Chapter two, 2016, southbound
Something had broken between Urufu and Kuri-chan, but strangely enough their ties with each other grew stronger as well.
And Kyoko was filled with shame. And so was Yukio. So now they shared both new-found love as well as shame.
But I have to make a choice, and you're the most important to me, Kyoko thought and threw Yukio a guilty glance. She received one in return.
They were shaking along the rails on a regional train to a resort where the Wakayama parents had called in a favour to find the club a hotel they could afford. The Shinkansen was the better alternative, but most members in the club wanted to avoid the premium cost.
Our first field trip. Because four days and three nights by the sea counted as their first field trip together.
Two rows ahead Urufu and Kuri-chan sat nestled together sharing silence. Kyoko could only guess what it contained, but she felt it wasn't empty. Silence filled with meaning, like the one she shared with Yukio, and yet nothing at all like it.
She went through their schedule in her mind again. The most important part of it. After they chose their rooms and settled in Urufu promised to give them a more coherent explanation of what had happened. He had to. The entire club regarded Red Rose Academy as a personification of everything bad and evil, but Kyoko believed that was too simple a description.
She had spoken about it with Yukio, but he remained adamant that Red Rose Hell, as he called it, was indeed evil incarnate, and so she wanted Urufu's side of it. Loving Yukio didn't mean she took everything he said at face value.
This was too important to be analysed by teenagers only. Urufu would have an adult's insight, and Kuri-chan could be counted on to share her pool of experience as well.
If it wasn't for that silence.
Since the night he drank himself to a stupor, with most of the club members sitting in the next room, Urufu hadn't spoken much. Kuri-chan forced a promise from both Yukio and Kyoko not to leave his side when she was away on her modelling sessions, but Kyoko wondered how smart that really was. Urufu never got any time alone.
She watched the backsides of their heads close together. They would open up and talk and laugh when they were ready again. With that thought she snuggled up closer to Yukio and was rewarded with a shy kiss.
The train staggered onwards tapping its thudunk, thudunk, thudunk onto the rails as it ate the distance to their destination. Outside the windows suburban Tokyo slowly gave way to small stretches of countryside interrupted by smaller towns mixing up the rice fields with shopping malls, old industries and apartment buildings with the odd temple or shrine thrown in for good measure.
Behind her Kyoko heard the club members with the poorest finals results discuss the catch-up exams they had been through this far. Apparently most of them were done for summer break, and if what she heard was true even Kuri-chan and Urufu only had small leftovers to handle.
She looked at the objects of those rumours. They hadn't spoken much about summer school at all, and as Kyoko cleaned out her score at her first attempt she didn't know how well they did. I'll ask Noriko later.
Both twins sat some distance behind her. Noriko most likely asleep, but Ryu kept up his role as the prince of Himekaizen and entertained both his and Kuri-chan's fans to make certain she got some time alone with Urufu. Kyoko sent him a thought of gratitude for that. It had to be hard on him as he was still in love with Kuri-chan.
The Wakayama twins. I can see you both are true to the loves you declared. But why don't you move on? Beside her Yukio stirred as he slowly fell asleep while hugging her close. Stupid question. You can't, just as I couldn't. But I got my reward in the end, and there is nothing coming between those two.
Kyoko looked between the heads in front of her. The backsides of blond and almost black leaned close to each other. Urufu and Kuri-chan kept their silence. Kyoko didn't think they were asleep, but she couldn't hear the singing Swedish language they used whenever they felt the need for privacy among people.
I guess they speak Swedish when they're alone as well.
For now Kyoko had to satisfy herself with rice fields and rivers passing by as the train rattled further south. Two short stops ahead of them and after that Nagoya where they had to wait for half an hour. Then the last long stretch. At the end of the line a small town taxi company stood prepared to handle the arrival of two dozen high school students.
With that thought, and with the sound of Ryu's merry bantering behind her, she nestled closer to Yukio and allowed the drowsiness to overtake her. His breathing was like the ocean, a steady rhythm of rising and falling filling her with calm and in the cradle of his arms she finally fell into a restful sleep.
When Noriko awoke night had fallen and the train slowed its speed heralding their arrival to a station. Beside her her brother curled up on his seat and slept soundly. They had changed trains in Nagoya and when the entire club entered one car most other passengers avoided it.
Lucky it's only us in this car, she thought when she saw a couple of his fans fast asleep on the floor. Idiot bro, pick some fans with brains will you?
Outside she could make out the shadows of some houses flickering past in the cold whiteness from street lights, and ahead of them she saw how those lights gathered together in a small cluster. Almost there. I'd better wake them up.
She started to shake one of the girls on the floor awake. Hitomi-chan, is it? One of the new members, and a real beauty. “Kojima Hitomi!” Isn't she in Urufu's class? Noriko threw a glance further ahead in the car until she saw Kuri's golden hair. But for you this girl could have carved out a kingdom of her own in Himekaizen. And Hitomi-chan could still become a rival for Urufu's attention should his and Kuri's relation turn sour.
Secretly Noriko allowed herself some satisfaction that the classic beauty had chosen to hover around Ryu instead. “Kojima Hitomi, wake up!” Beautiful, but not too smart. Ryu would never fall for you, but you wouldn't understand why.
The girl groaned sleepily but started to wake, and Noriko turned her attention to Midori-chan with her huge unruly hair. Get to a hairdresser some day! You know you'd be really cute if you fixed your hair? “Midori-chan, wake up! We've arrived.”
In the meantime more and more of the members woke up as the train screeched and slowly came to a halt. When the driver came in from the car in front there was no sign of teenagers sleeping on the floor, and Noriko sighed in relief as she shouldered her backpack and left the car.
It was time for the more underhanded part of their field trip. Outside her parents waited. Outwardly to show off the money available to spoiled and rich kids by paying for all the taxi rides, and later for their rooms, but that wouldn't have explained the presence of Urufu's guardian.
Noriko greeted her parents with a wave and bowed to Sato-sensei. From the corner of her eye she could see Urufu do the same but opposite, waving to his guardian and bowing deeply to her parents. As far as he knew the adults were there to secure Kuri's independence from her more than a little shady guardian. Well, he didn't need to know everything right now. Not in the state he was in.
It was time to play the obedient daughter to give Sato-sensei a good impression of their family. After that the adults could commit to their business on their own.
“Mother, father,” Noriko said and gave them a cursory bow. “This is Hamarugen Urufu and his girlfriend Ageruman Kuritina.” She turned to Sato-sensei. “It's my pleasure to meet you.”
