“I knew your parents when they were students here.”
Students here? Yes, almost forgot that.
“They haven't told you yet?” Principal Nakagawa asked, as if he had read her thoughts. “You'll find them in the news club archives.” His face turned serious and sad. “I wish we could have done more for them,” and then he brightened “but I guess they turned out all-right in the end.”
She loved her parents. It made her warm inside knowing other people did as well.
“I was a teacher here during those days, and now I'm nearly done here.”
“Yes, I'm retiring.”
Things will change. The next principal will be, eh, less lenient I guess.
“Off with you. You don't want to miss class.”
Noriko bowed and made to leave the office.
“Give my regards to your parents,” Principal Nakagawa said just as she was about to close the door. “Tell them I'm sorry. I'll apologize properly at a later date.”
After he has retired. When he has severed his connections to the school. What's going on?
She quickly walked to her classroom. Thoughts of worry and wonder danced in her head all the way to her desk.
Inside her classroom the mood was different from the usual, had been so for a week now. Kuri was absent again.
One more month. Kuri, you can't afford staying away from here. But Noriko knew all too well why her friend never came to school. Breaking up with someone you love must hurt. Still, one more month until year's end. Those exams decided whether you passed the year or not, and Kuri wasn't exactly one of Himekaizen's best students.
Noriko threw a glance at Kyoko's seat. The two of them had grown closer in Kuri's absence. You know, you should run to Yukio more often. Much more often, and she would have, Noriko knew that, if it wasn't for 3:1 and 6:1 not being on the best of terms with each other.
In 3:1 Urufu was a loser who had done something bad enough to their celebrated beauty to force her to break up with him. In 6:1 Kuri was the bitch who played with and hurt their hero.
That was it, their hero. Noriko had missed out on what kind of reputation Urufu gained in his class after the cultural festival. They had experienced death among them as well, and only now she learned he'd been there, sitting in his hospital bed, comforting those who couldn't keep silent any longer.
That made Kuri the villain, and Kyoko was Kuri's best friend, and only after Urufu shouted at his own classmates did they agree that Kyoko wasn't bad for Yukio, Urufu's best friend.
When did things get this bad?
Some of that animosity even crept into the club, with the difference that there an overwhelming majority saw Kuri as the evil villain. Noriko could see why. With a third of the members former Red Rose middle schoolers, Urufu could do no wrong.
He tried, Noriko saw that. He told them Kuri hadn't done anything bad, and that she had problems of her own; the members gave him comforting claps on his back – girls even spontaneously hugged him, just like he and Kuri used to do, and they said how strong he was, what a kind and goodhearted man he was, and they despised Kuri even more.
It hurt. Kuri was a good friend, a broken friend who hurt more than Noriko could understand. It hurt, because Urufu hurt. It hurt, because all stacked together, what had happened this far during their last term as freshmen made her look at Nao with new eyes.
He'd done nothing wrong neither, but his right choice made them spend time apart rather than together. She loved him, and wanted him for herself, but between studying for the exams, club hours, part time work, all too seldom did the few hours she had free coincide with his. The same way as she did, he studied, spent his club hours and worked his part time job. Difference being he spent very few club hours and an absolutely absurd amount of time modelling.
Noriko sighed and walked over to Kyoko's desk. Their teacher was late and Noriko wanted to know how things went down for Kuri's wingman, abandoned since a week. When she arrived she saw Kyoko with her nose into her phone.
Good girl! The rest of us try to be so smart, but you just solve your problems.
From this distance Noriko could see the phone vibrate when Yukio's messages reached it, and Kyoko didn't waste a second sending him a reply.
I'll leave you two alone. Seeing that made me happy.
A little lighter at heart Noriko took her seat and dug up the books for the class. Just as she was done the teacher walked in through the door opening.
The class representative rose.
The class rose.
The class bowed.
The class sat down again, and the lesson started.
Days grew into a pattern of classes only broken by lunch and club hours.
Noriko saw Yukio and Kyoko grow closer together, and she shared their joy. She saw her brother and Ai-chan playing their game, something that became harder as their exams loomed closer, and she saw Kuri return to class, a hollow shell of her former self.
Why anyone wanted to take photos of the girl was a mystery, and eventually Kuri told her they didn't. When she broke up with Urufu Vogue loosened their inhuman schedule a little. From what Noriko could see, their latest golden hen had been thoroughly potty-trained. She didn't as much as whisper a word of love about Urufu.
As for herself, she tried. Both of them tried. Nao used as much of his free time as possible to date her, but she could see in his haunted face how Vogue pulled in the reins whenever he spent too much time with her.
Days became a week, and one day, at the end of February, neither Yukio nor Kyoko showed up at club hours.
Birthday, first his, and a week later, Kyoko's. Both were among the kiddies in their respective class. Today he joined the league of sixteen, and he did so together with his girlfriend.
So all should be sunny and well. Well it wasn't. The last weeks Kyoko's parents, not only her stern father, had looked at him with something akin to pity in their faces. The worst was that sometimes Kyoko joined them as well.
Yukio knew her parents really didn't see him as a proper match for her daughter, but they were more than a little grateful for him trying to save her twice.
So why the pity?
Yukio hit the brakes, and Kyoko got off the bike. Two on one bike wasn't too smart anyway. The police didn't like it too much. Well, and there was that part of it supposedly being dangerous as well, which normally was the kind of concerns parents had. Problem being both Yukio and Kyoko had good reasons to respect the danger aspect themselves, what with hospitals a common stay-over and all.
“Hang on, I'll lock the bike here,” Yukio said and did so.
Behind him the old mall saluted memories from days gone by, and to be honest neither he nor Urufu spent much time here any longer.
Easier days, Yukio thought. He looked at Kyoko, who seemed to be in a good mood. But I wouldn't say better days. Sorry, man, but Kyoko's the most important one for me.
Huh? Oh, OK. “Sure.” Silently Yukio thanked Kyoko for suggesting they take the train from the station closest to home. Less risk of meting people they knew, and he really wanted to spend the day alone with her.
These were streets he seldom walked. Urufu used to bike them, and Yukio trudged along enough times not to get lost. Some low rise office buildings, mostly a residential area and the occasional shop. The years hadn't treated the buildings too kindly, and the muted yellowish colour displayed drab lines of blackened dirt. The kind of Tokyo their parents grew up in.
