“This is from me,” Kyoko said and reached over the table with her bag.
The small karaoke booth barely had room for all eight of them, but Kyoko really wanted to spend some time with their extended inner circle before they all went to Stockholm Haven café where the rest of the club were headed.
Noriko took the offered bag in her hands and looked inside.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A little something from Yukio and me,” Kyoko answered.
By her side Yukio frowned and shook his head. “Don't accuse me of that atrocity. Wallet, my participation was strictly limited to my wallet,” he said and grinned.
With a squeal Noriko opened up the bag and quickly ripped through the gift-wrapped box inside.
“It's so… so… green!” she said, but her eyes glittered and she was already digging up her phone from a pocket. “I always wanted one of these,” she continued and firmly planted her phone inside the skin.
It really was as intrusive to the eyes as Yukio had said.
“Happy birthday!” Kyoko said, and she knew her eyes glimmered just like Noriko's.
“Ryu, we decided that to be as cool as Urufu you have to look as antique as Urufu,” Yukio said and took the verbal baton from Kyoko.
Both Nao-sempai and Ai-chan gave him questioning stares before they glanced in Urufu's direction.
That won't be enough to give our secret away, Kyoko thought. And we have to be allowed to at least make some stupid jokes about it from time to time.
Ryu made a show of hiding his face in his hands. “Seeing what sis got, what kind of awful do you have in mind for me?”
In response Yukio pushed another paper bag across the table.
Kyoko grinned in anticipation and waited for Ryu to open his birthday gift. The staff probably wonder why this booth is so silent. Well, let them!
“What the? You bastards!”
“What is it?” Ai-chan wondered by Ryu's side. The surprising addition of a girlfriend had taken them all a bit aback, but she made her best to fit in, which wasn't easy given that her old style Irishima High sailor uniform looked out of place mixed with the Himekaizen Academy blazers.
“Bloody hell, it's an honest to god planner. I haven't seen one of those in...”
Kuri-chan yanked Urufu's arm before he had the chance to finish his sentence.
“Planner?” Ai-chan asked.
“It's what dad used before his first smart-phone,” Ryu said and glared at Yukio.
“Happy birthday,” Yukio said perfectly unperturbed. “Now you can look as cool as Urufu.”
The cool one smirked. “I don't use one of those. Look, I can prove it!” he said and fished up his phone. “All digital here.”
Ryu opened his faux leather-bound planner and flipped through the pages. “Just to show you I'll use it.”
“About planning, have you decided about next year yet?” Nao-sempai said.
Noriko nodded and looked up from her phone. “Science,” she said.
“No surprise there,” Ryu observed. “She's the brains here. I can't compete, but I'll do science as well.”
“Liberal arts,” Yukio and Kyoko said in union. She looked at him and then they both burst out in laughter.
“We'll stick together I guess,” she said and boxed him on his arm when he pretended to groan.
“We don't separate tracks that way at Irishima, but something like liberal arts for me as well,” Ai-chan said. She snuggled up closer to Ryu and glanced at Kuri-chan with unspoken rivalry in her eyes.
You really don't have to worry that much. Kuri-chan only has eyes for Urufu.
“Liberal arts,” Kuri-chan said and pretended she had misunderstood Ai-chan's look.
Well played, Kyoko thought. You understand what makes people tick. With a nod of approval to her friend Kyoko saw how Ai-chan relaxed a little.
Seven pair of eyes stared at Urufu who hadn't said anything.
“What?” he asked when he finally understood his opinion was wanted.
“What? What are you going to study next year?” Nao-sempai asked.
“Me? Science obviously.”
“Science? With your grades?”
Kyoko could only agree with Ryu's reaction. With Urufu's results she wasn't entirely positive he'd be able to handle liberal arts, let alone the much more difficult science track.
“Look, it's my written Japanese that sucks, not my brains!”
Japanese? You're flunking more than your exams in Japanese. Kyoko shook her head. If Urufu wanted to go through science hell it was his decision.
From the corner of her eye Kyoko saw Kuri-chan giving Urufu a look that told him that for those two the topic wasn't finished. Hmm, finished. Kyoko looked at the clock. They had only a few minutes left. It was time to wrap it up and leave for Stockholm Haven café.
The last songs were a mix of birthday celebration songs. For most of them they didn't even bother with music, and after a last round of roaring laughter they left the booth and made for the streets.
On their way to meet the rest of their friends Kyoko hooked up with Yukio and pretended not to notice how Kuri-chan and Urufu fell behind them. There had been an uneasiness between those two the last days, and Kyoko guessed they needed to discuss something.
“Ai-chan, your friends coming as well?” Kyoko asked to clear her thoughts of her misgivings.
Ryu's girlfriend turned and met Kyoko's look. “Yes, a few of them. Seems more fun than a goukon anyway.”
“And here I thought the last goukon delighted you,” Ryu shot in. That comment won him a pair of flushed cheeks from Ai-chan and friendly scowls from the rest of them.
“Be nice, man. She's your girlfriend,” Yukio suggested.
“I'm always nice. I was born nice.”
“You were born full of yourself.”
Yukio's last retort made Kyoko hug him closer to herself. You've grown, she thought. You're manlier now.
“You deserved that one,” Noriko noted and elbowed her brother. “You can keep him, Ai-chan. He's damaged goods anyway.”
“Hey, it's my boyfriend you're talking about!”
“He's my idiot brother.”
“You can have the idiot part. I'll take the boyfriend material,” Ai-chan shot back.
Kyoko grinned. Ryu's surprise girlfriend had a lot more spunk than her looks gave away.
When Ulf drummed up the speed of his feet Christina had to pull his sleeve to physically slow him down.
“Ulf, I didn't just accidentally fall behind them.”
“I know,” he answered, “but I feel well enough to keep up. You don't need to show me this kind of concern.”
Crap, he thinks I'm worried about his health! Truth be told she was, and more than a little, but if he said he was good then she needed to believe him. Besides it wasn't the real reason she held him back.
Waiting for two cars to pass them and the sound of engines to die off a bit she walked with Ulf along a 7-Eleven that could have passed for a Stockholm memory from two years earlier.
“Ulf,” she said when both the sound of engines and lit store-front were behind them. “Are you sure about the science track?”
