One grey day in mid-October Kyoko left the funeral with lips a thin line on her face as she tried to keep her thoughts together.
In difference from most her age she wore a set of proper mourning clothes; one morbid benefit of being raised as a proper girl.
It took some time to accept the black irony. More than just time if she was to be honest with herself. The unexpected death of a friend left her strangely empty and more than a little ashamed.
One misstep during an act of celebration was all it took. One relieved laugh too many and one glance in the wrong direction.
Three of them were hit by a drunk driver. One of them died on his way to the hospital where the other two now shared a room next to Urufu's, the very person they were on their way to visit when fate dealt them a dirty hand.
Kyoko knew she should feel grief, but she didn't. She never got to know Urufu's and Yukio's dead classmate that well to begin with, and from the little she had seen he was a rather shy member of Kuri-chan's fan club, one who hadn't chosen to join the club to get closer to her.
There was the matter of her shame as well. The reason her heart was full of relief rather than grief. That day Yukio had pulled her back when she almost stepped into a puddle, and in doing so he spun around just enough to avoid the swerving car. Or almost avoid it, because a rear mirror caught his blazer and tore it off him.
Kyoko still remembered her entire world filled with cloth and Yukio's surprised shout. She hadn't even seen how Yukio's classmates were mauled by the car.
They hadn't told Urufu yet. He was still unaware of the two classmates only a wall away from him, and in the end Kyoko found herself forced to cajole Yukio into telling his best friend the bad news. And that was the reason she was on her way from a funeral to a hospital with an unwilling boyfriend in her tow.
“If you don't I will,” Kyoko said to Yukio. “Tell him, that is,” she continued just in case she had understated the obvious. He wasn't going to wriggle himself out of it this time, and with her in mourning dress he didn't stand a chance.
Yukio grimaced but held on to her hand and followed her. It felt strange leading him on. Usually he was the one to decide, but it created a balance of sorts.
“Improper for a woman,” her parents would have said. Thinking about her parents Kyoko admitted to herself that her mother wasn't as meek as Kyoko once had believed. Her mother would still have said those words, but Kyoko remembered how she bulldozed right over her father that evening when Yukio got hurt.
I guess she's behaving improperly in a proper way. Gods! I hate that kind of deception.
“What's on your mind?” Yukio wondered.
Kyoko tugged her coat closer around her and pretended she hadn't heard anything. As if I'm above being deceptive myself, she realised. It couldn't be helped. She had no reason betraying her parents in that way when she wasn't even certain they deserved it.
From the way Yukio tightened his grip on her hand she suspected he understood.
They took a bus, changed to a local train and from that to a bus again. Almost two hours later they walked the last bit to the hospital. Most of that time they spent in shared silence.
Will Kuri-chan be there?
She did spend time by Urufu's side, but not to the degree Kyoko initially had suspected. Apart from that Monday, after they spent a night in the waiting room, Kuri-chan hadn't missed a single day in school, and Kyoko knew her friend had taken up her modelling job as well.
It's as if Urufu would be angry with you for wasting time with him, Kyoko thought. I don't understand the two of you.
She herself missed most of a full week when Yukio was hospitalised, and for once her parents hadn't said a word about her skipping school.
“Yukio, you know when he'll be discharged?” Asking that question wasn't really fair. As if being best friends with Urufu automatically gave you more information.
“Sorry, no. Maybe they'll tell us today,” Yukio said.
Kyoko said nothing. She only held on to his hand when they entered through the sliding doors and walked to the elevators.
Several floors later they left the lift and came out in a corridor much like the one they spent a night by, but Urufu was moved from ICU to some kind of convalescent area. Kyoko didn't understand the hospital organisation all that well.
Before they visited Urufu Yukio had to go to the room adjacent to his. Kyoko chose to wait in the corridor while Yukio went inside and chatted with his classmates. He came back out with a smirk on his face, walked a few steps and slid open the door to Urufu's room.
Kyoko looked inside searching for Kuri-chan, but she was nowhere to be seen. Instead Sato-sensei sat on a stool and turned when the sound of the sliding door caught her attention.
“Kuri-chan's not here?” Kyoko asked before thinking of how that question could be insensitive in itself.
Sato-sensei shook her head. “She left earlier.”
But you were here earlier after all. Good! “I see,” Kyoko said instead.
From his bed Urufu gave Yukio and Kyoko both a weak wave.
“How are you man?” Yukio asked.
Urufu tilted his head a bit and grinned. “A bit more winded than usual, but it's healing well they promise me.” He threw her a surprised stare, or rather her clothes.
“You know when...” Yukio began asking to Kyoko's shame. He was fishing for an answer to her earlier question.
“Maybe this week,” Urufu said. His eyes never left Kyoko, and she hid her face behind Yukio's back.
“They're running the elections for the student council now. Next week is midterms,” Yukio said. “Principal Nakagawa wants you to run for president.”
“As if,” Urufu said and laughed.
Yukio! The important things first!
After he kissed Kyoko goodbye outside her house Yukio went in search for a convenience store before heading home.
Urufu's black eyes when told about the car accident still haunted Yukio.
As if he thinks it was his fault, Yukio mused. Damn it man! Stop trying to carry every burden yourself! Yukio growled and muttered a few choice curses. Don't you see that you're insulting your own friends if you don't share some of the shit with us?
Because friendship didn't care about over thirty years difference in age. Friends should help to their capacity, and they should be allowed to do so.
Yukio listened to his footsteps in the darkness as he walked between islands of light under the street lamps. From time to time a car overtook him and flooded the street ahead of him with white brightness until it passed him and waved goodbye with red rear lights.
Some ten minutes later he came up to a dimly lit parking place where a few cars waited for their owners who were inside the convenience store. He entered and took a right turn to get to the newspaper stand. A magazine and a bottle of water later he stood making a choice between future microwave victims. Eventually Yukio grabbed something that made a good effort at pretending to be curry on rice.
Kyoko would yell at me for declining dinner at her place. But the truth was her parents made him feel uneasy. While it seemed Kyoko's mother more or less had accepted her daughter's new boyfriend it was all too clear her father hadn't.
