As the sports festival drew near each class had to pick a representative. Ryu dodged that bullet and left it to their class representative, thinking that if Urufu had done such a damn good job at it during the cultural festival and loved the limelight so much, he could run this event as well.
Come lunch Ryu met up with his sister in the cafeteria, and she immediately confronted him with the question if he had joined the committee or not.
He stared down at his sister and grinned. “No. That hero of ours can do it himself this time, don’t you agree?”
Between an admiring sigh from a girl returning with her food from the counter, and an angry glare from Noriko, Ryu felt the wave of charisma that announced Jeniferu’s arrival.
The collective gasp of adoration didn’t belong to her fans though. For once Kuri decided to have her lunch in the cafeteria as well, and watching her enter Ryu understood why she drew the attention of students from all three years.
If she had been beautiful during her first year it still lacked in comparison. She looked the same as last year and yet not. He did recall her saying she’d come into the full bloom of her beauty the year she was seventeen, but until now he hadn’t believed it.
“What’s with you Ryu?”
Ryu met his sister’s eyes. “What’s with me? Nothing.”
“Have you become so small a man that taking his girl isn’t enough. You’d belittle his achievements as well?” Noriko drew breath for a second round. “Right now you disgust me.” With those words she took a firm grip of her food and left him. Just before she headed for the exit to the area under the sails Noriko turned and glared behind him. “Kuri, teach him some manners, or I won’t forgive you!”
Ryu stared after the receding backside of his sister’s until he felt Kuri grab his arm.
“What was that about?” Kuri asked.
“I honestly don’t know,” Ryu answered.
Kuri glared at him, very much like Noriko had done just moments earlier. “You know, I think your sister can be a bitchy brat, but lying doesn’t become you.”
For someone with her beauty Kuri sure had a razor tongue. “Sorry, I know why she’s angry, but not why she’s angry.”
With her food in her hands Kuri led them to a table where those seated quickly made place for the two of them.
Ryu followed her knowing she’d make him explain that better. What he just said didn’t even make sense to himself. As he sat down he got one flirty and one shy smile from the girls at the table. The boys just glared at him. Ryu smiled when he noticed it was the other way around for Kuri.
“Care to explain,” she said when they said down, just as he had expected.
Ryu flashed his best smile to the shy one and winked at the other. “I understand she’s angry because I don’t share her hero worship of Urufu,” Ryu began. He still exchanged polite looks with the flirt, well aware Kuri wouldn’t care in the least, but at least she’d take less flak if he interacted with other girls in a way that told them Kuri didn’t monopolise him fully. “I just don’t see what right sis has to be angry.”
Kuri looked down at the table and mumbled something.
“Sorry?” Ryu said. He hadn’t heard a word.
“You were the one with a hero worship,” she said. “Noriko was always the more sober of you two.”
I was? Ryu scrutinised his memories. Maybe he had been. He took a bite of his rather tasteless lunch. “Maybe last year,” he said before the silence drew attention from the other at their table.
Kuri mumbled some more.
“You were saying?”
“It isn’t hero worship,” she said.
“Noriko doesn’t worship him, you now.”
“She’s perfectly aware of his flaws, or at least as aware as a kid can be.”
“You know,” Ryu said and looked at Kuri. “I’d appreciate if you didn’t call us kids. Makes being your boyfriend look bad.”
Kuri blanched but returned his stare. “Sorry, my bad.”
“And?” Ryu asked when Kuri didn’t finish what she had started to say.
“She’s in love with him. I didn’t see it before, but I think she never fell out of love.”
“Huh?” What the hell? “But she dated Nao-sempai until he cheated on her.”
Kuri bit her lips. “I wonder.”
Ryu didn’t say anything. He just met her eyes and waited for her to finish.
“I wonder about why he cheated on her. Maybe he saw what I didn’t.” Kuri’s voice was barely audible at the end.
Oh! I understand! “Just like how you’re still in love with Urufu?”
Kuri didn’t say anything.
“You know, I don’t really mind. We’re dating and we’ll just see how it pans out.” Ryu spoke a little faster than he thought. Kuri was clearly in distress, and even though he wasn’t exactly in love with her, Ryu still cared enough for her to react when she felt unwell. “So you don’t have to feel guilty about...” Aww, shit! So that was what she meant. He fell silent and palmed his face.
Through his fingers he saw Kuri’s eyes. A bit too shiny, and with a tinge of red in the whites. Damn it Urufu. I’ll beat you senseless!
“So you noticed as well?”
Ryu had, but he hadn’t understood what he noticed. “I’m sorry. I’ll talk with her.”
“Please don’t! I’m jealous but it’s not really Noriko’s fault, and I don’t even have the right, but...”
“… but Urufu should have shrugged her off.” It all fell into place. This time Urufu didn’t mind Noriko clinging to him.
Damn it sis! He’s older than our father. So was Kuri, but that was a thought Ryu rather avoided, and besides, it was different.
Noriko suddenly clinging to him felt awkward as hell. After all he was old enough to be her father, by a wide margin, and Ulf really didn’t feel up to her childish games of seduction. The only thing that kept him from pushing her away was his knowledge of how much Nao’s betrayal must have hurt.
And then there was the stunning truth.
Ulf needed to talk with her about that, preferably after the sports festival meeting, and talking was what he was doing right now.
Not with Noriko, and definitely not about her love life.
“So you’re saying in order to be on the committee you have to be a Japanese citizen?”
“Well, young man, it is a Japanese festival after all,” Principal Kareyoshi said.
Ulf shook his head. They were in the principal’s office, him, one Korean girl and the entire student council.
“Principal, your reasoning is so flawed I’m astounded you’re capable of sitting upright and talking simultaneously,” Ulf said.
The Korean girl stared at him, mouth agape, and Ulf heard gasps from two or more members of he student council behind him.
“Kouhai, show respect to your elders!”
Ulf turned and looked at the student council president. Maybe it was a bad idea not running for president last autumn after all. “Look,” Ulf said and lazily pointed a thumb over his shoulder at Kareyoshi, “the shit-head behind me isn’t my elder. He’s a living specimen of the missing link.”