For once she spoke Japanese with him even though they were alone. Some concepts didn't translate all that well into Swedish, and the Japanese system with a one size fits all freshman high school year didn't exist in Sweden. Hadn't existed when she attended high school the first time, and didn't these days.
He gave her a look of curiosity but responded in Japanese as well. “It's my main background. I'm in IT, so computer science is kind of natural for me.”
“You're about as much in IT as I'm in modelling,” Christina grumbled, but she regretted her words as soon as she had spoken them. Since a few months she was very much into modelling again.
Ulf pulled her closer to him and laughed silently. “Fine, I'm into management and development processes.”
Thank you for forgiving me when I'm an idiot! “Ulf, can you handle it with your grades?”
There were a few moments of silence only broken by the sounds of their feet on the ground and the occasional car of the street.
“You know,” Ulf began, “I think I'll have an easier time with the science track than the liberal arts one. Less dependent on the Japanese language.”
“So you mean your grades aren't that important?”
“They're important and they suck!”
Christina stopped in her tracks at the sudden vehemence in Ulf's voice.
“How come you're so angry about your grades? They're low, but not disastrously so. Look at mine!”
Ulf sighed. “We'll get to those later. I think Noriko will help, and between the three of us we'll have you above the cut-off.”
Dammit Ulf, don't treat me like an idiot! “You didn't answer my question.”
Ulf took a long time to answer, and they got almost a block closer to their destination. “I guess,” he said finally, “that I hate being dragged down because of my Japanese.”
“We both are, and yours is a lot better than mine.”
He nodded but still managed to look downcast. “It's just… it's just that I grew used to being among the best when I was a high school student for real.”
“For real. Ha.” And what exactly do you mean by 'the best'?
Ulf looked morose for a moment. “Yeah, you're right. Here we're real students as well. Only makes it worse.” The last came out in Swedish.
Christina decided that language was better for mining his memories. “Among the best you said?” she suggested, digging for some more knowledge about his past.
“Yes. Even though I pretty much flunked music and did poorly at sports I still managed five flat with the system back then.”
He looked at her. “You were, what, one year behind me? You must have used the one to five scale.”
“Yes. Changed sometime during the nineties. So, five flat?”
“That's my mean from high school. Made me feel like a king.”
What he had just said finally filtered through Christina's mind. “You graduated high school with five point zero? What?”
“Our sister club is in an elite school, my old school. Think I told you earlier. We were five in our class with perfect grades. Well, after you cut sports and the two worst non-core subjects.”
“Gods!” Christina took two quick steps and turned to face him. “You're not kidding?”
“No, I had it easy. Chalmers was harder. It seemed everyone had grades like mine, and most had worked a lot harder. I never really shone there, but I didn't mind.”
“Of course you went to Chalmers. That's so… Ulf.” She laughed and poked his chest. “So you have a master’s degree?”
“Uhum, science and arts.”
“Eh, that's a strange combination.”
“Sorry, my bad. Science from Chalmers. After the dot com crash I took up English studies at university. Evening courses to fill my time. Got my arts degree from there.”
Me and my big mouth. I should have guessed. “Two, the idiot has two degrees,” Christina said at a lack for a decent retort.
“Don't worry. Took ages to get the last one. I didn't finish until a couple of years ago, so I spent, what, twelve years getting it.” Ulf laughed. “Was just a hobby after all.”
“Yes, sounds like my Ulf. You ran a company and got yourself an extra master’s degree as a hobby. And you kept up that Japanese combat training of yours.”
“Aikido, not combat.”
“Whatever. You've got too much brains for your own good, you know that? Probably why you always think too much.”
If he had that kind of learning capacity he'd probably handle the science track just fine. As for herself Christina held no overblown hopes about her academic ability. She'd claw herself through the Japanese high school system one way or another, and after that she'd be done with her studies. She had a world to conquer.
“Ulf,” she said after the content of their conversation became a future reality. “I guess that means we'll never be in the same class.”
“I guess not,” he said. “Would you prefer for me to go for the liberal arts track instead?”
Christina threw out her hands in horror. “No! Don't build your future on me!”
The look she got in return was filled with equal parts respect and hurt.
Please don't! You can't build your life around me. But she would have liked to share more time with him, and she was on the verge of saying something stupid when she saw the entrance to Stockholm Haven café ahead of them.
When he opened his school bag Ryu found the planner still inside. At first he smirked, but it quickly grew into a smile. He wondered if Urufu had used something like it earlier in his life. Fifty, he's over fifty. Did they have laptops thirty years ago? Ryu didn't know, but he decided Urufu probably had been dependent on pen and paper to do his planning early on.
Ai-chan's voice made Ryu look up from his bag. She was cute and likely to become a real beauty a few years down the line. But it wasn't her looks that caught his interest. Not that looks didn't matter. For him they definitely did, but having grown up with Noriko he doubted he could ever settle for someone docile.
“I thought if I'm silent like now and you talk like you usually do then on average we'll be, well, average.”
The insult earned him a fist and a glare. Neither was entirely playful, but nor were they in earnest.
“You mean if you continue to make an effort looking good you don't have the mental resources to speak at the same time?”
Guess I deserved that one. “You're the one who ordered me to look good,” Ryu said. “My poor mind can't grasp why.”
Ai-chan grabbed his ears in her hands and pulled his face to hers and gave him an almost kiss. Only their noses touched.
“I haven't told my friends about you, even if they suspect by now, and you need the goukons I arrange to spread those rumours of yours.”
So you noticed, didn't you? But he didn't really care. As long as Ai-chan was the only one who understood what he was playing at he felt safe. While he didn't know her all that well yet, he still didn't believe she was the kind who'd betray him unless he gave her reasons to. Those reasons being two-timing her or dumping her, which could have been a concern hadn't he been truly interested in her.
“Why this place?” Ryu asked to change the subject.
Ai-chan sat down on a stool by the windows and looked out. Behind them the clerk answered questions about prices from another group of teenagers, and Ryu waited for them to vanish inside the building before he joined his girlfriend.
“Didn't you recognise their uniforms?”
Ryu shook his head. Apart from a few extreme elite schools he only knew the uniforms from Himekaizen and Irishima.
“Sheesh!” Ai-chan sighed and palmed her face in an exaggerated expression of despair. “Why do I even try? You want to sink Red Rose Academy, and you don't even know their uniforms?”
