“Which means that as of now that illegal club is finally dissolved.”
Some of them grumbled, but only the PTA chairman said anything.
“I doubt you can do this.”
“As a matter of fact I can. I’m the principal of Himekaizen Academy, and I have the full support of the board of directors.”
“I don’t understand,” another PTA member said. This time a woman in her fifties.
“That means,” Principal Kareyoshi said, “that any student who visits that café will be suspended, and repeat offenders expelled from the school.”
Most of the parents present grumbled, and the teachers made their best to look like they didn’t hear a thing.
“Is it true,” a woman in her late forties said, “that the members of the club have increased their scores by ten percent compared to the rest of the school?”
Fucking bitch! Principal Kareyoshi put on his best smile. “We’re handling the cheating. They’re Koreans, and we all know what they are like,” he finished.
This time he got a few murmurs in agreement.
Finally! People needed nudging to understand that foreign influences, just like the foreigners themselves, were unclean. It took some time, but when he made people understand it was worth all the effort.
“Is it true,” the same woman persisted, “that the club members, who are not subject to investigation for cheating, have also increased their scores by the same ten percent?”
And some people just never learned. “They’re using unjapanese methods. That’s akin to cheating,” Principal Kareyoshi said and sighed. “When we find out...”
He got no further, because a man, face red from agitation and clad as you would expect from a civil servant, almost rose in his chair. “Are you trying to say that the learning skills my daughter has acquired is cheating?”
“Just as bad,” Principal Kareyoshi answered. “I’m sorry the previous principal allowed her to get bad company.”
“In that club they’re learning to question what their teachers tell them. They’re forgetting how to respect their betters.” Kareyoshi gave his next words a moment of thought. “If your daughter remains in that club she won’t become a proper wife.”
“Proper wife?” the troublesome woman said. “What century are you from?”
“Yes, a wife who raises a family,” Kareyoshi noticed how his voice had risen and took a breath to calm down, “who raises good Japanese children and supports her husband.”
The woman stared at him. “Damn, here I thought you were merely stranded in the Showa era, but now I see that you’re firmly entrenched in the former half of it.”
The rude comment even brought a few giggles over the table, but most of the PTA members gave the woman an annoyed glance.
“I have my ideals, yes. They may seem a little old fashioned, but a clean Japan is a strong Japan.”
She only snorted. “Last time we thought that way we bombed Pearl Harbour, and look what that got us.”
“Enough!” the chairman barked.
Mentioning the war was definitely going to far, and Principal Kareyoshi noticed how the woman gave the chairman a sullen stare, but at least she looked properly subdued. Silently Kareyoshi wondered how a person like her could possibly have gained a seat here.
“So,” Kareyoshi began when he saw an opportunity to use the blessed silence that had settled over the table. “I’ve informed you of the actions we have taken, and the consequences for breaching the terms we set up. Would you mind informing the other parents?”
The chairman nodded. Then Kareyoshi noticed a dangerous spark in his eyes. “However, Principal Kareyoshi, if you take this too far there will be repercussions.”
You dare threaten me! “You were saying?”
“I’m just saying that within that group of students there are half a dozen with grades indicating they might enter a top university, and you have decided to target those rather than the ones who are barely able to graduate from here.”
That was grossly unfair. He would never do such a thing, but the good students needed protection from foreign dirt, or they would become forever tainted as adults. How could their parents of all people not understand the seriousness of the situation?
“It’s for their own good,” Kareyoshi said. He didn’t need a confrontation with the chairman. “I only want the best of futures for them.”
“Are we just going to accept this?” the woman asked.
The chairman turned in his chair and met her eyes. “Yes, we are. As Principal Kareyoshi said, he’s in charge of the school.”
A smile slowly spread over Kareyoshi’s lips, but it stopped immediately when the chairman continued.
“Until such a date when that is no longer the case the students and staff are to abide by his decisions.”
Until such a date?
“Fine,” the woman said.
Kareyoshi needed to take control of the situation. “If that is all,” he said and made as if to close the meeting.
“If I may,” a man who had been silent throughout the entire meeting said.
“Yes?” Kareyoshi and the chairman answered simultaneously.
The man only smiled slightly and distributed several copies of a document he had in a case. “Just to mitigate any worries.”
Kareyoshi just threw the paper a glance until the obnoxious woman cackled with glee. That forced him to give it a proper read.
How dare they!
It was signed by the principal and vice principal of Irishima High.
“Fantastic!” the woman said. She patted the worried father from earlier on his shoulders. “If your daughter is expelled for remaining in the club she’s welcome to attend a high school with a better reputation than Himekaizen Academy.”
Which was exactly what the paper said. Provided they passed an entrance exam it said, but Kareyoshi saw through the vindictive lie. Every student he evicted from school with that club as an argument would pass that exam.
On the threshold of raging he calmed down again. Well, then it’s no longer my problem. I can at least keep this school clean.
“How bad is it?”
Had she been as vulgar as Jeniferu-chan Noriko guessed she’d have spat on the floor, or something equally graphic to answer that question.
She wished she was.
Noriko stared across the table. A few weeks earlier the inner room would have been filled with Himekaizen students and a smattering of club members from Irishima High.
She wished Urufu was here, but he was busy working, and this time he’d brought her brother, Yukio and Kyoko with him.
She bit her lower lip and turned to face Hitomi-chan. “You should know.”
Hitomi-chan smiled but shook her head. “Sorry, but I’ve been busy the last couple of weeks.”
The room looked larger now when it wasn’t crowded with students, but it was far from empty.
A few weeks earlier there would only have been a smattering of Irishima High club members. Now they were in the majority.
“What is it like?” Noriko asked to change the subject.
Hitomi-chan combed that fantastic hair of hers with both hands. “Smaller,” she said.
You’re way too obvious, Noriko thought. But for Kuri Hitomi-chan could have been the girl most admired in their grade, and now she could again. Even Noriko had to admit she looked absolutely gorgeous in the old-fashioned sailor uniform of Irishima High.
“Half a dozen,” Noriko said and answered the first question. “You included,” she added.
By Hitomi-chan’s side Jirou-sempai and Sango-chan sat, fingers locked and sharing a quizzical glance at Noriko.