“Outrageous! Just what I’d expect from a foreigner,” Kareyoshi first roared and then whined.
“Fine, I’m off the committee.”
“I’ll have you expelled for this!”
“Shut your trap piss ant! When you’re spewing threats, at least make sure you can go through with them,” Ulf said. He loaded his face with his most arrogant smirk.
“Get out!” Kareyoshi roared.
Ulf obliged. He deliberately left the door open as he left. “Don’t shit yourself!” he said as he walked down the corridor to his classroom. There would be another week’s worth of suspension for this, but with the moronic handling of arrivals he was guaranteed to leave Himekaizen after three years and with passing grades to boot.
They really should do something about arseholes like me. This system is thoroughly broken.
He’d fill that week with training, some serious studying and a fair amount of work.
Almost at his classroom he changed his mind and stopped by Noriko’s class. With him booted out of the planning committee there’d be no time to have that chat with her, and besides she deserved to know that she could no longer rely on him when it came to handle the kind of show stoppers that always showed up during any larger event.
Ulf slid open the door and peered inside. A few surprised faces looked at him, but he was well known enough for someone to quickly guess his errand here.
“Wakayama-san, your boyfriend is here looking for you.”
Ulf glanced at the grinning girl who had called out to Noriko. Idiot girl, that show of yours earlier didn’t help at all.
“Not my boyfriend,” Noriko replied. “Urufu, what’s up?”
“Kareyoshi forced the student council to kick me out of the planning committee. You’re on your own.”
Noriko rose from her chair. “He what? Why?”
Her voice was accompanied by surprised whispers commenting Ulf’s announcement.
Ulf looked at her as she made her way between desks all the way to him. “He didn’t tell, but it had something to do with Japanese purity and all that.”
He saw her lips stretch into a thin line. “You didn’t say anything stupid, did you?” she said when she arrived by the doors.
“Afraid I did. Told him he had the intelligence of an ape. Forgot to apologise to the apes.”
Ulf grinned. Noriko was kind of cute when she was angry, and despite being a kid she had the capacity to verbally bite his head off. He knew he was in for a serious serving, so he invited her to take a walk outdoors. The rest of her class didn’t need to listen to exactly in what way he failed to be a decent human being.
They took the stairs down, passed the cafeteria and headed for the shoe lockers. There Ulf was caught up by his home room teacher who came walking from the other corridor.
Ulf picked up his loafers and put his indoor shoes in the locker. “Yes?” he said and closed it.
“You’re wanted in the principal’s office.”
“To apologise for your inexcusable behaviour, you idiot!”
Ulf met the eyes of his teacher. The man was a decent person and a fairly good teacher. A bit weak in character and prone to obeying any order from above. “I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”
By his side Noriko fidgeted. While her character was superb Ulf still understood why she felt uncomfortable with him defying a teacher.
“Sensei, I was elected by our class to represent us as a member of the planning committee. The idiot in charge of the school had me kicked out because of my nationality.” Ulf had no reason to be rude to his teacher, but apologising to Kareyoshi was an event occurring when hell froze over.
“He’s still the principal. You’ll get suspended. You know that?”
Ulf nodded. “Please send the suspension note to my home. I’ll regard your coming down here as notice that my suspension is in immediate effect, sensei.”
Somehow Ulf was surprised his teacher wasn’t angrier.
“So be it.” Just as the teacher was about to return he stopped. “The former principal spoke well of you. I honestly don’t understand why, but I’ve always trusted his judgement in people.”
Noriko gasped, and Ulf took hold of her hand to avoid a scene. He was as shocked as she. You bloody just told me you think Kareyoshi is a swine. “Thank you, sensei,” Ulf said and made for the exit with Noriko in tow. None of them had anything to gain from staying here. They had both stated what needed to be said, and Ulf only wanted to leave the school grounds behind him.
“Noriko, we need to talk,” Ulf said as they hit the gravel. “I had a talk with Nao earlier today, and something came up.”
“He lied?” A few sentences earlier Urufu had shaken her world, and Noriko decided that this was one of the very few occasions that merited skipping class.
Urufu nodded and kicked at a stone on the pavement.
The day was pleasantly warm, and something in the air held a promise of the summer that was to come.
“Noriko, dinner, my treat?”
“Sure,” Noriko answered numbly. “He lied?”
“My place?” Urufu asked. “We could stop at some places I know and I’ll buy what’s needed.” He grinned. “I’ll even cook it for you.”
“Yeah, fine,” Noriko said. He lied? Then, slowly, very slowly, their minuscule conversation finally registered in her brain. “Eh? What about your mum?”
“Working I guess. Not at home anyway, so she won’t disturb us.”
Won’t disturb us. You insensitive moron! Then Noriko admitted she was being unfair. I’m in love with you all over again, and you just invited me to spend the afternoon alone with you at your home. But there was one problem. Urufu should have absolutely no idea about how she felt this time. For one she was a year older, with the recent memory of being betrayed clear in her mind.
He lied? She surprised herself by thinking of what Urufu had said earlier rather than being shocked by his outrageous proposal.
“I know it can be hard to take in. Anyway, we’ll talk about it over dinner. It’s the kind of topic that doesn’t go well with an empty stomach.”
Urufu stared up at the sky and shrugged. Then he slouched a little, the way he only did when he was troubled. Noriko had learned his expressions by heart last summer.
She slowed her steps and allowed him to get a little ahead. Watching his back she noticed how he had become a little more solid over the year, but there was also something forlorn in how he moved. I wonder if Kuri will ever stop hurting in you. Why, why did you have to break up when you love each other so much? The thought saddened her. Being in love with him didn’t matter. She preferred the Urufu who was madly in love with Kuri to the broken man who walked ahead of her.
Do I keep him in the dark or not? It only made sense Urufu still believed her being broken hearted over Nao. Especially as in a way she still was. Love was strange that way. Another strange thought, and one that told her she had matured the last year.
“Urufu, we’ll have that dinner on one condition,” Noriko said and rushed to his side.
He hadn’t even noticed how she fell behind.
“We’ll talk about me, but you have to promise we talk about you as well.”