“Such a polite child. You brought her up well,” Sato-sensei said to her parents in a tone that told Noriko she hadn't been taken in at all by Noriko's childish attempt at acting. And it hadn't even been all acting. Anyone who earned Urufu's trust deserved respect.
Noriko stood still under the lamplight and watched their group grow smaller and smaller as they vanished four and four into taxi cabs that drove away into the darkness. Just think of anything for a while and pretend you're reflecting on your actions. Like the trip. Four days and three nights. As field trips go this is a long one, and with a train ride like this it had better be. She shook her head. Should have taken the Shinkansen instead, but I guess most parents balked at the cost.
She decided she had weathered out Sato-sensei's displeasure long enough and rose. Noriko sensed how her brother shared her discomfort and stood to attention behind her. He was funnily loyal that way, always trying to shield her from the brunt of adult attacks.
“Why don't the four of you take the next taxi?” her mother suggested.
Mom, that's your game voice! Noriko turned and caught Sato-sensei giggling. I've been had! They turned my act on me and I bought it all! She smirked and curtsied ironically in the old-style western way. Gah! You got me real good this time.
“Sis?” Ryu said.
He knew her antics when she needed to admit defeat. This time he just didn't know what had happened. “Nothing,” she said in return, “nothing but me being childish,” she finished as she climbed into the waiting car. She could see her mother and Sato-sensei nodding in agreement.
They're up to something, and I thought we were the schemers here. She'd ask her mother directly later. There was no fooling her, and it didn't matter. As far as Noriko was concerned her mother was made of pure awesome, and she knew her brother shared that sentiment even if he'd never admit it to his fans. Friends probably, but not fans.
Ryu took the front seat and Noriko moved away to let Kuri into the middle. Normally Noriko would have been saddled with that seat, which didn't mind her at all as it left her squeezed to Urufu, but right now he desperately needed Kuri's presence.
They buckled up and left the station. It wasn't until then that Noriko noted how none of the wingmen took care of their charges. Kyoko, Yukio, what's happening? You need to wake up from that rose tinted dream of yours. Love birds in paradise and all that, but I need you back. Both of you.
The taxi snaked its way into the darkness on roads Noriko only dimly remembered from an earlier childhood. In the front seat she could see the frowning profile of her brother as he pushed his nose to the window. He must be struggling to remember just like she was.
A friend, or a business partner, or most likely both. Someone who knew their parents and owned a resort. She dimly recalled an old fashioned onsen by the sea and how she had played there with her brother. She couldn't remember anything more.
Beside her Kuri and Urufu ran a silent conversation in the melodic language of theirs. From their voices it didn't seem the topic was anything they wanted to keep a secret, more like loving memories from a different life best expressed in the language they had each lived that life with.
She envied them a little, and it hurt a little, but if she was to be true to her love for Urufu she had to admit he needed Kuri above anything else.
Noriko would give her support to both of them. She had promised herself that and even come up with this harebrained plan of hers. To her astonishment her parents went with the plan without saying a word, and Noriko pondered on that as the taxi drove up on the courtyard and stopped.
Christina came down the stairs to the lobby and met Noriko's worried gaze.
“How is he?” Noriko asked.
I can't forget she still loves him, Christina thought. “He's asleep.”
“He's been doing that a lot lately,” Noriko noted.
Christina shrugged. It was true, but not to the extent Noriko believed, or wanted to believe. He's working too much. Christina gave Noriko a grateful look. This plan of yours isn't half as mad as you think. I owe you for this.
In the lobby the three adults sat waiting, and Principal Nakagawa would arrive later together with James. She had to get Noriko out of the way before that. Not because she couldn't know the secrets, because she already did, but because she couldn't know that her parents would be told.
“Noriko, I've put Ulf together with Yukio. Ko-chan wants some time with him, and it won't look as bad if you're there as well.” Christina watched Noriko's expression flicker between hesitation and anticipation. “Please, I know it's a lot to ask of you, but could you watch over Ulf for a while? Until dinner?”
Noriko nodded and vanished up the stairs.
You really shouldn't look that gleefully happy when asked to look after someone else's boyfriend. Christina shook her head and descended the last of the stairs before greeting the Wakayama parents and Ulf's guardian.
The lobby was an odd mix of centennial old and mid twentieth century tackiness, but right now Christina was happy for the extra space allowing for a few groups of sofas and low tables.
She took a seat and barely remembered to look overly eager and surprised when she was served a cup of tea by a kneeling woman. Hotels, I have to be more careful. I've spent far too many years like this. High school girl, I'm a high school girl and should behave like one.
In front of her Sato-sensei gave her a long and inquisitive stare, and even the Wakayama parents shot her smiles filled with irony. How much do they know already?
“Ms Ageruman, should we start?” Sato-sensei asked, telling Christina that she knew it all with those words.
“Please,” Christina said. She could feel her face wavering between the one she had relearned to use as a school girl and the one belonging to the billion dollar empress. I won't be able to keep it together, she realized. We're going to talk contracts now, and there's no way my experience won't show.
“First of all I'd want to pose a question we originally didn't plan for, if that is OK?”
Christina twisted uncomfortably. The three adults were all younger than her, but they were still adults. “I'll answer if I can,” she said.
“Would you be interested in a transfer of guardianship?”
Whoa! Now that was unexpected! “Why would you want that?” she asked in an attempt to buy some time.
Mr Wakayama sipped some tea and smiled. Then he entered the conversation. “If we're to enter a partnership I'd prefer to place your current guardian in as questionable a light as possible. Transferring guardianship will take a lot of time. You could very well become a legal adult before the proceedings are done, but it will make it harder for her to siphon your accounts.”
Damn, that's cold! Christina stared at Noriko's father. But it also makes a lot of sense. I'd rather gamble with these people than the old harridan.
“Urufu doesn't know, but in my profession there are ways to find things out,” Sato-sensei said. “I know she's stealing from you, or at least blackmailing you.”
Christina bit her lower lip while she wondered how much Sato-sensei really knew. “I wouldn't know the laws here,” she tried. At least not domestic laws. I could probably teach you a thing or two about business laws in Japan. “What do you mean?”
“I know about your jobs, both of them,” Sato-sensei continued relentlessly.
“I know a few of the clients,” Mr Wakayama interjected. “I can assure you that the club will back off. They wouldn't want a stain on their reputation.”
“What do you suggest?” Christina said. She knew when she was beaten.
As if on cue four small trays with some intensely sweet Japanese treats arrived. Christina had never learned to appreciate the taste of sticky bean paste, but she knew it well from her previous life. She took a small bite and quickly rinsed her mouth with some tea.
“I'll start with the legal aspects of a transfer,” Mr Wakayama said and leaned forward.
