The boy he had pushed moved aside and Ryu quickly bowed. It was his fault, but there hadn’t been any need to push back that hard. He met the eyes of the boy as he rose. They shone with disdaining irritation.
Now that’s a strange reaction.
Then understanding grew. Without his neck tie his second year status was invisible, and Ryu’s uniform was even newer than those of the freshmen. Expulsion rescinded his parents had decided to buy him a new one instead of the one he was bound to grow out of before his third year.
Ryu shot the other boy his most winning smile and moved on. He could take a push or two. Life was perfect after all. Ever since she cheated on him once Kuri had been everything he could ever dream of from a girlfriend.
Despite a schedule packed to the rafters she spent every available moment with him. Admittedly those weren’t as many as he’d want with the new trimester starting and students preparing for the cultural festival, but Ryu wasn’t one to complain as he saw the effort she made to spend time with him.
Ryu fell forward, but being a natural athlete he rolled on his knuckles and came back on his feet.
Now that’s more than just strange. This time it wasn’t him walking into a fellow student. The push from behind had been deliberate.
“No problem,” Ryu said after he turned.
Hitomi? He stared at the girl. Behind me?
There was a sudden sound as if someone had fallen into the shoe lockers.
“Sorry,” Urufu’s voice said behind his back.
“I’ll kill you you...”
Whoever had started speaking went silent and there was another loud crash from the other row of shoe lockers.
“Sorry about that.” Urufu’s voice again.
Ryu turned just in time to see a boy fly face down into the floor.
“He’s got a knife!” Urufu shouted, and all of a sudden Kuri’s bodyguard appeared out of nowhere and dragged the prone boy out on the school yard where the goons from Vogue stood ready to take care of him.
“What the hell?”
“I’m not too fond of you right now, but Christina will have my hide if I allow anything to happen to you,” Urufu said. “That goes for you as well, Hitomi,” he added.
Ryu looked over his shoulder and noticed her with both hands over her mouth.
“What’s going on?”
Ryu backed away from Urufu and stood by Hitomi’s side waiting for Urufu to answer her question.
“The shithead’s trying to scare everyone who returned to Himekaizen away.”
“Urufu. Why the violence?” Hitomi asked.
Ryu watched in amazement how Urufu’s face twisted into fear and rage.
“Someone pushed Noriko down the stairs.” Urufu’s shoulders slumped after the words left his mouth.
Noriko? What the…
“Next time you should break their arms,” Hitomi interrupted his thoughts. “Kuri might be an idiot for making people hate her, but Noriko’s never done anything wrong. You owe her. She’s in love with you, you oaf.”
She was more than just in love with Urufu, but this was their first day at school with the ceremony a mere quarter of an hour finished. Hitomi was unlikely to know how things had developed after most of the club members left the resort.
Ryu studied Urufu’s face. Nothing. The man turned boy just stared at his shoes. “I’ll do something about that,” he said.
“Infirmary. I caught her when she fell.”
Urufu stared outside where two men thoroughly despised by Kuri threw a Himekaizen student into a waiting police car. How did it get here this quick? Kuri, you might want to reconsider your opinion about those goons.
“I used the alarm. Amaya’s really, really, really angry right now.” Urufu’s face twisted into fear again. “Sorry. I have to get back to Noriko.” He turned and ran down the corridor.
Ryu stared after Urufu’s back. “Hitomi, I need to see how she is.”
She slapped him on his back. “Off you go.”
He ran after Urufu just as his girlfriend’s voice reached him, but he didn’t stop.
“Hitomi, you decided to return?”
“Yes. Can’t leave you idiot’s alone,” was the answer he heard.
Despite worrying about his sister Ryu grinned. Maybe a few more would return, and maybe together they’d be able to face whatever Kareyoshi threw after them.
As he arrived at the infirmary Ryu threw open the door and got inside. While it slammed into its slot loud enough to wake anyone who tried to sleep here, the back Ryu saw through the curtains, bent over one bed didn’t move at all.
“I’m not made of glass,” Noriko’s voice said from behind that back side.
Oh, she’s comforting him, not the other way around. Ryu made to take another step inside but hesitated. Urufu together with his sister made ire rise in him, but Urufu had broken her fall after all. Still, that didn’t make it right for him to touch Noriko like that.
Ryu started to move to the curtains when he was suddenly tugged back.
“Oh no, you don’t.”
She dragged him outside, and from the corner of his eyes Ryu saw Hitomi slid the door shut again.
“After we hurt each other, and the rest of you as well, now when we’ve finally moved on you’re not allowed to break those two up.”
What’s with their lack of decency? “She’s my sister and...”
Hitomi’s slap came as an utter surprise.
“Incest-san, get the hell out of my sight and don’t return until you’re ready to crawl on your knees and beg forgiveness!”
“Please don’t hit my boyfriend!”
“The next time I see him doing anything to hurt Urufu or Noriko I’ll kick his balls into his stomach.”
Kuri remained silent after that, and Ryu found no words to use. Next after Kyoko Hitomi pretty much personified the idea of proper and cultivated. An illusion, he knew that, but one she kept to. For her to drop all pretence like this he must have done something extraordinarily ugly.
“Kyoko, could you join me for a while?”
Kyoko rose from he chair and followed Hitomi. One of two club members who had been assigned to her class before Kareyoshi handed out expulsions like candy on a children’s fair. Hitomi was also one of the few to return from Irishima High and the closest to a friend Kyoko knew in her class.
An oversight from Kareyoshi’s side. The few returnees were all assigned to their old classes.
A week into their second trimester Kyoko felt happy for Hitomi’s presence. The airhead had proven to be… less so. If truth be told had proven so since long before they were expelled en masse.
“What is it?” Kyoko wondered when they were out of earshot from prying ears. Out of earshot meant walking all the way to the pool.
Hitomi shook her head, waist long hair dancing around her head as she did so, and searched for somewhere to sit down.
Kyoko hugged herself while she waited. Summer had turned into autumn far quicker than normal.
“Here,” Hitomi said and patted the ground beside her.
Kyoko sat down. “So, what?”
“Two things. First I want to thank you.”
“Thank me?” There was no reason for the beauty from Yukio’s old class to thank her.
She received a surprisingly naughty smile from Hitomi. “Yeah, thank you.” Then she scratched her knees in a most unladylike way. “I’m grateful you showed me how to drop the pretence.”