“Where?” he asked when he saw the station ahead of them.
Kyoko smiled and placed a finger on her lips. “Shinjuku. Or rather the park.”
Sure, if she wanted to walk, then walk they would. “Let's see where we change,” Yukio said and sauntered away to a map. For Kyoko, at least sometimes, he wanted to look cool. Usually she just laughed at him, or when she felt considerate, giggled. He loved that part of her as well.
He found the station where they needed to get off, and with her hand in his he navigated the crowd to their platform. Not too many minutes later they left, climbed a few stairs and after that they headed down into the subway area. Trains arrived every ten minutes or so, and shortly after they were at Shinjuku.
The park lay a fair distance away, still in the same range as what they walked to school every day, and Yukio had to agree it was worth it. Entering the park the heavy Tokyo traffic suddenly vanished into the background and gave way to a luxurious greenery.
“We're here. Just walk around, or did you have somewhere in mind?”
“Follow me,” Kyoko said rather than answering him.
Yukio let go of her hand and stretched his arms into the air. “Sure, wherever you go.” Cause I'll follow you wherever you go.
She ran ahead, and Yukio literally had to follow her until she found what she was looking for. A great lawn under the shade of trees. It looked like somewhere where he'd like to take her on a summer's day.
At that time Kyoko dropped her backpack by a tree-trunk and produced a blanket from it.
It turned out one.
Despite the cold Yukio enjoyed his silent meal with her. Compared to everything else that had happened this term this was a luxury he hadn't been awarded earlier, and he drank her presence undisturbed by angry looks from his own classmates, condescending ones from hers or the fearsome and pitiful ones that dominated the club.
At least today I belong to you only. Yukio swallowed the last of his lunch. “Thank you for a wonderful birthday!”
Kyoko grinned. “I didn't plan anything for rain. So I got lucky.”
“We got lucky. I love you.” So simple. He loved her. Half a year hadn't lessened his feelings at all. After she agreed to be his girlfriend their friendship just grew stronger as well. Urufu, is this what you meant with real love?
“Yukio, what do you like about me?”
Minefield! Tread carefully! Yukio thought about it for a while. He really couldn't find an answer. He just did. “I don't know. I'm in love with you. Do I need a reason?” I hope that was the right thing to say. Right or not, there was nothing else he could say.
She sent him a glance with both happiness and worry in it. “No, no you don't. I never knew you were so strong.” Then Kyoko blushed. “But that's not why I love you, or it is, but not only.”
With his face splitting into a grin Yukio revelled in the feeling of his stomach heating up at her words. “Thank you. I feel the same way.”
Kyoko started packing away their trash. Turned away from him she spoke into the air. “My parents don't think I'm fit for you.”
“You really gave them a good impression in the end. I want you to know that.” Yukio could hear how she choked on her own voice. “They want me to break up with you so I don't steal your future. But they really, really like you.”
What the hell? “Kyoko, I love you. Why would I want you to break up with me?”
A moment of silence stretched out between them. “But children?”
“I said I love you, not the thought of our children. Could you please not decide what I want?”
A thought of a much older man ran though his mind. “If that day comes, I promise I'll tell you. Do you still want to be the girlfriend of someone who might change his mind?” This was him gambling everything on one card.
Kyoko nodded. She turned and faced him. There were tears in her face. “I love you so much!”
I'm going to make your birthday the best. I'm going to make your life the best.
Birthday, first his, and now, a week later, hers.
Kyoko wondered what Yukio had planned for them. Unlike his birthday this was a school day, so they only had a few hours, with exams coming up and all. Of their freshman year only remnants remained.
She looked across the classroom to the desk, second row from the door and one seat from the front, where Kuri-chan sat since their last seating change. While her best friend had regained some of her composure, Kyoko saw how all life had gone out of her.
It hurt. It hurt watching her best friend hurt.
“Kyoko, hello, Earth calling.”
She flinched and looked up at the face speaking to her. “Oh, Noriko, sorry. Yes?”
Behind Noriko Ryu stood smiling at them both. “I'll leave it to sis.”
“When was the last time you didn't?” Noriko retorted.
You two. You are always so bright. Kyoko looked at Kuri-chan's backside. And so were you. Please Kuri-chan, come back to us!
“Happy birthday!” Noriko said and reached out with both hands. A small paper bag with nothing inside.
“OK, thank you,” Noriko said and accepted the gift. She quickly looked inside. It wasn't empty after all. An envelope lay inside, together with a chewing gum.
“For school break,” Ryu explained. “We asked your parents, and they agreed, both of your parents.”
Now what on Earth did you two come up with? “Should I open?”
“Actually, no. Open it together with Yukio when you're alone,” Noriko said and smiled mischievously.
OK, now I'm really curious. Kyoko said nothing but returned Noriko's smile with a nod.
Self-study home-room ended, and Kyoko grabbed her bag. On her way out she paused by Kuri-chan to see if she wanted company, but she just shook her head with those lifeless eyes of hers.
I want to help, but you're not allowing me. “OK, see you tomorrow,” Kyoko said and left. More like I'll get to watch you sit by your desk avoiding everyone for another day.
Her best friend, but now more a modelling machine than anything else. Kuri-chan worked and studied and did very little else.
On her way down the stairs Kyoko's phone spat out the default signal.
She stopped briefly between two floors, and looking out the windows she picked up her phone and took the call.
“We'll get you good this time.” A male voice.
And the call was closed.
Kyoko stared at her phone. What she felt wasn't what she had expected. Fuck you! Kyoko, language! Fuck language!
She returned up half a floor and took the long corridor to the left wing.
Sick of this. I'm so sick of this shit! To her surprise that thought made her grin, and by the time she entered the left wing stairwell she was laughing. It had a slightly hysterical ring to it, but she still didn't feel the paralysing fear that would have come naturally to her just half a year earlier.
Kyoko climbed the stairs and beelined directly for 6:1. If they wanted to give her the evil eye she'd just glare back at them. She entered and didn't even bother with walking to his desk.
“Urufu, I just got a phone-call from someone who didn't think my one knife-wound was enough.”
Any glares sent her way when she entered vanished immediately.
“You and Yukio, come with me. I'll have your company to the haven.”
Both boys stared at her in incomprehension, but before they had the chance to respond, half a dozen other boys rose from their seats. One of them bowed.
“Takeida-san, you'll have ours as well.”
