important at all right now? It's just a stupid school event. And yet it was important, because it was a promise she had broken. Another promise she had broken.
A few more steps brought her back to the chair that had been her home since she came here. She sat down and buried her face in her hands.
Seconds passed, became minutes just as she wanted, while she fought to control her fears and waited. From time to time a nurse came by, gave her a worried look and vanished again. Christina waited until the five hours became six and a mechanical hiss announced that an elevator had arrived at her floor.
She looked in the direction from where running steps came closer. Two dark shapes revealed their school uniforms, and within seconds Ko-chan and Yukio stood by her side.
“How is he?” Ko-chan asked.
“I don't know,” Christina said. Her world blurred until Ko-chan and Yukio became dark shapes again. “I don't know!”
She felt Ko-chan sitting down beside her, and when her best friend enveloped her in a panicked embrace Christina finally broke down in hulking sobs.
“I don't know. I don't know. I don't know!”
Noriko paid the cashier.
Only two rooms left, she thought.
Tomorrow she'd receive more than a few harsh words from their class rep, but Noriko didn't care. Joining the club members rather than going out with her class was a given, as it had been for almost everyone else.
“Bro, I've paid until eight, but after that anyone staying here will have to pay for themselves.”
Ryu looked back at her from a door opening. “We'll only be one room by eight. I've told them already.”
When did you grow up to be this reliable? Noriko nodded and gave her brother a smile. More and more often he deserved her approval these days.
And who was that Irishima High girl? I can't recall seeing you spend so much time alone with one girl. Ryu without either harem or fan-club was a scary thought. You're changing.
Her brother, no longer 'idiot bro', left the karaoke box and walked over to her.
“Any news?” he asked.
Noriko shook her head. A Line message told her Kyoko and Yukio were on their way to the hospital. They should have arrived by now.
“Haven café or home?” she asked instead.
Ryu grimaced. “Haven,” he said. “We need to break the news to them.”
“Do we have to?” Noriko said.
“Transparency,” Ryu said. “That's the one thing Urufu is adamant about. They deserve to know, and we can't start cheating now.”
Noriko bit her lower lip and clenched her hands into fists. “How much do you know?” Distrusting her brother wasn't fair, but if he knew anything more she had to know as well.
“As much as you,” he answered. “Honestly. Nakagawa and Kuri might know more, and perhaps...”
“And perhaps Kyoko and Yukio,” Noriko filled in.
“And perhaps Kyoko and Yukio,” Ryu agreed. “You know, sis, I'm scared. I don't think I've ever been truly scared before.”
“It's Urufu we're talking about. The barbarian knight from Red Rose. He's too stupid to know how to be hurt,” she lied. The words came out strange from her mouth, and Noriko hoped Ryu didn't notice. One look at him told her he had.
“Yeah,” he said, “your idiot knight in shining armour.”
Does my voice sound that forced? It probably did, because Ryu's voice held no conviction. My knight in broken armour, more likely.
Looking behind her brother Noriko saw Nao leaving the room.
“Haven?” he asked when he arrived at the counter.
Noriko nodded. “Anyone else?”
Nao looked over his shoulder. “I think the rest from our box will join as well.”
As if to prove him true Sakura-chan and Nori-kun showed their faces and entered the corridor hand in hand. They were soon followed by Fumiko-chan and Hitomi-chan, and with that the remaining eight club members all fit inside the last karaoke box.
Noriko smiled at Nao and made for the exit. “I guess we're leaving then,” she said over her shoulder.
She felt his hand take hers, and when they entered the street outdoors her brother flanked her on her other side. Noriko could hear him speak with Sakura-chan, but as usual there were almost no answers from the silent girl.
With a smirk Noriko tightened her grip on Nao's hand and felt him respond in turn.
The evening turned colder, and she had to button up the collar of her jacket to keep the wind out. Within a few weeks a scarf wouldn't be out of order.
As they came closer to their destination, and for that reason closer to their school, they met more and more groups of Himekaizen students. Most seemed to be on their way home from an hour of karaoke bawling, and in the case of larger parties on their way to some restaurant to celebrate the most insane cultural festival in the history of Himekaizen.
