Sports festival came and passed without much ado during Urufu’s suspension. Then he returned and Kuri got temporarily booted out of school, as expected for her public stunt on the school yard.
Noriko didn’t have much of a problem with that. Principal Kareyoshi might be a rabid dog, but you just didn’t challenge authority that way in Japan. Secretly she was certain you didn’t in Sweden for that matter.
Then the principal called everyone to a morning meeting in the gym and placed the blame for every mishap during the sports festival squarely on Urufu, Kuri and a trio of Korean girls, one of whom had been forced out of the planning committee just like Urufu.
Noriko merely felt unease when the students shrugged off the accusations aimed at the Koreans; she was just too used to it, but she felt genuine surprise as almost the entire gym exploded in outrage when Urufu and Kuri were included.
Three days later every member of the, by now defunct, Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club was suspended for refusing to quit the club and join another of Principal Kareyoshi’s choosing.
Another two days later those suspensions were rescinded after the parents involved forced a meeting with the board of directors. Over ten percent better exam results compared to the other students was just the kind of argument that couldn’t be overlooked.
By now the journalists stalking the school grounds weren’t only paparazzi looking for an opportunity to harass Kuri, but also people from more well known media outlets interested in what was happening at the school.
Principal Kareyoshi was livid, and issued one rule after another, all with nationalistic and racist undertones.
Unsurprisingly the student body revolted. This wasn’t Red Rose Hell.
So the principal dissolved the entire student council and had the members replaced with students he picked. Which turned out to be in direct violation of the rules set up by the school. Which in turn left the entire school in angry chaos when Kuri returned just in time to start preparing for mid terms together with everyone else.
Noriko grumbled as she recalled the last frantic weeks, but now wasn’t the time to be angry. Now was the last week of club activities before all clubs shut down in preparation of exams.
In the case of the, highly unofficial, Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club, that meant an extra week of studying the Urufu way before everyone started cramming like idiots.
She sat in the inner room of the Stockholm Haven Café, close to the fire cabinet Urufu bought together with James during spring break. Fire cabinet, not a safe, Urufu had said. Noriko wasn’t entirely certain she got the difference. It looked very much like a safe.
Voices reached her through the door from the café proper. It was packed, as usual. Even more so since Kareyoshi’s decree that students were forbidden to visit. These days students sat here long after what was proper, something made possible since the vice principal of Irishima High made an issue of spending his evenings here together with a few of his staff.
This specific day he sat in the inner room and watched Urufu walk from white board to white board where small groups of students attacked one of the strange problems he had created. At least they were strange for the Irishima High freshmen.
A few of them stared after Urufu long after he left for the next white board. Most of those girls.
Noriko grumbled some more.
She brushed her bangs from her forehead and reluctantly acknowledged that she had no right to grumble. With her brother openly going out with Kuri and Nao all but gone from school, with a modelling schedule to rival Kuri’s, Urufu had naturally taken on the role of a benign king among the students, one with an absolute integrity, and one which he had proven he was willing to fight for.
When she gave the freshmen girls a closer look Noriko saw more of adoration than the signs of a crush.
“Urufu, could you help me a little?” she said. Not that she needed any help, but she wanted her share of his attention.
He looked over his shoulder from where he stood surrounded by Himekaizen and Irishima High students by a whiteboard, and shot her a smile. “Just finishing this, then I’m all yours.”
You shouldn’t say things like that. But because he did Noriko had decided not to give up. He knew her feelings, so she had nothing to lose.
A few whispered words from the large table in the middle of the room had her switch her attention from Urufu to the whispering students.
Oh, I didn’t mean it to sound like that. Wakayama Noriko needing help from Urufu with school only added to the rumours surrounding him.
As if he needed it. He no longer wore loafers but western style business suit shoes, and he even used a matching belt. Somehow Urufu almost managed to make his school uniform look like a business suit. Shirts that made Kuri raise her eyebrows helped. They barely conformed to school regulations and apparently cost a fortune.
“Excuse me, do you really need his help?”
Noriko turned to face the woman who had sat silently in the room the entire evening. She was a member of the PTA, one who wasn’t convinced that Principal Kareyoshi was a full blown sociopath. Moreover she had a hard time with any student who openly opposed his principal.
“Hamarugen-san’s knowledge is first class. It’s only his Japanese that’s poor,” Noriko said. She heard how defensive she sounded.
“How could a foreigner possibly understand the subjects in Japanese education?”
Oh come on! Because math is different in Japan?
“Hamarugen-san, could you please clarify the last part?”
That was Vice Principal Noguchi from Irishima High.
Urufu threw him a look and smiled. “Of course, sensei.”
Noriko slowly grasped what was happening. Noguchi-sensei just handed Urufu another opportunity to thoroughly destroy Kareyoshi’s credentials.
“Since anyone in academic circles is aware that physics mostly is applied math it only makes sense to reverse the dependency in an educational situation.”
“What I’m trying to say is that using physics problems when explaining math creates a context that makes it easier to grasp how and why math works the way it does.”
Noriko stared at Urufu. You do know the sexiest part of you is your brains? Then she blushed furiously.
The PTA representative gave her a scrutinising look.
Christina glanced at the chairs where Noriko sat. Half a year earlier she just thought Noriko’s infatuation with Ulf was cute, but now there was a determination in the short girl’s eyes that was anything but small.
With a sigh Christina returned to the problem she was solving. School work had become substantially easier as her grasp of the Japanese language improved. She could only guess at what Ulf was able to do now.
That was the thing. She could only guess. After she broke up with him he understandably opened up even less to her than before, and therein lay her jealousy. She suspected Noriko held the key she herself lacked. If the girl put her mind to it she was bound to break through Ulf’s layers of defences.
Not that Christina had any right to protest. She had broken up with the man she loved, and she had made herself a new boyfriend to boot.
She threw another glance in Noriko’s direction, or rather over the head of he girl. Outside that door her bodyguards stood preventing anyone not a member of the club from getting inside. There had been numerous attempts.
The door opened and James waved at her to come.
Christina left the whiteboard and passed just behind Noriko. She suppressed an urge to whack the girl over her head and left through the narrow door.
“Yes?” she asked James.
He just pointed at the entrance, and flanked by her bodyguards Christina went outdoors.
