January went by in a rush, and when the juniors vanished for their week long trip to Kansai, Noriko decided she'd had enough. Kuri spent all her free time modelling, which meant she had no free time at all, and if she had no free time, neither did Nao. If Noriko couldn't get time with her boyfriend then she'd be damned if she couldn't get some with her friends. And that meant outside club hours.
A day earlier she tried to have her father pull some strings, and to her surprise he did so with a malicious grin on his lips. While he placed a few phone-calls, Noriko's mother rang a few friends of her own, with a gleeful expression just as creepy as her father's.
Sometimes Noriko wondered about her parents. She had a feeling they would have made better friends with her brother than her, if they met when they were all high schoolers. There was a lot of Ryu in her mother, and sometimes she saw an echo of Urufu in her father. I should ask, one day. Or maybe not.
The most important right now was that Kyoko would be discharged within the week, but before that Noriko planned to spend an evening with Kuri. Two in fact. The first to plan a later sleepover with all four of them. The boys could spend that night at one of Yukio's two homes for all Noriko cared.
To that end Kuri had been called to a business meeting with her father. It was to set up her new company, CAMODE, or something like that. Apparently some kind of pun in Swedish. And to avoid any complaints Noriko made certain that her father and Kuri would actually have a meeting.
Amounting to well over quarter of an hour.
A little cockroach inside her head poked at her soul and reminded her that a bad consciousness isn't so easily stomped out, but she slammed a pair of mental feet down on it, just as she had all since she started planning. The thing was, if she could wrestle some time out of Kuri's schedule for herself, then she could have done so for Urufu; probably for Kuri as well if Noriko was to be perfectly honest with herself.
She didn't intend to be. Honest that was. Honest was for those who didn't get things done, like her idiot bro.
The sound of an engine on the street brought her back to reality, and when she went to a dark room and moved aside the curtains, she recognised the car that brought Kuri to school every morning.
Kuri had already left it and stood by the gate.
Noriko heard the bell as she saw Kuri press her hand to the gate post. With a thin smile Noriko left the room, slipped into her shoes by the front door and walked outside to greet her friend.
“Kuri, been a while!” Which wasn't entirely true as they went to the same class, and today had been a school day.
“Yo!” Kuri answered and grinned.
What was that? “Yo?”
“Sorry about that, it's a thing Kyoko and I used to do,” Kuri said, and by now she had come close enough for the inevitable hug. It was one of those strange western habits of hers, of Urufu's as well, which was worse.
“Get in, it's freezing!”
Kuri did as told, and well inside she took off her shoes just as any civilised person would, but she placed them to the side, which looked a little strange. It didn't look untidy, just strange.
Just in case, Noriko grabbed Kuri's shoes and moved them just under the step, toes out, and grinned at her friend. Kuri was quick on the uptake whenever she cared.
“Oh, sorry. Didn't know. We never put our shoes where they're in the way.”
That 'we' didn't need an explanation. It belonged to a past that Kuri would never regain, a world lost and possibly one she didn't long for any more.
“Dad's upstairs with the contracts.” As was her mom, but Noriko didn't think Kuri would care. “How's Kyoko,” Noriko asked just before Kuri vanished up the stairs.
“She's fine, on the outside. Should be back Monday,” Kuri said and continued up to the second floor.
On the outside. Noriko shivered at the cold assessment. It's your best friend. How much do you have to hate to sound that calm?
There wasn't much she could do about that. She got into the kitchen area and checked the cook books once more. With some luck she'd be able to lure Kuri away for some shopping. Anything to make her think of something that wasn't work, school or revenge.
Besides, Valentine was close enough to merit at least some pre-planning. This year Noriko planned to be one of the starstruck girls who made something sweet and dark by hand, because this year she had a reason to.
Nao, dammit, make some time for me will you?
But for him to make some time, Kuri had to make some time. Noriko intended to find out how far she could push her friend. Some free time had to be possible. At least if Kuri was as much in love with Urufu as she said she was.
Noriko brought the cookbooks to the living-room and took her place in a sofa. Behind her the sound of the kettle told her tea should be about ready when Kuri returned, and with that knowledge Noriko opened up the English book. 'C'. She had found some recipes that were a little different from the ones she knew from before. Or rather knew about from before. She had never tried her hands at chocolate before. Her mother had, every year, but Noriko found the practise ludicrous.
Nao, you idiot, you broke a good habit of mine!
But it hadn't really been Nao doing that. This year Noriko would have made chocolate anyway. Honmei as well as giri, just as she planned right now. But for Nao there would have been a difference in recipients, and but for Nao she wouldn't have felt forced to have Kuri present for that difference.
The day after Kyoko's discharge from hospital, Noriko saw Kyoko arrive at school in a car her father drove. It was only temporary, but still, watching one of her friends driven to school gave her a bad taste in her mouth. It reminded her too much of the prison that was Kuri's life these days.
Kyoko, will your family do the same to you?
Kyoko left the car, and to Noriko's surprise, so did Yukio.
Oh, maybe not. Did you gain their approval in the end?
“Kyoko, lean on me if you get tired.” Yukio waved to the car. “Thank you Mister Takeida.”
Now that's a western greeting if any. You really spent too much time with Urufu.
Then the next car pulled up by the gates, and this time Noriko only felt bile in her mouth.
Kuri left her guards and waved at Kyoko, then Noriko received her own set of waves as Kuri noticed her.
“Hi gang,” Noriko said in a weak attempt at raising the mood.
“Ko-chan!” Kuri shouted and ran to her friend.
Noriko smiled and continued waving. She wasn't about to interfere when the two best friends met at school for the first time in weeks.
Around then Urufu came biking, threw Noriko a quick wave and continued to the bike stands.
Ryu was already in their classroom, and the juniors were somewhere around Kyoto. The only way to get a full week was to include the weekends in the trip.
You're happy for the cultural festival now, but I didn't see any of you visit Urufu at the hospital. It was a bit unfair, because Urufu had no friends among the second years, and Nao had joined her during one of her visits. However, being fair wasn't in Noriko's mind right now. She was too scared for that.