Yukio whistled tunelessly, held on to his booty and made for the cashier. A couple of thousand yen poorer and with a plastic bag holding too much for a snack but too little for dinner he lined up his feet in the direction of his home and started walking.
“Next week,” Urufu had said, but Yukio thought that was unlikely. Five broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and both lungs punctured didn't sound like something that healed in two weeks. If Urufu was let out of the hospital while it was still October he would be lucky. At least that was what Yukio believed, but he wasn't a doctor.
It didn't take all that long to reach the apartment block where he lived during the week with his mother. His father's flat was out of the question this late in the evening. Yukio climbed the stairs hugging the wall and walked to his door. He could have knocked for his mother to open, but it felt better to use his keys so as not to disturb her unnecessarily.
“I'm home,” he called when he came indoors.
“Welcome home,” his mother answered and let him know she was in their small living room.
Yukio went to the kitchenette and put his meal in the microwave. Three minutes would be enough, and it gave him time to drop the water into the fridge and put his magazine in the room where he slept.
“Any news on your friend?” his mother asked from where she sat in a sofa watching TV.
“Nothing much. He thinks he'll be discharged next week. I think he's too optimistic.”
His mother rose from her seat.
“Have I ever said I'm sorry we put you through Red Rose academy?”
Yukio shook his head. “It's OK. You couldn't know. I'm sure it looked like a good school.”
“Mm, it did.”
The microwave chimed and Yukio fetched his heated dinner and sat down by the kitchen table.
“Mom, midterms are coming up and after that there are parent meetings.” He looked at his mother who waited for him to finish. “Can you get time off or do you want me to ask dad?”
She got her handbag and picked up a phone. “No it's fine. Just make sure to tell me the time at least a week in advance.”
He nodded and started gulping down his meal. It was about as lacking in taste as he had feared, but it filled him up and banished the worst of his hunger.
While he ate his mother got the bottle of water and two glasses. She filled them both up and sat down across the table.
“How are things with Kyoko?”
“Fine,” Yukio said between two mouthfuls.
He finished his meal and downed his glass of water.
“Mom,” he began, “mind if I bring her over this weekend?”
His mother gave him a long glance. “For a visit, not at all, but sleeping over, very much.”
That suggestion made Yukio's face flare red. “Mom!”
“Sorry, just teasing. Please do. She seems to be a sweet girl. Hold on to her, will you?”
He had no plans doing otherwise. “As long as she wants me.” Strange, before I met you I'd say she's mine, he thought wondering how Urufu spent yet another lonely evening in the hospital. But you and Kuri taught me love is something you share. “I'll work hard to make her want me,” he added.
“Yukio, you're growing up.”
Maybe because my best friend is an adult. “Yeah, maybe I am. That's good, isn't it?”
His mother suddenly smirked, and for a moment Yukio saw something empty in her eyes. “Don't be too much in a hurry. You want to remember that you were still a child during these years.”
What was that about? I'll ask Urufu when I meet him. “OK,” Yukio said. He didn't really understand what his mother had meant, but for some reason she looked like an abandoned child when she spoke.
Yukio felt discomfort filling him, as if he had seen something in his mother he wasn't supposed to. Rather than continue the awkward conversation he stood and prepared the dishes. After that he spent the rest of the evening doing homework.
Tomorrow he'd check with Kuri before he told Principal Nakagawa that Urufu flat out rejected any involvement with the student council.
“If Ulf says no then I'm not interested.”
Yukio glared at Kuri. Damn you and your stubbornness! Are you Siamese twins or something?
He growled mentally realising the day had come to a bad start. An hour from now he'd deliver not one but two negative messages to Principal Nakagawa.
“Is there anything I can do to get your head screwed on right again?” Yukio said to a choir of amazed gasps from her classmates.
“Listen kiddo, you get Ulf to jump on the bandwagon I'll do as well, but I'm joining crap without my boyfriend.”
The high colour in her face had absolutely nothing to do with feelings of embarrassment, and Yukio felt no major need to explore further from whence it came. Instead he sighed and bowed formally.
“I guess I've done my part in convincing you two then,” he said and retreated from her classroom. He even managed to give her a polite smile on his way out. Muttering could wait until the long walk through the corridor connecting the two wings.
I think this is bad. Principal Nakagawa shouldn't attempt to influence the student council elections in the first place, so why is he so desperate to get Urufu and Kuri on the council?
Turning left at his wing Yukio made for their club room where Kyoko hopefully waited for him. He slid the door open and went inside.
She was. Waiting for him that is.
Yukio waved back at her and sat down in the sofa next to her. With an angry shrug he zipped open his bag and fished up the bento box Kyoko had given him on their way to school. Tomorrow he'd make their lunch.
“Grumpy much?” she asked when he slammed his box onto the low table.
“Sorry Kyoko,” Yukio said. He took his chop sticks in one hand and dug for some rice. “It's just that they're so damn stubborn!”
Her face split up in a wide grin. “Tell me about it,” Kyoko said. “Noticed she's seldom here during lunch?” she added.
None of them needed to explain who 'they' or 'she' was.
“Uhum,” Yukio said and got in a hurry to swallow his mouthful. “Why's that?”
Kyoko bit off half a sausage and chewed on it before answering. “She's marking her territory. That's why?”
“There's hardly a conversation where Kuri doesn't insert boyfriend this or Urufu that.”
Yukio stared at Kyoko. He hadn't thought of that, but then he didn't spend as much time with Kuri as Kyoko did. “How come?” he asked. “Honestly, she can't really be afraid of the competition.”
“Yukio, I love how adorable you are!” Kyoko flashed him a grin that made his heart jump. “But you really don't understand love,” she continued as if their two month long relationship had made her some kind of love expert.
He bit down on a retort and mentally thanked his mother for teaching him to listen before he spoke. “How so?” he said to make Kyoko explain her thoughts.
In the background he heard and saw club members come and go, most of them sitting down in groups and pairs proving that the club had been operating long enough for smaller constellations to come into existence.