Crap! I guess I should have known better. There had been something tugging at his mind, but since the cultural festival occurred early October just about every school switched from summer to winter uniforms just days earlier. There simply was no way to get used to the winter uniforms from other schools in so few days. But damn it! I went to the middle school. I have mush for brains today.
Ryu looked at Ai-chan and took her hands in his. “Sorry. I usually only see the Irishima High and Himekaizen uniforms on my train,” Ryu said. That wasn't entirely true, but the other uniforms belonged to schools too far away to be anything but reminders that some students covered indecent distances when commuting to and from school. To and from some of those elite schools he knew about.
He knew he should have remembered the Red Rose uniform from the assault on his sister, but that had been during his last year in middle school and the middle school and high school uniforms were different. Besides that happened in September with the associated summer uniforms worn to boot.
“You know, I don't have any friends from Red Rose, but...”
The tension in Ai-chan's hands grew, and Ryu could feel her fingers squeezing his. She's doing this for me, but she's unhappy about it.
“Yes?” he said.
He kept his gaze on her eyes in an attempt to make her look at him, but she continued staring at their hands and played with his fingers.
“It doesn't seem right,” Ai-chan said after a while. Suddenly she looked up, but she still averted her eyes and pretended to watch the passers-by on the street outside. “Someone did something awful to you. I can understand that, but why would you go after the entire school?”
She's in love with me, and she's hurting herself for my sake. Ryu lifted her hands and kissed the fingertips. “It's not that easy,” he said and joined in her pretence of watching people strolling down the pavement.
“Make me understand. Please!”
“There were teachers involved, and even if we can't prove it I know the principal looked the other way.”
Her gasp told him she wanted to believe, but that what he had just said sounded too fantastic to be true.
“My friend, Urufu, has some pictures,” Ryu continued. “They wouldn't mean anything to you, but for all real victims they're all the proof we need.” Because you wouldn't believe they sent a goon to attack Kuri last term, and they attacked Urufu during the festival.
Ryu still wasn't entirely certain that last attack was sanctioned by Red Rose. It stank of pure revenge, and the sheer idiocy of assaulting someone when you were dressed in your school uniform more or less invalidated the idea of a conspiracy.
“I appreciate what you're doing for me,” he said, “but don't do anything dangerous. This is our fight.”
Ai-chan turned her face to him. A glimmer of sudden determination ran over her eyes when she faced him. “I want to be closer to you. If someone hurt you I'll hurt them back.”
There was a reason she had piqued his interest in the first place, and Ryu admitted to himself that her boyish reaction to a fight attracted him.
“I'm not after the students at Red Rose Hell,” he said. “If anything I want to save them from that quagmire.” He let his lips play over her fingers again and enjoyed how she blushed at the touch.
“What… what do you mean?” The look in her eyes told him she no longer thought of the war between the two schools, nor that he was bringing in Irishima High on their side as well.
“We're taking Red Rose down,” he said. Before he let go of his plans and enjoyed the evening with her she had to understand that he was serious. If she decided to leave him as a result, then so be it.
Noriko grimaced when she saw her brother hand in hand with Ai-chan. Not that she had anything against her brother's choice of girlfriend; on the contrary. For the first time he got serious with anyone, and on top of that he chose someone with her head firmly screwed onto her body. That was a good thing in Noriko's book.
The reason she grimaced was far simpler. The pair came walking towards her, which meant they'd stop and chat and ask her what she was doing, and that in turn made it unlikely she'd be able to spend time alone with Nao.
“Sis, over here!”
Noriko looked at her shoes and smirked. Then she plastered a false smile over her face and looked up again.
“Idiot bro, what do you want?”
There was a distinction between what words she used and her expression. While she often thought of him as her idiot bro she never really disliked him. Abhorred him, hated him and felt disgusted by him, sure, but not dislike. When you grew up as tight as they had done you learned to be honest, and Noriko honestly saw that her brother was growing into a good man. An idiot, self-centred and much too playful man, but a good one nonetheless.
He must have seen something in her face, because a shadow of worry ran over his eyes when he glared back. Then he got hold of himself and put up a show of ignorance.
“Sis isn't cute like you,” Ryu said to Ai-chan, but Noriko felt how the words rather were directed at her.
“She's a lot cuter than you. We both are,” Ai-chan responded and gave Noriko a toothy smile.
Good girl! As long as you don't behave like a puppy he'll stay interested. Noriko shook her head and shot Ryu's girlfriend an approving grin. That's girl conspiracy for you. Chew on that idiot bro!
Both girls went silent and looked at each other. In the end Noriko nodded at Ai-chan to continue.
“We're… I'm helping Ryu with your fight.”
You're helping us with what? Oh. Oh! “Ai-chan, are you certain that you want to get involved?”
Rather than give her an answer Ai-chan grabbed Noriko's arm and pulled her aside.
“He already got Irishima High involved, and my friends probably know we're dating by now.”
What's that got to do with anything? “I don't understand,” Noriko said. She glanced at where her brother stood a bit away. He leaned lazily against a wall and made a show not to disturb the privacy of the two of them.
“Your brother isn't exactly subtle, so people already know he's behind those rumours.”
Alarm flared throughout her and Noriko grabbed Ai-chan's hands. “That's not true! Ryu isn't the one who started them. He's just helping out.”
In return Noriko got a sad smile. “I know that. Ryu told me as much, but he's kinda famous and my friends at school believe he's the one. He’s still just a high school boy though.” Ai-chan looked a little embarrassed and Noriko saw how she searched for words. ”That Ageruman girl of yours is more like a fantasy for us. We just can’t see her doing the same things as the rest of us.”
They would think like that I guess. Of course they'd know about Kuri. Her face is all over Tokyo now. A flash of suspicion sprung up in Noriko's mind. “Kuri, ah, Ageruman-san dates another boy at school, so you don't have to worry.”
Kuri desperately tries to mark her territory when it comes to Urufu, but you don't need to know that. The mere thought that someone like Kuri could be afraid that her boyfriend would be taken away from her was ludicrous. Especially if you knew Urufu and how loyal he was. It made Noriko a little angry on Urufu's behalf, but he wasn't her matter to worry about any longer, if he had ever been.
Allowing her thoughts to run their course Noriko turned her attention back to Ryu's girlfriend. The relief written in her face was almost comical to watch.
“I'm not worried,” Ai-chan said.