“And I'll pay your guardian a visit, in uniform,” Sato-sensei added. She chose to stay glued to her backrest as if this part didn't concern her all that much.
However, it would be a relief to get rid of the parasitic woman. Just thinking of it made some tension go away. “Who?” Christina asked. A transfer would mean a new guardian.
“The owner of this resort. An old friend of mine.” That was he first time Noriko's mother had spoken. “She's childless and would love a daughter to dote on. We'll apply for a formal adoption.”
The owner? “Where...”
“She lives here with her husband,” Mrs Wakayama interrupted. “You'll be expected to visit from time to time.”
Christina shrugged. They've planned it all. I could as well run with it. “Sure, please do. I'd be happy if it were to be someone who cared for me.”
Both Wakayamas frowned.
What did I do wrong now? It didn't matter, probably a bad choice of words. She had to salvage something from the awkward moment. “I apologize. I didn't mean it that way. I'm happy if this person will care for me.” Gah, I really need to improve my Japanese.
Mrs Wakayama lit up in a smile. “You mean that you would want my friend to take care of you?” she said in a strangely accented but otherwise well educated English.
“Yes, thank you!”
After a quizzical look from the other two Noriko's mother quickly translated. Christina used the short respite to look out through the windows. Pale lamplights lit up the courtyard and the two cars parked there threw metallic reflections onto the ground. Apart from that the night was pitch black.
Nothing like Tokyo. We're really not in the city any longer.
The sound of a voice called her back to the lobby.
“Well, that settles it I guess. Now for the other part.” Mr Wakayama still leaned forward. “I'm a former Himekaizen student. We both are,” he added and nodded at his wife. “One of our classmates was born in Japan but moved to Sweden before coming back.”
Christina had a sinking feeling where this was going.
“He moved to your Sweden to be part of the German legislation,” Mrs Wakayama said.
OK, they know. “Are we talking that German legislation?” Christina asked more for confirmation than anything else.
“If you're referring to the one with a penchant for black and brown uniforms, yes that would be the one. That was before he came back to Japan. Arrived back in Japan you could say.”
Mrs Wakayama suddenly grinned. “He's the husband, by the way. Your future father if you will. He doesn't know you, yet.”
Christina felt irritation rise in her. “OK, you're up to something. Apparently you know of my background, so spill it!” She was being impolite. She knew that, but she just couldn't help showing how much the hated being toyed with.
She saw Noriko's father share a grin with his wife. “I believe we know more of it than you do, at least parts of it.”
That was it. If you know how old I really am stop treating me like a kid! Christina made as if to leave but Sato-sensei grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “I think you should listen to this, even if I agree that they're being far too theatrical,” she said and glared at the two older adults.
Mr Wakayama wiped the grin off his face and bowed his head in apology. “Ms Ageruman. Our classmate married a Swedish woman and they had a daughter. That daughter fell in love and got pregnant. She married after her daughter was born.”
No, no, no, no! There's no way in hell…
Noriko's mother gave her a look filled with compassion and concern. “Your grandfather. Did he suddenly vanish around 1990?”
Christina felt all blood leaving her face. “I was twenty five,” she said and sat down so hard it hurt her backside. “I was modelling here in Tokyo, well the other Tokyo,” she whispered. “Too busy to go back home. Mom never forgave me.”
“I'm sorry we didn't tell you before,” Mr Wakayama began, “but we didn't know for certain until a few days ago. Sato-san,” he nodded at Ulf's guardian, “found out when she ran the archives after we were asked to help with the contract.”
Christina shook her head numbly. Of course they wouldn't know. Mom took dad's last name. What was her maiden name? “Sano, Sato, what's his last name?”
Sato-sensei smiled. “Sano. I'm Sato.”
“Sorry,” Christina said and blushed. “Mitsuo Sano, yes I remember. But I only called him grandpa.” Speaking in English she automatically switched to the western naming convention.
“Mitsuo-kun. Well that confirms it,” Mrs Wakayama said. “Will you accept your grandfather as your legal father in this world? Even if we can never tell, officially?”
Christina gulped down the last of her tea and nodded. “Yes, yes of course.”
“Then my husband will break the news to him tomorrow. I won't proceed unless he accepts as well, do you understand that?”
Unless he accepts. But he really acted like my father when I grew up, cause dad was never home. “Yes I understand.”
For once she took a real bite of her bean cake. The intense sweetness helped shake her awake again. The conversation thus far brought her dangerously close to a dreamland where reality and fantasy blended together. This is the real world now. The old one is only memories.
“Good, then I'll call our kids to dinner later. They're involved with the contracts, and we won't treat them like children when they deserve credit for handling this in an adult way.” Both parents leaned forward before Noriko's mother continued. “Now, I want you to promise that you never tell them that we know of you and Hamarugen-san. It's important that they believe we've never heard of the transitions.”
Transition, that's a way to call it I guess. Principal Nakagawa refers to us as arrivals so I guess transition is a good word to describe what happened to us. “I promise,” Christina said, even though she really didn't understand why it was so important to the parents.
After he fetched his unwilling sister from his room Ryu led her to the room shared by their parents. Any other time and the four of them would have shared a room, but this was their club field trip. Even though they paid for the stay his parents were not part of it.
Noriko still hadn't switched into her yukata, but dad was adamant they signed the contracts before Urufu woke up, so he brought his sister with Urufu still sleeping in the room they left.
He slid the door closed behind him giving Urufu some stray thoughts. Threats, dad did something bad to her. Else he couldn't understand how they made Kuri's guardian sign those documents. She was about to lose a lot of blackmailing money, so it had to be fear. Then again, he really didn't care.
He dragged Noriko through a corridor with wooden floors, up a carpeted stair and halfway through another corridor until they arrived and he slid the door open. Inside they quickly removed their slippers, slid the next door open and sat down on the tatami mats.
Their parents already sat there waiting together with Kuri and Sato-sensei, and to his surprise, so did Principal Nakagawa and Ashiga James.
What are they doing here? “Dad?”
“Son, I guess you wonder about Nakagawa-sensei and Ashiga-san.”
“I'll explain while we wait for dinner. Noriko, Ryu, sit down.”
Ryu followed his sister who had already anticipated the invitation and was on her way to one of the four remaining seats. He gave Ashiga-sensei a thankful thought when he saw the young man sitting cross-legged on the floor. No need for a traditional knee-breaking dinner tonight. To make him even more at ease both his father and Nakagawa-sensei switched into a more relaxed pose.
