Transition and Restart, book five: Spring of youth

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Chapter two, 2017, schism

“I can’t do that. She’s hurting and I want to be here now.”

Noriko listened to the silence following those words. Kyoko spoke on the phone, with Yukio most likely.

“No! Look there’s a guard in a car outside, and I don’t care that you don’t trust Kuri-chan.”

What? Trust Kuri?

“Yes. Noriko’s hurt and you just have to wait, OK!” A hard, rapping sound told Noriko Kyoko had slapped the phone onto the table a little harder than was good for it. “Damn he can be so stubborn sometimes.”

Kyoko came back from her call and clasped Noriko’s hands in her own. As if that had been a signal, Kuri rose and punched a call of her own.

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk it over with Nao-kun?” Kyoko wondered for the umpteenth time.

Noriko shook her head. Talking with Nao was the last she wanted to do right now. First she had to wrap her head around his message. Slept with a girl? That can’t mean… can it? But there really was only one way to interpret the message. But maybe I read it wrong.

She needed her phone to know for sure, but she had lost it somewhere.

“I don’t care. Cancel the shoot.”

Noriko felt Kyoko flinch at those words. Going back on a promise to work was alien to her. Noriko could understand why one might have to, but on a fundamental level she agreed with Kyoko on this.

“No. You stupid little fuck. Mess with me and I’ll trash the next shoot, so just cancel this one and shut the hell up!”

This time both Noriko and Kyoko flinched.

“Yes, I can sit this one out. For two years and start working in Europe instead if I have to. Wrap your tiny brain around that you shit-head!”

Kuri didn’t slam her phone to the table, but it disappeared into a pocket in her baggy clothes. She’d changed into them a little earlier when her bodyguard arrived at Noriko’s home for the second time, this one with two bikes and a bag of clothes.

The first he’d joined them in the car driven by the escort assigned to Kyoko and Yukio. The other half of that escort waited at school for Yukio to finish. Three bodyguards, plus the one Vogue sometimes added when the magazine deemed it too dangerous for Kuri to be out with only one guard.

Who was that?” Noriko asked. Anything was better than talking about Nao.

“My boss.”

Noriko flinched again. Talking with someone superior in that way was alien to her.

“Look, Noriko, he made me go through what you’re feeling now, and I had to do it to myself.”

I suspected as much.

“Besides, he’s powerless if I quit modelling.” Noriko felt Kuri’s hands caressing her head. Long, slender fingers, entirely different than her own small ones. “He already cost me my love. I’ll be damned if I’ll let him have my friends as well.”

Noriko looked up and met Kuri’s eyes. “Your still not supposed to behave like that in Japan.”

“I’m not Japanese. I’ll never be. Given the way they treat women here I don’t want to.” The last came out like a whiplash. “Urufu is tedious with his comparing with Sweden all the time, but don’t believe for one second that I don’t agree with him!”

Kuri’s sudden wrath almost had Noriko want to talk about Nao again. Almost. I forgot she’s hurting as well. I didn’t know it could hurt this way. Noriko fought down her tears. She wasn’t the emotional kind anyway, and she really didn’t want to burden her friends with how empty she felt after Nao’s message, or how her self-image was one of a discarded dishcloth. She didn’t want them to see…

Two pairs of arms wrapped her in a hug, and Noriko broke down again, just like she had done over and over the last hours.

He slept with a girl?

Then what she really wondered, and what really hurt struck her. He slept with a girl who wasn’t me? Thinking that was oddly disturbing. Not once had she tried, or even wanted, to get into bed with Nao, but now, now after that message, Noriko felt betrayed because Nao hadn’t tried to seduce her first.

I’m not rational. But then again, rational didn’t hurt this way. Rational wasn’t raw emotions. Rational wasn’t love.

“What the hell?”

Kuri’s voice broke Noriko’s chain of thought, and she felt Kuri release her embrace and fish up her phone to get yet another incoming call.

“Ulf, why is he calling me?”

Despite the pain in her chest Noriko heard how Kuri’s voice almost broke.