Kyoko just nodded. There was sure to be more to come.
“You and Yukio both showed me what’s important, and you’re the main reason I decided to come back.”
Kyoko nodded again. She didn’t really understand.
“Kuri’s the other reason. Without her I don’t think I could manage.”
“Kuri-chan?” Kyoko said. “Why her?”
Hitomi pulled her skirt down her thighs and smiled. “Yeah. She’s the number one beauty of this school. I wanted to be in the beginning, but Irishima High taught me why I shouldn’t.”
Once again Kyoko nodded. This time with more real understanding. Hitomi had usurped that position during their stay at that school.
“In the end I didn’t like the resentment much,” Hitomi said. “Here I can stay in her shadow and be myself.
Kyoko wondered about that. Kuri-chan might be the number one beauty here, but Hitomi still defined the traditional idea of perfect Japanese looks in a young woman. Or maybe not. Hitomi’s uniform no longer followed regulations, and she had done something with her hair as well.
“I want to be me, and I prefer this me.”
“The other reason?” Kyoko said. Gratitude or not. There was a more important reason for Hitomi to drag her out here.
That brought a grimace to Hitomi’s face. “It’s Ryu. I don’t like what he’s doing.”
What Ryu’s doing? Don’t tell me…
“Look, it’s not like I’m in love with Urufu or anything, but I’ve grown fond of him.”
Kyoko waited for Hitomi to continue, but the words still made her smile. Urufu was bound to attract a lot more attention now.
“I saw what he and Kuri did to each other, and if he finally moved on to Noriko then I’m happy for both of them.”
Ryu, you bastard! “And her brother still won’t let them be?”
This time it was Hitomi who nodded. “And it really isn’t about Urufu. As I said...”
“You’re really doing this for Noriko, aren’t you?” Kyoko interrupted. Despite knowing that Urufu sometimes was all too fragile Kyoko also realised she was one of very few persons who knew this. For everyone else the idea of protecting Urufu had to be absurd – he protected people, not the other way around.
“I know she’s got great grades, but she’s so small and...” There was no need to interrupt this time. Hitomi’s voice petered out into nothingness.
Kyoko grinned despite her anger at Ryu’s meddling. “Look, Noriko’s a midget sized bulldozer. I don’t think you have to...”
“She only pretends,” Hitomi said. “I know how strong she seems, but I’ve seen how scared she really is.”
Scared? If Hitomi said she’d seen Noriko afraid of something she probably had, but still.
“I don’t think you need to worry about Urufu dumping her,” Kyoko said, but something in her stomach churned. Kareyoshi. It’s got to be him. Something happened and Noriko didn’t tell.
“I didn’t expect us to be the only ones to transfer back,” Hitomi suddenly said.
Kyoko felt grateful for the change of topic. “Neither did I.” And she hadn’t. At least a few more, but in the end only Hitomi and Jeniferu apart from the founding club members showed up for school start.
“The club really is an Irishima High one despite its name now.”
“Strange. I know a few who said they’d come back.” Hitomi grimaced. “Maybe...”
“I got this strange call a just before summer break ended.”
“Uhum. Someone told me to stay at Irishima High or bad things would happen.”
Kyoko stopped in her tracks and stared at Hitomi. “What?”
“I know, stupid prank or what? Well anyway, the calling number showed so I had my father call the police anyway.”
Are you for real? How could you possibly not be scared after that? “Hitomi, don’t you….”
“As I said,” Hitomi began, and the iciness in her eyes told Kyoko that her initial belief the beauty was an airhead was just about as far from target as possible, “we take very badly to threats in our family.” Then she smiled. An outright evil smile. “Especially when the idiot calls over a landline belonging to the new head of the PTA.”
“What did you do?”
“Kyoko, I know you’re involved in something smelly. I won’t ask, but I dislike being told what to do or not.”
“After dad called the police I called Urufu’s guardian. She’s police as well, but I thought she might take a more personal interest.”
You called Sato-sensei? Suddenly Hitomi gained a whole lot of respect in Kyoko’s eyes. Why escalate a little when you can start by nuking the target?
“And that’s how it is,” Jirou said.
Well that explains why Christina’s gone on a crusade, Ulf thought.
“Urufu, I planned to come back as well, promise.” Then Jirou first looked down and after that glanced at the door to the café proper. “I want to stay with Sango, but I’m too afraid about what would happen to her if she transferred back. I guess I’m not as strong as you.”
Ulf couldn’t answer that. He was enough of a dinosaur to understand why you would want to protect your girl. His own egalitarian ideals be damned. When it came to hurting girls he was just as old fashioned as the morons he despised. In his world hurting boys simply wasn’t as bad. He knew he was wrong in thinking so, but he just didn’t care.
“So we’re staying at Irishima High. I’m sorry.”
Despite fuming with rage Ulf grinned. He couldn’t but feel pride from seeing how what he taught rubbed off. “So you called her and you both got your parents onboard?”
“All six of us,” Jirou said. “I think the rest wanted to stay anyway.”
Jirou grinned. “Sakura and Nori as well.”
That made four.
“Midori and Ando.”
Ulf didn’t know those two had planned to return as well. Two? “When did...”
That bought him a laugh. “Just after midterms. They kept it a secret. But really Urufu! You must have noticed her new hairdo.”
“I’d hate being your girlfriend,” Jirou said and smirked.
“It’s not me you should be apologising to,” Jirou said. He looked down and keyed some more notes for club activities into his laptop. “You know, you’re strange somehow. At times you’re just like the hero of last year’s cultural festival, and then suddenly you’re so socially inept I’m astonished.”
Ulf rose from his chair. The conversation was turning into a direction he didn’t like. “It’s just girls,” he said. “I really don’t get them, even if I pretend I do,” he added.
Pushing the narrow door open Ulf left Jirou and the dangerous topic behind him. There was no way explaining the discrepancies between his experience and the way he looked now. At least understanding girls was a hole in his abilities, a constant since his first days as a high school student, and Ulf hoped that awkwardness was enough to keep up the facade.
Ulf barely made it halfway to the counter before he walked into Sango. Literally. She reeled from the impact and fell backwards just to land on her behind on the other side of the counter.
“Sorry,” he said.
She blushed red. “No it’s my fault.”
“Sango, stop eavesdropping,” Ulf heard from the inner room.