“You know, I couldn't believe you wanted to be together with me,” Kyoko began. “It was so obvious you should be interested in Kuri-chan like everyone else.”
Yukio mulled over Kyoko's words before he answered. “I was never interested in her after I saw you, but I understand what you're saying.” Hopefully that was the right thing to say.
“Now that's why I fell for you. I can see how you made an effort not to hurt me right now instead of telling me I'm an idiot.”
It had been the right thing to say. “Still, I don't see what that has to do with Kuri,” Yukio said relieved he had navigated the minefield without stepping on something dangerous. “I mean, it's Kuri we're talking about. It's one thing if people like you and I are afraid,” he added and left his real question hanging in the air.
“To begin with she's making it clear she's unavailable. There are still a lot of guys calling her out for confessions.”
“And?” Yukio said.
“And I believe she's afraid Urufu will get angry.”
Yukio could understand that part. He'd felt the same when Rie-sempai followed him around like a lovesick puppy during the cultural festival. “But there's another reason as well, isn't there?” he continued.
“Mm,” Kyoko said and swallowed some food. She nodded at him. “Yeah. I think she's honestly afraid she'll lose him.”
“She's been pretty down since school started, and I think what happened to Urufu reminded her she could actually lose him if she's not careful.”
Yukio shivered. Kuri wasn’t exactly the only one who had been reminded. Yukio planned to visit Urufu later for that very reason. “It wasn't her fault,” he said. “She can't possibly believe Urufu would think like that.”
Kyoko's smile thinned to a white line. “She can, and she made some fairly bad calls earlier, didn't she?”
So you can see she's not without faults, can you now? Yukio nodded back at Kyoko. “Uhum, she stood him up a few times. I can see how he'd sulk for a while, but he isn't as fickle as you’re suggesting. Trust me!”
“I trust you. But none of us has anything to lose here. Kuri-chan does, and I think that makes her see less clearly.”
Yukio looked at Kyoko. He hadn't thought of it that way. “So she's using the time Urufu isn't here to hammer down the message that he's already taken by the Princess of Himekaizen?” he suggested.
“Yes,” Kyoko said, but she didn't smile, “and I believe she's making a huge mistake.”
“A huge mistake? As in Kuri could actually lose?”
Kyoko nodded. “She's famous, and not everyone likes her. Now she's making Urufu famous as well. There are a lot of people who would want to come between them just to make them break up.”
Urufu hardly needed Kuri's help to become famous. Not after the cultural festival, but Yukio understood how people targeting Urufu could destroy their relationship if Kuri was the jealous kind.
“Yes, I like my high school very much. Himekaizen is so much fun,” Christina said and giggled inanely.
The anchor gave her a pained but professional smile in return. Most likely the woman had seen more than her fair share of beautiful airheads flaring into fame just to be forgotten half a year later.
Well, you're going to remember this interview, Christina thought. You fired first and I'm responding with heavy artillery.
“Is there something special that makes you like your school that much?” the anchor asked.
Christina stared into two uninterested eyes facing her. This is where you expect yet another brain-dead answer.
“Yes, as I'm a foreigner I'm very happy my school doesn't tolerate racism the way Red Rose Academy does,” she said and made her face light up in a wide grin. Christina knew it made her look stunning, and it offered the anchor an opportunity to gloss over the uncomfortable message.
“I’m happy that you have found a school to your liking,” the anchor said and didn’t look happy at all. Her smile hardly reached her eyes.
They quickly moved on to Christina’s model career and she made an effort to balance between being an airhead and a professional model. Christina had to keep her persona as The Billion Dollar Empress in check, because it was one thing to stride down the catwalk as haughty royalty, and a totally different one scaring away a television audience who thrived on cuteness.
After the talk show Christina changed into her baggy incognito set of clothes after checking for needles and other booby traps as usual. She found nothing, and hadn’t really expected to here at a television studio, but better safe than sorry.
When she left the studio she walked to the bike stand where her body guard stood waiting patiently. But for the attack on Ulf her agency would have dropped him by now. After the assault there was no way she’d have her privacy back.
“Pleasant evening?” Christina offered.
“Yes miss,” her bodyguard answered. Nothing in his voice indicated whether he found anything pleasant or not.
Christina shrugged and mounted her bike. She plugged in the earpiece to her headset and dialled one of her new-found contacts in the computer club. After a few rumbling sounds; ‘ringtones’ didn’t really describe the feeling of ringing someone in Japan, he picked up.
“Ageruman here,” she said. They had agreed she’d announce herself even though he saw her contact information when she called. Just in case anyone stole her cell.
For once she didn’t care if the paid muscle heard her conversation or not. She was embarking on a dirty smear-campaign and any kind of rumour-mongering would further her case.
“I dropped the bomb on the show,” Christina said.
“They could edit it out.”
“Yeah, and break the contract. Costly, dangerous and they’ll never see a teen model on their show again.” Christina didn’t know if the penalty would really stretch that far, but her contact at Uniclo, Alice Kerringer, had pulled some strings of her own.
“I don’t believe you,” came the response.
Computer geek and a coward. Immediately after that thought Christina felt ashamed of herself. She did this to avenge Ulf, and he started out his professional life as a computer geek himself. “At the moment I’m Uniclo’s little mascot and I told my contact there what could happen to their Korean and Chinese market if they glossed this over.”
“Why should I care about Koreans and Chinese?”
We don’t accept that kind of behaviour at Himekaizen but that apparently doesn’t mean there aren’t people in school who thinks that way anyway. “Would you care to repeat that for me?” Christina said and made an effort to lace her voice with the next ice age.
“Sorry Ageruman-san. I apologise. That was uncalled for.”
Uncalled for, my arse. You’ll be ostracised until graduation if you make an enemy of me. “I don’t mind, but I’m certain Hamarugen-san would be unhappy if he heard you say those things,” she said instead and felt her stomach cramp at the lie. She cared very much. You didn’t build a global fashion empire if you truly believed in eugenics.
“Ah, sorry. My bad.”