A teacher, the fiancée of her English teacher, or maybe husband now, Christina wasn’t certain, stood there. Unfortunately he wasn’t merely a teacher. He was also one of Kareyoshi’s goons.
“What do you want here?” Christina deliberately made her voice as cold as possible.
“I’m here to tell all students to go home. They’re not allowed to stay here after schools hours.”
She met his eyes. During her first day at school he’d undressed her with his eyes. A creep.
“This is still club hours.”
“You’re not an official club.”
“Official enough for the PTA to support us. Get lost!” Supervise us is more correct. Christina decided to let her own lie slide.
“I don’t have time with this,” the teacher began and started to push through. He might not have tried too much to avoid brushing against her breasts when he pushed her aside, but saying that he deliberately tried to touch her up was rather dishonest. Christina didn’t care.
Her bodyguards had him lying on the streets in seconds, and after that he was shoved inside the police car that always stood across the street.
While the two policemen weren’t too keen on handling a rather dubious case of sexual assault Christina made a very big deal about teachers stalking teenage idols who were also their students. She conveniently left out that he didn’t actually teach any of her classes, but he was a teacher at her school, and that was enough.
You’re out of a job idiot. I’ll make this a public scandal.
Just like Ulf she was utterly ruthless when push came to shove. Destroying a professional career for an antagonist didn’t bother her the least.
Am I really honest?
She looked at the police car as it drove away.
No, he’s not as ruthless. He’d never do that just because it was an easy way to get rid of an arsehole.
The thought disturbed her a little, but she shrugged it away.
Then she was surrounded by photographers, and her bodyguards had to shield her while she made her way indoors again.
Christina listened to the jingle of the doorbell as she entered, and then she met the eyes of the students packing the café. Inwardly she sighed with relief. She might be an upcoming superstar, but she was one they saw almost every day.
With a nod she affirmed James’ silent question if she wanted another coffee and after that she steeled herself before joining her club members in the inner room.
Ulf would be there, calm and hyper active at the same time. Eyes glittering with joy as he explained some concept, and that joy spreading into a grin that both expressed mischief and confidence. He’d be close to her, the man she once fantasised about, and in this life made her own for a little more than half a year. The man she eventually lost, but one she never ceased loving.
You’ll stay with me for the rest of my life, won’t you? In my mind you’ll never go away.
She took a deep breath and opened the door.
Inside organised chaos ruled as students from both schools milled around between white boards and tables. There were tablets everywhere, and now, a few weeks after students from Irishima High joined the madness, even they had started to get used to Ulf’s peculiar way of teaching.
Or rather his way of creating a learning environment. Those were his words. He disliked the word teaching. It implied that knowledge and competence could be force fed to someone.
Christina sat down beside Noriko. Partially because it was a way to stay closer to Ulf, partially because Noriko’s ability to explain math was superb, and partially because Christina genuinely liked the short girl.
Jealous, yes. Insanely angry with Noriko’s blatant attempt to reel Ulf in, yes. But dislike? No. Throughout the disastrous ending of her relationship with Ulf Noriko had stood by her side. In the long run disliking a friend like that was impossible.
She felt Noriko’s fingers tapping her hand.
“Idiot bro will get angry if you keep staring at Urufu like that.”
Christina followed Noriko’s glance and met Ryu’s look. He did indeed look more than just a little uncomfortable. “Angry, why?”
“Cause he’s falling in love with you again,” came the simple answer. “You should know.”
With a frown Christina looked at her boyfriend again. Oh dear. Well, I did ask him to be my boyfriend for real. She smirked, but she also decided to give him an honest chance. She disliked arseholes and didn’t intend to become one.
Midterms coincided with the weather finally deciding it was time for summer, and Ryu spent an uncomfortable afternoon doing exams in a classroom not yet prepared for the shift in temperature.
As usual having to wait yet another week before changing into the summer uniform didn’t help at all.
He knew he’d pay for spending his thoughts elsewhere. Maybe not that high a price, but it would show in his results. Elsewhere lay in the other wing, more precisely where Kuri sat with her exams.
I’m an idiot for falling in love with her, Ryu thought and attacked the next problem.
I’m an arse for allowing myself to forget about Ai, he thought when he was done.
Most likely he’d given the correct answer, but his mind wasn’t really into it.
He wasn’t alone.
Himekaizen Academy was in an uproar since the last two weeks. With the addition of a substantial number of Red Rose Hell students came a small but loud voiced minority of parents who very much supported Principal Kareyoshi’s ideals. For rather obvious reasons another faction of parents reacted with outrage.
While most tried to just watch by the sidelines and hope for the commotion to die down, by now there was no putting the lid back on. Reporters hung around the school for other reasons than stalking Kuri these days, and Ryu suspected only the fact that Himekaizen was part of the organisation handling arrivals kept the board of directors from openly siding with Kareyoshi to quiet down all bad publicity.
He turned the page and continued answering questions while he mused on the outrage that had become routine.
The silence in the classroom belied everyday reality. For this week only his school seemed just like any other school, but when exams were over and done with the fight between factions was bound to start all over with renewed vigour. Which meant Monday.
Another hour and Ryu was done, as were everyone else. He’d make it into the top fifty again, but given that club activities in reality mirrored some strange version of a cram school that really was a setback.
He left the classroom and made his way to the shoe lockers. Indoors shoes switched places with loafers, and with bag in his hand he walked through the doors and onto the gravel separating school building from main gate.
As he was about to leave the school compound there was some kind of commotion behind him. Turning he saw Kuri being withheld by a teacher and Urufu walking towards them both.
Ryu played with the thought of turning back to ask what it was all about, but he abandoned the idea and left school. Whatever problems the staff had in store for Kuri and Urufu, they were more than equipped to handle it themselves.
He came home, ate, bantered with his sister, took a bath, slept, and it wasn’t until Monday, when he returned to school, that he regretted not finding out what it was all about.
It all started with a: “Suspended for cheating?”
It continued in class when their teacher announced a number of students had indeed been suspended for cheating during the midterms. Apparently expulsion was on the table as well.
During lunch the sheer scale of it all became evident, and most of the club members simply skipped all afternoon lessons and went to the Stockholm Haven café.
“Certain about this?” Ryu asked.
“Yeah,” Jirou answered. By now he was thoroughly confident with a computer in his hands, and he showed Ryu a diagram on his screen. A diagram that had to have been enhanced by Kyoko.
