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With their school trip a glorious memory, or at least a glorious memory for Noriko, even though she vehemently disagreed, January turned into February. Almost halfway into the month most of the first years showed signs of stress – the second years just experienced it.

Yukio felt certain in his belief that went for the seniors as well, but theirs were more a matter of university entrance exams. Within a week they’d stop coming to school until graduation.

As for himself he belonged to the happy minority who enjoyed the month without a second thought. Some days offered a promise of the coming spring, and he enjoyed sunshine without a cloud to darken it. For the stressed ones the clouds were a deep brown, and usually very sweet. Valentine’s day loomed over those who had yet to settle into a relationship but were still interested in doing so, or at least interested in the attention clinging to the event.

For his own part he’d get a little something from Kyoko and probably a few samples from friends as well. A month later he’d return the favour and that was it.

While he honestly enjoyed chocolate what Yukio anticipated the most was the evening shared with her. With no school the fifteenth staying out a little later should pose no problem.

Best of all, there was no risk of repeating last year’s Valentine’s disaster when Urufu and Kuri broke up pretty much in the worst way possible. Ryu and Kuri spent their free time cuddling and in general making half of the school population jealous of them each. As for Urufu and Noriko there was less visible cuddling, and if Yukio knew his best friend right, less cuddling overall. That was entirely Urufu’s fault.

Public cosiness or not, Noriko’s Kyoto stunt dragged her relationship with Urufu into the open, or at least indirectly so. The week after they returned she received her share of confessions. They might not have been all that heartfelt, but with Valentine’s days so close more than a few guys saw her as a cute trophy if nothing else.

Which means you can just all go and die.

Urufu might be his best friend, but Noriko was still a close one. She fought hard for her reward, and there was absolutely nothing trophy about her. Yukio’s being blind as a bat when it came to matters romantic lay in his past. A year and a half with Kyoko cured him, and now he understood the glint in Noriko’s eyes as they searched for Urufu.

Cute, isn’t she?”

Yukio glanced at the head leaning on his shoulder. “You’re cuter.”

You’re biased,” Kyoko said.

You bet I am!”

Kyoko snuggled closer to his head. “I guess you’re supposed to be,” she agreed. “Still, she’s cute.”

Across the table, facing the Haven entrance, Noriko glared at them both. “You know I can hear you.”

Yeah, definitely cute,” Yukio said and pretended Noriko didn’t stare at him from just a cup of coffee away.

She had, he lazily noted, filled out a little where girls should. Well, at least should according to his tastes.

What you looking at?” Kyoko asked.

Yukio drunk the last of his coffee. “Just observing how there’s more for Urufu to hug.”

Noriko blushed and Yukio felt Kyoko’s head shaking with laughter on his shoulder.

Noriko suddenly stood up from her chair. “Yukio! That’s, that’s sexual…”

Could do with some more hips though,” Kyoko suggested.

Kyoko!”

Yukio burrowed his face in Kyoko’s hair and joined her in her mirth. She smelled faintly of shampoo.

Yes?” she said.

You’re supposed to be on my side!”

Naeh,” Yukio said, “I’m supposed to be on Urufu’s side. Not that he deserves it.”

Glaring at him from across the table Noriko shifted her eyes to Kyoko and then back again. Then she rolled her eyes in pretend disbelief, but a thin smile betrayed her, and Yukio felt a smile of his own spread on his face. It’s good this way. You’re good for each other.

You girls spending the thirteenth together?”

Kyoko nodded on his shoulder. A few strands of hair tickled his nose and with a little regret Yukio lifted his head to hide a sneeze.

It’s supposed to be a secret,” Noriko said. She waved for James who arrived with coffee and tea. A little later, as soon as the others showed up, they’d order something to eat as well.

Not that keeping it a secret helped,” Kyoko suggested.

An awkward silence settled over the table. “I never learned exactly what happened,” Yukio said.

Noriko and Kyoko exchanged glances before they silently agreed that Noriko was the one to word whatever they had decided upon. Yukio stared at that little show of friendship with fascination.

Last year will stay a secret. A small one and it grew way out of proportions.” She exchanged another look with Kyoko. “We could do the same mistake this year, and it wouldn’t mean anything.”

Yukio borrowed a habit of Urufu’s and shrugged. If the girls wanted to keep the lid on what had happened they could do so. Still. “Tell Hitomi and Jeniferu, will you?”

How did you know?”

Yukio grinned. “Pretty obvious when Urufu asked me to buy four tickets for an action flick Thursday evening.” The looks Yukio got in return told him his answer wasn’t enough. “Look, that means no girlfriends, so you must’ve booked Jeniferu as well, and Hitomi tags along wherever you go as a group these days.”

You drew that conclusion from buying four movie tickets?” Noriko said.

Yukio stared at her. Urufu said she was the smartest person he knew, so how could she possibly not understand? “It’s just associated data, or whatever Urufu calls it. You heard him explain it as well.” He received another glare. “Four tickets, and I get to pick the movie. You and Kyoko only agree on films when Urufu or Kuri suggests them, so it couldn’t be a double date.”

Continue!”

It’s for the thirteenth, so Urufu wanted us guys off the map or we’d disturb you. The only thing you’d want to do together in secret one day before Valentines is pretty obvious. OK?”

So that’s how your mind works,” Noriko said. “Now I see what he’s paying for.”

Huh?” How did the girls making chocolate gifts turn into work?





Yesterday they left the cinema in high spirits. Now Ryu leaned against the steel frames carrying swings and studied the grim faces of his friends. On one swing Tomasu sat and studied his shoes. The other held Urufu who kept a subdued conversation with Tomasu going. They spoke in Swedish, so Ryu didn’t understand what they said. He didn’t need to understand though, and he wished it had been the other way around.

Yukio left a few minutes earlier. He just growled something about idiots and a depressing lack of imagination. Apparently he’d spent the last of Valentine’s day a year ago here, and something about a repeat didn’t sit well with him.

But it’s still different with Noriko. It was, but not for the reasons he kept alive in his mind. To begin with there was no giving up between his sister and Urufu. At least you accepted her chocolate.

Ryu looked at Tomasu. He might be a dry geek, but the way something had gone out from his eyes had nothing to do with geekdom. I’ve seen those eyes before. A year earlier. They were Urufu’s eyes from back then, and Kuri’s. At least you didn’t break up.

Dammit Ryu, I’m not getting through here. Some help please?”