“Christina here, you want something?”

A few moments of silence followed.

“Noriko, it’s for you.”

For me? Noriko took the phone. “Yes?”

“It’s me, Ulf,” Urufu said. “I have your phone. Do you want me to hand it to your brother, or should I hold on to it until we meet next?”

Would be easiest to have Ryu handle it. But Noriko knew her brother would rummage through the contents of her phone if he got his hands on it. “Would you keep it for me?”

“Will do. I’ll have if fixed as well.”

Fixed?

“It’s in pretty bad shape.”

Bad shape? Oh, yes, I dropped it on the floor. Then Noriko recalled how expensive it was to get phones repaired. “Eh, Urufu, don’t mind. I’ll handle that part myself.”

“No problem,” came the voice from the other end. “It’s only money. Until a while ago I had a reason to save them, but it’s no longer there.”

Urufu, you do know that your voice can be heard in our end as well? Noriko looked up and met Kuri’s eyes just as she flinched. Yeah, she heard al-right. You had no reason hurting her.

But that wasn’t true. That wasn’t true at all. Kuri clinging to her idiot bro was enough to make Noriko want to hurt her, or at least had been until Nao’s message.

“Whatever, just as long as I’m not without a phone for too long,” Noriko said. Moments later she finished the call.

Thank you Urufu. Making me worry about something different took my mind off Nao.

Had that been the purpose? With Urufu you never knew.

“Feeling better?” Kuri asked. “He knows how to make you angry in a good way. Up to some tea and sweet pastries?”

“Bribing me?” Noriko said.

“Sure are,” Kyoko said from her place behind Noriko. “Bribing is good.”

Noriko smiled for the first time that afternoon and rose to her feet. “Consider me bribed.”


A few days earlier he had given Urufu a questioning look, or at least Ryu hoped he had. Still, in the end Urufu never budged one bit. He held on to Noriko’s phone and left Ryu to fend off the incessant attacks from the foreign girl. She’d be called Jeniferu-chan if she joined club, Coperu-san otherwise, but her joining was pretty much a given, so Ryu decided to go for the former.

“Look, Jeniferu-chan, I already have a girlfriend,” Ryu said, when the girl made herself comfortable by his table at the café.

Jeniferu-chan ate half of her biscuit and met his eyes. “She’s about as much in love with you as I am,” she said.

Dammit, you could at least pretend to be taken in by my princely charms like the rest of the girls. Ryu smirked, but then he felt his smirk twist into a grin. Jeniferu-chan was a little devil, but she was an irresistible one.

“I guess you played merry hell with the boys at your middle school,” Ryu said.

Jeniferu-chan looked up from her coffee, absent-mindedly dipped her biscuit in it and ate the second half. “What if I did?” She dropped her spoon and it fell onto the plate with a clattering. It almost sounded angry. “Boys are either too shy to say what they want, or take what they want without asking first.”

You’re a cynical one. “Look, I’m going out with Kuri, so just give up, will you?” And this was the real reason he was on a date with a girl other than his girlfriend. With said girlfriend just a door away. The date was Kuri’s idea in the first place. “You’re giving me a bad reputation, not to speak about your own.”

“Bad reputation? This is our clubroom, isn’t it?” Jeniferu-chan said and swept dramatically with her arm around the café.

Ryu downed his own coffee, waved to James for another one, and looked at the girl sitting across the table. Cute, but no match for Kuri after all. But damn what a presence.

Around them boys and girls alike either glared at them or threw them admiring glances. Kuri, what were you thinking? “Actually, it’s in there,” Ryu said. He pointed his table spoon in the direction of the door behind the counter. As is Kuri, he thought.

The two of them came here more and more often these days. Club hours were a convenient excuse, but mostly they did so to get away from all the attention at school. And that made Jeniferu-chan a major pain, because she glued herself to him as far as Kuri tolerated her.

“OK, if we make you an official member, will you play nice then?”

“Sure. Long term I’m more interested in that Swedish guy anyway.”