Well, you don’t look all that different from before, Noriko observed. Old fashioned or not, they weren’t morons at Irishima High, and the boys didn’t have to wear their gakuran during summer.
Jirou-sempai wore more or less the same white shirt and black trousers he would have hadn’t he been expelled for refusing to leave the club.
In Sango-chan’s case it was a little different. There was no way the sailor uniform could be mistaken for a Himekaizen summer uniform.
“And in total?” Hitomi-chan wanted to know.
Noriko closed her mouth. She knew her lips were a thin line of irritation, but she didn’t care. “A dozen just stopped coming, and there’s another seven waiting for their expulsion notice.”
“I hope we’ll be in the same class again.”
With a shrug, just like Urufu did, Noriko smiled. “Still waiting, but yes, it would be good to know someone over there.”
“Urufu-kun as well.”
“I doubt he’ll transfer,” Noriko said. She felt a little ashamed, especially as she had come to think better of Hitomi-chan since the start of their second year. Still, telling the beauty exactly why none of the arrivals would be expelled was out of the question, because that meant telling her about the arrivals in the first place.
“Look, you of anyone should stop talking trash about him. Sure, he’s not among the top 50, but he’s not an idiot.”
Noriko stared at Hitomi-chan. You’re defending Urufu from me. What the hell? The absurdity became too much for her, and soon Noriko broke down in hysterical laughter. Her stomach hurt, but she couldn’t help herself. Months of pent up frustration and fear welled up in her, and she laughed and laughed and laughed.
“Think she needs help?”
Which brought out another round of guffaws.
Hitomi-chan came around the table and helped Noriko, who had fallen to the floor in hysterical laughter, to her feet. “It’s not that funny, you know. You could go to Waseda, or maybe even Toudai.”
Noriko sobered up and nodded. She wanted to hear what Hitomi-chan had to say.
“But Urufu can’t, and I believe he’s fit to teach there,” Hitomi-chan continued. “I saw what happened to him, and he never stopped giving us his all here. We owe him more than laughter.”
Noriko’s feelings for Hitomi-chan rose from mere goodwill to true respect. “You know I love him don’t you?” Noriko said without thinking.
This time it was Hitomi-chan’s turn to laugh. “I wondered for a moment. Your saying he wouldn’t transfer pissed me off.”
Noriko stared at the almost perfect face. While she was pretty certain Hitomi-chan had never been infatuated with Urufu, Noriko also suspected the girl must have given him more than just a cursory thought. Not taking any chances here. Urufu had fallen for Kuri, and there were no guarantees he wouldn’t fall for beauty once more. “I’d never go behind his back. When he behaves like a moron I tell him to his face. He won’t transfer because he doesn’t have to.” That had to do as an explanation. Hitomi-chan could read in as much as she wanted of underhanded connections or even outright bribes.
From her face Noriko could see Hitomi-chan accepted that answer. “And you?”
That was the question Noriko originally had prepared for, and the one she had only partially answered earlier. “I don’t know. Soon I guess. We should be expelled this week at latest, and after that we’ll all transfer to Irishima High.”
“My father is in politics,” Hitomi-chan suddenly said. “He said he can’t understand what Kareyoshi’s doing.”
Noriko noted the lack of an honorific. When it came to the bastard not a single club member offered him the respect an honorific would mean. She understood it made them exactly as unjapanese as the pig said, and she didn’t care one iota.
“He has his own agenda,” Noriko said, and she heard how weak that sounded.
“Half a dozen of the school’s top fifty, and not a single one of those expelled in the bottom half.”
“Top thirty,” Noriko mumbled.
“I checked. We’re all in the top thirty, if we’re in the top fifty at all.” The club had the highest concentration of top students by a very wide margin. It didn’t start that way, but Urufu’s teaching methods finally made the impact he promised all along. Their last finals as freshmen came as a surprise, and the midterms results for all practical purposes killed off Kareyoshi’s dreams of scaring them all into submission.
“I’m sure our principal will be ecstatic,” Hitomi-chan said.
Noriko listened to her voice dripping with sardonic venom. It doesn’t go well together with your looks.
“Yeah, Irishima High is kind to care for us dropouts,” Noriko said, and she sounded just the same.
“I don’t know,” Ryu lied.
With an umbrella he shared with Kuri slung over his bag they were the only ones in the Stockholm Haven café clad in the Himekaizen summer uniform. Most of the faces were still familiar though, but they all sported Irishima High uniforms.
Must be bad for business, Ryu thought but when he looked around he got the answer why only most of the faces were familiar.
The expulsions followed by mass transfers to Irishima High pulled new students to the café. The club had already made up for almost half of its losses, but for natural reasons they were all Irishima High students. For all practical purposes the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club had become an Irishima High club. There were only eight Himekaizen Academy students, and one of them shouldn’t even be here.
“Watch out, your girlfriend could get jealous,” the odd one out said.
Ryu glared at Jeniferu-chan. Mere minutes earlier she walked into the inner room, stripped to panties and bra and got into a set of casual clothes. All in plain view of the members inside.
You’re shameless, you know that? he thought, but then he recalled Kuri doing pretty much the same thing at different occasions. Maybe it’s a foreigner thing. He put the lid on that thought as fast as he could. Now wasn’t the time to divide reality into foreign or not – Kareyoshi never ceased doing just that.
“You’re the only members still at Himekaizen,” Nori-kun said.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Ryu said and lied once more. None of the arrivals had been expelled, and that included Jeniferu-chan who got mistaken for one. Ryu had made that mistake himself just after the start of the school year.
“Noriko-chan thought you’d transfer last week.”
“So did I,” Ryu said. This time he spoke the truth. Maybe he had miscalculated just how tightly the four of them, he, his sister, Yukio and Kyoko, were connected to the arrivals. Or with Kuri and Urufu at least. While he saw Tomasu-kun and Jeniferu-chan almost daily they still weren’t his friends.
“Ryu,” Jeniferu-chan said, “could you get Ulf to help me hook up with Thomas?”
What kind of roundabout favour was that? “Ask him yourself,” Ryu said.
