Entrance ceremonies were supposed to be framed by a reasonably cute pink colour, and this year it was. Every stupid attribute promising a glorious new start beckoned to the new students with promises of a wonderful future.

A pity Wakayama Noriko wasn't a new student.

She entered the Himekaizen school grounds a junior. A second year, starting the best of her three high school years; the freshmen admiring them and the seniors envying them. The spring of her youth, and all that.

Then, given such an auspicious event, why was her stomach a hard knot of uncontrollable fear?

Urufu gone missing, Kuri a shallow shadow of her former self, and worst of all, she pretended to go out with Ryu.

What happened to Ai-chan? Ryu, you bastard. Did you hurt a girl deliberately?

Yukio and Kyoko were late, also deliberately. Sato-sensei, Urufu's guardian, created a huge ruckus when she forced the school to accept an armed escort to follow the pair to and from school.

The reason, the reason made Noriko want to throw up in fear.

How the bloody hell did we end up this way? How, how, how did Kareyoshi become principal?

Around her fellow schoolmates milled around, a third of them all shiny and new, and the rest in their worn beige blazer and black trousers or skirt. None showed any sign of Noriko's kind of fear, because for the rest of them Kareyoshi was only a dull English teacher best known for having a private war with the Japanese guy in 6:1 who wasn't Japanese after all.

She tried to pretend she was just nervous for the same reason as the rest of the second years. That she only wondered which class she had been assigned to, or rather which classmates.

Noriko walked over to the billboards where the second year classes were divided in two sections. One for sciences and one for liberal arts. That selection each student did themselves.

Which of the four classes in each section, or from this year, which of the five classes, since Himekaizen and Irishima had cannibalised Red Rose. Ten classes in each year. Two more than when she started a year ago, and two less than what her parents had experienced when they were students here.

She looked up at the science section. 1:2 – 5:2. After reading the class list for 1:2 she reread it again.

What the hell?

Wakayama Ryu was there, but no Wakayama Noriko. Searching again she noticed that Hamarugen Urufu was missing as well.

Did they split me out?

She found herself in 2:2, and Urufu in 3:2.

No way, you bastards! You didn't! They did. Ageruman Kuritina was in 6:2, Takeida Kyoko in 7:2 and Matsumoto Yukio in 8:2. When she looked closer she saw that the club members in The Himekaizen Cultural Exchange club had been spread evenly among the classes, and every single couple in the club split between two classes. Why? That's just hurtful!

The coming two years with none of her best friends in her class. Bastards!

Fuming with rage she punched a contact she never thought she'd call in her life.

Nakagawa speaking.”

This is Wakayama Noriko, you might be familiar with me.”

A moment of silence. “Ah, certainly Wakayama-san. How may I be of assistance?”

Noriko went a bit away from the students looking at the billboards. A lot of them were talking in loud, disappointed voices. So they broke up other groups of friends as well?

Did you know about the class assignments for us juniors?”

Yes, most certainly. I wrote them together with your home room teachers.”

Why, you fuck!” Noriko was so angry she didn't care she had just called her old principal something that could have her expelled.

Young lady that's no...”

Why the hell...”

Shut up!”

That voice was enough to make Noriko obey.

Before you continue your cursing, please tell me what's wrong, Wakayama-san.”

The sudden politeness, with just a pitch of anger had Noriko calm herself down. She did as Nakagawa-sensei had asked.

But for all demon spawned fucking piss rats in hell! The arsehole can just go die in a cesspool!”

OK, that was more than I expected, Noriko thought as she held her phone away from her ear. She had no doubts at all the cussing was directed at someone else.


By now some of the shouts from under the billboards were outright angry. Some of the sterner parts of the teaching staff came walking from the school entrance, and Noriko chose to back away to the gates. Whatever had happened was deliberate, and she didn't plan to be caught up any more than needed in the repercussions.

Wakayama-san, do you have time after school?”

OK, he's not involved. “Inner room?”

Ah, yes, that will be fine. At six?”

Noriko confirmed the time and closed the call. Has to be Kareyoshi's dirty work.

She walked directly to the entrance to avoid the confusion when the teachers broke up the angry mob under the billboards. On her way there she saw scared freshmen looking at the spectacle.

Your first day as high schoolers. I hope you enjoy it. Because Noriko wasn't going to.

With her fear somewhat calmed, doused in anger as it was, she quickly dropped her indoor shoes in her new locker and returned outdoors.

On her way to the gym she passed four lines ending in a member of the student council welcoming the freshmen and giving each one a pamphlet with the basic Himekaizen information. Nothing that couldn't be found on the school website. Noriko had received hers a year ago.

She rounded the left wing, followed the wall and came up to the pool area. From there she walked to the gym and lined up to get inside. This year she planned to listen to the canned clichés. Maybe there was a threat or two hidden in the principal's speech.

Given what Urufu said about their new principal, he couldn't find his own arse in the dark, and if he really was a king among morons, then he was all too likely to spew out one idiocy after another.

Ryu hadn't heard anything as disgusting since the entrance ceremonies at Red Rose Hell. At the other hand, in that school he heard it all three years.

Principal Kareyoshi was every bit the bigoted moron Urufu said he was. Less than half the speech concerned welcoming the new students and warning them to spend too much time not studying. That part was a given. The rest, well the rest was all about Japanese purity and the dangers of foreign influences diluting it. All in all a piece of first class nationalistic drivel with racist undertones.

Ryu looked at the faces around him during the speech. What he saw both scared him and gave him hope. Most of the students stared at the principal with disbelief in their eyes. Ryu sighed and afforded himself a thin smile. Well, this isn't Red Rose. I don't think the parents here are as easily bought.

After the speech he walked to his classroom. Right wing, just like last year, but on the second floor. To his displeasure he wouldn't have any of his friends with him, but he chalked that down to poor luck from his side.

During lunch break he planned to complain to the rest of them, and then laugh it all away as he usually did.

Come lunch he didn't. Thoroughly pissed off he marched off with Kuri glued to his arm. While he wasn't entirely comfortable with her show-off, mostly because of the murderous looks his sister sent him, he needed to vent his anger with someone who could give him a more mature angle to the situation.

What, you're alone in your class as well?” he asked when they got away to the soccer field and had some privacy.

Kuri nodded. “Not too surprised. It's blatant enough to be the work of an idiot. I wonder if the other students will stand for it.”

He chewed her words mentally while enjoying the first promises of late spring in the air. With sakura bathing the school in a shower of peach-coloured dreams it was hard to stay angry for long. Then he felt Kuri tug at his arm, and he realised he had stayed silent for too long.