Cynical indeed. “Which of them?” Ryu asked, but he already guessed the answer.

“So force him to join as well,” Jeniferu-chan said and surprised him.

What, not Urufu? Maybe a sulking Urufu wasn’t all that attractive. Which brought Ryu to his second problem. Kuri and him coming here almost every day. Kuri didn’t have a photo shoot, which meant Urufu was demonstratively absent. He avoided Kuri to a degree that made Ai-chan seem almost clingy in comparison.

On top of it all Noriko seemed more morose than Ryu ever recalled her being, but she flat out refused to tell him what it was all about. Some kind of falling out with Nao-kun, that much was clear, because the tall senior never showed up with Noriko on his arm.

“Some kind of answer would be good,” Jeniferu-chan said.

“Uh, sorry. Sure, you’re both members.”

“That quick?”

“Anything that stops you from making me look like a two timer,” Ryu responded and shot her an angry look.

“Maybe I’ll have the other Swede by the side. Like a snack.”

You bastard! “Wouldn’t it make you look bad if you went after Kuri’s discarded belongings.” I’m sorry for using your name like this, Kuri. “But then maybe that’s the best you can get.”

It was a dirty way to protect his friend.

“Discarded? I’ll make him shine so everyone understands she couldn’t keep up with him.”

Damn brat! But you probably could. Besides, who was he to decide whom Urufu got attached to? “I’d shoot you down. Prince of Himekaizen here.” Still, he just had to try protecting Urufu anyway. Jeniferu-chan was bad news.

The short period of grace time ended, and the café filled up with students from Irishima High who took longer time to walk here, Ai-chan among them, and in that crowd Kuri’s stalkers mixed in. Ryu saw her long term bodyguard move closer to the counter, and the escort Vogue had assigned to her entered through the door.

The joys of being famous.

Right now Ryu felt a sense of gratitude that their school uniforms were kind of drab. Kuri in Irishima High’s traditional sailor uniform, well, there was more than one way to be cruel to boys.

“Falling in love with your girlfriend?”

Ryu flinched and stared at Jeniferu-chan. What was that all about?

“You know, I can help with this. I’m not really an arse, but if you treat me like one I’ll behave accordingly,” she said. She looked at him, and at the moment she was merely cute. “I understand you’re torn between your ex and your girl, but don’t you think it’s better if all three of you talked it over.”

“None of your business,” Ryu barked.

Jeniferu-chan gulped down the remains of her coffee and tilted her head sideways. “I just made it my business.” Then she turned and faced the counter. “Christina, you can come out now,” she shouted in English.

“What do you think...”

“Stuff it! I’ll handle the stalkers.”

The door behind the counter opened and Kuri entered the café proper. Just as the first camera flashes started blinking from a multitude of phones Jeniferu-chan rose from her chair.

Ryu just had time to see her flash a devastating smile before she dialled her presence up to eleven and blasted everyone in the café with a wave of charisma.

Damn, why do every freak have to end up in our school? Ryu hardly had time to finish that thought before he noticed how quite a few girls glared at Jeniferu-chan and then threw him longing glances. Fine, including me. Still, why?


A queue? Yukio stared at the Stockholm Haven café entrance in disbelief.

He shook his head. So it’s gone this far now. Well, means Urufu isn’t there. With that thought Yukio turned on his heels and returned down the street he had arrived on.

He’d stubbornly defended Kuri until the moment she showed up on Ryu’s arm. After that, well, the less he saw of her the better. Or, if he was honest with himself, after he saw how devastated Urufu was when she did.

Halfway back to Himekaizen Yukio noticed the other half of their escort. The first tailed him half a block behind him.

So you’re headed to the Haven? Yukio kicked at a pebble and grimaced. Kyoko wouldn’t turn back at the sight of a queue. Damn, that’s another evening gone. Of course he respected how Kyoko stuck to her best friend, but it meant he spent more evenings than he liked separated from his girlfriend.

And we’re not even in the same class any longer. Which sucked even more. Well, at least they shared the same wing at school.