She turned and started walking across the gravel to the school entrance. Halfway there Kyoko and Kuri made her company, and she saw Yukio waving to them from where he had joined Urufu.
While it was still winter, she felt the first promises of something else in the air. If it was a difference in smell or something else, she couldn't tell, but there was a difference. Noriko tried tasting it, but intangible as it was she gave up and went inside. A few steps later she changed into her indoor shoes and headed for the right wing stairwell, amidst the usual chatter from her fellow students on their way to their respective classes.
Himekaizen was eerily silent during their breaks, with the second years away on their trip to Nara, Osaka and Kyoto, and more and more of the seniors voiding classes in favour of studying for their university entrance exams.
Lunch break was just as strange, with little or no problems for the freshmen getting a table in the cafeteria. Noriko joined her brother, and no one complained about them holding chairs, so that even Kyoko and Yukio could be seated when they arrived after everyone else.
While she understood it was only part of a yearly rhythm, this was still a first for Noriko.
A first for Kuri and Urufu as well; their memories of the Swedish high school system, from decades ago, told a very different story. No entrance exams, and most definitely no acceptance of large amounts of absence during the end of their third high school year. For once Urufu was adamant on not knowing what it was like now; he had experienced differences large enough, second handedly from conversations with his children, to understand that his school years were different from theirs.
Noriko ate her food while talking about everything and nothing, but all six of them avoided the topic that was foremost on her mind. It was as if not talking about the attack on Kyoko and Yukio would make it go away. There was something about this kind of lying by omission that didn't play well with Noriko. Especially as Urufu and Kuri both had opened her eyes to it, but now when they faced things that go bump in the dark, none of them wanted to talk about it.
Noriko watched Urufu while she ate.
He wore his bruises as a badge of honour, and when she threw a glance at Yukio it was clear both of them had gotten over Yukio punching him. Ryu was still morose though. Maybe because he didn't share classes with the two of them, Noriko guessed. He never had the chance to talk things over like Urufu and Yukio did.
Well, you are best friends after all.
Noriko turned her attention to Kyoko and Kuri. They had planned to head into the city after club hours, and now they needed to find a way to avoid Kuri being picked up by that car.
“What if we run for it?” Noriko suggested.
Kuri shook her head. “Ko-chan, up for some running?”
With a grimace on her face Kyoko shook her head. “Let's not.”
Sorry, Kyoko, I forgot. “Sneaking?”
“This is not a B movie thriller, you know,” Kuri said. “I have a little leeway, so we should just walk to the station.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Urufu said from his side of the table. “I'll call Amaya if they try something funny.”
Kuri laughed, a sound Noriko had longed for these last weeks, and it was infectious enough that Kyoko and Yukio soon joined in. But it wasn't that funny, really!
“It's enough if they see you,” Kuri said. “No need to call.” And she continued laughing.
Ryu shrugged and looked at Yukio. “Spit it out. You know we hate being left out,” he said and met Noriko's eyes.
“Sorry, man. Urufu told me about Christmas. The guys in that car tried to stop Kuri from going home with him.”
Oh dear! Noriko remembered how she had first met Urufu. Yes I can see why they wouldn't want to get involved with him after that.
“You didn't!” Ryu said.
“I did,” came Urufu's response. “Convinced a gorilla in a suit that he should take a nap on the street.” Then he lit up in that wolfish grin of his. “Amaya called the police on them. You should have seen it.”
Sato-sensei is kind of scary when she gets angry. You're lucky to have her as your guardian. “So, Kuri and Kyoko, what about we just don't return from the walking talking session?” It was a compromise between stealing away and Urufu's confrontational way of handling things.
Kyoko nodded, and with that it was decided.
Despite her healing well, the aborted walking talking session still made Kyoko's stomach hurt a little.
She happily accepted Kuri-chan's suggestion they stop for a short something, or whatever that strange, Swedish word she used meant. 'Fika', a catch all for drinking coffee and eating anything baked, together with one or more friends. It apparently meant a break, a date, a snack with friends, a coffee session in the garden, and a few other things as well; going to prove that Swedes needed a thorough examination of their brains.
In any case, the result was that they sat three girls around a table, none of them having coffee and none of them eating anything out of a bakery, and yet Kuri-chan persisted in that they were having a 'fika'. Time to bring in the brain surgeons.
“So, girls,” Kyoko started and caught the others' eyes. “Valentine, what are your plans?”
Noriko tilted her head and returned the stare. “Buy an economy-pack for giri and a good looking one for Nao.”
“Yeah, that's Noriko, all-right,” Kuri-chan said. “Look, I'm not from here, and even I know you're supposed to make the one for Nao-kun.”
You probably know what accessories and make-up go well with it as well. Kyoko gave her best friend a long stare. I feel bad for you. You two are so much in love with each other, but things aren't going well, are they?
Noriko's lips became a thin line. “So, what about you, Kuri?”
A slender arm reached for the teacup. Kyoko guessed Kuri-chan wanted a moment of peace before she answered. “I don't know how to make chocolate, but I'll learn. Well, and then I'll buy loads of cheap chocolate just like you.”
“I'll make one for Yukio, and then I'll shop for a few nice ones for giri,” Kyoko said before both friends turned their attention at her.
“So, why don't we have a sleepover at my place in a week?”
Kyoko looked at Noriko. That sounded like you already had planned for it. “I'll ask my parents.” She really needed to dare meeting her friends again, or else she'd stay afraid of going out forever. Is this why you wanted us to go shopping? A tear threatened to push its way down her cheek. You're really a good friend, you know that?
“Sure, I'm game,” Kuri-chan said and grinned. “The ugly duckling, the geek and Queen Bitch, what could possibly go wrong?”
Sheesh, you really trust your friends never to get upset. “I'm a swan now,” Kyoko protested, just in case Noriko had skin thin enough to take offence.
“Hey, I'm just naturally brilliant. Fourth place at the beauty contest is better than swan-sama over here.”
OK, thick enough. It was time for payback. “So, the swan, the beautiful genius and Queen Bitch.” Kyoko purred. “Kuri-chan, you grew into that role so naturally.”
