Gods! There’s spillover everywhere. Yukio groaned silently, but at least he stayed out of the rumour mongering by the shoe lockers.
“Is it true Sugimoto-san transferred last week?”
“It’s true. Her parents are divorced and when her mom died she had to move to her relatives.”
“Was it suicide?”
It was. Yukio knew that. He also knew Sugimoto-san’s mother had absolutely nothing to do with the rapes apart from believing the girls were at fault for getting assaulted. While disgusting it was hardly a reason for dying. Damn Urufu. I should have listened to you.
He dropped his shoes into his locker, and halfway to his classroom he’d listened to three other versions of the rumours. Rumours, because the Sugimotos weren’t the only family to have lost a member. Sasaki-san, a freshman, lost his older brother to an armed robbery that looked a lot like revenge meted out by friends of the Korean victim.
While Urufu was adamant Sasaki-san’s father was indeed directly involved the dead kid was only guilty of voicing his hatred of anything foreign to whomever was within earshot.
And in the background Kuri continued her own campaign of defamation with the open backing of Jeniferu’s father, and he in turn had the silent backing of two nations.
The stairs took Yukio to his corridor and classroom, and just as it had been since the assaults there was a silence clinging to it that had absolutely nothing to do with obedient students. Stench of fear, did you call it that?
He walked to his desk between classmates refusing to meet his eyes and sat down. Yukio barely had time to dig out his books when his name was called out over the PA system.
Visit the headship’s office? What is the pig up to this time?
Raking down his books into his still open bag Yukio stood and left the classroom the same way he had entered. After climbing the stairs to the third floor he had a moment of fleeting memories from his freshman year when he stared down the familiar corridor. Then he walked into the one connecting both wings.
He was almost at the door to the headship’s office when he heard voices from the inside. Or rather Kareyoshi’s voice.
“Your stunt with bringing in journalists again made those in charge change their mind. I’ll have you expelled for tarnishing the name of the school.”
“That’s rich coming from someone who disgraces an entire nation just by being born,” came Urufu’s voice.
There was a moment of silence before Kareyoshi spoke again. “Laugh all you want. Within a month you’re gone from here. Atrocious exam results will suffice as a reason.”
You know, you’re not really supposed to tell people exactly how you’re going to hurt them if they can react to it, Yukio thought. But then Kareyoshi hadn’t exactly displayed any evidence of a higher mental capacity. Still, for what it was worth maybe waiting in the corridor was the smarter choice, so Yukio remained where he stood and eavesdropped.
“So you’ll use my exam results as an excuse? You know I’m answering questions written in Japanese?”
“That’s hardly my problem. If you’re not able to learn a civilised language then you aren’t fit for receiving an education here.”
“You still insist on calling the canned simplifications we’re fed here an education?”
“I don’t see how you’re qualified to comment on the best education system in the world.”
“You really...” for once Urufu’s voice silenced mid sentence. “No, it doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t understand anyway.”
“I believe that’s all. By the way, you’re suspended for a week?”
“I’m what? For what reason?”
“For interfering with the investigation concerning your later expulsion,” Kareyoshi said.
“Eh, you just told me about that.”
“Which is exactly why I’m preventing you from sabotaging it. Well, that’s all. You may leave.”
Yukio quickly hid behind the door as it opened, but it turned out unneeded as Urufu simply turned in the direction of the sciences wing without looking. After waiting for the backside of his friend disappear behind the corner Yukio finally knocked on the now closed door.
Yukio did as told. Inside the room he came to attention as it was the expected behaviour. “I was called here.”
“Yes,” Yukio answered.
“Good. You’re suspended for a week for associating with bad people.”
“That will be all. Dismissed!”
Yukio didn’t even bother with shaking his head. He just bowed, turned and left the office. Kareyoshi hadn’t said when the suspension went active, but Yukio assumed immediately, so he’d just go to his classroom, fetch his clothes and leave school.
On his way there he heard Kyoko, Noriko and Ryu being called over the PA as well, so he decided to wait for them just outside school grounds. Just outside the building he heard the PA calling for Jeniferu, Tomasu and Kuri as well.
Are the girls getting suspended for wearing panties with the wrong colour, or what will the idiot come up with this time?
While Yukio waited by the gates he saw them leaving the building and walk in his direction one by one. The first to arrive was Urufu who must have finished some errand before leaving school, and after him Kyoko and Ryu arrived in rapid succession.
Now that’s funny. I thought Noriko would be with her brother. Maybe she had been somewhere further away from Kareyoshi’s office when they called her over the PA, because Kuri came walking across the gravel before Yukio saw any signs of Noriko.
“If she doesn’t show soon I’m going back in after her,” Urufu growled by his side.
Yukio smirked. He’d join his friend if need be, but right now he was more interested in the journalists flocking around them. No way Kuri would miss out on another opportunity to throw dirt at Kareyoshi and the PTA.
Then Yukio saw Jeniferu walking across the school yard supported by Tomasu, and but for Yukio having seen Kuri playing her stunts too many times he’d be really concerned. As it was he understood they were putting on a show, and just as he started wondering what for they arrived at the gates and Jeniferu dropped the bomb.
“I can’t stand it Thomas.”
“He wouldn’t dare.”
“But he’s our principal and he told me he’d find other men to finish the job on me properly.”
And with those words Kuri had both freshmen seated in her car without giving the journalists a single word of her own. She didn’t need to. Outright accusing the principal for personally ordering the rapes was damaging on an entirely different level, but Yukio was certain Kuri lay behind the ugly show one way or another.
He watched the car drive away and turned his attention to the still absent Noriko.
“I want you to end your relationship with Hamarugen. He's a bad influence on you.”
Noriko stared at Kareyoshi. “Bad influence?”
“Yes. Your scores have fallen the last trimester.”
My scores have fallen? You bastard! How much are you getting paid by the PTA? “My scores average above 90. I fail to see how that would be a problem.” She gave him a defiant look. But in the end I'll have to fold. The moment they bring my parents into this I'll have to fold.
He had tiny eyes. Lying eyes. She hadn't seen that until now.
“While your scores aren't a problem per se, you still have dropped from the top three to around top ten. That reflects badly on this school, especially as those with higher grades haven't improved compared to earlier.”