Noriko decided to let the lie slip. “Good,” she said instead. “Now, about helping us, what are you talking about?”
“Well,” Ai-chan began, “not to speak badly about Himekaizen, but Irishima High has a pretty good reputation. We're spreading the rumours to friends in other schools as well.”
“Including Red Rose.”
You idiots! “That could be dangerous,” Noriko blurted out.
Ai-chan took a few moments to make sure no pedestrians were close enough to overhear them. “You mean an assault like the one at your school? Don't worry. There are a lot of powerful parents with connections to Irishima High.”
You mean there are a lot of rich kids at your school rather than the poor sods at Himekaizen? “That was unexpectedly blunt, coming from you.” Despite her words Noriko felt her opinion of Ai-chan rise a few notches.
“That's exactly as blunt as expected from me,” Ai-chan answered and climbed yet another peg.
Noriko followed Ai-chan's example and waited for a sudden crowding around them to disperse. “Why are you telling me this now?”
“Because I want you to pipe down,” came the brutal reply.
What? “You know we really need the momentum to keep up.”
“Sure, but if you leave it to me for a while it'll look like the source of the rumours changed.”
Yeah, she sure has her head screwed on right. Ryu, you got yourself a first class girlfriend in her. “I can't control Kuri,” Noriko said.
“Eh, Ageruman-san, the model. She's a force of nature to begin with, and it was her boyfriend who got assaulted.”
“Her boyfriend? So it was all a vengeance trip?”
Noriko gave the question a few seconds of thought. She needed to give Ai-chan an almost truth as an answer.
“No, it began with some girls being sexually assaulted at Red Rose. The rumours are true.”
“Really? How would you know?”
Maybe more than an almost truth was needed after all. “I was one of those girls.”
A few days earlier Kyoko had turned on her heals when she saw Nao walk in on Noriko who stood chatting with Ryu and Ai-chan. Or rather Kyoko turned because he walked in on the two girls chatting with each other while Ryu pretended to laze around.
She hadn't been far away enough to entirely avoid catching up on the topic which was the real reason she decided not to join. Besides Noriko wanted some time alone with Nao, and five of them would be even worse than four.
Now Kyoko turned on her heals when she walked in on Urufu and Kuri-chan quarrelling. It wasn't the first time the pair was involved in verbal fencing, but something in Urufu's voice betrayed an anger stronger than Kyoko had experienced before. Even though both of them spoke in Swedish it was clear to Kyoko that whatever they disagreed about had turned vitriolic some time ago.
She almost made it down the stairs before the heated discussion degenerated into fully fledged shouting, and Kyoko ran the last steps down before she was seen by any teacher arriving to defuse a possible fistfight.
With a heavy lump in her stomach Kyoko tapped her phone alive and stared at the photo delivered to her by an unknown sender. It showed Kuri-chan in a revealing dress outside what had to be some kind of nightclub. Even though the photo was shot in a cityscape and didn't reveal what time of year it was taken Kyoko knew enough to realise it had been shot last spring. Last spring when Kuri-chan still worked as a hostess.
Kyoko flipped away the photo and dialled Yukio. Right now she needed someone to share her worries with. Someone she could trust fully to stay by her side.
They met at Stockholm Haven café, and when Kyoko entered Yukio already sat by a table in a corner. From the inner room she heard voices telling her a number of club-members had gathered after one of the spontaneous walking talking sessions that had become more and more common during Urufu's hospitalisation.
The main café was filled with the usual crowd of Himekaizen students generously sprinkled by Irishima High uniforms, but today for the first time Kyoko saw the red blazers signalling Red Rose Academy there as well.
The red and green of Red Rose stood out against the old fashioned black gakuran and navy blue sailor uniforms from Irishima High. In contrast the muted, almost yellow, beige blazer on black trousers from Himekaizen looked drab. Still, it was their café. Urufu had found it for them long before it became a popular hangout among the students.
Kyoko waved to Yukio, slipped inside the counter and into the narrow kitchen area. There she quickly changed into her work clothes before re-entering the café.
Working part time here didn't pay as well as Urufu's stunts, but she got a lot more hours here. Sometimes Noriko did hours here as well. Not because of any need but to get the experience she said. Yukio and Ryu helped out as well during evenings that were especially busy.
Kyoko high fived the waitress, a university students who worked full hours Saturdays and Sundays, on her way out and started taking orders. James did all the work on the inside of the counter while Kyoko delivered orders to the tables and kept them clean of dishes.
She saw Yukio catching up on some of the items for tomorrow's full scale walking talking session while at the same time running a low voiced conversation over Skype with someone from their sister club in Sweden.
There was barely time to sneak over to his table from time to time to share a brief moment of hands touching or to playfully caress his hair when she hoped no-one saw. Well, James did from his position behind the counter, but he didn't seem to care as long as she kept up with her work. He smirked and rolled his eyes dramatically, but Kyoko knew it was all for show.
A couple of hours after she arrived the café entered an evening lull and Kyoko got James' permission to share Yukio's table for a short time. She showed him the photo and explained the circumstances.
Yukio put his tablets aside and gave the photo a cursory look before he stared at her. Seeing Kuri-chan in scant clothing wasn't anything new for any of them. They had even been invited to a studio shoot earlier this autumn.
“Why do you have it?” Yukio asked.
“Someone sent it to me. I've never seen the email address.”
Yukio palmed his face and sighed. “Wrong question, sorry. Why do you have it? Why wasn't it sent to Kuri?”
Maybe it was, but Kyoko didn't know. The moment she decided not to intrude on Kuri-chan's and Urufu's fight was also the moment when she lost her chance to ask exactly that question.
“I don't know,” Kyoko admitted. She swallowed a mouthful of lukewarm tea while the thought about Yukio's question. Why had anyone bothered with sending her that photo? A warning? A threat? It didn't make any sense.
“OK, the important thing right now is that someone has a photo of Kuri that could be bad for her.”
“Bad? She could be expelled,” Kyoko said.
“Unless they can prove it was her job I don't think so. Besides, Principal Nakagawa is on our side.”
“What do you think will happen if this blows up?”
Yukio screwed his face tight until it was wrinkled like an overripe fruit. Then he sucked in some air and sighed again. “Don't know. Suspension for breaking curfew maybe. I honestly don't know.”
“Think we should tell them to stop spreading the rumours?”