The words only gave birth to silence. Help you? How? I gave up on Ai myself. Ryu shook his head. “Yukio maybe,” he said. He didn’t want to remind Urufu that the way the two of them steam rolled all over himself worked as a great example of how not to give up. “They have to decide for themselves,” Ryu said and made certain not to meet Tomasu’s eyes.

Darkness had long since fallen or else their appropriation of the swings would have met with disapproving stares from parents to children better suited for them. This was not the territory of high schoolers. Yukio could say whatever he wanted about romance manga and proper settings.

Urufu placed a hand on Tomasu’s shoulder and grimaced. “Kareyoshi, the bastard, robbed them of that option.” A long sigh followed. “Bloody hell, he’s still around pissing on our lives!”

Ryu said nothing. His mother once told him how actions created an existence lasting far longer than the deed itself. That was the reason his interfering with Urufu and Noriko was nothing he ever wanted his mother to know about. But I have a right to my disapproval as long as I don’t try to break them up.

Kiddo, you’re the one with experience here.”

You’re wrong. Ryu shook his head. “Ai was my first. Having a fan club isn’t the same as playing around.” He gave his statement another thought. “Look, I like the attention and all that. I just wasn’t all that interested in getting involved for real.”

There was no way he could avoid looking at Tomasu any more. Urufu was being a douche even if Ryu suspected he didn’t know it. You spoke with people, not about them.

What?” The question carried a sour tone to it, but at least Tomasu’s voice came alive again.

I don’t understand,” Ryu said.

She’s afraid of me. I’m part of that. She needs to move on and I’m a weight around her shoulders.”

There was no need for explaining ‘that’. “I still don’t understand.”

What’s not to understand? Whenever I get too close she flinches away!”

It wasn’t whenever. Sometimes Jeniferu gathered up the bravery to snuggle up to her boyfriend, but Ryu admitted that Tomasu essentially was right. “That’s why I can ‘t understand. Noriko…” he began. Flashes of Noriko clinging to Urufu in all kinds of inappropriate situations raced through Ryu’s mind. “Noriko had a similar experience, but...”

But she’s not afraid of Ulf?”

Yeah, something like that.”

Tomasu lowered his face again. “I don’t know all about it, but he saved her. Am I right?”

Ryu nodded mutely. From the corner of his eyes he saw how Urufu’s faced twisted with anger.

I failed. She saw me failing.”

That was unfair. Tomasu raced to her rescue faster than anyone else. It wasn’t his fault he was too late. Then understanding finally dawned on Ryu. “Unfair,” he said.

Unfair, you bet.” Tomasu looked up and hid his face in his hands. “I can’t undo what happened. Unfair has nothing to do with that.”

Urufu had stayed silent throughout the entire conversation, but now Ryu heard him draw for breath.

The two of you decide then,” Urufu said. “I hate it, but in the end you decide.”

You’re good friends, both of you.” Tomasu grinned weakly. “You know, as long as I know she can smile with all of her face without a worry in her mind I’m happy.”

What about you?” Ryu asked. Weren’t you supposed to be a little selfish in a relationship?

What about me? Do I want her to leave me? Of course not.”

So why don’t you…”

She can’t smile with me. Without that smile, how could I be happy by her side?” The grin turned more honest. “Look, I’m being selfish. If I can’t have both her and her smile I’ll step down.”

That didn’t make any sense to Ryu, but Urufu nodded from his swing.

Fine,” Urufu said. “When?”

Tomasu smirked, but his eyes had regained a little of their life. “White day. That’s when a good boyfriend returns his Valentine’s chocolate, isn’t it?”

Your sense of irony sucks, you know that?”

White day?

With a nod Tomasu rose from his swing. “Maybe. We done here?”

Sure.”

Both men grabbed their bags. Halfway to the entrance of the playground Urufu turned. “Ryu?”

I’ll stay a little.”

Ryu watched them until they vanished into the darkness. With a little regret he opened his own bag and grabbed Kuri’s chocolate. He’d planned to eat it where she could see how much he appreciated her symbolic gift. It was sweet in his mouth, but somehow the flavour of bitter chocolate managed to reach through all that sugar.

Strange, he thought. But it wasn’t, not really. The bitter taste had nothing to do with Kuri’s gift. It was all in his mind.





Just like last year the school was eerily empty. Unlike last year Kyoko had no problem finding a place for herself and Yukio in the cafeteria. They were second years after all.

Exams, White day and end of school, graduation for their seniors and after that the short spring break. A month; even less depending on how you looked at it. The seniors had three weeks until life as they knew it ended. For Kyoko the two weeks between her junior year and her senior one signalled both a transition and restart. Third year was in preparation for a new world, but it wasn’t yet that new world.

Yukio, over here!” She waved at him from her table.

Yukio paid and walked over to her with a tray in his hands.

About our birthdays,” he said as he sat down and put his tray down with a thump that had everything on it dance around.

Yes?”

We might have to share them with the others.”

Dancing food in combination with the tone of his voice made Kyoko look at him a bit closer. “You make it sound like a bad thing,” she tried.

He mumbled in response and shovelled food into his mouth.

OK, bad thing. But why? “Yukio, my mind reading failed badly. Can’t we just give them some time early evening and celebrate alone after that?”

I wish!”

It wasn’t like him not to think about a solution even before finding out how bad a problem was. “Look, if I talk with Kuri-chan and ask her…”

You can’t.”

That was new. Yukio never told her what she could or couldn’t do. Kyoko copied him and filled her mouth with something to chew on lest he became the target of her chewing. If he behaved like an insensitive moron there had to be a reason for it.

Explain,” she said when her irritation cooled down a little.

Yukio met her eyes. He looked gentler now. Somehow he’d pushed down whatever ate him. “Tomasu and Jeniferu,” he said. “It’s pretty bad. They need some talking or they’ll break up the bad way, as in worse than Urufu and Kuri bad way.”

You didn’t do worse that that. Kyoko’s best friend spent half a year failing miserably at breaking up with the man she loved and who loved her back. In the end they hurt each other and everyone around them.

Kyoko smiled. “I like the selfish you,” she said.

Huh?”

She turned and looked around to make sure no one listened. “You want our birthdays to be for us alone. That makes me happy.”

Yukio gave her a sullen stare and took another bite of his lunch. “Of course. You’re my girlfriend.”

She really did like him for that. “We’re also the wingmen of the school heroes.”

So what?”

That makes us heroes as well. I’ll ask Kuri-chan. You go to Urufu and find out what he needs, OK?”

