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Tokyo dressed for Christmas and Himekaizen for finals. Clubs shut down for the year with the very much unofficial Himekaizen Cultural Exchange Club as a glaring exception.

And glaring was also what Kareyoshi did most of these days.

Ryu didn’t like it, but letting one of the rapists off the hook did result in Kareyoshi losing the support of men in power.

It’s politics,” Urufu had said with distaste in his voice, and while their relationship had gone sour ever since Noriko became an item with him, in this case they agreed.

Ryu even asked his father for an opinion, but he fidgeted, and Ryu could see how uncomfortable he was with the idea of making exceptions to principles. His mother’s reaction was very different though.

Can you win?” she wanted to know, and when Ryu said they might she just told him to win. By now Ryu began to understand that in many ways she was far more ruthless than his father.

In the end they decided to win, and as Christmas decorations went up all over the city so did Kareyoshi’s stocks go down. The problem was that he proved to be too stupid to understand how precarious his situation had become. So he kept glaring, and the members of the club kept goading him.

All in all, Ryu thought, it was the worst case of a lose lose situation he had ever lived through.

Right now he sat in the inner room of the Haven café and did what he should have done for a week – he studied. Even Kuri had gotten the week free from work. Final exams were final exams after all, and for once he shared his time with her doing school things and wearing school clothes. There had been preciously little of that during the autumn that was about to end.

The room was crowded as usual. Gakuran, sailor uniforms and blazers mixed freely, with the blazers in a clear minority. Students walked between café and inner room, and Ryu observed how the Irishima High students had become used to the informal atmosphere during the second term.

As always the Irishima High vice principal took his chair at one end of the large table.

Urufu occupied one whiteboard and Noriko another. In difference from more ordinary weeks they didn’t walk between whiteboards but stayed by one, and therefore stayed focussed on one subject.

All in all the café seemed more subdued with most students silently cramming for all they were worth. Only the occasional question to Urufu or Noriko broke the silence.

It pained Ryu a little to admit it, but with Urufu by her side Noriko’s academic capacity rushed ahead in leaps so great Ryu had trouble understanding what was happening.

Two more days, a short weekend, and then finals were upon them. He intended to do the most of those two days.

With a guilty look across the table Ryu dove back into his books. He shook off the discomfort of seeing Ai’s expression whenever Kuri’s hand caressed him. By now it was a different kind of discomfort. His love for Kuri was stable, but he still hoped Ai would find her own happiness soon.

Subject by subject he kept cramming, and as the evening grew later the world around called for his attention. It began as occasional voices, but when it became a steady stream of conversations Ryu realised most of those present had given up studying for the day.

He stretched, threw Kuri a quick hug and received one in return. For once she had been as busy studying as he.

You OK?” he asked and looked at her books.

Kuri nodded and smiled. “Yes. I’m able to read the books by myself now.”

Her achievement filled him with pride, or at least happiness for her sake. And it was an achievement. It meant her Japanese was better than his English even when it came to reading.

And?” Ryu asked.

And what?”

The finals,” he said, “what do you think?”

She leaned her head to the side, a very Japanese expression she had learned as a model. “Top hundred, but I won’t make the list.”

Top hundred was a lot better than he had expected. Somewhere, deep in his mind, an ugly thought lurked. That Kuri was all beauty and no brains. Ryu slammed down on it whenever he became aware of his prejudices, but it kept popping up, rearing its ugly head and reminded him of how he could eventually be wrong about his refusal to accept Urufu and Noriko being a pair.

And you?” Kuri asked in return.

Ryu grabbed her hand and rather than squeeze he allowed his fingers to embrace hers. “The list,” he said. “High thirty I suppose. My best result yet.”

It felt strange being able to make these kind of educated guesses, but as much a he might dislike Urufu, Ryu still admitted that the man in a boy’s body pushed them all to reach higher, achieve more and succeed better than what was humanly possible.

The secret, Ryu sullenly accepted, was that Urufu was trapped in the body of a teenager, or else none of the students here would have listened to him the way they did.

He threw a worried glance in Kuri’s direction.

Thinking of Ulf much?” she asked.

Ryu blushed.

You know,” Kuri teased, “thinking of my ex as your rival is fine, but thinking of him as mine isn’t.”

Did he really admire Urufu that much, despite feelings of dislike? Maybe, Urufu had changed his life after all.

Ryu wrenched those thoughts aside and faced Kuri. “I love you, and only you.” He gave what he had just said a moment’s thought, and then he took her hands in a firm grip. “I’ve never felt this way before. It’s not a crush any longer. I love how you make me feel loved, and I love how you make me trust you.”

They spent their nights together whenever her schedule allowed, and he knew her in ways he had never known anyone else. Still, the way she blushed and averted her eyes took him by surprise.





That evening, over a week earlier, in the Stockholm Haven Café still filled Christina with embarrassed happiness.

Ryu had long since ceased to just be a beautiful boy she didn’t mind taking to her bed. That he had become a man she could envision spending years with still surprised her.

While Ulf would never entirely leave her mind, finding a man who wasn’t merely second best was more than she deserved. She knew that, and she was grateful.

Still, the man she had come to love was just a seventeen year old kid. A seventeen year old boy who was thoroughly irritated at the moment.

The results of their final exams were plastered over the billboard, and Ryu had found himself at place 35. That wasn’t, Christina knew, what he was irritated about.

Ulf they found at third place, something that entrenched his status as a miracle man, but this also wasn’t what fuelled Ryu’s ire.

Christina gazed at his almost perfect profile looking slightly upwards. Perfect according to Japanese standards of male beauty. He even had the hairdo that announced a young man both of the world as well the world of books. Now rather than a year earlier he fully filled the shoes of the Prince of Himekaizen.

She could have spent their entire lunch break looking at him but for the irritation seething from his every pore.

At the very top of the list Noriko had finally toppled the former ace from his throne. The impossible student was relegated to second place, and this was why Ryu pouted, smirked and pouted again.