“The red zone?” Ryu wondered while he fought down his outrage.
Jirou grimaced and nodded towards Jeniferu-chan and Tomasu-kun. “They gathered the data, but the freshmen aren’t as coordinated as the rest of us.”
The rest of us. That means juniors. We hardly have any seniors as members. “Meaning?”
“Meaning we can’t fully trust the data for the freshmen classes, so, red.”
Ryu bit down on his cake and swallowed some coffee to go with it. It didn’t matter. What he saw on the screen was enough.
“And you’re absolutely certain about this?”
Jirou shrugged. “Certain enough to take it to a newspaper.”
Ryu thought about that for a while, but then he shook his head. “Won’t make any news. People don’t really like Koreans or Chinese anyway.”
Bastard! “Japanese people, fine!” Spending too much time around Urufu had made Jirou far too adamant about semantic precision. “Or at least the racists among us.”
Jirou smirked. “It’s enough with ‘Japanese people’ I’m afraid. To be truthful I’m more than a little ashamed myself.” He stared down at his keyboard before he continued. “I used to think that way myself.” Then he looked back up and met Ryu’s eyes. “It’s wrong, you know that?”
Ryu did, and he nodded. Noriko, not he, almost paid a very dear price for knowing that. And only one of those foreigners you couldn’t trust was there to save her.
“Everyone?” he asked and pointed at the screen.
Jirou nodded. “Everyone. At least among the juniors.”
Shaking his head Ryu clenched his fists. “There’s no way every non Japanese student with above average result cheated.”
“That’s what the data says. And they’re all suspended.”
“Cause Kareyoshi doesn’t want them around when he goes off expelling them all,” Jirou said calmly.
No sensei? Just ‘Kareyoshi’? Watching Jirou’s eyes Ryu finally understood the contempt Jirou felt. In his eyes Principal Kareyoshi no longer deserved any kind of honorific.
“So a couple of weeks from now there won’t be any foreigners at Himekaizen?”
“Fuck you,” Jirou said. “I’m taking this somewhere. Someone is bound to make a ruckus about it.”
Good. I like that backbone. “I’ll help you.” Ryu grinned. “You know what this means?”
Jirou shook his head.
“Revolt. We’re revolting.”
Christina shook her head in disbelief. Suspended from school wasn’t a first, but this one was.
Above average? Hell yeah!
She hadn’t cheated. Someone probably had, but not she, and most likely not well over a dozen students.
Above average! She tip toed a short dance on the floor. Damn! That cram school really made a difference.
Long hours learning Japanese finally paid off to a point when fifty years’ worth of experience finally started to shine through.
Living on her looks made most people think she lacked brains. While maybe not of Ulf’s capacity hers had always been put to good use, and as she had a sense for good business that Ulf lacked, hers was the background of a global business empress.
But I never told you, did I? Christina thought of it. She hadn’t, told him that was. While she never got a perfect five point zero, four point four wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. In her old high school that placed her firmly among the ten percent best.
And here? If I work hard? She weighed her experience against the difficulties of mastering Japanese. Maybe the top third, she mused.
Then another thought crawled all over her mind. Ulf, how well did you do? Almost on the verge of calling him she stopped herself in time. That’s no longer any of my business, is it?
Realisation hurt, but she had no right hurting him by making more contact than needed.
I’ll ask Noriko. He’ll tell her. Christina stopped midway between kitchen and her bedroom. That was unfair. First of all, she didn’t have the right to interfere with his love life any more, and secondly, he hadn’t displayed that kind of affection towards Noriko.
Well, she had to call him sooner or later. The sudden surge of suspensions couldn’t mean anything good. Maybe if she did so in a roundabout fashion.
Christina lay down on her bed and swept her hand across the small table by her head until she caught her phone.
Ryu, I can always call Ryu. Because she did have business with him after all. But damn, his parents will hate me when they find out. She smirked and clicked up her call history. Whatever, but for Ulf I’m bound to end up with a man much younger than myself anyway.
She pushed that thought aside and placed the call.
He answered almost immediately.
Funny, I thought they only reacted that way to Line messages, Christina thought and smiled. “Ryu, could we meet?”
There was a moment of hesitation. “Sure, a date?”
A voice shouted in the background.
“Sure, I’ll be there.”
The shouting got angrier.
Shit, I forgot it’s a school day! He didn’t!
Christina rushed to the hallway and threw on some clothes before she ran to the elevator. Shit!
Skipping class was bad enough, but taking a phone call and leaving mid lesson was outrageous.
She had ample time to mull over what she had done on the way down. In the lobby one of the goons from Vogue waited, and outside her old bodyguard stood standing.
Christina walked past the goon and waved for the man she knew and trusted.
When goon number two left the car they always used Christina just shook her head and flashed her phone. One push of a button and Sato sensei would have people in uniform here ready with god knows what trumped up charges.
The goons backed down after they had made certain her first body guard followed her, and Christina knew they’d tail her from a distance.
On her way to the train station she noticed how spring finally gave way to early summer, or at least what she considered summer. Had she gone to school her winter uniform would have been uncomfortably hot, and it was still almost a week before the switch to the summer ones.
Well, she wasn’t, on her way to school that is. So she only wore a sensible dress with a flimsy coat draped over her shoulders, more to protect from the sun than anything else. Later she could tie it around her waist, and come evening it would revert into a coat again.
On the train a few women threw her disapproving glances. She hadn’t tried to apply make up to look any older, but foreign looking as she was she got away with a lot more than most teenagers. She could be just another uncouth American for all that they knew.
It wasn’t to last.
Before they made two stations some passengers recognized her, and she had to escape at the third followed by a horde of smartphone cameras.
Christina almost regretted not having used the car. Almost.
She and bodyguard switched to the circle line rather than heading underground for the subway. This was a quicker change, and it later allowed her to watch the Shibuya square from above before she took the stairs down and out on the plaza leading to the small statue.
He already sat there waiting when she arrived.
Christina passed the glass bunker for smokers and walked under the canopy to where Ryu rose and rounded the statue.
Manneken Pis, just as pointless, she recalled from a visit to Brussels in her previous life. Hachiko, dwarfed by the pedestal the dog sat on, acted as the centrepiece of activity, even though a weekday like this saw mostly adults there.