Despite her being the second most famous girl at Himekaizen, something with Jeniferu-chan made him grit his teeth. In difference from Kuri everything Jeniferu-chan did came from selfish wants as far as Ryu could see.
“But you know him better.”
“I intend to keep it that way,” Ryu said. For once it didn’t bother him that he was deliberately rude to a girl.
Jeniferu-chan didn’t answer. Instead she grabbed his arm and led him out into the café proper. Her grip was so tight he might have hurt her had he tried to get loose.
They didn’t stay in the café, but instead she forced him under the jingling bell and out on the street.
Late afternoon traffic gave them the backdrop she probably wanted to make certain she wasn’t overheard. Streets wet from rain only increased the noise, and a steady drizzle reminded Ryu they were firmly into the rainy month.
Well outside Jeniferu-chan pushed him under the awning, which helped keeping the worst of the rain away, but it also made them look like a quarrelling couple.
Ryu stepped around a puddle that had gathered where he stood. James really needed to change the fabric above them, or even better, buy an altogether new one.
“Look, I don’t like that attitude of yours. I’m interested in Thomas, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to burn my chances because I didn’t do my research first.” Jeniferu-chan stared at him and forced Ryu to meet her eyes. “You’re with Christina, Prince Charming, so you got what you wanted. Pretend you care for your friend all you want, but you stole his girlfriend when you got tired of your own.”
Slapping girls really wasn’t an option, but Ryu really felt like breaking his promise to himself from many years ago. “I didn’t...”
“Shut up! Coward! She’s over you now, but I saw how much she was in love with you before.”
“She dumped me.”
“So man up! You knew Ai didn’t want to break up, but you still turned up with your arms around Ulf’s girl when school started.”
The part of his arms around Kuri wasn’t true, but everything else was. “What about it?” When did you find out so much? But the question was moot. Ai’s friends must have told everyone who wanted to listen, and with him involved there were a lot of those. With both him and Kuri involved they didn’t even have to embellish the truth to make a good story.
“Ulf isn’t your business any longer. You betrayed him good. Besides I’m not after him anyway. He’s just too damn boring. I just want his help to get closer to Thomas.”
Ryu wondered what made the silent former professor of classic Japanese less boring than Urufu, especially as the latter had been the centre of attention so many times. Ah, but she’s a freshman. She doesn’t know.
Because Urufu spent his time being suspended whenever he should have taken the lead and humiliate the dickhead who was their principal.
“Look,” Ryu said and lifted his foot to avoid the puddle Jeniferu-chan almost forced him to stand in. “I don’t know what you’re planning, but if I help you get in touch with Urufu, promise you won’t do anything funny to my friends!”
She gave him a calculating look, and then, very suddenly, she hugged him.
“Sure, she said, deal.”
“Wait, why...” Ryu never finished the question, because across the street he saw the photographers stalking Kuri, and in lack of anything more exiting some of them had taken shots of him and Jeniferu-chan embracing.
“Just to make sure you keep your part,” she said.
Ryu swore inwardly. Damn, you’re a crafty one. With a broken smile he admitted defeat and fished out his phone from a trouser pocket.
When Ulf received a call from Ryu an exceptionally disgusting day in June he wasn’t entirely certain Jennifer wanting to talk to him merited cycling around in the downpour. At the other hand, cycling around in the downpour was appealing in itself. As long as he dropped the water barrier altogether he’d never notice that he got sweaty. As long as the pannier was waterproof he only needed a restroom to change into dry clothes, or, as it was the manipulating little devil Jennifer he was supposed to meet, he could come dripping wet and pretend it was what he usually did.
For a moment Ulf played with the thought of calling Christina for advice, but even though thinking of hearing her voice didn’t hurt as much as earlier, he still dropped that idea. Christina was bound to come up with something just as devilish as Jennifer, but based on 35 years’ worth of added experience from womanhood.
Right now he rode his bike sans water barrier but with his waterproof pannier secured behind him. Inside lay two changes of underwear and a creaseproof business suit he bought with cycling to customers in mind. But for the rain he could ride wearing it from home to a customer and still look like he just left from a taxi when he arrived.
Ulf hastened through a wet Tokyo. Rather than the Stockholm Haven Café Jennifer chose the river boat from Asakusa. In his previous life, not too many years earlier, he took the Water Bus from Asakusa to Odaiba because the kids wanted to jump into the sea in the scorching heat.
Jennifer, however, wanted to go directly to Hinode. He’d force her to go back to Ueno with him so that he could get on the subway to Asakusa and pick up his bike again.
Well, first he had to ride the twenty kilometres to Asakusa, which meant an hour astride his bike if he didn’t want to be stopped by the police. Jennifer could wait for him there for ten or twenty minutes depending on how well she matched her trains.
In the end he arrived by the river boats in fifty minutes. He was drenched but filled with the kind of gorgeous exhaustion from pushing his body just a little he had grown addicted to. He threw a glance at the ugly Cloudspear tower. For once its name was apt. He couldn’t see all the way up.
As Ulf locked his bike to a stand Jennifer arrived as well, and he waved at her.
She waved back.
“So why the sudden date?” he asked in English when she came closer. There was no point in speaking Japanese with a girl from the US anyway.
She twisted her face into a grin and blasted away with the brutal charisma of hers. A few tourists turned and stared at him with open envy in their eyes. Saying that he didn’t feel anything would be lying, but Ulf forced a grip on his emotions and gave her what he hoped was a cool stare.
“I’m not available.”
“You’re eye candy while we have a romantic chat on the boat. Don’t you agree rivers are best seen from the water?”
I know you’re the sixteen you look, but you bloody hell don’t behave like it. “With Christina, last summer, it would have been a gift from heaven,” Ulf said. If Jennifer didn’t know he was still in love with Christina, then she was blind to a degree that didn’t match her manipulating skills at all.
Jennifer just took his hand and led him to the ticket vendor.
“I’d love to compete with her, but right now I can’t afford that rivalry.” Then Jennifer tilted her face upwards and shot him an absolutely adorable smile. “I could make that cute little second year act on her feelings instead.”
That cute little second year could only be Noriko. “She already did, thank you very much.”