Even though Kyoko was the one asking that question she suspected she knew part of the answer. Kuri-chan was her most important friend, but that also made her more aware of Kuri-chan's shortcomings. Fifty years old or sixteen didn't matter when it came to those. Kuri-chan suffered from an overblown self-confidence, and since she started modelling again Kyoko had seen shadows of a personality she didn't care all that much for. There was something vengeful about Kuri-chan, an ugly resentfulness that made her keep jabbing at an opponent until she got a killing blow in.
Yukio rose from his chair and went for the counter. “Why don't you ask her?” he said and waved at the door through which Kuri-chan and Urufu entered.
It wasn't that he disliked being part of a dirty game, but he definitely disliked being partially kept unaware of what was happening.
At least that was what he had thought.
Half an hour after Urufu arrived together with Kuri, Principal Nakagawa joined them accompanied by a man in his sixties Yukio had never seen before. They more or less forced the club members to end their meeting in the inner room and after that the six of them sat down around the large table.
“This is for you,” Principal Nakagawa said and placed four documents on the table.
Yukio looked at the one given to him. It was a written permit signed by the principal to stay here far beyond any reasonable curfew. He looked up at the principal asking a silent question.
“I need you here, or let me rephrase that, we need you here,” Nakagawa said and nodded at his companion.
“My name is Noguchi Satoru, and I'm the vice principal of Irishima High. At this moment our principal and the vice principal of Himekaizen have a similar meeting with Hasegawa Ai, Takado Nao and the Wakayama twins from your school.”
Yukio nodded numbly at the unexpected information. What's going on? he wondered.
“Hamarugen-san, do you recall a conversation we had here this spring?” Principal Nakagawa asked.
Urufu blinked at the surprisingly polite words, and Yukio threw Vice Principal Noguchi a look to find out how he would react. There was none.
Flipping open a laptop Urufu grimaced and looked back at their principal. “What part of it?”
Principal Nakagawa responded with a surprisingly youthful grin. “Good boy.” Then he turned all serious again. “The part about a population deficiency of epic proportions,” he continued.
Yukio shook his head. He had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, and across the table he could see Kuri frown as well. At the moment he wished Kyoko was here, but she still had close to half an hour's worth of work to do, but looking at the fourth permit Yukio understood that she would be called here as well when she was done.
“Please go on, I'm listening,” Urufu said.
“Mind if I smoke?” Noguchi-sensei broke in.
Glancing at the ashtray on the table Yukio knew it was a rhetorical question, but it was the kind of polite courtesy an adult extended to another adult. Which meant Irishima High's vice principal knew something very few people did.
“Not at all,” Urufu answered, and Yukio could feel a thin string of tension stretching across the room.
“Would you like one?”
Principal Nakagawa frowned disapprovingly at the offer and stared at his Irishima High counterpart.
“I think I'll decline,” Urufu said. “It's illegal now, both in Sweden and here. I mean for a minor like me.” He glared at Noguchi-sensei. “Besides I needed extraordinary measures to break an almost forty year old bad habit, so I think it would be a pity to take it up again. Wouldn't you agree?”
Yukio could hear his own sharp intake of breath. It didn't matter that he already suspected that Noguchi-sensei was in he know. Hearing it stated so clearly still surprised him.
“Noguchi-san, don't you think this is enough?” Principal Nakagawa asked when the silence threatened to become oppressive.
“I just had to know. Or rather I've known for some time, but I still didn't believe it.”
“Gentlemen, population deficiency it was, not my smoking,” Urufu said, and Yukio sent him a grateful thought for bringing the conversation back on topic.
“Mister Hamarugen,” Noguchi-sensei started in a strange, jilted western way, “there is a fast way to expand when the market is shrinking.”
Urufu looked back over his laptop screen. “Market! If you think your students are your customers you're sadly mistaken.”
“What else would they be,” Noguchi-sensei said, and for the first time he looked surprised when he stared at Urufu.
With the usual clattering Urufu hammered down something on his keyboard before answering.
“Products, we're your products. If you're unable to make that distinction you shouldn't dabble in education.”
“Look young mister, Irishima High has a good...”
“Irishima High is secondary education. I'm not young and I ran tertiary education for a living. Don't give me that crap!”
“Tertiary? Nakagawa-san, didn't you say he was some kind of IT-management?”
Principal Nakagawa smirked, and then he smiled. “I did. His own business, and it seems it branched out.” With a twist of his head Nakagawa-sensei looked at Urufu. “Tertiary education?”
“Think of it as a private junior college. It wasn't really, but it's the simplest way to describe it. Nothing big. Say some five hundred students all in all.”
A surprisingly throaty laughter welled up from Nakagawa-sensei. “So when you said you had some ideas for your club you were basing them on experience.”
Urufu nodded. “Not all, but most of it. The club is my class.”
“Should have known. It showed during the midterms by the way.”
“Good for us. Population deficiency!” Kuri shot in from her chair when the conversation meandered away yet again.
This time it was Nakagawa-sensei who opened up a laptop. Yukio could see how he was unused to it, or rather handled it the way Yukio once took for granted before he met Urufu and Kuri. Now he, just like most club-members, were more proficient with this kind of electronic devices than they would have dreamed possible half a year earlier.
“If we help you tear down Red Rose Academy's financial foundation there are still a few hundred students who would need a school.”
Urufu nodded. “What about their middle school?”
“There is sufficient capacity within walking distance from Red Rose Academy. Among other, your middle school,” Noguchi-sensei said and motioned a hand in Kuri's direction. “As for us we're only interested in the high school students.”
Urufu grinned. “Fine, let's talk business,” he said, and Yukio noted how he shared a hungry expression with Kuri, almost like two vultures waiting for a feast.
Kyoko waved to the student council president before she recalled that the third year had stepped down by now. Since a week or so a second year boy from 7:2, which made him a classmate to Nao-sempai, had taken up that role. The election campaign had been a non-event where the only question among the first years was why Urufu didn't run for president.
Blinking away her thoughts Kyoko made for the club room to meet up with Yukio. They hadn't been able to meet since that strange evening in the Stockholm Haven café.
A few days earlier she participated in one of the most surrealistic conversations in her life. How to dismantle a school without ever inviting the target to participate in the planning. Kyoko hadn't understood all of it, only that the stakes had risen now when the headships of both Himekaizen and Irishima High were active participants in the war.