Suddenly the entire café opened up in laughter, and Ulf stared nonplussed at the grinning faces by the table.
“Fine, I’ll believe the part about girls,” Jirou said, and Ulf could hear that it was strangely broken as if the guy tried choking down a guffaw.
“Moron,” Sango said, rose, brushed off her skirt and pushed her way past him and vanished into the inner room.
“Moron,” James whispered in a voice that was certain to carry through the entrance and to the street outside.
What did I do now?
Ulf searched the tables for the voice. Back in the corner he saw its owner sharing a table with Kyoko and Hitomi.
If Noriko called him moron-sama he must have made some kind of mistake. Ulf made a mental note to ask her about it when he escorted her back home. Girls crushing on him he was able to read, and girls playing games of power were no problem, but all too often their everyday thoughts and reactions were beyond him.
He nodded at James’ silent question for his order and made his way between the tables.
The club was, he noted, as large as ever before, but only nine members wore the Himekaizen uniform, and officially they weren’t even members since the student council disbanded the club. Or rather Kareyoshi disbanded the club.
Halfway to where Noriko sat Ulf heard the bell above the entrance jingle and even before the door closed again an angry voice reached him.
“Hamarugen-san, what’s the meaning of this?”
Meaning of what? This was slowly turning into one of his idiot days. He turned and met the glare of a senior in a Himekaizen uniform. “How may I be of help, sempai?” Ulf said with as deliberate as excessive formality.
The senior briskly walked between tables and faced Ulf. “What kind of stunt did you pull with the student council?”
Huh? Yes, definitely an idiot day. With a sigh of regret Ulf sat down by the closest table. Sharing some time with Noriko would have to wait. He opened his palm and invited the senior to share his table, and as by silent agreement both of them waited for James to arrive, first with Ulf’s order and a little later a cup of Earl Gray.
During the shared silence Ulf glanced at a stack of papers the senior held in his right hand. The reason for the outrage was probably to be found there.
“So,” Ulf began after they both had their first sip of hot beverage, “could you please fill me in in what way I overstepped this time?”
He got another glare in return.
“Hamarugen-san, we both know you ran the show last year, so when the current student council breaks all tradition it’s clear you’re the one behind it.”
Now Ulf really wanted to know what he had done. “Please enlighten me,” he said. Whatever it was he was certain Kareyoshi or his goons were behind it.
For the first time the stare Ulf got held surprise rather than anger. “Look,” the senior said and placed the stack of paper on the table, “every class and club got tasks assigned for the cultural festival. No voting, no suggesting, just an order to do as we’re told.”
“Kareyoshi you little fuck, why don’t you just go die in the gutter?” Ulf growled.
He stared at eyes widening. He grabbed the papers and as he read irritation grew into anger and wrath.
“Did you get the last ones?”
Yukio grimaced and shook his head. Jeniferu had made collecting data about anything concerning the freshmen a breeze. With most of their friends juniors the second years were covered as well, but a lot of seniors still resented them.
“Can’t be helped then,” Kyoko said. “We’ve still got six of their classes and most of the clubs.”
“And?” Yukio looked at his girlfriend, but he already knew, or at least guessed the answer.
Kyoko smirked. “It’s as Urufu said. Traditional Japanese food. Displays about Japan and even a couple of old plays. Nothing foreign will be part of the cultural festival.”
Noriko’s hand grabbed his shoulder and Yukio felt Urufu’s girlfriend shaking with laughter. When he turned around he saw how her other hand grabbed Kyoko’s just as tightly.
“What is it?” he wondered when she wouldn’t stop.
Finger dug deeper into his shoulder. “Urufu, you wonderful moron!”
Noriko’s laughter subsided into a wide grin. “Kareyoshi’s just as ignorant of history as Urufu said. Look here!” she said, let go of his shoulder and bent between him and Kyoko. When she reached the table she placed her hand on the section for food stalls.
Yukio looked at where Noriko pointed. “And?”
“Yukio, really!” Noriko giggled and stabbed her index finger at two stalls. “Ramen and tempura.”
That ramen was a rather recent introduction from the mainland was hardly unknown, but tempura? Still, it wasn’t exactly enough to warrant Noriko’s level of hilarity. “What else?”
Noriko squeezed herself between them, but when Kyoko shot her an angry glare she backed away and returned to the other side of the table. “Sorry,” she said.
Kyoko nodded consent and it was as if the girls had never clashed at all just moments earlier.
Noriko spread out the papers and showed entry after entry where Kareyoshi’s ideas of a pure Japan showcased something imported.
“He’s so clueless it’s funny.” Then Noriko’s face grew sombre. “And now for the not so funny part.” She opened her bag and dropped another paper onto the table.
Yukio read it and shook his head. “Morons!”
That outburst had James turn his head from behind the counter. Yukio used it as an opportunity to order another round. Something hot this time. Autumn came early this year and the asthmatic air-conditioner no longer had any problems keeping the temperature at check.
“Can’t say I’m surprised,” Kyoko noted when she was finished reading the single page Noriko had added. “Micromanagement is bound to fail, but I’m not surprised.”
“They really never took note of Urufu at all, did they?”
Yukio looked at Noriko. She might be starstruck but she wasn’t an idiot. “I don’t think they could understand. Took us long enough, and we see him almost every day.”
“But still. The student council assigning individual tasks?”
“That’s just Kareyoshi being so scared of losing control he’s shitting his pants.”
Around them club members laughed at the vulgar outburst – the freshmen not until Irishima High’s vice principal guffawed. Yukio wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not.
Then the older man rose from his chair, pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose and walked to their table.
“May I inquire about what merited such an, eh, spirited remark earlier?” he said when he arrived at their table.
Yukio watched as Noriko wordlessly handed over a stack of pages. Vice Principal Noguchi-sensei, because in difference from Kareyoshi he did deserve both titles and honorifics, read them in silence and smirked when he came to the end.
“Funny,” he began, “I thought they called us uptight at Irishima High.” Then his eyes got a sharper touch to them when he met Yukio’s stare. “Your comment on this, young man?”
Yukio dared smiling a little. Closer to two years with Urufu had built confidence he didn’t know was there to begin with. “As long as the context merely stays complicated it should work just fine,” Yukio said.
Vice Principal Noguchi scowled, but Yukio wasn’t taken aback.