The smile turned into playful admonishing. “And you rejected her? How mean!”
Damn, this girl is really, really, really good at this game. Don’t get tricked! “Yeah, I can’t return her feelings, and she’s much too important for me just to have as a bedfellow. You could do though.”
It was an awful thing to say to a high schooler, but Jennifer had acted like an arse since they met.
“Sorry,” she said unperturbed. “Still a virgin, and I’m not giving it to you.” She gave him one of the tickets the machine spewed out in exchange for a few large coins. “Time to hop onboard.”
It wasn’t really. Departure wasn’t for another ten minutes, but Ulf was happy the awkward conversation had ended, and so he bought her an ice cream and a soda in return for the trip.
While they ate and drank under a shelter he noticed how Jennifer looked like the kid she really was for the first time since she arrived.
In another life, thirty years ago, I’d be in love with you. He sighed with relief she couldn’t make this version of him into her plaything.
They spent the first half of the boat trip in silence, and Ulf got himself the time he needed to start enjoying the ride. Tokyo was too much buildings and too little nature for this taste, and riding down a river gave him a well needed shot of what he missed from living in Gothenburg.
“I apologise,” Jennifer suddenly said when they reached open water.
Ulf turned and met her eyes. Finally! Now we can talk. “So you wanted to talk about something.”
Jennifer combed her hair with her fingers and her lips turned into a thin line. “I’ve fallen for Thomas. Could you help me?”
Her choice in men surprised him a little, but given how she behaved well above her age maybe he shouldn’t be so surprised that she aimed at boys more mature than they looked. In that case Thomas made perfect sense.
“You’re both from Sweden. I don’t really understand how he works, and I don’t want to make a stupid mistake.”
So it was really a romantic talk after all. “I can’t promise anything. Let me just enjoy this ride. Then I want to get my bike.”
“I’ll treat you to dinner. Let’s have that talk together with some food.”
For once Jennifer didn’t do something stupid, like trying to seduce him. She just nodded, and Ulf saw a glimmer of gratitude in her eyes.
Oh, it’s been a while.
Ulf rose from his chair and bowed to the trio taking seats two tables away.
“Who are they,” Jennifer asked and looked at the Wakayama parents and Christina’s grandfather.
Ulf received a nod in return, and a curious look at the foreigner across his table. He sighed silently with relief when Jennifer politely waved in just the perfectly awkward way a foreign teenager should do when confronted with adults in a country not their own.
“Noriko’s and Ryu’s parents, plus a friend of theirs,” Ulf added rather than telling the entire truth. Jennifer was asking too many questions as it was, and she didn’t need to know there was effectively a community of arrivals in Tokyo. Not that Mitsuo lived in Tokyo, but he visited both Christina and the Wakayamas often enough to be part of that circle.
“Do you want to leave?”
Ulf glanced at Jennifer and shook his head. “They won’t mind. I’m doing business with the Wakayamas anyway, so they’re kind of used to my antics.”
Ulf made a point of twisting up his wrist watch to show Jennifer how old fashioned he was. Funny that, he thought, there are schools here where you’re not allowed to wear one, but when I grew up all kids were encouraged to do just that. More than a difference in culture, Ulf understood. A difference in generations as well. I didn’t even know what a mobile phone was back then.
“Expensive?” Jennifer suddenly asked.
Ulf nodded. Wrong question, girl. Is it good, or do you like it, would have been better. “I feel uncomfortable without one,” he said.
They shared the first half of their dinner in relative silence only broken by chit chat pertaining to the food and the boat trip earlier. While very much a young girl Jennifer still showed she knew good manners if she wanted to.
Ulf glanced at her over his food from time to time. Not once had she used that devastating charisma of hers since they entered the restaurant. Maybe she really wanted to talk after all.
As they were finishing their main course, and Ulf mentally prepared to order desserts, he decided it was time to get down to business.
“Thomas, you said.”
Jennifer swallowed a bite together with some sparkling water. “Yeah, Thomas.”
“Do you like him, or do you want to pump him for knowledge about us arrivals?” Ulf knew he sounded callous, but this was Jennifer.
She hesitated for a moment, gave first him and then the table with the Wakayama parents a long look, and then she shrugged. “Both,” she admitted.
Ulf followed her stare over white tableware and met Mitsuo’s searching eyes. “You didn’t lie, so I’ll listen to you.”
“I’m intrigued, and have been from the start.” She grimaced and took another sip of water. “As you say he’s kind of boring, but he seems like a good guy, and I’ve never been much for the exciting ones.”
Ulf gave her a long stare. That was a surprise, but then he guessed someone like her could have the exciting at a moments notice. Maybe she’d been burned before she moved to Japan. “Continue,” he said and put down his fork on the plate where it made company with his knife. Soon he’d order dessert, but he wanted to hear what Jennifer had to say first.
“I kind of made friends with Thomas in the club. He’s broken, you know.”
Broken, what’s with us arrivals and being broken? Ah, the other Jennifer. How could I have forgotten?
Jennifer looked at him, and as Ulf was caught in his own thought she must have taken that as a sign to go on. “They were living together, you know. He says it still hurts.”
Like Maria. It hurt for a long time. Still does from time to time. And my kids. Ulf nodded. He understood exactly what Jennifer was talking about.
“I don’t know if he’s ready to move on, but I can’t help myself. I’m falling for him,” she said.
Ulf searched her eyes for the lie, but he found nothing. Could it really be that simple?
“I’m living here on a scholarship. Alone. My parents trust me. Honestly I don’t understand why, but they do.”
Probably because you deserve that trust no matter how you behave. Parents notice the big lies, even if they sometimes try not to. “And you feel lonely?”
Jennifer nodded. “I wanted this date with you for two reasons. You seem like a good guy as well, but I don’t feel anything at all for you. I needed to know. I’m sorry if I led you on.”
In ways she was definitely more grown up than her years. So she wanted to know what kind of infatuation she felt. If it was real, or if it was just a reaction to feeling lonely.
“Don’t worry. I’m not hooking up with anyone anytime soon.”
“Still in love with Christina?”