Despite his youth Ryu had already attracted more than a little attention from girls in their early twenties, and Christina knew what kind of impact she was about to make.
She shook her hair loose and turned on her best smile. In an instant all eyes were on her.
“Ryu,” she began and glanced across the street and upwards, “do you prefer me live or canned?” Christina asked loud enough that people around her heard when she pointed at the huge version of herself displayed across the intersection.
“Idiot!” Ryu growled and took her arm.
There were shouts and more cameras as they ran to the crossing.
“Ryu,” Christina said while they waited for the light to turn green, “I need to know how Ulf did on the midterms, but after that I’m all yours.”
Noriko glared at her phone when it rang.
Since Urufu’s suspension she refused to enter the school and spent her days at the Stockholm Haven café instead. Usually an insanely stupid thing to do, but with the vice principal of Irishima High giving interviews where he described Principal Kareyoshi as the second coming of Adolf Hitler the fallout was certain to be minimal, if any at all.
Irishima High had a stellar reputation, but Red Rose Hell less so, especially now when it had all but gone belly up.
Vice Principal Noguchi never lost an opportunity to insinuate that Kareyoshi was tied to Red Rose’s darker pasts.
Then there was the thing with her phone ringing.
What are you thinking?
While she could afford playing the truant, her brother definitely couldn’t, and he just rang her during school hours.
“Noriko here.” It had better be good.
“I’m on a date with Kuri,” came the moronic response.
Noriko rose from her chair and went inside the inner room.
“She wants to know Urufu’s midterm results. She says it’s important.”
What? Damn you! “Why doesn’t she ask him herself?”
On the verge of biting his face off Noriko realised why Kuri avoided contacting Urufu directly. Both of them danced around each other in a futile attempt not to hurt the other more than necessary.
“I’ll ask him,” Noriko said and nodded as if her brother was present and not at the other end of a phone call. “I’ll call you back.”
Noriko looked across the table. A dozen club members, all of them among those who made it into the top fifty in their respective year, sat around it, mesmerised by Urufu as he ran a lesson in English, in English to boot.
That was his idea of teaching a foreign language. Speaking it and demanding that the rest of them did likewise. She hadn’t believed him when he told them it was the superior method, but that was a year ago. Now she knew he was right.
“Urufu, you’re going to fast for them,” Noriko said and looked at Ai-chan and a Himekaizen freshman whose name Noriko couldn’t remember.
A dozen club members, and three of them belonged to Irishima High. Their vice principal sitting in the café proper meant their presence was sanctioned by their school. He probably considered this an advanced class, which it was.
“Tomasu-kun, could you take over?” Noriko said. The former Stockholm university professor in classic Japanese should be a massive overkill for the purpose of teaching high school English in Japan, but she couldn’t tell the rest of them why she knew that.
He turned. “Sure, but why?”
“I need to speak with Urufu.”
Tomasu-kun gave her a knowing look and grinned. By his side Jeniferu-chan did likewise.
I wish, but it’s not really that way. Yet.
She listened to his voice. During the last months his Japanese had audibly improved, but that wasn’t why she clung to his words. Crap, I have it bad this time.
She did so the last time, and the time before that. Noriko knew that, but those were memories, and this was now.
She looked at his hands when he made his way to the door she headed for. Large hands, larger than her brothers, the way all of Urufu was larger than her brother. Only when it came to effortlessly socialise with others did Ryu shine brighter. Or? Well, that was why she asked Urufu to follow her now.
Noriko heard him walk behind her through the door to the inner room, under the bell as it jingled when she entered the pavement outside the café and into the noise of cars and people. Daytime this was the world of adults, and more than a few of them glanced at them, or rather their school uniforms.
I really should have worn casual clothes, but Urufu said skipping school wasn’t a reason to skip school. Sometimes what he said just didn’t make any sense, but in the end everyone at the cafe wore their uniforms despite being absent from their respective schools. Well, the Irishima High students kind of didn’t count as they had their vice principal present.
“It’s not about that,” she said without thinking.
“About what?” Urufu responded. A teasing note played in his voice.
“About me confessing to you,” Noriko admitted. “I already did that, so get over it!” To her embarrassment she could feel her cheeks heating up. That definitely took some of the edge away from her response.
They walked a little down the street, and she suppressed an urge to take his hand when he came up beside her. Because it’s not like that between us.
Unable to bear his silence, but grateful that he didn’t push her, Noriko took a left turn at an intersection and walked into a ramen shop. The very ramen shop they ended up in after Urufu’s disastrous midsummer’s dinner last year.
He remained silent while she ordered for them both, and it wasn’t until they were both seated by a table that his eyes showed his impatience.
“Your midterm results,” Noriko said when their noodles arrived. “I need to know.” Kuri needs to know, but I think I can guess why.
She stared at her bowl, grabbed a pair of chopsticks and went to work on her food. Her request must have sounded insane.
From across the table she heard Urufu eating his meal. They’d finish it in silence. Noodles weren’t the kind of food you could spend time chatting over. They’d get soggy in no time at all.
From time to time Noriko stole glances at the man she had fallen in love with for the third time, or probably had never fallen out of love with, which meant she cheated on Nao during their entire relationship. Or had she loved Nao honestly? She wasn’t sure, but she thought so. There were mostly fond memories of him from the half a year they spent as a couple.
Then Urufu downed his broth and grinned. “What about yours?”
Noriko had expected him to do this. “You saw. Second.”
He nodded back at her. “As a matter of fact I didn’t. Suspended, remember.”
There was that. “Your midterm results,” Noriko persisted. She couldn’t let herself be led astray by him.
Ulf fought down an urge to tease the girl in front of him a little more. Despite being a kid she adamantly persisted in her notion of being in love with him. From time to time he played with the thought of taking advantage of it, just to help him get over Christina, but he’d told Noriko he was bad rebound material, and he refused to hurt her in more ways than declining her feelings for him.
My midterm results? Ulf forced his thoughts to the reason she had called him out.
“Not the top fifty, or you would have known,” he said.
“Stop avoiding my question!”
Why does she want to know? “I’m not absolutely certain, but top hundred at least.”
Noriko blanched. “You made it into the top third?”
Top fourth, more likely. Still a long way from the top ten where he really belonged. Rather than answering he nodded.