Yukio hastened his steps and looked down. He didn’t want to meet Kyoko just to say goodbye.

The car with Kyoko and bodyguard passed, and Yukio heard it stop behind him. Probably so both escorts could chat and decide how to handle Yukio and Kyoko going to separate destinations.

Damn! Cause Kyoko wasn’t stupid. Yukio hardly had time to turn around before the sound of the car’s door being thrown open reached him.

“Yukio!”

He turned fully and met Kyoko’s gaze. A bit shamefacedly he waved to her. “Here.” Like she didn’t know.

“I was looking for you. They said you went to the clubroom.”

Yukio bit his lower lip before answering. “I did,” he said. “Urufu won’t be there. I went looking for him.” Which was a lie. Besides, going looking for Urufu required a top quality bike and knowledge about where he was. He covered absurd distances on that bike of his, more so after spring break.

“Why?” Kyoko asked, but Yukio could see in her face she already knew. The queue outside the café was a dead give away anyway.

He looked at her. As always the most beautiful girl he had ever known. Hair a bit longer now. She had let it grow during her first year here, but apart from that very much the same girl he fell in love with.

“He hurts, you know,” Yukio said. “Kuri dumped him and found herself a new boyfriend.”

For a moment Kyoko looked like she was about to blow up. “They’re adults. Both of them. Urufu just didn’t behave like one.”

That was, Yukio admitted, the truth. He’d tried to make Urufu man up late that valentine’s night, but to no avail. Urufu was a stubborn bastard. One who disliked getting rid of his bad habits. Bad habits? Hang on there. A smile came to Yukio’s lips, and he locked eyes with his girlfriend.

“Kuri’s your friend. She’s in there. I need to go looking for mine.”

“Yukio!”

“I love you. I’m just angry with your choice of friends, but I love you.” With those words Yukio turned on his heels and ran.

From a distance he heard Kyoko calling his name, but there was no resentment in her voice, so Yukio grinned and ran on. You bastard. Bad habits, eh?

With that thought Yukio ran past the school and onto the road he and Urufu had spent so many mornings and afternoons on their way to or from school and their old café. Their old haven, before Urufu found Stockholm Haven.

Lagging behind Yukio’s escort started sprinting, but when he turned and looked he saw that the bodyguard effortlessly caught up to a position some thirty metres behind. The phone he pocketed while he ran told Yukio why he temporarily lost speed moments earlier.

It was a long shot, but Yukio felt fairly certain he’d find his best friend sitting on the second floor. Their old mall, their old memories. Memories from before they knew a girl named Ageruman Kuritina, and before they she knew she was as little a young girl as Urufu was a boy.

Because that’s where you made peace first. He hadn’t understood then, but Yukio was over a year older now. I must have been there when it happened. Still, Yukio couldn’t exactly recall a specific moment when Urufu gave up trying to return to his old life. Long before he stopped talking about going back home. That much Yukio was certain of.

He’d almost made his way to the mall when he saw Noriko enter the café. For a moment Yukio played with the thought of making it for home instead, but then he recalled Noriko’s crush on Urufu was of an older date than the recent events that had split their tight-knit group of friends.

For whatever reason, you made the same guess as I did. Yukio stopped to catch his breath before he opened the door and walked up the stairs to the café.

Below him his escort arrived through the door before it even had time to close, but he didn’t climb the stairs until Yukio had done so. Apparently there were some rules to body-guarding that Yukio didn’t understand. Keeping your distance but always staying close. If the reason hadn’t been so scary Yukio would have laughed at the entire situation.

When he entered the café proper Yukio noticed that he didn’t recognize any of the girls waiting tables. Has it been that long? By the windows, at their usual table from old, Urufu sat with his back to the door, and across the table Noriko stood folding her coat.

As Yukio walked there he saw Urufu slide something across the table. Noriko reached down and took it just as Yukio recognised the shape of a phone.

When she looked up her eyes met Yukio’s.

“Yukio?”

What’s with the girls around me and calling my name? “Yes, that would be me,” he said.