Kyoko was too angry to be surprised. “You know we're talking the kind of people who start waving guns?”
That made three girls rise and join the boys as well. A fourth tried to pull one of them back into her seat, but she shook herself lose and gave her friend an angry scowl. “She's a girl. It's wrong using weapons on girls.”
But it's fine gunning down boys? Are you for real?
Dysfunctional brain or not, Kyoko felt a wave of gratitude stream though her.
“Kyoko, this is no laughing matter. Called the police?” Urufu said. Always the sensible of them when he wasn't busy playing the insensitive moron.
Kyoko shook her head. “Caller unknown.”
“Caller unknown, my arse. That's just caller id not being sent to your unit. Phone company has it, or they couldn't deliver the call in the first place.”
Urufu, really! Speak Japanese! “Non geek here. You were saying?” She smiled at Yukio, who stared at her with open admiration in his eyes and slapped Urufu's back with one hand.
“Man, hear her? That's my girl.”
“Yukio, you join her to the café. Guys, I'll take you up on that promise. Please stay with her until I arrive.” Then Urufu looked at her, and there was something in his eyes that did make her afraid. “I'll handle this,” he said. It came out more a growl than anything else.
Shit! But I wanted him angry. Careful what you wish for, Kyoko, it might come true.
The first to join her was Yukio, and he quickly slipped his hand into hers. Then he leaned closer. “Happy birthday,” he whispered in her ear. “No matter what happened, happy birthday.”
They filed out of the classroom, and Kyoko could see how some of the students already had phones glued to the sides of their faces. When they reached the shoe lockers there were over a dozen of them.
Easy way to play heroes, I guess, Kyoko thought. This time what surprised her was how callous she had become. You're the best, she added in her mind to make up for her earlier cold assessment.
“Isn't she friends with that model?” one of the girls asked.
“Matsumoto-san's girlfriend,” another voice answered in a defensive tone, and for the first time since Kuri-chan broke up with Urufu, Kyoko felt she had regained a little of her reputation in 6:1. It warmed some.
Urufu, don't do anything stupid!
“They're leaking braincells, if they had any to begin with.”
“I'll take it from here. An open threat, at least, we're allowed to act on,” Amaya said from the other end of the line.
Ulf pulled the cord to his hands free to make sure the mic didn't fall outside his coat. “Yes. Thank you Amaya.” He didn't ask how far she had gone in her own manhunt. That topic was taboo.
Damn, had forgotten how early spring comes here. This was definitely something that was better in Japan than Sweden.
“Urufu, you stay out of this from now on, hear me?”
“Yes Amaya. I'm not going after armed crazies.” Should have thought about that last summer. Damn, what a moron I was. “Don't worry.”
“You always make me worry,” Amaya said. At the end of that sentence her voice warmed up somewhat. “I know you're over fifty, but you're still the son I never had.”
He had long since stopped thinking of her as his daughter. His mother? No, but Amaya was still his senior in ways he could never understand. Almost ten years spent watching Japan's underbelly gave her a view of society he just didn't have. With that realisation came a respect he had shamefully enough not given her for over a year.
I've been so bloody full of myself. And look where it brought me. Lost it all in the end. He firmly shoved that whiny thought back into a recess of his mind. Not all. I still have my friends.
But he was breaking apart. He knew that. Working just as hard as Christina only gave him so many hours of sanity and no more. Spring break. I'll heal during spring break. That was less than three weeks away, and exams should occupy his mind before that.
After he finished his call he returned to his books. These days Ulf pushed the speed at which he learned written Japanese. A few months more, and the results should be obvious. Or they already were. He read books for middle schoolers without much problems now and had already started on more mainstream fiction.
At the moment he went through English, or rather he went through their Japanese translations, most of which Kareyoshi-sensei had got correct. As far as Ulf was concerned, 'most' wasn't good enough for a teacher, but if he wanted to boost his grades he had to answer in the wrong way that his teacher preferred.
Fuck this place! But with the old goat preparing for his retirement, incompetence was acceptable as long as it went hand in hand with authority.
Oh well, next principal is bound to rein the moron in, or else it'll show in the central exams. At least club hours were enough to rectify the worst of Kareyoshi's insanities. Which also was why Ulf prepared a lesson in history making use of all vocabulary and grammar constructions expected to be tested during the upcoming exams.
Yukio and Kyoko should show up any moment, and Ulf needed Kyoko. She already delivered beyond expectations and probably would create professional layouts a few years down the line.
Ulf lined up a few parallels between English and Japanese history. Both nations firmly locked onto islands helped; similarities followed along geographical reasons, and there were enough strange contrasts to merit a conversation as well.
Flipping between pages he gave a thankful thought to his sixteen year old eyes surpassing the fifty year old ones he got used to. Now he could run four minimalistic screens, swapping between them with his finger-tops and with but a flick of thumb and middle finger he zoomed in on a part that needed changing. Amateurs used their index finger for that; it was needed to switch screens.
While bluetooth still sucked, mostly due to Neanderthal interfaces, it still was the preferred way to access secondary speakers.
Some downloads and digital violence a few months earlier allowed Ulf to push data over bluetooth and HDMI simultaneously. Sure, the Seattle produced operating system tried to convince him otherwise, but in the end it was only a matter of the size of the digital sledgehammer applied. Anyone who didn't give up when faced with Slackware Linux the first time learned that the hard way. Ulf's first time had been pre commercial Internet.
The sound of bells chiming trickling through the door had him look up from his laptop, and Ulf grinned when Yukio and Kyoko arrived. He had a little something to tell them before he put them to work.
“Yukio, hand me your phone! And Kyoko's.”
Two frowning faces gave him their phones.
Ulf quickly downloaded his last gift from Amaya.
“OK, this is a piece of new digital candy for the both of you. In fact I've installed it on my unit as well, and I'm having Amaya lean on Christina as well.”
“What does it do?” Kyoko asked and cut to the chase.
“Punch it like this during a phone call and you'll have the Hammer of God descending on the other side,” Ulf said and showed. He didn't say it also immediately tried to crack its way into the offending phone. I never knew they had that kind of software installed in the stations.
Something rather insidious interfaced as the legit phone-operator before handing traffic over to legit channels. A lot easier to do with the phone-company actively assisting with the installation. That part Amaya knew nothing of. Ulf used her name without asking first.