“The hell?” But her laugh belied her words. “Fine, you got me. You know, you're growing up kids. I like what I see.”
They finished their drinks and hit the mall in search for chocolate and gift-boxes. Kyoko felt a little out of place with women all around her looking for the same thing. The giggles and gossiping might be normal for girls, but she had little experience from it. Her overweight middle school years hadn't exactly lined the boys up for her, and truth be told she really didn't care all that much back then.
Today was different though. The mismatched trio was a strange one, even Kyoko knew that. Both loners had at least some experience from Valentine, but the famous model none at all. One look at Kuri-chan had Kyoko re-evaluate her thoughts a little.
But you only looked the model when we were preparing to leave middle school. Because when they met, Kuri-chan had been ugly in exactly the opposite way of Kyoko, tall and painfully thin, like a flagpole walking on shaky legs.
“Kuri-chan,” Kyoko said when curiosity overcame her. “What about when you were young last time?”
Kuri-chan stuffed a basket with more cheap chocolate before she turned. “What about it?”
The question was enough for Noriko to stop rummaging through what was to become giri chocolate and listen in to what was coming.
“You should have loads of experience from back then.” At least from after you became beautiful.
“Huh? You mean Valentine? We didn't celebrate it much in Sweden back then. Still don't, well at least not like here.”
Kuri-chan scratched her hair. “It's kind of like Halloween. Young people have picked it up, but it was pretty much a non-event back in the days.”
“Hmm, no. Maybe roses. I dunno.”
The answer made Kyoko oddly disappointed. She had expected something similar to America.
“So no White Day?” Noriko broke in.
“No. The only reason I know of White Day is because Chag had a line of inexpensive jewellery. Japan only.”
At least she knew of White Day. Then Kyoko had a sudden revelation. “You really have to buy a lot of giri chocolate, don't you?”
Kuri-chan nodded. “And I'd feel ashamed in Mars if I bought expensive chocolate now. Besides, I just don't know what to do with the return gifts.”
Kyoko remembered the chocolate she had received from Kuri-chan last year. A glimmer of suspicion flared up in her mind. “You cheated, last year, didn't you?”
“Cheated?” Noriko asked.
“Kuri-chan! That wrapper wasn't the one that came with the chocolate?”
Tall beauty grinned and sparkled enough to make both men and women around them stop and stare at her. “So, you guessed. No, it was for the crap I gave the old hag.”
“Your guardian?” Noriko wondered, and with that question she told Kyoko that she had realised exactly in what way Kuri-chan had cheated.”
From the corner of her eye Kyoko saw how Kuri-chan's personal bodyguard made discrete gestures telling them it was time to move on before too many fans found out exactly where she was. A lot of people already took photos with their smart-phones, and the tone of the conversations around them had changed in a way that Kyoko recognised by now.
“What did you give me?” she asked and pulled Kuri-chan in the direction the bodyguard motioned.
“Teuscher,” Kuri-chan responded.
Huh? Never heard of it.
At her side Noriko paled. “Oh dear! Yeah, that's cheating.”
Her friend just shook her head.
In the end Kyoko didn't think she'd be able to join Kuri-chan and Noriko for the sleepover at Noriko's place. She'd ask, but it really hurt moving around like she had the other day.
They had to run just a little too fast to get away from the growing crowd that day, when they went shopping for chocolate and some kitchen utensils to use for the home made ones.
She sulked a little, but at least she had Yukio to herself. Besides, planning got difficult, now when Nao finally was back from his school trip and managed to get some time to spend with Noriko.
At the moment Kyoko sat in the Stockholm Haven café, spending her time on one of those combined club and study sessions that had become more and more usual with Urufu leading them.
“Noriko,” he said. “Give them a hand with math. Especially give Christina a hand, a foot or preferably an entire carcass.”
“You really want his carcass?” Noriko asked and slapped on a grin that quickly dissolved.
The question met with absolute silence, and more than one member threw a glance at Kyoko where she sat side by side with Yukio.
“Sorry,” Noriko said.
“Hey. Hey! I'm not made of glass.” Kyoko refused to be treated like some fragile victim. She was healing quickly and felt almost no pain these days. “Kuri-chan, which carcass?” she added to force the bad mood to evaporate.
“Not Ulf's, never Ulf's,” Kuri-chan said, and now first Kyoko noticed how she had paled when Noriko threw out the question.
Crap! Forgot she spent a night at hospital with him as well. I'm sorry. “Don't ask him to die in that case,” Kyoko retorted. Kuri-chan could take a verbal punch or two, and Kyoko relied on her to understand how a laugh was needed now.
She took her pen in a tighter grip and prayed that Kuri-chan would react the right way. Looking across the table she saw her friend blink in hurt confusion, and after that, a flicker of understanding.
“Fine, hand me Kareyoshi's head on a plate,” she said.
Crap! You're not supposed to tell anyone.
“Kareyoshi? He's not even your English teacher,” Hitomi-chan said.
“Bastard had a hand in Ko-chan's stabbing. We just can't prove anything.”
No, no, no, no, no!
The room detonated with shouts.
“Kuri-chan, you can't tell anyone.” Kyoko barely finished the sentence before she understood the huge mistake she had just made. “Eh… I mean...”
The rest drowned in a second round of enraged shouts.
Shit! Take control, Kyoko!
Then a thought struck her, one that would have been impossible a year earlier. Coercion had never been her tool, but too much was at stake now. “You can't, really!” How do I force them to obey? At least she had their undivided attention. Ah, yes! “You can't. It would… it would be dangerous for me.”
To be honest she knew nothing about the game played out behind their backs, but just suggesting that someone else was out there with a dagger should do the job. This was the kind of gamble she had seen Urufu make use of, and Kuri-chan to a certain degree. Her friend usually went for a more direct approach than playing the guilt trip card though.
“Would you care to explain dangerous?”
The last question reached into the room from the door opening. James stood there with a tray in his hand and wrath in his face.
So you were never told? Kyoko had to continue gambling. She massaged her stab wound so that everyone could see. “One of these is enough,” she said.