Ryu grimaced. “You mean breaking apart the couples in school?” he said, referring to what his sister had told them. “I wouldn't be too sure. Relationships during high school are frowned upon more than you think.”

Your loss. Well, mine as well, now that I live in Japan.”

He looked at her face. This close he noticed for the first time how Kuri’s eyes were just a little off from the typical European. Just a reminder that her grandfather was from Japan, and one like her and Urufu, something his parents tried to keep a secret and both Ryu and Noriko pretended they didn’t know.

Sweden's different?” he said to break the silence and give himself an opportunity to look at the beauty who called herself his girlfriend.

Yeah, at least when I was a school kid. Has to be now as well I guess. It's just part of growing up after all.” Kuri’s face showed no signs of mischief, which probably meant she truly thought of it as part of everyday life.

What about our situation? I mean, it's not like the two of us would attend the same class after all.” Just as the words left him Ryu regretted the way he said that.

You mean with me being a liberal arts idiot and you a sciences star?”

He looked at her to see if she had really become angry or not, but her face was blank, and he couldn't read any emotions in it.

I apologise. I didn't mean it that way.”

Then she smiled. “I know. Just be careful with what you say. People will misunderstand, some even deliberately.” This time mischief did glimmer in her eyes.

A sudden wind blew life in her hair, and staring at the golden halo surrounding her smiling face Ryu was once again reminded of her almost otherworldly beauty. He looked down at his shoes. “Yeah, I didn't think.”

We're second years now. A lot of people know us, and the freshmen will look at us.”

What do you mean? Oh. “As a couple?”

The grin he got in return was a little condescending, but also filled with support. “Dummy, yes, that as well. You're always so visible that you don't really need me to be seen, and you know that.”

Ryu didn't get what Kuri was after. If it wasn't the surprising new couple, then what? “Enlighten me,” he said. He had wanted to talk things over with an adult he could trust after all.

This isn't middle school. From what you've told me the second years are the most visible, with the most famous seniors only some kind of distant heroes.”

Ryu nodded. Not that he really knew, but that was the rumour.

Well, it wasn't true last year. We stole that place in the spotlight. Even Nao chose to hang with us.”

OK, that makes sense I guess.

This year there'll be third years who resent us. You're famous all over the school. They'll be waiting for you to make a mistake, and me as well.”

I don't care. Let them!”

Kuri sighed. “Look Ryu, you're cute and all, but sometimes you're just a kid. Listen to me! Even if you get away with it, dirt's gonna stick to the rest of us.” Then she lit up in a self-conscious smile. “Fine, not on me. I'm just as famous, but to people I care for.”

Sure, I'll be careful. “And about the part of us being a couple?”

That part?” She grimaced. “I guess we'll have to make a public show about it one way or another. Don't worry, I'll play the evil bitch.” Then she smirked. “Comes natural to me after all.”

Why are you doing this to yourself? “I disagree,” Ryu said. Kuri sacrificed one part of her life to keep another, and she had done so knowing the results. Hardly a bitch. Then he realised he’d been unclear about what which of her two statements he just replied to. “I’m fine with the public show. I’ve been one for the last four years anyway.”

She gave him an approving look. “Sometimes you’re colder than you look, you know. Doesn’t suit you.” She dug her fingers into her hair and let it billow out in the wind. “I’m the cynical one of us. Hell, when I was your age I still stared at the world with childish eyes and believed life would be wonderful.”

Kuri’s eyes looked right through him, into a far distance where Ryu couldn’t follow. I wonder if Urufu can go with you there, Ryu thought. Probably not, but maybe the older friend could understand what Kuri saw in her mind. I don’t think that’s a world I can ever touch, no matter how old I get. Ryu resolved never to stop Urufu and Kuri from sharing that world. Their memories, their past lives.

Careful Ryu, if you ever fall in love with her, you’ll still never be everything in her life. A sobering thought, and another one that was beyond his years. Growing up like this sucks, he thought and bowed to his girlfriend.

Thank you for your advice. I’ll leave you to your part of the show,” he said when he saw Kyoko coming for them with a small train of seniors tailing her.

Kyoko pretended she didn’t see the gang of third years following her. She might not be the fastest on the uptake in the boy meets girl game, but she knew trouble heading for Kuri-chan when she saw it.

Idiots! I have to pretend to protect Kuri-chan while she hurts you all over again. But then some people really never learned. This time it was Ryu walking around with Kuri-chan as his new-won prize that fed their anger. And Kuri-chan, you’re an idiot as well.

Kuri-chan saw her, and Kyoko waved to her friend, all too aware the gang behind her would catch up when the two of them met. Kyoko barely had time to get away from Kuri-chan’s mandatory hug before the voices reached them from behind.

And she goes for the kill again. What's with you and hooking up with lookers?”

Kyoko noted how Ryu had made himself scarce, but she had no doubt he stood hiding somewhere close.

With her grades, how did she even end up here in the first place?”

The mood was turning just as ugly as Kyoko suspected. She could understand why the girls felt the way they did when Kuri-chan showed up on Ryu's arm the very first day of the new school year, but still.

I got a scholarship,” Kuri-chan answered.

Kyoko knew that voice. Don't make it worse, Kuri-chan!

Scholarship? What need would this school possibly have for you?”

You just had to, Kuri-chan!

Kuri-chan turned, ever so slowly, and faced her adversary. “The school was in desperate need of a makeover. I make it look better. One me can easily make up for an entire class of ordinaries like you, wouldn't you agree?”

Kuri-chan! That was brutal. That was totally uncalled for. You'll never keep friends that way.

Then Kyoko recalled that the only real friends Kuri-chan had made were all members of the club.

The girls flinched.

Here we go again. Kyoko made ready to face the group together with her friend. This time she only felt sorry for them. She had seen Ryu pretend to walk away, and Kyoko knew he was somewhere near waiting for the perfect moment to arrive.

Stage monkey! The right wing classrooms towered close by, and Kyoko saw students looking out the windows. They didn’t want to miss the latest show featuring their famous fellow student. And you, you deserve getting your faces chewed off! What kind of morons stage an attack like this in full view of half the school?

You bitch! Just because you got a little famous you think you can say whatever you want?”

Kuri-chan grinned. “That’s wrong,” she calmly stated.

Don’t fall for it. Don’t be as stupid as you look!

What do you mean with wrong?”

OK, you really deserve everything you get.

I mean that because I’m famous all over Japan I know I can say whatever I want. You got a problem with that?”