She deserved it,” Christina said in an attempt to placate Ryu. She refrained from putting a hand on his shoulder or he would have blown up in her face.

Christina once said Ulf was the brightest man she ever met in her life. That was, she admitted to herself, both correct and sexist. Ulf wasn’t the brightest person she had ever met in her life. Noriko probably was.

This also wasn’t the reason for Ryu’s sulkiness. He was proud of his sister, and rightly so.

Well, it’s sis after all. She always had it in her,” he said, “but...” he continued and suddenly his voice took one a whining quality.

But what?” Christina interrupted him. “Noriko produced those results. She did it herself.”

And this was the reason Ryu was so angry. Because they both knew the lie in those words. They both knew Ryu had no hand in Noriko’s achievement, but they also understood how Ulf’s stubborn refusal to abandon his theories about learning finally paid off.

They knew, because now, half a year later, the Irishima High club members caused an uproar in their school, and the rumours carried all the way to Himekaizen. Or rather, the vice principal of Irishima High gleefully spread them to anyone willing to listen.

A ten percent average jump in results in just about six months made more than a few willing to do just that.

Ulf had become a hero in both schools, and Kareyoshi looked like an ass. Ulf had become the person who knew better than the headship what produced results. Ulf was the power behind the throne who suddenly made universities a full tier above what had seemed possible suddenly fall into the reach of three dozen students.

Each and every one of them a member of the club Kareyoshi forcefully disbanded.

Ryu took Christina’s hand in his and pulled.

You need to let go. “Can’t you see it’s good for her?” Christina said as she was led inside the cafeteria.

He muttered something she couldn’t hear, but Christina was certain it didn’t belong in a civilised conversation.

Look, Ryu,” she began and stopped him before they entered the line of students waiting to be served what passed for food in the cafeteria. “She’s your sister. Your first priority should be what’s good for her, not what’s good for you.”

But she could at least think about our family’s reputation,” he protested.

Christina ripped her hand from his. “Do you want me to break up with you?”

What?”

I’ll never, ever, hear that kind of disgusting crap leave your mouth again. Never!”

But...”

Do you want me to call your mother? I have her number you know.”

His eyes widened, and Christina knew exactly what he was thinking. “What does my mother...”

I’m extremely interested in listening to her opinion about that family honour you just mentioned.” This idiocy ends here. It didn’t matter how much she loved Ryu. This was a deal breaker. He either changed or she would have to leave his side.

Watching how his features darkened Christina kept her silence. This wasn’t something she could talk him into. Him knowing he had done something wrong was enough. What it was, and what he needed to do was something he had to find out for himself.

In silence they bought their food, in silence they walked the stairs to their corridor and in silence they parted ways and entered their respective classrooms.

I know I’m inflexible, Christina thought as she slowly ate her tasteless lunch. There were parts of Sweden she didn’t care all that much for, but there were also parts that were so ingrained in her she refused to budge at all.

She finished the last of her food and looked out the windows. Clouds, grey and cold, covered the skies, but somehow they made her calm down. In the end her ultimatum was the right one. She’d never be able to look herself in a mirror if she accepted the kind of different rules for boys and girls Ryu had suggested. If she did, what had she fought so hard for in her previous life?





And of course there had to be a second session where he was told how useless and wrong he was.

During the short break between fourth and fifth period Ryu sauntered inside Noriko’s classroom where he knew he’d find Urufu as well. Anything to prevent them from from behaving too familiar with each other in public.

To his surprise Ryu found Yukio, Kyoko and Hitomi there as well, and he suspected Kuri would have waited for him as well but for him making her angry in the cafeteria.

Both Noriko and Urufu stared at the extra guests with more than a little consternation in their eyes, and Noriko’s classmates gave the group a wide berth.

Just arriving was enough for Ryu to smell the bad mood in the air.

Good, the main dish has arrived,” Yukio said. “Hitomi, you know what to do?”

She nodded, and Noriko shot her a surprised glance.

OK, whatever is going on sis and Urufu aren’t in on it. Ryu shortened the distance to Noriko’s desk and waited for what was coming.

Urufu, Noriko, you’re not needed. Please leave!” Kyoko said, and Ryu shared a coughing fit with both Urufu and Noriko.

Look, it’s my classroom, so why are you...”

Kyoko and I have sex with each other,” Yukio said and cut Noriko short.

So does Ryu and Kuri,” Kyoko filled in. Then she raised an eyebrow and looked straight at Noriko. “One glance at you is enough to know you don’t. Leave adult talk to the adults!”

This time Ryu shared a gasp with the targetted couple and several of Noriko’s classmates.

Noriko rose from her chair, and Ryu saw tears forming in her eyes. “Kyoko! You pig!” With that she rushed out of her classroom.

Hitomi,” Kyoko said and nodded in the direction of the door.

Hitomi rose and left the classroom. Ryu guessed she went in search of his sister.

What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Urufu said, and for once Ryu agreed with him.

Shut up, man! Your presence isn’t needed. Go fetch!” Yukio responded without as much as blinking.

Yukio, for...”

He said shut up. What’s most important, arguing with Yukio or finding Noriko whom I just hurt?” Kyoko interrupted him.

What the hell is going on? Ryu stared at Kyoko. She’d grown out her hair and lost some weight to become cuter, but right now she wasn’t cute at all.

Urufu rose, still fuming, and Ryu watched him leaving the classroom, angry steps, angry backside and angry hands, until he vanished behind the door he closed with a loud slam.

But for Yukio and Kyoko everyone in the classroom jumped at the sound.

Good, now you’re going to do a lot of listening and no talking at all,” Yukio began.

Because Yukio is very good at keeping things to what’s important, and your input isn’t,” Kyoko continued.

Do you think that I’m just...” Ryu tried.