The door to their clubroom slid open under her hands as she entered, and when she came inside she saw Yukio chatting with the Wakayama twins. Urufu and Kuri-chan still hadn't arrived.
In the lounge area Nao-sempai sat half asleep in the sofa, and seated beside him Hiroyuki-kun and Kichirou-kun ran a low voiced conversation where they tried their best not to wake the junior up.
From time to time Midori-chan offered a word or two, enough to make Kyoko understand she was part of the conversation as well. Midori-chan still had a mess of a hairdo, but it was no longer the horror show that had been her trademark.
Ryu looked up when Kyoko stepped further inside the room and beckoned her to the table. During the short pause in their talking Yukio made place for a flying kiss that made Noriko frown grinningly and Kyoko blush a little. She still felt awkward with Yukio's public displays of affection despite having been an item with him since August.
As she took a place around the desks turned conference table Kyoko heard the door slide open behind her.
“Perfect, seems we're all gathered,” Urufu's voice announced.
“Just grabbing a drink,” Kuri-chan said, and from the corner of her eye Kyoko saw her friend beelining for the fridge still stocked with the last of the drinks they had bought off the cultural festival surplus. “Anyone want one?”
The sound of the fridge door opening accompanied Nao-sempai's snoring, and Kyoko heard Kuri-chan run one round of orders to the group in and around the sofa. A sudden yell told her Kuri-chan deliberately voided the other club members' attempt not to disturb Nao-sempai.
“What the hell?”
“Pocari Sweat,” came Kuri-chan's answer before the sound of her steps receded towards the fridge for a second round of drinks.
A bottle of cold drink inside his shirt, Kyoko thought and smiled. It was an outrageous act she would never have dared herself.
By her side Yukio laughed open mouthed and Noriko grinned as well. She deserted her place beside Yukio and walked around the table to take a seat beside her brother. The small gesture filled Kyoko with warmth, and when Noriko sat down facing her Kyoko shot the small girl a grateful smile.
“Need any help?” Urufu shouted, but he sat down and opened up his laptop as if he knew beforehand that Kuri-chan would decline.
“Two hands is enough for six drinks,” Kuri-chan shouted back and confirmed Kyoko's impression.
When she returned with an armful of bottles the aimless chatter subsided and everyone looked at Urufu.
“Want me to explain?” he said and looked at them over the screen.
“You'd better,” Ryu growled. “I was planning to introduce Ai-chan to my parents when we suddenly got marched away to the principal's office in another school.”
Kyoko shared a small sense of the discomfort he must have felt when he and his sister got dragged inside Irishima High. Ryu attracted attention on any normal day, but walking around in the Himekaizen uniform must have made him stand out even more.
“Sorry about that,” Urufu said. I didn't know they'd pull that stunt. To be honest I don't even know why they guessed you waited for her by her school gates.”
“Well that's Ai-chan's fault,” Ryu answered and snorted. “Apparently she told her club advisor why she wanted to leave earlier, and he in turn reported that to their principal.”
Urufu shrugged. “Still means they had it all planned for our vice principal to show up there on short notice. Anyway, they pretty much took us by surprise at the café as well.”
“So, what's going on?” Noriko shot in to keep the conversation from derailing.
“Kyoko, mind turning the whiteboard?” Urufu asked.
Kyoko rose and faced the whiteboard towards them. While she was up she turned on the water boiler and prepared some green tea.
The table turned silent and Urufu used the break to set up his beamer.
“Well,” he said after Kyoko had returned, “this is what's happening.”
Kyoko looked at the whiteboard where two cutaways were displayed.
“This is Himekaizen, and this is Irishima High. These,” Urufu said and marked a few highlighted areas with a pen laser, “are available classrooms.”
Kyoko looked at three areas in the cutaway of Irishima High and five of them for Himekaizen.
“Starting the coming year Irishima High will open up an extra class for freshmen and Himekaizen three.”
By now a large number of club members had gathered by the table as those who entered the room came directly for the display and those who sat in the lounge area rose and joined them.
“Why a total of eight classrooms?” Ryu asked.
“It's nine actually. 9:1 already occupies one. All four freshman classes will be pilfered from Red Rose junior high.”
“Himekaizen and Irishima High will target the parents of the Red Rose ninth graders directly.”
“I don't get it.”
“Jeez,” Kuri-chan interrupted. “Ryu, we're running a smear campaign here. Our schools will target the first and second years as well in an attempt to save the poor students from a school going belly up,” she said with a predatory grin that made Kyoko wince.
And that's the real beauty of it, Ulf thought as he waited for Christina to finish her explanation.
How to expand your market shares in a shrinking market. Just force a competitor out of that market. It was brilliant. Irishima High and Himekaizen aimed at stealing some 350 students from Red Rose. That was effectively the same as shutting the school down. Especially as a few middle schools stood waiting in the shadows ready to gobble up students from grade seven through nine, among them Christina's old school.
Christina and Kyoko's, Ulf reminded himself. She's the most important person in the world for Yukio.
Ulf took a deep breath before he continued. He still got winded quickly and it would take until the second half of November before he could start rebuilding the stamina he had always taken pride in for real.
“Anyway,” Ulf said. “as you can see one of the classrooms is this very room, so come April we'll be without a clubroom.”
There were quite a few shouts of outrage, and Ulf waited for them to quiet down.
“In return,” he continued when the room was silent enough for him to be heard again, “we've been given special dispensation to use the inner room at the café as our clubroom. It's cleared with the management there as well.” Which means James was behind the entire idea from the beginning, but I can't tell them why, Ulf thought. It made sense though. This way James got into closer contact with both arrivals as well as the Himekaizen part of whatever shadowy organisation it was that took care of the arrivals over the years.
Ulf shot Christina a worried look before he continued. Nakagawa's words from just after their evening meeting at the café played in his thoughts. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to refuse running for the student council after all. Without Nakagawa to cover their backs they'd be forced to gamble on how the new principal would play his cards, because here in Japan it was bound to be a 'he'.
“Given these circumstances I've decided that the theme for our walking talking sessions will be corporate competition.”
“Corporate competition?” Sakura asked and reminded Ulf that she wasn't anywhere nearly as silent and withdrawn as she had been in the beginning. “What about our school subjects?”