Just as she picked up her phone from the table Noriko noticed someone heading for their table. She looked up. “Yukio?”

After a moments hesitation he smiled. “Yes, that would be me,” he said.

“How did you know?”

Across the table Urufu turned and looked over his shoulder. “I’ll be damned. Yukio the sleuth.”

“Even a moron like me could guess you’d go sulking here man,” Yukio retorted.

“Only a moron like me would have a date with his rival’s sister in a shabby place like this.”

“A date?”

“A date?” Noriko echoed.

“Don’t you people call everything when two people meet away from home a date?”

Noriko saw Yukio’s smirk before he opened up a broadside. “Cut it with that crap about ‘you people’! You’re part of us now.”

Friends, they really are best friends. She admired Yukio’s courage to bite back at the older man. Kyoko, you sure got yourself a good boyfriend.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Urufu growled, but he grinned when he turned around and grabbed his cup of coffee. “Just like old times,” he added. This time his smile reached all the way to his eyes.

I haven’t seen that grin of yours for so long. Thinking of the reason why Urufu never smiled with joy these days reminded Noriko of Nao, and a hard lump formed in her throat. She almost managed to keep her tears down.

“I had it repaired,” Urufu said just as Yukio sat down beside her.

Had it repaired? Oh, my phone. “You didn’t have to.”

“I wanted to.”

“It’s not like I couldn’t afford to myself.”

“Exactly why I wanted to.”

“Comedy duo, much?” Yukio interrupted.

“But he really didn’t...” Noriko started. She stopped and slapped her hand to her mouth when Urufu threw up his hands in mock exasperation and grinned widely, and this time his smile twinkled in his eyes as well.

Noriko’s heart almost stopped.

“I give,” he said.

I remember now. It’s been almost two years.

“You’re cute when you blush, you know that?”

“Say what again?” Then she felt her face heat up. No way! He can still make me feel this way?

“Don’t flirt with her like that. Nao could get grumpy.”

The fuzzy feeling in her stomach was immediately replaced by a burning pain in her chest, and Noriko saw Urufu’s eyes throw daggers at Yukio. All the heat that just made her blush left her at once.

The mood around the table dropped to just above freezing point.

“We don’t talk about that person here,” Urufu said. His voice held an edge to it that made Noriko flinch, and she suspected Yukio must feel like he was being bulldozed over.

She waived at a waitress just to force a change to the table. Besides, she hadn’t had time to order anything yet.

And you read my messages, or did Kuri tell you? That was unfair. Kuri wouldn’t. But then who? Noriko threw a glance to her right. Yukio’s face was an open book to be read. Kyoko, of course.

“I’ll have black tea and this cake,” Noriko said to the arriving waitress and put her finger on the menu. She hoped it landed on a cake, because she hadn’t really looked at it.

Hidden by her bangs Urufu ordered something as well. She couldn’t see him, but she heard him rummaging through the plastic menus and slap his finger onto a few items.

“One coffee,” came Yukio’s voice from her right.

Noriko pretended to study her menu despite having ordered already.

Around the table silence covered all of them like a wet blanket. Noriko realised she had to be the one who broke it.

“You know it’s bad to read other peoples’ phones,” Noriko said and regretted her words as soon as they came out of her mouth.

Urufu stared down at the table. “I apologise. I thought it was something important...”

Something important? What do you call Nao cheating on me? “You idiot!”

Tact really wasn’t Urufu’s main strength, or at least not when he didn’t need to think before he spoke, which usually only happened with customers present.

Noriko studied Urufu’s face to see how he planned to get out of the situation. Even though Nao’s betrayal hurt, her cynical curiosity never fully left her.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Urufu began.

No, he won’t, she thought.

“I wondered if someone had been hurt or something,” he continued.

Insert foot in mouth. You’re hopeless!

“Man! Listen to what you’re saying!” Yukio said just as Urufu’s face told Noriko the meaning of his words finally made its way to his brain.