Yukio nodded and finished his lunch. Kyoko wondered if the reason he was so sour to begin with was exactly because he knew from the start that this would be what they both decided upon.

Kyoko finished her food as well, and together they carried their trays and disposed of them. They left the cafeteria and between shoe lockers Yukio gave her a short peck of a kiss before they parted ways.

She spent the rest of the day paying proper attention to lessons and shortly after Kyoko found herself by Kuri-chan’s lockers waiting for her friend. A few classmates waved when they grabbed their shoes and left school. Bored with nothing to do Kyoko stared through the entrance to what had become her world for almost two years. Across the school yard a line of sakura shrugged naked branches in the wind as if it was still winter, but every time the doors opened a whiff carried promises of spring to come.

Ko-chan?”

Kyoko looked over her shoulder. They hadn’t made an agreement to see each other after school, and she was certain Kuri-chan was in a hurry for one modelling job or another.

She had, just as she said she would an eternity ago when they were still middle school students busy with becoming friends, grown into a stunningly beautiful woman. Blond hair and blue eyes aside, everything about her woke the desire in anything male. Kyoko guessed the same went for jealousy when it came to women.

I don’t think I’d like knowing I’d grow into that. It must be scary.

My birthday, or Yukio’s, I want one of them alone with him,” Kyoko said.

Why are you telling me?”

You’re getting dragged into Tomasu’s and Jeniferu’s problems, and that means the two of us get dragged into it as well.”

Kuri-chan nodded. “A selfish Kyoko. How improper,” she said and grinned.

Kyoko recalled a life lived according to rules. She returned the grin. “You taught me.”

Seems I was a good teacher.”

Very.”

You want me to make sure we’re off your back?”

Kyoko’s grin thinned into a smile. “Yes, I’d like that. We’ll give you white day.”

There was a glimmer of surprise in Kuri-chan’s eyes.

That’s when, as Urufu so elegantly would say, the shit hits the fan.”

Both observant and improper,” Kuri-chan quipped.

I know. It’s called acquiring new skills.”

That’s my girl!”

Yukio’s.”

There was a moment’s silence. “You win.” A wide smile spread over Kuri-chan’s face.

Things got strained between the two of them when Kuri-chan hurt Urufu and in doing so hurt Yukio. With a sigh of relief Kyoko realised that while their friendship would never again be as innocent as it had once been, it was still there. For better or worse Kuri-chan remained her best friend.

Love you too,” Kyoko said.

Never got any chocolate from you last week,” Kuri-chan retorted and pretended to sulk.

Kyoko rolled her eyes. “I only make one set of honmei chocolate, you know.”

Yes?”

Giving you giri chocolate would still be wrong.”

So I get none at all?”

Kyoko felt her own grin spread all the way to her eyes. “I see that you’re both beautiful and bright.”

Ouch!”

You deserved it.”

The last taste of bad feeling from the afternoon left her and Kyoko tackled her friend. They were both giggling when they left Himekaizen.





Having that chat with Ulf took more than the day Christina promised Ko-chan. Almost a week passed before her schedule and Ulf’s coincided, which meant freshmen and juniors both dropped everything in favour of cramming before the last exams of the year. Stealing some of his time meant grabbing him by the neck in the Haven between cramming sessions in the inner room.

Noriko threw her a sour glance, and Christina regretted chipping away even a little in the already limited time Ulf and Noriko could share, but a promise was a promise.

Outside?” Ulf asked after he resigned himself to being dragged away from his girlfriend.

Christina nodded and opened the door. A tired chiming of the doorbell later they stood on the street. She waited for her body guards to arrive as well. Now was not the time to play mouse and cat with them.

Could you give us some privacy, please?” she asked.

When she passed the convenience store a little later both guards followed them discreetly just out of earshot.

Talked with Yukio?” Christina asked. Walking by Ulf’s side was no longer awkward, and she could enjoy his company and long for Ryu at the same time.

Yeah.” Ulf fell silent again. “Why don’t we take this in Swedish? It’s been a while.”

Oh! Cramming Japanese the last year had made her used to using the language. Maybe too used to. “Sure.” Like the first year. Christina pushed that thought away. First year included memories she treasured, but they were best treasured alone.

Ulf switched language. “Just in case your goons get too close. Want to keep it alive as well.”

With a nod Christina nudged him to continue. Forgetting the language she once grew up with wasn’t the reason they were out here.

Mind strolling through some side streets?”

She shook her head. There was less traffic and despite dusk turning into evening darkness she’d be absolutely safe with Ulf and body guards close. If anything a stalker, and she had too many of those since becoming famous a year and a half earlier, would be the one in danger.

A few blocks later they were enveloped in darkness. Japan being Japan dusk was but a fleeting moment between day and night. Of course it wasn’t really dark; it never was in Tokyo. Still, here away from the main street, her feet echoed in a subdued light she remembered from her first teenage years back in a Stockholm that no longer existed. In more ways than one that was a world lost and gone.

You should tell Noriko your feelings more often,” Christina said.

She knows I love her,” came the expected response.

Moron. You really are an idiot. She took a deep breath and forced down her irritation with the man she once loved to insanity. “You’re a fan of making new and exciting mistakes,” Christina began. “Reusing old ones is a waste of time, didn’t you say that?”

After a few seconds of silence Christina heard Ulf drawing for breath. “Yeah, so what? It’s not like…”

She cut him short. Some kinds of idiocies you never ever did again. “Just tell her you love her! No special occasion, no special romantic feelings, no special nothing. Just tell her over and over again!”

But I might not feel like…”

Then fake it! As long as you want her by your side then tell her! Tell her several times a day!”

But that would be dishonest…”

Look you idiot!” If this lesson called for her hurting him then so be it. “The day Noriko walks out of you because you didn’t love her enough, that’s the day you’ll understand just how dishonest you are all the time.”

Ulf still fidgeted. “It just doesn’t feel right…”

Do you love her?”

Of course I love her. That’s not what it…”

Then tell her! Trust me on this one. You already lost one girlfriend because you didn’t.”

This time he flinched, just as Christina had known he would. Note to self. After this talk I’m getting some alone time with Ryu no matter what. An entire evening snuggling up together with her showering him with affection, now that was the kind of special event you couldn't afford every day.

Christina didn’t wait for Ulf to protest. To be honest she didn’t expect him to. Her last salvo hit below the water line and he was sinking fast.