The bastard knows how hard Urufu's studying, but he'll still sacrifice him for those rapists. It's all because he's a foreigner without connections. Noriko felt tears welling up, but forced them down. I won't let him get to me!
“We're having a meeting next week where we'll decide if he'll be suspended or expelled.”
He didn't have to tell me. That's just hurtful! One week. That would be just after the exams. After the exams? Oh, Urufu, Urufu! You sly… You planned it all along. Blushing, yet smiling, Noriko faced the principal. “So, you'll put him through the midterms first and kick him out of school after that?” You idiot, you're in for it this time! Noriko recalled Urufu's sardonic smile earlier that month.
'I don't need to focus on learning more kanji any longer. By now I can read the tests,' he had said. 'And as I told you, they're designed for parrots.' He had shown her that wolfish grin, and then he started skipping classes.
“I wouldn't put it that way, but someone with his reputation and his grades isn't exactly what this school needs.” Principal Kareyoshi's words brought Noriko back to the current reality.
Urufu, I'll slap you silly around the entire school next time I see you. Then I'll hug you, and then I'll kiss you silly. For everyone to see! “May I assume that if his grades were to increase drastically, then that would influence your decision?” And then she recalled the booklets in Urufu's room. Ah, the info on Tokyo University wasn't just for me at after all.
“That would require near perfect scores, and,” Kareyoshi eyed her body over before he continued: “even if you were actually to help him study instead of… Well, it's too late now anyway.”
Noriko suppressed a shiver as he continued to undress her with his eyes. Instead she focused on the implications of what she had just realized. Near perfect scores. Urufu wasn't skipping classes because he lacked the ability to follow them. He was skipping classes because they were an impediment. 'It's all a matter of information density,' he had said. 'Your education system is all about memory and no understanding. Given a month or so I could probably memorize everything for the second trimester, but I wouldn't understand a lot of it, because I would lack context.' Given a month or so… Skipping classes so you can study… Urufu, you little… I love you!
“Yes, I guess you're right, Principal. There's nothing I could do to help him now,” Noriko agreed and gave him a smile full of lies. “Is that all? Class is starting soon.”
But if he brings my parents into this I still have to fold.
“Oh you don’t have to worry about class,” Kareyoshi suddenly said.
Noriko looked up from the floor she had been studying the last seconds. “How come?”
“You’re suspended for one week.”
“I’m what? Why?”
“You’re suspended for being involved in an indecent relationship.”
“I’m involved in an….” I wish! She felt herself blushing from the neck up, and with thoughts of making Kareyoshi’s accusation come true she stumbled out of the office.
Urufu, why didn’t you tell me? Well if we’re both suspended until midterms then I’ll be damned if we can’t study together.
Noriko knew how he processed data when he wanted to. She also knew no one else understood to exactly what extent he did. So studying together with Urufu for a week would basically be the same as going to school for well over a month, which was a bonus. Studying with Urufu for a week, well, just thinking of it made Noriko’s stomach go all warm and fuzzy.
Anything warm and fuzzy mostly evaporated when she left through the main entrance and saw the circus by the gates. Her idiot boyfriend stood in the middle of it and waved to her. He immediately reverted from Urufu to moron-sama, but the warm feelings didn’t entirely disappear despite angry thoughts running through her head.
Noriko made up her mind, decided that she’d have him as close to her as possible the coming week, and with newfound determination she listened to the crunching sound of gravel under her feet as she made her way to the gates and the sakura trees behind them.
She saw Yukio and Kyoko there, Ryu was there as well, but Kuri wasn’t. Ryu stood surrounded by journalists answering questions on behalf of his famous girlfriend.
While idols usually kept their relationships a secret Kuri refused, but Noriko guessed Kuri played up her foreignness as much as possible to get away with just as much as possible.
Idiot, you could have held on to Urufu, but I’m happy you didn’t. Because she was. Noriko admitted that. One way or another both Kuri and Urufu had to hurt for her to experience this. I’ll apologise one day, but not now. It was a staggering thought. That she, Wakayama Noriko, stood ready to watch someone else get hurt if that was the price for her own happiness.
While studying alone together with Noriko would have been a pleasure Ulf still declined her suggestion. Christina’s earlier stunt drew the attention of both media and police, and police arresting people from the media drew even more attention from the media.
Journalists from the US and western Europe were very different from their potty-trained Japanese counterparts. Freedom of press was a calling and not something best forgotten lest you discomfort people in power. It also meant western journalists never let go of their grip unless you clubbed them from behind.
So Ulf made himself scarce and dragged Noriko to the Haven rather than going home. Yukio and Kyoko would arrive there as well, and their armed body guards should be able to keep prying eyes from getting, well, too prying.
As it turned out he was correct. Ulf barely managed to pull his girlfriend inside before both body guards intercepted a couple of men with cameras growing like twigs from a poorly pruned bonsai. With a sigh of relief he opened the door to the inner room, nodded to James’ silent question and stepped inside.
“I wanted you for myself,” Noriko sulked behind him.
Ulf smirked. “At your place? With Ryu climbing all over my back because he dislikes us being a couple?”
When Noriko declined to answer Ulf turned and faced her. She was sulking.
“We can’t go home to me. There’s just no space for you staying the night there, and I’m not sending you home alone in a taxi. Not after what happened.”
There was enough space, but Ulf wasn’t about to go there, and he very much doubted Amaya would approve.
The inner room was all but empty. It was, after all, in the middle of the day, and but for the suspensions all students were supposed to attend class now. All but empty however wasn’t empty. A few Irishima High students as well as their vice principal sat there.
Guess it doesn’t count as skipping if your teacher is with you. It didn’t really matter that Satoru Noguchi probably wasn’t a teacher at all.
“Cramming?” Ulf asked.
He only received a few grunts and nods as answers.
“Why are you here?” Satoru said.
Ulf smiled at the older man. “At this time of the day?”
Satoru nodded and gave him a broken smile in return.
“Is he daft?” was the concluding response, and Ulf could only agree.
Behind them the door opened and James arrived with Ulf’s order. The tray he carried contained a little for Noriko as well, and Ulf shot him what he hoped was a grateful smile.