And I once fell in love with this guy. Wonder who the real idiot is. She shook her head and forced a smile to her face. “No wonder Kuri dumped you,” Noriko said. This time she just almost regretted her words. What Urufu had said was beyond the pale. “You should take social interaction 101 for a change.”

She rose from her seat, picked up her bag and dropped a few coins on the table. “Thanks for the phone. I appreciate it.”

She left the table and a dumbfounded Urufu behind her. Yukio’s stunned face made her feel a little sorry for him, but if he chose friends like Urufu he deserved feeling like an arse.

“Noriko, sorry. I didn’t...”

“Man, drop it! Sometimes you’re just so damned clumsy.”

Yeah, friends. Urufu, I envy you a friend like that. Walking down the stairs Noriko admitted the one she really envied was Kyoko. You got the best boyfriend of all of us, you know that?

She left the mall and walked down the street in the direction of a train station. Behind her Urufu’s bike glimmered in the rapidly darkening evening as it caught the last light of the sun.

Sheesh, what an idiot. Her anger made her forget about Nao for a while, and reluctantly she sent Urufu a thought of thanks. Did you do that on purpose? No, I think you’re just that stupid. Suddenly angry mirth filled her, and Noriko grinned despite of everything.


Noriko’s sudden departure the day before hardly came as a surprise. Yukio telling him he was the superhero among morons, however, did.

Ulf wasn’t certain when his best friend grew that kind of backbone, but he noticed how Yukio had matured since they met.

I behaved like an arse back then. Well, it couldn’t be helped. At the time, when he realised how clumsily his words came out, Ulf decided to make it worse. Anything to get Noriko’s mind back on track again. He’d spent two weeks on a bike because his didn’t in time. Part of it never would he suspected. Idiot, you’re an idiot.

Ulf felt the gravel crunch under his loafers. He’d spent club hours at school together with his new English teacher. She was good enough to understand the difference between syntactic and semantic precision, and running an academic level conversation with her was a pleasure.

He helped her create education material that went far beyond the poor joke that served as a substitute for anything useful. The material at school made it clear to him the students weren’t supposed to learn English in the first place – they were supposed to take exams without ever understanding the language.

His teacher in turn pointed out the worst of his mistakes in his attempts at learning Japanese efficiently.

Two linguists, which made two more than the moron who held the principal’s office now.

He had part of that co-produced material in his school bag. It should come in handy during the upcoming session. One of the companies that bought his services had adapted far enough to start grasping the real meaning behind proactive responsive processes. Which meant he needed Yukio and Kyoko.

Cause you just don’t have a clue about how good you’ve become. Especially Yukio was a marvel.

A truth.

Kyoko probably was pretty good as well.

A half truth.

Ulf’s competences didn’t include visual user design, which meant he wasn’t qualified to say whether she was good or not. He just knew his customers loved her representations of his models, which probably meant she was good after all.

Halfway across the school yard he almost, just almost, admitted he’d chosen this specific job because Ryu’s natural leadership wasn’t needed, and hence Ulf didn’t have to spend time around Christina’s new boyfriend.

Damn, am I a kid, or what? But jealousy wasn’t rational, and he was very much jealous. Seeing them together made him want to puke.

When Ulf reached the bike stands he remembered that he left his bike outside the old mall. With him avoiding club hours as much as possible he’d taken up habits of old, and those included walking to school from the mall. Habits from before I met her.

That was a quarter of an hour on foot. Yukio and Kyoko would be waiting for him in the café.

He left school, walked beneath the sakura and followed the road. Soon he came to the stretch that led to Irishima High, and sure enough he met the occasional students from there on their way home.

This year they didn’t give him strange looks and giggles, but then this year he didn’t pretend to be a member of geek squad. Returning to that persona was alluring, but it wouldn’t work now. Too many knew him.

A sudden gust of wind guided him to the low wall where he got drenched together with Yukio last summer, and wasn’t it somewhere around here they met Ai the first time? Ulf briefly wondered what had happened to her. Some of the club members said she showed up at the Haven together with her friends occasionally.