“That’s also the main danger, sensei. They’re likely to be lulled into an illusion of safety and for that reason becoming less able to handle what Urufu so fondly calls ‘incoming shit from the left’.”
“From the left, sensei.” Yukio smiled. “That’s when complicated becomes complex. In this case it’s likely to occur shortly after we open for the public.”
It would happen earlier. Small things. Unimportant things. Things on a scale the student council could handle by burning excess energy that would be needed later. Still it wasn’t the main problem.
“Sensei, we can handle a boring cultural festival, but I’m worried there are only shards left of the meaning behind having one.”
“To promote cooperation and initiative,” Noguchi-sensei said.
“Well, this year we’ll be doing what we’re ordered to do, and taking initiative most certainly isn’t that.”
“I wonder,” Noguchi-sensei said, “why you transferred back.”
“Couldn’t leave Urufu all alone, could I?” Yukio sipped some of his lukewarm tea. That wasn’t entirely true. “Because it’s so much fun being around him, even when it isn’t. Because he makes me grow.”
“Because they are our friends,” Kyoko said.
“Because we love them,” Noriko added.
In her case the word love held a slightly different meaning. The couple still hadn’t gone public with their relationship. Not after someone kicked Noriko down the stairs just after the new trimester started. As for his own relationship with Kyoko, well the armed guards were back. Urufu’s guardian just loved sticking a thumb into Kareyoshi’s eyes, and twist.
“Now this is funny,” Noriko said.
Yukio brought his mind out of his thoughts. “What is?”
“This. It specifically says every class is assigned logistics duties throughout the entire festival.”
Yukio shrugged. “We had to last year as well.”
“But it wasn’t made explicit like this.” Noriko looked at them. “Something stinks.”
Thomas had grabbed Ulf in his class room, and he in turn threw a quick call for Yukio and Kyoko while they ran down the stairs, through the cafeteria and towards the pool. When they reached the pool Ulf managed to get through to Ryu and had him and Christina run for the dressing rooms in case the information about where Jennifer had been called to was wrong.
Damn! For all her cheekiness she’s too damn trusting. Ulf wondered what made the girl believe she was immune to the rampant bullying sanctioned by Kareyoshi and his goons.
Racing to the gym he noticed four girls beelining in their direction as well. Then he was around the corner.
A sudden roar from his right made him flinch and when he recovered he saw Thomas ahead of him screaming with rage.
It wasn’t Noriko this time, and they were too late as well. Six boys held down two girls while a seventh and eighth raped them.
Thomas threw himself into the group. There was nothing as schooled as what Ulf had learned, but the former professor held some dark secrets of his own. Between raging roars the boys fell to the ground one by one, and Ulf barely arrived in time to kick away the legs of the last one standing.
When that student fell to the ground Thomas had already beaten the boy raping Jennifer into something hardly resembling a human face.
Ulf kicked the second rapist unconscious just as shrieks caught up with him, and in moments four girls were busy covering Jennifer and the other girl up. Once again girls reminded him in the most humiliating way possible how he always got his priorities wrong.
“Thomas, please stop! You’ll kill him.” Ulf didn’t move an inch to stop his junior from beating the unconscious boy into an even bloodier piece of pulp.
One of the girls hugging Jennifer to her stared at Thomas, and in her face Ulf saw a predatory grin of satisfied approval which scared him into action.
“Thomas! Jennifer needs you.”
That got through. He rose from the prone body and crawled to where his girlfriend cried hysterically in the arms of her temporary safe haven.
A little bit away three girls sat in silence, two of them cradling the third who stared ahead with all light gone out from her eyes.
It could have been Noriko. Ulf sensed the relief in that thought, and that in itself filled him with self disgust. To clear his mind he settled for giving any assailant stirring a vicious kick to the abdomen while he made a phone call.
“Behind the gym. Where you found me last year. I’ll call for ambulance.” He killed the call and dialled 119. It took two tries to convince the other side that half a dozen ambulances were needed.
As he finished that call he looked up and met the stares of Ryu and Christina who had arrived. From further away the sounds of agitated voices grew closer and Ulf realised more than Yukio and Kyoko were on their way.
“Christina, please help her!”
The look he got in return was colder than anything he’d ever seen in her face, but when she walked over to Jennifer, making an effort to trample the nearest heads of the prone boys, Ulf realised Christina’s anger wasn’t directed at him.
He felt helpless and decided to walk away a bit unless he’d start maiming people to vent his rage and frustration. From the cafeteria Yukio and Kyoko arrived with some of the staff in tow.
Those are Kareyoshi’s goons. I don’t like this.
Three teachers came running. One of them had a dark rumour clinging to him that he actively participated in the bullying in his class. Ulf didn’t know if that was true. Himekaizen had become a hotspot for rumours since Kareyoshi became principal.
Then they arrived, and Ulf immediately got reasons to believe in the rumour.
The teacher stared at him. “Who started the assault?”
Ulf shook his head. “We interrupted a rape. There were eight of them and...”
“Can you prove that? You have a history of violence.”
What? Ah, yeah, Red Rose. “Eh, that was another rape situation.”
The first response was a growl. “You know, you’re quick to accuse your victims of rape.”
This isn’t happening. “You fucker. What about you being a bit more considerate of the girls here?”
The teacher glanced at the girls sitting on the ground. “I don’t see any girls here. Some cheap sluts and whores, sure.”
It took the combined strength of Yukio and the two other teachers to hold Ulf still after he kicked the arse to the ground.
When the police arrived, accompanying half a dozen ambulances, both Ulf and Thomas were promptly shoved into a car each. Aggravated assault, the teachers reported. A female officer stood surrounded by the girls taking notes of what they said when the car Ulf sat in drove through the back entrance and towards whatever police station they were headed for.
Halfway there Ulf gathered his thoughts together. Kareyoshi again. And where had he found students who’d go as far as committing the atrocity? What kind of infighting used children as tools to be abused to reach a goal? Was there even a goal worth scarring kids for life? Ulf didn’t think so, and even if there was he refused to accept it.
At least the rapists would see long prison sentences ahead of them. Not that it helped the girls at all. Sometimes Noriko still showed that haunted look in her eyes, and Ulf couldn’t even begin to understand what kind of thoughts and feelings went with it.
“Urufu and Tomasu got suspended?”
Yukio nodded. “Those boys got pretty badly hurt after all.”