“Yes, you, Hamarugen Urufu,” Noriko said. He could be infuriatingly dense sometimes, but for her that had become one of his endearing sides, one that kept him as an important friend in her heart when she tried to cope with Kuri stealing him in front of her eyes.
“Not much of a topic,” he murmured. He probably thought she hadn’t caught up on that.
That part of him, his way of belittling himself when he was hurt, wasn’t endearing at all. Noriko thoroughly hated it. “Shut up, you oaf! Don’t you think that’s for me to decide?” Crap, that’s a little too close to a confession!
Urufu was an adult after all, or at least an adult to some peculiar degree Noriko didn’t fully understand. Despite being an insensitive moron all too often, he still picked up things by merit of experience.
Instead he shrugged. “Sorry,” he said. “Sure, we’ll talk about me as well.”
You could at least pretend to be interested. Noriko muttered silently and swore under her breath.
“Pardon?” Urufu said.
“Nothing,” Noriko replied.
“I don’t play with myself that way,” Urufu said.
Noriko cringed and blushed. So much for him not listening to me. That was the obnoxious part of Urufu. She never knew when he paid attention or not. It didn’t really show in his face.
“You’ll miss out on the sports festival,” Noriko said to change the subject.
Urufu didn’t answer. He just took a few more steps and muttered under his breath.
Fighting the urge to grab his arm Noriko followed in his footsteps. They passed the Stockholm Haven café and continued to the train station. Urufu’s bike still stood locked at the school.
Just as they boarded a train Noriko’s phone came alive.
Ryu? “Yes, what is it?”
“Where are you? Your home room teacher came to our classroom looking for you.”
Noriko watched Urufu, who pretended not to listen to her call. “Train. Can’t you hear that?”
“Train, what the hell? You have class right now.”
You don’t have to tell me that. She moved a little closer to Urufu on the seat. “Skipping. You’ve done that before.” Noriko tried not to notice the admonishing glances both of them received from other passengers. By this time of the day none of them had any business riding a train.
“You’re with Urufu, aren’t you?”
There was no point denying that. “Yeah, so what?”
“You should stay away from him.”
Noriko moved the phone from her head and stared at it in her hand. You have some nerve! “I’ve had it with your hypocrisy,” she said into the phone and killed the call.
When she pocketed her phone she saw Urufu glance in her direction.
“Idiot bro,” Noriko explained. As if she had to explain anything. Urufu just got himself suspended for the second time in short time. If anyone had something to explain it was he.
“We’re getting off three stations from here,” Urufu said with a voice that made it clear he wasn’t going to inquire any deeper.
“Shopping?” Noriko asked. She knew they were, but anything to change the subject again.
Urufu nodded and dug up his own phone. “Just checking the route from the station. Hang on.”
Noriko leaned back in the seat and waited for him to finish. Later that evening she’d get her face handed to her by her parents, but that was later. For now she intended to enjoy skipping school for the first time in her life.
Urufu knew of the strangest places, and he bought the strangest things. All of it food after a fashion. Most of what he shopped for their dinner she knew of, or at least had heard of. Some of it, however, Noriko saw for the first time in her life that afternoon.
What’s he planning to cook? she wondered when she sat waiting in the small living room while Urufu made himself busy in the kitchenette.
Noriko decided that wasn’t a question worth pursuing. Sooner or later she’d know anyway.
Bookcases lined one wall, and her eyes were drawn to it. She saw a strange mix of children’s books and literature aimed at young teenagers. Why Urufu wanted to read that kind of books was beyond her, especially when she realised an entire bookcase held English literature only.
With a book picked at random in her hand she stared at it. It was heavy, and most definitely not fiction. A Change to Learn, by some author she had never heard of before. With renewed interest she picked another title. Iterative Processes: A Second Chance, and once again an unknown author.
How could I forget he’s grown up after all. She slipped the books back and looked at a few more titles. Organisational processes, accelerated quality management, responsive human resources decision making, and on and on. Most of it was beyond her grasp of understanding, but Noriko’s respect for Urufu grew another notch.
There’s a lot of effort behind your ad-hoc solutions. She stared at his backside. Funny how I was immediately drawn to you. You were nothing but a trouble maker. Hero worship maybe. He had saved her after all, but Noriko knew it was something more profound than that. Had it been only worship of her knight in shining armour she wouldn’t have fallen in love with him again last year when he pretended to be a geek. But you really are one, aren’t you?
Noriko’s eyes left Urufu’s back and wandered across the bookcases again. No, not a geek, but a professional? Or is that the same thing? Heading towards the adult world wasn’t the same as being part of it, and there were aspects of it she still didn’t understand.
“You’re silent,” Urufu suddenly said and turned. He gazed at her with an open question in his eyes.
Noriko smirked. “A little uncomfortable being alone with you here,” she admitted. It was at least a part of the truth. The thoughts foremost in her mind she kept to herself.
“Why? I know it’s smaller than you’re used to, but I thought you’d feel better without anyone listening in on our conversation.”
Urufu, you! “Thank you for the consideration,” she said and decided it wasn’t worth explaining anything. Another adult thing? Have you forgotten what it was like to be a teenager?
Noriko looked at the man trapped in a boy’s body. Do you feel trapped? I think you do, and I believe you are.
When Urufu gave her an uncertain smile Noriko felt her heart jump. Those eyes, and that smile! But I prefer your grin. In truth she longed for it; that wolfish grin filled with so much mischief and raw happiness.
I need to understand your anger. Because Noriko didn’t believe Urufu really was a violent man, or even an angry one. She recalled listening to him explain how he really was a teenager to a degree, and how he reacted like a kid even though he thought like a man.
But these days you just react. It’s like you’ve stopped thinking.
“How are things with Kuri?” Noriko asked. She deliberately picked the most sensitive of topics.
By the stove Urufu flinched, but apart from that there was no reaction. “Strange you should ask now. She broke up with me in February, remember?”
Noriko walked along the bookcases and sat down in what had to be Urufu’s chair. An ultra ergonomic monster that must have cost a fortune. “You broke up with each other to be honest.” It wasn’t comfortable at all.