“Noriko, up for some serious cramming?”
She smiled at him. “Define serious!”
Ulf grinned. “James, when do you close shop?” Let’s see if that’s serious enough for you, Noriko.
“Eleven pm,” came the answer.
“Ramen for dinner?” Noriko asked, and Ulf had his answer. Then she emptied her bag on the table.
Taxi home after all I guess. He’d escort her home and continue to his own flat after he made sure she was safely inside. I hate this. Why? Ulf searched his thoughts. Because I’m afraid. He’d been threatened before, but it was different when people around him were in danger. He wished that made him some kind of knight in shining armour, but what he really hated was not being in control.
“Urufu?” Noriko had taken a chair, and now she sat staring at him.
“Sorry, sure, ramen is fine,” Ulf belatedly said and grabbed a chair for himself. “Math first?” Not that he really needed to study math at high school level, but it allowed himself to solve problems while going through what was really important at the same time.
With a shake of her head Noriko declined, and Ulf caught himself staring at her hair fanning out like a skirt around her face.
“Japanese?” he suggested instead.
This time he received a nod in return.
They crammed Japanese style. No thinking, just memorising whatever they believed would pop up on the exam, and within a couple of hours Ulf was dead tired from sheer boredom. He rolled his head to loosen up sore muscles and slid his hand across the table.
“Hungry?” he asked and took Noriko’s hand in his. Her fingers were smaller than Christina’s, just like everything with her was smaller than Christina. Ulf knew he shouldn’t compare, but he was a lot less physical with Noriko than he had been with Christina, so those thoughts still came unbidden to his mind.
Noriko looked up from her notebook and met his eyes. “Uhum,” she said. “Appetiser first?”
She pulled his hand to herself and leaned over the table. Ulf stared at her in surprise when her eyes were suddenly very close, and then he felt her softness on his lips.
“Tastes great,” she said when she let him go. “Ramen?”
Satoru’s cough reminded Ulf they weren’t alone in the room, and when he let his eyes wander behind Noriko he saw the trio of Irishima High students smirk.
“Ramen it is.” Am I running a fever? Ah, no, I’m blushing. “Should we go?”
Rather than answering him Noriko simply rose and went for the door.
Ulf shrugged and followed her, but it was impossible for him to stop a wide grin from spreading on his face. Thank you for being here. He swallowed his grin and joined her outside the café.
The ramen shop was close by but still far enough off for him to take her hand and enjoy a short moment of feeling her close to him. It feels good with your hand in mine, Ulf thought and intertwined his fingers with hers.
Noriko squeezed back.
Christina had Thomas dropped off at his home, but when she asked Jennifer if she wanted to be driven home as well the girl just shook her head.
“Going with Thomas?”
Brown hair swirled around Jennifer’s face once again.
“Girls’ talk,” Thomas offered from outside the car. “She doesn’t have those too often. See you tomorrow Jennifer.”
Christina looked after his back as he climbed the short stairs to his door and vanished inside.
“Where to?” her chauffeur said.
“Home. Have them prepare for a guest,” Christina said and shot Jennifer a quick glance to see if that was what she wanted.
This time Jennifer nodded.
Seriously contemplating quitting modelling last summer was, Christina realised, the smartest thing she had done. It must have shown, because Vogue dropped more or less all of their draconian demands, which meant she could have friends visiting her.
So why is Jennifer the first? Because Ulf wasn’t, and Ko-chan would understand that, and Noriko still didn’t feel comfortable around her.
“You live on your own as well?” Christina asked.
Jennifer nodded. “Well, there’s a body guard now,” she added.
Christina decided to wait for the girl to continue the topic of her own. Something was wrong, but pushing the freshman into a corner could backfire as well.
They continued the drive in silence. Through the windows Christina saw how autumn truly had come to the city. Later here than in Sweden, by well over a month.
After an awkward silence they arrived at her home, and Christina spent the ride in the lift reading up on her next shoot. Talking could wait until they were inside her flat.
She opened the door and invited her guest inside.
“It’s huge!” were the first words here from a voice belonging to someone other than Christina or her staff.
Christina looked at Jennifer. Maybe it was. Ever since moving in she hadn’t really given it much of a thought. Her small and rundown flat held more good memories than this one, and years of living in luxury must have made her numb to excesses.
“I thought you were used to it, diplomat daughter and all,” Christina said in an attempt to get a conversation going.
Jennifer hung her jacket on a hanger and walked further inside. She was, Christina mused, in for a surprise. The living room might look huge, but it also opened up to another seven rooms, most of which were empty since there was absolutely no way Christina could have made any meaningful use of them.
Maybe I’d have spent money on furniture if they let me bring friends home when I moved in. Maybe, but the time for maybes had gone, and living in a world of fashion you either got over mistakes immediately or your were out of a career.
The dining room, apart from her own sleeping room and the living room they had entered, the only one furnished had a dinner for two waiting for them on a grand table for a full dozen. This would be her second time eating here. Ever since that first night crying over a lonely snack in her new home she spent what few meals she had here standing in the kitchen.
The food was, Christina noted mutely, superb, and she waited for the famished freshman to fill her needs before trying to open up a conversation again.
In the end it was Jennifer who eventually broke the silence. She placed fork and knife on her plate in a way that told Christina volumes of a well to do middle class upbringing and pretended to wipe her mouth with a napkin.
“I’m afraid,” she said.
Body guards, Christina thought. So she’s just putting on a show after all. In ways Christina felt relieved. The girl was human in the end. “I’m listening,” because this would mostly be listening from her part.
“I’m afraid of turning Thomas away, but I can’t stand him touching me.”
Christina nodded, but she couldn’t prevent a grimace from spreading on her face. “Did he do anything?” But that wasn’t the question, was it? More than a few models around her during her first life had been forced to bed men in power, and a couple, Christina suspected, were outright assaulted.
“No, no he’s gentle.”
He would be. Withdrawn to the point that Christina almost didn’t see him as a man, but with something in his eyes that told her he fought with himself every day to behave like a model gentleman.
“It’s because of that?”
Jennifer smirked and looked down at her empty plate.