Ulf smirked but nodded. He was. Seeing her didn’t hurt as much as before, but he was definitely not over her, if he ever would be. “Part of me always will be,” he admitted both to her and himself.
“Part of? So you’re moving on?” Jennifer tilted her head. She was very cute, but Ulf only saw curiosity in her eyes.
“In a way. We broke up. One day I’ll find someone else.” He searched his thoughts for a better explanation. “I don’t think I’m the kind of person who could live his life alone.” Whomever he met down the line he needed to be very honest with her. Worst case he’d hook up with second best. Best case he’d still always compare her to Christina.
“I feel sorry for her,” Jennifer said and proved she had just read his thoughts.
I’m an arse. “I’ll help you on one condition.”
Despite the caveat Jennifer’s face lit up in a happy smile. Ulf understood she didn’t mean it this time, but her smile together with a surprised shout of joy had just about everyone within three tables turn their heads and stare at her in admiration.
Please, don’t do that! “Fine,” Ulf said and grinned. He might not be interested in the girl, but she was still his company, and being at the very centre of admiration like this was a huge ego boost despite how much he tried to deny it. “Thomas gets to know. I’ll help you, but I’ll play with an open hand.”
“Mom wondered if Urufu got a new girlfriend.”
Ryu’s words echoed in Noriko’s mind as she made her way between tables in the typical kind of restaurant she expected to find her parents in whenever they had guests. Expensive, western food, sometimes gaudy, sometimes just stylish, but always fantastic food.
Right now food wasn’t on the menu for her. She needed to talk with Sano-san who had arrived yesterday to check in on his granddaughter. Sure, Noriko wasn’t supposed to know that, and she pretended she didn’t, but she was supposed to know that Kuri and Urufu had gotten themselves entangled in some kind of adult power game. For that she needed Sano-san’s help, because since a few hours she could no longer help Urufu directly.
When she arrived at her parents’ table Noriko dropped an envelope on the table even before she had time to greet them. She also made an effort to grab a chair with its back towards the table where Urufu and Jeniferu-chan sat chatting over a cup of coffee each.
Her father smirked when Sano-san wondered what it was all about.
“I just got notice of my expulsion,” Noriko said in her father’s place. “So did Ryu.”
“Noriko, silent!” her mother said. “Sit!”
“Expelled?” Sano-san asked again, this time to her parents.
“Who more?” her father asked instead of answering Sano-san’s question.
Noriko stared at the empty spot before her just as her mother made a discreet gesture. Soon a waiter would arrive.
“There were only four of us left,” Noriko said. She had already told them what had happened. Not that she needed. The PTA was split down the middle, and the angry half made an effort to notify every parent about what was going on. “I believe Yukio and Kyoko got expelled as well, and maybe Jeniferu-chan.” She caught her breath. There was the illusion to uphold. “Urufu and Kuri, and that new guy from Sweden probably got expelled as well.”
While her father grimaced Sano-san and her mother both gave her a long, searching stare each.
Crap, now they know that I know. Well, as long as the adults kept their silence she’d pretend she never noticed she had just botched it.
“Maybe time to take some measures,” Sano-san said.
Her mother’s gaze left her immediately.
“Don’t you even dare!” both her parents said in unison.
“You’re telling me there was a valid reason your children and all their friends got expelled together?”
Noriko’s mother put her fork down with just a little too much force. Enough to make it clatter angrily on the plate. “We’ll handle this one ourselves. Your solutions are, how should I put it, too short sighted.”
Sano-san shrugged, just like Urufu so often did. “I’d say they’re permanent, but it’s your call,” he said and offered her mother a thin smile than sent shivers down Noriko’s spine.
“Mitsuo, permanency can wait. We’ll do it the way you taught us back in school,” Noriko’s father said.
Noriko noticed how Sano-san almost flinched. “I never enjoyed it. When the two of you get angry together I stay the hell out of the way.”
What? Noriko searched her parents’ expression for a clue. Something must have happened back then, and to dare speak to each other that way their friendship must run way deeper than she had ever suspected.
“Mitsuo,” her mother began. “We’ll turn utter defeat into utter defeat. You just end things.”
“Cleaner that way,” Sano-san said silently. “I’m sorry for what I have done.”
Noriko listened in fascination as the three of them totally forgot she was present.
“Don’t be,” her father said. “You were a creepy bastard from the beginning, and you’ve been that way ever since. You’re one of our two best friends, so don’t give us that crap.”
“Me, creepy?” Sano-san said and shot Noriko’s father a look of disbelief. “I just do things. You’re the creepy ones.”
As her parents and Sano-san got deeper and deeper involved in their conversation Noriko’s thoughts returned to the first words she had heard after the received her expulsion notice: “Mom wondered if Urufu got a new girlfriend.”
They sat two tables behind her, just far away enough that she couldn’t pick up on what they were talking about, just that they spoke English.
Urufu, you idiot! I’ve got first dibs on you. But she knew it didn’t really work that way. While he knew how she felt about him she couldn’t order him to fall in love with her. Only hope, and those words didn’t exactly help with that part.
Jeniferu-chan was competition. What she lacked in looks compared to Kuri she made up for in presence. And she’s a westerner, just like Kuri, Noriko thought. That makes her more like what he grew up with. Can I even compete with that?
Noriko pushed the thought away. Urufu’s head was filled with Kuri, and that was the uphill fight she had taken on from the beginning. Jeniferu-chan might represent competition, but at least she wasn’t someone Urufu was still in love with.
With renewed determination Noriko rose from her chair and turned to face the pair behind her. She felt better if they saw her arriving openly. She’d take whatever came her way from there.
She barely had time to take a step before Urufu looked up and met her eyes.
In her chair Jeniferu-chan turned as well, but rather than showing irritation she waved an invitation to Noriko. “Noriko! Why don’t you join us?”
Urufu shot them both a tired look and gestured for the waiter. “Girls!” he said, but there was no anger in his voice neither. Rather he looked kind of relieved to see her there, any any reaction that showed appreciation at her presence made Noriko’s heart bounce in hopeful anticipation.
“Sure,” she said and walked to their table on wobbly legs.
As June grew to a close Ulf got used to the boredom of not having his closest friends around him in school. In ways it was a little like the life he took for granted while they built TAP and acquired more customers during the nineties in his previous life.