“It's the theme,” Ulf said. “Apart from classic Japanese we'll use the theme as the core for all subjects. For example we'll use examples from economic calculus for math, discuss real cases in English and Japanese and look at older cases from modern Japanese history.”
When he received blank stares in return Ulf palmed his face. This is going to take a while to explain.
He was saved by Noriko. “It's an interdisciplinary approach,” she said. “We're merging knowledge from separate knowledge domains to, eh, to increase our understanding of each domain,” she said, but her voice fell strangely silent at the end.
Ulf stared at her. That's almost correct, and shows way more understanding than any sixteen year old girl has any right to have. “Noriko got the gist of it,” he said. “It also helps us see how different domains are connected to each other,” he added, more for her benefit than for the others. They wouldn't understand the application of synthesis. Most of his old colleagues from his previous life hadn't, but Ulf suspected Noriko was already very, very close to do so.
He watched Christina distribute the compendia they had prepared. He had done most of the research, but she forced him to do a full rewrite of all sections concerning large conglomerates. He was too cute and naive she had laughed, and when it came to global business Ulf saw no reason to distrust anything she said. After all she was The Billion Dollar Empress.
Kid's, you're getting a crash course my old Swedish customers would have paid millions of yen for. With you as a lecturer, Christina, I doubt yen would suffice, Ulf thought and looked at her. You saved me. Without you I doubt I would have kept my sanity. I owe you so much more than I could ever give you.
She must have felt his gaze, because she suddenly stopped handing out compendia and stood staring back at him. He felt his cheeks heat up, and it was impossible not to meet her eyes.
No matter what you're stunningly beautiful, but that's not what keeps me by your side. Slowly her face faded from his vision and he only saw Christina's intensely blue eyes meeting his. I love your strength, and I love the caring you always try to hide. I love knowing that side of you. I wish I could stay with you forever!
And then even her eyes left his view and Ulf found himself locked in memories and the very love he felt for her. Right here and right now there were only the two of them, and in his mind he felt her embrace as real and soft as if they had really been alone together.
I've missed that feeling of being together. Since that day I've missed you even when you were with me. This was the real feeling he had longed for, this, the feeling of being together which for him was more real than seeing her face from his hospital bed. His chest constricted and a pleasant warmness spread through his body from his stomach.
“Wow!” a voice in the background said. “Hey! You two, you're making us embarrassed.”
Ulf vaguely registered Nori's voice, and for once he probably wouldn't be accused of being the motor mouth, because most of the murmurs seemed to agree with him.
“Man, get a room before you look at her that way,” Yukio said, and the indecent suggestion brought a guffaw to most of the members. The awkward feeling dissolved, but not before Christina snorted in a failed attempt to pretend she hadn't been caught up in the tension.
That was intense! Ulf thought, and once again he recalled the reason he had fallen helplessly in love with her.
Christina walked down the stairs to the vending machines on the entrance floor. Throughout her body she felt waves of pleasure reminding her that while all her plans to take Ulf to her bed had failed thus far, just being close to him when he thought of nothing but her was more than enough.
This is what I really want. Sex is fine, but I can wait. This, however, this I can't wait for. I need it. I need you!
She giggled at the memory of Noriko's expression when the girl finally understood what Christina had experienced during those moments when the tension in their clubroom grew unbearable.
You're too cute. I hope you'll share some of this with Nao-sempai, but you're really too young.
Having arrived by the machines Christina dug up a few coins and fed them into the slot. For once she picked a bottle of tea rather than the coke she usually chose.
I remember being in love with being in love. First love is like that, but it's a wonderful experience in itself. Enjoy it while it lasts Noriko. You've become an important friend.
Christina smiled and changed into loafers. She put her indoor shoes in her locker and left the school.
As she passed the gravel on the school-yard her thoughts darkened and coming up to the line of naked sakura all thoughts of love left her. It was as if those thoughts belonged to the innocence of school and had no place in the real world outside.
After she put the school gates behind her Christina pulled her phone from her bag and sent a select few photos to Kinoshita-sensei, her main photographer. After that she dialled him.
“Ageruman here,” she said, using the Japanese version of her name. Despite having been assigned to Europe during his previous life Kinoshita-sensei's spoken English was sub-par, and Christina found no reason to impair his understanding.
“Hello Kuritina,” he replied.
At least he's used to Europe enough to dispense with the honorifics. “I've sent the shots I think would be easiest to use.”
“Are you sure about this?” her photographer said. “This is the kind of photos that could destroy your career.”
She had thought of that, but that was also precisely the reason they were perfect. “Yes. We'll spin this a bit differently though. Can you accentuate the wet T-shirt aspect of those shots?”
“Yeah, but why? That's even worse.”
“Make sure to include one or two shots that clearly display me being assaulted.”
A few seconds of silence followed. “You calculating little bastard,” came the admiring reaction a bit later. “Who are you sending to the gallows?”
Christina smirked. “We have proof the principal of Red Rose paid for the assault. We just have to tweak the truth a bit. Make it so that he paid for those photos rather than just having me beat up.”
“What are you after?”
Despite the question Christina knew that Kinoshita-sensei understood perfectly well. He just wanted confirmation.
“I want it on the grapevine that submissive high school girls turn him on.”
“You’re aware he's married with kids?”
She was, and she didn't care. He had her Ulf sent to hospital, which meant she cared more for vermin. “After this, I doubt it,” Christina said. “Make sure it hits the news in the end. I want him permanently destroyed.”
“If that's what you want. Fine, I'll make it happen.”
Even though he made that promise Christina felt the hesitation in Kinoshita-sensei's voice. You're a good person. You're not like me. It does you honour that you doubt my course of action before destroying another human. “That is what I want,” she said and finished the call.
Next was Nakagawa-sensei. He'd blanch at how far she was ready to go, but he'd also agree more wholeheartedly than her photographer. Nakagawa-sensei had a sinister streak to him, an inner sadist that he kept firmly in check. Christina had worked with people like him before. They made the best and most honest of her subordinates during the dog eat dog years when she built her empire.
She made that call and continued walking. A few steps behind her her bodyguard followed like a shadow. He had caught up to her just as she left the school, and he would follow her doggedly until she reached home. Christina suspected someone else handled the surveillance from there on, but she hadn't really seen anyone else.
Still, from her prior experience good security companies knew how to be discreet enough to uphold at least the illusion of privacy when she was at home.