Shut the hell up! Got some fucking problem with your hearing?” And that was a Yukio Ryu had never seen before. Probably the Yukio who befriended Urufu when he was put in an institution for juvenile delinquents.

He doesn’t really have the presence to force me, but this is probably important if they make a scene like this. Ryu decided to stay. Besides, they’d made a pretty good scene. The classroom oozed of bad mood now, and Ryu admitted he’d got caught up in the feeling as well.

In the end he just nodded and waited for what Yukio and Kyoko had to say.

It was Kyoko who started. “As we said earlier, we have sex.”

As often as possible, which isn’t often enough, at least not for me,” Yukio added.

Kyoko’s hand sought his, and Ryu saw Yukio place it in his lap and squeeze. “He’s suffering from the misconception girls don’t want sex. It’s not often enough for me neither.”

By now everyone in the classroom sat erect and listened to them in wonder.

That’s not the important part,” Yukio started. “We’re not eighteen,”

he added and lobbed the verbal ball to Kyoko.

So from that point of view what we’re doing is improper. Got that?”

Ryu nodded.

Are you planning to interfere with our relationship?” Yukio asked.

By now Ryu understood where this was going, but he kept his silence and shook his head.

You and Kuri have sex as well,” Kyoko said. “I doubt it’s not even close to often enough.”

That brought a smile to Ryu’s lips. Maybe once a month, when Kuri’s schedule allowed. No it wasn’t enough.

Do you want me to interfere with what little love life you have?” Yukio asked.

Ryu shook his head. If he’d played along this far he could just as well see it through to he end.

Urufu and Noriko doesn’t,” Kyoko said, and Ryu didn’t need an explanation as for what it was they didn’t. “You’re interfering with what they don’t even have.”

Nice try, but if you think you can… Ryu’s thoughts were interrupted when Yukio dropped the nuke.

The Prince of Himekaizen is going to stop thinking shit and just listen,” Yukio said, “or we’re ending our friendship with you right here and now.”

I think you can live with that, but we’ll bring in Sato-sensei and Sano-san on this,” Kyoko added, and this time Ryu sat up erect in shock. That was a very real threat, one he couldn’t just ignore.

To make absolutely certain Noriko’s not going to pay for your fucking shit I’ll tell your parents about what kind of swine you’ve become.”

Ryu stared at Yukio.

Now get the hell out of here!” Kyoko said in a voice as far from proper as was possible. “This is Noriko’s desk. Vermin like you doesn’t deserve to be close to it.”





I’m scared.”

Yukio’s hand held hers in a firmer grip. Kyoko sent him a grateful thought for his concern.

We’ll be known as the school perverts after this,” Kyoko said. “My parents are going to be so angry.”

Then let them!” Yukio stopped her midway through the corridor connecting both wings. “I’m with you.”

Kyoko listened to the silence around them. Through the windows her eyes followed the great sails and the wires stringing them to the walls. From the second floor she saw the structure in the canvas, how torn they had become and where rust ate the wiring.

Yukio, I’m trying to live my own life now, but it’s hard.”

He didn’t say anything, but from the tapping of his indoor shoes against the floor Kyoko guessed he was thinking furiously.

You always care for me, and whenever I feel bad you always try to turn it into a fault of yours. “Yukio, it’s my parents, not you. Besides, we agreed to do this together. They’re our friends.”

He shuddered. “I’m scared as well, you know.” A slight tug from his hand told her he wanted to be in time for next class, and Kyoko decided that the rest of the conversation had to wait until after school hours.

This was, she thought as they walked through the empty corridor bathed in a grey winter’s daylight, not the smartest way. But it was, probably she hoped, the fastest. Make Ryu angry enough to scare him. Shake him around until he understands that something has gone awfully wrong.

She hoped they got through to him before it was too late. Else their establishing the rumour as them being the school’s pervert pair would all be for naught.

They passed the stairwell and after that they headed for their classrooms. Kyoko waved at Yukio before she entered hers.

A lesson filled with classic Japanese went by in a flash and after that they had the last long home room session for the year. As usual what was foremost in the teacher’s mind concerned studies. It was as if breaks were something evil that disturbed the schooling of students.

She left school in a state of confusion. Yukio stood waiting for her by the gates. Any other day and they would have shared the stairs down to the shoe lockers, but after their amazingly public display the gates felt better. Fewer people would get to ask them questions that way.

In the car home she held his hand, and none of their body guards said anything. Kyoko guessed they felt a change in the air; how she and Yukio both were more subdued. She guessed they didn’t understand the reason, but adults were usually better at letting things go without the need to understand everything, and she was grateful for the silence.

This happened once before, Kyoko thought. Noriko that time, in a failed attempt to save at least something from the mess that had been Kuri-chan and Urufu. So much has happened since then.

They left the car, and Yukio followed her into her home. Her parents had accepted them being a couple, and if anything they pitied Yukio. She couldn’t bear any children to carry his name, as if continuing a name was the very reason to live.

Do you think it’s enough?” he asked when they were alone in her room.

Kyoko looked at him. Her Yukio. How anyone could think he was plain was beyond her. His face, perhaps a little rounder than the ideal male beauty, soft eyes without the eyelashes to make other girls turn and look after him and thin lips that were prone to turn up in an honest smile whenever their eyes met. Her Yukio, her solid rock in the world.

I don’t know,” she answered. “We did what we could. I hope he’s shaken enough to reflect a little.”

Yukio nodded, and then the smile she loved to see spread all the way from his lips to his eyes. “I’d like some tea,” he said when she began to feel embarrassed. “Should we go down and make some?”

Kyoko nodded and rose to open the door. Her mother would have wanted to prepare the snacks. It was a part of living her life as a proper wife, but Kyoko no longer wanted that kind of artificial proper.

Yukio’s presence followed her down the stairs and into the kitchen. Kyoko didn’t have to look behind her to know he was there.