Back then old friends grew distant, and new ones took their places. Still, it was different now. It didn’t matter that he knew his teenage body lacked a lot of the impulse control that came with adulthood. The sense of immediacy was still there, and he drowned himself in his work, training and, more importantly now than ever before, in club activities.
That day, not too long ago, when Noriko arrived in the restaurant he had first reacted with surprise, but when he learned about the expulsions Ulf understood how she had wanted to tell her parents as soon as possible.
In short, while the arrivals couldn’t be expelled, their fight against Kareyoshi had turned into an utter defeat.
Himekaizen took on an uglier tone, one that he remembered from Red Rose Hell. Korean and Chinese students were expelled en masse and the few ones left were subjected to harassment while most of the teachers turned a blind eye to what was happening, when they didn’t outright support the bullies.
A few took the fight, but after their English teacher was fired on unclear grounds the last of the resistance petered out.
In place of the old PTA a new one, firmly in the hands of Kareyoshi, was established, and the only mitigating factor was how journalists kept stalking the school and stubbornly fed the flames of a slowly escalating political scandal.
Ulf had his suspicions about who lay behind it. Arrivals, far older than he was, built their own power base, and then there was that shadowy organisation behind it all. It might be split into two fighting factions, but that meant there was still the faction with saner ideals who kept throwing dirt at the side who currently had the upper hand.
It had to give, and when one journalist caught Kareyoshi on tape when he referred to Christina as ‘the foreign whore’, it did. Problem being, it never happened. When the scandal reached international media it turned out the recording had been mastered.
What a mess, Ulf thought. He kept the thought to himself, because right now wasn’t the time to air what he was thinking. The arsehole in charge sat delivering an endless stream of incoherent threats and verbal abuse while his cronies in the PTA listened. Ulf stood at the receiving end.
He wasn’t alone. Beside him Amaya silently sat in a chair and heard it all. Silently because he had forced a promise from her not to explode the way she usually did. As usual he taped the entire session for future use.
When Kareyoshi finally finished his raging rants Amaya looked up. “Let me see if I understand this correctly. If Urufu doesn’t make sure that the articles about this school end you’ll have his arms broken and him thrown into Tokyo bay?”
Ulf refrained from shaking his head. Sure enough, the idiot said those things, but there was no risk he’d make it happen. They were just empty threats.
“He’s filth!” The arsehole said. “Garbage like him should just die.”
“I need to ascertain this,” Amaya replied. “Did you just say you wanted one of your students to die?”
“He deserves it, and you know it.”
What’s she up to? That was when Ulf noticed the throat microphone hidden inside Amaya’s collar. No, you didn’t!
“Let me just try to understand. You’re saying that if that sixteen year old boy doesn’t force media from six nations to stop writing about this school you’ll have him killed?”
Even Kareyoshi wasn’t stupid enough to disclose the secret about the arrivals in front of the PTA, not even if he had them under his thumb. Ulf watched him panic slightly, but as Ulf suspected the moron simply lacked the brains to understand when he was baited.
In the end Kareyoshi just growled.
“That’ll be all, thank you very much,” Amaya said and grabbed Ulf’s arm.
When she started leading him out of the principal’s office Ulf saw Kareyoshi’s face redden once more.
“I haven’t given him permission to...”
“Officer, please take him in for interrogation,” Amaya said rather than wait for Kareyoshi to finish. “I’ll supply you with the recordings of the meeting as well.”
“You’re not allowed to...”
The yelling stopped when two men in civilian clothes passed by Ulf and entered the office.
Ulf could hear muted protests from the inside even after Amaya closed the door. So could part of the Himekaizen teaching staff as well since they had stood eavesdropping outside.
“What’s the matter with you? Never seen police before? Do you need a closer contact with them to better learn what they’re like?” The steeliness in Amaya’s voice reminded Ulf of the line of work she had been into since long before he met her. How he could ever have seen her as his substitute daughter was beyond him.
While a few of the teachers frowned at her all made themselves scarce within moments.
“Urufu, my young man, you’d better learn to behave.”
“Yes ma'am,” Ulf said. He recognised that voice for certain.
“I don’t care if you think you have some kind of special status. Here you’re just another student, so act like one! Understood?”
Then something glimmered in her eyes. “And that fucker is just a principal, so we’ll teach him to behave like one as well.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ulf said, just to be on the safe side.
Rumours about the latest madness reached Ryu as he fought with his gakuran just outside Himekaizen Academy.
While the old style boys’ school uniform was still commonly seen in middle schools, Red Rose Hell had chosen the blazer long before he even reached the age for elementary school. A surprisingly modern approach for a school with such horrid ideals, he thought, but both his parents promised him Red Rose hadn’t always been that way.
He believed them. Himekaizen Academy turned into a hell hole with the mere change of headship.
Ryu put two fingers inside the high neck, but it didn’t give at all. He probably looked like an idiot, but the expulsions went into effect late enough for Irishima High to switch into their summer uniforms, so this was the first time he wore the full gakuran.
A belated photo session for the new students was the main reason, but most of the former Himekaizen students made an issue of being seen close to their old school in their new uniforms while on their way to the club. Said club by now officially recognised by Irishima High, including its old name.
So Ryu swore once more. At the uniform or the latest news he wasn’t certain.
Wearing the heavy jacket was of course absurd now when June turned into July, but the procession got the attention they wanted when they slowly walked close enough to Himekaizen that all that prevented them from trespassing onto their old school grounds was a thin debarkation of tarmac and gravel.
Ryu knew, but the others didn’t, that the scandalous police intervention, where they brought the principal of Himekaizen to a police station by force, that investigation had been killed as soon as it started.
Behind them, just moments earlier, police picked up the last of the foreign journalists who doggedly had stalked Himekaizen since spring. Spreading misleading news and damaging the Japanese government, was the reason.
Ryu could understand why they were removed. They put Japan to shame, even if in this case he had seen first hand what Kareyoshi was capable of.
Then he heard Urufu blow up in a fit of rage almost a block away, but even through the incoherent shouting he recognised Urufu’s signal when Kuri’s phone came alive a few metres across the street.