“Scores?” Noriko said.
She really doesn’t let go, does she? Reluctantly Ulf dug up his phone. He had the results there.
“Per subject?” Ulf pretended to look if there was any ramen left in his bowl. If it had he wouldn’t want to eat it anyway, but it was worth a try to see if she would drop the topic.
Noriko tapped his hand with her fingers and nodded. “Per subject.”
Better not give her a shock immediately. “Japanese 62.”
Noriko nodded again. Apparently she took his improvements with the language for granted.
“English 78.” And Ulf knew he was an idiot for answering the exam questions the way they were written rather than the way they were supposed to be written. He could have crammed out another four points.
Once again Noriko nodded.
“Social sciences 80.” Which was OK. At the rate his Japanese improved he’d score higher next time.
Noriko just looked at him and smiled.
Well, guess I can’t keep it a secret. “Science 95.”
“95?” This time she didn’t just look at him.
“You do know I’ve done this before?”
“Still, wow!” Then she tilted her head and looked at him. “Math?”
Here goes. “Nailed it.”
“Nailed it? Eh, no way!”
That made him feel more than a little self conscious. “Yes way. 100,” Ulf said and grinned.
She was really cute when her eyes opened in surprise, and Ulf could see how she summed the numbers up and compared them with some kind of information he didn’t have access to.
Now what? For the first time Ulf felt genuinely interested. “What is it?”
“You almost caught up with Ryu.”
“Urufu, you barely missed the list!”
Top fifty? Impossible. There are just over 300 of us. Something nagged at the corner of his mind. Crap! This was Himekaizen, and not his old high school in Gothenburg. Aw I forgot just how huge the difference is.
“Sorry, I took my old school for granted.”
“Yeah, back in Sweden, all those years ago. We don’t grade this way, or didn’t at least, but I’d be below average with results like these.” Among the bottom 20 percent more likely, but there’s no point in boasting about my old school.
Come to think of it. Ulf admitted he had absolutely no idea how well the school did now, and in this version of Sweden.
The sound of trapping fingers brought him out of his thoughts, and he just had time to see how Noriko punched her screen before she slid her phone back into her school bag.
Did you just send an SMS? Eh, Line message. People didn’t use the messaging system he was used to from Sweden, and when he finally caught up with the way email was used instead, it also fell out of fashion.
“Noriko, were those my results?”
“Want some water?”
Ulf stared at her. Now it was her turn playing the game he did earlier. “Noriko, please answer me. Did you just send my midterm results to someone?”
“Ice or not?”
Ulf decided to cut to the chase. “Either you answer my question or I’m cutting all contact with you.”
She flinched as if he had struck her. “Kuri,” she said so fast the two syllables rolled over each other.
Ulf felt sorry for her. He’d never cut her away for something like this. Sulk and avoid her for a day or two maybe, but she was one of his best friends. Without thinking he reached out with a hand and clasped hers.
Once again she gave him a start. Her hand was whipped out of his, and when Ulf looked up Noriko’s face had flared red.
“Don’t! Not when you don’t love me back.”
Shit! I’m sorry. Somehow he’d slid back into old habits, and the habits of old friends. They were a lot more physical in Sweden. Then Ulf mentally cursed himself. A girl with a crush on him during his freshman year in university had reacted just like this.
Noriko stared down at the table. When she spoke her voice was very small. “I don’t want you to apologise for touching me. That’s even worse.”
You’re not making this easy. Ulf withdrew his hands and placed them over each other. “Christina, my scores, why?” he said to lift the mood.
“I don’t know. Ryu said it was important.”
“Ryu said it was important you send Christina my scores?”
This time Ulf didn’t hesitate. He reached over the table and tapped her forehead. “Something wrong in there?”
“Sorry, my bad,” Noriko said and smiled. “That didn’t make any sense, did it?”
Ulf shook his head in response.
“Ryu called me and said Kuri wanted your midterm results, and that it was important.”
“He didn’t say.”
Ulf grumbled. If she wanted them she could just have asked him directly.
“I don’t think she could, you know,” Noriko said as if she had just read his thoughts. “You two, well, there are things unfinished between you. Am I right?”
He had to admit she was. Getting a call from Christina would have his stomach in an uproar. You’re right, we’re not finished with each other. I wonder if we’ll ever be.
“It hurts you know. Knowing you broke up the way you did.”
“Sorry for us?”
“Yes, but that’s not what I mean. If you break up when you still love each other you’ll hurt a lot of other people.”
Ulf hadn’t thought of it that way. “I’m sorry,” he said and hid his face in his hands.
“Those are his results?”
Kuri smirked and nodded. “Good or bad?”
Are you for real? 95 and 100 was on Noriko’s level, and even she didn’t score a perfect test all that often. At least Urufu’s other results were more human.
“I was talking about his English and Japanese scores,” Kuri said.
They weren’t all that exciting. Especially Urufu’s poor English score had Ryu in bewilderment for a while.
“I guess he’d have scored better at English in Swedish.”
What are you even talking about?
“Japanese is also a foreign language for both of us.”
Ryu looked up from the phone to see if he could find out what Kuri was blabbing about.
“You’re cute when you’re stupid, you know that?”
“His English score also mirrors his understanding of written Japanese.”
“But it’s awful! He’s barely able to read middle school texts.”
Kuri’s face lit up in a thoughtful smile, not the devastating one she used whenever she wanted to catch the attention of everyone within sight, but a more honest one. She was, Ryu realised, easily the most beautiful woman he had seen in his entire life.
Her hands, both of them, stretched across the table and grabbed his. “That was a year ago,” Kuri said. “We’re a year older now, all of us.”
Ryu’s breath caught in his throat. A year, and then some. Almost a fortnight earlier he spent her birthday with her, just like Urufu had done last year. Urufu, who still was foremost in her mind.
“How much could you learn in a year?” Ryu knew he sounded whiny, but her thinking of Urufu filled him with ire.
She just met his eyes with a look filled with fondness. “If it’s that idiot, probably a lot.”
Irritation finally boiled over. “If he’s so damned fantastic, why don’t you just stick to him!”
Ryu felt her hands tighten around his. “I can’t. We can’t. Maybe if I caught his eyes earlier, a lot earlier, but I doubt I’d have fallen for him then.”