Apart from a genuine interest in fashion there was a reason Christina abandoned modelling and built her empire. She desperately sought the power to prevent that from happening in her own world, but in the end she hurt others instead.
“Should I call a couple of other friends here?” Christina said. She hadn’t experienced what Jennifer had. There was little she could do to help.
Jennifer’s face suddenly turned into an ugly grimace of fear and loathing. “No! I couldn’t stand you looking at me that way.”
I can’t do anything! I don’t understand. I… oh! “I could leave you with them. Or just one of them.”
“Why? I came to you.”
She needs professional help. I could hurt her, but Noriko, maybe if it was her. Christina combed her hair with her fingers while she thought of a decent way to force her suggestion. In the end only the truth came to her mind. She’d apologise to Noriko later. “You know Ryu?”
Jennifer nodded, and her panicked eyes slowly returned to normal.
“He told me. Noriko, his sister. She’d understand you better, and I trust her.”
Jennifer’s eyes opened wide.
And so I’ll hurt a friend, and I’ll hurt you as well Ulf. Gritting her teeth Christina decided that if she was to be a disgusting woman something good could as well come from it.
Noriko shook her head while she waited for Kuri to open the door. It was her first time here, and she regretfully accepted that she was a little curious. While she would have preferred to stay with Urufu in the Haven something in Kuri’s voice told her that wasn’t really an option.
But why me and not Kyoko?
Suddenly the door clicked open and Kuri’s voice called ‘please enter’ over a hidden intercom.
Noriko did as bidden and got inside.
Two pair of shoes waited for her in the hallway, and when Noriko looked into an enormous living room she saw Kuri waving.
“I’ll be outside for a while,” Kuri said to whomever her guest was. Then she ran to Noriko and hugged her. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help her. Please forgive me!”
Her? “What’s going on?”
“It’s Jennifer. She’s in a bad shape, and I don’t think I’m the one she needs listening.”
No, no you didn’t! Now it was too late to back out. “You owe me for this!”
“I know,” Kuri said, “but I could never understand her the way you could,” she whispered.
You insensitive bitch! Why would I want to relive that? “You owe me,” Noriko repeated.
Kuri didn’t answer. She just opened the door and vanished into the lift.
Noriko clenched her fists and with worms crawling down her spine she forced her feet into the living room. When she entered it she saw Jeniferu’s small body hunched in a chair by a large table in the next room.
Of course this flat comes with a separate dining room. Gods it’s huge!
“Jeniferu, it’s me,” she said into the silence.
“Noriko,” Noriko added at a lack of anything meaningful to say. Of course Jeniferu would know. I didn’t know walking trough a room could take this long. But it didn’t have anything to do with the room. Two years. It takes two years to walk to that table.
Memories of what had almost happened filled her mingled with the knowledge that there was nothing almost for Jeniferu. Urufu saved me, but Tomasu never made it in time for you. Did that make Urufu better than Tomasu? Noriko didn’t think so, not if she was honest, but she also admitted she might have fallen in love with Urufu the first time just because he did save her.
“She left me. She didn’t want to talk with me.” The words petered out and Noriko heard how they were replaced by, first silent, but quickly wailing sobs.
I’ll never forgive you Kuri! But Noriko knew she would, even if it took a long time. Who told her about what happened to me? Ryu? But then Noriko remembered she herself had told both Principal Nakagawa and the entire student council last year.
She rushed to the table and sat down on a chair beside Jeniferu. “She’s scared,” Noriko heard herself say. She put her hands on the table. Right now she wasn’t certain if a hug would make the girl panic or not.
Noriko threw Jeniferu a glance. Maybe they would talk after all, or Noriko talk, or Jeniferu; she didn’t know. “Kuri,” she said after a moment’s hesitation.
“Christina’s scared? Of what?”
“Urufu was as well,” Noriko answered. In ways it was a lie, but she believed he was. She hadn’t asked yet. “They don’t know what it’s like.” Suddenly afraid of stealing Jeniferu’s fear Noriko added: “And neither do I, not really.”
“Then why did she leave you with me?” Jeniferu said and broke down again.
Good question, Noriko thought. Then she discarded it. Thinking like that was too close to the cynical freshman version of herself from over a year ago.
“Because,” Noriko began. She dared touching Jeniferu’s shoulder to get her attention. “In middle school some boys tried to rape me.”
That did get her attention. Jeniferu’s eyes were suddenly wide open and she stopped sobbing at once.
“No,” Jeniferu’s experience was far worse than Noriko’s, “Urufu saved me, Urufu and my brother.” Which wasn’t entirely true. Ryu had been too far away to know she needed saving.
“I’ve been so afraid.” And Jeniferu’s eyebrows once again screwed up in a display of misery.
Noriko waited while Jeniferu cried and cried. Holding her seemed fine, and when Jeniferu turned her head and buried her face into Noriko’s shoulder she did the same. Fears she had forgotten surfaced and she joined Jeniferu in her wailing.
How much time passed before they stopped crying Noriko didn’t know, but certainly more than for any errand Kuri used as an excuse for leaving her flat.
“Dad wants me to talk with someone,” Jeniferu said when they had both run out of tears.
Noriko stood heating water for some tea and turned at the sound of Jeniferu’s voice.
Jeniferu shook her head. “Not with a stranger.”
A small cup with sugar made company on the tray where tea bags competed for space with two mugs and an equally small can of milk.
“A professional,” Noriko said carrying the set through the room. “Living room?”
Jeniferu nodded and rose from her chair. Brown hair, some of it still wet from tears bobbed around her face and failed in it’s attempt to hide her red eyes.
Wonder if I look the same.
Noriko put the tray on a low table by a sofa, the two pieces of furniture that tried to hide in the huge space. Now when she wasn’t occupied with her and Jeniferu’s shared fear she had time to see how the entire flat screamed of desolation.
“A professional,” Noriko repeated when Jeniferu joined her. “I believe you need one.” She looked around the empty room. “I believe Kuri needs one as well.”
“Do you mean Kuri...”
“No,” Noriko said and smiled for the first time since coming here. “For a different reason.”
“I need professional help?”
Yukio looked at Kuri. They were on their way back from lunch to yet another midterm exam.