Your bad indeed. Ulf had garnered his fair share of adoration in the computer club after he ran some kind of tech seminar there a few weeks ago.
“Anyway, the show goes live tomorrow at five pm. Could you start those voices of indignation from half past five?”
“Sure, and you're certain you only want those sites seeded?”
Christina nodded as she biked. “Yeah. I'll give you another list with sites of importance together with a schedule later.”
He only needed the list. Explaining demographics would take too long. Explaining how she happened to know exactly where that TV-channel made an impact was impossible, and in truth she didn't really know. Christina gambled on the demographics being mostly the same in this world as in her old one. She'd make certain the ugly rumours about Red Rose reached other local communities like rings on the water.
Next on her agenda was setting up a live protest. One that could be traced back to 9:1 but no further. After that a few well-placed libellous newspaper articles. As far as she knew the right wing loonies at Red Rose would take the bait, and Christina already had Noriko's consent to detonate the real bomb.
Sorry Ulf, but I won't let him stay peacefully in his grave. She'd use the evidence on the suicide victim, because that evidence included damning photos of two teachers and the principal of Red Rose. When I'm done with you arseholes you're going belly up. Not even right wing loony parents will place their kids there.
Christina used the time at a red light to place another phone call and continued her smear campaign.
Noriko left the hospital more thoughtful than she had expected. While she didn't visit Urufu every day like Yukio and Kuri she still went to see her friend often enough to notice how much better he made her feel after a visit.
Should be the other way around, she thought.
She couldn't exactly pinpoint why she felt depressed now. Maybe because they were wrapped up in their midterm exams and Urufu couldn't attend them.
“What's on your mind?” Nao wondered.
Noriko shook her head and grasped his hand just a little tighter. “Thank you for understanding,” she said rather than answering his question.
He smiled down at her. “Don't worry. I know you still have feelings for him, and he's a good guy at that.”
Do I? Noriko wasn't certain any longer. Urufu being hurt made her angry, but thinking of him didn't fill her stomach with butterflies the way seeing Nao did.
They made it to the bus stop and climbed the first one heading down-town. When they got off she noticed how those they met smiled at them. Huh? What's so funny? Then it struck her they were still holding hands. The photo model with his midget girlfriend. Yeah I guess it could look funny.
She tugged Nao's hand closer to herself and felt strangely happy that she had something else than Urufu to worry about. Do we really look that comical? She guessed they did. She just about a metre and a half and him at closer to a hundred and ninety.
“Notice the smiles?” Noriko asked at last.
“Uhum. They're hiding their jealousy,” Nao said.
'They' being the girls I guess, Noriko thought glumly.
“The girls as well,” Nao said, deliberately twisting his comforting words into a self-conscious joke.
“You, you, you!” She couldn't but stop and give him a light box in his stomach. Then Noriko grinned and hugged him. “Thanks for making me laugh! Thanks for making me feel loved!”
“But you make it so easy,” Nao replied without a moment of hesitation.
You say all the right things, and you do all the right things as well. “You make me blush,” Noriko said and dug her face into his shirt.
Nao held her tight and combed through her hair with long, slender fingers. “You know, I'm worried as well.”
The words made her step away from him. Doing so she saw how public their display was just outside a subway station, but she didn't care.
“Worried about what? They said he'll recover fully.”
“Ah, not about that,” Nao said and laughed. “He'll miss out on a full month. What about his midterms?”
Noriko choked down a reply. She couldn't tell Nao that Principal Nakagawa guaranteed Urufu's private tutoring. More precisely she couldn't tell Nao Principal Nakagawa did the tutoring in person, and of all things she could never tell Nao that Urufu probably didn't need any tutoring apart from written Japanese in the first place.
I keep secrets from my own boyfriend. Makes me a role model girlfriend I guess, Noriko thought and smirked. “When do you think he'll be discharged?” she asked, more to change the topic than anything else.
“I know as little as you do. A week, maybe two if how he acts when we visit is any indication,” Nao suggested.
“That's November,” Noriko said. “I feel bad for him.”
“He'll make a full recovery. Let's be happy about that.”
As usual Nao focussed on the most important, but in this case he didn't have all the information needed. He didn't know that Kuri was on a vengeance rampage, and Noriko made sure he didn't have a clue about how she had agreed to help Kuri when the dirty affair blew up in the face of the Red Rose board of directors. And Kuri had promised that it would blow up nastier than anything they had ever experienced before.
Noriko sighed silently. Promises were just promises, or that's how the real world usually turned out, but with Kuri… With Kuri you barely had time for a snarky comment before she delivered on her promise and then some.
What was it you said again? Don't mistake me for the Empress of Japan. Think of Caligula or Nero instead. Noriko shivered at the memory. What made you say something awful like that?
Until lately it had never occurred to Noriko that Kuri maybe was loved, or at least desired by many, but that she all too often loathed herself.
“You're silent,” Nao said, stating the obvious.
Noriko turned and dragged him in the direction of a café. “Sorry.”
“It's my treat,” he said.
She didn't bother protesting. He could afford it, as could she. Eating out barely made a dent in their respective wallets, and she had long since learned to be careful when going out with her friends. With Nao, however, she didn't have to.
“You know,” she said when they came indoors, “it feels like we're just waiting for something to happen.” It was as close as she could afford telling him something big was coming down on them all.
“6:1 to get their students back?” Nao said.
Noriko knew he was referring more to the two other victims of the car accident than to Urufu. Both were slated for discharge within a few days.
“Two coffee and two vanilla ice cream,” Noriko said to the waitress and made certain she returned out of earshot. “No, I'm thinking of how uneasy 9:1 is,” Noriko said and tried to make it sound as if she had heard rumours about that class. Well, the students in 9:1 should be uneasy given that they were involved in covert warfare with their hated, old school.
“9:1, you say. I don't hear anything apart from what's said in the club, and with midterms coming around the corner nothing much happens anywhere.”
“No other rumours?” Noriko asked.
“Sorry, but we’re talking about freshmen here. It's not like we juniors gossip a lot about you.” Nao made a grimace in an attempt to show her that he meant no offence.