An opened cupboard and a kettle on the stove later hot water was ready to be turned into tea. She preferred it this way. A water boiler was faster, but it just wasn’t the same thing, especially when she shared the moments with Yukio. She also liked the taste of water that had never been brought to boiling poured over the leaves.

Yukio kept himself busy preparing a few sandwiches and a small assortment of pickles to go with them. A touch of fresh sour and salty to break the taste of bread. He knows his way around this kitchen. Kyoko quickly finished the teapot and returned to watching Yukio. Small details, small proof we belong with each other.

He’d stay the night. They didn’t need to be intimate now, or at least not in that way. On a whim she carried the tea to the living room. Just to feel what it would be like to live together.

Yukio followed her mutely with a tray in his hands.

I’m playing house with him in my second year of high school. Shouldn’t I feel more embarrassed? There was no answer to that question. Listening to her mother washing clothes in a rather transparent attempt to make herself reminded a thought suddenly struck Kyoko. Do you ever stop playing house?

Her entire life Kyoko had gotten used to the great game of living a proper life, but now she wondered it a game wasn’t all it was. Did mom have dreams of her own? Did she fulfil them? And that question was, perhaps, the reason Kyoko finally calmed down, sitting in the sofa, drinking tea with Yukio.

Whatever the answer was, Ryu had no right to take Noriko’s dreams away from her.





It took a lot of tears and cajoling to dig Noriko out of the hole she had dug herself into. The tears were Noriko’s and Christina did the cajoling. Ulf could only watch in helpless impotence, and impotence was just a little too close to the reason for the entire situation.

Pressing urges from his teenage body was one thing. The hurt look in Noriko’s eyes when he refused her childish but eager attempts at seduction was another.

Bloody hell, Yukio, couldn’t you have waited another day? And Kyoko had helped him as well. That astonished Ulf, and it also underscored how very, very wrong Ryu was.

But still, just another day.

Crap, she’ll hate me! He gave Noriko a worried stare. One, he admitted, probably was full of well deserved guilt. He knew, but she didn’t. Tomorrow they’d both be called to Kareyoshi’s office where he planned to play what he believed was his ace up his sleeve.

It was long since defused. Tomorrow Christina’s long war ended. Just like Ulf she had her own digital waterholes. She had shown him numbers he was perfectly capable of reading, numbers he just hadn’t bothered to read, because his world was one of making people become better people. Hers one of global domination.

Where he once gathered the data needed for the next contract she threw a net collecting the information needed to guess in what direction the economy of a nation was headed.

Japan’s was going down, which he knew. She had made it go down a teeny weeny bit faster, which he didn’t know.

Himekaizen an international scandal, the US ambassador to South Korea directly involved, both China and South Korea warning their inhabitants from travelling to Japan, and all of a sudden already wary foreign investors suddenly pulled out and placed their money elsewhere.

Kareyoshi could have been perfectly innocent, but with all that trouble pointing in his direction he would have been sacrificed anyway.

And all of that mattered nothing at all right now when Christina and Hitomi finally were let inside Noriko’s room. Ulf chose to sit, back to the floor, outside her door. He was old enough to understand she needed to talk it out with the girls first. He was also in love enough to hate being left out.

He was, he supposed, a fool. At the moment a fool who had to sit outside the room where the girl he loved sobbed in the arms of her friends.

Come tomorrow she’d be a wreck, and it was all his fault. As much as Ulf wanted to blame Yukio for it the only decent thing to do was to thank the best friend a man could possibly get.

Ulf had heard the rumours. Yukio and Kyoko both hung themselves out to dry to save Ryu from Ryu and Noriko from losing her brother. Their reputation was in shreds because Ulf hadn’t manned up enough to confront Ryu harshly enough.

Damn, I suck!

And still.

Yukio, your sense of timing. Ulf shook his head. The best friend he had ever had, doing exactly the right thing at exactly the wrong moment.

The girls inside would need some more time. Ulf put his palms to the floor and pushed. He got up on his feet, and as silently as possible he took the stairs down. He’d have to search his way through cupboards until he found something to drink.

A smile found his its way to his lips. In the future he’d come visiting here more often. Often enough not to look like a stranger when he wanted to make some tea for his girl. Noriko deserved better.

He rummaged through the contents of a kitchen he’d seen less than half a dozen times. In the end he found the tea he was looking for as well as a water boiler. During his search he happened upon some cookies and biscuits, and they made company with four cups, as many teaspoons and a few clementines. The latter, Ulf assumed, were probably satsumas, this being Japan after all.

He poured water over teabags and left for the second floor with everything on a large cutting board that had to service as a tray. Back again by Noriko’s door he chanced knocking on it. It opened inwards he knew, so balancing everything on one arm shouldn’t be all that much of a risk.

It was Noriko who opened. Her way of telling him they were done inside.

Ulf brought tea and snacks inside and placed it on a low table that he guessed doubled as her study place. Her room lacked a proper desk even though it certainly was spacious enough to house one. It was larger than Christina’s old flat.

Given Yukio’s and Kyoko’s outburst earlier that day Ulf couldn’t avoid glancing at Noriko’s bed. A girls bed.

She must have noticed him doing so, because she coloured and averted her eyes. Behind her both Hitomi and Christina shot him smug smirks.

Crap!

Noriko looked at him. “It’s all your fault,” her eyes accused him.

Ulf looked down. “Tea anyone?” he murmured.

We should go,” Hitomi said.

Yes, tea will be fine,” Christina said.

But?”

Because tonight would be a bad idea,” Christina said, and Ulf understood why she had prevented Hitomi from helping him and Noriko to get some time on their own.

I wouldn’t want to, not in anger,” Ulf agreed. “Christina, she knows,” he added and nodded at Hitomi.

She knows?”

About us and the upstream world.”

Oh?”

She deserved it. I apologise I didn’t ask you first.”

Don’t worry. I trust your judgement,” Christina said in a much softer voice.

Why would anyone trust my judgement. It stinks! Ulf threw Noriko a guilty stare.