For a moment Ryu felt more dumbfounded than angry. “Can’t?” he asked. He didn’t want to fight with her, but Urufu was still a sour topic.
“He has ghosts that need to go first. I can’t be the one to free him from those.”
“So you’re going to lend him to Noriko and then steal him back when he’s healed?”
Kuri’s eyes shot him a sting of anger. “Twenty years ago, maybe, but not now. Besides, I could never do that to him, or her for that matter.”
Ryu growled. He disliked how his sister had taken a fancy to Urufu. If he could prevent them from becoming a couple he’d do exactly that. Right now, however, he needed to make up with Kuri.
“About his scores. I guess they’re OK. More than OK actually.”
Kuri’s mouth became a thin line of dislike. “I was afraid you’d say that. He’s going to be so angry.”
Urufu, angry? “Eh?”
“I want your help to convince him to tone down his improvements. Actually I want you to convince Yukio.”
What? “I don’t understand?”
“Urufu needs to take it easy on the finals.”
Why the adoration? Ryu clenched his hands into fists, and he felt Kuri’s confusion as he did. He looked up and stared into that golden halo that demanded all his attention. “Finals? A month and a half. What could he possibly do?”
Kuri looked like she was on the verge of responding when she suddenly changed her mind. She quickly lifted his hands to her face and kissed his knuckles. “I’ll stay with you. I promise. Will that be enough for you?”
Ryu’s heart somersaulted at those words. He nodded, and somewhere in the back of his head he knew his face must look like an overeager middle schooler being promised his first date. I’m sorry Ai, I really am. But there was no denying how quickly he’d fallen for Kuri.
Wait a moment. You’re bribing me. “Urufu, how much could he improve?”
Kuri smiled. “So you caught up on that one. Don’t worry, my promise stands.”
She sighed. “Too much. Enough to get us all into trouble.”
“Trouble?” Sometimes he just didn’t understand her. It wasn’t as if her Japanese was horrible any longer, but when Kuri’s thoughts ran ahead of him he was left in the dark.
Kuri looked at him. A smile that never reached her eyes played on her lips, and Ryu could feel how she fought with herself to stop crying.
“If he makes it too far into the top fifty there’s no way we can stop the accusations of cheating.”
“What? That’s ridiculous, both that he’d make the list and that he’d be accused of cheating for doing so.”
Kuri’s fingers stroked the backside of Ryu’s hands. “Is it really? He’s suspended right now you know.”
“You are as well. That’s only because our principal is a bigoted swine.”
“Even so. If Ulf makes a push he’ll score among the top thirty next time. Just as you said before, there’s no way any normal kid could improve like that.”
Ryu nodded. Kuri finally seemed to understand how impossible such an improvement was.
“But he’s not a normal kid, is he?” she said instead.
“Remember the December marathon?”
Ryu did. He collapsed trying to keep up with Urufu.
“Ryu, Ulf had both lungs punctured less than three months before that. Sometimes he can be really stubborn.”
Memories from when Urufu was assaulted during their cultural festival floated through Ryu’s head. “Fine, whatever, so we just tell him to calm down.”
This time Kuri failed to stop her tears. “I wish I really was young and everything was that easy. Ryu, I made a choice. My career came first, but he got nothing in return.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I left him with nothing, and now when he’s found the strength to pursue a goal we’re going to stop him from doing that. I hate myself!”
This is bad.
Ulf walked Noriko back to her home. Not that it was really needed, but given the escalation of their conflict with the headship Ulf didn’t want to take any chances.
That conflict, however, wasn’t what was bad.
By his side Noriko shook, and tears threatened to leave her eyes. Not grief, not even sadness.
“How dare they!” Fury got the better of her and she shook again.
Ulf smiled. Christina was right, and hers was the world of appearances. Thirty years younger and he would have flatly refused to do less than his best, but he saw all kinds of problems if he suddenly scored among the thirty best.
I’ll do as you say, but not for the reason you think.
Christina’s was the world of appearances. His was one of group dynamics. If his results improved too drastically he might garner a greater reputation as the foreigner with knowledge, but at the cost of resentment, since he so obviously kept the most important parts to himself.
Well, I guess it’s about appearances after all. Ulf grinned and sent Christina a mental ironic nod.
“What are you laughing at?”
Ulf looked down at his side where Noriko still hadn’t let go of her rage.
“Sorry,” he said, “but I guess Christina is right about this.”
“Of all selfish...”
“Noriko, it’s selfish, but she’s right. I’ll do as she says for my own benefit.”
He needed to change the topic before she exploded again. Without thinking he patted her head, and she shook him off with an irritated twist of her head.
“Noriko, after high school, what are you going to do?”
She didn’t even break a step. Noriko might look a child, but as far as Ulf was concerned she was one of the most adult second years in the school.
Which was the answer Ulf had waited for. He opened his bag and took out a small plastic bag inside.
“Want a look at these?” He handed Noriko the small one.
She just gave him a quizzical stare when she accepted it.
“Toudai. Some information. I believe you have the grades to do it. I’ve heard the entrance exam can be a bit harsh, but you should be able to pass it.”
Noriko smirked, but she silently put the papers in her bag.
“No reaction?” Ulf tried.
She gave him a glare.
What did I do now?
“So you just want to send me off there doing whatever you want wherever you’ll spend your life after high school?”
I didn’t mean it that way. “Sorry. I just thought you might be interested. It’s supposed to be a good university.”
She stayed silent for a while. “Sorry,” she said. “Entrance exams are supposed to be hell.”
Ulf shrugged. It was only an exam. You could either cram it the brain dead way people did here, or you could try to understand the material. As far as entrance exams went, cramming was the way to go. They weren’t designed to properly work as vetting machines anyway.
“Look, don’t try to change the topic!”
Damn, she’s too perceptive. “I wasn’t...”
“If you think I’m a moron you’re an idiot.” This time she turned and grabbed him. “I might be in love with you, but that doesn’t turn my head to mush.”
Ulf caved in. Besides, she deserved better than a half arsed attempt at pretending nothing happened.
“Look, Noriko, I’m royally pissed that she’s interfering with my studies, but I have a reason to do what she says.”
“She chose her modelling career over you, but now when you’re...”
“No, Noriko!” Whipping out his voice like that was too much. Ulf regretted it as soon as he had done so. Not because he refused to bark at her, but because he’d just reneged on a promise.