She sighed and continued walking towards the train station. Any other day she'd have joined Ulf's team, the one with the least physically able club members. Their walking talking sessions weren't as strenuous as what Ulf preferred, and only after his own hospitalisation did he agree to split the club into two groups.
Less walking and more talking as they said, but it wasn't really true. The faster walking group talked just as much, but Ulf wisely didn't say anything to allow the members to keep appearances up.
“Today's shoot will be a long one. You might want to call your employer about that,” Christina said into the air. She knew her bodyguard caught up on what she said. If he acted on it or not was his problem.
“When I'm done I'll grab some food and return home,” she added. “If you know of a cheap but decent place I'm willing to listen.” If you know of a place I can afford and you can secure in advance, Christina thought. It never hurt making work easier for people when there was no cost associated for herself.
Damn, I never thought I'd be grateful for this kind of security, but things are going to get really, really ugly soon. They already had, but as of now their smear campaign had turned into open warfare, and Christina didn't know how far the enemy was prepared to go in order to survive.
“This might sound like a strange request, but apart from club hours I want you two to work part time at Stockholm Haven café.”
It was definitely a strange request, but one Yukio could understand.
“Anything more?” he asked.
“Yes, after work you're to walk Takeida-san home, call me and go home yourself.”
Yukio wondered how many students had their principal's number in their contact list. “Understood Nakagawa-sensei,” he said. He would do as told. Kyoko had already been attacked once, and the way their school had upped the ante he didn't want to risk a repeat.
“What about Yukio, eh, Matsumoto-san?”
Yukio felt his shoulders rise at Kyoko's unfamiliar use of his surname. She hadn't for months now.
Principal Nakagawa rested his elbows on his desk. He looked at Kyoko and scratched his chin. Then he caught Yukio's eyes with his own before Yukio had a chance to protest. “That's a relevant question. I'm afraid we'll have to chance Matsumoto-san walking home alone.”
“Not good enough,” Kyoko protested.
Nakagawa-sensei grimaced, but in the end he nodded at her. “Do you have bikes?”
Yukio didn't, but his mother had one he could borrow. “Yes,” he said.
Kyoko grimaced before she answered. “I'm not allowed to use one. It's not… it's not proper for a young woman.”
From the corner of his eye Yukio saw Nakagawa-sensei shoot Kyoko an equally stunned look of incomprehension.
“Not proper?” Principal Nakagawa finally asked.
Kyoko blushed slightly. “My father says it's unbecoming of a woman.”
What the hell? Did he time-slip from the Meiji era?
“Ah, I take it you don't have a bike then,” Nakagawa-sensei said and avoided the question that should have been asked.
With a frown Yukio watched Kyoko shake her head. Well, that bastard father of hers almost left me lying on the street after I got beat up. Some people shouldn't be allowed to have children. Then Yukio regretted that thought. If some people weren't, then his lovely Kyoko wouldn't be by his side now.
“Matsumoto-san, could you walk Takeida-san home and ride back to your home afterwards?”
The question made sense. He was much less likely to get into trouble if he biked home. “Yes. Yes, I'll do so.”
“Well, that settles it. You're dismissed.” With those words Nakagawa-sensei rose from his chair.
The meeting was over and Yukio bowed quickly before he grabbed Kyoko who had done likewise and hurried out of the office.
Guess we could as well make some cash from James, he thought when they trotted away in the direction of their club room. Could as well grab some stuff from there and carry it to the café. We're moving before we're forced to anyway.
Because they were. Any day now Noriko's mother would show up with a pick-up and help them move furniture from the club room to Stockholm Haven café. The inner room would be cramped, but in all honesty the main area was better suited for lounging purposes. The inner room was superior as a workspace though.
We'll be the only club with our club room accessible to students from another school. Two other schools, Yukio added mentally. But we're planning to make that just one other school.
“Yukio, slow down! You're hurting me!”
Yukio broke his stride and came to a standstill. “Sorry,” he said. Then he saw how red Kyoko's wrist had become. “Crap, I'm really sorry. Please forgive me!”
She massaged her arm and gave him a glare. “Don't worry. You just can't drag me along like that without telling me where we're going.”
You knew we were headed for our room, but you just don't like being dragged along without my asking. He had some reflection to do. She was his girlfriend, not his property, and if he didn't behave properly he'd lose her and deserve it.
“I was thinking we should move one of the kettles and some of the tablets for tonight,” Yukio said in an attempt to change the topic.
Kyoko gave him a relieved smile and nodded.
“You know,” she said as they slid open the door, “I think getting to know Irishima High students is a good thing, but what about Red Rose?”
Yukio rummaged through the shelves and bagged half a dozen tablets while Kyoko went for the lounge area and one of the three water boilers in the room. He knew they had until it was time to leave before he needed to come up with an answer.
“I try not to think about it,” he said in the end. “To be honest I'm more worried about the new members from the transfer batch. They saw Red Rose Hell first hand for an entire term before transferring here.”
Kyoko left the room and Yukio closed the door behind them. There were quite a few students at school, but during club hours they usually didn't loiter in the corridors and thus it looked a lot more deserted than it was.
“They haven't complained about the move,” Yukio continued when it was clear Kyoko expected some kind of explanation monologue. “There are so many of us there I think they feel safe.”
“Idiot!” came the unexpected reaction.
“Just about everyone at Himekaizen was present when they maimed Urufu. Why should the transfer students from Red Rose feel safe at the café?”
He mulled over the question while they descended the stairs. Because we're aware of the danger now? he thought. Because those who attacked Urufu were all hospitalised as well? But that wasn't the reason, or at least that shouldn't be the reason. We can't make people feel safe based on having the other side more scared than us.
“I don't know,” Yukio said when they got outside. He looked at the darkening skies and pulled his coat closer. “It's just a feeling. I believe it's a good thing there are students from three schools at the café. I think having the war out in the open somehow makes it less scary.”
“Are you telling me the truth?”
He looked at Kyoko and hugged her. Not entirely, he admitted to himself. “Maybe I just can't be that scared when I'm with you,” he said, and that was probably the truth in as much as there was something you could call truth. It didn't help those from Red Rose, but it did help him, and that was enough for now.
He could only be Urufu's wingman and Kyoko's hero, and he guessed it was the same for her. Neither he nor the woman he loved could protect more than two important ones. That was the depressing reality when you listened to the tunes of the wingman blues.