Noriko shook her head. Something wasn’t right. Eight boys sent to hospital but not a single rumour about anyone missing from school.
“But...” she started.
“I know,” Yukio interrupted her. He stared across the seats under the great sails and Noriko saw how he fixed his gaze at the gymnasium. “Urufu taught me how to peel pieces of information from a whole.”
She followed his stare and waited for him to continue.
Wind gathered between the wings, swirled, caught specks of dust and blew it towards the gym. Cooler now, she noted. Soon the school yard would turn into a temporary festival area, and with that what had happened would turn into partially forgotten memories when arranging the cultural festival stole all attention. But not for two girls. They’d never forget. They…
“Sorry,” Noriko said when she realised Yukio had already started talking again.
“I was saying those guys probably aren’t students here,” he repeated.
She had already guessed as much. “Think it’s like when Kuri was assaulted?”
Yukio nodded. Then he turned his head, and as his arm rose Noriko saw Kyoko leave the cafeteria with a tray of food in her hands. Yukio waved her to join them, and Noriko lifted her hand to do the same. A feeling of uneasiness spread through her and she hesitated and dropped her arm into her lap. Instead of welcoming her friend Noriko turned and stared at her feet.
I’m so stupid. But she couldn’t help it. She was jealous of how the couple avoided getting caught up in the madness, which was unfair. She knew that. Last year both Yukio and Kyoko had been sent to hospital.
Kyoko arrived, and from the corner of her eye Noriko saw her sit down and give Yukio a short peck of a kiss before she turned her attention to her lunch.
“Yukio, father asked some friends.”
Noriko looked up. Kyoko’s father was some kind of public servant with a network of his own. He’d used it to look into Kareyoshi’s background earlier.
Yukio took a sip of tea from a bottle. “Uhum?” he said and dug into his lunch with chop sticks in one hand. The other returned the bottle to the small space between him and Kyoko. Noriko stared at it. Between them. A shared space. It made her miss Urufu again.
“Did he find out anything,” she asked. This time she had to face Kyoko properly.
“I’m sorry Noriko,” Kyoko said. “There are rumours about expulsions.”
Noriko shook her head. “Urufu said the arrivals pretty much were untouchable.”
Kyoko met Noriko’s eyes, but she stayed silent. There was something pained in her expression.
“Kyoko, what is it?” Noriko said when Kyoko remained silent.
“Urufu and Tomasu are safe. It’s about Jeniferu and that other girl.”
“What?” Noriko blinked and stared at her friend.
“The two of them might be expelled. Unless they drop the charges they could be kicked out of school. At least that’s what father said.” Kyoko fell silent again, but just as Noriko was about to scream with rage Kyoko’s voice cut through the short distance between them. “I’ve never seen him so angry. Not even after I was stabbed.”
At last what Kyoko had said registered in Noriko’s mind. Her throat went dry all of a sudden, and without asking she grabbed Yukio’s bottle and emptied half of it in four long gulps. But they were raped! How? Noriko stared blindly ahead of her. Yukio’s shape was there, but only when he grabbed the bottle she held out did she know for sure that he was really there and not just a shadow.
“He’s going down,” Noriko said.
Kyoko nodded. “But not for this. Father doesn’t think Kareyoshi’s behind it.”
“Kareyoshi’s the principal here. He doesn’t want to stain his reputation, so he’ll do anything to hush it up, but father still believes someone else pulled the strings.”
“The PTA,” a voice said from behind Noriko’s back.
She turned and met her brother’s glare. “PTA?”
Ryu nodded, and the way he looked at her Noriko understood the glare wasn’t directed at her. With a sigh he found a seat for himself and sat down with his tray in his lap.
“You know how Kareyoshi got himself an obedient PTA after the old one put up a fight?”
“Uhum,” Yukio nodded. “And?” he added between bites.
“He should have thought a little more about why they were so obedient.”
“I don’t understand,” Kyoko said.
Noriko did. Time spent with her parents built a set of rough tools, and a year with Urufu had honed them to a sharpness that bordered on cynicism.
“Sis, if you will?”
“It’s Red Rose Hell all over again. Kareyoshi filled the PTA with the same kind of lunatics we had at our old school.”
“But...” Yukio started.
“They share the same world,” Noriko interrupted him. Rage competed with shame, because she had been so occupied with thoughts about Jeniferu that she forgot there was a second girl as well. “Yukio, you know some first years. Could you please ask about her background?” Shame won. Noriko didn’t even know her name. “Discreetly please.”
“Because I believe she got targetted because she’s Korean or Chinese.”
“Sure. I’ll ask.”
Noriko looked at Kyoko who stared at how her boyfriend’s face suddenly turned all grim and dark. You and Kuri went to a decent place. You wouldn’t understand.
“Red Rose Hell, Kyoko. I told you about it last year, at the fireworks, remember?”
Kyoko’s gaze turned inwards, but then Noriko saw how she must have remembered whatever memory she’d been searching for. “Be careful.”
“I promise,” Yukio said. “But I won’t stand watching and do nothing this time. Never again.”
Another gust of wind seeped the little warmth Noriko’s clothes offered away from her, and she felt a desperate longing for Urufu.
She could feel it. For the first time Kyoko understood Yukio’s words about a stench of fear. And something was about to burst as well.
At the time being everything lay hidden beneath a blanket of forced anticipation, and for a lot of the students there was nothing forced about it at all.
Later this morning the cultural festival would open for relatives, which was the second occasion for Kareyoshi to celebrate. The first happened yesterday when the Korean, because she turned out to be Korean, rape victim dropped out of school.
Jeniferu, however, refused to become a third.
Kyoko couldn’t understand where Jeniferu got her strength from. Whenever asked she candidly responded that she had indeed been raped and that she hoped all eight boys and whoever lay behind it died horrible deaths. Unsurprisingly Jeniferu got called to the principal’s office on a daily basis, but for whatever reason she never broke down.
Right now she sat beside Kyoko scrubbing toilets. It felt just as demeaning as it was supposed to be, but Kyoko grit her teeth and kept scrubbing. The silence, however, was more than she could bear.
“Do you hate Japan?” she asked, not certain where the words had come from.
The silence was only broken by the sound of brush against porcelain, and Kyoko had just about given up the thought of a conversation when Jeniferu suddenly spoke.