If I’m the teacher in matters of love then something’s seriously wrong. But maybe this was matters of communication. She didn’t really tell him how to love Noriko. How the hell did you manage to stay married for over twenty years? But he had, and Christina knew he had experience from before that. The way he explored her body when they were still a couple gave away that his wife had been anything but his first.

Look,” she said to change topic. “Ko-chan is complaining, and that means Yukio is as well. We have to get off their backs but I still need their help.”

Ulf’s face lit up again. He probably felt happy about any topic that didn’t remind him of last year’s disastrous Valentine. A pity this topic would.

Playing Cupid with the freshmen?”

Christina shook her head. “It’s gone beyond that. That’s why it can’t be you and me. We’re living proof of how wrong it can go.”

By her side Ulf froze in his steps. It took you this long to understand why our break up disqualifies us from helping them? How dense can you be? She screamed a little inside. Does that make me the queen of fools falling for him the way I did?

So Yukio and Kyoko?”

Yukio and Kyoko. They’re the sane couple.”

I could go with Noriko,” he protested.

I just scolded you for your lack of affection, so that’s a big no.”

You and Ryu?”

You mean the guy who spent more time last autumn trying to break the two of you up than hugging me?”

Ulf fell silent again. “So Yukio and Kyoko?”

Above them something frightened took flight and left an echo of shaking twigs behind it. Christina looked up but she only saw naked branches stretching into the sky.

I’ll pull some strings as well. Ryu owns me a few.”

Irishima?”

For being so dense, sometimes Ulf’s ability to put things together bordered on clairvoyance. Christina shuddered. “Irishima,” she confirmed.

I don’t think Ai deserves this.”

Christina nodded. “I know, but she’s the closest we have as a friend of Jennifer’s. I need someone in that school as well.”

Let Ryu handle it. You’re going to hurt people anyway:”

You insensitive arse! But Ulf was right. Besides Ryu needed to talk things over with Ai anyway.





Ryu swore a little. Then he tried to come up with an excuse to get out of it. After that he swore a little more.

With February turning into Mars the end of the year wasn’t just something close. Now it was breathing down his neck.

One good thing about being together with Kuri was her looks, and almost two years earlier that would have sealed the deal. Ryu was two years older now though, and while he certainly enjoyed staring at her beauty that was no longer the reason he loved her, or at least not a major part of it. For him she looked like Kuri. If anything he loved the Kuri-ness of her, if such a word even existed.

One good thing about being together with Kuri was how he himself became even more popular without having to reject girls confessing to him every so often. That was joy and the practical combined into one.

One not so good thing was how it took him the better part of two weeks to eat all the chocolate he had been given. He did eat it all. That was only being respectful. Besides he had nothing better to do while keeping tabs.

One bad thing was the keeping of tabs. White days closed in on him, and he’d make good use of the leftovers from Urufu’s inflated salary during winter break. Carrying his return gifts to school meant slinging one of Urufu’s atrocities across his shoulders, because the bag Ryu normally used simply couldn’t fit it all inside.

Still, a matter of showing proper respect.

Thus it was that Ryu grumbled and made his way to Irishima High. Sure, he could have caught up with Ai in the café, but that would be doing her a great disservice, and she deserved none of that. While his face was known at the other high school he was nowhere as famous there as at Himekaizen.

In his pocket he carried a letter signed and sealed by the vice principal of Irishima High. Ryu had acquired it last evening, and it gave him blanket permission to enter the school grounds.

He barely made it into the school before a teacher apprehended him.

Your business here?”

Ryu dug into his bag and showed his letter. “I’m here on behalf of the exchange club. There is a… are members in this school I’m meeting.” Jeniferu might be his real reason for being here, but not talking with Ai would be rude to put it mildly.

Names?”

Hasegawa Ai and Cooperu Jeniferu, sensei,” Ryu said. He didn’t know where their home rooms were, so any help from the staff here was appreciated.

Would you mind waiting in the office until lunch?”

Ryu bowed and followed the teacher. While polite that question held undertones of: how come you’re skipping school? Apparently a letter signed by the vice principal here had less value than the fact that a student visited another school during what was obviously a school day.

Walking through a corridor and up some stairs was short business. Irishima High was substantially smaller than Himekaizen. In ways it looked more like a rural middle school than the prestigious private high school it was.

While Himekaizen by no means belonged to the group of schools with a poor reputation, being neighbours with Irishima High stained it. Not being as good as somehow came to mean pretty bad. In that sense Red Rose Hell served as a nearby example of what a school with poor academic performance really was, but now that hell hole had closed down. Sure, their middle school still had students, but nothing could save it from the downwards spiral, and besides you just didn’t compare middle schools with high schools.

Ryu left the train of thoughts when he was let inside the teachers’ office, found a chair by a window and sat down to study how these school grounds differed from the ones he was used to.

No large, gravelled expanse to begin with. To reach the buildings you had to walk a paved walkway separating sports ground from a line of bike stands which gave way to a narrow area where they grew vegetables. This school must have some kind of gardening club.

Would you like some tea?”

Ryu turned at the sound. “Yes, yes thank you,” he said. After that he returned to watching the outside. Somewhere in his mind a nagging voice told him he’d done something wrong, but he couldn’t find out what.

Here you are.”

Thank you.” He took the offered mug and sipped a little. Ah, of course! Three years at Red Rose Hell taught him a few bad habits. “Would you want me to buy something for you in the cafeteria?” Ryu asked. Just because the female teacher was young it didn’t mean he should take it for granted that she offered domestic chores.

Thank you!” Her face lit up. “But there’s no need, and besides there’s no cafeteria in this school.”

Ryu smiled. Now when she mentioned it Irishima High’s reputation was based on academic merits. It wasn’t a fashionable school in any way. If anything they took pride in being a little old fashioned – sailor uniforms and gakuran only reinforced that impression.

With nothing else to do he whiled away the time sipping tea and studying the school exterior until bell rang for lunch and he was showed the way to the first year classrooms. He’d grab Jeniferu there and pick up Ai on the way out. His letter allowed him to bring friends for a meal outside the school provided he escorted them back well within time for the next period.

The same shabby concrete floors he was used to from Himekaizen led him to a corridor feeding classrooms, and someone must have told Jeniferu of his arrival, because she stood waiting for him outside what he guessed was her classroom.

She led him to the second year area and minutes later they headed through gates and in the direction of a cheap ramen shop where you could have your fill even as a ravenous teenager. For once Ryu felt happy both girls discarded their girlishness in favour of a solid meal.





So, lunch date with your ex. What would Kuri say?”