Bastards! Kyoko and Yukio are my friends! He'd screw the suckers over so badly they'd want a new one when he was done. A promise to Amaya to stay out of it all was worth so much and no more.
“Get back to me from time to time to get upgrades,” Ulf said. At least partially true. To get updated databases installed was the real reason.
Whenever that phone went online he got more data, and every phone number, Line-address, email-address, well, pretty much everything it contacted on a list he had made. And everything those points contacted, and those contacted in turn. Ulf had a data analysing tool trimmed according to his specifications. Anything even remotely circular contact-wise got snooped permanently. Whatever circles of friends, relatives and contacts that arsehole had were subject to brutal and extremely illegal surveillance.
Don't fuck with someone who was there from the start!
Don't fuck with someone who was there from the start! Sano Mitsuo sighed in depression. Helping his best friends with their vendetta had taken him down roads best never walked.
When he had a high schooler framed and expelled from her school her guardian finally popped up like a toad from a boiling pond. All a matter of how to smoke people out. Now that retard tried making trouble instead of go down and disintegrate like a good kid. Only after the loss his mother's hospital care and Mitsuo making sure the wife got fired from her job for stealing, did the man understand what kind of opponent Mitsuo was.
Still, didn't expect her to take her life as well. Bah, shit happens.
Mitsuo knew rumours were spreading. He did the spreading after all, but the last week’s rumours of a digital bakemono making their way to him weren't his, and Mitsuo wondered who the hell was digging up shit on his targets behind his back.
His father's teachings worked for the dirty job he was doing now, but repressive suppression methods from early Showa just weren't applicable on-line.
And someone did anyway. Who the hell are you? He sighed again. I'm too old for this shit. Damn, I'm twice too old!
Contacts from organised crime refused to talk to him over the phone. A friend of his as well as a mole flat out told him to get his arse to Osaka if he wanted to talk banking frauds and refused to continue the email conversation.
The last day or two Mitsuo's suspicions grew. One out of two. If the former boyfriend, then a major pain in the arse, admittedly a damn skilled pain. That was the good option.
If it was his granddaughter, if it was Tina, then it was time to get the hell out of the area. From what he read in her eyes Mitsuo knew you didn't end up sorry if you stood in her way; you ended up dead. She was his relative through and through. She was also the only person he knew who scared him.
A phone-call to his friends revealed that they were absolutely clueless. The Wakayamas were as ruthless as naive. One of the reasons Mitsuo loved them so much.
What do I do? That Ulf kid didn't scare him. He could probably be talked with, even included for mutual benefit, but Tina. If it was Tina he could end up dead before she even knew.
Unbeknownst to either of the latest arrivals Mitsuo had milked Ashiga James for as much information as possible. Mitsuo never expected to stay in Tokyo for a second evening, but when it came to Christina Agerman, The Billion Dollar Empress, there was no end to the stories. She was a long way removed from the Princess of Scandinavia, and Mitsuo wondered what had turned her into a monster.
He knew, that she knew, that both of them knew, that you couldn't feign innocence and lack of knowledge. Chag was her personal beast, and Chag ate people all over the world.
A doctorate in history, it turned out, was a highly efficient vessel for memorising and classifying data pertaining to society. In fact Ashiga James was a goldmine when it came to anything relating to the upstream world before he arrived here.
I have to risk it.
Mitsuo's next target was a businessman. He had two sons, and the younger could be tied tighter to the yakuza, if Mitsuo paid the right kind of people some money. Nothing much. What Mitsuo wanted was for the business to get associated with organised crime. The kid could just lie down and die for all he cared.
I don't think Natsumi and Tadao would agree, but you both knew I was broken from the beginning. Mitsuo shook his head. And you still called me to fight your war? What am I getting myself into? Anything bad enough for his two friends to give up their decency had to be disgustingly bad. I hope you'll be able to live on when it clings to you. This kind of dirt can never be washed away.
Oh well, I need to know. He prayed he had guessed right and sent Ulf Hammargren an email. After that it was time to hang enough shit around the throat of an eighteen year old child to make sure he wouldn't be accepted at university. Nothing less would make his father budge.
And I'm one of the good guys? Sheesh, where did the world go wrong? Grinning more honestly now Mitsuo rang a contact of his, who didn't know exactly where he was going to be hit by a drunk motorcyclist. After the accident Mitsuo wasn't needed any longer. The former athlete knew how to spin a web of lies well enough without any instructions.
There was a response to his email. Yes! Thank all gods!
Would the kid be interested in cooperation?
Yes, but what was in it for him?
No, he made enough of those. Names and places.
What the hell? They were hunting the same people. Or almost the same people. Difference being Ulf didn't want anyone killed, and Mitsuo didn't need a naive kid to tell him how to solve a problem.
And then, very suddenly, Mitsuo found out there were two persons in the world who scared him. In less than ten minutes he had no working phone, no assets in the bank, and a paper delivered to where he was walking, by means of a taxi, told him in no uncertain terms what would happen to his ownership of that spa south of Ise if even one more person died.
Sano Mitsuo, almost a hundred years old subjectively and forty objectively, grinned like a retarded teenager when his telephone came alive again. Hell yeah! Whenever you want to marry Tina, just say the word and I'll walk her down the aisle.
Guts and integrity. What was there not to like? Never before had anyone dared to bring down the hammer of doom on his head without a moment of hesitation. Natsumi eventually did, but Mitsuo was certain there had been quite some deliberations before.
I had forgotten how much more fun it is with new arrivals. Fine Ulf, I'll deliver them by their balls. Alive, but by their balls.
Ryu handed over his tablet to Hitomi-chan. This was their last day before exams, and the club members were cramming like their lives depended on it. They didn't, he knew that. Ryu had looked at the statistics. With the exception of Urufu and Kuri the club members fared a lot better than the average.
And they're our teachers, or at least Urufu is. Madness.
Stockholm Haven Café. Their haven. Their changed haven. A core of half a dozen Irishima High students made it their primary hangout as well. There were over a dozen Red Rose high students as well. All of them demonstratively took off their red blazers as soon as they entered. Rumours had it all of them would transfer to Himekaizen come April.
“Urufu, last one.”
“Urufu, wake up!” Oh shit, sorry.
While there still was no response, this time Ryu didn't say anything. He just watched Urufu's expression of desolation when he caught Kuri in his view.