Noriko waved to those she recognized, and their group was waved at from a lot more fellow students. Fame hadn't passed them by.
Before long they arrived at the run down coffee house they'd made their second home. Noriko gave students around her a cursory glance before she opened the door and entered to the sound of jingling bells.
Over a dozen culture exchange club members sat spread around three tables and cheered their arrival. When the karaoke die-hards finally arrived virtually the entire club would be present. Only four members absent, four of her best friends absent, and all of them at the same hospital.
Noriko nodded at James when he pointed a thumb in the direction of the espresso machine. Apart from her coffee she ordered some sweet cake and went to grab a table.
She looked up when Hiroyuki came over to her and shot her a worried look.
“I'll tell all of you later,” she answered his unspoken question.
Ryu, Nori-kun and Sakura-chan joined her, and behind them she saw James carry a tray with their orders. Fumiko-chan and Hitomi-chan chose chairs at the closest table and hung their coats over the backrests.
Noriko waited for James to return with the last of the orders in a futile attempt to postpone the inevitable, but as he left for the counter with an empty tray pressed to his body all conversations around the tables silenced, and a multitude of eyes sought hers expectantly.
She rose and met the eerie silence from almost twenty club members.
“I have something to announce,” Noriko said and felt how brittle her voice sounded. “During today's fashion show Urufu was assaulted by visiting students from Red Rose Academy.”
It took the combined effort from Ryu and Hitomi-chan to silence the angry roar that filled the café.
“He was taken to a hospital, and some of our friends are there right now to find out how bad it is. I'm afraid that's all I know.”
“I'm afraid that's all I know.”
Kyoko tried to wrap her head around those last words. Broken ribs and punctured lungs. How bad is that?
Back at the chairs Kuri-chan had fallen into a fitful sleep with her head in Yukio's lap. Kyoko saw him caressing Kuri-chan's head, but rather than any jealousy she only felt pride for his caring.
It's your best friend. You must be worried sick.
Despite the nurse's advice all three of them decided to stay the night. Not because they could do anything to help Urufu, but because Kyoko didn't have it in her to desert Kuri-chan again, and Kuri-chan didn't dare leaving the hospital. Yukio, well he stayed for two reasons Kyoko guessed.
Looking up at the clock she noticed how Sunday had given way to Monday. A school day she was likely to miss or at least sleep through.
“Something to drink?” Kyoko asked.
She didn't wait for an answer, but walked down the corridor to where she had seen a vending machine on her way here. A few coins lighter, and loaded with an armful of bottles and cans, she returned to where Kuri-chan still slept in Yukio's lap.
Yukio nodded in response and looked up at her. “But let her sleep some more,” he said and glanced down at Kuri-chan.
With an effort not to wake her he moved out from under her and replaced his legs with Kyoko's bundled coat. Kuri-chan protested sleepily but didn't wake.
“It's warm,” Kyoko said and handed him a can.
“Thanks.” Yukio took two bottles nestled in her arms and placed them on the seat next to Kuri-chan's head. “Soda or tea?”
“Tea,” Kyoko said. She watched Yukio take the remaining can and put it beside the two bottles.
Yukio broke open his can and tilted it to his lips. His face turned upwards, and Kyoko saw him close his eyes as if that would enhance the taste of his coffee.
Do you know how beautiful you are? Kyoko twisted her bottle open and let the taste of cold and bitter run down her throat. She screwed the cork back on again and went to the windows. Outside the glimmering Tokyo night-lights shone their promise of a never sleeping life. An illusion, she knew, but in the capital of capitals, an illusion easier to keep alive than anywhere else.
“Want to sleep?” The words came from behind her back just as Yukio threw his arms around her and clasped his hands over her stomach.
Kyoko revelled in his closeness for a few seconds before answering. “No, I'll stay up for a while longer.” She turned in his arms. “I should be awake when Kuri-chan wakes.”
Hissing sounds of elevator doors opening announced a late entry onto their floor, and Kyoko tilted her head so she could see past Yukio's shoulder.
“Then I'll stay up with you as well,” he said.
She hugged him closer, but she never stopped peering beside him to catch a glimpse of whoever came to the waiting room at this hour.