From across the table Kuri-chan shot her a long stare filled with disappointment, but also with respect. 'Well played,' she mouthed. 'You're my kind of girl.'
“Who?” James asked.
“There's no proof, or at least none we can use,” Urufu said. “We think we know he's from the enemy faction.”
Duh! The bastard had Yukio and me assaulted. Of course he's from an enemy faction. Wait! The enemy faction? Pieces of a puzzle fell in place. Urufu, you're brilliant!
In the doorway James nodded, and Kyoko knew he must have understood. “I see.”
“It's related to both Red Rose Hell and Himekaizen,” Urufu continued relentlessly. “A failed piece of human refuse who's unable to grasp even basic English.”
And with those words Urufu had just named Kareyoshi. James was a Himekaizen alumni, even though from another world.
“Guys,” Urufu said and turned to the club members. “Kyoko's right. I don't want anyone to put her in danger, so please keep quiet about this.” That sentence came with an edge pointed at Kuri-chan who threw her hands into the air in exasperation.
“Fine! Ko-chan, I'm sorry. I didn't think.”
“No problem. We'll take that swine down,” Kyoko said. Reflecting on her words she was surprised they didn't surprise her.
By her side Yukio stared at her. Funny, you I surprise, but not myself. But there was more to it than just surprise. Fucking pig, he took all my children from me. I'll hate him even after he dies! It was that simple. What Kareyoshi had taken, her future. A barren woman was a woman no longer. How could she ask Yukio to stay with her when she was damaged goods? And yet I love you so much it hurts. My Yukio, my lovely Yukio!
With a shiver Kyoko woke from her thoughts. The entire room stared at her, and she realised that whatever she had thought must have shown in her face. So be it. I don't care any longer.
“Yukio, I love you, but we need to talk.”
For the first time she had seen he shot her a frightened look.
Yes, you should be afraid, just like I'm afraid. I'll allow nothing to come between us but for you and myself. And maybe it had come to that point. What an awful way to celebrate your birthday!
“Could it wait until later?”
“Later is now. Father booked a table for the two of us.”
Yukio swept his hand across his eyes, but he rose and grabbed his jacket. “Later guys, I have a date.”
Almost a week after the awful evening at the Stockholm Haven café, February thirteenth, Christina walked down a street with Noriko at her side. They were heading for Noriko's home to make chocolate. Noriko for Nao-kun, and she for Ulf. At least that was Noriko's plan.
Christina heard from her steps how listless she was. By now sharing her life with Ulf had faded to something bleaker than a hope.
“Noriko, is there really a point in me doing this?”
Ryu called her his larger than life midget sister, and Christina saw why. She had an endless amount of energy.
“If I tell you there is, then there is.”
“Why? Why are you trying so hard? You even tried helping me while you were still in love with Ulf. I don't understand.”
They came up to the gates outside Noriko's house.
“Because you're a genius teenager and a moronic fifty year old.”
Huh? Excuse me? Did she just tell me to grow up? Her?
The lock clicked, and Noriko swung the gate open. “After you.”
Christina passed her in silence and waited for Noriko to open the door. After that both girls went inside, dropped their shoes and walked to the kitchen area.
“I don't see how making chocolate will change anything,” Christina started.
Noriko silenced her with a look. “You sound like my father,” Noriko said. “Mom told me rituals are important. That you shouldn't get hung up on them but respect them anyway. They have meaning.”
She put two bags on the table. Christina helped her with the third.
“Meaning, maybe.” Christina sat down on a stool and tidied her hair. “We don't even celebrate Valentine much in Sweden.”
Noriko looked around and smirked. “You're not in Sweden now. Everyone in school know it's Valentine tomorrow. They'll feel it. Urufu as well. He...”
“Will notice how important it is. I get it.”
Noriko rummaged around in the cupboards and pulled out utensils she needed for the evening's work. “Look,” she said. “if it doesn't mean anything, then you just spent an evening with me learning how to make home-made chocolate and he gets something sweet to eat, and...”
“Something bitter,” Christina interrupted. “He likes his chocolate dark and bitter,” she said when Noriko gave her a questioning look.
Noriko shrugged and took out two bowls. “Bitter, sweet, doesn't matter. Important thing is, if he doesn't care he just gets a treat, and if he cares he'll understand the love that comes with it. You made it for him. You spent this evening for his sake.”
“OK I'll make him some chocolate. It's the last straw.” Christina took a deep breath. “I'll make you a promise. If he likes it I'll take a break from modelling and mend what we broke. I'll make him understand. I'll even ask him to say he loves me. Beg him if needed, because I need to hear those words from him.” Christina was speaking faster and faster as if she had just found her way home again after being lost.
What am I saying? He'll never forgive me if I give up my career. But the truth was she didn't want a life without him. If she could just make him understand being with him was more important than modelling. She could still join a university and make a career in design. I wouldn't have to search my clothes for needles if I did.
“Don't promise me anything. I don't need them.”
“Noriko, you're a good girl, you know that?”
“Yeah, mom tells me every time I break something.”
“She wanted me more lively. You're a good influence she says.”
Now that's a first.
“So, warm water in this bowl. Melt it slowly.”
After a few moments of hesitation Christina allowed herself to be directed by Noriko. The promise to her friend she'd keep though. If she managed not to destroy the chocolate, for the first time in her life, she'd read it as a sign to change her mind. If, if, if. She'd drop anything that threatened to take Ulf away from her. Magic thinking, like a child, but from a life in fashion Christina knew just how valuable instinct and belief really was.
Two girls in a kitchen. At this moment they were just that, not a woman and a girl. When her life lay in the scales she was only the teenager she looked like. The most important of all lessons she had learned since she arrived here. Her old life was just memories and experience, but here she had to live her new life.
“What about these?”
“I was thinking I could use those for a cake.”
Christina smiled and started melting the next to pure chocolate in her bowl. “Like this?” she asked.
“Uhum, just be careful you don't overheat it.”