I don't understand it. You two are so obviously in love with each other, so why break up? Ryu looked as Urufu crossed the room. Is he making contact with her again? They haven't talked for weeks.
And it seemed he was. Ah, of course. Mars 14.
“In return for your gift,” Urufu said to her back, and directly addressed like this she couldn't ignore him.
“Thanks,” Kuri said and just turned enough to receive a very small paper bag.
Urufu returned, and to Ryu's surprise he received a high five. “Have an errand to run. Keep the place running, will you?”
“Ulf! No! Ulf! You can't!”
“See you later,” Urufu said and pretended not to have heard Kuri's shouts.
“Ulf, dammit. Stay!”
But the boy just left the room and Ryu could only stare at a back and a waving hand.
And this was Ryu’s cue. “Sorry my friend, but Urufu said he was busy. Shouldn’t we respect that?” With those words Ryu caught Kuri and pulled her back into the room. Now what on earth would bring out that kind of reaction from her in the first place?
“What the hell...”
“Don't touch it!” Kuri rushed back to where she had left her opened bag on the table. “Don't touch it!”
Too late. Urufu must have stripped his gift off the box it originally came in, and Ryu saw the ring that rolled out from the bag.
Crap! Maybe dad wasn't all that showy after all.
“Don't touch it! It's mine!”
“Must have been real great chocolate,” Hitomi-chan said with venom in her voice. Since the break-up Kuri was worth less than a cockroach in her eyes.
Kuri flinched and sat down, but not until after she had secured the ring.
Ryu couldn't think of anyone in his circle of acquaintances who would have refused it as a wedding gift. So that's why you worked so hard? And that still didn't make sense. A need to burn time seemed more likely.
You two. I just don't understand you two.
By now more of the girls had seen that something happened.
“What was it?” Sakura-chan wanted to know.
“Urufu handed her some cheap crap,” Saki-chan said and nodded at Kuri.
Hitomi-chan shot her some lightning from her eyes. “Remind me to tell your future fiancé not to bother with anything expensive.”
“Hitomi?” Sakura-chan said.
Oh, you two dropped the honorifics?
“Kuri's Valentine's gift to Urufu was to break up with him,” Hitomi-chan said, and Ryu noticed how Kuri cringed under the onslaught. “In return he gave her a wedding ring.”
“Why?” came a whisper from Kuri's chair.
Hitomi-chan knew no refrain. “It might look just like another brilliant, but if you have it checked, knowing Urufu, I promise it's a Scandinavian standard cut.”
“Why? Why you bloody stupid idiot! Why, if you're going to give me this?”
“Because he actually wants to show whom he loves, you piece of shit!”
Something in that accusation rang false. Wasn't it always you who showered him with open love? What's going on?
“Ryu, please help me. I need someone to talk with.”
More like a shoulder to cry on. “Fine, but I'm telling Ai-chan first.”
Kuri shot him a guilty stare and nodded. Then she grabbed her bag, coat and umbrella and left the room. Most likely she wouldn't come back again, and Ryu doubted she'd be welcome to. No matter what Urufu said, and to be honest he said far less than he could have, Kuri's reputation stayed glued to the floor.
Poor girl, Ryu thought as he wrenched his own coat over his shoulders. A nonchalant hand by his head he waved his way through the door and went directly for the table Ai-chan shared with some of her friends.
“Seems my club president has a problem she wants to discuss with me. We're just outside if you need me.”
Ai-chan had seen who just left the café and gave him an unhappy look. “Just outside?” she asked.
Ryu nodded and zigzagged his way to the exit. True to the promise he had given Kuri really stood just outside. On the other side of the street, but still just outside. He joined her and made sure they could be immediately seen from the café.
“So, what's on your mind?”
“I don't get it,” Kuri said, and from her voice Ryu could tell she had cried a little.
“Don't get what?”
“If you need a girl to break up with you for her own best, why would you give her something like this?” On her annualry a large diamond glimmered under the street-lights. Even Ryu could see it must have been horribly expensive.
“For your own best? Isn't that for you to decide?” The last question made him wonder just to what extent he had allowed himself to be influenced by Urufu.
“He won't let me. I know he loves me, but he never said so. So I had to break up with him, even though I love him.”
But for Ai-chan, this is when I would have made my move on you. Kuri attracted him. Ryu didn't even pretend anything else, but he was no longer in love with her, or at least not as much as he liked Ai-chan.
“I don't get you two,” he said. “For now, just keep it and wait until after the exams, OK?”
“Wait for what?”
“I'll ask sis. She's the smart one.” As if she would know anything about a mess like this. Whatever, anything that allows us to take our exams in peace.
A few minutes after they finished the last exam her idiot brother came up with another of his harebrained questions.
It was brain-dead to the extent he immediately regressed from 'brother' or even 'bro' to 'idiot brother' in seconds. In what alternative universe would she be able to solve the love problems of her best friend, the fifty year old supermodel with men clinging to her like grapes. The one who decided to cut off the man who must have been the love of her life, and who was Noriko's first love as well.
“But I promised I'd ask you.”
And that makes it better exactly how? Noriko stared at her idiot bro. Did we really have the same parents? “Fine, you asked.”
Ryu's face lit up enough for Noriko to glare at him.
“You're on your own with this one. She hands him crap chocolate and he returns a million yen ring?”
“And how did you expect me to talk them out of that kind of monumental idiocy? Moron, is it contagious?”
That he nodded again didn't make things any better.
You really thought I could? Gods! “Ryu, they're beyond help. They're so disgustingly stupid I feel ashamed I fell in love with one of them. So should you.”
She had to keep her voice down. Ryu was still Ryu, girlfriend or not. When anyone spoke with him people tended to eavesdrop. The midget sister equipped with an up and rising model as boyfriend didn't make it any more discreet.
Thinking of Nao soured her mood some more. He worked more than could be accounted to Kuri's well paid prison. Her amazingly paid prison. Noriko guessed Kuri alone made more than Urufu's company, and the way Urufu worked the last month money kept pouring in.
Broken and rich. Is money really worth all that? But money wasn't part of it. Noriko knew that. Working to death as a means to escape the trap they built of themselves, to pretend they didn't notice how much they each hurt the one they loved the most. If that was becoming an adult, then Noriko would stay a child for the rest of her life.
“You're silent, sis.”