Kyoko looked again. It was hard recognising anyone shadowed against the lights in the corridor, but it did look like Urufu's guardian.
“Yukio, I think Sato-sensei has come here.”
The shadowy figure stopped by the chairs where Kuri-chan lay sleeping, hesitated for a moment and moved as if to caress the sleeping figure. At the last moment it stopped and rose again.
“Let her sleep,” Kyoko said. By now she was sure it was indeed Urufu's guardian who had arrived. “Don't you think you've hurt her enough?”
Sato-sensei recoiled as if whipped.
“Kuri-chan told me about your phone call. Of all who said they cared for Urufu she came here first and you last.”
The last words made Yukio flinch in her arms, but Kyoko didn't care.
“It's not that easy,” Sato-sensei murmured.
“It's exactly that easy. When those you profess to love are taken to hospital you drop everything and rush there. That's how easy it is.”
Kyoko prepared herself for a stinging rebuke, but none came.
“How is he?”
Some of her anger ran off her with those words, but far from all of it. “What gives you the right to ask that now?” Kyoko said, and this time Yukio's arms around her tightened to tell her that enough was enough.
“How is my little boy?”
Something in that voice silenced the next stream of angry words from Kyoko before she even had a chance to voice them. She looked at Urufu's guardian. What she saw in Sato-sensei's face was less fear than rage.
“I don't know. Broken ribs and some internal damage,” Kyoko said, suddenly subdued. “The doctor's didn't want to tell me how bad it was. He's in ICU.”
Sato-sensei's mouth was a thin line, and Kyoko found it hard to understand how she managed to voice a reaction.
“They told me on my way here.”
“Why, why didn't you come earlier?” Yukio asked.
From his voice Kyoko knew he was still facing the windows. He never made an attempt to turn and greet Urufu's guardian.
“I was told an hour ago.”
“We called you as soon as we knew,” Yukio protested.
“You called my job. They didn't tell me.”
What kind of awful job do you have? Kyoko knew Sato-sensei worked with the police, but what kind of department kept something like this secret from their employees?
Suddenly Kyoko felt how tired she really was. She glared at Sato-sensei and let go of Yukio. “Promise you wake me up if anything happens,” Kyoko said and walked over to Kuri-chan's side.
“I promise,” she heard from behind her.
That had to suffice. Kyoko moved the drinks to the floor, moved her coat under Kuri-chan's head so there was enough to make a pillow for her as well and lay down to sleep.
Twice a nurse had arrived only to tell him there were no news.
Yukio looked at the rows of chairs where Kyoko lay sleeping head to head with Kuri. By the windows Sato-sensei walked the length of the waiting room. First left to right, stop and turn, and then back again. She had done so for the last half an hour, and remained silent throughout the time.
The clock on the wall showed half past two am, and a long day made itself felt in his limbs.
With a sigh Yukio rummaged through the last of his coins. Sato-sensei nodded when he shot her a questioning look, and he went to buy two cans of coffee. Come tomorrow his stomach would have him pay for his excess coffee-drinking.
“Black,” Yukio said as he handed over one hot can to Sato-sensei. He didn't have to. She had drunk nothing but black coffee since she arrived, but it was the polite thing to do.
Urufu's guardian nodded her thanks and opened her can. Yukio copied her, turned and walked back to where the undefined zone where waiting room and corridor melded into one. Back at the windows Sato-sensei resumed her walking, only broken by taking a sip of more and more lukewarm coffee whenever she reached a wall.
Yukio spent his time standing under a lamp and read the same poster he had read several times since Kyoko fell asleep.
A part of him wanted to shake her awake so he could get some much needed sleep himself. Another adamantly refused anything so unchivalrous, and a third told him he was a stuck up idiot. Kyoko wouldn't thank him for spending the entire night awake and leaving her to sleep through it.
He pushed the thought away and read yet another poster he by now knew by heart.
From the chairs he heard one of the girls stirring and moaning, and shortly after Kuri groggily sat up. She looked around her with panic in her eyes, until she recognised him by the bulletin board.
“Anything?” she asked and rose from her chair.
Yukio shook his head. “I'm sorry. They'll tell us when they know more.”
“What time...” Kuri stared at the clock above his head and scowled. “You let me sleep that long?”