They worked on their creations in silence. At the moment working mostly meant melting, but after that Christina had something different in mind than Noriko. With almost no sugar in her chocolate a traditional cake might be a bit too much to eat.
Half an hour passed while they continued working, and after that Christina deemed hers to be ready for cooling. Noriko's was headed for the oven. Suddenly there was nothing to do but to wait.
“Kuri, I'll take a bath. Mind taking care of the dishes in the meantime?”
Christina nodded. “I'll handle it. Thanks for helping me.”
Cross my fingers. If it's good I'll be the good high school student. If not… she didn't want to think about if not. If not meant walking down the road she had chosen thus far. It meant walking alone.
Sleep a little, and then I'll look at it. Dishes can wait.
Thinking was acting, and Christina quickly wiped her hands and headed to the sofas.
It was broken.
The room was dark when Christina woke. Some kind of timer must have switched off the lights. Still sleepy she moved her legs out of the sofa and rose. They were a bit wobbly when she walked to the fridge. On her way there she hit the water tap in preparation for cleaning up the sink and its contents.
It looks good! she thought when she looked inside. Maybe I can stay with him after all. That her magic thinking lacked any semblance of reasoning wasn't important. She had made life changing decisions based on even weaker reasons before.
Let's see how it looks in the light before I write on it. She took out the heart-shaped, flat disc from the fridge. It was heavy in her hands, compact in the way only dark chocolate can be.
With her elbow she switched on the lights and walked to the work surface beside the sink. The sound of running water followed her there.
There are reasons why people should stay rational, because when we don't our reactions to the results will refuse to stay in proportion to what happened. This was one such time.
A few threads, most likely her sweater had caught in something while she slept. Now they caught in the fridge, and just as she was about to place her Valentine's gift to Urufu on the workspace those threads pulled her left arm back.
A second. One second.
It was broken.
Among the dishes, in running water, lay her failed attempt at making him home made chocolate. She stared at the disaster in disbelief.
She spun the wheel of fortune, and lost. This time she lost. Every fibre in her body reacted as if the universe conspired against her. So unfair!
Christina broke down and wept. First sobs, but then as she slid down onto the kitchen floor those were replaced by the anguished wails of a hurt animal.
It was broken.
She loved him so much it hurt. There would be no other love like this. Not for her. For the first time she understood what Ulf had feared so much. For the first time she wondered if it had been worth it daring to love fully.
Her magic failed her, and only one road remained.
She cried as she crawled over the floor to the entrance. She cried as she put on her shoes, and she was still crying when a naked Noriko came rushing down the stairs still wet from her bath.
From upstairs came two more voices filled with worry. While Kuri slept Ai-chan and Kyoko must have arrived.
Before they had a chance to descend the stairs Noriko barked an order of silence to them.
I never heard that voice of yours before.
It was broken.
“It's only chocolate! You can use mine,” Noriko said from where she hastily jumped into panties and a tracksuit. She blocked the door, so there was no way for Christina to get out before Noriko agreed.
“I don't want yours!”
“But dammit! You can't just give up on him because you dropped some sweets.”
“It's bitter. I told you Ulf wants his chocolate bitter. It's not sweet!” Deep inside her Christina heard how hysterical she sounded.
“Kuri, please!” Noriko begged, but she obviously didn't trust Christina, because she stepped into her loafers.
“I promised him chocolate. I'll give him what I promised.” Then the pain stabbed at her again and Christina doubled over and let her tears run.
She felt Noriko hug her. Ryu's petite twin sister wasn't a rival any longer. Hadn't been for a long while. Now she was the only support and friend Christina had to manage walking down to the convenience store.
“You're an idiot, and I'm one as well for doing this with you.” Noriko opened the door and stepped outside. “I'll make you company at least.”
Outside it was as dark as in her mind. Her body moved. Coat and boots, and she stood beside Noriko in the night.
What's happening with me. What am I doing?
“I promised him I'd always love him. I promised him I'd always stay by his side. I promised him he'd never lose me if he only loved me.” And again Christina sank to her knees. “I'm a disgusting woman! I'm awful! I'm broken!”
It was broken.
She had to lean on Noriko on their way to the convenience store. Christina used her as support when she picked up a couple of bars with the least sugar in it, and she held Noriko's hand when she paid the cashier.
He must have thrown her a strange look, because at her side Noriko shook her head and waved away any questions before he could voice them.
I don't want this.
Christina dropped her chocolate in a coat pocket and started on the way back to Noriko's house.
“Kuri, are you sure?”
“I have to.” Her voice came out a rough whisper. She had cried too much.
It was broken.
“Please, Kuri, why? It's just chocolate. You can't break up with the man you love because of chocolate. Please! At least make me understand!”
“Because I promised.” Even Christina heard how it made no sense, but a promise was a promise.
Noriko blocked her way and grabbed her coat. For a while the short girl stood there shaking her. “Why? It's a stupid promise. It's wrong!”
Christina, for the love of all gods, listen to her! Christina, why are you doing this to yourself?
Because she had never dared to stay happy. She knew that. Because breaking her heart over a stupid promise was easier than feeling the pain that always was the closest companion to happiness.
“Because I promised,” Christina repeated again. Something in her cracked when she said those words.
“But it's a flawed promise. You can't keep a promise as broken as that one!”
It was broken.
It was broken.
Ko-chan had just given her honmei chocolate to Yukio when Christina caught up with her outside 6:1.
Oh, Ko-chan, I hope you'll forgive me.
Lunch-break. Both of them had already finished distributing stupid amounts of giri chocolate, and both of them had received happy grins in return.
The only cloud on Cristina's mission was that Noriko refused to take any part in it. As soon as they reached school after the sleepover, Noriko gave her a glare and rushed away to meet Nao-kun. No matter where Christina went Noriko avoided her, and now she didn't have the heart to tell Ko-chan why their friend always had an errand whenever they met.
This is it, Christina thought before entering 6:1.
“Only Urufu's left then?” Ko-chan grinned and winked at her. “Yours and mine.” And the grin turned outright mischievous, telling Christina that Kyoko was perfectly aware of the duplicity in her words.