“If Noriko says so, then you probably do,” Kyoko said from his other side.
“Yes, Kuri-chan, dear?”
Kyoko’s sugary sweet voice made Yukio cringe. He sped up and deliberately abandoned his girlfriend. When Kuri and Kyoko decided to swap blows with each other he never knew if they were serious or not.
“See you after school,” Yukio announced and made for his classroom. It wasn’t like he’d be able to share it with Kyoko for the exam anyway.
And you probably do, and Urufu as well, he thought a little later when he made the last preparations for the exam. Epic levels of idiocy were probably better handled by professionals than by friends. Still, by now both Kuri and Urufu seemed to have settled down in their respective new relationships, one famous throughout the school and the other kept a secret. Well, nominally a secret anyway.
Exams ate the rest of the day, and the day after that. They were, Yukio thought after the week had passed, strangely easier than he had expected. When he mentioned it to Kyoko she chalked it down to a combination of club activities and the brutal cramming that prepared them for the spring term finals at Irishima High a few months earlier.
He tried to get a second opinion from Noriko, but when Yukio called Saturday he learned she was away paying Jeniferu a visit.
With Kuri away for work, Ryu almost certainly waiting for her, and Urufu most likely training that martial arts of his, or cycling to training, Yukio decided to spend the day alone with Kyoko. Dates had been few and far between the last weeks anyway.
With most of the old gang out of reach he suggested a change of place as well. Thus it was Yukio found himself an early Saturday afternoon waiting at the entrance to Ueno Zoo at one side of the park.
The first person to approach him however wasn’t Kyoko but rather Tomasu and Hitomi.
“Funny seeing the two of your here,” Yukio greeted them.
“No coincidence,” Hitomi said. “Kyoko called me earlier.”
Strange. I thought we were going to have a date. Yukio forced a smile and nodded to Kyoko’s classmate and only second year club member who had returned to Himekaizen apart from the old group.
“Don’t worry, you’ll have your date eventually,” she continued. Hitomi had proven to be much less of an airhead than the girl who once joined the club. The short stunt at Irishima High had been good for her. At least in Yukio’s eyes.
“Is Jeniferu OK with this?” Yukio said. This time addressing Tomasu.
“It’s her request,” Hitomi answered rather than the boyfriend Yukio had just indirectly accused of cheating.
Tomasu fidgeted but chose to stare back across the park in the direction of the railway station.
“Jeniferu’s?” Yukio said and followed Tomasu’s eyes. No matter if they came by subway or train they’d enter the park from the same entrance.
Hitomi turned and looked behind her as well. “Yes. She’s with Noriko and Kyoko picked them up on her way here.”
An obscure application of Chinese whispers flashed through Yukio’s mind. “Jeniferu told Noriko to call Kyoko to ask you to bring Tomasu here and notify me of the change of plans?”
Hitomi smiled when she turned back to face him. “Yes, that would be an apt description.”
Yukio shook his head. If what Urufu taught him about single points of failure and sequential dependencies was correct those inbound were likely to end up in Stockholm if they even got moving at all.
They waited. From time to time Yukio picked up his smartphone to see if there was a message.
Yukio looked up. Urufu? Man, please make some sense of this!
“I dropped my bike by the pond,” Urufu said as if that explained anything. “The rest will be here soon. Noriko got the zoo mixed up with the park, or rather Noriko and Kyoko did.”
Yukio shot Hitomi a glance, but she only smiled in return.
“You’re telling me they’re waiting just across the...?” Yukio began, but then he saw Kyoko with Noriko and Jeniferu in tow walking from where he had once come himself.
“I called them on my way here,” Urufu said. “Haven’t been here for ages, and when Noriko sent me a message I wondered...”
“… if things hadn’t been garbled in the end?” Yukio filled in.
He stared at his best friend and they both guffawed.
“Something like that,” Urufu offered, and by that time Yukio’s stomach hurt a little, and the trio had made their way to them. Hitomi glared at him and Tomasu gave him a nonplussed stare.
“Sorry, Yukio, but Noriko said it was important,” Kyoko said as she arrived.
He hugged her. Some of Urufu’s influence had rubbed off, and Yukio didn’t care that they were in public. “Don’t worry. We planned being together all of us anyway.”
Kyoko loosened herself from his hug. “No, we’re having that date, but it’ll have to wait a little. Yukio, this is important,” Kyoko said and looked at Jeniferu. “Could you wait here with Urufu for a while? Please!”
Yukio smiled back. If Kyoko said it was important for her he’d wait for however long it took. “Mind if we grab a drink?”
Kyoko shook her head. “Message when we’re done?”
Yukio smiled again and nodded.
He looked after Kyoko as she headed in the direction of a large fountain together with the rest of the girls and a bewildered Tomasu who was unceremoniously dragged away as well.
“What’s up,” Yukio wondered aloud.
“Girls’ talk,” Urufu said and frowned. “I hope they can make it work.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I wanted to say I hope you never will, but I’m afraid you already do.”
Yukio stared at Urufu. Sometimes he could be infuriatingly cryptic.
Together the both of them went in search for a vending machine.
“I’ve been here before.”
Kyoko looked at Noriko. Ueno park. They all had been.
“At this café I mean,” Noriko said. “Had a talk with Principal Nakagawa,” she added.
“Just after the nightmare began,” Noriko muttered.
Kareyoshi, of course. “The pig!”
“Principal Nakagawa is a pig?” Jeniferu asked over her coffee.
Kyoko giggled. “No, Nakagawa-sensei is decent. I just guessed he spoke with Noriko about the pig.”
“How dense can you be girl?” Hitomi glared at Jeniferu. “Kareyoshi!”
Across the table Tomasu looked as if he was about to grab Jeniferu and protect her from the verbal onslaught, but just as he reached for her something in his eyes clouded over and he dropped his hands and stared down at the table. Something was off.
Kyoko let her her eyes wander to Jeniferu. She looked both hurt and relieved. Yes, something was definitely off.
“We’re here,” Noriko said, and Kyoko saw her stare at Jeniferu with murder in her eyes, “to talk about just that.”
Why would she be angry with Jeniferu?
“Thomas, I want to, but I can’t. Not right now.”