We have to change that. Kuri wants the rumours to spread out of control. “Oh, I didn't know. So you only talk about Kuri?”
Nao blanched. “It's not that bad, but there are not all that many freshmen who are well known among us.
With a sweet smile that made her stomach crawl Noriko looked at her boyfriend. “I see. Well I guess it can't be helped,” she lied.
A feeling of impending doom clung to the school when Ryu arrived the first Monday after their midterm exams.
With exams over and done with the main dish on the rumour mill menu ought to have been the student council elections.
However, what most students spoke about was a disgusting rumour about Red Rose Academy and systematic rapes with racist overtones. It was the kind of rumour that needed to be quelled immediately, and Ryu was here to douse the flames with petrol. In case the rumours blew out of all proportions Principal Nakagawa had promised to step in and add dynamite to the fire.
After changing shoes by his locker Ryu walked past the wall where the top fifty students from each year were soon to be posted together with their results and headed for the stairwell to his wing.
He rushed to his classroom and during each and every break he joined the subdued conversations he heard and said all the wrong things. Before lunch was over the entire first year floor of the right wing rumbled with barely suppressed indignation.
Just prior to class he checked his mailbox for more instructions from Kuri. There were none and he decided to move on his own. One email later he had suggested he'd honour his promise to attend a goukon. If he was honest with himself he had nothing against meeting Ai-chan again, and it was with a tinge of a bad conscience he planned to use her for spreading the rumours to Irishima High.
Like most of his classmates he went through the motions of attending class. This close to the exams most were more interested in the results than any topics covered by their teachers, and it seemed the teachers understood as well. Homeroom mostly consisted of self-studying. Planning their participation in the annual marathon race took up a fair chunk as well. After that came club hours, which he used to spread the rumours even further.
The next morning irritated conversations about Red Rose ran between the shoe lockers, and later the same day, in the cafeteria. When it was time for club hours Ryu made his excuses to Kuri and told her what he had planned for his karaoke session with a few guys and girls from Irishima High.
He left school and headed for the same karaoke bar they used to celebrate their cultural festival a few weeks earlier. Had he been given a choice he'd have preferred to meet at the Stockholm Haven café, but for this kind of occasion a sterile karaoke room was the norm.
Ai-chan stood waiting for him inside the doors despite Ryu being close to half an hour early.
“Wakayama-san,” she greeted him.
Ryu shot her an exaggerated look of irritation. “Hasegawa-san, what a pleasant surprise,” he said and bowed formally.
Ai-chan blanched and took a step backwards. “Why so awkward?”
“How would I know Hasegawa-san? I'm at a loss for words Hasegawa-san.”
“If you stop being so stiff I'll do so as well. OK Ai-chan?”
She blushed and stammered. “Fine, whatever!”
“My name being?”
“Good. Now, why so early?”
Ai-chan took the opportunity to study her shoes and didn't answer, which made Ryu grin a little. When it came to reading the signals in the boy meets girl game he was an expert. It made him never having had a girlfriend doubly amusing.
“Waiting for someone?” Ryu teased.
“I'm waiting for you,” Ai-chan responded, and her eyes filled with determination. “If you didn't get that I'm interested in you then you're denser than I thought.”
That bravado! I like it. But you really are rather nervous right now, aren't you? “No I got that message loud and clear during our festival,” he said and smiled. “You know, according to a friend I shouldn't be able to understand that for another half a year or so.
“Sounds like your friend knows her shoujo manga,” Ai-chan said and grinned widely.
Ah, seems that joke helped with her nervousness. “It's a he, but otherwise you're correct.”
Ai-chan smirked and looked up at him. “So, you tricked me into a confession. What about you?”
“I'm interested,” Ryu admitted. “Would you go out with me?”
She nodded and smiled, but Ryu could see how she grabbed the counter behind her for support. Behind the counter a clerk grinned and gave him a thumbs up sign, and Ryu realised their conversation had been heard by everyone there.
“Ai-chan, we have an audience,” he said with what he hoped was a subdued voice.
She looked around and flared red in an instant. “Idiot!”
Ryu listened to her outburst, but her expression conflicted with what she had just said.
“I guess I am,” he answered and took a step closer to her. “Feeling embarrassed?”
“I am. Feeling embarrassed that is. With all the people staring at us.”
He wasn't, really. Experience from years spent surrounded by adoring girls made him more or less immune to the discomfort that had Ai-chan's face all in flames. Getting his first girlfriend was a novel experience though.
“I didn't hear your reply,” he said as teasingly as he could.
“Your reply to where I say: I like you. Please go out with me!”
That line kept her face adorably coloured like a tomato and she stuttered what almost sounded like a positive reply. Around them guests arriving or leaving the place stood and gasped or grinned. A few girls giggled loudly and Ryu felt what a spectacular show he ran for his small audience.
“I can't hear you. Could you please repeat that?”
“Sorry, was that a yes or a no?”
“Idiot!” Ai-chan stared at her feet again. “Yes, please take good care of me.”
Ryu grinned and bent forward for a last tease. The topics during their stay here would be grimmer, so he wanted to extend the fun for as long as possible. “Ai-chan, why should I attend the goukon in the first place?”
Yukio slid open the door to Urufu's room, or rather the room he shared with another two patients.
One look inside told him one of those patients had been discharged. The bed was neatly made and still untouched for the day. Urufu sat in his bed by the window and looked out. He barely turned to wave Yukio welcome before he returned to staring outside.
The third bed was currently unoccupied; it's owner away for rehab or something.
Next week they promised, Yukio thought. You look like a bird in a cage here.
“Urufu, I have the midterm results,” Yukio said and zipped open his bag.
“What's the fallout?” Urufu wondered, but he still didn't look inside the room.
Yukio took the long way, grabbed a chair and positioned himself by the window. He quickly produced Urufu's five exams.
“You won't end up on the wall, that's for certain.”
“Top fifty? No, no I guess not.”