She’d say I’m a decent man for not breaking off all contact because our relationship went south,” Ryu said. Once lovers but no longer they somehow still managed to grow an awkward friendship which allowed room for some friendly insults and bantering.

Around them tables quickly filled up, and Ryu noted how more than a few high school students were among the guests. By this time of the year seniors didn’t make anyone raise an eyebrow since the only thing they did was wait for the outcome of their entrance exams. However, if even half of the school uniforms here were seniors Ryu was willing to eat his own cardigan.

I’m bad company even for those I’ve never seen before. He accepted the smugness in that thought. It was all a part of being Wakayama Ryu.

Girls coming here as well,” Ai said and rudely ripped the carpet from under his feet.

Ryu glanced around him. The tables had filled with a lot less girls than he had expected. Sure enough, three of them only had female customers throwing him looks that were anything but shy, but the glances from boys weren’t directed at him.

Ai’s cute and all, but she’s hardly… Just as Ryu changed his mind and reconsidered how beautiful his former girlfriend had grown the last year Jeniferu boxed Ai on her shoulder and gave her a naughty grin. Seconds later a blast of charisma had just about everyone in the café rise from their chairs. Girls or boys mattered little.

Ah, I forgot.

It’s been too long,” Jeniferu said and giggled.

You’re a pain in the arse, but I’d like to see more of that side. That he had forgotten what she did to a room filled with people if she wanted reminded him of why he was here in the first place. Was it because Tomasu didn’t come running like a puppy whenever you pulled that stunt? Maybe. Ryu didn’t know, but he could see how someone like Jeniferu would be interested in men who didn’t react to her games.

One boy, a freshman most likely, proved braver than the others and tried to join the three of them at their table.

Do you mind?” he asked.

Ryu stared at eyes filled with experience from playing around. I could have been like you, he thought, but sis pulled in the reins. Suddenly Ryu felt a surge of gratitude for the midget sized bulldozer he grew up with. “We’re having a conversation,” he began in what he hoped was a polite enough voice.

We finally got to have the Prince of Himekaizen for ourselves,” Ai broke in. She put her cup to the table. “What makes you believe we’d be interested in anyone else?”

The boy fidgeted a little, but Ryu guessed he didn’t get those eyes from backing away at every setback.

He’s just one guy.”

He’s just the guy Ageruman Kuritina chose. Just your average supermodel boyfriend,” Ai responded and upped the ante. There was still a glimmer of resentment in her voice, but only students at Irishima High would know the reason.

There was a sound of another cup hitting the table. Ryu noticed from the corner of his eye how Jeniferu played around with a prank probably best left alone.

The door opened and another group of guests arrived. This time just girls who came to drink a little and stare at him quite a lot.

Ryu needs two girls to keep him occupied,” Jeniferu said.

Oh no, you don’t!

She blasted away once more and waited for everyone in the cafe to fixate on her. “Well, maybe just one of me. I was referring to mere mortals after all.”

That was nasty. Ryu felt sorry for Ai. Besides, you just got another two dozen enemies in here.

So I need her to keep me in check, which makes up both quite busy,” Jeniferu continued. Then she nuked the café a third time. “Don’t you agree?”

Poor sod! Ryu stared at how the boy deflated. He might be used to the boys and girls game, but no one got used to being around Kuri and Jeniferu. Kiddo, you’re out of your league.

Suddenly Ryu understood why Urufu used that expression. Over thirty years of added experience was another way to cheat in that game. Urufu might not have the natural ability, but he had years and years of added memories to compensate with. And he has his own way of shining like a star. Whenever chaos engulfed a group of people Urufu turned into an inhuman monster. Sometimes I just hate you. You eat chaos for breakfast and shit out order.

The sound of clattering metal brought Ryu out of his thoughts. He blinked and a teaspoon dancing on the table caught his eyes.

What did you just say?”

What? Damn, I just said that aloud, didn’t I? “I… nothing.”

Across the table Jeniferu guffawed. Ai threw her questioning eyes and Ryu wished he could vanish through the floor.

Now there’s a boy where one of me isn’t enough,” Jeniferu said. “He shits out order you said,” she added and laughed again.

By now Ryu thoroughly regretted coming here. No cafe after that ramen joint would have been a good start. No he should have bought something to eat and spent the lunch at their school. At least he was a known entity there, and a few girls aside this circus would never have happened.

What’s going on?” the boy asked. He still hadn’t left the table. Just like the everyone else in the cafe he stood rooted to the floor after Jeniferu’s brutal show earlier.

Just chatting about a friend,” Jeniferu offered. “He shits out order,” she clarified, “and he’s the only man I know who could give Ryu a run for his money.”

Ryu grinned. He threw the boy and evil smile just for the hell of it. “Welcome to reality,” he said. “Enjoy your high school days.”

The last month of his junior year turned out a lot more absurd than Ryu had expected. Like a prolonged Valentine’s day. More like a month long white Valentine to put him in his place.





After the disaster at the café any serious talking had to wait until evening. Well, evening came, with a conversation and all, and in the end Ryu managed to convince both girls to attend a birthday celebration. One out of two since both Yukio and Kyoko were adamant they’d have the other for themselves.

Ryu found no flaws in their reasoning. He’d be damned if he had to give up on celebrating Kuri, and Noriko’s pairing up with Urufu at least carried the advantage of brother and sister no longer needing to express how much twins they were during their shared celebration.

He also found it rather cute and amusing how Yukio and Kyoko handled their birthdays. With their respective days of celebration just one week apart they apparently saw it as one event in two parts. That was, Ryu mused, probably the only sane thing to do. For Yukio and Kyoko this was a month long insanity with Valentines, two birthdays, white day and end of school more or less evenly spread out. A week to catch your breath, if even that.

Now that first birthday was here, the one that Yukio and Kyoko decided was a combined celebration together with friends. For an occasion like this Ryu didn’t have to go far, and neither did his sister. The entire gang, strengthened by Hitomi, Tomasu and Jeniferu all sat in the Wakayama living room. Another six people were on their way here.

You have everything you need?”

Ryu looked up. The question was superfluous at best, but during the last hellish year there had been few occasions for him to bring friends back home, and Ryu guessed his parents were worried. In the end he just nodded.

Then I’ll have dinner with Tadao. Please don’t be too late.”

It wasn’t like they planned to run around late at night, but since that dinner meant an overnight stay at an onsen Ryu accepted that his mother didn’t want over a dozen teenagers to run rampant in the house all night long.