Kyoko looked at Jeniferu, and as she did so she saw Hitomi’s dark glance. That the beauty had cast off her image as an airhead was no longer news to Kyoko, but her face expressed an understanding that made Kyoko feel left out of the loop. What’s going on?
Kyoko sipped some of her tea and waited for someone to let her in. She wouldn’t have been asked to postpone her date with Yukio for no reason.
The sound of a mug clacking on the table told her the time had come. It was Noriko’s mug.
“Kyoko, please don’t hate me, but could you tell Jeniferu what happened to you?”
Kyoko frowned. “What happened...” Ah, the nightmare! “You mean the attacks?”
“The attacks?” both Hitomi and Jeniferu asked in unison. Tomasu just stared at her.
She had an inkling where this was going. “Jeniferu. First I need you to tell me what’s going on. I don’t want to hurt you with my ignorance.”
For the first time Jeniferu looked like a broken girl and only Noriko’s hands on her shoulders kept her in her chair.
“I’ve been so scared. Ever since...”
So her brash attitude towards anyone who asked had been a show after all.
“But Tomasu...” Kyoko began.
Jeniferu looked like she was about to start wailing, but she grabbed the edge of the table with her hands and stopped the tears. “I’m scared of him.”
“I’m so sorry Thomas. I love you, but you scare me, and you’ve done nothing wrong.”
Gods! Understanding finally hit Kyoko. “Noriko, I can’t.”
Kyoko heard her own words blurt out. “I was attacked, but I wasn’t violated that way. I tried to protect Yukio both times, and it was all so quick, and I never lived through the kind of nightmare that would make me afraid of his touch.”
“Both times?” Something in Jeniferu’s voice told Kyoko curiosity won over misery.
“I heard you were assaulted, but both times?” Hitomi added.
Maybe I can, after all.
Kyoko told them. About the attack aborted by her father and the one that wasn’t. She told them about how she could never have children and about the hate she felt for the man who stabbed her. She didn’t, however, tell them she suspected Urufu knew something bad had happened to him, and she didn’t tell them about her and Yukio’s hope for the future.
In the end, amidst a lot of blushing and half sentences, she did tell them a little about what she experienced together with Yukio, and how that made her feel safe and whole. How he made her feel safe and whole. Maybe that, if nothing else, would turn Jeniferu’s feelings for Tomasu in a more hopeful direction.
“But you’re kids! How the hell...” Tomasu began after Kyoko was finished.
Together with Noriko she shot him down with angry glares. A freshman speaking about kids with Hitomi present was bad. But for Urufu behaving like an idiot at the start of the new year Jeniferu shouldn’t have known either.
Hitomi shook her head. “Keep your secrets. I don’t mind.”
“Secrets?” Kyoko tried.
“Look,” Hitomi said. “Four westerners pop up in school. Sometimes they behave like really old people and it’s like they’re a magnet to awful things happening.” She smirked. “I’m not blind you know.”
She got it wrong about Jeniferu, even though the girl did behave above her years from time to time, but Hitomi was close enough for Kyoko to feel something akin to fear rising in her. If Hitomi suspected something, then how many more in the club?
Then Kyoko surprised herself. “Another day, but not today. Today is for Jeniferu.” Kyoko glanced at Tomasu. It really was for him as well, but she hoped he would understand and forgive her.
He nodded approval, and when Kyoko looked, so did Hitomi.
“You never felt dirty?” Jeniferu asked.
Kyoko bit her lower lip. This was the hardest part. “I did. I’ve never told Yukio, but when I found out I was barren I wondered if he wanted a soiled woman.”
Noriko shot her a shocked stare. “You never told me.”
“I know.” Kyoko admitted the truth. “It’s my parents. I know they love me in their own way, but sometimes they hurt me being the way they are.” Then she turned her attention to Jeniferu. “But I’ve never ever been afraid of having Yukio close to me. I can’t even begin to understand that feeling.”
“But you jut did!” A glimmer of hope glowed in Jeniferu’s eyes. “My dad, and your parents. I think I get it.”
Kyoko shook her head. “I don’t.”
“Dad would get angry. Dad got angry.” This time Jeniferu shook her head. “That’s not right. He got angry with me as well, or at least I’m afraid he did.”
That didn’t make any sense at all, but the hard stare Tomasu shot Jeniferu told Kyoko it had made sense at least to him.
“I should have been by your side when it happened. I’ll be there whenever you want me to,” he said.
It was a little bit of bravado and a lot of love. Kyoko hoped Jeniferu could come to trust the man she loved enough to give their relationship what it was worth. From what Kyoko had seen he was a thoroughly decent person.
“Don’t you have a date?” Noriko asked, and Kyoko understood her friend was about to tell the others about what had happened to herself. She must still believe Kyoko didn’t know.
There was no betrayal. Noriko would tell her when she was ready, or at least when she felt both of them were. Kyoko was certain they already were, but it didn’t matter.
Ryu looked at Kuri when she ended the call. Despite the thin tin-can quality to the sound he recognised his sister’s voice from the other end, but he hadn’t been able to listen in to her side of the conversation.
“Sis?” he asked for confirmation.
Kuri nodded and smiled. For once she looked small and vulnerable. “Noriko helped me, and I owe her an apology.”
Leaning into the sofa Ryu returned her smile. It was his first time here, which was kind of odd since officially they’d been a couple for half a year. It could have been a perfect love nest, apart from being big enough to run various sports tournaments in, or apart from being furnished in a way that had him wonder if all money ran out after they put up the building.
“There’s a lot of floor,” he said.
That bought him a smile from Kuri that showed a little teeth for the first time in days. At last a genuine smile. She flashed her prefect teeth whenever the camera demanded it, but it wasn’t the same thing.
“Never got round to make it my home.” Kuri grabbed a towel and went for her bedroom. “Shower’s long overdue. Just wait for me, will you?”
Of course her bedroom has an attached bathroom. “Sure.”
This was the kind of flat that serviced the really rich, but it contained almost nothing inside to prove it. For a moment Ryu wondered why Kuri didn’t care, but then he recalled the reason why Kuri had once moved here.