Kyoko shook her head. Above her she could hear gleeful laughter from the second year floor. The row of first year windows only let out the occasional loud gasp. The third year row, well the third year row showed a more mixed reaction. Angry shouts together with jeers. Kuri-chan had made fans as well as enemies among the former juniors.

In front of Kyoko the four third year girls paled, and at her side Kuri-chan dressed up in a smile belonging to the haughtiest version of The Billion Dollar Empress Kyoko had ever seen.

Girls, was there anything more you wanted? I’m pressed for time. Vogue needs me for another shoot.”

They’ll never forgive you, you know that? Kuri-chan probably did. Kyoko couldn’t understand why her friend deliberately made more enemies. Was building a reputation really that important?

At least the group knew when they were beaten, or in their case, publicly humiliated and beaten. Barring physical assaults Kyoko couldn’t see how anyone would dare bully Kuri-chan again.

At that very time Ryu popped up from nowhere, or from wherever he hid during the exchange.

Hi Kuri. I was just looking for you.” Then he turned to the third years. “Oh, made some new friends?”

That was mean of you, Ryu. They’re your fans after all.

Ah, just chatting. If they’re your friends then they’re mine as well,” Kuri-chan lied, and Kyoko saw the girls blanch even further.

We were just having a talk, Wakayama-san,” one of them said. After that they vanished in a hurry.

Kyoko stared out over the empty soccer field and waited for Ryu and Kuri-chan to finish their act. False, even if they were her friends they still played false. I hate that! I know I’m naive and too trusting, but I hate that.

With that thought Kyoko knew she didn’t want to wait any longer. With brisk steps she left her two friends to their own deliberations and headed for the entrance. Kuri-chan called once after her, but Kyoko pretended she didn’t hear and continued.

For once she didn’t long for Yukio, but for Urufu. There wasn’t even an ounce of romantic feelings in that longing. Right now she needed a sane adult to speak with. With a bit of luck Urufu was still sane, even though his grabbing his bike and leaving Tokyo didn’t exactly raise her hopes.

That he hadn’t returned in time for their second school year scared her, but her fear was second hand. She knew that. Even though she knew his fears after being assaulted and losing Kuri-chan, she hadn’t experienced them. She hadn’t even witnessed it the way Yukio and Ryu did.

An angry outburst left her lips as she switched to her indoor shoes and climbed the stairs to the short home room class that would end their first school day.

With no club activities the only thing that remained after that was climbing into a car and get driven home. Walking home with armed guards was out of the question.

Club activities. Are they going to stand guard like in some manga comedy outside the Haven? Kyoko pictured the insanity in her head, and the last steps to her classroom she giggled a little.

Two days late Ulf returned to school. He got his arse handed to him by Amaya the evening before, and after that a desperate hug from her where she showed how worried she had been.

Then, to his enormous surprise, James appeared at the door, only to leave together with Amaya. Things had progressed in an interesting direction during Ulf’s absence it seemed.

Right now he got his arse handed to him by the moron someone mistakenly had led into the principal’s office. Said moron even tried pretending he held the competence needed for the job.

Ulf thoroughly despised the specific kind of incompetence inherent in the type of person personified by Kareyoshi. A small-minded, self-important narcissist who wrongly believed he had anything to provide to human society. In short the kind of person Ulf made short time of whenever TAP made a horrendous enough mistake when it came to employment. As those years went by, such mistakes became exceedingly rare.

Now, however, Ulf faced the prospect of spending his remaining years in high school with the arse as his principal.

It began in accordance with what Ulf had expected. As punishment for arriving two days late he got suspended for a week. A true genius! Someone plays hooky and you reward the absentee with another week of no school, rubber-stamped by the principal.

Ulf didn’t mind. He’d learn more efficiently away from the classroom than in it. You didn’t get two academic degrees by depending on the presence of a teacher.

Facing Principal Kareyoshi Ulf made an attempt at looking repentant. He failed gloriously.

Then Kareyoshi dropped the bomb.

I’m going to disband that filthy club of yours.”

I thought that was for the student council to decide,” Ulf said, still reeling from the shock.

The former principal was your advisor. I don’t plan to take on that role.”

We could find another,” Ulf responded.

No, as a matter of fact, you can’t. Besides, the student council will do what I tell them, if they know what’s good for their futures.”

He openly threatens the student council? How fucking stupid can he be? Ulf fingered the recorder in his pocket to make sure it was still on. Can’t use it any-time soon. Just adding shit to pile on him for later.

Because that was the problem. Kareyoshi was on the inside. The other side of the inside, but inside still. Flushing him out would only be possible if they could add enough shit to him to endanger the very organisation that lay behind the secrecy around the arrivals.

I hope you’re aware the exam results average for club members have risen substantially compared to the rest of the first years.”

I hope you’re aware you should shut up when you talk to your elders.”

Hard case that one, Ulf thought. How did he come up with me talking and shutting up at the same time. Then another thought struck him, and Ulf decided to test it. We arrivals are basically exempt from the rules concerning expulsion from Himekaizen.

Then I expect you to shut the hell up in my presence from now on,” Ulf said.

Kareyoshi paled. “What did you...”

Shut the fuck up kiddo!” Ulf still remembered the command voice from his time as a conscript. Thirty years of budo had just polished it further into a weapon.

Kareyoshi reeled from the force. It took him a while to recover. “You little...”

Silent! I haven’t given you permission to raise your voice in my presence.” This is more fun than I expected. Will be hell to pay, but I just don’t care. “I’m at least a few years your senior, so shove it, kohai! If you at least had deserved to be my kohai, but you can’t get everything in today’s degenerate world, wouldn’t you agree?” Now, how could I possibly be more insulting than that?

An idea came up. Ulf turned and left the room. When he was almost to the door Principal Kareyoshi rose from his chair. Ulf turned and stared at the raging, red face.

Sit! Stay in that chair until I send someone here with permission for you to rise!”

Kareyoshi sat. Obviously he wouldn’t remain seated, but for now it was enough. Ulf opened the door and entered the corridor. For the first time in weeks a grin as wide as honestly felt spread on his face.

I wonder how he’ll take revenge. Well, I guess I’m part of the game now. Could as well make it official. Ulf picked up his phone and called Ryu’s father. He and his wife were involved with the aftermath to Kyoko’s stabbing, Ulf was certain of it.

Two minutes talk over the phone later he had confirmed those suspicions. For added security he transferred the entire audio from his interview with Kareyoshi. Both the Wakayama seniors as well as Amaya were better equipped than he was for this kind of fight. He could just as well hand ammunition over to them.

Ulf was on his way down the stairs when he heard Kareyoshi roaring through the corridor. With the knowledge that he couldn’t be expelled Ulf grinned and let the moron scream his lungs out.