Yukio smirked. It wasn't like he was anywhere close to placing among the top fifty himself. There were close to 350 freshmen, so if he made it into the top hundred and fifty he'd be happy. As it was he scored number 160 overall.
Urufu leafed through the papers. “Fuck! Oh well, could have been worse.”
“How bad?” Yukio asked.
“Three make-up exams. Should have been two, but our beloved basket case keeps screwing me over.”
“English again?” Yukio asked already knowing the answer.
“Yeah, the retard doesn't know the language in the first place, and it shows in his grading.”
Yukio avoided meeting Urufu's eyes and stared at a tray with the leftovers from a nondescript hospital meal. Stop being so damn cocky! You're deliberately misinterpreting his tests and receive poor grades. But truth be told Yukio did suspect that Urufu's English was superior by far compared to their teacher's.
“You look down,” Yukio said to change the subject.
“Don't worry. Just feeling restless. How did the rest of the gang do?”
“Kyoko scored number 130. She's pretty unhappy about it.”
Urufu grimaced before saying anything. “Soz, but if she ever makes it into the top third that's her cap I'm afraid.”
“Like you've been a teacher!” Yukio said and barely managed to keep his voice down.
“I have, and you know it. Learning assessment was part of my job. Top third in this school if she makes an effort. Push her to make it into double digits.”
Yukio didn't respond. Urufu could be a condescending arsehole, but he was very seldom wrong.
“The others?” Urufu wanted to know.
“Don't know about Kuri, but you can ask her yourself. I think she bombed pretty badly.”
With a sigh Urufu slowly started to laugh. “Yeah, I could see that coming. OK I'll ask her when she comes here next time. The twins?”
“Ryu just made it into the list. Number 48.”
“Make a guess.”
“Hmm, she's been worried lately. Should cost her. She made fifth place and is sulking about it?”
Yukio stared at his friend. “Are you some kind of mind reader?”
There was a short laugh but no answer. If Yukio was honest with himself he wasn't all that surprised Noriko had dropped two positions given all that had happened during October.
He looked out the window, over the small park greeting visitors to the hospital and across a jagged landscape of low-rise buildings in their dirty, yellowish grey. Behind him Urufu stayed strangely silent and Yukio turned and looked at his friend.
For the first time he noticed that Urufu's eyes were tinged with red.
Have you been crying? “What's wrong?”
This time it was Urufu who didn't meet his eyes. Instead he looked through the windows at a grey autumn sky. There was something empty in that stare, a desolation Yukio knew from earlier.
“Man, are you back home again?”
Urufu drew a deep breath. “Yes, but it's only a memory now. I don't think I'll ever be able to go back.”
Did you give up? When was the impossibility of anything a reason for you to give up? “What do you mean?”
“You know,” Urufu began with a voice that was barely more than a whisper, “we've met a couple of arrivals, but I've never even heard a story about anyone going back.”
“I've been thinking a lot. There should at least be some kind of unconfirmed rumour. Some kind of wishful magic thinking, but there's nothing.”
Yukio wiped his mouth with his hand. He didn't share Urufu's information network, and to be honest he didn't put all that much thought into Urufu's old world. For him Urufu was his best friend, an adult caught in his teenager body, but no matter what Yukio truly saw Tokyo as Urufu's home.
“What's wrong,” Yukio asked again.
“I miss them.”
“Sure, you've said that lots of times before.”
“You don't understand. I can't even visit her grave. My little girl, she's gone for good and I can't even honour her memory!”
In the self-deprecating way that was Urufu's he sniffled and cried like a girl. For some reason it never looked like a weakness to Yukio, not once even including that first time a year ago when Urufu cried his heart out longing for his lost wife. This time, however, it looked like a deeper crisis.
“Urufu, man, what's wrong.”
“She's gone, they're all gone!”
From the door the sound of a sudden gasp caught Yukio's attention and he looked up. In the door opening he saw how Kuri slapped her hands to her face with a stricken look before she turned and ran away.
That was a bad memory. The memory of Ulf's body shaking with tears and loss still occupied her mind whenever she wondered if she had the ability to solve a problem. And that was a bad problem in itself. Never before had she allowed herself to become dependent on anyone else this way.
She wondered. He never said he loved her, but he always acted with love. Still she needed those words. Ulf, are you so afraid of losing me that you don't dare having me?
Something was breaking apart inside of her. The love she felt consumed her. It burned from the inside, and if he didn't speak soon, if he didn't provide that fuel, the fire would take her love and twist it into something she didn't want so see.
I can't compete with your memories.
That knowledge was what finally made Christina make up her mind. As soon as Ulf was discharged from the hospital she'd make certain he spent the night with her, and not just sleeping together with her like they had done before. She wasn't sure it would be enough, but sharing her body with him should bind them closer together, and after watching him grieve in the hospital she was desperate to make him hers alone.
She shook her head and forced herself back to reality. Make-up exams weren't exactly the most fun way to spend her time, but flunking four out of five exams gave her little choice.
Math, I always hated math. She bent over her paper and attacked the next question as if it had been an especially disgusting bug.
Half an hour later she was done and left for the toilets. With a bit of luck she had managed a passing grade. Next lesson was English, and even if her spelling and grammar was poor she had enough professional experience from using the language to avoid doing the same mistake twice in a short span of time. That make-up exam ought to be a breeze.
When the day was over Christina left school with just one exam she needed to retake for the second time. With problems of a normal degree of importance she'd go home and study, but right now smearing Red Rose left and right took precedence.
She arrived at Stockholm Haven café and immediately went inside the inner room. Inside she sat down by the large table, fired up her laptop and placed her smart-phone beside it on the table. James having installed Wi-Fi and a decent internet-connection helped a lot.
Let's see how much damage we've done this far, she thought and started browsing through the latest communities she had seeded with partially truthful accusations.
Superb! Anxious mothers joining a weekly digital gathering for preschool parents embellished the seeds she had sown. Now it'll start spreading by word of mouth. Another week and I'll accept Nakagawa's promised help to pour fuel on the rumours among their husbands.
“Water of coffee?” James' voice said from the door.
“Coffee,” Christina replied. “Make it strong!”