Christina smiled at Ko-chan. She was in for a nasty surprise, that was certain, but a witness from their class was probably a good idea. There would be rumours aplenty anyway. She started digging in her bag for the chocolate. A feeling of uneasiness spread in her.
It was broken.
Can I do this? Christina drew a deep breath and looked at Ko-chan's worried look before pulling the door open. I have to, she thought and let the air out of her lungs. Her introductory question sailed along with it: “Is U-kun present?”
Quite a few of the students in Ulf's classroom turned at the sound of her voice. At least this last time I want him to be U-kun in public. She could hear them smiling and chuckling at the overly familiar nickname she had used.
“Over here!” It always felt odd hearing him talk to her in Japanese, but for this meeting it was needed. Absolutely needed.
She navigated the desks to where he was seated. “I have something for you to eat.”
A few wolf whistles flew through the air.
“Dark and sweet?”
“Dark and bitter, as you like it,” she answered. It's like playing out an act. I don't want this, but I have to.
“Then I'll accept,” he grinned back at her.
Ulf's classmates had gathered in a circle to watch the Valentine spectacle orchestrated by what was probably the most famous couple in school.
And now for the twist end. “Here you are,” she said and brought out the cheap, store bought chocolate. “Thank you for being there for me since summer.”
It was broken.
She heard sharp gasps of surprise around them. She saw something die in his eyes.
It took him a few seconds to recover from the recoil. “Thank you for allowing me to stand by your side. I wish you the best of futures,” Ulf answered.
He understood. She loved him so much. Too much. She was suffocating them both. Strangled their love. She had to break up before it died. She was a coward. The lowest of the low.
I don't want this! Christina took a step, inside his arms, and hugged him close. She buried her face in his hair to hide her tears. I didn't love you enough to stay, but I'm still afraid of losing you. “Never cease to be my friend, U-kun. Please!” Soon all of her would be a crying mess.
The surprised murmur around them grew louder.
“U-kun, I hope you'll find a better girl than me. Let me know and I'll tell her what a wonderful man you are.” The words came out thick with emotion. Each of them hurt like fire inside her.
“I hope you find a man to make you happy, Ina.”
Oh how I love when he calls me that!
“Tell me if he doesn't understand and I'll beat some sense into him.” The last words reached her mixed together with Ulf's laughter.
How can you laugh right now? No you're not laughing. Your tears just sound like laughter.
It was broken.
Then he stepped out of their embrace and took her face between his hands. His eyes were wonderful as always, and so infinitely sad.
Is this the last time I can watch that beautiful, twisted smile this close?
“As a friend, I love you.” They had spoken together. There wasn't anything more to say.
He let go of her and she staggered backwards.
I would have been happy to live with you for the rest of my life. Isn't that what love is? I would marry you, cherish you, sleep with you and wake with you. With you I would even carry children.
She forced herself to take yet another step backwards. It was as if she couldn't let go of his face with her eyes. And another step backwards. And another one. But it had to end. She turned and dashed out of the classroom, not even bothering to hide the tears that ran from her eyes, or the racking sobs that left her as anguished cries each time her feet hit the floor.
It was broken.
Behind her she heard Ko-chan shouting after her as she tried to catch up.
She had to get away, and just metres away the door to their old club room stood ajar. Christina threw herself into the opening and pulled the door closed. A click told her the lock snapped shut.
Under the windows, leaning against the wall, Noriko sat with a blanket in her lap. She was crying, her small body shaking when she reached out with her arms.
“Why? Why you stupid girl? He loves you so very much.”
Christina didn't say anything. She just fell to her knees and hugged her friend. “Because he loves me that much,” she murmured. She wasn't sure Noriko had heard, but it didn't matter. With what she hoped was a grateful smile she took the blanket from Noriko's hand, and after that she crawled on hands and knees to the closest corner in the room.
No one else could see her like this. Not even Ko-chan.
It was broken.
The voices hammering on the door grew angrier.
“Go away!” Noriko shouted. She had barricaded it in case anyone found a key.
The pitiful remnants of what had once been Ageruman Kuritina lay crying her heart out in a corner, and Noriko had no intentions to let anyone see that.
I didn't want this. Never this way. I wanted to be your rival and friend. I always admired your strength. Kuri, please come back! But Noriko doubted the proud and strong blonde empress would return any time soon, if ever.
In that corner lay a small girl, sixteen years old, with something dying in her heart. There was not a trace of the billion dollar empress left. And, if Noriko was honest with herself, Kuri hadn't played that card for a long time now. She was truly her friend, and far too fair to do so.
Now her friend lay broken in a shuddering heap on the floor. Noriko couldn't remember when she last had seen so much pain. Please come back!
There was nothing she could do. For the time being Kuri would stay crying her heart out, and Noriko could only wonder what had made the tall beauty chose to break up with Urufu. That they loved each other so much it sometimes was painful to watch because it was too obvious for everyone around them. The absurd promise from a day ago just couldn't be the reason.
Noriko rose and fetched the other blanket she had stashed away behind a whiteboard. She blew out a deep sigh before she dared the distance to Kuri.
“Get well my friend. We love you.”
With those words Noriko covered the shaking body with the blanket.
Kuri continued crying, but she wrapped herself in the blanket and curled up until only her feet stuck out.
I'll stay with you for as long as I can stand watching your pain. I'm sorry, but it just hurts too much.
There was a little shame competing with Noriko's need to be with people who celebrated Valentine in a more sane way. In the end shame won, and she sat down where Kuri had found her a little earlier.
The door bounced three times.
“Go away!” Noriko shouted again. This was going to be a long afternoon.
Kyoko stared in stunned incomprehension at the locked door. Club members, together with some other people from 6:1 were the first to arrive at her side. It didn't take long until large parts of 3:1 were here as well, and they all stood banging on the door.
From the inside Kyoko heard Noriko's voice, but rather than letting them in, Ryu's sister shouted at them to go away.
Why? Why didn't you tell me.
Hearing Noriko shout at them to leave made Kyoko both angry and relieved. At least Kuri-chan wasn't alone in there. Still, above all Kyoko couldn't understand what had driven her best friend to break with the man she had called the love of her life.