Behind him Ryu heard the doors slide open and when he turned he saw Kyoko and Yukio enter the room. Both were properly clad in their yukatas, something that made his sister stand out even more. So you helped your girlfriend with the belt? I don't think you stripped before Noriko so that means you two went to the girls' room alone. And sis said nothing about it. Before he had a chance to give her a nasty remark Kuri intervened.
“Noriko, thank you for watching over Ulf. I apologize for the inconvenience it caused you.”
Damn, you had her back. Oh well, there will be more opportunities. He growled in response to Noriko's out-stuck tongue. And sis, you know you were just saved by Kuri. Girlie conspiracy! Guess she save you two as well, Ryu thought and looked at Yukio.
From her seat his mother gave Kuri an approving nod.
Yes, definitely girlie conspiracy.
“If you're done with your antics, could we please proceed?” his dad said. “I called Nakagawa-sensei here to get a written confirmation that Himekaizen approves of the unusual part time jobs related to these contracts. He'll also confirm that the school approves of the contracts.”
Everyone round the tables nodded understanding. His mother helped Ashiga-sensei pour a round of tea and porcelain cups made their way around the party.
“Ashiga-sensei will handle some of Ageruman-san's financial transactions, and must sign one of the contracts for that reason. He represents Stockholm Haven Café.”
Ryu waved understanding and accepted a cup into his hands. The tea was hot to his lips and of surprisingly high quality, but maybe that was only to be expected in the Mie prefecture.
Kuri broke the silence that followed. “I'll continue the modelling work I just took up. My guardian has to believe that she controls my income.”
“That's unfair!” Ryu said and looked down at the tatami mats. No business of his really. He wasn't even her boyfriend.
“No Ryu. I appreciate that you care for me, but this is just me being smart,” Kuri objected with a smile. “I'll enter into a formal partnership with your father's company concerning any side-incomes I may have though.”
“Side-incomes,” Ryu murmured. Saving only a small share of what she earned still seemed unfair.
“Yes, side-incomes.” Suddenly Kuri looked like a much older woman, a dangerous woman. “I plan to become famous enough to brand collections after my name. If I'm successful the old hag can have all my modelling money, and I'll never even notice.”
Ryu stared at her. The billion dollar empress. That's what Urufu called you. I've never seen that face of yours before.
The signing was a quick affair after that, and then the dinner arrived. It was a traditional multi-course thing, partially more eye-candy than truly tasty. But Ryu knew a lot of his friends loved the traditional sashimi accompanied by rice and the endless side dishes.
During the dinner his father poured Kuri a very small cup of sake with the apparent approval of all other adults, and she very pointedly only sipped it when they toasted her new partnership. It was tradition, and it was treating her like an adult. And you would have choked on your sake had you only known how old Kuri really is, Ryu thought and smiled.
“Something funny?” his mother asked.
He smiled even wider and shook his head. “Not really, only a memory,” he lied.
From across the table Noriko grinned just as mischievously.
“You know I didn't really drink any,” Kuri protested, which changed the grins into laughter.
When dinner reached its end it was finally time for Noriko's mad plan. He didn't know all the particulars and so he disliked it, but he had been overruled first by his father and then by his mother. That Sato-sensei was present just proved how alone he was.
Nakagawa-sensei started to sign a staggering number of contracts, as did Sato-sensei. In the meantime Ryu's father unfolded what Ryu recognized as a partnership contract. He put his seal to it, signed for the benefit of a potential future western solicitor who might refuse to recognize the seal internationally, and turned it over to Nakagawa-sensei who did the same. Sato-sensei didn't have a seal and merely signed.
What are they up to? That huge chunk over there includes employee contracts.
“Noriko, sign here,” his father said.
What the bloody hell is going on?
“Ryu, Yukio, Kyoko, you sign each of these.”
Ryu grabbed the contract his father gave him. “What's the meaning with this, and what kind of company is Twin Arc Production?”
Kuri roared with laughter. “TAP, you had it named TAP? He'll kill you!”
Ryu's father made an utterly failed attempt at pretending he didn't share Kuri's mirth. “Twin Arc Production is your new employer. Hamarugen Urufu is its CEO as well as only owner. Congrats, you just got a job with your friend.”
“It's the only way, idiot bro. We have to tag along with him anyway, and this way we get paid.”
“No, sis, I refuse. It's his money. I'm not going to steal his money behind his back! Sorry father, but I won't do this.”
Ryu only received a frown and a stern glare in return.
“Idiot bro, I didn't say we won't have to work for our salary. You won't get a single yen you didn't earn.”
Ryu stared at Yukio and Kyoko who looked just as stunned as he. “What could we possibly do?” he asked. “Yukio, Urufu does corporate management consulting and there's just no way we can help.”
Noriko growled. “Shut up and think, or at least shut up and pretend to think while you listen to someone with a functioning brain!”
That earned her chuckles of approval from around the table, Kuri included. The last fact made Ryu reassess his position, and he closed his mouth. I'll listen, and then I'll decide, he thought sullenly.
“Ryu, Urufu has the last word. He's the CEO after all. He'll assign work for us, and I believe there is work he can assign provided we're formally employed. Can't you wait until he's had his say?”
Ryu shook his head. “Sis, we just forced him into a partnership and weighed him down with four employees without even asking him. Having his say? Are you insane?”
Noriko looked at their parents for support, but none came.
“I'll handle it,” Kuri suddenly said. “Noriko's idea is sound, and if Ulf complains I'll just bash his head in until he understands what's good for him.”
“But it's still something he didn't agree to,” Ryu protested.
“Now you arrogant little kid. Just listen and shut the hell up! Ulf is in no damn condition to have a say in this. When I tell you he'll do as I say you had damned better believe me! Get it kiddo?” The outburst came out in an awful mix of Japanese and English.
Ryu stared at Kuri. She just turned into the cold hearted business woman Urufu once said she had been forced to become. For the first time Ryu began to grasp what the word 'empire' meant. And for the first time in his life a girl scared him more than his sister. He looked across the table to see how Noriko had reacted and only found a meek little girl waiting for the verbal abuse to end.
So that's it. When it really comes down to calling the shots you'll back down. I never thought I'd see this day. “Fine, I'll ask Urufu,” Ryu said. Around the table he saw the adults watch in stunned approval. He didn't have to like it. Just obey for the time being. With a sigh he signed his contract.
Yukio felt like a traitor. He trusted Kyoko, and Kyoko promised that if Kuri said something was good for Urufu then it was really good for Urufu. But he still felt like a traitor. Urufu was his most important friend, the man turned boy who had brought out what Yukio believed was the best parts of himself. Urufu had dared him to become a better Yukio, and Urufu had supported him when he was uncertain of his ability to become one.