For a moment, just for a moment, colour rose to Urufu’s face, but Noriko saw how he fought his emotions down.
“I lost her anyway.”
Noriko waited for him to finish stirring a sauce.
“So why are you so angry now? Why didn’t you flare up in rage back then?” Because that was what Noriko genuinely couldn’t understand.
“You don’t… no my bad. I was the one who didn’t understand.” Urufu’s hand stroked a chin that had yet to grow any beard. It was the kind of gesture you’d expect from a middle aged man. “Back then, when I still didn’t know any Japanese. I was angry then as well.”
Suddenly a picture of a tall boy with raging eyes and flaming, spiky hair popped into Noriko’s mind. Her rescuer. The boy she gave her first love, even if it was only a one-sided crush. Yeah, you were angry back then as well. “Explain!” she said, even though she guessed.
“I was desperate to make it back home. I lost my wife and my kids. Then...” Urufu’s face mirrored two years’ worth of memories. “Then I believe I gave up, and that made me angry. So I dyed my hair and behaved like some kind of hooligan.” His face broke into an embarrassed grin, almost but not fully the grin Noriko wanted to see more than anything else.
So it was like that after all. He’s angry with himself and blows up at any nearby target. “You did the same when you were young? I mean the first time?”
Carrying a pot in his hands Urufu walked to the table and set it down. “No,” he said when he stood upright again. “I didn’t dare back then. I was shy with girls, clumsy and had just found out I had an easy time making friends despite my shyness.”
Shy? You? Noriko stared after Urufu’s receding back as he went back to the kitchenette. “I don’t understand.”
“I made a lot of friends during university. Even became kind of popular. So I got a lot of self confidence, and that has stayed with me ever since.” He collected a couple of plates and a pair of glasses. “Back then being impotent didn’t scare me the way it does now. I’ve grown used to being in control, I guess.”
Urufu placed plates and glasses on the table. “Thank you for asking those questions,” he said. “They’ve helped me understand more than anything else. You’re a wonderful friend.”
Something caught in Noriko’s throat and she barely stopped herself before she rushed up to hug him.
Talking about himself felt a lot less uncomfortable than Ulf had feared.
Even though he really wasn’t the kind of person to open up his heart to anyone, not even to his wife during their long years of marriage, being with Christina forced him to accept the need to talk things over. In the end, however, he never said the words most important to her.
Amaya still hadn’t forgiven him for that. Criminal stupidity she said whenever the topic surfaced.
But right now she was out doing whatever a black ops agent did.
“Well,” Ulf said after he swallowed a mouthful, “what do you think?”
Noriko looked up from her food and faced him. “It’s better than your midsummer’s food.” Then her face lit up in a childish grin.
Ulf frowned, but in the end he swallowed the joke. Midsummer had been a disaster, only partially saved by Christina. He put fork and knife on his plate and smiled. “Thank you for your kind words.” He lifted his glass with sparkling water and toasted ironically. “That’s nine months of progress for you.”
“It’s good,” Noriko murmured. “A bit unfamiliar, but good.”
A bit unfamiliar. You’re funny, you know. Ulf watched Noriko gobble down another bit of almost raw fillet of beef.
“It’s the way we eat meat back home.” At least it is if you can afford burning the money. He didn’t say the last part aloud. Even though Ulf had grown fond of the Japanese way with thin slices of meat, sometimes he just wanted the thick slabs he’d grown up with. “The civilised version of the barbecue last summer.”
He coughed. Fillet of beef wasn’t exactly what he had grown up with, but thick slabs at least.
“Did I do anything wrong?”
Ulf looked at Noriko. A bit late he recalled that her background was one where appearances must be important.
“No, just a memory,” he said.
“It’s unfair, you know. Having all those memories and you’re still a teenager.”
“Again,” Ulf added. “Anyway, enough about me. You promised you’d hear me out about your situation.”
Noriko nodded glumly. Something in her eyes told Ulf she wasn’t anywhere near as desperate for the news he had, and that made him a little confused.
“Go on. I’m listening.”
Ulf poured himself another glass of water. “You know,” he said and sipped some, “I spoke with Nao earlier.”
Noriko looked down at her plate, but from what Ulf could see she did at least listen while she ate.
“He never slept with another girl. I doubt he as much as kissed or hugged one, well other than you.”
Ulf looked at Noriko’s head. Her face barely showed beneath her bangs.
“He said something strange about it was better if he looked like an arsehole before you dumped him anyway. Know what that would mean?”
Noriko didn’t answer. She just stared at her food while she slowly ate.
Talking to the top of someone’s head wasn’t Ulf’s idea of a conversation, so he leaned his elbows on the table and tried looking up under her hair.
With a jerk Noriko’s body rose and she backed away in her chair.
Ulf looked up, chin still cradled in his hands. Her reaction was a little more than he had expected. To top it off her face was beet red.
“You know, you’re being pretty impolite to me staring at the table like that when we’re talking.” With a sigh he leaned back in his chair and attacked his food again. Deep fried potatoes tasted better while still hot. Or rather while I’m talking. This isn’t a conversation at all.
“I didn’t mean to.” Noriko till leaned back in her chair, and she was flustered to a degree that Ulf’s teasing didn’t merit.
But I’ve just lived here for two years. Sweden is different. “Sorry, I forgot I tend to get too physical. I apologise.” He did feel remorse. Nao’s surprising non-betrayal was a topic that deserved Ulf behaving like an adult.
Noriko’s reaction was just about the last Ulf had expected. He knew he was a clumsy oaf more often than not, and an insensitive one at that, but what he had just done shouldn’t bring tears to her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I really am,” he said. “I never meant to offend you. I’ll keep my distance.”
And that brought even more tears.
I’m an idiot! Hearing the news about Nao like this, and then I drag her to my home and play pranks on her. I’m the arsehole here!
“Noriko, sorry.” Ulf rose from his char and walked around the table. Then he remembered his promise and backed away. He stood showing her both his palms to prove that he wouldn’t do anything stupid. “I’ll just stay over here.”
He looked at her sitting in her chair, half turned his way with tears brimming in her eyes.