OK, this system has to go. What if more arseholes like me arrived here in Japan. They really need a way to keep us in place. I’ll have a talk with the old goat about it.

Thinking of himself as an arrival gave birth to yet another thought. Maybe, maybe there are more of us now. I should check the freshmen out. Maybe not alone.

So Ulf went in search of Ryu and Yukio to help him look for arrivals among the first years. Noriko would do as well, but Ulf didn’t feel confident she wouldn’t involve Kyoko and Christina as well, and he still didn’t have the strength to meet her yet.

He’d come and go as he wanted. Kareyoshi’s suspension wasn’t worth the paper he wrote it on. All in all this was a promising start to a new school year.

A few days later Ulf wasn’t as certain about how good the new year looked.

A number of the teachers yelled at him when he showed up despite being suspended, and Kareyoshi screamed bloody murder. It took a couple of men in black business suits to stop the yelling and screaming, but they had the sense to ask him to cease flaunting his invincibility in the face of his principal.

After that Ulf decided to stay away from school for the duration of his suspension. He didn’t care for getting problems with the acquisition of new customers after all. On top of that, the presence of bodyguards came as a surprise to him, and right now he didn’t need that kind of attention.

The next day he saw Christina on Ryu’s arm. That hurt. Amongst the jealousy welling up, Ulf managed a thought of pity for Ai’s sake. He hadn’t heard anything about the pair breaking up.

After yet another day, that he spent at home wallowing in self pity, Ulf called Noriko. Asking Ryu for help right now was out of the question, and Ulf couldn’t call Yukio without Ryu getting involved. The two of them had made just as close friends as Ulf wanted from the beginning.

So what remained was hoping Noriko would agree to help him without calling in the cavalry. With Christina glued to her brother’s arm Ulf had higher hopes Noriko might agree to it. If not, he’d play the lovesick boy to convince her she really couldn’t get Christina involved; not that it required any acting from his side. Watching Christina with Ryu made him want to throw up.

As it turned out Noriko was more than willing to help.

Two days later, after three grossly overpaid work sessions, Ulf walked Noriko to exactly the kind of restaurant he had ruled out on that first date with Christina almost a year earlier. If money was easy to get by, it was harder to spend now when he no longer had Christina to enjoy his time with.

When he met Noriko she gave him an amused smile. “You do understand this looks bad?” she said instead of greeting him.

Ulf did, and he didn’t care. He grabbed her in a bear hug and swung her around. She was the first of his friends he’d talked to since he fled Tokyo astride his bike.

Down! Down this moment!” she said, but she didn’t push him away.

Ulf let her down anyway. “Sorry about that. Just that I really missed you guys.”

Idiot bro and ex girlfriend as well?” Noriko said and twisted the knife.

Ulf didn’t take that bait. Whenever he got into bantering with Noriko he couldn’t be sure he’d end up on top. She was just too bright.

Feeling a little morose he escorted her into the restaurant, where they were led to their table.

Christina’s tailor-made suit from last summer guaranteed no one questioned his right to dine here. Noriko’s choice of clothes only strengthened that impression.

Forgot you were always the rich kids. Does you honour you never flaunt it to the other students.

For a moment Ulf harboured the idea to order an excellent wine to go with their dinner, but he quickly abandoned that thought. First of all he had no idea what normal amounts of alcohol would do to his teenage body. What binging did he knew from that horrid evening in the Stockholm Haven café after he witnessed the suicide.

More importantly, he just didn’t think it would be worth it in terms of taste. Wine was an acquired taste from his mid twenties during his previous life.

I apologise,” Noriko said from across the table.

Ulf realised she read his silence as a reaction to her barb earlier. “No, I’m the one to apologise. You’re a good friend and make splendid company, and I treat you with silence.”

She smiled. “You know,” she began. “I’m together with Nao, and for that reason I’d appreciate if you treated me like a woman and not like your daughter.” She didn’t say: ‘Because Nao already does’, but Ulf didn’t need her to. Noriko had grown in her relationship, and she deserved being treated like someone with her own wishes and goals.

I’ll try,” Ulf said. Then he grinned. “I won’t promise I’ll succeed, but I’ll do my best.” That had to suffice. She was still very much a child in his eyes; a very bright child, and one he wouldn’t have minded courting had he both truly been a teenager as well as one who hadn’t been as tongue tied as he remembered from those days.

You wanted to ask something,” Ulf said when their starter had arrived. It tasted just as deliciously as he remembered.

Noriko swallowed her food and looked up from her plate. Ulf could see how she was both used to eating out like this, and still very much a child, but he pretended not to notice.

It ties in with my request earlier,” she said. “I need to understand what’s happening. I want a reason I can accept as to why Kuri would do this to you, and Ryu to Ai-chan.”

Ulf shook his head. He didn’t know. Growing up didn’t make you omniscient. “I can’t say for certain, but in Ryu’s case I believe it’s a matter of moving on.”

But he hurt Ai-chan!” Noriko’s eyes showed pain at the betrayal of her brother.

Did he really? Yes, he probably did. “Who broke up?” Ulf asked. He’d been away, and answering questions with insufficient data was a common source for errors. Insufficient data, ha, trying to behave like the great CEO. Cut crap! Here you’re a school-kid.

I, I don’t know,” Noriko said between two mouthfuls. “You think Ai-chan might have broken up with bro?” She put her fork to rest on her plate and waited for him to answer.

As I said, I don’t know. I just try to avoid speculating too much.”

The waiter arrived with two glasses of what looked suspiciously like white wine.

Midway through the starter, and they suddenly serve wine? Ulf looked up and gave the waiter a long look.

Watered wine, sir. It’s very weak. Courtesy of the kitchen.”

Ulf nodded and accepted the gift. Then he took a sip. It was heavily watered down, or rather mixed with something very close to water. While he could taste the dryness there was very little alcohol left.

You should try it,” he said to Noriko. “It’s good.” It was time for the reason he had asked her here. “Tomorrow, would you mind being my date for a day?”

Date?” she asked and sent him a quizzical glance. “Are you cheating on...”

We already broke up,” Ulf interrupted, “and I’m not asking you to cheat on Nao. It’s strictly business, and besides we have school tomorrow.” And this is where you differ from the other school girls? Ulf thought. You’re already able to understand this is a business dinner and not a date.

He shot Noriko a long look. In some ways you’re older than your years.

Noriko gave him another glance filled with questions, but in the end she nodded.

Their date did indeed take place at school. Ulf had planned it this way. For everyone else it would look like him taking petty revenge on Christina, and to a certain degree on Ryu.