A full night's sleep hadn't changed his feelings that he should have protested when the others effectively transferred parts of Urufu's control over his business to the Wakayama parents. The others? You coward! You took part of it yourself when you signed that contract.
With those feelings of conflict he made his way down the stairs to the dining hall where breakfast was served Viking style. As in the sign in the doorway stated that it was served Viking style. The irony wasn't lost on him. Sweden had its own era of fame, but from what Urufu had told him a breakfast buffet probably had very little to do with anything Viking.
Two floors above him Urufu still slept, or did when Yukio left their room. He looked for other familiar faces to share his breakfast with. Between club members grabbing small dishes and walking a few rounds between serving tables and their own seats he saw Ryu and Noriko sitting by a table in a corner. Kyoko headed there with the last of her booty and Yukio quickly got himself some juice and booked a place beside her with his glass.
The adults were seated by the windows at a table pointedly placed a bit apart from the rest. It looked like stratification, but Yukio knew from his conversations with Urufu that it was only a sensible solution to avoid students feeling awkward with a couple of teachers sharing their table. In Urufu's case it had been employees who wanted to avoid being forced into conversation with corporate management.
On his way between getting food and placing it at his place he touched hand and shoulders with Kyoko several times, none of them an accident. Each time he felt his heart jolt and each time he wondered how many of the club members were watching them.
Fewer than I think, but more than what's comfortable, he admitted to himself when both of them headed for their table one last time unable to separate their hands. I love you. I'm happy I confessed that second time. I'm happy you love me back. I'm happy.
He understood he was luckier than he deserved, but he also guessed he deserved the luck he had. There was no contradiction as long as he was honest.
“Guess what I'm thinking,” he said to her when they sat down.
“Guess who I love in return,” she replied.
She reads my mind. My fantastic Kyoko!
“Where's Kuri?” Yukio asked, and he made an effort to raise his voice just a little bit.
“Should come down from our room soon. She overslept so we had to shake her awake just as we went for breakfast.”
Yukio smiled at Kyoko. Good girl. Did I tell you that you're fantastic? No I just thought that. “My fantastic little Kyoko.”
She blushed at that but smiled back a him anyway.
Kuri hadn't overslept, unless she went back to sleep after returning to their room. Most of the night she spent cuddled up with Urufu. Ryu and Yukio moved their futons so Kuri and Urufu could have some space for themselves. After that Kuri cradled her boyfriend like a mother hugs her children when they're afraid to go to sleep.
It's strange, Yukio thought, that it only felt natural having Kuri sleeping beside Urufu in our room. Yukio looked around the dining hall. None of the other members would understand if it became known, so this was a secret between the six of them.
He threw a glance at the adults' table. They were all there. Both Wakayama parents, Principal Nakagawa, Ashiga James and Sato-sensei. And another two middle aged persons he hadn't seen before. They looked like locals, a local couple.
The bedlam slowly abated when more and more club members finished eating and only sat back nursing tea or coffee. At that time, first Kuri and then Urufu arrived as well.
While those who had finished first filed out to prepare for the afternoon's hike Kuri and Urufu started stacking plates with breakfast in a way that made Yukio grateful most club members had left the dining hall. How many nights have you spent at hotels? You're packing food like robots, and you know exactly in what order you have to stack those plates.
Ryu elbowed his sister lightly and Yukio saw them give the two Swedes approving glances. Forgot you're the rich kids. You should know this drill as well.
“Would President Ageruman and Vice President Hamarugen please join our table,” a voice suddenly cut through the hall.
What the hell? Principal Nakagawa? At least you're making a formal invitation.
Yukio watched the pair walk up to the adults' table and take a seat each. Kuri and Urufu were introduced to the two strangers. After a few words Kuri all of a sudden threw her hands to her face. For a moment Urufu woke up from his apathy and rose to protect his girlfriend. She looked at him but shook her head.
What's going on?
Around him the Wakayama twins and Kyoko shared his worried glares. Yukio held Kyoko's hand tightly and felt her squeeze back. When he questioned Ryu with a look he only waved his hand in the negative. Whatever was happening Kuri had to deal with it on her own. Yukio didn't like it, and he definitely didn't like to see a mentally unstable Urufu dragged into it.
“Little Tina. You look just like when you grew up!”
“Grandpa, is that you?” Tina, no-one's called me that since I grew up. Those eyes! It's him! Christina felt her hands fly to her face. It's really him!
Beside her Ulf rose so quickly that his chair overturned. He moved to get in between her and whatever he felt was a threat. She caught his eyes with her own. Are you back, Ulf? She shook her head. It's my grandpa. He's not dangerous.
Somehow he seemed to understand, because he backed away, pulled up his chair from the floor and sat down. She could see him pretend to drink some coffee while she shook hands with her grandfather. She would have preferred hugging him, but there were just too many club members in the dining hall. Hugging could wait.
Christina looked between Ulf and her grandfather until she felt certain Ulf wouldn't try to make a scene.
“Hot-blooded bloke that one,” grandpa noted in Swedish. That was the last piece of reassurance she needed to accept it really was him. A forty year old version of him, with a face she barely remembered from her mother's photo album.
I wasn't even born when you looked like this. I remember grey in your hair.
She got a curious glance from him and all around the table the others leaned back to give them a bit of privacy. “Is he yours?” grandpa asked?
By now Christina was certain he spoke in Swedish to keep the rest of them in the dark. James would have mentioned him if those two had met earlier, and neither James nor Ulf had the looks of someone speaking that language.
You're in for a rude surprise grandpa. “I love him, but he doesn't belong to me,” she said. “Should I call you Sano-sensei? Grandpa is out of the question in this world.” Ulf, did you hear that?
Her grandfather twisted his face into a grimace, but eventually he reluctantly gave her a curt bow. “My name is Mitsuo, but I guess that would sound impolite. I don't want you to be that formal with me, but for the sake of pretence, fine.”
Christina looked at the other adults. Apart from James who was smiling slightly they all seemed to accept that the two of them used Swedish as a barrier.
Ulf stared down into his cup with the apathy he had worn as a cloak the last days, but there was a flickering glimmer in his eyes. Christina's heart jolted with sudden hope when she saw his fingers move like they did when he was planning something nasty. Please, please, please be back again! I need you!
“I believe I should mention I know some Swedish,” James finally admitted from his place.
Sano-sensei smirked and shrugged. “Arrival like us?” he asked and looked at Christina.
James nodded. “Just so you're aware that there are more of us who can understand you.”
“Pity,” Sano-sensei admitted. “Age?”
“Forty, subjectively. Twenty five here.”