To his surprise she didn’t recoil. “Don’t try that with me! Dad’s a jodo san dan.”
“Jodo?” Ulf said just as he realised he’d fallen into Noriko’s trap and now danced to her tune.
“I’ve trained some, and Ryu as well. You used his staff you know. When we met.”
When we met. What a way to describe it. But it was correct. Someone had a weapon he’d used to send the kids to hospital.
“So don’t try to order me around by shouting. It doesn’t work. Now convince me Kuri’s not a first class bitch.”
Fine, I’ll do so. “Noriko, we can’t blow our cover too blatantly. She’s afraid us arrivals get pushed into the open.”
“Yeah, and so?”
You don’t really mean that. “I don’t care all that much,” Ulf lied. He didn’t intend to spend the rest of his life as a military experiment in US custody if he had a chance to avoid it. “I do care if what I do would destroy the club though.” Which was a truth.
This time she didn’t react with irritation when he placed his hand on her head. He did that almost reflexively, and it showed how hard it was for him to treat her as the woman she still hadn’t grown into. Cursing himself he removed his hand.
“Noriko,” he said after she grabbed his hand and put it back on her head. “I’m effectively the acting principal of a very small cram school, as well as a teacher.”
She nodded, and he could feel her fingers caress the back side of his hand.
Opportunist! Ulf thought, but he didn’t take back his hand. Through his insensitive stupidity she had earned the right to use it as her plaything for a little while.
“Mmm,” Noriko purred.
Damn you! But there was no anger in that thought, only the affection for an important friend. “If my own results improve too drastically, the club members are bound to think I’ve been keeping things secret to get ahead of them.”
Noriko immediately stopped playing with his hand. With a movement Ulf felt was filled with reluctance she removed it from her head.
“Why, Urufu, why are you putting the club ahead of you?”
He had waited for that question. “I’ve never done that. In my world I come first. The club is a tool. I plan to make every member gain immensely from being part of it, but in the end it’s my tool.”
Noriko looked at him. For a moment Ulf saw the woman she would become. “Shoot! I want in.”
So he’s not really suspended at all? Noriko had heard her parents talk with Urufu on the phone a few times when they thought she didn’t listen. Both Urufu as well as her parents believed she and Ryu didn’t know that they knew about the arrivals. More importantly, they thought Kuri’s grandfather from that other world was a secret.
Noriko didn’t understand why that was important for them, but together with her brother she kept the illusion alive.
Right now another illusion was foremost on her mind, the one about their club. The club that by all rights should have been permanently shut down as soon as Principal Kareyoshi targeted it.
For once she didn’t sit in the inner room at Stockholm Haven café. An outdoors café close to the entrance to Ueno park presented a view of gravel and a line of trees walling off the park from the surrounding city. The gravel ended in a rather ugly fountain with its associated rectangular pond. Come summer and the park would be packed with people seeking refuge from the worst of the city heat.
Across the table former Principal Nakagawa sipped a cup of coffee and waited for her to take in what he had just said.
Noriko looked at the older man she really didn’t know all that well. He was the kind of person her father surrounded himself with, or rather the kind of person her mother made certain her father surrounded himself with. Her parents had a peculiar partnership that way, and Noriko never understood who really pulled the strings between the two of them.
When she was done mulling over the bomb Nakagawa sensei had dropped Noriko put down her soda and drew breath.
“You lost control over the school but bought the PTA instead?”
Nakagawa sensei nodded. “We bribed them, yes.” Wrinkled hands shook a little when he lifted the cup to his mouth again.
Noriko leaned back in her chair. A draft of wind offered some cool in the pre summer heat. Soon the rainy season would start, and after that Tokyo would become an oven, wind or no wind never mattered.
She took another mouthful of soda. How the old man could drink hot coffee now was beyond her.
“But doesn’t the board of directors have the last say anyway?”
With a thin smile of approval Nakagawa sensei nodded. “A Wakayama through and through. Yes, you’re correct.”
“I don’t think dad would do business with you,” Noriko said. “If push comes to shove you’re not in control.”
Nakagawa sensei shrugged like a westerner. “Having the PTA in our hands bought us some time.”
Noriko copied his shrug. “It’s running out.”
“Irishima High is our ace in the hole, or rather their affiliated university is.”
Noriko knew a little about it. Not really an escalator, but students from Irishima High could enter the university on good grades, and bypass the entrance exams that way.
“I don’t understand.” Underhanded business wasn’t really Noriko’s forte. “Would you please explain?”
“This club of yours is vital. We’re protecting everything exceptional an arrival comes up with. We have reasons to do so.”
That made sense. A secret organisation letting a few arrivals play havoc with Japanese norms was crazy in itself, but the costs associated had to be huge. One way or another there had to be a pay-off.
“So you want to prevent Kareyoshi from shutting it down?” Noriko didn’t even pretend to show her new principal any respect.
She got a grin in return. Her lack of honorifics hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“There will be repercussions, but the club stays one way or another. I can guarantee that.”
“How?” What Nakagawa sensei said piqued Noriko’s interest. This was the adult world, and one she needed to learn quickly if she was ever to make Urufu hers.
“Club members with good results will void the entrance exams. I’m not entirely clear how we’ll handle it, but one way or another.”
Noriko sucked in some air. Automatic entry into a decent university was a great carrot for most students, or rather for their parents.
“Isn’t that basically declaring war on the Himekaizen headship?”
Nakagawa sensei sipped some more coffee. When he put his cup down on the table a smile ran over his face. “Not really. Not the headship. Kareyoshi only. If the pig wants a revolt we’re giving him one.”
Something didn’t ring right. “Kareyoshi could force his staff to give all members horrid grades.”
Noriko waited for Nakagawa sensei to continue. She had plenty of time before the Sunday date she had coerced Urufu into.
Almost forgot I have to see Kuri first. Why did she insist on meeting me before my date?
“With the exception of mister Hammargren and miss Agerman I believe we can have the Irishima High headship rubber-stamp any grades set by the club,” Nakagawa sensei said and brought Noriko out of her thoughts.
Then what he had said finally registered and it was enough to force a gasp from her. “Grading ourselves?”