Just to mitigate things Ulf called Nao and asked him it he was fine with Ulf borrowing his girlfriend for a day. To Ulf’s surprise Nao had nothing against it. Always a bad sign. Ulf kept that last thought to himself. No need to worry Noriko uselessly.

During lunch break the two of them very publicly left the cafeteria with their food and made their way all the way up to the freshmen floor. To any onlookers it would look like they made a run for the roof.

So, what’s the point with all this?” Noriko wanted to know. Her eyes glinted with an expression that told Ulf she was less than impressed with his plans.

For a moment he thought of saying as little as possible, but that would be unfair. Instead he grabbed her in a way that made it look they were far more intimate than friends to the surprised freshmen peering out from their classrooms.

She gave him a surprised smile but didn’t try to get away. Still, there was no reason for him to tease her needlessly, especially not after what she said during yesterday’s dinner.

New arrivals,” Ulf said as explanation for his behaviour.


I’m gambling on there being new arrivals who start their freshman year now.”

This time she did move away, but Noriko didn’t pull entirely free. What he had just said must have piqued her interest after all. “What? Why?”

Noriko,” Ulf said, still a little too close to her. “I refuse to believe all the shit we’ve been through is normal. The only reason for the infighting would be if there are more arrivals.”

I don’t understand,” Noriko said, and finally she stepped clear from him. “In short words, why?”

If they have reasons to believe arrivals would pop up every year, then the stakes are totally different from the ten years between James and the two of us.” Ulf counted on not needing to specify who the ‘two of us’ were.

Noriko’s response was totally unexpected. “You know, you’re so full of yourself I sometimes want to puke.”

Ulf stared at her, and her face displayed a distaste that matched her words. Cool girl. You’re right you know, but that’s not what I’m talking about. “Maybe, but this is about how important they think we are,” he said. “If I’m full of myself or not isn’t important. Hell, I’d prefer if they didn’t care about us at all. At least I’d have a fair shot at making a life with Christina.”

Bullshit!” Noriko said. “You had it, and you threw it away. You both did.”

That was a statement Ulf didn’t dare comment. It came far too close to what he suspected was the truth. “Just help me round up any new arrivals if we can find them.”

Noriko didn’t say anything, and together they walked the corridor and looked into each of the freshman classrooms in the right wing.

In the third Ulf found what he was looking for.

Noriko, do some shit on the blackboard, please. I’m grabbing that boy,” he said and nodded at a boy sitting close to the door.

You’re not from here. South-Eastern Europe?

Noriko shrugged, a western gesture he had taught the members of the club, and then she entered the classroom. When the students stared at her Ulf entered as well. He beckoned to the boy and had him rise.

New kid here?” Ulf asked when the boy approached the door.

Who are you?”

You tell me,” Ulf said and smiled.

How would I know,” came the unexpected answer in far better Japanese than Ulf had mastered after two years here.

Ulf swore. He himself looked pretty much the same as all the other Japanese students. “I’m from Sweden,” he said in Swedish.

The change in the boy’s face was worth an entrance fee. “Moved here?”

Ulf shook his head. “More like suddenly arrived here. What's your name, kid?” Ulf asked, still in Swedish

Thomas Kanovic,” the freshman answered sullenly.

Kanoviku Tomasu, then I guess?”

Thomas nodded.

OK, let’s see if we have a jackpot or not. “How old are you really?”

Again that face changed. Now it was almost pleading. “What if I say I’m well over forty?”

Yes! “Then I’ll still call you kiddo. Ten years your senior talking to you.” Stockholm accent. Not a trace of anything else. He is born back home.

Thomas’ eyes widened. “What do you want?”

I want you to join our club. It's becoming unofficial, but you'll see me and more who know. Unless you really want to join one of the other clubs.”

Thomas shook his head.

Where are you from?”

Sweden,” came the angry answer. Then Thomas’ face displayed understanding. “Red Rose, eh, Akai...”

Ulf shuddered. “It's OK, Red Rose Hell, I get it.”

It's not really called...”

I went there my first year here as well. Red Rose Hell, wouldn't you agree?” He turned to Noriko who had gone pale. Akai, which was enough for her to understand. Ulf nodded to her in confirmation. Just to make sure, just to make sure.

It was awful.”

So you got a letter of recommendation here I take it. Do you have an education from back home?”

Thomas flared up. “What's with the racism? From you of all people!”


I could pass that joke of an entrance exam while sleeping. I hold a doctorate in Japanese classic literature. I'm… I was a professor at Stockholm University.”

Me and my big mouth! I just love myself. “I apologise. I’m a former CEO from the IT sector. Look, we really need you to join, even if that makes you get into trouble.”


There’s another, my ex. Well, there are more of us, but we can’t talk about it in school, OK? They gather all of us in this school.”

All?” Something broke in Thomas. “Please, could you try to find one Jennifer Cooper! She was with me when things got mad.”

Ulf grinned. Hell yeah! Jackpot! “Stick to Noriko over here. I’ll see if I can find her.”

Ulf hardly finished the sentence before he was out in the corridor and running to check out the other classrooms.

Date and search came to an end faster than Ulf had hoped for. The bell rang for class, and he had to postpone his search to the next day.

Full of apprehension he made the rounds the following lunch break. This time without the company of Noriko. Ulf worried about having to look through the freshman classrooms without Noriko to create a diversion, but in the end searching for Jennifer Cooper took shorter than he had expected. He felt her presence before he even peered inside the classroom. Inside a full three dozen students sat mesmerized by a petite brunette in what was mostly a regulation school uniform.

Funny, I thought he said she was dark blond. Well, it's been a year, and she's the only one here with looks that scream: foreigner!

But that presence! It was almost overwhelming. It would look like he was going to confess, during their second week. Not worth it. I'll ask Christina. Better if they think she's sizing up the newly arrived freshman competition.

Because the brunette definitely represented competition. Not because of her looks. Nothing living in Tokyo could compete with Christina, and she wasn't even fully grown. But that presence! It transformed an already very pretty girl into something totally different. This girl could walk into a dark room and have everyone inside crushing on her without ever having seen her.

She's an arrival, so we want her in the club. But she's trouble walking on two legs. Damn, the guys are going to develop whiplash unless we keep a very, very short distance between her and Christina. Bah, I’ll just greet her anyway.

Jennifer Cooper?” he asked.

She looked up and smiled. “Yes?”

You’re cute, but you’re still no match for my Ina. Every time he thought of Christina something hurt in his chest. Ulf wondered when that pain would go away. Seeing her all over Ryu certainly didn’t help. Or did it? Do I miss her more than I’m angry at her? Is this why she’s doing it?