Then he got to the last corner and saw the mall ahead. That sight, walking on foot, brought more memories to him. There had been a time, after he found the Stockholm Haven café, but before they finally abandoned the one in the mall, which mean there had been a time when Christina spent time here as well.

Ulf grimaced at the thought. He’d been too busy with a manhunt to give her the attention she needed, and deserved. With a smirk he corrected that thought a little. He’d been too afraid of falling in love with her, even though he already had by that time.

I really am an idiot, am I not? He sighed. Well, I pushed her into a corner, and she broke up. Any healthy person would.

Should he have told her he loved her? Probably. He never waited over half a year doing so with any other girl, or in Maria’s case, woman. Christina’s as well, if he was to be honest. And while being honest; he never left wife and kids behind before neither.

His feet brought him to the bike, and he quickly checked it for any damage, but here in Japan vandalism was all but unthinkable, and the bike was as shiny clean as when he left it in the morning.

Thinning traffic signalled the end of evening rush hour, and Ulf shouldered his bag and went inside.

The stairs he’d climbed so many times last year took him to the second floor. Yukio waved from their old table, and Ulf waved back. Then he did his usual, stupid semi circle walk towards the counter, but even though Yukio shook his head none of the waitresses showed any sign of recognition.

New staff, I guess.

They had little more than an hour before they needed to leave for a nearby office building. That should be enough time to put the finishing touches to his presentation, especially given Yukio’s scary ability to ruthlessly cut away everything non-essential.

“Ready when you are,” Kyoko greeted him.

As if by magic a waitress materialised by the table, and Ulf placed his usual order. Yukio and Kyoko were already halfway through theirs.

Ulf was about to dig up a laptop when his phone suddenly danced around in his pocket. A little bit dumbfounded Ulf grabbed it and looked at the screen.

Christina?

She hadn’t called even once since she broke up with him, and Ulf wondered what could possibly be the reason for a call now. His heart beat furiously when he took the call. No matter how grown up he was childish fantasies and wishful dreams played in his mind.

“Ulf Hammargren,” he said, and cursed himself for being so formal.

Christina’s call amounted to one sentence only. Ulf listened to it, said bye and killed the call. Then he looked up and met Yukio’s and Kyoko’s quizzical looks.

I have to tell them. “Guys, we have a problem.”


Despite everything she had promised herself, calling Ulf still made her heart race.

Christina stared at her phone after their minuscule conversation. Well, conversation in as much as a couple of phrases counted as one.

You’re the one with the magic problem solving skills. That thought was a false hope. She knew that, but Ulf really had managed to come through one way or another. Touch and go a few times, and twice he scared the living daylight out of her.

“What do we do now?”

Christina looked over her shoulder. It was Kichirou who had asked the question. “Well, school doesn’t require us students to pick a club.”

“But club activities go into the report,” Fumiko said.

There was that, and Christina moved her gaze from Kichirou to the girl who made their problem clear. “I can’t help you with that. For me, personally, I’ll officially join the go home club.”

“Officially?” Hideo’s voice carried more than a little concern in it.

“Yeah,” Christina said. She downed the last of her coffee. “I don’t have any plans to drop the cultural exchange club. School can’t even take away our club room, because it’s here in the Haven.”

“But Ashiga-san might not want to support us now when we’ve been dissolved.” That was, what was his name again? Seiichi Imai, yes, that was it. One of the last to join before they created 9:1 out of the blue.

Christina looked at James. She already knew what he would say, but the rest of the members didn’t know anything about arrivals and that other world.

“Ashiga-san will continue to support the club,” James said with a dry smile.

Christina nodded at him. Like the rest of them, or at least every club member present, they were all crammed inside the inner room. For the first time it became apparent that their old classroom was in fact a lot larger.

Well, I guess it was bound to happen. And it sure seemed Kareyoshi’s finally had it. Maybe as a result of her taped interview last night. She had given the green light to send him a copy before it aired tonight. Not that he could stop the broadcast. By now a few million people should have heard how Himekaizen was run by a misogynist racist who condoned bullying.

“I’ll stay on as president for another year,” Christina said, but her thoughts were elsewhere. I’ll destroy you!