Stay away, she’s not your girlfriend any longer! Keep your hand off what’s mine!
And then, just as sudden, Kuri was a flurry of long legs rushing in Urufu’s direction. Her hair bloomed behind her and Ryu caught his breath watching her receding back vanishing up the street.
He noticed how a few Irishima High freshmen girls threw him glances he knew all too well and then gave Kuri jealous stares.
Once again Ryu put two fingers inside his collar, and once again it refused to give. He finally gave up and unbuttoned the jacket before folding it and putting it in his backpack. Whatever it was that felt like it lodged in his throat was still there, and because he knew it was all emotions he couldn’t even muster up the courage to pretend to spit it out.
The sound of the commotion came closer, and Ryu guessed it had taken a little longer than he expected to get his jacket out of the way.
“Passport, I just need my damned passport and I’m out of this shit hole!”
“I promised nothing! Fine I did, but I don’t have a reason to keep that promise any longer, do I!”
Ryu heard months of pent up frustration and pain in Urufu’s voice.
“Ulf, you promised!”
“So what? I promised I’d stay with you and change this place, and so did you, but you broke that promise. Why should I keep mine?”
“Ulf, you promised!” Kuri’s voice was pleading now.
“Urufu, what did you promise?”
Ryu flinched when he heard his sister’s voice filled with so much love and concern it almost overflowed. I’ll never let him have you! You’re my sister!
Maybe Noriko could read his thoughts, maybe not, but no matter what she didn’t give them even a moments notice. “Urufu, tell us! What did she make you promise?”
Kuri gasped, and Ryu understood her. The question was a loaded gun.
Then he saw Tomasu-kun’s face, twisted into rage just like Urufu’s, and Ryu stopped to wonder what could possibly bring out so much hatred in the two men turned boys.
“What’s going on?” Ryu asked.
A Irishima High junior Ryu didn’t know by name answered. “Dad told me the diet made what’s happening at Himekaizen a government secret. It’s illegal to report about it.”
Ryu shrugged. Putting the lid on disturbing news before it hurt society only made sense. That was the reason responsible newspapers had a vetting process before allowing any articles that could potentially hurt the government. At least that was what they were taught in school.
“Did they fucking move the Soviet Union from Moscow to Tokyo?” Tomasu-kun raged.
“I’m out of here as soon as I get my passport. Only a swine would resort to censorship, and I don’t live with pigs!”
“Ulf, please, you promised! They do things differently here.”
“No, Christina, no! I’ll never consent to this!”
“I never asked you to consent to it. Just don’t leave Japan, please!”
Some of the air went out of Urufu. He deflated. “You’re unfair, Christina. You’re unfair.”
To Ryu’s consternation Noriko walked directly to Urufu and embraced him. While he hardly seemed to notice it, the rest of them certainly did.
She let go briefly and turned her face up to face Urufu. “If not for her, then stay for me,” Noriko said.
“Unfair, you’re both unfair,” Urufu said, and for a moment he stroked Noriko’s head.
A chill that had nothing to do with the early evening ran down Ryu’s spine.
Early July brought an end to the raining and a sudden increase in temperature along with an acceptance of a new daily routine.
Noriko got used to her sailor uniform, to the new route to school and to a school that was smaller and more silent than Himekaizen.
While the students at Irishima High on average got higher grades she still stood out. The main difference from Himekaizen was that no one here expected her to have much in the way of free time, well apart from the group who joined the Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club. Which in its own was was hilarious as it still sported the name of the school that had expelled so many of them.
She didn’t, however, get used to not seeing Urufu and Kuri on a daily basis. The latter had hit her hard since early this spring when Kuri’s job stole more and more of her time. Now chances were Noriko saw her staring down from a billboard or a magazine ad rather than meeting her for real.
Once or twice a week Kuri showed up at the Stockholm Haven café, but when there she was tight lipped about what happened in their old school.
Urufu, well he was more outspoken, but a hardness grew in his face, one Noriko recognised from her father when he ran into problems. It wasn’t the face she wanted to see on the boy she loved, but it was a reminder that the adult world would bring more changes to her than she cared for.
Today Urufu looked like a boy though. Carefree and with his smile opening up into the mischievous grin that made Noriko’s heart jump.
“Good news?” she asked him when he caught up with her on their way to the café. Walked up to her where she demonstratively stood waiting for him might have been a better description.
He just nodded.
Urufu rolled his eyes, and by the time he finally spoke more than a few of the club members stood waiting for his words. “Graduates incoming,” he said cryptically.
Graduates? They were at the end of their first trimester. “And explain,” Noriko added.
“We’re having a few club members from our sister club in Sweden visiting. Or former members.”
Noriko ran the information through her head. Sweden finished their school year early June, so it made sense. Then what Urufu had really said finally registered with her. “They’re here? The people we Skype with?”
Urufu grinned again. White teeth shone in the sun, and to Noriko his face bathing in sweat looked better than ever before. “Some of them.”
“Including my brother,” a voice said from Noriko’s right.
She turned and met Ai-chan’s eyes. “Your brother?”
“Yep,” Ai-chan said and smiled. “He went chasing skirt last autumn.”
Ah, yes, I remember. “And?” Noriko said.
“And he’s bringing his girlfriend,” Ai-chan offered in return. “I want to meet her. I’m curious about anyone who made my brother move to Sweden.”
“Rika’s coming as well,” Urufu said, “together with her friend and his friend.”
“The former club chairman. Same as club president here.”
Something with Urufu casually throwing around the name of a girl Noriko didn’t know didn’t sit too well with her, but that was just the way Urufu was. “That must have been expensive,” she said instead.
A gust of hot air ran over them as they turned a corner, and Noriko missed Urufu’s answer. The sound of a passing lorry drowned his voice, and she decided to wait until they had crossed the street before asking him again. Not that it really was the question she wanted to ask.
At their side of the street the car with Kuri’s bodyguards was absent, which meant no Kuri at the cafe for the evening to come. The other car, however, was present, so she’d be able to see Kyoko and Yukio at least.
A few steps later brought her to the entrance, but rather than enter she waited for most of the group to go inside ahead of her.