Sano-sensei rolled his eyes. “Crap, he's ten years younger than you Tina. Still, shouldn't you reconsider your choice of boyfriend. Don't understand what you see in that kid?” he continued and glared at Ulf.
Christina felt her cheeks heat up and when she turned to look at Ulf she noticed how both of the Wakayama parents shot him disapproving glances. If you two have seen something you don't like then he's really only pretending. Ulf, you bastard! “What do I see in you?” she asked him in Japanese.
“Don't know,” he answered and offered her that wolfish grin she had longed for so much the last days.
She felt tears welling up in her eyes. She sat down on her knees and hugged him close to her. “You're back! I've been so afraid.” She hid her face in his chest and allowed the tears to take her. Half a week's worth of tension slowly left her as she sat shaking in his embrace.
“He's still only a teenager, you know,” came Sano-sensei's voice. No, this time it was her grandfather's voice. There was no malice in it, only concern. “It won't last, and I'd hate to see you hurt again like in France.”
“I can't promise it will last, but I won't cheat on her like that piece of shit,” Ulf said in her stead, in Swedish. She felt his embrace tighten.
Behind her her grandfather gasped. “You speak Swedish?”
“My Swedish is a lot better than yours. I was born to it. Japanese is a problem though.”
Christina heard James laugh together with the other adults. None of them needed to understand the words spoken to know what an ugly trap Ulf had sprung on her grandfather.
“Just accept it, Mitsuo-kun. You've been had,” Noriko's mother said. “He played you.”
“Fooled by a teenager at my age. Embarrassing.”
Ulf stroked her hair and spoke again. “Sano, did it ever occur to you that I might be an arrival as well?” In Swedish all honorifics fell away. Living in Japan for a year made her realise how strange it sounded when two strangers used names only.
She couldn't see anything, but she could feel how her Ulf and her grandfather stared at each other.
“No,” came the curt reply.
“Well I am, and a year older than little Ina here.”
Ina, I love the sound of that. You're truly back. U-kun. I'll call you U-kun in private. She held him closer to let him know how much that nick-name meant to her.
“Little Ina, what kind of nonsense is that? She's my Tina and nothing else.”
Christina felt Ulf's muscles harden. “She belongs to nobody! I'll call her Ina as long as she allows me to, and the day she says I can't I'll stop. Show her the respect she deserves!”
Christina tensed and waited for her grandfather to explode, but nothing happened.
“Fine, you pass. Stay by her side.”
“As long as she wants me, I promise.”
From all over the dining hall she could hear sighs of relief. The will-contest between the two men hadn't gone unnoticed by the club members, and Christina wondered what kind of rumours would be born from this. As far as the members were concerned their tall vice president had just won a stare-down with an adult. At least that must have been what it looked like.
This is bad. We're in Japan now. I have to get them in line before discipline is shot to hell. If they believe we can behave like this with our teachers the school will come down on us like a horde of those Japanese bakemono.
Reluctantly she let go of Ulf. “Don't use that voice with your seniors!” she barked in Japanese and winked at him.
“I...” and then he got it. “I apologize President. Sano-sensei, I humbly ask for your forgiveness for my overstepping,” he said as he rose and bowed deeply.
Her grandfather looked nonplussed for a moment. Then he turned into Sano-sensei and nodded. “Apology accepted.”
Ryu turned and gave Fumiko-chan a helping hand. She hadn't brought a proper day-pack and staggered as they climbed uphill.
Ahead and behind of them a long line of club members slowly ascended the mountain path to the camping site.
A brisk breeze from the ocean climbed up the mountainside and made the day bearable, but it was still uncomfortably hot.
He wiped sweat from his face, allowed Fumiko-chan to pass him and reached out with his hand to help Nori-kun navigate the difficult climb. After that Ryu continued himself. The motor mouth would stay and help Sakura-chan.
A little further up Ruy saw Hiroyuki-kun help Noriko climb over a log that had fallen across the path. Good man, I'll switch with you when I get there, Ryu thought and forced his burning legs upwards.
He was astonished so few of the members complained about the murderous climb, but it seemed like Urufu's walking talking sessions earlier that summer had given them stamina as well as the ability to start thinking outside the box.
We've become a real club. Urufu, you did it! They're helping each other without asking. For a moment elation rose in him, but then thinking of Urufu soured Ryu's good mood. What happened back then? You still haven't told.
He passed in and out of shade as he made his way upwards between tree trunks flanking the path. The thinner of them offered his legs a little respite whenever he pulled himself up with his hands.
Halfway to the log he caught up with Fumiko-chan who was panting heavily and staggered with her arms hanging by her side. She looked like she could use some extra motivation. He tapped her shoulder and prepared a smile. “Fumiko-chan, Aika-chan is ahead of us. Climb to her and have something for me to drink when you get to the summit, will you?”
The girl stopped in her tracks, turned and blushed. “Would you share it with us, Ryu-kun?”
That's gutsy of her. “Of course, how could I live without the company of two beautiful girls?” Ryu said and flashed her a grin. She averted her eyes, but he could see the smile playing over her lips. Prince of Himekaizen, and of this club. That's my job. “I'll join you after I've helped everyone.” Well, they're both pleasant enough. I could do with worse company.
He watched her scamper away to where Hiroyuki-kun still stood ready to help people climb over the log.
I've thought of us six as the core, but we're not really the core of the club any longer. He gave Hiroyuki-kun a tired smile and waved him onwards. Half the members take action by themselves now. Urufu, you really changed us. Ryu shook his head and took the position Hiroyuki-kun had held just moments before. Looking back he could see Nori-kun arriving hand in hand with Sakura-chan. The motor mouth would help the girl he so obviously was crushing on without Ryu's help, so Ryu just waved him on after Sakura-chan was safely over the log.
Wonder who's next? So tired I didn't even check who replaced Nori-kun down by the rocks. Ryu wiped more sweat and grime from his face with his arm.
Kyoko arrived helped by Yukio. Another pair that wouldn't need his help.
“Who's down there helping people up?” Ryu asked.
Yukio looked up and grinned. “Kuri. She's almost as strong as us boys. Urufu's down there taking a rest as well.”
Taking a rest? From what I've seen he should be able to run up the trek. Ryu blinked. He'll piss the third years off when it's time for the marathon later this autumn, cause I don't see anyone in Himekaizen matching his stamina. “Sure about that?”
Yukio managed to smirk despite his fatigue. “He's back to his bad self again. Kuri will help him up when all the rest have passed.”
Ryu sighed and made space for Yukio. He watched him help his girlfriend over the log, and after that they vanished up the path, still holding hands. I envy you a little, but I'm happy for you both. You of all people deserve it.