He emptied the last of his tepid coffee and nodded. “No reason to wake you up.” Yukio looked at the windows until Kuri started turning. “Sato-sensei arrived a while ago.” There wasn't much point in telling Kuri Sato-sensei had been here for over two hours.
“You're late,” Kuri said to the walking silhouette. “I tried to reach you earlier, but they wouldn't let me through. I'm sorry.” She slowly approached the figure, and the last words had been faint enough for Yukio to barely hear them.
Why are you apologising?
“It's not your fault. You tried.” With those words Urufu's guardian abandoned the windows and walked to Kuri.
In the poor light Kuri looked like the older of the two women. Something in the way she stood showed her true age, and Yukio saw how Sato-sensei momentarily deferred to his fellow student.
I always forget who's the more experienced, he thought. And that she's not from here, he added mentally. What would Urufu have done?
The answer came surprisingly quickly. Yukio resolutely walked to Kuri and hugged her. “He'll be just fine. He always is.”
Sato-sensei glared at him with surprised eyes. She mustn't be too used to Urufu's alien familiarity with his friends no matter their gender. Kuri was the same, hugging people left and right.
“Thanks,” Kuri said and hugged him back. “You know him best so I'm sure you're right.”
I know him best? The very thought was absurd. He's my best friend, but I don't think I've ever gotten to know him. “Yeah, trust me on this,” Yukio said instead.
He let go of her and sat down beside Kyoko's head. Should I wake her and get some sleep? With Kuri awake it didn't seem like as evil an action as it had done earlier. They probably need to talk with each other.
Kuri looked at him, and in her eyes he saw that she had already read his thoughts. She nodded.
“You wake her instead,” he said. “I'll just take a nap.”
“Should I wake you if there are any news?”
“Yeah. Don't want to miss out on any updates.” Yukio could hear how unnaturally cheery his voice sounded. But I promised her Urufu will be fine. Doesn't that require me to be cheery?
He lay down on the seats Kuri had used before him. There was more than ample space for him. Closing his eyes he smelled Kyoko's hair and nudged himself a bit closer. This was the most like sleeping with her as he had ever come.
“Keep your mind out of the gutter,” Kuri's voice admonished him.
Did it show that much?
In response to his thought Kuri laughed as if she had read it.
Whatever the reason Yukio was glad to hear her laughing. There had been preciously little of that as it was. He dug his head even closer to Kyoko in an exaggerated show of affection and was rewarded with another laugh.
“What is he doing? Won't she wake if he continues?” That was Sato-sensei's voice.
For a moment Yukio felt a pang of guilt. She had to be just as worried as Kuri, but he hadn't given her feelings much thought.
“I plan to wake her anyway, so it's OK.”
Yukio wondered if Kyoko would agree with Kuri's statement, but in the end he felt rather certain she would.
Lying down his body slowly took command, and two long days' work made themselves felt. Yukio barely noticed when Kyoko woke, but he drowsily surfaced for a while when he felt her fingers digging through his hair. From a distance he heard her sharing the absence of news with Kuri and Sato-sensei.
I love you Kyoko. Urufu, get well.
The sound of Yukio's rhythmic snoring woke her for the second time in a single night. Kyoko's back ached from falling asleep lying on a row of chairs.
When she looked around she saw how Sato-sensei finally had fallen asleep as well. Kuri-chan stood reading posters on the bulletin board nailed to the wall closest to the nurse's office.
Five am. She had slept for less than half an hour.
I'm sorry Kuri-chan. I left you alone.
Feeling sorry wouldn't make Kuri-chan any less lonely, so Kyoko got up, straightened her clothes and walked over to her friend.
Kuri-chan shook her head. “Slept well?”
Kyoko grimaced and started stretching stiff limbs. “Does it look that way?” she asked.
“No,” Kuri-chan admitted. “Those chairs are just as bad as an airport.”
“Uhum. I've had my fair share of sleeping like this during my travels.”
She's remembering her previous life. “What was it like?”
Kuri-chan shifted uncomfortably. “Lots of aching backs,” she said instead of answering the question Kyoko had really asked.
Kyoko let her fingers slide across the wall until they met the border of the bulletin board. “Have you had anything to drink?” she asked when the silence grew oppressive.