“I hate what happened to me, but why should I hate this nation?”
“But… you know… the toilets...” The words felt clumsy and Kyoko let them peter off.
A giggle made her look up.
“The toilets are fine.”
“In fact if it had been back home I probably would have refused.”
Kyoko shook her head and changed water in her bucket. “Why?”
Jeniferu laughed. “Everything is clean here. We’re scrubbing toilets that are already clean. I don’t even want to tell you what they would look like where I come from.”
So maybe it was true after all. Both Kuri-chan and Urufu were adamant things were cleaner here compared to Sweden. Maybe people in Japan were clean freaks.
“Does it bother you? That we’re overly neat I mean?”
“Are you stupid?”
Kyoko stared at Jeniferu. “No. I don’t think I’m stupid,” she said.
Jeniferu grimaced, and in her eyes Kyoko read an honest attempt at finding the right words. “I like clean. I like how Japan is clean. When I’m here I can see how people just don’t care back home.” A long sigh told Kyoko there was more to come. “It doesn’t mean I like everything with Japan,” Jeniferu continued. “It’s clean because people here care, but it’s also clean because no one dares.”
“Dares what?” Kyoko wondered. These were words strangely echoing of Urufu’s thoughts, and Kyoko desperately wanted to hear them voiced in a different way.
“People are selfish in groups here,” Jeniferu began. “So they lie in groups, but I prefer when people are selfish for themselves and lie alone.” She met Kyoko’s eyes. “I am myself. I’m responsible for myself. I don’t want to hide behind friends, or a school class, or a family. I want my strength to be my own; not something I borrow.”
It wasn’t what Urufu, or even Kuri-chan would have said, but it was very close. It was as if the similarities between Sweden and the USA were greater than the differences.
They switched toilets and finished the last ones in silence just in time for the festival to open.
Kyoko tagged along after Jeniferu to dispose of the buckets, and after that it was time to meet up with Noriko and a Chinese girl to start carrying out garbage. They weren’t really allowed to, but Noriko didn’t feel safe working outdoors in pairs after what had happened, so Kyoko decided it was worth a later scolding as long as Noriko felt better.
The incinerator lay behind the gym as well, and Kyoko shot Jeniferu a worried glance as they left the school building through a side entrance. The girl might not have said anything, but what did she think about going near that place? Would she even go there at all?
Gravel bit into Kyoko’s soles and a gust of wind tore through her cardigan. For a moment Kyoko regretted she had left her blazer in their classroom, but now it was too late.
Halfway to the gym they met the other pair, and Kyoko’s stomach churned at the instant relief in Noriko’s eyes. It wasn’t right. No one should feel that kind of fear going to school. At a loss for words she looked at Jeniferu to see how she felt.
“You know,” Jeniferu said as if she had read Kyoko’s intentions, “of course I don’t like going there, but we have a job to do so let’s get it over with.”
By Kyoko’s other side Noriko stiffened, and Kyoko wondered about her reaction. Ever since the two girls were assaulted Noriko had shrunk and started looking over her shoulder with something haunted in her eyes. From what Yukio had said, and from rumours about Red Rose Hell Kyoko put together a jigsaw puzzle she didn’t want to watch.
From the attack on Kuri-chan, through Yukio’s frightened words at the fireworks festival a year earlier to what had just happened. Kyoko always thought it began with Kuri-chan, but of course Yukio’s words pointed at a time before that, and the look in Noriko’s eyes just added to it. One way or another Red Rose Hell had survived. If not as a school then by seeping its ideals into Himekaizen, and behind that rot; Kareyoshi.
And with that Kyoko finally understood, and her legs buckled under her, and the stench of fear was the stench of something rotting in the school she had loved going to just half a year earlier.
With a grin Christina slowly walked through the festival streets. Very slowly. For once the goons from Vogue had no problems following her, and adding her own body guard to the duo she became exceedingly visible, which was exactly what she wanted.
Today was Sunday, and the cultural festival was open to the public, which included people from the media who were after any kind of scoop involving her stardom in the world of modelling. She planned to give them far more than they could dream of, and for this the presence of her obscenely visible body guards were vital.
A small part of her felt sorry for dragging Ko-chan and Yukio into her dirty game, but the addition of another two guards, armed with handguns to boot, ought to guarantee a devastating blow to Kareyoshi’s career.
Maybe he wasn’t directly responsible for what happened to the girls, but he was involved in a way that placed the blame firmly on his shoulders. He was, Christina decided for herself, easily one of the most disgusting persons she had ever met in both her lives. And that was a big deal, because that meant he was even worse than she had been herself in her early forties.
A transition and restart. More like redemption. Memories of her old life were far from rosy. Shards, I lived shards of a real life. A smile spread on her face, probably tinged with more than a little sadness if she had to guess, but she didn’t care. Her real feelings lined up perfectly with her plans for once.
This year she had no problems strolling around. This was nothing like the insane circus from a year ago. This year there was none of the mad chaos she remembered, but also gone were the grins and surprised shouts of glee when yet another small disaster was averted.
Polite students served Japanese food to polite customers. Silence and subdued words filled the air, and wherever she looked the student body of Himekaizen filled stalls and exhibitions while trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. Maybe there was culture, but festival had nothing to do with what she passed through.
Not that it mattered. She wouldn’t have been out here if she’d done as told and participated in the cultural festival. None of the students who weren’t pure blood Japanese were allowed to come in contact with guests.
Back in Sweden Kareyoshi would long since have been removed from office and facing a trial, but this wasn’t Sweden, and for that reason Christina was adamant he’d end up facing that trial anyway. On the surface the laws were similar. If Kareyoshi’s ham-handed rules surfaced and brought disgrace to the school there was a possibility the application of those laws saw the light of surface as well.
And then there was that other bomb.
Christina pushed her way through, or rather her body guards did.
Thomas wanted to talk with her, and so did Jennifer. The main reason for that talk was between Thomas and Jennifer, and there was absolutely nothing Christina had to offer. Jennifer might look strong and unconcerned, but it had to be a show.
Christina sighed and followed her body guards through angry outbursts. Then she saw Yukio and Kyoko with their armed protection. From then on any show of irritation from other guests simply vanished.
“Why aren’t you working with the festival?” Christina asked loud enough for anyone to hear.
“I don’t dare,” Yukio answered according to a rehearsed script. “This time Principal Kareyoshi sent eight boys to rape the girls.”