She gave him one full of questions in return.

They drank their tea. It was bland and nothing like the wonderful memory from late summer.

He looked at her once more. You deserve better. I’ll try to live up to my promise from back then. Because he had trampled on her feelings. If he wasn’t careful they’d turn bland as well.





The dreaded day when Kareyoshi brought in her parents was here. Noriko knew that what was at stake was far more serious than the thought that kept nagging at her mind. Still, that tiny thought never left her. What about Christmas? I can't see him during Christmas. It was a small minded thought, selfish, girlish and utterly unworthy of her.

They were gathered in the principal's office. He, seated behind his desk, her parents sitting in chairs facing him, and the four of them standing at attention behind her parents.

She stared at her father's back. He's going to be so angry, and mom, are you disappointed in me? It was going to start any second now.

Welcome Wakayama-san. I'm sorry we had to call you here on such short notice.” Noriko noted how Kareyoshi only talked to her father. It was as if her mother was an insignificant accessory to her husband. Urufu, I understand now. I wished I had listened to you earlier.

Yes, we're sorry as well. Both of us.”

What was that? Noriko chanced a glance at Urufu. Yes, there was a knowing smile there, so she had heard a sharp edge in her father's reply.

I'm sorry to inform you that both of your children are having improper relations.” Apparently Kareyoshi wasn't as perceptive, because nothing in his words showed that he had noticed the coldness in her father's voice.

You're sorry? Is that so?”

As to confirm what she suspected, it was Noriko's mother, not her father, who turned and faced Ryu. “Son, for how long?”

We've been together since spring term,” Ryu answered.

The following silence told all of them that the answer had been insufficient.

She's asking how long we've been improperly together, stupid,” Kuri answered in his stead.” Then she faced Noriko's mother directly. “I've loved your son with my heart for more than half a year, and with my body for four months.”

Gods, she'll explode!

Is that so? What would you know about love?”

The two women locked eyes.

Kuri's ten years older than mother. She probably knows more than mother, but I can't tell anyone that Kuri isn't a teenager. Then something in how the two women exchanged stares told Noriko that, somehow, her mother knew anyway, and understood.

After graduation I'm willing to prove it to you. Both of you,” Kuri let go of her stare and looked at Ryu instead. “If you want to.”

Did she just propose?

Ryu blushed like an idiot and nodded numbly. Oh yeah, she did. Then Noriko felt herself blushing as well. Gods, and he just accepted!

Still facing Kuri and Ryu, Noriko's mother smiled warmly. “You might want to keep that promise a secret. Or… are you as bold as to...”

Wear a ring of betrothal?” Kuri said. “I love him, I'll show that love as long as he agrees to it.”

Closest to the window Kareyoshi fidgeted. It was clear the meeting hadn't gone in the direction he had anticipated.

And then it was her father's time to turn. Noriko stared into his dark eyes, waiting for the inevitable question. It was one thing for a son to have a sexual relation with someone, but she was their daughter.

We actually haven't, yet, she thought before the question came. But not because I don't want to, she admitted to herself.

Noriko?”

Not yet,” she blurted out before she could stop herself. Her legs gave way when she realised what she had said. After that she felt herself sitting on the floor in shame.

We've been a pair for a few months only,” Urufu said as he reached down to help her up on her feet again. “I fear the esteemed principal may have jumped to conclusions.”

Urufu and her father exchanged glances. There's something fishy going on here.

What made you arrive at that thought?”

He probably had too much on his mind to think things through. After all he doesn't have all that much experience with an occupation entailing this kind of responsibility.”

Kareyoshi’s face was deep red with rage. “How dare you?”

Urufu continued as if he hadn't heard anything: “Siphoning funds must have cost him some of his attention. Finding the right people who would rape your daughter for money probably required the rest of his competence.”

Shut up you insolent...”

When he tried to bribe her parents to silence, he clearly left his limited amount of competence far behind him,” Urufu finished as if he and her father had been silently sipping a cup of coffee each. He turned to her. “I love you. I'm happy to wait.”

He didn't propose. I'm disappointed. I'm happy he's not as scatter-brained as those two. I'm still disappointed. He's a grown man, and I'm only a child in his eyes.

Now, mister Kareyoshi,” both her parents were facing the principal. “I and my wife both have a background in this school. If you had cared to make your homework properly you would have found out that we were fairly famous.” Her father looked at her mother to invite her to continue.

Legendary would probably be more apt,” she continued. “We haven't acted until now, because I had to make certain that no school...”

“…would ever accept you as part of their staff...”

...and that we would feel safe knowing that you would face a very, very long...”

...and extremely humiliating...”

...prison sentence.”

You don't have any evidence!”

Damn!” her father swore and reached for his wallet.

Told you so,” Urufu grinned and accepted the offered coin.

That's an unprecedented low-score as far as competence goes...”

...which warrants the full thousand yen of your bet,” her mother finished, the last few words pointedly directed at her father who dug out another coin.

Noriko shook her head. What’s going on?





And with that Kareyoshi was gone. With the same vigour as media had been suppressed just a few months earlier they were invited, or rather forced to arrive en masse when police escorted him out of the school on the last day before winter break. He didn’t even get to make his speech. Not even the circus around Kuri when she rose to fame had attracted this much attention.

Yukio grinned and growled at the same time; with the face of a predator Kuri had told him with a grim smile on her face.

For him it was almost unreal. Just like it would have been unreal for him if anyone had said that he’d get used to living under a yoke.

He walked with Kyoko by his side, and this time they just passed the Haven. A train was what he had in mind.

Happy now?” Kyoko asked.

He wasn’t, so he shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it. Right now I just want to spend Christmas with my girlfriend.”

She said nothing. Her hand hugging his was enough.

He could feel how she accepted his need to leave it all behind him. A later day would come when he needed to talk about it, and Yukio somehow understood a day would also come when Kyoko cried in his arms. Somewhere, hidden in a recess of his mind he harboured a suspicion that day also carried the first real test of their relationship.