Some of them are staying over,” he said. She already knew, but he wanted her to reaffirm that she did.

We only have six extra futons, remember?”

That had to do as confirmation. “I know mom. Have a good time.”

She just smiled. “We always do.” There was something naughty in her voice, something he’d rather hear from a classmate than from his mother. “It’s been a while since we had an outing just the two of us.”

He definitely preferred something like that from a classmate. “Take care.”

I will,” she said. She was halfway through the door when she turned and looked at him. “I won’t do anything you haven’t already done,” she added with a wide grin on her face. For a moment his mother’s face lit up like a mischievous devil, twenty years old rather than forty. Then she was outside, and Ryu wondered what kind of life she once led as a teenager.

What was that about?” Noriko asked from her seat in the sofa.

Ryu frowned. “Dunno.”

By Noriko’s side Kuri and Urufu looked at each other and laughed.

Bad girl!” Kuri said.

Very bad,” Urufu agreed. “There’s a bad boy waiting for her,” he said.

Look, that’s my mother you’re talking about,” Ryu protested.

Both Kuri and Urufu shook their heads.

No,” Kuri said. “That’s a girl ten years younger than me. Damn she’s cool!”

Grew into it?” Urufu said.

This time only Kuri shook her head. “Don’t think so. She probably dared everything I didn’t myself when I was fifteen. She’s a natural you know.”

Mum's awesome,” Noriko broke in.

Yeah, she is,” Kuri said. “She must have made a lot of enemies as a kid.”

A lot of friends as well,” Urufu countered. “I don’t think being on her bad side would be good for your health.”

Noriko bent forward and poured some tea for herself. “Mum’s awesome,” she repeated with a happy smile on her face.

Ryu looked at his sister. They were twins. While outsiders always compared him with their parents, in truth Noriko inherited the invisible parts. Brains to begin with, but also the inner strength their mother really had and their father pretended he had.

The doorbell rang and Ryu hastened to it. Outside Ai waited with her best friend. Behind them four former Himekaizen students, all members of the club, lined up by the gate. They carried paper bags in their hands, and Ryu suspected Yukio and Kyoko would return home laden with presents.

Then Ryu noticed a surprise guest. Oh, been a while! A classmate from middle school, and one of Noriko’s few close friends from that time. What connection, if any, she had to Kyoko Ryu didn’t know, and Yukio, well Ryu didn’t even remember him from middle school despite sharing the same grade for three years.

Guess food will be enough for one more. Wonder what she’s doing here though. He invited all seven and waited for Noriko’s surprised outburst when she saw who had come to visit.

It didn’t happen. When the unannounced guest entered the living room Noriko just nodded, excused herself and followed the girl up the stairs to her room.

With a tinge of irritation Ryu shrugged it off. A boyfriend and girlfriend each meant brother and sister were no longer as close as he’d grown used to. Maybe it was as simple as a matter of age. He didn’t know.

We’re having hotpot,” he announced after giving his sister another thought. “A lot of hotpot. Who’s helping me prepare it?”

Kuri smiled and raised her hand into the air like an elementary school kid.

That’s one. One more,” Ryu said. Spending time alone with Kuri in the kitchen wasn’t time wasted, but she was an awful cook.

Two more,” Jirou said.

Ryu looked for Sango by his side and she nodded. The couple followed him to the kitchen and with three and a half chefs they made short time of the ingredients. Preparations went even faster when Ai and friend unasked set the tables.





Ulf sulked a little when Noriko dragged a friend of hers away from the party and upstairs. Sure, they all infringed on what should have been some alone quality time for Yukio and Kyoko, but at least staying for the celebration was the decent thing to do.

As it was neither boyfriend nor girlfriend seemed to care, and dinner turned out to be a lot of laughs and embarrassing memories. While the real reason for the party hung over him like a shadow Ulf still noticed how most of them truly enjoyed the birthday party.

Evening grew deeper, turned into early night, and what had begun as a dinner was now an unordered gathering of a dozen teens around a couple of sofas in the living room. Food gave way to soda and tea, and right now the mood changed from silly to a little apprehensive.
“From the two of us,” Ai explained and pushed a small box across the table.

You or me?” Yukio asked.

Kyoko didn’t answer. She just leaned forward and grabbed the gift. A few moments filled with paper ripping ended with a guffaw.

That’s even worse that what we gave the twins!”

Ulf could only agree. Whatever the atrocity was it held no doubts about whether it was just poor taste or nuclear toxic. As it went back into its box Ulf sighed with relief for the untold lives spared in the neighbourhood.

That was… intense,” Yukio offered.

Another round of guffaws spread around the table, and Ai returned a benign and triumphant smile. “Beat that!” she said.

Ulf could see what once made Ryu fall for the girl, even though he recalled a much more childish version of her from last year. But at least that wasn’t our fault, he thought and glanced at Kuri. The two of them hurt a lot of people, but from what Ryu told he and Ai managed that particular disaster without the help of anyone. The line of thought brought him back to the real reason they abducted Yukio and Kyoko. This one, though, is our fault, to a degree.

He met Kuri’s eyes, but she shook her head.

Just thinking of how we messed up the lives for everyone,” he said in Swedish.

Don’t you dare blaming yourself!” she responded in the same language.

From the corner of his eyes Ulf noted how Thomas reacted to words spoken in their shared language, but Ulf doubted he had understood the contents through the bedlam that resulted from opening one gift more atrocious that the other.

He shook his misgivings away and leaned backwards. In his backpack four presents lay waiting, or rather two presents. He rifled through the contents and picked up two card board envelopes. One each made their way to Yukio and Kyoko respectively.

Stamped and signed,” Ulf said. “Have a look at them with your parents and do the same if you agree.”

What’s that?” Jennifer wanted to know.

Stamped and signed, he said. Contracts most probably,” Thomas suggested from her side.

Ulf looked at the couple. An invisible band of mutual attraction tied them together, and he hoped whatever came of their nightly talks would see it uncut.

Contracts?”

Part time jobs,” Ulf explained.

He was met by a stare of disbelief, and after a few moments of confusion Ulf realised seventeen year old kids didn’t normally hand out employment contracts. Well, Jennifer knew the truth. It couldn’t be helped.

What kind of job?” Ai’s friend wondered.

Neither Yukio nor Kyoko had opened their envelopes. They gave each other a look and smiled.

I’m making presentations and Yukio’s responsible for what goes into them,” Kyoko said.