Is there such a thing? Could you really meet that someone you'll spend the rest of your life missing if you're not together? Then Kyoko thought of Yukio and drew a long breath. Maybe. And if that maybe was real, then she couldn't afford leaving him hanging in fear of what she needed to tell him. If he wanted her despite her barrenness she'd follow him to the end of the world.
From inside the room she could still hear Kuri-chan's hulking sobs, each of them twisting a knife in her heart.
I'm sorry, Kuri-chan, but if this is you after fifty years of experience, then I'll never let Yukio go as long as he stays with me. It was harsh, but it was the best she could do. I'll make your sacrifice worth it.
Kyoko left the group of students banging on the door and took the stairs to the entrance floor. A bit at a loss for what to do, she opened and closed her shoe-locker a few times before she grabbed her loafers and changed.
She still had Urufu's giri chocolate in her hands when she left the building, but by then any thoughts of him were forgotten as she raced to find her own boyfriend. Her feet directed her, and her fear.
The things she had hinted at could very well scare Yukio away, and now she was frantic to find him before they did.
While she ran Kyoko relived the feelings of listening to Kuri-chan break down where everyone could hear.
Out of breath she suddenly saw her haven, the only haven right now. Maybe he was there.
Kyoko threw open the door, but this early in the day no students occupied the place. Her home room teacher would scold her later, but right now she lacked the strength to return to school.
She was crying inside.
James had just looked at her swollen face and the box of chocolate she hugged to her chest before he opened the door to the inner room.
Urufu's chocolate, which she never had a chance to give him in his classroom.
An hour and a half she spent there alone, and now her tears had run out of sound.
Outside she saw the club members filing in.
James shoved Yukio inside and shook his head at the others. Then he closed the door.
Yukio! Lovely, wonderful Yukio! Beautiful Yukio! My Yukio!
He just stood there, waiting for her to speak.
“I love you,” she said. “I love you so much I don't have the words to say it.”
“I love you too. You're the best that ever happened to me.” Right now he was only hers. Not Urufu's friend. Not a member of the club. Not a student in 6:1. Just Yukio, her love.
“Yukio, please, if a day ever comes when I forget to tell you how much I love you, please, please, please remind me so I never forget again!”
He sat down beside her. Hugged her. Kissed her.
“I will,” he promised. “I never want to see us broken.” He kissed her again.
“Yukio, what will happen to them now?”
He shook his head. “I don't want to think about that right now. I don't want to know.”
A hand reached out for her cheek. It was soft and warm, and above all it was Yukio's hand, filled with strength and tenderness. “I'll talk to him. I promise.”
Kyoko met his eyes. It's not your fault. Your best friend is hurting, but it's not your fault. “Yukio, it was Kuri-chan who broke off with him.”
“I know, but maybe if he begs on his knees. Damn, he's so full of himself it's probably just good for him to do some honest begging.”
That made her laugh, a little.
“Yukio, I still don't understand it.”
Something in his eyes caught her attention. Sadness, and a part of him that was older than his years.
“I do, a bit,” he said. “My parents still help each other when I need something. So they're not complete strangers.”
Ah, I forgot Urufu and Kuri-chan are grown-ups. “So you think adults think in different ways than we do?”
“They do. I just don't know how. Guess if I did I'd already be an adult,” Yukio said and grinned. “I know something else as well. I love you. I don't want to lose you. I know I hurt you when I didn't care about children, but please see the good part!”
Good part? “Continue.”
Yukio looked at her, and Kyoko could almost feel how great cogwheels in his head linked together to make sure he didn't say something wrong. “I love you, not what you can do for me. Not even what you can do for yourself. Only you. That's how greedy I am.”
And right now, that was the best he could have said. Kyoko left her chair flying and buried herself in his embrace. I belong here. I'll stay here.
Then Yukio's phone blared alive and killed the mood.
Nakagawa Akio, Principal of Himekaizen Academy tapped closed the phone-call. From what the Matsumoto kid had said the sudden surge of skipping classes had a reason.
Damn! So they won this one. He hadn't expected Ageruman-san to buckle under the pressure, but then again that pressure had been absurd.
Any other two and Nakagawa would have shrugged it away, but with those two things immediately became more complicated, or complex as Hamarugen-san would have said. A few weeks earlier Sato-san told him she'd been ordered to break the couple up, and Nakagawa refused flat out. And since then there were factions within their own faction.
But I couldn't do that. They're not teens. It's like forcing a divorce. And that was the reason he refused, unlike the first time, earlier the last autumn, when they were asked to create a distance between the arrivals.
Fine, Wakayama-san, you win. The thought of calling the former imperial officer scared him, but he'd do that anyway. This once Nakagawa would side entirely with the Wakayamas. But he has real blood on his hands. I doubt the Wakayama's are old enough to understand.
He hesitated, held his phone in his hand and stared at it as if some bakemono would suddenly creep out of it and bite his face. In the end he could hesitate no more. With a sigh Nakagawa sat down in his chair and punched up a number to a former student of his, one that he had hoped he wouldn't need to meet again.
“Yes, this is Principal Nakagawa,” he said after the other side took the call. “Is Sano Mitsuo there?”
With some luck the arrival who once befriended the Wakayamas wouldn't be, but Nakagawa was to have no such luck.
“Nakagawa. I'm the principal...”
“I know, get to the point.”
That was surprisingly rude for a Japanese, or for anyone with a decent upbringing. “Would it be possible for the two of us to meet? We had an incident with a student here.”
“Yes, it concerns one Ageruman Kuritina, if you're familiar with the name?”
There was no response, just as Nakagawa had known. She was Sano-san's granddaughter after all. After an eternity the phone came alive again. “Where?”
“Nagoya. I can be there in three hours,” Nakagawa said, because this wasn't the kind of planning you wanted done over the phone. Especially not over a phone-connection he didn't trust wasn't wire-tapped, or whatever it was called when cell phones were involved.
After a short silence he had his response. “Four, I need four hours. Seven o'clock?”