“Lots,” Kuri-chan answered, “but I could do with some hot coffee.”
Mentioning hot coffee made Kyoko realise how cold the waiting room was. She sauntered over to the vending machine and bought two cans.
While she listened to Kuri-chan opening her can Kyoko pulled Yukio's jacket tighter around him. Without even asking she added her friend's coat as extra cover. It would be morning soon anyway, and she harboured little hope that they'd be allowed to sleep like tramps in the waiting room when more visitors arrived.
An hour, at most, before they had to get any news on Urufu's condition, or else they were likely to be forced outside.
How did we end up like this? She still hadn't forgiven herself for switching her radio off when Urufu got hurt.
Maybe it was punishment. Girls her age should study rather than fool around with boys. One look at Kuri-chan made her resent that thought. Kuri-chan had never been jealous of her, had never wanted her to stay alone or thought that Yukio was bad for her. Those were the words of her parents, and even they had relented a little after Yukio came to her rescue that evening.
Kyoko glanced at Sato-sensei's sleeping form, and after some consideration she pulled the coat closer around the woman as well. She was still Urufu's guardian, no matter how much she had tried to hurt him and Kuri-chan.
“She loves him in her own way,” Kuri-chan suddenly said. “Never believe anything else.”
“How can you be so kind to her after what she did?”
“Because I'm older than you are,” Kuri-chan said. “Because I understand she was never vindictive.”
“Kyoko, I'm rather certain she was forced to.” Kuri-chan smiled before she continued. “I wasn't at the beginning. I'll admit that.”
“I don't understand,” Kyoko said.
“You do understand that there are people who are aware of us arrivals?”
Kyoko did, and she nodded.
“I'm sure some of them don't like the way Ulf and I try to take control of our lives. For one, we're not behaving like the teenagers we look like.”
First Kyoko couldn't understand what was so bad about two teenagers behaving a little different, but then she had to admit that Urufu and Kuri-chan hardly were normal teenagers.
“Are you worth a lot of money or something?”
“Or something,” Kuri-chan said. “Yes, I think we might be worth a lot of money for the wrong people.”
I don't understand you. But that was only true to a degree. Somehow Kyoko understood that controlling Kuri-chan and Urufu could be valuable, but she couldn't see exactly how.
Kyoko sat down and leaned back. While she rested their conversation petered out into nothingness, and she watched how the cold, fluorescent light was slowly replaced by an ever increasing greyness as a new day broke.
She was about to fall asleep again when the sound of arriving footsteps stirred her fully awake. From the corner of her eye she saw Kuri-chan rise from a seat and hurry across the floor.
Kyoko looked up and saw a nurse accompanied by a doctor.
News about Urufu? Should I join them?
She decided against it. This was Kuri-chan's moment. She had waited the longest, and Urufu was closest to her. A glance to her right reminded Kyoko that there was another for whom Urufu was as important, and she rose.
Urufu's guardian shook off the hand Kyoko placed on her shoulder.
“Sato-sensei,” Kyoko repeated. “You should wake up.”
With a groggy groan Sato-sensei woke and met Kyoko's stare.
“Sato-sensei, there might be news about Urufu.”
Those words were enough to force the woman erect in an instant.
Kyoko pointed at where Kuri-chan stood listening.
Sato-sensei suddenly stood and blinked away any remaining sleep from her eyes. With worried determination in her face she took one step and then she rushed to Kuri-chan's side.
Kyoko remained by the seat Sato-sensei had occupied just moments earlier. It was only fair those two received the news first.
Please be safe! Please be well! Kuri-chan needs you, and you're my friend.
Even though Kyoko wanted nothing more than listening to whatever the nurse and doctor had to say, she forced herself to stay. Staring and hoping. She could at least do that.
I front of her the doctor seemed to finish relaying whatever news he had, and Kyoko watched Kuri-chan and Sato-sensei sag and then embrace each other. Then Kuri-chan slumped to the floor and began wailing like a child. She hugged Sato-sensei's legs and cried and cried.
Now was the time for Kyoko to join her best friend, and with leaden weight in her stomach she crossed the floor on wobbly feet.