“Almost, but no. Both the principal and the vice principal of Irishima High know about the arrivals. They’ll trust any grading done by the boy you’re so painfully obviously in love with.”
Am I really that transparent? Noriko felt her cheeks heat up even before she finished that thought. As if I’m walking around with a sign saying teenager in love.
“But then he really isn’t a boy in the first place,” Nakagawa sensei continued relentlessly.
Noriko forced her own embarrassment away. “That’s putting a lot of responsibility on his shoulders.”
“That’s making him do what he’d do anyway. He started the revolt in the first place. He should see it through.”
That was, Noriko realised, grossly unfair. Urufu hadn’t started a revolt. He lost his entire life just to be dropped into an unfamiliar world, and that was hardly his fault.
“Harsh, don’t you agree?”
Noriko glared at her former principal.
“He wouldn’t have it any other way. Not here at least. Isn’t that the part of him you fell for?”
On the verge of protesting Noriko recalled a raging spirit with spiky, orange hair. A demon of fury who had come to her rescue that day in middle school. He didn’t know me. He didn’t even know this Japan, and yet he took on all four of them. Yes, that was the man she had fallen for, a man who acted on injustice. A man with his own sense of absolute integrity. So strong it sometimes made him stupid, and just so much more lovable. Kuri, you idiot! You let him go. Why?
A Noriko all dressed up on a Sunday didn’t pass Ryu by. She never dressed up unless required for a formal occasion, but what she wore now, the way her hair was done, and the almost invisible make-up turned his cute sister into the kind of almost woman who had men turn their heads in the streets.
Who the hell dolled you up?
Ryu swore and turned on his heels. He’d be damned if he allowed Noriko to play that kind of game with Urufu, or rather let Urufu have his way with his sister.
If he hurried he’d make it down the stairs and catch up with Noriko. There was still some time before Kuri was to arrive for their date. Their late date. She had an errand to take care of first she had said over the phone.
He took the stairs four steps at a time, almost like at school, and a few guests stared at him from their seats on the bottom floor when he exited the stairs. Ryu almost made it to the doors when his way suddenly was blocked by a woman in a very expensive dress.
“I’m sorry, but...”
Ryu looked up and stared into Kuri’s eyes. “Ah, look, I just...”
“It’s sis, and she looks like...”
“She looks beautiful.”
“Kuri, the way she looks she’s going to catch all kinds of wrong attention. I have to stop her.”
Kuri grabbed his arm and turned him around when he tried to pass her. “Look kiddo, I put a lot of effort into making her that beautiful. You’re not going to interfere with her life that way.” It wasn’t an order, but rather a statement.
“Yes, me. She doesn’t know it, but there are women who’d pay hundreds of thousands of yen for the make over I gave her, and we’re not even talking clothes here.”
“You, but why?”
Kuri let go of his arm. Her grip had been surprisingly strong. Instead she took his hand and led him back up the stairs.
Ryu noticed the glances the two of them attracted. By now it was mostly a matter of fact how otherworldly beauty and teenage dream prince demanded the attention of just everyone whenever they were in the same room, and Ryu knew it was Kuri who made him shine, not the other way around.
She smelled faintly of herself, just more strongly so, and Ryu guessed she had ordered some kind of miracle perfume mix suited for her personally, a mixture perfected over a lifetime in the fashion world.
Not until they were both seated at the table he had abandoned just moments earlier did he understand how masterfully Kuri had prevented him from running after his sister. Even defusing a scene in the building before it had a chance to be noticed by anyone.
“Why?” he asked.
Kuri slid slender fingers over his hand. “Noriko is one of my two best friends. She stood by my side when I was a broken wreck and asked for nothing in return.”
“Why?” he repeated.
“I still love Urufu, and you know that. I believe they’re good for each other, and if I can help two of the people who are the most important for me, then I’ll do so. They’ve given me so much, and I’ll owe them for years to come.”
“Why?” Ryu said for a third time.
“Because you have me, and for that reason alone you’ve lost any right to stand in the way of your sister, if you ever had that right to begin with.”
That was both a promise and a threat, and it was enough for him to stop asking a fourth time.
“I don’t like it,” he murmured instead.
Kuri’s finger took a firmer grip of his hand. “You don’t have to like it. You also don’t have any right to make your sister less than she can be. It’s her life, and hers alone.”
Those were words from a different world than his, but also the words of his parents. Both of them Japanese through and through, and still they abhorred exactly the part of society Kuri had just aimed at. Her life. Her choice. Her responsibility. Stay the fuck away!
Ryu turned his hands and grabbed Kuri’s in his. Fingers played with fingers while he recalled the angry looks of worry his mother sent him when he merely acted on common sense.
“That’s no son of mine,” she once drunkenly said to his father when neither of them thought he heard. “We revolted against this piss poor excuse for a feudal prison, and now he wants to rebuild it!”
Ryu never knew his mother used words like that. He knew his father didn’t.
“Walking down memory lane and getting a new one ripped by your mom?” Kuri suddenly asked. “She’s my kind of girl. I like her. I wish I’d met her when I was thirty. I’d show them both the world.”
Your world. You weren’t in this one when you were thirty. Ryu suddenly realised how both his parents had revolted, and how Kuri once must have done. Funny, that makes me the old fashioned one here.
Then it struck him. Why his sister was hell-bent on making Urufu her own. He’s all that I never was. Ryu met Kuri’s eyes and hoped she never noticed how scared he was. Gods, he broke his own life because he refused to break yours!
“What it is Ryu?”
Ryu listened to the voice of a woman he’d come to love beyond reason. He thoroughly disliked how fast he’d fallen for her again. Rather than answering her he just squeezed harder. Crap, you’ve got me cornered good.
“So you finally realised.” Kuri let go of his hands with one of hers. It stretched across the table, and to his shock she caressed his cheeks. “Good. That’s a man I could grow to love for real.”
She never said we’d pretend being a couple. His heart jumped at her words.
“Ryu, the day you tie your sister up, that day I’ll start hating you, because that’s the day you betray me. Don’t make me stop learning to love the man you can become instead.”
So, it was out in the open. With those words Kuri made it clear she’d support Noriko’s revolts, both of them. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realised his parent’s would give all their support to Noriko as well, no matter how afraid she was they wouldn’t. Her life, her choice, her responsibility, and damned be anyone who tried to steal her right to become an adult of her own.