Heavy panting from below had him turning his head, and soon afterwards he was helping one of the new girls in the club. Have to learn their names.
It was slow work, but member by member he saw them all passing the log, and shortly afterwards Kuri and Urufu came walking up the path. Ryu only waved at them and started climbing up himself. Kuri would help Urufu anyway, and she'd only complain if he offered them any help.
It didn't take him long to overtake the trailing members, and some cajoling, a few insults and the occasional insubstantial promise later he saw them to the summit. Fumiko-chan and Aika-chan stood waiting for him with a bottle each in their hands. That wasn't an insubstantial promise he had given earlier, so he grinned at them and followed them to the table they had chosen. Gratefully he received the first bottle and downed it in one go.
“Thanks, I really appreciate that. You're angels, both of you,” he said, and for once he really meant it.
“Isn't he just adorable?” Aika-chan suggested to her friend.
“And charming, a real prince charming,” Fumiko-chan agreed, and both girls burst into laughter.
“Hello! I'm here you know,” Ryu protested.
They just looked at him, and after Fumiko-chan handed him the other bottle both of them started laughing again.
He couldn't help it. He loved the company of girls, even when they made fun of him, and he soon joined them in their merriment as if it was the natural thing to do. To him, he realized, it probably was.
Mood rising and the worst of his thirst slated he watched how Kuri dragged Urufu the last metres to a waiting table. She sat him down and went for something to drink.
I wonder how they keep it together, Ryu thought, but he had pleasant company, and Urufu was in good hands after all, so Ryu allowed himself to enjoy the atmosphere and continued joking with the girls. Rather unsurprisingly they were joined by two more, and then by a couple of the guys.
A good day for some innocent flirting, cooler up here than by the seaside and it promised to be a pleasant camping experience.
Damn, why did he have to crash again? Christina fetched a couple of water bottles, and then she went after some tea for good measure.
A few tables away Ryu sat entertaining his court of fans and the sound of stupid jokes dimmed and rose as the wind carried the voices on and off. If not for Ulf's apathy it would have been a welcome break before they started making food and prepare camp.
Late morning, closer to midday, the weather had all but cleared up, and not even the breeze managed to keep the temperature down to acceptable levels. The sun baked anyone stubborn enough to leave the shaded tables.
She saw Ko-chan and Yukio standing with water bottles of their own staring uncertainly between tables and decided to wave them to hers.
“It's OK,” Christina said when Ko-chan fidgeted. “He's been like this since breakfast.” Since I made an arse of myself. “You're not disturbing, and I could use a friend right now. We both could,” she added and shot Yukio a glare.
“It's my fault,” Ko-chan said defensively. “I kept him from Urufu, so please don't blame him Kuri-chan.”
Christina waved the self-accusation away. It wasn't like Ko-chan to go all on the defensive like this. “You just met, and I know what it's like to want to share every waking moment with someone. Trust me.” With these two she could afford to show how much she needed Ulf. They were the same. “Besides I was the one who turned my phone off when he needed me.”
There, it was out in the open. She had betrayed him. No-one else had. Ulf was her responsibility.
“What are we going to do?” Yukio asked and pointed at his friend. He took the last steps to her table and sat down. Ko-chan followed soon after.
Christina poured some tea into her mug, and as an afterthought she rose, fetched two more and poured for her friends as well. “I don't know,” she admitted after she had sat down again. “I'm going to take a risk here, and I want you two to listen and to stop me if I go too far. OK?”
“Ulf, Ulf can you hear me?”
“I'm unwell, not dead,” he answered from his place on the bench. There was a weak glimmer of his grin showing. Not much, but still something of his old self.
Christina looked at her friends and began. “Ulf there's something that's been bugging me for a while now.” It felt uncomfortable speaking with him in Japanese, but she needed the other two to understand as well.
“I'd been at building the company, you know Chag, for some fifteen years, and we were expanding like mad. Something went down back home in Sweden when I was in the states.” Christina stared ahead of her. He had hinted at it early on during summer break.
Across the table Ulf just nodded and slumped back on the bench. It was as if he wasn't present. Hadn't been the last days but for the short time during breakfast when he felt a need to protect her.
Something hurt inside her like a thorn stuck in her throat, but she had to know. “Ulf, that was you, wasn't it? I got you involved in my life before we transited here, didn't I?”
Once more he nodded slowly. On the table, just by his right hand a mug of tea stood slowly cooling. He hadn't taken a single sip since they sat down. Christina watched the printed kanji on it. An ad for the resort they visited.
And Ulf kept his silence. At least he shook his head when she asked him questions she knew he should answer in the negative.
“Your daughter. Someone went after you and she got so badly hurt she didn't survive?” Just asking the questions burned holes in her heart, but she had to do something to wake Ulf from his apathy. I love you so much. I can hurt for you if it helps. Please come back to me!
After he gave her the nod she had feared she would receive she slowly continued her one sided interrogation. “She didn't die right away, did she?”
Ulf shook his head, and Christina could hear Yukio and Ko-chan gasp. I need you here to stop me if I hurt him too much.
When she didn't get a reaction she tried guessing.
“A week?” A shake of his head. “A month?” Another shake. “A year?” A nod and a slow trickle of tears finding their way down by his nose.
One year! Despite the brutal August heat she felt something cold run down her spine. She took a year to die.
Yukio grabbed her arm and yanked hard, but Ko-chan calmed him down. After a silent negotiation they allowed her to continue.
“The guy Nakagawa had you hunting down. He committed suicide, didn't he?”
Once again Ko-chan and Yukio gasped while Ulf nodded. They hadn't heard all of it then. She decided it was time to grab Ryu by his ears to teach him when to keep his mouth shut and when to trust his friends, but that would have to wait.
“Ulf, did he use a gun?”
This time it was Ko-chan who pulled Christina back. Yukio gave her a furious stare instead. Too far, I went too far.
Ulf looked at her. His eyes were large and empty, so large, so very large. With a clumsy move he rose and staggered away. The mug with cold tea he hadn't drunk from fell to the ground and shattered. Christina could see the tea spill out on the stone like so many tears. When she rose to follow him both Yukio and Ko-chan pulled her back.
“No more! It's enough!” Yukio growled.
Defeated Christina sat down again and watched how Ulf almost fell into the garbage depot before he threw up.
Students from other tables rose and rushed to his aid, but Yukio and Ko-chan held her back. Too far, I went too far. The thought echoed in her mind as she helplessly had to watch Ulf heaving when he tried to empty his stomach of what was no longer there.
“Please!” she pleaded and tried to pull herself free. “I want to help him.”