But not today. Today they’d walk hand in hand listening to Christmas carols in a city that didn’t really celebrate Christmas in the first place. That was enough for him. A dating event suited him perfectly.

As they placed foot ahead of foot in the almost winter that was Tokyo he turned his head from time to time. They weren’t there. No car, no body guards, no one staring after them from the shadows to make certain they were safe.

Ten years, and you chose to repeat it all. I wonder what’s going on in your head. He shook away any more worries about Kuri. She was a grown up.

Asakusa?”

For Christmas?” Kyoko threw him a glance that told him she wasn’t entirely convinced.

Urufu said there’s some kind of European market near the Cloudspear.”

Doubt we can afford the entrance.”

Yukio smiled. “I’m no good with that kind of heights. Wasn’t planning to go up in that tower.”

All the six hundred metres up,” Kyoko teased.

He was having none of it. “I doubt the observatory is much more than four hundred metres up.”

Oh, that’s nothing.”

Yukio grinned. “Market’s on the ground. Ground is good.”

She looked at him and smiled. Then her face turned thoughtful. “That day, ages ago, when we visited the theme-park?”

He had to search his mind a little before he recalled the madness when they were still freshmen. When Kyoko’s unsaid question became clear he blushed a little. “Yeah. I wanted to look cool for the girl I liked. If you didn’t notice anything I guess I managed.”

She shook her head. “I love you, but sometimes you’re just stupid. Well, it’s not like I’m longing for ferris wheel rides.” She yanked his hand. “Yukio, promise me you tell me next time you feel uncomfortable! There are two of us. Don’t make yourself feel bad just to make me happy!”

How could I possibly not have fallen in love with you? “I promise.”

Shoulder length hair catching the wind from time to time, facial bones a little more distinct now than half a year earlier, but still with her generous forms where it counted despite having lost a little weight. Looking at her gorgeous eyes Yukio wondered if she had ever been as beautiful as now.

I must have been a very good boy during my last incarnation,” Yukio said and laughed.

Huh?”

To deserve you in this one.”

She didn’t answer. On the pavement, with people busy around them she just stopped and threw her arms around him.

Bliss! Yukio allowed himself to be immersed in pure bliss for the first time in months. There were no worries, no tomorrow; just the two of them behaving very improperly and people looking at them when they passed on either side.

It wasn’t until a cold tendril of wind caressed his neck that Yukio reminded himself that standing still outdoors might not be the best of ideas.

Station?” he asked.

She nodded.

He led her to the train station they very seldom used. There was one closer to where they lived, but today they walked to the one closest to school.

Old housing quickly gave way to more modern buildings clustering the station, and they were inside. After they flashed their passes a few stairs brought them outdoors again, but it was only a five minute wait before they could board a train headed for a city core.

Circle line?” Yukio wondered as they sat down.

He grinned. “We’ll have to take the subway at Ueno anyway.”

Kyoko pretended to growl and gave him a knock on his head. “For an entire station. Not the same thing.”

We could take the bus.”

That earned him another knock. Urufu would have won that race by bike. Going by bus through Tokyo was tedious at best, and Yukio wasn’t even certain how to do it in the first place. Rails didn’t move, so trains couldn’t exactly change routes from one day to the next.





Asakusa was just as busy as it had been when she passed through on her way to the water taxi earlier this autumn or that fantastic day she spent with Kuri-chan here a year and a half ago.

But it wasn’t the same.

Her happiness with Yukio came at a price for the others, Kyoko thought, but then she changed her mind. That her friends paid a hefty price was correct, but so had she and Yukio as well. In the end Kyoko decided the difference was that the two of them dared to grasp happiness no matter how bleak things were.

With that thought she clung closer to Yukio as they passed below the huge lantern that served as the area trademark. Getting crushed by the crowd in the tourist trap was part of the experience coming here, and together with Yukio she enjoyed it without any feelings of discomfort.

In ways it was like visiting a perpetual festival, well minus the yukatas, greasy food and fireworks.

Two long rows of stalls flanked the pedestrian road all the way to the temple, and after they had been properly mashed, crushed and squeezed she followed Yukio’s tug to the right, and they ended up in a small park a little to the side of the temple entrance.

A line of vending machines offered their services, and on their way out Yukio fed them with a few coins and got some cans in return.

Kyoko reached out with her hands and received one. It was warm against her palm, and when she opened it the dull click was followed by a cloud of heat before she took a first sip of hot and sweet coffee.

Love you. She took another gulp and enjoyed how the hot drink warmed her up from the inside. The way you’re always considerate. I love you.

Where the park ended low rise Tokyo took over, and ahead of them the whiteness of Cloudspear stabbed into the skies.

She wouldn’t, Kyoko promised herself, force Yukio up there. The view, she was told, was fantastic, but if he cared for her so much then it was only right she care for him as well. In her world he was the bravest of the brave, and a little fear of heights didn’t detract from that the slightest.

How far?” she asked a block or two into the city proper.

Yukio shook his head. “I don’t know, but if it’s called Cloudspear market I guess twenty minutes or so.”

And that was another reason to love him. He didn’t just answer her question; he answered the question she really had meant to ask.

I’ll find us another can of coffee on the way,” he added.

Yes, definitely answering the questions I really wanted to ask. Would she be cold before they arrived, or tired, or suffer from hurting feet?

He matched her steps as they walked, hand in hand, through narrow streets with little traffic. From time to time they had to cross livelier streets, and whenever they did he made sure to avoid any puddles passing cars could have splashed over them.

Another date day after tomorrow?” Yukio asked just as Kyoko saw a gathering of stalls a bit further away.

If we keep it cheap, what about a date tomorrow as well?” she answered.

The smile she got in return lit up her heart. Winter break, we’ve deserved this. And they had. She knew that. While none of them made the list both still managed to get into the top one hundred with Kyoko taking the lead by some ten positions.