That would be enough for him to book a hotel room. “Yes, seven will be fine,” Nakagawa said, and they closed the call.
Damn you, Natsumi! Sano Mitsuo sat at a table in a café waiting for an old man who was younger by far than he. Leaving one world at seventy and arriving in another at fourteen did strange things to your conception of age.
Ah, there he is. They had met last August, and of course almost daily when Mitsuo was a student at Himekaizen a quarter of a century earlier. The news of two new arrivals, the first in a decade, had him remembering the years when there was an arrival almost every year. He had been one.
They bowed. Two men with more memories from days gone past than the spinning world that was today.
After he waited for Nakagawa to order his tea, Mitsuo could wait no more. “Spill!”
Nakagawa sipped his cup and put it down on the table. “Your kid broke up with Hamarugen-san. My school is in an uproar.”
“Please continue,” Mitsuo said. He understood the other man would hardly have taken the Shinkansen from Tokyo just to report that a teenage fling had turned sour.
“They had her work non-stop from Christmas until now. She's falling behind in her studies.”
“Yes?” If his granddaughter wanted to work until she croaked, then that was her decision.
“Seems she tried to get some time off.”
“Yes?” Mitsuo didn't like where this was going.
“Two other students of mine got assaulted. The two arrivals are too damn strong to be led around, but they're attacking their friends instead.”
“You had better be very, very certain about this.” He had done horrible things in his previous life. If the other faction was ready to attack school children, he was ready to do so again.
Nakagawa nodded. “The kids have an astonishing network of their own, but this time Sato-sensei, Hamarugen-san's handler, confirmed it.”
“Then why me?”
“Because I can't get into contact with Sato-sensei any longer. Her former colleague got shot to death.”
And she's on a revenge trip. Poor kid. But shot? I thought we more or less got rid of firearms. Mitsuo looked at Nakagawa. “Firearms? The police will never drop this, you know. Even the yakuza keep their hands off guns these days.”
“The other faction is dirty diplomatics and JSDF, just like us.”
There was that. Well, with the difference that their own faction had a lot better relations with their Swedish counterpart, but when it came to play dirty tricks, both were equally bad.
“What do you want me to do about this?”
“One of my teachers, Kareyoshi Takeshi,” Nakagawa pushed a folder with papers across the table, “is involved. He's a first class moron, but he's part of the other side anyway. Right now he's untouchable.”
“And you want me to make him less so?”
“If you made him less alive I'd be happy as well, but we can't.”
You're more cold-hearted than I thought. I could come to respect you. “Keep my wife out of it,” Mitsuo said.
Nakagawa only stared back in surprise, meaning that he probably wasn't aware Natsumi had pulled her own strings a month earlier.
“Sano-san,” Nakagawa said, and Mitsuo locked eyes with the man, surprised at the sudden concern in his voice. “You should probably visit your granddaughter soon. She's in very bad shape right now. They worked her to her bones, and she's heartbroken, not as a teenager, but as a grown woman.”
That made Mitsuo remember the death of his first wife. Two years it had taken for him to return to reality and become a man again.
“Thank you. I'm grateful you told me.” Then something itched at his mind. “Nakagawa-san, what about the boy? He has no relatives here.”
The old principal of Himekaizen looked back with a face more like a ghost than a man of power. “He's broken. I don't know if we can make him heal again.”
It was broken
The sound of two swings in the dark was the only thing that broke the silence. One of them ceased its rhythmic squeak and regressed into a jumble of dissonance as its rider jumped off and scampered up a jungle gym.
The other swing continued though. A listless sound too loud for silence but still too silent to be someone really riding the swing.
Ulf sat the swing, and Yukio had climbed the jungle gym like some monkey.
“Proud now?” Yukio said.
Ulf could hear the despair in his voice. Funny that, why should you feel despair? Of Valentine there was only minutes left. Ulf ate his chocolate. It was dark and bitter, just as Christina had promised. An espresso would beef up the taste another notch.
“Urufu? Why, just why did you let it go this far?”
That voice again, like a hurt kid. Make that a double espresso. He had gotten used to that taste again. A cigarette even, but those are banned for teenagers like me these days. So no smoking. It's a filthy habit anyway.
“Man, you know you could get back to her and apologize.”
And Yukio just kept on whining. Sure would have tasted well though. Back in the days he could have had a smoke. Could even have chatted with his high school teachers about the pros and cons between different brands of tobacco. Back when he knew nothing.
“If you beg her like the damn dog you are, she might just reconsider.”
Despite his absurd suggestions Yukio was still his best friend. It's just a piece of chocolate. No big deal, Yukio. Valentine wasn't even an event back then. Still wasn't in Sweden. Stupid event. Why keep the male part of the student body on their toes in anticipation of chocolate?
“Man, she's the best thing that's happened in your life here. You said so yourself.”
It was great that Yukio had at least identified when a girl was good news or not. Eight months. Has it been that long? Funny. Will it take longer before I look with interest at another girl? Good thing he hadn't allowed her entirely under his skin. And that's a lie.
“Urufu, damn you! You're less than you can be without her. Don't you understand what you're losing?”
There it was again, the whiny voice. One should not sound that way if one wanted to be strong. Loss. It's important not to become that vulnerable. No one wants to feel loss. That's why one needs to keep a distance. So why was he crying right now? He had kept that distance.
“Look at yourself! You're pathetic! You've loved her since the day you saw her. Just admit it! Why the hell couldn't you admit it to her?”
And Yukio just kept on yapping. Feelings, always feelings. The kid overflowed with them. Love? That was the only thing Ulf couldn't afford. And those tears shouldn't be there. I shouldn't feel this way. I shouldn't feel this infinite loss.
“Urufu! Man! Look at you!”
Ulf wiped a handful of tears from his face. Then he turned his face upwards and roared.
Fear from May until today, love from June until today, the safe feeling of being two from August until today, the memory of bodies intertwined from December until today, a Christmas shared but no New Year's Eve.
Christina, whom he loved beyond reason.
It all came out in an endless scream of guilt and shame and pain.
It was after midnight, February fifteenth.
It was broken.