Ulf gave her a grateful look. It was, he guessed, as close to the truth as possible. He couldn’t tell everyone how Yukio ruthlessly cut away anything that didn’t need to go into the finished material, and Ulf definitely knew he couldn’t tell anyone Yukio did so with a superb gut feeling that matched just about anyone Ulf had worked with the last thirty years. Last thirty years was another thing that didn’t go well together with seventeen years old kids.

Yukio writes and you do the layout?”

Kyoko nodded.

Sounds kind of boring.”

Well, it’s a job,” Kyoko said, “and I get to work with my boyfriend, so that’s a plus.”

At that time Ryu returned from the kitchen loaded with a tray full of cups. He put it on the table and smiled. “Coffee and tea coming up,” he said.

Ulf sighed silently with relief. Ryu might not like him and Noriko being a couple, but when it came to easing up work Ryu never allowed personal feelings to interfere. He looked at Ryu returning to the kitchen and quickly dug up the real presents.

One for you and one for you,” Ulf said and handed over two paper bags. He guessed he could have done a better job with wrapping, but he’d been in a hurry when he went shopping for birthday gifts.

Kyoko opened her bag and looked inside. “What’s… Oh, you shouldn’t…”

Ulf smiled. “I got them cheap to be honest.” That was a lie, but the price was cut by almost forty percent from what he was used to, so in that sense they were cheap.

Her hand came back from inside the bag with a box. “Thank you!” she said. They both knew he wouldn’t accept her refusal.

Wow!”

What?”

Are they wireless,” Yukio asked.

Ulf nodded. “Bluetooth. “I’ve seen her struggling with that cord for too long.”

Cheap, man, your sense of cheap is way off,” Yukio said and looked at the earbuds Kyoko had received. Then he dug into his own bag. “What the hell man!”

Ulf shrugged. “You never put that phone of yours away. I guessed a decent power bank could be useful.

Decent power bank. Man, I could keep two tablets alive for a day with this monster.”

I hope you like it.”

Yukio nodded. It was the kind of gift only he would love, and for once Ulf’s long experience with technology hadn’t been the deciding factor. His knowledge of picking the best one had been, but it was Kyoko who suggested that Yukio could do with some extra juice. Ulf guessed her request came after she began suspecting he’d go well beyond what was normally acceptable for a present between friends.

Ryu returned with beverages and Ulf leaned back in the sofa. Another half an hour would see half of them leave, and after that all that was left was the real reason for the party.





Kyoko snuggled closer to Yukio. Urufu’s present had taken her by surprise even though she knew he’d be too extravagant the way he always was.

While there were still a lot of them in the living room it felt strangely empty after most of the Irishima High guests left for the evening. The core group, by now including Hitomi, and Tomasu and Jeniferu of course stayed. They’d stay the night.

She frowned. There was one more. Noriko had shut herself in her room with a friend Kyoko didn’t know. She might have seen her occasionally, but most likely it was a contact from middle school.

At another table Tomasu, Jeniferu, Urufu and Kuri-chan ran a silent conversation. Kyoko couldn’t hear what they spoke about, but she guessed the contents. Across the table by which she herself sat Ryu kept Hitomi too busy with stupid jokes for her to have any chance to grow anxious about what happened closer to the kitchen.

It was all very normal and yet so absurd.

Soon enough she’d change places with Kuri-chan, and Urufu should probably be the one who rose first to give his chair to Yukio. Between them Urufu, Ryu and Kuri-chan should have no problem keeping Hitomi’s attention to themselves for the time needed to sneak out through the kitchen and into the backyard. Some topics, Kyoko suspected, were best kept out of earshot even from those who really already were in the know.

Seconds grew to a minute, and suddenly Urufu rose from his chair just as Kyoko had guessed. An almost wave had Yukio copy his motion, and only the discreet scraping of chairs on the floor gave away how the two best friends changed places. Kyoko didn’t know Ryu well enough for such an elegant solution, but in this case the one they wanted to keep in the dark was Hitomi, or at least the one they wanted Tomasu and Jeniferu to feel was kept in the dark.

Ryu looked up when a finger tapped on his shoulder and offered his chair to Kyoko as he stood. With a half smile on his lips he walked across the table just as Kuri-chan rose from Jeniferu’s side and stole the chair he left moments earlier. It must have looked like Kyoko had nowhere else to sit but at the other table.

Too much drama, she thought. There was no way Hitomi didn’t see through it all, but as long as she played her role maybe Jeniferu believed the dark beauty to be fooled. Tomasu you didn’t have to fool. The easiest way to keep him in the dark sometimes was to grab his arm and drag him away to where you wanted him. He’d protest, but he never asked questions.

Kyoko just hovered above the chair Kuri-chan left. There really was no need for sitting down.

Tea?” she asked?

A nod was enough for her to leave for the kitchen. Behind her Jeniferu picked up her cup from the table and followed.

Yukio!

Tomasu got physically dragged from the table.

You really weren’t supposed to do that for real.

From the corner of her eye Kyoko saw Jeniferu cover her mouth to hide her giggling.

Kyoko shook her head, refilled the water boiler and replaced the used tea bag in her cup before opening the glass doors to the Wakayama backyard. Something trying a lot to look like western style outdoor furniture greeted her, and she put her cup on a table.

I wonder if Urufu has seen this crap? One of her father’s very few real friends had a minor obsession with northern Europe. Kyoko was a lot more familiar with what people there used during summer than Urufu ever knew. She probably was the first to understand the background behind the atrocity of a home in Mie that day late last summer when he and Noriko finally became a couple.

Tomasu and Yukio left the house and made Kyoko company. Both had cups in the hands, Yukio’s with instant coffee powder and Tomasu a tea bag just like Kyoko. Shortly after, even before the silence grew uncomfortable, Jeniferu joined them with water boiler in one hand and a cup in the other.

Each of them got something hot to drink and then Yukio drew for breath.

Sorry,” he said. “I know we were supposed to wait until White Day, but Noriko told me it was better this way.”

Jeniferu nodded. A thin smile that almost reached her eyes slowly spread on her face. “If you’re trying to save our relationship, yeah, she’s probably right.”

Kyoko looked down into her cup. What other reason was there for this kind of subterfuge?

Are you interested in trying, or at least one of you?” Yukio said. His deadpan tone surprised Kyoko.

Both shook their heads.

That’s it then I guess,” Yukio said and sighed.

Yukio!

Tomasu smirked. “I think you lost Kyoko,” he said. “Better explain before she panics.”