“Any news on your boyfriend?”
“Day after tomorrow. I'll be there when he's discharged.”
“Does he know what you're doing?” James asked and made no move whatsoever to make her coffee.
Christina looked up from her laptop and stared at him across the table. “Doing?”
“Yes, all of you kids, including those who really are kids.”
The café had to be all but empty with not a single guest sitting close to the counter, or James would never have dared voice that aloud. Still it made Christina uncomfortable hearing it spoken in a clearly audible voice by anyone else than her closest friends.
“Was it that easy to trace?” Christina said. She didn't like the implications it carried.
“That photographer of yours come here from time to time.” James tilted his head, goading her to respond.
Christina didn’t bite. “Yes?” A counter question should do the work.
“Says he was a big-shot at a major newspaper back in the days. He recognised an organised smear campaign,” James replied and smirked.
It was all too easy to forget he held an academic degree himself, even though one from another world. Then what James had implied grew in Christina’s mind. He would, wouldn't he? Well, he's a pro so it's not that bad. Forgot he was with a big newspaper back in the days.
“You know that people with money and status to lose also know professionals in the media?” James continued relentlessly.
Pushing her laptop aside Christina gave James the attention he so obviously wanted. “What are you trying to say?”
He stepped inside and closed the door. “I'm saying that whatever you're doing is going to backfire big-time.”
“That we're screwed?”
“No, but that it'll cost you. Even if you win this war you'll pay. Are you ready to go through with it anyway?”
What a strange question. It was far too late to back out now. “Any suggestions?” Christina said.
James grimaced and looked down. “Not really. You two are out of my league anyway, but I wanted to warn you.”
Christina nodded at him. “I'm grateful for the warning,” she said. “Strong, did I say I wanted my coffee strong?”
“You did,” James answered and left the room.
With a flick of her wrist Christina brought her laptop back into vision. Maybe she should be a little bit more careful and not steam-roll the communities with her rumours? Her experience came from marketing fashion, and discreet didn't really come to her mind when she planned her campaigns.
Can I hide it by being glaringly obvious? I've done that before. But before she continued that line of thinking she shook her head. Guerrilla marketing had never been her strong side, and now that was exactly what she was involved in. Maybe I should have told Ulf before I started.
She grimaced much like James had done just short moments earlier. Maybe I should have thought before I started. But then thinking in excess wasn't her style neither. She acted and conquered. Possibly not the smartest course of action when applying anything with the word 'guerrilla' in it.
With a smirk Christina pushed her laptop aside and picked up her phone. Maybe 'guerrilla' wasn't the only way to go. There were other, more public channels to abuse.
It was a strangely subdued Urufu who returned to a hero's welcome and Kyoko mostly felt relieved that he didn't take much part in the circus around him. Part of it because she didn't think it suited him, but mostly because it saved Yukio from being dragged into any new madness.
What surprised her most was how calmly Kuri-chan acted when Urufu came back to school, but Kyoko also knew her friend had visited him almost every day during his stay at the hospital.
“You look pale, man,” Yukio observed.
Kyoko could only agree. It was as if Urufu had shrunk a little.
“Wanna reapply for geek squad?” Yukio said and slapped Urufu on his back.
What's with boys and backslapping? She loved her Yukio, but sometimes he behaved like an elementary school-kid.
“Very funny,” Urufu said. “Look, I'm a bit winded and won't recover fully until December they say.”
Kyoko pulled Yukio closer to her. She didn't like to see his anger.
Urufu pulled open his shoe locker and changed.
Kyoko had to walk to another row of lockers and leave Yukio with his friend. After she had changed from indoor shoes to light boots she ran to the entrance to make sure the two boys didn't leave without her. She got there in time to see Yukio waiting for them both. Back at his locker she saw Urufu wave away an offer to carry his bag.
Is he an invalid, or what? “How bad is he?” she asked Yukio.
“Don't know, but I think he just needs to be active again.”
After some strenuous effort Urufu finally got into his loafers, shouldered his bag and joined them.
“Man, shouldn't you get that awful backpack of yours instead?” Yukio suggested. “Looks like crap, but the way you look right now it would be easier on you.”
Urufu grimaced but made no retort.
They went outside, and Kyoko had to hug her coat closer to her when the wind tugged at it and ran an ice-cold tendril down her blouse. With a shudder she opened her bag and grabbed a threadbare scarf which she wrapped around her shoulders. It barely helped keep the wind out.
From the corner of her eye she saw Urufu wink at Yukio who smiled weakly and nodded back at his friend.
“If you're thinking a scarf for Christmas present then just don't. They're expensive and I have more than I need at home,” Kyoko said to Yukio.
He just stared at the rag she had wound around her neck.
“Look, it's a gift from my mom from when I was a small kid. I like it, OK?”
Urufu shrugged open armed in that western way of his. Some of his bodily expressions required you to get to know him before you understood, but this was one she had seen often enough to know by now.
“Girls!” he exclaimed.
Yukio coughed and laughed silently, but otherwise he wisely kept his mouth shut.
Listening to gravel crunching under her feet Kyoko wondered if there was any point in pretending to be aggravated by the two boys, but in the end she decided to just enjoy the presence of them both. It had been too long since Yukio looked whole like this. Somehow he had seemed like half a man during the weeks Urufu spent at hospital.
Gravel made way for tarmac and they left their school behind them. Their destination was the Stockholm Haven café and a cup or two before Urufu continued on his way to the station. It would at least a week before he got off at the wrong station and rode his bike to the mall.
Lucky, you got lucky. It scares me how close it was. But that wasn't a topic Kyoko wanted to open just yet. She didn't know how much it had scared the others, and especially not if those thoughts still lingered among her friends. Even Kuri-chan kept her silence these days, and she was the only one who had allowed herself to break down with fear that awful day. In a way she had been the only honest one.
We betrayed you. I wanted to be strong for you, but in the end we betrayed you. With a sigh Kyoko admitted to herself that she wasn't even certain who 'you' was. Kuri-chan or Urufu, because in a way each of them had been betrayed individually. It was strange how your efforts to help someone could become a betrayal.