Urufu. They broke the two of you apart. But that wasn’t all of it, was it? They broke you as well, or did you do that to yourself? Whatever he did Ryu knew he could never force a wedge between Kuri and her memories, or he’d lose her. She needed a place for Urufu in her heart.
The smartphone on the table chimed and Ryu threw it a glance. Sunday, noon. Noriko should be home by now. She spent the night with friends, or at least he hoped she did. Just thinking of her spending the night with Urufu made him angry.
Thank you? I owe her an apology? No, Noriko hadn’t slept at Urufu’s place after all. Besides, even if she did Sato-sensei probably would put a stop to anything indecent.
He listened to the muffled sounds of Kuri showering. A little over a year earlier he’d be blushing to his ears or try peeking; or at least imagine what he’d see if he tried peeking.
Am I growing up?
But that was too easy an answer. He listened to some more watery sounds. Last time he had shared the shower with her. There really was no reason to go peeking. Ryu doubted she’d even as much as scold him if he walked in on her.
He sighed and sank down in the sofa. Maybe they could make use of some dating time to buy at least a little furniture for her flat. Enough to make it resemble a home. Maybe they could spend nights here rather than in the down town establishments for couples who didn’t want to bring the other home for one reason or another.
Another few minutes went by while Ryu dozed off, and in the end he felt Kuri’s hand on his shoulder shaking him awake.
Ryu nodded groggily and rose. He followed her to the hallway and like always when they found some time for a proper date she slipped into something with heels. Not too much of it, but enough to make it obvious she was the taller of the two.
“You know that’s bullying,” he said on their way down in the lift.
She grinned. “Yup.” Then the mirth fell off her face.
“Make it a short date? I believe you need to have a chat.” There were lots of areas where he couldn’t compete with Urufu, but reading the mood was not one of them. “We’ll grab a late lunch, and...” Wait, I’ve got a better idea. He told her.
Ryu waited outside the building waiting for Kuri to prepare better for his plans. Two phone calls later he felt like a much better person. When she returned she wore casuals and sneakers.
“You sure about this?”
“Yeah,” Ryu said. “I’ll hold on to this until the restaurant.”
He led Kuri’s bike with one hand and held hers in his other.
“Almost feels like my boyfriend wants me to cheat on him.”
Ryu smirked. That thought had crossed his mind. “This is one of those adult things. I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself involved in, and I probably wouldn’t understand it fully.”
“I’m jealous enough to have preferred if you talked things over with Tomasu, but I’m also honest enough to admit that the one you need talking to is Urufu.”
He was rewarded with a shine of gratitude in Kuri’s eyes when he looked at her.
“Ryu, just so you know. You’re growing into a good man. I’m happy to have fallen in love with you.”
She didn’t use those words all that often, and whenever she did Ryu felt shivers of pleasure in his chest. Unfortunately they were always accompanied by him blushing like a child.
“It’s not really me trying to be a gentleman,” he said to relieve himself from some of the awkwardness. “I have ulterior motives you know. This is just my way of trying to get you into bed later.”
Kuri giggled. “Your mind’s in the gutter for sure. Well, I believe that could be arranged,” she added and laughed.
With a sigh of relief Ryu squeezed her hand. Bedding her was pleasant enough, but for now he thoroughly enjoyed finally having managed to dispel the dark thoughts that clung to her the last week. If it took a dirty joke to give her joy and peace of mind then he could spend the rest of the day chaining vulgarities one after another.
“I love you too,” he said. Those words came easy, because they were true.
Ulf stared at the list.
He knew his goal had been nothing but petty revenge, but failing it still hurt.
Third. Noriko second and the same guy who’d made some kind of unholy reservation with the gods of the list first. Just as he’d been on every exam session since their first mid terms as freshmen.
That first spot had been his goal ever since he started to senselessly cram like the rest of the students. Sure, third would still create an uproar, but, well, it wasn’t the same thing.
Ulf growled silently. It wasn’t just that he failed to get the first place. Given his opinion about himself and his capacity at studying when he really made an effort, the result in Japanese came as an ugly surprise.
And the day had begun so well. Waking up to the sound of his phone calling and Noriko’s voice from it a few moments later. A Noriko who not once admonished him for giving in to Ryu’s request he’d spend his afternoon biking around with Christina last Sunday.
Which he did, and while doing so realised he’d become friends with the woman he still loved. And he’d listened and he’d talked, and he’d laughed with joy at realising how her feelings for Ryu had grown into something that carried weight for the future. The joy, though, vaporised when he heard how Jennifer’s brutal bantering in the corridors was nothing but a shell that hid her broken core.
Still, the day had begun so well. A broken Jennifer wasn’t anything he could mend, and Ulf made it a point not to put too much energy into something he couldn’t affect. Comments about him being a cold hearted bastard be damned – he couldn’t affect those neither.
Now his promise to Noriko to share an after school date tasted sour in his mouth. He’d planned to celebrate with her, and if he was honest with himself, to tease her a little, but with her grabbing second place hers were the rights of gloating. Not that that mattered much. Her mind went places he could barely grasp, and if he got stuck in her shadow he’d just feel that much more pride in her.
But 85. It wasn’t as if 85 was a poor result by any means, given that Japanese very much was a foreign language for him, but he’d poured in long hours. The difference between 85 and the 95 he aimed for was momentous. As in at least another year’s worth of serious studying.
Ulf growled again. Now he was stuck with handling the inevitable uproar for making such a visible spot on the list after never having made the top fifty at all before. And all for a performance that lay far behind what he had hoped for.
Bloody hell, it’s high school level! The result sullied his two academic degrees, especially as one of them was language studies, and English sharing a Germanic heritage with his Swedish be damned. Learning Japanese was merely more difficult and he was still supposed to be a linguist of sorts.
But we didn’t really learn English at university, did we? That part was over and done with after high school. And it was. University English was learning about the English language, and Himekaizen was very much a high school, albeit a Japanese one.
He fled up the stairs to his classroom. Soon he’d be mobbed by classmates who wondered how he popped up from nowhere to a top position among the second years in the science track.
Ulf tapped his fingers against his desk. He’d prepared himself for that part. Soon both Noriko and Ryu would bug him as well, and they had different reasons to wonder what he had done. Solid reasons, but Ulf didn’t care any longer, and for that reason he hadn’t prepared for the onslaught from his friends.