I have your friend in the other wing. Want to meet him?”

My friend?” For a moment Jennifer looked as if she was at a total loss, but then she grinned and nodded. “Sure,” she said and rose.

Superb.” Ulf took the lead. “Which middle school did they send you to?”

He heard her steps falter behind him and turned.

I went to school in Nagoya before moving here.”

Nagoya? Well, I guess they wanted them separated for a year. The more Ulf thought of the system the more sense it made. Spend one year alone to get used to being a teenager, without any connections to the past to act as crutches. “So, what did you do before you arrived?” Ulf asked.

They were midway though the corridor that connected the wings, and through the windows Ulf saw how the freshmen tried to make themselves comfortable in the outdoor area behind the cafeteria. By now they should have started to understand that sitting indoors was a privilege of the seniors’ and some lucky juniors.

Jennifer?” Ulf asked when she stayed silent.

You mean in Nagoya?”

No, you know what I mean. In Sweden. Your previous life.”

When she stayed silent Ulf turned once again, only to find her several steps behind him. What now? Bad memories?

Jennifer, if you have bad memories from your last life I’m not going to pry. But could you at least tell me how old you were before you arrived in Japan?”

The girl didn’t react, and she didn’t say anything. Two eyes looked back at Ulf with a strangely calculating glint in them. Then finally her mouth opened. “You’re not trying to pull my leg, are you?”

Huh? “Sorry, I didn’t quite follow you there.”

Just as she was about to answer Ulf heard Noriko’s voice calling out to him.

Here,” he said and tried to find her.

She came walking down the corridor from the wing Ulf was trying to lead Jennifer to. “Urufu, you found the other arrival?”

A year does wonders, Ulf thought. Noriko, do you even understand how fantastic it is that you take us for granted? “Yeah, Jennifer, meet Noriko.”

I’m Coperu Jeniferu, pleased to meet you,” Jennifer said.

Ulf shook his head. Jennifer couldn’t know Noriko was used to the western naming conventions by now.

Wakayama Noriko, pleased to meet you.” Then Noriko turned to Ulf. “Tomasu-kun agreed to join the club. He’s waiting to meet her,” Noriko nodded at Jennifer, “in his classroom. Reunite he called it.”

Jennifer, then follow me. As for the club, you have a standing invitation as well,” Ulf said and led the three of them on.

Age, your age?” Jennifer asked from behind his back.

Sixteen here. Fifty two in total,” he answered. “Noriko’s born here, so she’s the sixteen she looks.” Better not give the new arrivals the impression we’re crawling all over the place.

Fifty two. And… no it doesn’t matter.”

Wondering how many we are? At this school, apart from Thomas and you, it’s just Christina and me. She’s part of the club as well.”


Yes, that Christina. The model. She’s a year younger than me, well, same age here, but, you know.”

Jennifer ran up to him and tugged at his sleeve. “Are we talking Kuritina?”

Bloody hell, the Japanese name sticks even to another Swede. “Yeah, but she was born Christina Agerman, so the Kuritina part is just a way to make her name possible to pronounce here.”

They had arrived in the shorter corridor feeding the classrooms in the left wing. Christina’s corridor just a few weeks earlier. It felt strange to walk up to 3:1 when it was no longer her classroom, or Noriko’s for that matter. Ulf glanced down at his other side where she flanked him.


Nothing,” he said. “Jennifer, he’s waiting for you.”

She didn’t move.

Look,” Ulf said, “he’ll be looking a lot younger than you’re used to, and it’s been a year since you saw each other the last time. You just need to get used to it.”

She just shook her head.

Urufu, I’ll fetch him instead,” Noriko said and went inside.

Moments later she returned with Thomas.

Thomas, meet Jennifer. We’ll leave the two of you alone,” he said, and then Ulf felt Noriko pulling at him to give the two freshmen some privacy.



Who are you?” Thomas said. “You’re not Jennifer. I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

Noriko let go of Urufu at Tomasu-kun’s surprising outburst. A little reluctantly, she admitted to herself. Despite her being in love with Nao there were still some lingering feelings for Urufu.

That’s not Jennifer Cooper. Doesn’t matter if she’s fifteen, my Jennifer looks totally different.”

What’s going on? Noriko wondered silently.

At her side Noriko felt Urufu stiffen.

My name is Jennifer Cooper. I never said I knew you. They did,” Coperu-san said and pointed at her and Urufu. Coperu-san until she joined the club. After that she’d become Jeniferu-chan despite being a stranger. Those were club rules.

What?” Urufu said. “You’re Jennifer but she’s not Jennifer?” he continued. Noriko saw him looking from one face to another.

She’s not Jennifer.”

I’m Jennifer!”

You’re not!”

I am.”

Wait, please be silent,” Noriko tried. Then she saw the entire door to 3:1 filled with apprehensive faces. “Let’s continue this somewhere else,” she added.

Her last words had both Coperu-san and Tomasu-kun look at the door to 3:1, and they fell silent. One after another they nodded.

Urufu, cafeteria?”

He shifted his attention from the freshmen to her. “No space left, but maybe under the sails?”

While Noriko doubted they’d have any better luck there, it should be enough to convince the two newcomers to follow them downstairs. With Kareyoshi disrupting the lives of the Himekaizen students, Noriko wanted to stay away from any commotions on the school grounds.

Sure,” she said, making it sound like she agreed with Urufu’s idea. “We buy some grub and take it outdoors.”

As they walked downstairs Coperu-san asked the question Noriko waited for. “Under the sails?”

That’s what we call the sunshades between the wings outside the cafeteria,” Noriko explained.

Won’t that be cold during winter?”

Huh? Only a few sat there after the cultural festival early October, but it was still a strange reflection to make. “Yes, why?” Noriko asked, fishing for more information.

Coperu-san smiled. “I was thinking of all the snow and that.”

Snow? Then an idea struck Noriko. “Do you have a lot of snow where you come from?” she tried.

They were almost at the cafeteria entrance before Coperu-san answered that question. Amidst the low thunder of conversations among the tables came the tell-tale question. “It snows less here than in New England?”

Noriko didn’t know much about New England, but the question in itself suggested Coperu-san had moved here recently rather than having spent one year in middle school like Urufu and Kuri, or Tomasu-kun for that matter. Is she even from the same world as Urufu and Kuri, and Tomasu-kun for that matter. “How old are you?” Noriko asked, just to test her suspicion.

There was just a little hesitation, just a little, but there should have been none, or a very long one.