In the background she heard engines running. Someone, most probably Noriko's mother, had arrived with tents, sleeping mats and things needed for dinner. Distantly in her mind she knew the car would have to make two or three more runs to deliver all they needed, and she wondered why such thoughts occupied her mind when all she wanted was to run to his side.
Yukio and Ko-chan finally released their grip on her arms and she ran to the crowd standing around Ulf asking what was wrong.
“He's sick,” she shouted. That had to be a new low-score for overstating the obvious, but somehow it worked and they made way for her. “Ulf, how are you?” And she realised she had just managed to surpass yet another low.
Ulf groaned and shakily rose to his feet. “I'm fine,” he murmured in Swedish, and Christina realised she had spoken Japanese all the time. It was the first time he had ever answered her in a different language than she had used.
He's somewhere else again. I made it all worse!
“Maria, I'll bring her back. Somehow I'll bring her back.”
Maria? His wife! He's back in the other world. I can't reach him. “Ulf!”
There was no response at all.
She had to take a chance. “U-kun, please let me help you!”
Around them the students smiled or laughed at her overly familiar nick-name for him, and once again she noticed how she had spoken in Japanese.
“Ina, please help me!”
Japanese, he's speaking Japanese. He's back! She held him tight to herself. “U-kun, my U-kun. Come back to me! I need you and I love you.” Frantic thoughts passed her mind, and Christina knew she had encountered a rival she couldn't beat. Maria. She carried the child you lost. How could I possibly compete with that?
What are those idiots doing now?
Noriko stood and looked at where her mother had parked the car.
Yukio and Kyoko had just stopped grappling with Kuri, and she ran like mad for where Urufu was puking his guts out. That left her brother, and that moron just kept on spewing out one stupid joke after another to keep his harem by his side during the bedlam.
With a sigh Noriko started walking to the car. She waved a few members to her side, the few who hadn't been caught up in the insanity that played out around them.
High school, where you prepare for being an adult. Yeah, right! “Hiroyuki-kun, we need those tents on the ground. Mom's gonna drive back and fetch the rest.”
Somewhere inside her she felt she was being unjust, but Urufu had taken his self loathing a step too far. There was a difference between showing weakness and indulging in self pity. It didn't matter that she was crushing hard on him. That wasn't the same as being blind. I need to take control of this madness.
From behind her she heard Ryu finally coming to help, and he had his girls in tow. Together they carried tents and charcoal, and in the time needed for that task the situation around Urufu finally calmed down.
Club members started acting as parts of a whole and she saw some of them erecting the tents while others began preparing food. Within a surprisingly short time Noriko had her troopers offloading another batch of tents when her mother returned.
Kuri had Urufu seated in the car, and the two of them rode down to the hotel with her mother when she returned for the last batch.
“Ryu, get over here!”
The idiot brother of hers obeyed without asking and left his stash of vegetables to Jirou-sempai where he stood beside Sango-chan.
He stopped in his tracks and gave her an uncertain look.
“Leave the knife you moron!” Swap some of your charm for a brain!
The message finally hit home and Ryu returned the kitchen knife he hadn't left with the vegetables. Sango-chan gave Noriko an ironic salute when her boyfriend received the sharp tool needed to start chopping the vegetables Ryu abandoned him with.
Sometimes I wonder if we really have the same parents. Noriko shook her head and waited for Ryu to get to her side.
More tents went up and watching how the club members attacked the work at hand without asking, Noriko felt confident enough to drag Ryu out of earshot. What she had to tell him couldn't be part of the club.
“Bro,” she said when she felt certain no-one could hear them. “Kuri and Urufu went back down again. He's in a pretty bad shape and I don't think we'll see more of him today.”
Alone together Ryu showed her a very different side than the role he played out with the other girls around him. “I saw, but there's nothing we can do about it.”
“What about the night out?” Noriko asked.
“What about it?”
Noriko looked for somewhere to sit but found nothing but the ground. It had to do and she sat down cross-legged. “Cooking food takes another half an hour. One at most.”
Ryu nodded understanding.
“Kuri and Urufu had planned some games to pad out the hours before we pretend to go to sleep.”
That brought a laugh to her brother. “You really should try to voice the illusion, sis. You're more clever than I am by far, but you're not very smart.”
“Huh?” Where did that come from?
“Sis, at least try to act as if you didn't know everything from the start. When we go to sleep we go to sleep.” He joined her on the ground before he continued. “That's it. If some members prefer chatting or going out with their flash-lights you don't have to sound like you knew it would happen, OK?”
Noriko felt that she had an inkling where he was going, and it wasn't somewhere she was too keen to follow. Am I too rigid? Does it make me boring?
“So, what did you want to talk to me about?” Ryu said.
The question brought her back from her thoughts. “We have to make it look like Kuri's and Urufu's absence isn't that big a deal. I just don't have a clue how.”
She got a smirk from her brother. “I'll handle that. I can keep them occupied for a few hours, but that wasn't really why you brought me here, was it?”
Bro, when did you start growing up? Maybe he wasn't the simpleton who could never see behind human duplicity any longer. “Lucky guess?” she tried.
He shook his head. “Sis, I've always been smarter than you. Not as clever, but smarter. Do you really think I'm this popular by accident?”
Noriko took a long stare at her brother. His unruly hairdo wasn't an accident. Their favourite hairdresser was anything but cheap, and even Kuri had once made a comment about professional taste. But did he really think things through?
“I learned during middle school. Some of my pranks made people angry, and others just made me more friends.” He grinned at her. A friendly grin. A warm one, but none she could understand why it would make girls flock to him like moths to the light. “That's my friendly grin. I have another for the girls,” he said and shattered any remaining illusions she had harboured.
Noriko shuddered. I've known you my entire life, and you managed to keep this kind of secret. Gods!
“Sis, the real reason, now. Your idiot bro has a harem to care for, isn't that how you see me?”
“You're being unfair,” she protested. Then she felt herself grinning wildly as years of need to take care of her brother ran off her in an instant. “Ryu, we need to slip information about our new part time jobs to them. Not too much in one go, and it's important it sounds it was all dad's idea from the beginning.”
He nodded. “I thought as much. I was so angry yesterday, but it made sense. I'll play the clown then. It's really a part of me by now. Not all show, you know,” he added and laughed loud enough to make a few faces turn in their direction. Then he was all serious again. “You take care of the real business until Urufu is himself again, and use Kuri. She's not just beautiful. She's got the experience as well.”
OK, not really grown up yet. Did you find out that just now? Kuri's the real pro of all of us. She's way ahead of Urufu. “I will,” Noriko promised. She felt relieved her brother hadn't turned into a totally different person. There were still blind spots to his observations.