A discreet rumble in her pocket suggested that Kuri-chan's rumourmongering had reached another few targets, and when Kyoko looked at her phone she could confirm it. She typed in a reply that could easily be misunderstood and helped throw a little bit more dirt on Red Rose.
By her side Yukio's fingers played over his display, and Kyoko knew he was doing the same. Urufu threw a questioning glance at them both, but Kyoko decided to smirk and not say anything.
Sooner or later he'd learn what had happened, unless he already knew, but it wasn't anything she felt in a hurry to make explicit. Especially as Kuri-chan had stopped being active online and instead used her poor Japanese as an excuse to make suggestive statements during the plethora of interviews she gave as part of her modelling job.
At first Kyoko had been shocked by the sheer degree of linguistic understanding Kuri-chan displayed for each and every clumsy statement, but after a while she wrote it down to just another aspect of The Billion Dollar Empress. It was as if that persona knew anything and everything whenever needed.
“You're silent,” Urufu said.
“Just thinking of something Kuri-chan said,” Kyoko replied. It wasn't fair stating truths like this when they really were lies, but Kyoko's loyalties lay with Kuri-chan first. As long as she wanted Urufu out of the loop Kyoko would feed him half-truths and even outright lies.
She wondered how Yukio managed that part. It was his best friend after all.
They left Urufu by the station with an evening date as a poor excuse not to take a train themselves. In a way it was a truth as well. The Wakayamas would be sixteen in less than a week, and Yukio wanted to buy each of them a present.
“I doubt we can match Nao-sempai or that Irishima High girl I've seen around Ryu lately,” Yukio said for the third time.
“Ai-chan,” Kyoko reminded him, also for the third time.
“Think they're dating?”
“Uhum. I think so.”
“Strange,” Yukio said, “Ryu rejected everyone confessing to him for half a year, and now he's hooking up with a girl from another school.”
“You don't get to decide whom you like,” Kyoko said and tugged Yukio's arm closer. She pulled her scarf tighter around her neck.
I'll get you a new one, Yukio thought. He'd visited her a few times and unless she kept a supply of scarves hidden in her closet he was certain the flimsy thing she wore was the warmest she had.
“Changing topic here. Did you finish those invoices?”
Kyoko nodded. “Ryu's father mailed them a few days ago.” She grinned at him. “Urufu's going to have a heart attack later.”
He probably wouldn't, but he'd definitely ask how come his company made another three hundred and fifty thousand yen during his hospital stay. Not that there would be much left for him after all expenses were paid.
It was all Ryu's brainchild, with the blessing of his father attached to it. Keep customer contacts alive no matter what he had said, and so they did for a nominal fee compared to what Urufu usually charged.
“Think he'll be angry?” Yukio said as they rounded a corner and entered a shopping district.
Kyoko held on to his arm and smirked. “Maybe, maybe not. We're just a bunch of teenagers. I think we were in over our heads when we tried to copy those summer activities.”
Repackaged and standardised, Ryu's father had said. Yukio nodded and pulled Kyoko inside a shop.
“You sure about this?” she asked and changed the topic.
Yukio looked at the smart-phone skin Kyoko held up. It was an atrocity in mint green, which was to say just the kind of over the top accessories Noriko used to satirise any kind of teenage girl cuteness weakness.
“Well, she got her new phone recently. I haven't seen her using anything for it yet,” Yukio said. “It's just the right kind of horrible as well.”
“Don't you think it's cute,” Kyoko said and pouted.
Yukio stared at the thing that couldn't decide between the colour of radioactive puke and a gross misunderstanding of modern art. “No, cute has nothing to do with it,” he decided.
They left the shop a couple of thousand yen poorer and a gift-wrapped awfulness in a small paper bag richer, if richer really was the right term for it.
“What did you have in mind for Ryu,” Kyoko asked when they had failed to find anything suitable half an hour later.
Yukio shook his head in despair. Ryu was a hard one to understand.
“Something to drink while we think about it?” he suggested. While Urufu had disgusting taste in clothes he did have a keen eye for what was comfortable, and some of it had rubbed off on Yukio by now.
Kyoko gifted him with a grateful smile, and Yukio led her to a café that didn't look too expensive. They weren't like the other four who never had to think about money.
And that's unfair of me. Kuri had a hard time earlier. Still, since summer the other four spent money in a way that was foreign to him.
A waitress arrived and took their orders, and Yukio decided to push his thoughts aside. They had a tinge of envy to them, and given what Urufu and Kuri had endured the last six months, envy was the last that came to his mind.
Yukio shot Kyoko a glance when she looked out the window. You're beautiful, he thought. And there's no one trying to break us apart. He grabbed her hands on the table and looked at her when she turned her face to him.
“I love you,” he said.
Kyoko cradled his fingers in hers and smiled. “I love you too.”
Making sure the other guests didn't look in their direction he leaned over the table and kissed her.
When he leaned back to watch her reaction he saw a small TV mounted to a wall. The sound was off, but he could read that a police investigation concerning systematic harassment was taking off. It didn't say Red Rose anywhere, but Yukio suspected that Kuri's smear campaign slowly bore fruit in a more serious way.
“Kyoko, behind you.”
She turned and watched the news-feed together with him.
“Afraid?” she asked when it was finished.
“A little,” he admitted.
“Do you think she'll pull it off?”
Yukio leaned his head to his shoulder and grimaced. “I hope so, or it's going to be very bad for her.”
He could see a slight shiver running though Kyoko's body.
“I'm afraid it'll be bad for her even if she pulls it off,” she said.
There wasn't any good reply to that. Yukio shared her sentiment and fears, but for whatever it was worth their attack on Red Rose had gained a momentum where they could no longer abort it.
“It was her decision,” he said. “I don't think she could have avoided it even if she wanted. There was so much hate and rage in her after they attacked Urufu.”
Kyoko closed her hand over his. “I know. What do you think of it?”
What do I think of it? “I don't know. I guess our days of waiting have come to an end. That's what I think.”