After a while his classroom slowly filled up, but there was still a lot of time left of their lunch break. Given the decent weather and all Ulf normally only expected to see those who ate their lunch in the classroom here by now, but there were almost a dozen more present.
He looked up and met questioning eyes. He couldn’t do much more than shrug in response, and that created even more questions since it wasn’t a gesture universally used here.
With a sigh he dug up a book from his bag and pretended to study, which was exceptionally stupid since they had just received their mid term results. Ulf shook his head at his own ineptitude at subterfuge, and admitting it brought an involuntary smile to his lips.
Well, 3:1 was last year’s rumours, and the club. This year I guess anything goes. And that was a bloody awful thought, because the part with anything goes included the atrocity the two girls had to live through.
Ulf wiped the smile off his lips and pretended to study again. Concentrating took an effort, because that result in Japanese still plagued his mind.
Then there was some commotion by the doors, and Ulf looked up.
Well known as the faces were they still didn’t belong in his classroom. Most of them not even to this wing. He met Noriko’s eyes and felt embarrassment crawling all around inside himself. There was little left to do but studying his own shoes.
Just minutes earlier Noriko stood staring in disbelief at the billboard with the juniors’ mid term results. Urufu putting real effort into it should bring him clearly into the top fifty. Now only friends cared about what happened outside the top ten, and she had searched for him to make an unprecedented jump from nowhere into the top twenty.
She couldn’t find him, so Noriko threw a quick glance at the very top to look for her own spot before searching for his name again.
Third. As in Urufu had claimed the third place with her as second.
There was a difference between astonishing and absurd. She’d pushed herself this time, and that made her beat him by a mere three points. As for the top student he still nailed his first place position with close to perfect scores.
But third. That was tantamount to a joke. Urufu didn’t attend a cram school. Sure, neither did she, but she was a first rate student born and raised here.
And this was the reason she barged into his classroom accompanied by students from both wings.
“Urufu?” she asked. “What happened?”
There was no answer. Urufu just stared at the floor and refused to meet her gaze.
“How did you get that result of yours?”
“Japanese,” he said and kept looking at his feet.
“Yeah, 85 happened.”
“85?” Noriko stared at Urufu. “How did you manage to score 85?”
Urufu’s gaze never left the floor.
“He scored 85?” That was Ryu, as he came in through the door. Kyoko, Kuri and Yukio followed in his wake with equally stunned expressions on their faces.
The sound of voices from the corridor filtered into the classroom as the rumour spread like wildfire.
“Did you see the list?” a voice from outside shouted.
“You got 85 in Japanese?” Yukio said.
“Yes, I did,” Urufu admitted. He blushed shamefacedly, and continued staring at his feet. “That's what you get for an overblown self-confidence.”
“Japanese wasn't just a matter of brainless memorisation. In the end it was impossible for me to get it right.”
“You're ashamed you scored 85?” Noriko interrupted Yukio.
Finally Urufu raised his head and looked at her. “Yes, I'm sorry. I left you alone for almost an entire month, and I still failed to get an aggregate above 490.”
“Yes. I think I got 480. Once again I apologise.” His eyes were downcast. “I tried, for you,” he added.
He's truly ashamed. I don't believe him! Noriko walked over to where he stood, his head still hanging, and hugged him close. “You make me proud. I love you,” she said.
There were sudden gasps. While there were a lot of people who knew about them their relationship was nominally still a secret.
Noriko looked around and dared anyone to comment her public confession.
Then Kuri broke the spell. “Ask him about his grades, his original grades,” she said softly enough the other students wouldn’t hear.
Noriko looked into Urufu's eyes. “Urufu?”
“Five,” he answered.
“Five? Five what?”
Once again Kuri's voice reached her from behind. “Across the board, fourteen subjects, he averaged five point zero.”
Noriko turned, even though she never let go of her embrace. “What does that mean?” she asked, but she already knew the answer.
“He is, easily, the brightest man I've encountered in my entire life.” Kuri chuckled. “Seems you made a good catch there.”
Noriko felt her cheeks heating up. Then she glanced at the wide open door. The corridor was packed with students staring at them. Furiously blushing she hid her face in Urufu's embrace. “I knew that,” she said.
Then she remembered the promise she had given herself earlier. She grabbed Urufu’s face in her hands and bent closer. It took more courage than she had thought, and she had to block out thoughts about impropriety she shared with a younger version of Kyoko. With more than a little glee she felt his astonishment as he met her kiss, and then everything else was lost in a roaring dizziness of pleasure as she grabbed his head and tasted his closeness.
It lasted for longer than she had imagined, but probably for a lot shorter than she had believed. Slowly voices from around her filtered into her private world of joy.
“They’re going out?”
“No it’s just a hobby. Don’t you also french people just for fun?” That was Kuri’s voice dripping with sarcasm.
Noriko disregarded the outburst. Urufu was hers, and her idiot bro could ditch his crappy attitude about it somewhere.
Then she felt Urufu’s hands grabbing her under her arms and her mouth left his. Suddenly her feet lost contact with the floor and moments later she sat on Urufu’s desk. After that his arms wrapped around her again.
“Thank you!” he whispered in her ear. “I love you."
“I thought Wakayama-san wouldn’t settle for anyone with poor grades,” some genius said from behind her back.
“Moron! She didn’t.” That voice also came from behind.
She smiled some more. “Urufu, I love you.” Noriko dug her fingers into his hair and pulled him closer into the embrace. “And I don’t care about your grades,” she added.
He hugged her back.
Then more rational thoughts finally entered her mind. “Urufu,” she began, “other people might care though,” she said and allowed herself to leave his embrace.
Urufu grinned and laughed. He nodded at the classroom entrance and when Noriko looked there she saw how it was packed with students staring at them.
“I love how you’re quick on the uptake,” he said.
She glared at him.
“Why don’t we handle that problem when it arrives?” Suddenly she was pulled into his arms again. She felt his lips touching her ear. “Right now I’m more interested in an after school date,” he whispered.
Noriko just nodded. The last weeks had been lonely. Problems could wait. “Anywhere but the Haven café.”