The old fashioned doorbell chimed several timed as they opened the door, but Urufu showed her the courtesy of staying outside. While he didn’t respond to her feelings she had made certain he was acutely aware of them. If she was to lose this battle at least she never wanted to look back at these days and regret she hadn’t tried.
She stole a glance at him in the afternoon sun. Tall as always, with his hair unkept in glaring contrast to his buttoned shirt and neck-tie. At least the summer uniform prevented him from wearing his blazer, or Noriko would have melted away from just looking at him.
Looking at him she noticed how his hair had grown slightly darker since she got to know him. Now it was almost impossible to notice that he wasn’t born and bred in Japan. There was a frizziness to it that was mildly unusual here, but if she didn’t know she’d never have guessed he had any foreign ancestry.
“Notice anything strange?” he said with an open smile teasing her.
That was the bad part about him knowing. He definitely had the upper hand when it came to teasing.
“Nothing special,” Noriko said and tried to force down her blushing. She wasn’t all too successful.
“You never caught up on my answer back there?” Urufu suddenly said.
Noriko shook her head. She hadn’t expected him to notice.
“It was probably expensive. Rika’s father made certain it was all paid for.”
Some of the hardness Noriko wanted out of Urufu was back again. This time it was his voice that held a steely edge.
Power games. He’s at his power games again. “The visit isn’t just for fun?”
“It never was,” Urufu said. “For three of them, yes, but both Rika and Jun know there’s something going on.”
Jun, that was Ai-chan’s older brother. “Do they know about you?”
Urufu shook his head. “No they don’t, but they know something is going on. I’m not certain how much their parents know though.”
Kyoko wondered why Noriko and Urufu were late, and she was on the verge of asking when the doorbell chimed again and they came inside.
The ancient air conditioning unit coughed asthmatically in a futile protest when hot and humid air welled in, and most of those present agreed with apathetic nods. In a few weeks everyone should be used to summer temperatures, but right now most looked like they longed for the wetness of just a handful of days ago.
Those not overcome by apathy shared two tables with a quintet of surprise guests. A surprise to everyone but Urufu, Kyoko suspected.
She glanced at the tables where two Tokyoites, who had spent enough time in Sweden to share inside jokes with two girls and a boy who were most definitely not Japanese, made an attempt to translate questions and answers from all parties. After a while most seemed to agree English was a good enough compromise, to the dismay of the first year club members.
Urufu barked something in Swedish, and all five guests turned their faces in surprise. One of them, a girl short enough to have to tip toe even in Japan, grinned and responded with a big grin on her face after she delivered her answering words.
“What was that about?” Kyoko heard Noriko say from the position beside Urufu she monopolised whenever she had the chance.
“He said that Santa Claus wondered if there were any nice kids here, and Jenny told him he’d better grow a beard first,” the female of the two Japanese born guests said.
Japanese born, because her entire outfit was distinctly western, showing way more skin than was proper for someone with the looks of a classic Japanese beauty. She might look Japanese, but Kyoko knew she had spent enough years in that strange country of Urufu’s to be anything but. She was also the former student council president of that Swedish high school, or chairman of the students’ union as she preferred to call it.
“Where’s your club chairman?” she said.
“And you are?” Urufu answered.
Kyoko looked at the two of them, then at Noriko, who’s lips turned into a disapproving smirk, and then back at Urufu again.
“Rika. I’m Rika Uchida.”
Uchida Rika? She even uses the western style for her own name. Rika-sempai I guess.
“Ulf Hammargren, pleased to meet you. Christina’s working today, so I’m afraid you’ll have to do with me as club representative.”
Rika-sempai shrugged, just the way Urufu and Kuri used to. “I don’t care. Just thought it was polite to ask for her.”
And that was just about as far from polite as you could be.
Urufu grinned and grabbed a chair. As he sat down Noriko took one for herself and sat down beside him.
Kyoko noticed Rika-sempai’s amused smile. “Girlfriend?” She said.
“No,” Urufu said.
“Not yet,” Noriko added.
“You like him that much?”
“Enough not to hand him over to you.”
“Oh, gutsy. I like that.” Rika-sempai grinned. “Don’t worry. I’m not interested in kids.”
“Noriko, she’s not competition, so just drop it!” Kyoko interrupted before Noriko had a chance to say something most of those present weren’t supposed to hear.
She felt Yukio clasp her hand, and closer to a year together with him had taught her how to read his thoughts from the way he touched her. This time she read firm approval.
Rika-sempai exchanged looks with the other Tokyo born guest, Hasegawa Jun, Ai-chan’s big brother.
“See, they’re the same here as well.”
Jun-sempai smiled and turned to the other male guest. “Alexander, maybe there’s hope for you as well,” he said in English.
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Rika-sempai said. “Besides, shouldn’t that mean there’s hope for Emma as well,” she added and grinned at a girl who had mostly stayed silent since the five of them suddenly arrived in the café less than half an hour earlier.
“Chance?” Ai-chan said from a table she shared with Nana-chan.
“Eh,” Jun-sempai said and grinned sheepishly. “It’s a bit of a mess. See, Alexander is in love with Rika, which everyone back home knows, and Emma’s in love with Alexander, which also everyone knows.
“And they’re all very good friends ever since Emma more or less forced Rika to share a, eh, what’s the word, ‘fika’ we call it, with Alexander.”
Fika, I know that word. The date that’s not a date, where you drink coffee even though you don’t have to drink coffee. And just like ‘fika’, Jun-sempai’s explanation made no sense at all.
Urufu coughed loud enough to have everyone stare at him, which was probably a good thing since both Emma-sempai and Alexanderu-sempai had turned beet red during Jun-sempai’s little speech. “Lemme see if I got this right. The kid over there,” Urufu nodded at Emma-sempai, “is in love with him,” and shot Alexanderu-sempai a grin, “so she arranged a date between him and her rival?” At the last word Urufu bowed ironically to Rika-sempai.
The five guests exchanged looks between themselves, and almost as if reaching an agreement they said more or less in chorus: “Yes.”
Urufu shook his head. “You’re strange all of you. I admit utter defeat.”