Which was an absurd accusation, and absurd was good. Kareyoshi lacked the brains to escalate his dirt when it proved insufficient, so someone else was involved this time. But Kareyoshi also lacked the brains to cover up his tracks, so if he got flushed out Christina was certain he’d drag his associates into the open as well.
Around them people listened and gasped, and five body guards protecting three high school students made anything they said seem plausible. So Christina vented one horrible accusation after another for anyone within listening distance, and those always included members of the press.
Another four to meet. Three ahead of them and one following a bit behind her. Kareyoshi wouldn’t recognise a scripted event if you shoved it into his face, but Christina wasn’t so certain about those who supported him, so she hid her ace up her sleeve.
Just inside the main entrance Thomas and Jennifer stood waiting despite being ordered to stay out of sight, and Kareyoshi had swallowed that bait beautifully.
Just as Christina entered she heard him yell something about insubordination, and she grinned when he refused to disappoint her. In her wake a few journalists managed to make it indoors just as Kareyoshi roared something incoherent about why unclean blood should be invisible when decent people were around.
“So it’s not enough to have them raped. You need them invisible as well?” she asked with a voice she knew would cut through pandemonium.
Kareyoshi turned and faced her. “She’s unclean. No one needed to rape her. She just flaunted her foreign ways just like that Korean.”
A shadow behind her told Christina the fourth person to join the meeting had just arrived. “Are you telling me that all Koreans and other foreign women are sluts who’d sleep with anyone anywhere and anytime?”
Kareyoshi stared at her. Then he growled. “A foreign whore like you wouldn’t understand, but yes, that’s exactly what I mean.”
The shadow grew closer, and then the darkness turned into a tall man in his fifties. Christina backed away to make room for him.
I’m sorry for using you like this. Christina stared at Jennifer’s expression of fear and hope.
“Did you just say that my daughter and a Korean girl egged eight boys on to have sex with them?”
“Another foreigner. What are you doing at my school?”
The man met Kareyoshi’s stare. “My daughter attends this school. She was raped here. As a father I believe it is my business.”
“Who would care about what another foreigner believes.”
“In my case, quite a few I believe.”
The two men stared at each other, and Christina waited for Kareyoshi’s final blunder.
“And why would anyone listen to you?” he said and walked right into the trap.
The man grinned. An entirely predatory grin and nothing at all like Ulf’s wolfish one that still made Christina’s heart lurch. “Why? I wonder. Maybe because you just turned this into an international incident.”
“What? Who are you?”
“My name is Nathan Cooper. I’m the US ambassador to South Korea.”
“It’s an outrage!”
“They can’t do that to us. You need to act Principal Kareyoshi.”
Ulf walked past the door. It didn’t matter that it was closed. The shouting was heard in the corridor where parts of the teaching staff stood eavesdropping, for which you merely had to be within a classrooms distance from the headship’s office.
You’re wrong, Ulf thought. They can, and they did. Or rather Christina did.
Once again Himekaizen was crawling with media people, or at least they crawled as close to the compound as was possible. A few Japanese, but as the prosecutor had opened up a case to enforce the Japanese censorship laws Japanese press was fairly absent.
Media from Seoul and the US wasn’t. Just as Ambassador Cooper had threatened the Himekaizen rapes had blown up into an international scandal.
Ulf grimaced and went for the stairs. How could you? She’s your daughter. But maybe being a diplomat was akin to being a politician. Humans were bricks in a game, even if they were relatives. Then his thoughts went to Christina who had orchestrated the entire thing, and Ulf’s mind soured.
If that’s what it takes to build I global empire then I believe you’d be better off if you never built one in the first place. Because if Christina knew what kind of strings to pull now she probably knew it before he met her as well.
I need someone sane to speak with.
Ulf walked down the stairs, walked, not ran or jumped like Ryu used to do during their freshman year here. Noriko? No, I don’t think so. Ah… Of course!
Ulf hoped Yukio wouldn’t be too angry if he borrowed his girlfriend for a while. In ways she knew more about Christina than he did himself. After all they were best friends since middle school.
“Heard about that American slut? Really think she was raped?”
Ulf backed around the corner when he heard the voices.
“She’s a foreigner. Probably likes it rough. You know what they’re like.”
After a moments hesitation Ulf decided to avoid the confrontation. He stayed out of sight while the two first year boys overtook him and continued down the stairs.
Pigs like those were everywhere. It wasn’t anything specific for Japan. The rape laws here, however, were a different matter. If the victim didn’t press charges then nothing had happened, and in this case it meant only one rape had occurred, even though the police did their best to convince Jennifer to drop her charges as well.
He came down to the entrance floor, walked to the shoe lockers, switched and just as he passed trough the doors he wrapped his jacket around his shoulders and stepped out into a rapidly cooling world.
Across the gravel Yukio and Kyoko stood waiting for him. Yukio with a face so grim Ulf could see it from where he walked, and Kyoko for once showed the same expression. Behind them Ulf saw their armed body guards standing under the sakura trees lining the streets embracing Himekaizen.
If she’s that angry I doubt she’ll help me. Ulf bit his lower lip. If anything she’ll help Christina instead. Which was a problem. While all the current members of the PTA suffered from archaic views on foreigners far from all of them were rabid psychopaths the way Kareyoshi was.
Thus far Christina’s rumour mongering had gotten two members fired from their jobs according to the information network Ulf trawled with the help of Amaya. Those two, as far as Ulf could discern, weren’t really bad people, and he felt unease about how things slowly spiralled out of control.
I’ll ask for her help. At least that I can do. So he walked up to Yukio with worms crawling in his stomach. What had happened to the two girls was beyond the pale, but as much as he wanted a lynch mob to take care of those involved, rationally he knew that wasn’t the way to go. So I’ll ask for her help.
“Yukio, mind if I take Kyoko for a short date?” Ulf asked.
Yukio glanced at Kyoko, but his eyes never really left Ulf’s. “I she doesn’t then I don’t.”
“She might. I’m not asking you for anything nice,” Ulf said and turned his attention directly to Kyoko as he finished the sentence.
“Is it about Kuri-chan?”
Ulf nodded at her. “The Haven is a bad place for this. I was thinking Asakusa.”
Yukio stared at him, but it was Kyoko who voiced his concerns.