Noriko fidgeted a bit. Sorry, forgot you were here. “Follow me!”
She led her idiot brother down the stairs, en route their lockers and through the entrance. Not until she reached the line of sakura trees, which already showed signs of breaking out in beauty, did she stop.
“Master of morons, I'll help. OK?”
Ryu nodded. He even knocked a fist to his head like an elementary schooler. “How...”
“Silent! Contagious. It's contagious!”
Ryu stayed silent, and Noriko could afford enjoying spring some more while they waited for Kuri to show up. Her car already stood waiting, but it didn't worry Noriko as much now as earlier. A phone-call to Sato-sensei and car, thugs and Kuri each vanished in different directions. After Noriko found that out she didn't care, and neither did Kuri.
Then the midday sun shone from the entrance, and soon thereafter a halo of golden hair floated above school-yard gravel. As had been the routine since she dumped Urufu, Kuri came with a reinvigorated fan-club tailing her steps. Even the number of confessions increased.
“Idiot bro, last chance. Do you really want me to got through with this?”
Sorry Kuri, but this will hurt.
Noriko waited for her best friend to leave the school yard before the ambush.
“Kuri, Ryu here asked me why he fell in love with you.”
Kuri's face clouded over.
“Had to tell him I can't understand why.”
For once an angry glimmer lit in Kuri's eyes, but it died as soon as it awoke.
“Shut it Wakayama...”
She didn't have time to allow Kuri's fan-club to get involved. “I mean, wasn't all that much there to love after all.”
A gust of wind ran along the street. Noriko heard it rustle branches above her, she heard Kuri take two steps and stand absolutely still, she heard fan-club members gasp for breath, and she heard strangely running steps from the school yard. Kyoko? Why are you running?
“Don't do it! Noriko, stop!”
I have to move in for the kill. “Kuri, if you don't love him, then just throw away that toy.” I'm not doing this for you Ryu. This is for Kuri. But her idiot bro knew that. It was why he asked her in the first place. Noriko was aware of that. He was the catalyst and she the mover.
“Toy?” one of the boys wondered.
“Noriko, I couldn't.” An ember of life lit in Kuri's eyes.
Yes, please, we want you back. Yell at me, scream and hate me, but come alive!
“Back when I wanted him you never let go.” That was grossly unfair and untrue, but Noriko couldn't afford being nice. “Now when he only looks your way you dump him by the road.”
Kuri didn't say anything, but her silence spoke of anguish.
“Keeping that ring of his for the money?”
The gust of wind ran it's course and made a left turn at the end of the street. Kuri took another step forward and the fan-club growled with anger.
“Sis, there's no one like you. Thank you!” her idiot brother whispered.
“Noriko, how low do you think...”
Got you! “To any depth. There's no stopping you from sinking even deeper.” And now I kill her. “You even made money when Kyoko got stabbed.”
Kuri looked as if Noriko had slapped her.
“What happened to the Kuri who came first to Urufu's hospital but last to Kyoko's. How little is your best friend worth?” I can't make you two work again, but I can give you a clean break. Noriko looked at Kyoko who had stayed silent during the assault. I'm sorry for dragging you into this, Kyoko, but this is my last gift to Kuri and Urufu.
“To smash what you broke. Kuri, it's broken. Don't try to mend it! Now off you go to the job you love so much.”
With Kyoko's hand in hers Noriko watched Kuri get into her car. Ryu stood behind them and made sure none in Kuri's fan-club tried to attack Noriko.
“She'll hate me, but this is the best I can do,” Noriko said to Kyoko. It hurt. “I'll explain 'some day'.”
Some day. I just lost one of my two best friends, and I have to wait for 'some day'. I didn't want this.
What Noriko just did was incomprehensible. Still, no true malice, of that Kyoko was certain.
She held Noriko's hand and squeezed a little to show there were no hard feelings, despite her own heart falling apart. Noriko had been there, the last time Kuri broke down. She kept the rest of them away. Anyone turning against them all to protect her friend couldn't be a bad person.
But it was incomprehensible.
Over the gravel, steps with a broken rhythm announced Yukio's arrival. His foot never healed perfectly, more a fault of his than his assaulter's. One more week properly on crutches, just as the doctor had said, and he wouldn't limp like this.
“See you, man. Six? I have it. Will tell Kyoko.”
Too many words. Too much willingness to please. Sometimes it was easy to forget how broken Urufu was, and how much Yukio tried to help his friend.
Four of us in 3:1. They're only two.
“Yukio, over here,” Kyoko called as if he could possibly have missed her where she stood with a crutch in one hand and Noriko in her other.
And there he goes. Kyoko followed Urufu's back with her eyes. They'd meet later. Six o'clock apparently. Their main customer probably, as neither Noriko nor Ryu was wanted. There was no end to how many sessions they bought.
“Stay with me, please.”
Kyoko looked at Noriko and saw how much she hurt. Kuri, you and Urufu owe both Ryu and Noriko an apology. They're not adults like you. “I will. Care to join us?” Kyoko added and tilted her head in Yukio's direction.
Where? Somewhere it didn't hurt. “The mall,” Noriko suggested to her surprise.
Those were happier days. She could still relate to them, and somewhere inside her she cherished the memory of what hadn't happened. Walking home from cram school that day almost a year earlier and noticing two Himekaizen blazers hanging from a hook a floor upstairs in that café. One of them belonged to her Yukio.
He looked at her, and she could almost see the cogwheels turn inside his head. Yeah, I saw you, so what? But she had nursed a mild crush on Urufu shortly after, not Yukio, and she hadn't even known Urufu was Urufu at the time. Well, I got the best guy of those in the end.
“Remember Urufu's bike?”, Noriko began.
Yes! Kyoko's impulse looked like it would pay off.
“He still rides to to school,” Ryu said. “That overpriced racer of his.”
“Overpriced?” Kyoko hadn't thought of Urufu's stuff that way. He preferred high quality items, that much was certain, but overpriced?
Ryu took a few steps, turned and bowed like an old style westerner. With an invisible hat in his hand he returned upright. “May I, dear lady, present for you Urufu's, or moron-sama's' shopping habits?”
“By all means,” Kyoko said. She had learned what a little helping Yukio with his part in the play 6:1 did for the cultural festival. She even curtsied a little on the pavement.