Just as her feet protested Yukio stopped by a vending machine, fed it two hundred yen coins followed by a few copper ones. In exchange the dull sound of cans hitting the bottom told Kyoko the promised coffee was on it’s way.

She looked at him bending down, how, for a second, he sat hunched down when he fished out the cans and how his back turned as he prepared to give her her share of the bounty.

Accompanied by a sweet smile his hands stretched out and she received her can of coffee.

Kyoko closed her fingers over his hand, coffee can still halfway inside it, and pulled him close. Yukio was taller than her, but not by much.

I love you. I love you so much it sometimes hurts,” she mumbled into his ear after she had secured him in an embrace. She could feel how stunned he felt in her arms.

I love you as well, but why now all of a sudden?”

Kyoko giggled and hugged Yukio closer to her. “It was a very special can of coffee,” she said.

Huh?”

She dug her nose into his jacket and laughed silently. The best. I got the best of them all!

Kyoko?”

She just grinned and turned her face up to meet his eyes. Doing so she saw how someone stared at them over his shoulder. She glared back. I’m not doing proper any longer.

What about that market?” she asked when the offending stranger had turned away.

Just ahead of us,” Yukio said, and Kyoko heard in his voice how he pretended they hadn’t both seen the stalls some time earlier. “I just thought you wanted to rest for a while first.”

Her grin reverted back into a smile and Kyoko let go of her hug. With a little regret she let go of his hand as well and opened her can.

Sweet and a little bitter, but most importantly warm. She never had her coffee black, and Yukio usually didn’t neither. Sometimes, almost always in the company of Urufu, he did. It was cute, and a little stupid, but Kyoko forgave him the lingering hero worship.

A little later they discarded their empty cans and continued on their way to the market. People started crowding around them as they came closer, and soon they were caught up in a festive chaos with couples and families laughing, talking and giggling whenever something caught their fancies.





In the end Noriko got her fair share of Christmas carols. She even got to listen to them together with Urufu. They didn’t go to Asakusa as Kyoko had suggested, but rather Urufu brought her to an amusement park an hour’s ride or so away from the city centres of Tokyo.

Something about a memory, he said, but when they arrived he just stood gaping at the insanity. Noriko had nothing against illuminations, but this was taking it a little too far. About a galaxy too far or so.

The entire park was lit up like a fairy tale version of fantasy land, but the sheer amount of coloured lamps dispelled any remaining magic.

A little bemused she shared the first half of their date with him surrounded by people and illumination competing for winning this year’s prize for outstanding vulgarity. Urufu was, as usual, a close runner up with his strange taste in clothes.

They were already on the train back from bling hell when Noriko both voiced those thoughts in her head and immediately regretted them.

She nudged closer to him as if to apologise by means of sheer proximity. He stood, one hand firmly gripping a support and the other protectively on her shoulder to prevent her from falling whenever the train took a curve. In ways he always stood firm, and Noriko guessed that was what first attracted her to him – that he always took a stance and stood by it until convinced he was wrong. Now, that was the second thing with him that attracted her; that he admitted when he was wrong.

Just like he had done now. When their date at the theme park promised to become a disappointing disaster he simply suggested they leave and leave it to him to find something else to do.

It probably wouldn’t involve a restaurant, since those were booked full weeks earlier, but she trusted him to come up with something.

They left the train at Shinjuku and Urufu dragged her to the circle line and shortly afterwards Noriko found herself at the grand Shibuya intersection.

What’s he up to now? she wondered as she was dragged inside a shop. A bag with winter’s clothing later, one she had refused he pay for, she once again found herself on a train but none the wiser.

They left at another station, Urufu quickly bought something in a rather strange shop, or rather a lot of somethings which all made their way into his backpack. His eye-destroying backpack. After that they were bound for Shinjuku once again and a long walk later, one he prepared by forcing her to change shoes, Noriko grinned as she recognised the park in front of them.

Urufu, you’re cute, but you should have checked first,” she said. Let’s see him wriggle out of this one.

What? Oh, oh shit!”

Opening hours weren’t the same in December as in summer, and Noriko watched in fascination how Urufu’s face turned sour and thoughtful with just a few seconds in between.

Train,” he said and dragged her back in the direction of the station.

Any other girl would have kicked your shins and left you by now, Noriko thought. She didn’t. Albeit a disaster this date turned out to be a rather merry one. With the kind of company her parents kept around them fancy restaurants never made it into her wish list. Whatever Urufu had planned, he’d done so for her, and she was curious about how he’d manage to make up for the illuminations she honestly hadn’t wanted to see in the first place.

Not that she would tell him.

When they left the train at Harajuku she had her answer. Yoyogi park didn’t have opening hours the way Shinjuku Gyoen did.

They left they cityscape behind them and entered under bare trees making a futile attempt at hiding the overcast sky. Winter left the park mostly empty, and Noriko swallowed the laugh that bubbled up inside her when Urufu beelined straight for a table with two benches.

No, he isn’t!

He was.

The strange things he had bought was some kind of outdoor kitchen, and the hissing sound of burning gas was soon accompanied by water bubbling.

In the meantime all the winter’s clothing he had forced her to buy came to good use. He even pulled out a foldable cushion he must have hidden away in his backpack. It was flat and not very soft, but it did keep the cold away.

Soon a small feast appeared on the table, but before that Noriko enjoyed the luxury of something sweet and hot to drink that Urufu prepared for her.

Among the crazy assortment of food and drink a Christmas cake suddenly appeared, and Noriko couldn’t suppress her laughter. It ran out of her together with feelings of happiness and love, and she didn’t stop until Urufu kissed her.

Merry Christmas,” he said.

Merry… oh. Is that for me?”

Of course. I couldn’t really forget your Christmas present, now, could I?”