How did it turn out this way?
Ulf backed into a book case to give her more room.
“You’re an idiot!”
Well I already know that.
Noriko put fork and knife on her plate.
Maybe I should move away a bit more.
She took a step towards him.
Ulf tried backing into the book case.
“How blind can a man be?”
She took another step.
There was no more room in the book case, so Ulf frantically tried to think of a way to disappear.
She took yet another one.
Then Noriko suddenly moved forward and threw her arms around him.
She was surprisingly strong.
I don’t care any longer.
Noriko never planned on doing this. A year earlier she wouldn’t have dared, but a lot had happened during that year.
I’m sorry Kuri. She was pretty certain she’d be rejected, but Kuri still had supported her when she broke down after Nao’s a betrayal. A betrayal that it turned out never happened.
She felt Urufu’s hands cover her own, and even though it felt like him caressing her, his fingers soon started to disentangle hers. From how rigid his body went Noriko understood he tried to break free, so before he did that she pressed herself harder against his chest. Or given the difference in height, his stomach.
Nao was even taller than Urufu, so Noriko was already used to such a ludicrous difference.
“Noriko, I understand you’re in shock, but this isn’t the time.”
Idiot! She allowed herself to be pried free from Urufu.
Nao was an idiot as well. If he noticed conflicting feelings in her he should have talked it out with her. Instead he invented a ploy where she’d hate him, and to a degree she did. Even though it turned out only being lies, in the end he still hurt her. Even though he’d only acted on his own fears, he still trampled all over her feelings.
Well, he’d reached his goal, if he had one to begin with. Whatever love she felt for him vanished, buried under the result of his actions.
Right now, however, Noriko had another problem to deal with.
“Urufu, I’m shocked, but not for the reason you think.” She let go of him and sat down on her chair. “Sit!” she said and nodded at his.
He did as told, and hesitantly he picked up his fork.
“Please tell me,” he said.
Noriko sighed and drew breath. This required gathering some courage.
“What he did was unforgivable,” she said. Somewhere inside her she knew she still dodged the real issue at hand.
“But it was all lies!” Urufu put down his fork and met her eyes.
I can’t pretend any longer. Urufu’s insensitive, but he’s not blind. She reached out with her hand and took his fingers.
Urufu flinched, but he didn’t retract his hand.
“I’m in shock they never went away,” Noriko said. That was deliberately cryptic.
“What went away?”
“Didn’t go away,” Noriko corrected him. She allowed herself to caress his fingers. He’d move his hand soon enough. “My feelings for you. I didn’t know, but I think Nao did.”
This time Urufu did move his hand.
“I…” He coughed silently. “You...”
“I know. You love Kuri, and I’m just a kid. Urufu, you promised. Don’t treat me like a child. Your loving Kuri is one thing. I have to respect that, but I at least want to be treated like a rival.”
For the first time Urufu smiled honestly. There was an embarrassed sheen in his eyes, and Noriko noticed him fidgeting a little.
“Like a rival, you said. You’ll have to talk with Christina about that.” Urufu gave her a twisted smile. “Weren’t you in love with Nao?”
Noriko nodded. When did everything become so complicated? “But I think I never fell out of love with you.” She said it. She looked down at her plate. There wasn’t anything more she could do. Urufu would reject her feelings, and she’d feel sad and a little lonely. Still, it wasn’t as if she lost anything. He had rejected her once already.
“You flatter me. I’m not worth that effort.”
How dense can you be? Noriko looked up and met his eyes. “You don’t get to decide that. You have no right to my feelings. They’re mine and mine only.” At least until you share them, she thought. A bitter little thought.
Urufu cut himself a piece of beef, pushed a little potato and sauce on it with his knife and ate. After he swallowed he looked at her. “I apologise. I’m no less honoured that your affection lies with me than I was last summer, but I’m poor rebound material.”
The smile that came to her lips was listless. Noriko could feel how it barely managed to reach her eyes. “I can’t do anything about how I feel.”
“You know I still love Christina. I probably always will.”
That’s an opening, you know. Noriko’s mind filled with giddy surprise that he didn’t reject her outright. You might not even understand it yourself, but that’s an opening. “I know. I’ll never force you to abandon those feelings. You share a background and age after all” I have a chance! As long as I don’t push him into a corner.
Urufu took another bite, and Noriko joined him in the dinner they shared. He was a surprisingly good cook, and his choice for today’s meal was excellent for a conversation. The food cooling did little to detract from its taste.
They ate in silence for a while, and Noriko stole glances at him from time to time.
You’re handsome, but you’re not stunning like bro, or beautiful like Nao. So why did I fall in love with you to begin with?
“I’m flattered about how you feel,” Urufu suddenly said. “You promised not to make me stop loving Christina, so I won’t try to stop your infatu… feelings,” he said.
Noriko stared at him. “Infatuation? For a year, even though I got to know you and accept your relationship with Kuri? Even if I spent half a year with Nao? Infatuation?”
She watched Urufu bite his lower lip.
“I apologise. I won’t demean what you feel. Please forgive me.”
Noriko didn’t answer. Memories of Urufu’s conflicted feelings about his lost wife rose in her. In the end those probably were what destroyed what he had with Kuri, and Noriko didn’t plan to go down that route.
Just as she was about to respond her phone rang, and Noriko rose, walked to Urufu’s small desk and picked it up.
Yukio looked at Kyoko when Noriko answered his call.
“I’ve placed the call on speakers, so I apologise in advance if the sound is bad.”
There was a moment of silence.
“No problem. I’ll do likewise.”
“Hi Noriko, are you busy? We can call you later,” Kyoko said.
Oh, she’s doing something at the moment. “Yeah, no problem,” Yukio added. Kyoko’s quick to pick up on that. He leaned over the table and squeezed her hand.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Urufu’s voice suddenly said. “I’ll be absent from school for some time.”
What’s he doing together with Noriko? “Man, what do you mean by absent?” Yukio had a feeling he’d rather not hear the answer.
“I got suspended for insulting the principal.”
“Damn it Urufu, do you have to provoke him all the time?”