Kyoko stared at Yukio. Somehow she’d just been had.

Don’t be a jerk,” Jeniferu said and slurped down some watery excuse for what some Americans still defined as coffee. “We’re not interested in trying,” she continued after her cup joined Kyoko’s on the table.

Look, you nabbed one of our birthdays.” Kyoko let her irritation get the better of her. “Explain in a way I can understand.”

Tomasu grinned. This time it was an honest grin. “I love her. We’ll stick together after a fashion.”

Jeniferu looked at him and Kyoko heard the girl draw for breath. “You’re an idiot, you know that?”

That’s what you like about me, isn’t it?” Tomasu responded.

Kyoko stared at the strange verbal ping pong match. And that was easy to understand exactly how?

If you don’t kick me out I’ll cling to your life for as long as you live.”

The grin faded a little. “If you love me then just say so,” he muttered.

Love you.”

Love you as well. Let’s break up.”

Yeah, let’s.”

What?

Across the table Yukio grinned so widely Kyoko feared his face might split.

What?

I’m not all that interested, but I promise I’ll give it a try,” Tomasu said.

What’s going on?

Jeniferu turned and faced Kyoko directly. “We found a way that might work. I want to have sex with Tomasu, but I’m still too scared to be alone with him.”

Yes?” Kyoko said. She still had no idea where this was going.

So I’ll try sleeping around a little. To get rid of that fear. If you know any sex friend material you trust please tell me.”

Whoa!” Kyoko never guessed it was going in this direction.

I’m not happy about it, but I’m willing to give it a shot. Besides I already had my wild years myself. We broke up now so no one can accuse us of cheating.”

I don’t understand,” Kyoko said. “What did you just promise?”

Tomasu smirked. “I won’t look for it, but I promised Jennifer I’d go along with one nights if the opportunity comes. Guess she wants us to be on a level field or something like that.”

Kyoko turned and stared at Jeniferu.

He’s right. I don’t want to be the only one to feel like a slut.”

Tomasu shook his head. “Nothing I can do. I already told her that Jennifer, the other Jennifer that is, slept with just about everyone I knew before the two of us settled down together. I honestly don’t think in terms of sluts. Hate that word.”

Kyoko grimaced. She didn’t care about how the two of them solved the problem as long as no one got hurt, but she really disliked Tomasu for telling her about the other Jeniferu. It didn’t matter that she’d never meet the woman.





White Day came and passed without any surprises.

Ryu carried a backpack Urufu style. On his way to school it was filled with an absurd amount of return gifts for Valentine, and on his way home he cleaned out his junior year as a high schooler into it. Urufu did the same, as did Kuri. A surprisingly large number of girls had gifted her giri chocolate a month earlier.

As for Yukio and Kyoko they only needed bags to clean out their second year. Hitomi used her for her return gifts as well. Noriko, well Noriko stared at hers in desperation. For the first time in her life she was loaded with return gifts like a school celebrity. That photo shoot during their Kansai trip was to blame for the celebrity part.

This year there was no drama at all. Jeniferu already having given Tomasu honmei chocolate during Valentines received a huge bouquet of flowers in return, but you needed to be well versed in the language of flowers to know that it didn’t represent a lovers gift to his other. And yet, it did. Noriko knew that.

Kyoko had filled her in on the strange arrangement between Tomasu and Jeniferu, and as far as Noriko was concerned his gift to her wasn’t as much a White Day gift as a Valentine one.

White Valentine? Well, something like that, Noriko thought and smirked. You’d better forgive Yukio as well. He’d want to know why the two of you should move your date a week. Noriko tilted her head. Kyoko might be angry, but this wasn’t a really serious crisis between the two of them. Besides they got that day off and spent it in twosome luxury.

Noriko grinned and closed the door behind her. In half an hour she had her own date with Urufu. For her part she’d already blown up in his face and forgiven him. Rather sulked and forgiven him. He gifted her with exactly two red roses for a White Day gift, and she’d been stupid enough to compare it with the ring Kuri received last year.

Gah! I’m an idiot! She should have known Urufu would research the meaning behind his gift first. The bad part was that he didn’t know he was long since forgiven. Worst case she’d receive another fifteen roses when they met. She’d done her own research before this date. For once moron-sama is me.

Shaking her head she made it to the gates, left them behind her and walked to the station.

Hachiko. For some reason he decided upon the most stereotypical of places to meet. There was even a perfectly usable square much closer, but Noriko knew to what degree Urufu associated it with Kuri. Well, he’d come up with the strangest of surprises before. Starting at Shibuya didn’t mean they’d end up with a stereotypical date.

When she left the circle line she looked out the windows before descending the stairs. There was no missing it. Urufu sat by the statue. He was surrounded by teens and in his lap Noriko noticed a large bouquet of roses.

Crap! She hurried down, left through the entrance and started walking across the square. How do I explain this? For a moment she longed for more than a few seconds to reach him, but then she slapped herself mentally and marched on.

When the lone boy with the roses finally met his date the crowd around him quickly dispersed, Noriko noted.

Noriko, thanks for coming here!” Urufu rose. “As a token of apology.” He bowed and reached out with both hands.

Yeah, fifteen of them. Noriko didn’t even need to count. Glumly she accepted her flowers. You didn’t even excuse yourself, and it wasn’t even your fault to begin with.

Desperate to make amends she looked around her. While the crowd had taken their distance the two of them still were the centre of attention.

I owe you an apology,” she said. “I misunderstood,” she added. Misunderstood, my arse! You behaved like a jerk, Noriko. Suddenly ashamed she fingered the roses in her hand. Slowly an idea formed in her head, one that might at least salvage a little from her mistake. She picked out one rose and returned it to Urufu’s hands. When he met her eyes she picked out two more. “This is how I really feel.”

The stunned smile on his face had her heart racing in seconds.

I love you,” she said and offered him another three.

A frown slowly replaced his smile.

Do you mind if I keep the nine?”

He had, Noriko understood, done his research. A sudden blush swept over his face, but then he straightened and took her hands.

Yes, yes of course you can. I’d be honoured.”

Noriko felt colour rise in her face. Did I just force him to propose to me?

Give me a few more years,” Urufu said. “Where I come from you’re not supposed to wait more than a year afterwards, according to tradition that is.”

Wait more than a year? Oh! She heated up even more and something roared in her ears. In the end this year’s belated White Day came with the greatest of all surprises.

Of course,” Noriko answered. She hardly heard her own voice. “I’ll wait for as long as you need.”

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