Subjective or objective?” Noriko asked. She didn’t understand herself from where that question came.

A few steps below her she saw Urufu stiffen and turn to stare at her. So you heard, didn’t you? Don’t you know it’s impolite to eavesdrop? Noriko shot him her best smile, hoping it didn’t come out too much like a smirk. While she wasn’t oblivious enough to fail understanding she was seen as cute, Noriko also knew she had nothing on Kuri. The only times anyone had called her smile beautiful was when she was taken by surprise. Only Kuri could deliver a devastating smile on demand.

What do you mean?” Coperu-san said as they landed on the entrance floor.

Noriko pulled her aside and stared into the eyes of the girl, because by now she was dead certain it was really just a girl. “If you can’t answer that question you shouldn’t even be here.”

In return she only got a hostile glare. “I’m fifteen. Not fifteen and forty, or whatever. So what? Don’t you think you should try to make friends with me now when I know about you?”

Is she threatening me? Noriko was on the verge of retorting when she thought the better of it, and instead she just dragged the freshman foreigner to the cafeteria queue. She had just caught up with Urufu, who flashed her a naughty grin and shook his head when two things happened at the same time.

Her idiot brother sailed into view with Kuri on his arms, and Urufu’s grin was gone in an instant.

Noriko’s phone came alive, and she took it out of her blazer pocket and clicked open Nao’s line message.

Hours later she still couldn’t believe it, hours she spent with Kuri and Kyoko who rushed to join them. But that was hours later.

Noriko just had time to see how the joyful flare went out in Urufu’s eyes before she saw what Nao had written.

Slept with one of the models. Maybe we should break up.”

A brittle sound of metal and glass echoed from her feet and spread out in the cafeteria until it died, soaked up by juniors and seniors who didn’t even notice how her new school year shattered in a moment. Only a few noticed that something had happened, but they stared at her feet, just like she did.

Nao cheated on me?

Faint gusts of wind reached her whenever someone opened the doors to the back of the cafeteria.

Nao cheated on me?

The sound of running feet reached her ears. Maybe someone had noticed that something was wrong with her.

But I love him.

Noriko, what’s wrong? Is there anything...” Urufu’s voice.

Not you. I’ll handle this. Ryu, Ulf needs your help.” Kuri’s voice. “Pick up her phone!”

It hurts. It hurts so much!

Suddenly slender arms wrapped around her, and Noriko felt how she was dragged out of the cafeteria to the shoe lockers.

How can it hurt this much? Her phone was gone. Maybe she had forgotten it back home, but then how could she hurt like this? Come on Noriko. There has to be a sensible reason to this. You just need to figure it out. Because that was what she did. Figure out sensible reasons.

I don’t feel too well. I’m going home,” Noriko said as she pulled her loafers from her locker.

She was halfway across the school yard before she noticed how wet her face was, as if it rained. A salty rain.

Ryu stared after Kuri when she dragged his sister out of the cafeteria. Then Kuri’s parting words reached him, and he looked down just in time to see Urufu pick up a broken phone from the floor.

What was that about?

Urufu, give that to me. I’ll hand it over to sis later.”

Shut up! Don’t you think you’ve done enough damage already?”

And what was that about? On the verge of flaring up Ryu got control over himself. He’s jealous, and hurt. Damn I’d be if I saw Kuri all over someone else like this.

She said you needed help,” he said instead.

You’re in love with her, but you got turned down?”

Ryu looked at the girl who asked the question. A foreigner. European or from North America. Her uniform spoke of a freshman, all shiny and new, including the tell tale ribbon, colour coded for each year.

None of your business,” Urufu barked in return.

So you can sound like this. How cute.” Then the girl turned her attention to Ryu. “And who are you?”

Trying to play cute are you? “I’m Wakayama Ryu,” he said. “I have something of a reputation here,” he continued and turned on his best smile. A few girls further back in the queue blushed and most of them stared at him. I’m way out of your league.

A naughty reputation?” the girl said. “Or a bad one?” she continued, and nuked the cafeteria with a devastating blast of charisma. “Please be kind to me in any case, would you?”

What was that? Ryu staggered backwards. When he got hold of himself he saw how almost everyone in the cafeteria stared at the girl. Quite a few of them had risen from their chairs.

Dammit, just stop that pissing contest, will you?” Urufu growled, and for the first time in over a month Ryu saw a glimmer of a smile in his eyes. “Ryu you lost anyway.”

They made it to the counter and Ryu ordered lunch for the three of them. Behind him Urufu and the foreign girl exchanged insults, and the students next in line gasped from time to time when an insult got extra juicy.

At one time a senior came over to play the knight and save the girl from Urufu, but he just stretched a little and looked down at the third year. Just when things looked like they were going south the girl clung to Urufu.

Hey, I haven’t rejected him. Just told him I need to think about it.”

See, we’re friends,” Urufu said and walked right into the trap.

Ryu grinned and used the moment of surprise to get in between Urufu and the first year. “She’s quite the stunner, isn’t she?” Ryu said and nodded in Urufu’s general direction. “He was so taken in by her he confessed earlier today,” he lied and smiled.

Whoa! I did what?” Urufu protested.

Ryu and the girl gave him an elbow each and Urufu went ‘Oomph’ and shut his trap.

Just who are you? Ryu wondered. Another arrival, like that Tomasu-kun Noriko told me about yesterday? Given the impact Urufu and Kuri had made, the monstrous charisma the new girl displayed maybe wasn’t all that surprising.

So, just how old are you?” he asked her when they made their way outdoors.

Coperu Jeniferu, nice to meet you,” she said instead of answering his question.

Ryu stared at her as she passed him in the doorway, and a few steps ahead of them both Urufu shook his head in exasperation.

Wakayama Ryu,” Ryu offered automatically. His parents hadn’t spent the years raising him to be impolite.

You can call me Jeniferu. I’m not used to go by my last name anyway.”

Ryu followed in her steps. I would have anyway, you know, he thought. Cause Urufu refuses to have it any other way, but you could hardly know that. “I’ll do so, Jeniferu-chan,” he said.

Thank you, Ryu,” she said over her shoulder in a tone that both displayed an exaggerated familiarity as well as a life spent without the use of honorifics.

Looks like the new year is going to be interesting. Ryu grimaced. As if it needed to be any more interesting. Then he got hold of himself and followed Urufu just as Jeniferu-chan caught up to him and clung to his arm. And I don’t believe you’re really interested in him at all, so why the show?

Quite a few of the students sent them greetings, and more than a few gave Urufu ironic salutes filled with sympathy. Kuri dumping him on Valentine’s day was still a popular topic, and Urufu had made more friends than enemies.