“That’s across the entire city.”
“I know,” Ulf said and pointed a thumb at the body guards and the car.
“I don’t mind, but Yukio comes along as well,” Kyoko said.
“I’d really prefer if just...”
“You don’t have a say in this. If it’s about you and Kuri-chan, then you don’t get to talk with me alone,” she interrupted. “If it’s about the two of you, then it concerns the two of us.”
Ulf smirked. What could he do?
“Still want that talk or not, man?” Yukio said. “I’ll stay in the background, but if she says I’m tagging along then I’ll do as she says.”
There wasn’t anything more to do than throwing Yukio and Kyoko both a stare each filled with admiration. There was no coercion from Kyoko’s side, and there was absolutely no chance Yukio wouldn’t join.
Ulf needed to talk, so he shrugged and followed his friends to the back seat of the car. He shuffled to the right and tried to make himself as small as possible when Kyoko squeezed him into the corner to fasten her seat belt. When he finally got some free space to breathe again he saw Noriko rushing across the gravel.
Then Yukio entered, seated himself and the car drove away.
Through the rear window Ulf saw Noriko panting and staring after the car, and just as they turned around a corner his phone blared alive in his pocket.
Noriko swore silently and left the station. Being in love with Urufu made her brains all mushy, and it definitely didn’t make him grow any brains.
Ever since the disgusting parody of a cultural festival Urufu had been racking up an imposing record of absence from school.
They might not be in the same class, but when one of the stars in school asked for her famous boyfriend she got her answers. Maybe more so now when they were both part of the science track. Most of the students were supposed to continue on to university which meant good grades was a better currency now compared to her freshman year.
He played hooky more than half of his lessons, which means she saw far less of him than she craved. And now he had to vanish with Yukio and Kyoko one of the few days when she actually managed to see him at school.
One angry phone call later Noriko was on her way to Asakusa. Even though Urufu had planned ditching her for the afternoon, after that call there was no way he even dared think about it any longer. Which still didn’t make Noriko any less angry.
Finding her way was no problem. The Cloudspear dominated the entire area, and it was virtually impossible to get lost.
Walking towards the pier she became less and less certain whether she was angry with Urufu or if she really was angry with herself. When she saw the ferry she was certain the last was true, and when she finally boarded it she almost felt sorry for him.
Noriko quickly made her way through the ferry. This time of the year the open area at the aft was all but empty, but sure enough she found her friends freezing their butts off there. Opening the door Noriko understood why Urufu had chosen that place despite cold gusts of wind tearing at their clothes. The engine sound guaranteed that whatever they spoke about wouldn’t be overheard by mistake.
“Forget it!” came Kyoko’s angry voice just as the door closed behind Noriko.
Urufu answered something Noriko couldn’t hear. Then he said something more.
Whatever the lopsided conversation was about Noriko understood that Kyoko would have none of it.
Noriko sat down beside her boyfriend and gave Kyoko a glare. Whatever Urufu had said he hadn’t raised his voice at her.
“Sorry, didn’t see you coming,” Kyoko said, which had to be a blatant lie.
At his seat across them Yukio grimaced, but Noriko accepted that he didn’t say anything. Besides Noriko knew that he didn’t always side with Kyoko just because they were a couple. So maybe Urufu had suggested something outrageous after all.
“I apologise,” Noriko said. “I didn’t mean to butt in, but I got angry when you stole Urufu.”
This time it was Kyoko who grimaced. “Actually he stole us. All of us,” she added and nodded towards one of the body guards. The other probably drove that car to either Hinode or Hama Rikyu depending on how far they planned go by water.
“Well, I’ve asked at least. I had to,” Urufu suddenly said.
Noriko looked at him, and from the corner of her eye she saw that both Yukio and Kyoko did the same.
“Why? Why if you knew I’d refuse and get angry?”
“I had to,” Urufu said. “What Christina’s doing now is wrong, and I’d be an awful friend if I didn’t try everything to make her stop.”
Kuri is doing what? Noriko had been busy dodging attending a cram school after her results dropped. After her spending most of her waking hours being with, trying to be with or thinking of Urufu. Or, like now, doing all three of them. The side effect was that she knew less and less about what happened with the rest of them.
“Kareyoshi had them assaulted, and he had Kuri-chan attacked as well last year. You expect me to stop her?”
What’s going on?
“People who weren’t involved are getting hurt. I don’t like it, and I don’t like what it’ll make her become.” Urufu shot Noriko a guilty look. “Kyoko, I used to be in love with that girl. I still care for her and watching her become some kind of vengeance demon hurts.”
Noriko knew Urufu still had feelings for Kuri, but his saying ‘used to be in love’ only made her stomach fill with a warm and fussy feeling. Urufu was picky with words. ‘Used to’ was something in the past.
“They deserve getting hurt,” Yukio said and joined the conversation for the first time. “I’m sorry man, but I’m starting to think more and more like you used to do. Guilty by association is still guilty. They’re going down.”
Through her clothes Noriko felt Urufu shiver. “Fine, they’re going down. I hope you can live with it later.”
“Why did you change?” Yukio said.
Noriko felt Urufu shrug. “This is the real me. If anything I’m surprised how easy it is for me to use violence.”
Something in Urufu’s words rang false to Noriko. She clung to him and mulled them over. “Physical violence, you mean?” she said, still thinking about his exact words.
She had to hold on to him when he flinched. “What did you say?”
“Physical violence. Isn’t that what surprises you.” She let her reasoning run another full circle in her mind. “I wonder if you’re really as non violent as you think.”
He turned and stared at her. “What do you mean?” There was something haunted about his eyes.
“In your previous life you had power. Isn’t the application of power violence in one way or another?”
Across them Yukio’s thoughtful expression turned into a smile. “Man, she’s saying you’re just less civilised these days.”
Urufu looked like he had seen a ghost. “My teenage body. That doctor last summer said we were truly teenagers rather than adults in teenaged bodies.”
“You’re too honest to be really honest, you know.” Kyoko’s voice. “Kuri-chan is devious enough to be more honest with herself. Urufu, she’s going after adults who deliberately would hurt children, or at least look the other way.”
And there it was. Adults hurting children. Kuri was right in going after them. With that thought Noriko decided to side with Kyoko despite loving Urufu so much it sometimes hurt. Her brains going mushy wasn’t an excuse to become truly stupid.