“A bike, a mere 300 000 yen, an offer you can't refuse. A backpack. It's a give-away, a fantastic deal in orange that would make its namesake proud. Almost free, just 15 000 yen!”
Kyoko bowed. If she was supposed to curtsey or bow she didn't know, but she wanted to continue the game. A few cars passed and Ryu made a pause for some relative calm to return again.
“When it rains, why settle for an umbrella. No, I've found you a light weight rice boiler for a mere 60 000 yen, trousers included. If it's merely windy, why not have this orange atrocity for 10 000 yen. It doesn't even come with a hood.”
By her side Noriko had started laughing, and Kyoko could see how Yukio stood grinning wildly. Apparently he approved of Ryu's exaggerations.
“For more formal occasions, a business suit. A find at a mere quarter of a million yen.”
That was unfair. It had been a gift from Kuri.
“A watch, same price, but the phone, alas, is a mere hundred thousand.”
Maybe you should stop now. Then it struck Kyoko it was exactly what Ryu shouldn't do. The list of excessive prices put Urufu's White Day gift to Kuri in a different light. Presented like this it was just a reflection on the only way Urufu knew to buy things. Expensive, always horribly expensive, because he lacked the knowledge needed to find find something good without paying in excess.
In front of her Ryu had gone silent, and Kyoko found herself standing still as well.
“He's a self-made man. Dad taught me about those. They're powerful people in their own right, but they never have contacts from birth. They always, always compensate for what they weren't born with.”
What Ryu just said went past her. Maybe it mirrored his upbringing, but Kyoko couldn't place herself in that kind of world. Noriko nodded her understanding, and her smile displayed something akin to respect for her own brother. Yukio just shrugged his shoulders like Urufu would have done.
But I wonder what Kuri-chan would have done. Shrug, most likely. But there would have been that flash in her eyes that said she understood more than anyone else. I think I understand you a little better now. Didn't you say you never bought jewellery but always bought the jeweller?
While the conversation had fallen flat there were smiles on their faces. When they rounded a corner and saw the old mall ahead of them Kyoko pointed at the stand where Urufu's bike used to be locked.
“Right one?” she asked Yukio.
“Damn girl even knows where he placed his crap. But I got her in the end anyway!”
He was never interested in me, but I love you all the more for making it sound like he was. “You got nothing. I reeled you in,” Kyoko said. Loving what Yukio said wasn't the same as allowing him to grow too large a head.
“Upstairs?” Ryu asked.
“Yeah, let's celebrate the absence of Kuri and Urufu,” Yukio said, and Kyoko watched how the two of them high fived each other out of nowhere.
Damn! He really did it!
Yukio stared at the exam boards. Noriko at a superb second place among all first years, and Ruy climbed to number 42. None of the rest of them made the top fifty. Still, he was more than pleased with himself with place 119, which left him a full fifteen places behind Kyoko.
And then there was Urufu. Place 165 might not be anything to brag about, but he passed every exam just as he had promised. And so had Kuri, even though she barely climbed inside the top two hundred and got herself a position solidly in the middle among the bad.
But you're damn scary. I wonder how long it takes before anyone notices. Because there was no holding Urufu back at math now. Despite problems reading the exam he positioned himself at a solid twelfth place in that subject. The day Urufu could read as well as the rest of them Yukio suspected funny stuff would happen to the results lists.
Of their first year less than a day remained. Tomorrow the graduation ceremony for the seniors, and after that two weeks' worth of spring break.
I'm scared, Yukio thought. Spring break meant two weeks filled with the luxury of not having his fears interrupted by exams, club activities and classes. In short a luxury he didn't want. Pretending that Kyoko hadn't been stabbed and that the grown ups around him weren't involved with a dangerous game of hurting people, pretending that he lived an ordinary high school life was so much easier.
Around him happy and dejected voices told him other students had found their names, or failed to find them on the list of the top fifty.
Yukio sighed and walked into the cafeteria for a short lunch.
Lunch ended, and too shortly after that, so did the school day. With great apprehension Yukio walked down the stairs and waited for Kyoko. They were to ride her father's car to her home, grab something to eat and then he'd be driven home.
Her father might be an uptight arse, but for some reason he had seemed to have taken a liking to Yukio.
Outside spring was in full command of the weather, and more and more of the brave students voided their sweaters and chanced going to and from school in blazers and shirts only.
He tested his walking. Some of the limp was still there, would probably be there for some time coming. His own fault, Yukio knew that, but it still felt unfair. He hadn't asked to be assaulted.
That was fast! Turning around Yukio noticed how Kyoko had all but recovered fully, or at least recovered as much as she ever would.
“Ready.” He shouldered his bag and gave Kyoko his arm. Nowadays it was more for his own support than her needing any help. Still, any excuse to feel her near him was a good excuse. “Shall we?”
Kyoko leaned closer to him. “Sure, let's go.”
Accompanied by the sound of gravel shifting under their feet they walked to where Kyoko's father waited. Yukio took the front seat and Kyoko made herself comfortable in the back. Had he been given a choice he'd shared a seat with her, but her father preferred some company to chat with for the short drive.
As usual they passed streets and stop lights in the usual interrogation thinly disguised as a father's interest in what occurred at school. Yukio could see the difference in his face whenever the topic touched on the Wakayamas and Urufu or Kuri.
He knows something. And as always that interest dimmed when Yukio told him about what the friends had done. He wants to know what their parents are up to.
Therein lay the problem. Since the attack Urufu had been close-mouthed. As if he tried to protect the two of them. But I don't want to be protected. I want to protect.
If it only was that easy. Urufu threw an employed thug to the street and Yukio got his sorry arse kicked to kingdom come. Screw this! It's not Urufu's fault. Besides he got beaten up as well. Making up excuses didn't help. Someone had hurt Kyoko, and Yukio wanted in on the deal. The need for revenge was so strong he could taste it.
“… to eat?”
Huh? Kyoko's voice reached him from behind. “Sorry, I didn't hear you.”
“What do you want to eat?”
“Don't be a bore. We're going south in a few days, and dad has to go to a conference starting tomorrow.”
Ah, forgot they gave us permission to travel to Ise. “Hot pot?”
“Dad, what about it?”
“Hot pot. Sounds delicious. I'll stop by the mall then.”
I guess they're not that worried any more. Damn, how can anyone think of their own daughter as damaged goods? She couldn't have children, so there wasn't as much as a sound of protest when Kyoko showed them the vouchers she had received for a birthday present.