“I...” Urufu’s voice got strangely muffled.
“I asked him the same thing,” Noriko said. “He just won’t listen to reason.”
Yukio stared at Kyoko’s phone on the table. “Man, I planned to take this with you later, but I guess now is as good as ever.” He met Kyoko’s eyes across the table, and she nodded at him. “We don’t feel good about the situation with you and Kuri.” How am I going to explain this? He fell silent for a moment.
“Shoot, I’m listening,” Urufu said.
Knowing it needed to be said was one thing. Saying it was another. “Look, you’re my best friend, but Kuri is Kyoko’s. When the two of you are fighting you force us to choose, and we’ve decided that we refuse.”
“I won’t pick Kuri-chan over you, but neither will I support you,” Kyoko added.
“So we’ll just stay out of it all. Until both of you’ve got your brains in order don’t expect to see us a lot,” Yukio finished.
“Wait! You can’t do that. You’re their best friends.” Noriko’s voice almost broke.
Yukio had expected as much. That was the reason they wanted to talk with her first. Now she was with Urufu, so it couldn’t be helped, but Yukio respected how she tried to protect the friendship of them all, but with Urufu and Kuri going as far as they had something drastic was needed.
“Noriko, we’re doing this exactly because we’re their friends. Friendship goes both ways. Urufu and Kuri need to respect our needs as well.”
“Hear that, man? You’re making Kyoko unhappy. You both are.”
The best thing with Urufu was that Yukio felt comfortable talking about awkward things with him. That way there was no better friend, and Yukio hated how they’d become estranged after Kuri and Ryu became a pair. Still, it wasn’t just Kuri’s fault. Urufu had a lot to answer for.
“Sorry about that. It’s just that seeing her with him makes me so angry. I’m not used to being this way.” Urufu’s voice sounded clearer now, as if he had sat down by wherever Noriko placed her phone.
“Urufu,” Yukio said, “with the two of us being driven home every day there’s no time left if you and Kuri are going to keep this up. Man up and get your grips together!” As if he could tell someone thirty five years his senior to man up.
Urufu’s laughter didn’t come as a surprise, but the honest mirth in it did. What did you do to him, Noriko? I haven’t heard Urufu laugh like that in weeks. “Good to hear you’re feeling better,” Yukio tried.
Kyoko took his hand and looked at him. Yukio could feel the question in her eyes.
He covered the phone with his other hand. “He’s laughing for real. That’s good,” Yukio whispered before he removed his hand from the phone.
The question didn’t entirely leave Kyoko’s eyes, but she squeezed his hand acknowledging that she understood Yukio’s relief. He could feel love and warmth from her fingers and squeezed back.
“Hey, stop making out with each other. We’re trying to have a convo here,” Urufu said.
“What’s that noise?” Noriko asked.
“We’re not...” Yukio began.
“...making out,” Kyoko finished.
“You so are,” Noriko retorted.
Kyoko giggled and bent over the table. Yukio was caught in her full mouth kiss. “Now we are,” Kyoko said after she released him.
You’ve grown bolder since we met. This time it was Yukio who flared red.
“Did you call us just to make us listen to the two of you kissing?” Urufu laughed.
Yukio had no problem visualising that grin on the other side of the call.
“We called Noriko, not the two of you,” Kyoko said. “And no we didn’t. We called to say you two better make up. We care for both of you, but we can’t stand the way you treat each other.”
“So you’re making it my fault that Christina...”
Yukio didn’t allow him to get any further. “Yes, I do. Grow up man!”
Someone giggled at the other end. It had to be Noriko.
“But she was the one who...”
“… told you how much she loved you just about every day. I was there, you know. Not once, not even once did I hear you say you loved her.”
“Not when she could hear. What was she supposed to do? Live on air?”
“Yukio!” Noriko didn’t sound like she agreed with Yukio’s cutting Urufu short, but truth be told he was sick and tired of his friend’s attitude.
“No, Noriko. Urufu is at fault here.”
“Actually Kuri-chan is as well,” Kyoko said. “She knew how much you loved her, but she wanted you to tell her so much that she broke up with you. You’re idiots both of you.”
“Getting told off by a bunch of kids,” Urufu murmured.
Yukio grinned. He hadn’t lost his best friend yet. After all it was Urufu who once told him to be frank, even if it hurt.
“Yeah, man, we did. You deserved it.” Yukio hugged Kyoko before he continued. “Urufu, be the man I adored, that I still do. With all crap that’s going on I need my hero.”
“I’ll do my best.” Urufu’s voice sounded embarrassed. “Tell me if I’m doing OK when I’m back at school.”
But Urufu didn’t return to school.
Ryu found out his sister had skipped school together with Urufu and spent the day in the city. He also learned Urufu got suspended for the second time in a short time. For a normal student that was very close to expulsion, but neither Urufu nor Kuri were normal students.
“You should have told me,” he said to Kyoko when he found her waiting for Yukio outside the cafeteria.
“Told you what?”
Ryu looked at her, sun and shadow playing in her face as the wind made the great sails above them bulge. He could see what Yukio found so attractive, especially now when she had lost some weight, but Yukio being Yukio probably hadn’t even noticed she did.
“About Urufu’s suspension.”
Kyoko looked back. “If Urufu wanted you to know he would have told you himself.”
So she knew, which means Yukio knows as well. “Whoa! Why the hostility?”
“Don’t behave like an idiot! It doesn’t suit you.”
You’ve grown. Just half a year ago you’d never dare to tell me off like that. Ryu decided he wanted to test her mettle a little. “It’s not me being aggressive here. I haven’t done anything to upset you.”
The stare he got in return was filled with contempt. “Did you really lose your brains all by yourself, or did Kuri-chan help you?”
“I don’t follow you?” Ryu really didn’t. What did Kuri have to with anything?
“You owe Urufu an apology. Sure, he doesn’t get to decide who Kuri-chan goes out with after she broke up with him, but you still should have told him.”
Ryu thought about it. “Why?” he asked in the end. He had no obligation to report his private life to Urufu. If Kuri broke up with him she could do whatever she wanted without telling him, and that was true to an even greater extent for the one she dated.