What a waste, Ryu thought. He’s not over her at all, and I’m certain Kuri loves him enough to cry when she goes to sleep.

But he’d play the boyfriend still. Kuri asked him to, and for whatever reasons she had, Ryu believed she’d continue to embrace her pain rather than make up with the man she loved. As for himself Kuri’s stupid game helped him get over Ai breaking up with him. She’d become much more dear to him than he ever believed she would.

Nice catch, Hamarugen-san,” someone shouted. A second year, unsurprisingly. To the juniors Urufu was still something of a hero, especially with the sports festival coming up.

Urufu just smiled, and Ryu knew he was just about the only one to see how pained that smile was. Jeniferu-chan clung to his arm and blasted freshmen and juniors alike with her presence.

You’re going to make enemies with the girls if you keep this up, Ryu thought. Still, something told him she was just as eminently suited to handle that kind of problem as Kuri was.

He grinned while they made their way to the empty pool and decided to give his sister a call and tell her about the insanity. Then he recalled that she didn’t have her phone on her, and after that the look in her face when she dropped it.

He called Kuri, only to have his call rejected immediately. Giving it a second thought Ryu decided against trying again and settled down for lunch with Urufu and Jeniferu-chan.

A couple of hours later, after the last period, Ryu found himself on his way to the Haven café, or their clubroom to be more precise. The number of members took a dive after Principal Kareyoshi announced to the entire school that the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange club was disbanded.

It wasn’t. Not after parental outcries and a hastily assembled meeting by the board of directors. An eight percent increase in test results compared to the rest of the student body was hard to argue against, but Ryu was certain Kareyoshi would force the club to close shop one way or another.

Test results, however, was the last on his mind right now. The latest arrival, Jeniferu-chan turned out to be a first class pain in the arse, much more so than Tomasu-kun, who just couldn’t let go of his old academic merits. At the moment Ryu was more afraid of Kuri than anyone else. She’d go livid if she saw how Jeniferu-chan glued herself to Urufu.

What a mess. I’m scared about how my girlfriend is going to react when she finds out about the guy she dumped. Which really meant she wasn’t his girlfriend in the first place.

When Ryu came inside, accompanied by the chiming of the bell, the first thing he saw was a different kind of mess, one he didn’t mind confronting at all. He’d recognise that back anywhere.


His ex jumped up from her chair, and somehow managed to turn mid-air. “Ryu? Why are you here?”

Now that’s a new high-score in stupidity. “Eh, because our clubroom is here, like it’s been since the start of the year.”

I forgot.”

Ryu looked at her and her friends. No you didn’t. You were looking for me. “Wanted something?”

Ai-chan quickly regained her composure, one of the reasons Ryu fell in love with her. “Actually I do. Your sister to yell at. She had me come here, but I never thought she’d stoop to the level where she set us up.”

Noriko? Ryu gave it a thought. Actually she would stoop that low. He grabbed a chair by the table next to Ai-chan and sat down. When James waved a question, Ryu nodded a silent approval. Soon enough his standard order would arrive.

You’re saying you’re unhappy to see me?”

By Ai-chan’s side her best friend looked like she was going to explode. She grabbed her glass of water, and Ryu braced himself, but then the girl thought better of it and put it down again. A clatter of kitchenware from behind Ai-chan told Ryu the other friend was burning with ire as well.

No, I’d never do that,” she said.

Because this is not about what you want, is it?” Suddenly irritated Ryu felt the need to be mean. “Just for the record I still love you. Very much,” he added when he saw Ai-chan stare at him, mouth wide open, while she blushed furiously.

This time the clatter was replaces by the sound of a fork being slammed to the plate. “If you love her so much, then why did you dump her?”

Dump her? Ryu glared at Ai-chan. I didn’t think you were the kind to lie.

He didn’t. I broke up with him.”

Is what you’re saying, but let’s hear it from him as well.”

Oh, so you didn’t lie about it after all. “Like Ai-chan says. We agreed to break up, but she took the initiative.” Hearing her defend him warmed him somewhat. “Why are you here?” Time to change topic. This one still hurts.

Ai-chan looked down at her shoes while she dangled her feet.


Your sister called me here.”

James arrived with coffee and cake; Ryu’s standard order, but in the beginning something Urufu ordered by chance.

Noriko?” Ryu said and sipped his coffee. As usual a superb blend. James might cheat on interior and exterior design, but what he served was first class. “How so?” Ryu continued when Ai-chan didn’t answer.

I think it’s about you, or me, or us.” Ai-chan fidgeted a little until she finally looked up and met Ryu’s eyes. “She thinks you dumped me for another girl.”

With a bit of cake in his mouth Ryu mulled over Ai-chan’s explanation. “You know what, the part about another girl is true.”

As expected both of Ai-chan’s friends growled angrily.

Wait,” Ai-chan said. “Ryu’s not like that. Explain.”

He still saw the hurt in her eyes. “Kuri saw us that day.” So now you dropped the honorifics. I wish you had done so earlier. Ryu looked at the girl he still loved. Kuri, Urufu, I’ll kick your butts to kingdom come. What a mess!

She’s hurting. She loves Urufu maybe even stronger than I love you,” Ryu began. There was no maybe in that, but he had no reason to hurt Ai-chan. An adult’s love wasn’t flimsy in the way of a teenager’s, that much he understood. “Kuri saw us and asked me if it was a new beginning or an end.”

Ai-chan bit her lips but said nothing.

And then you just got yourself a new girlfriend?” Ai-chan’s best friend, and she showed signs of losing her control altogether.

Please, listen to him!”

She needed a cover, a convenient lie, for her work,” Ryu continued. “Two people in love with someone else they can’t have, she said.”

Ryu,” Ai-chan said. Her voice was very small. “Do you really love me?”

He looked at her, and then he looked inside himself. “I do, but I’ll never keep my girlfriend a secret, just as I told you that day.” Knowing that she’d need time to process that Ryu drank some more of his coffee. Still hot but no longer scalding. Make of that what you want.

Ai?” That was the girl hidden behind Ai-chan.

The question made her flinch. Ryu watched her looking down, just to turn around and face her friends.

So you didn’t tell them everything?

It’s my dad. Ryu did nothing wrong.”

Ai, if he loves you and you love him, then why...”

It’s not that simple!”

You know, Ai, Ryu thought for himself, and dropped the honorific, even if only silently, it really is that simple.

He looked at her as she explained what had happened, and then Ryu’s thoughts went to his sister. I wonder what happened, but this sure is a shitty way to start a new year.


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