They stopped at the mall. Urufu's and his old mall. Shopping food was a silent and sombre affair. Even Kyoko stayed strangely subdued, a little like the Kyoko he fell in love with close to a year earlier. He hadn't known at the time, Yukio admitted that to himself, but she walked in the shadow of Kuri without a complaint. That also, was an untruth. When he learned more about her he found out just how rough she could be with her best friend, and he loved her all the more for it.
Bags in hands they returned to the car. Conversation hadn't picked up at all, but Yukio was thankful for that. This close to the end of their first high school year his head was full of memories of how it had all started.
Funny that. When they began he'd been full of thoughts about the future, and how to make the most of his lucky shot to share classes with Urufu. Looking back, is this part of growing up? He'd ask Urufu when they met next time. Man, I miss your insane ideas. I'm not a girl, but it hurts in my heart to see you hurting.
Then Yukio laughed when he realised how angry Urufu would be if he knew Yukio made a difference between boys and girls when it came to hurting. I won't ask you about that though. Some secrets are best kept, well, secret.
Ryu looked at his sister smirk at most every word during Principal Nakagawa's speech. Canned clichés, isn't that what you call them?
Another few minutes, each an eternity long, and they were no longer freshmen. The third years had already been given their diplomas, and for them high school was over. Ryu wondered what went around in their minds. University, their first real job, what to do next, because 'next' had to be what occupied their minds.
He followed his sister up the stairs for a last visit to their classroom. In two weeks they'd occupy the second floor, but he didn't know exactly how the classes were composed. That was another exciting moment when the second years gathered under the billboards to see what class they had been assigned to.
Ryu rose to the call for their last home room as freshmen, bowed to the teacher and sat down again.
He could feel the tension in the classroom. Most of his fellow classmates just wanted to leave and celebrate the end of their first year, and Kondo-sensei didn't even attempt to grab their attention. Perhaps she looked forward to two weeks without students as well.
Drop it, Ryu! She's a good teacher, and she put up with our stupidities for a year. He emptied his desk and dropped the contents into his bag. For once he'd made certain it was empty before he left home. Later he'd grab his PE clothes and clean out his shoe locker as well. In two weeks they'd change lockers as well as classrooms.
Glancing sideways Ryu looked at the classmates who were also club members. They'd celebrate at the Stockholm Haven Café, their second home just like that café in the old mall had been Urufu's and Yukio's a year ago.
“I hope to see some of you for English lessons when you're juniors as well,” Kondo-sensei said. “Well, that's it. It's been my pleasure having you as my class. Enjoy spring break!”
With that it was over. They filed out of the classroom and walked down the stairs. Dammit, I'm walking. Sis, you won't have anything to complain about this time. Just to prove him wrong both Watabe twins bounced down the stairs, and Ryu heard Noriko yelling after them. Oh well, maybe not after all. With that thought Ryu grinned, slapped Dai-kun on his back and jumped down the rest of the flight.
Once again Noriko's angry voice accompanied him all the way to the entrance floor. More fun this way.
He rushed to his lockers, but was beat by the smallest margin possible by one of the twins. His sprinting ability was more than a match for Ryu, which showed every time they shared a soccer field together.
Ryu looked around and saw Sho-kun shouting from one end of the lockers to the other, where Hideo-kun was busy pouring down whatever mystical treasures he hid in his locker into a backpack he'd brought instead of his bag.
“Haven,” he confirmed when the last of his locker contents lay inside his backpack.
Ryu shook his head and emptied his own locker in a much more orderly fashion. The contents went into a cloth bag he'd brought for just this purpose. Too much time spent with Urufu had him dead set against backpacks. It wasn't that he hated backpacks per se, but Urufu's apparent colour blindness made Ryu detest the blindness generating atrocities Urufu happily carried on his back.
“Noriko, need anything before Haven?” Ryu asked his sister when she finally arrived.
She shook her head, and nothing in her face showed how she had shouted at him just moments earlier. As usual her outbursts were short-lived, and as far as he knew she wasn't resentful.
He waited for her to put her indoor shoes in a cloth bag of her own. Then Noriko got into her loafers, gave her locker an extra look as if to make certain she hadn't forgotten anything inside, and together they hit the school yard.
Most of it was dominated by groups of third years, or rather former third years, wearing their uniforms for the last time and taking photos to celebrate their graduation. Parents, siblings and the occasional girl or boyfriend joined the photo sessions as well. By the gates sakura dressed up in pink, but it was still far too early for the blossoms to fall.
Ryu and Noriko were almost at the gates when his phone rang. He picked it up while he waved for Kyoko to join them, and just as he took the call he saw her pointing at where Yukio came running from the school entrance.
Sato-sensei? “Hello, Wakayama Ryu speaking.”
“Have you seen Urufu?” she said without as much as giving her name.
He hadn't, and he told her so.
“If you see him, tell him I need to talk with him!”
What? Why don't you just call him? “I'll do that, Sato-sensei.” Ryu pocketed his phone and looked behind him.
Yukio ran past Kyoko and beelined for him.
“Ryu, have you seen Urufu?”
OK, this isn't funny any longer. “No, and his guardian just called me with exactly that question.”
“She called me as well.” Yukio panted from sprinting across the school yard. “Hi Noriko.”
“Hi,” she answered, but Ryu noted how she was more interested in what Yukio had to say than in exchanging greetings.
“Sato-sensei told me his outdoors gear is gone.”
“Idiot bro!” Noriko said. “So he's gone.”
Gone? What's going on? “Yukio, again and slower, please!”
“No need,” Noriko said before Yukio caught his breath for a repetition of his message. “Urufu's gone. I think he stashed his gear somewhere before coming to school. Yukio, you can't reach him on his phone I guess.”
“No, yes.” Yukio gave them both a frantic look. “I can't reach him. His phone is out of service.”
“Damn! I was too busy making sure Kuri didn't do anything stupid.” Noriko grimaced after her words, and Ryu wondered if she knew something he didn't.
“Guys,” he said. “What's happening.”
“Urufu gone is what's happening,” Noriko said. “Yukio, did he say anything?”
Yukio looked at her. “Nothing important. Just that he needed to think things over.”
He's gone al-right. Yukio's words confirmed a nagging suspicion that had started to grow in Ryu. What a shitty way to reach year's end.