“It’s the decent thing to do. It’s only proper.”
That’s the Kyoko I know. Things should still be proper in the end. “No, I disagree.” Ryu thought about it some more. “And so does Urufu.” Because Ryu was certain Urufu did. The man grown teenager came from a culture where women stood on a much more equal basis with men than in Japan. Ryu disliked admitting it, especially when Urufu voiced it in terms of medieval values, but that he was so adamant about it meant it was important enough to be ingrown in his backbone.
Kyoko shot Ryu an angry glare, but she didn’t protest. “It’s only proper of you to do so anyway,” she said at last.
Maybe she was right. “Too late now anyway, and I’m not going to apologise to him now.” Damn it Kuri, this really is your fault. Ryu smiled and combed his hair with his hand. “You know, ask Kuri about it. I can’t make up with Urufu for her. She has to do it herself.” As an afterthought Ryu opened his mouth again. “You’re aware she still loves him?”
Kyoko nodded. Then her eyes showed a disappointed glint. “I don’t understand,” she said. Her voice got silent and she looked up at the sails.
Ryu saw tears competing with anger. He sat down on a ledge and gathered his thoughts. Should he tell Kyoko what had happened or not? It would be kind of unfair to Kuri, and he genuinely liked her, even if his feelings for Ai still were stronger.
From the glass doors he saw Yukio leave the cafeteria and walk towards them.
I’d better say something. “She had to break up with Urufu,” Ryu said.
It said something about how strong their friendship had grown during the last year when Kyoko didn’t flare up.
“Please explain,” she said.
Ryu waved at Yukio and drew breath. “Her job. They’d take her job away if she didn’t.”
Kyoko nodded, sat down beside him and made place for her boyfriend.
“I know that part, but...”
“They tried to force a new boyfriend on her,” Ryu interrupted. He still wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do telling Kyoko about this. “We made an agreement,” he added. Explaining to Kyoko that they were in fact boyfriend and girlfriend rather than pretending would take too long time. She’d believe it was all fake, but it had to do.
Yukio took his place beside Kyoko and gave Ryu a pained smile. No, one filled with resentment.
I can’t explain to him. To Yukio I betrayed Urufu, plain and simple.
“Kyoko, we should go somewhere else,” Yukio said.
Kyoko made to protest, but Ryu waved it away. “You want some time alone with your boyfriend, don’t you? Has to be hard being in different classes.”
Kyoko offered him a grateful look before she took Yukio’s hand and the two of them walked away.
Soon enough Ryu found himself surrounded by girls. They’d stick to him until Kuri arrived, if she did. Sometimes she ate away from school. Her fame rapidly grew into more and more of a problem.
I couldn’t live like you do, Ryu thought and gave the girl closest to him a false smile. I somehow don’t like myself very much right now. Thoughts of Ai came to him, mixed with his growing desire for Kuri. I’m an arse. What kind of pathetic man falls in love with two girls at the same time?
He wanted to ask Urufu, because Urufu probably had something wise to say, but he was also the only person Ryu couldn’t ask for help.
Sis, what the hell are you doing? Because Noriko couldn’t hold her feelings a secret. She always wore them like an overcoat. Had done so for as long as he could remember. Why Urufu?
A sudden warm gust made him look up. It carried with it the first, remote, promises of a summer to come.
There was no answer.
Ulf understood the situation with Christina couldn’t stay the way it was for much longer. Even though she was with Ryu now she still needed his support, and he hers.
Together with Thomas, the freshman arrival, there were only three of them who could share the experience of being both teenagers and fully grown adults with a life left behind.
Add that Christina’s grandfather requested Ulf’s support. And she really needed it, or at least needed to do something. Almost daily she received a confession, most of them not even from students at Himekaizen, and Ulf suspected there were a number of stalkers lurking in the shadows as well.
So she needed a solution, and she created one, and Ulf could never have guessed even if he had tried.
The day after his suspension ended Ulf arrived at school and felt his chin drop. He stared through the gates flanked by sakura trees all green. The bloom was long gone.
Christina sat in a chair just inside. Behind her an infinitely embarrassed Ryu held a placate that proudly announced: “Confession queue. Rejections and no bad feelings guaranteed.”
There was a queue.
Ulf shook his head. Ina, my Ina. No wonder I loved you the way I did. Which was a lie. He still loved her, but admitting it hurt too much.
First in line was the idiot Nori. Maybe not an idiot this time. He must have known he'd be rejected with his own girlfriend watching the spectacle, but in doing so he'd help his idol to an easier second year. Ulf suddenly liked the guy a lot better.
“Morn, Yukio, welcome to Himekaizen. A school day like any other.”
The queue filled up, mostly with guys from the old fan-club. Some of them had girlfriends with them who surprised Ulf by nodding with approval.
I just love them all. A demonstration of friendship.
Beside him Kyoko slapped Yukio on his back. “Can't miss this opportunity,” she said and laughed mouth wide open.
Kyoko, that's most unladylike of you. Outright improper I'd say. Ulf grinned. Then he joined in her laughter.
She winked at Yukio, and promptly joined the queue.
Now that's gutsy! Yukio hold on tight to her. You'll never find anyone better. No, dammit, most of the guys here won't find anything close.
As if he had heard Ulf's thoughts Yukio grinned widely. “Right out of an anime, wouldn't you say?”
“If I recall correctly I have yet to see this in any anime,” Ulf laughed in return.
The queue slowly dwindled. A warm wind blew over the gravel and made the paper placate shudder. Guys grinningly received their rejections. Freshmen stared in utter disbelief. And Ulf, Ulf found it impossible to stop laughing. Especially when Kyoko found leniency in the eyes of her princess to the roaring approval of the students present.
Ryu, he blushed even deeper, but he never ceased looking at Christina, and Ulf noticed a softness to his eyes that spoke volumes about how the Prince of Himekaizen had fallen into the trap he dug together with Christina.
If you’re really in love with her, then I give up. You too, my love, I wish you the best. With a tinge of regret, and surprise at how easily he admitted his love, Ulf turned on his heels and made for the school building. He left the last chance to rebuild their relationship behind him.