Noriko put her cup of warm luxury away and unwrapped her present with some apprehension. Urufu had expensive tastes, too expensive in her opinion.

I wonder. An oblong paper box lay on the table and hid its contents from her. He didn’t!

He did.

She burst out in laughter once again. “Urufu, I love you. I really really love you.” Noriko guffawed, but she allowed herself to fully enjoy being caressed by the thick scarf she wrapped around her neck. I don’t even want to know what he paid for this. It lay on her shoulders, snuggled in between coat and neck and protected her from the winter afternoon. He knew I’m cold. She felt herself warm up inside as if he had embraced her, and when she met his eyes Noriko suspected her feelings for him could be read like an open book.

It was Yukio’s suggestion,” Urufu admitted.

Of course it was! This time Noriko made no attempt at stopping her laughter. She was warm, and in love, and Urufu was just as stupid as dear to her.

Urufu you idiot, I love you.”

He blushed a little and smiled back. “I love you as well.”





Why here?”

Because I love winter,” Kuri said.

Ryu shook his head. Going to Odori Park was excessive just to celebrate Christmas. Or rather flying from Tokyo to Sapporo was. To top it off it was freezing cold, literally so. The snow he had expected, though, was absent.

This is winter?” he had to ask.

At his side Kuri shook her head. She grimaced a little. “Well, it’s not too uncommon you’ll have to wait until January for the snow back home.”

Home’ wasn’t Tokyo. Ryu knew that. At least not right now. For him snow was something you visited, but the way her eyes dimmed when they landed in a bare landscape told him she must have grown up with white winters.

Back then,” he began, “how did you spend Christmas?”

She smiled and gave him a peck of a kiss on his cheek. “Thanks for asking.” She brightened and he could see the child she had once been. “Before modelling, with my family. Just like everyone else.” Then something sad covered her eyes. “After my nomadic life began, well anywhere I guess. I tried to get home whenever possible though.”

Taking a few steps more in silence Ryu watched the madness around him. Kuri certainly had picked a place as sickly illuminated as any of the more well known Christmas dating spots in Tokyo. He guessed girls liked it. With the possible exception of his sister of course, but then she hadn’t really begun behaving like a girl until last year.

She was with Nao then. And that turned out just splendidly, didn’t it? Ryu swore silently and looked ahead. He’d promised himself he’d leave his sister alone as much as possible lest Kuri walked away from him. Yukio’s and Kyoko’s mad gamble had paid off. Hats off for them. After his anger subsided Ryu admitted he admired their bravery.

You don’t really celebrate Christmas that way here, do you?” Kuri sad, but her voice held a quality to it that revealed she was still in that other world.

Ryu looked up and glanced at her. “No,” he admitted. “It’s mostly a dating event for couples, well and small kids receive presents.”

Did you get any?” she replied at once, and the teasing giggle that followed made him smile. She was back once again.

Prince of Himekaizen here. Princes don’t get to act like kids.” His own words rang false. He had, behaved like a kid that was, and deep inside he knew he still was. The only difference from earlier was he wasn’t entirely certain why he disliked Noriko’s and Urufu’s relationship so much.

She turned down Yukio three times during their last year at middle school, but Ryu was certain he wouldn’t have reacted this way had Noriko chosen otherwise.

The part about her boyfriend being a foreigner was something Ryu had already rejected; he didn’t care about it when it came to Kuri after all. In fact he no longer noticed anything but how much he cared for her. The same went for the age difference, or at least mostly so, because Ryu suspected Urufu saw something in Noriko he himself couldn’t see, and maybe the resentment lay there.

It’s a lot more gaudy than what I remember from home,” Kuri said. She was still giggling, but she became serious again. “There’s a lot that’s different from home.”

If she was back in this reality then that reality included the hell they had been through the last year. “I wonder what the next one will be like,” Ryu said and pretended to be interested in the knick-knacks sold in one stall.

Kuri hugged his arm closer to herself and made a show of taking a more active interest in tackiness on display. “The next principal?” she asked between a poorly painted earthenware mug and a glass that failed utterly at looking like crystal. “We’ll have this one,” she added to his horror and chose a pair of the mugs.

Unbidden an image of the mugs being used in her luxury flat came to his mind, and he shuddered. He was part of that picture.

Ryu stared at the woman by his side, because she very much was a woman. This time he did notice her foreignness. The kind of clothing she wore, almost white, including a fluffy something covering her golden hair, would have looked awful on anyone born here. Kuri, however, looked like a princess supervising this illusion as if it was only natural for her.

Yes,” he said. “The next principal.”

The princess smirked and shrugged. “I don’t know. Normal I hope.”

Normal? Yes, I can see why you’d want normal. Ryu let go of her arm so she could sign something a fan put under her nose. From the start since they entered the park she had been bugged by fans, and only the discreet intervention of her body guards allowed them a semblance of a date for two.

Ryu didn’t mind, but he felt a little sorry for Kuri. He might be the Prince of Himekaizen, but with the madman Kareyoshi at the helm there had been precious little time to be a prince of anything. He still had the chance to vanish into the shadows whenever the need became pressing. As for Kuri, the only shadows she ever saw were those she cast herself.

Is it worth it? Or is this the only life you know?

With one fan a happier person and an autograph richer Ryu took the chance to move closer to his girlfriend. They managed to walk another two stalls before the next group of fans were allowed near them.

One of the girls hunting for Kuri’s signature shot Ryu a shy smile, and he reflexively returned it with a trademarked one of his own. From the corner of his eye he saw how Kuri lit up in a thoroughly professional smile.

Christmas carols from different speakers mixed and competed for attention, Kuri handed out Christmas presents in the form of autographs, and the two of them pretended to enjoy a date for two with preying cameras noticing everything they did.

Tomorrow some of those cameras would make someone famous for an entire day. Tomorrow Ryu would help Kuri look like a high school girl living out her winter break. Tomorrow Kuri’s normal life would continue with cameras, fans and body guards.

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