He almost succumbed to the need to look over his shoulder. The show hadn’t been all play. Ulf knew that. If he had lined up with the others he wasn’t certain what the outcome would have been.
Just as he entered the school he met teachers on their way out. They belonged to the small faction who agreed with Kareyoshi’s ideals. Himekaizen wasn’t free from its share of arseholes.
Guess it’ll be Ryu’s time to skip classes. Christina’s upcoming suspension was just a formality, and Ryu was likely to get his share of Kareyoshi’s wrath as well.
Ulf wiped tears from his face after he quickly changed into his indoors shoes. Then he was on his way to the stairwell.
Almost there he felt a tug on his blazer.
“Are you fine with this?”
Ulf slowed down a little, but he didn’t stop and turn to face Noriko.
“Urufu, she wanted you to be there.”
“Maybe,” Ulf said. He began climbing the stairs.
“You know she could have chosen a day while you were still suspended.”
He did. That was why he understood Christina had given him a last chance. But he also understood arriving in this world had broken him, and that he needed a thoroughly broken heart to dare love someone openly again.
He sent Christina a silent thought of gratitude. I’ll probably always love her.
“Noriko, as I said, I’m bad rebound material.”
That made her let go of his blazer. Ulf had received more than a few meaningful glances from people they met in the stairs, and it took him a while to grasp those were due to Noriko’s holding on to him.
When they reached the second floor she grabbed on to his clothes again. “I don’t care. If you feel uncomfortable I’ll leave you be at school, but you don’t get to decide how I should feel.”
Ulf grinned. She was the best of friends, even if she had strange tastes in men. “I’m not uncomfortable. Who would be with the attention from a girl as cute as you?”
She released him so fast he laughed. When he turned and looked at her she was red from her neck to her hair. Ulf winked. “Bad rebound material, didn’t I say?” He could act like a player. He had those memories from his university days, after his shyness left him. Just as long as he didn’t fall in love he could do pretty much what he wanted.
But when he did. Maria had him tongue tied for the weeks she courted him, because it had most definitely not been the other way around. Come to think of it, he hadn’t really taken the lead in any of the three longer relations he had, if half a year with Christina could even be called long.
Ulf looked at Noriko with more respect. She was braver than he had ever been. “Look,” he said. “Your feelings for me make me proud, and a little flattered, but I can’t respond to them.”
She looked down at her feet.
“But I promise not to treat you like a child, and I very much want your friendship.”
“I want more than your friendship,” Noriko murmured. She looked up at him and grinned. “But I’ll make do with it for the time being. Now when you know how I feel I don’t have to be shy about it.”
Much braver than me, Ulf thought. “Fine, I’ll accept that,” he said.
Principal Kareyoshi read the answer to his request from two weeks earlier. He sighed. The day had started so well with that vulgar foreigner offering an opportunity to suspend her on a silver plate.
To be certain he hadn’t missed anything he read it a second time.
While we respect your wish to formally withdraw Himekaizen Academy from the cooperation with our cultural exchange club, your request that we forbid our students to contact the former members of the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club is unacceptable.
The student union requested that the headship address the problem. Hence I have to advice you that I have brought this matter to our board of directors. They have given me their full support, and I have informed the exchange club here that they are to remain in contact with their Japanese counterpart as they see fit.
Given that two of the former members on your side might still be Swedish citizens, the board of directors have escalated the matter to our embassy in Tokyo as well as our foreign ministry.
That was, as far as Principal Kareyoshi was concerned, a threat. A very blatant threat. He had been threatened before, and the principal from an unknown school on the other side of the world didn't matter much. Just to be safe he had the school checked up.
That was when the gravity of his situation slowly became evident.
Founded 1869 and in the same building since 1875. That gave him a start. Your run of the mill high school didn't have a 150 year pedigree, and unsurprisingly he found out that it was a private school. One of the two traditionally high profile private high schools in Gothenburg.
He also learned that Sony's Chief of Operations Northern Europe had his daughter there. Apparently she was a third year student and a member of the Swedish side of the exchange club, and a member of what passed for a student council there.
Going up against a global dragon in high tech wasn't Kareyoshi's idea of having a good time.
A more thorough attempt to discredit the school by pointing out its poor academic merits fell flat. Translated into Japanese terms over half of their student body would have averaged above 90%, in every subject.
When he observed that a staggering two thirds of the student body averaged 95% or better in English, Kareyoshi finally understood why they defended their exchange club so defiantly.
For the time being he had to do with banning students from visiting the cafe closest to school. Students who hadn’t joined clubs should go home rather than loitering after school. He was certain he’d get both parents and the board of directors to see the wisdom in that.
Forcing students to join clubs of his choosing proved more difficult though. Himekaizen had always been too lenient in that department ever since it stopped being an all girls school over forty years ago.
Kareyoshi lit a cigarette and moved the letter to the desk drawer he’d put it in after he read it the first time. The foreign principal had sent it as registered mail. He could hardly say he hadn’t received the notification now.
He also couldn’t do what he wished for more than anything else. Expelling the half-blood who had insulted him publicly met with immediate refusal. Worst of all, it met with immediate refusal from the very people who made certain he received the principal’s chair.
That was something he couldn’t understand. He knew they wanted Japan to be in charge of her own destiny just as much as he did, but they still refused to see the danger foreign influence posed. They even put the lid on any further attempts at scaring the arrivals to obedience, which meant his hands were tied when it came to the means he knew best.
And the one who spoke on the phone less than ten minutes ago sounded scared. An arrival from before Kareyoshi built any influence pulled strings in Japan’s underbelly, dangerous strings from what Kareyoshi understood.
In the end it didn’t matter. He still held the power to make the next two years exceedingly unpleasant for the arrivals and their supporters. Especially their foreign supporters. Those didn’t have a place in Japan in the first place, and commons sense dictated they should be treated accordingly.
Just when Kareyoshi was about to make a call his phone rang. It was the principal of Irishima High.
When the short call was finished he roared in frustration.
Part of his staff arrived at the door and looked inside.
He could swear a couple of them smirked.