She even made certain he was properly named. Anything to bait him into dragging her to court for slander. If he did she’d throw in libel for small change as well. By now she had enough dirt on him that if he went public she’d drag him down to hell.

“Don’t you think defying the principal is dangerous?”

“Principal?” Christina said. “Wasn’t it the student council that pulled the plug?” Officially it was, but everyone knew Kareyoshi had the council in a tight leash. I’m starting to understand why you wanted the two of us to run for the council last autumn, Nakagawa. Not doing so turned out an expensive mistake. Well, with her work schedule she’d be unable to do her duties as a council member anyway.

“I’m out,” Saki said.

The Kyoto girl with an ego more overblown than me. Good riddance!

“Me as well,” Sho added.

Both students left the room, and Christina watched the door shut after them.

We’ll lose more of them. They’re afraid. “Anyone else?” she said. Making it into a dare game should keep them from dropping out immediately.

The door opened.

“If it’s unofficial then it’s not affiliated with Himekaizen, is it?”

Christina stared at the girl who had entered. She wore an Irishima High uniform. Ai’s friend?

“No, no I guess it isn’t,” Christina said when the silence became oppressive.

The girl’s face split up in a grin. “Then we’re joining. I heard two spots opened up anyway.”

We?

Another faced peered inside.

Oh! Yeah, Ai’s friend.

“And you would be?”

“Ogawa Nana.”

Jirou grinned and very dramatically opened up a laptop. “Then I’ll add her to the club, president?”

“Eh, yeah, do so,” Christina answered.

Around her the room was stirring with the sound of surprised murmur.

“We, you said ‘we’,” Jirou said, and Christina silently thanked the senior.

“Hasegawa Ai, 4 – 2, Irishima High.”

“Good girl. Class and school and everything,” Jirou said. Irony twinkled in his eyes.

No wonder Sango fell for you, Jirou. You never showed that side before.

“Nana’s my classmate,” Ai said. “For your record I mean.”

Jirou grinned. “Sango would be angry with me it it really was for my record,” he said.

“I didn’t mean it that way, senpai.”

“You do know we only use first names in the club?” Christina broke in. One of the good things Ulf had enforced. Sure, most still added an honorific from time to time, but last names were a distant memory.

“No, but that’s not a problem. We’re not that formal among friends anyway.” This time it was Ai who spoke.

Good to see some of that spunk returning. I hated watching you grow so small after you broke up with Ryu. “But Ryu’s mine, just saying,” Christina said. That test was important. Ai wouldn’t be able to spend time with them if that topic was taboo.

The girl flinched, but not much. “Keep him until I want him back. Then I’ll take him from you,” she returned.

Nice one! “You can try.”

“Was that just a declaration of war?” Hiroyuki wondered.

How do I handle this one? “No, rather...”

“War? Over a boy? Don’t be silly!” Ai interrupted Christina.

It’s all acting, but it’s damned good acting. I respect you. And Christina felt she did. Stupid, why did you let Ryu go? Do you even understand how good for him you were?

“So, club activities?” Nana said and broke the stalemate.

Christina stared at the girl. Yeah, I should have guessed you got that kind of friend. “Walking talking,” she said.

“Sounds fun, what is it?”

Christina answered the question.

Nana paled.


They lost close to a third of their members within two days after Kareyoshi pulled the plug on the club, or rather the student council did. Well, in reality they lost all of them as they were no longer recognised as a school club.

Ryu looked at the people gathered in the café. Around a hundred of them, including journalists. Kuri had just finished off her defamation speech, and for everyone present their principal seemed like a third reich goon. Tomorrow would see a massive media scandal.

Ryu could understand Kuri’s intense hatred of Kareyoshi. He was an arse after all, and somehow he was involved in the assaults on their friends. Yukio, Kyoko and Urufu had all been physically attacked. Kuri as well, even though she was the only one dodging hospital.

This isn’t a club meeting. She turned it into a press conference.

The worst part was that none of those sent to hospital was there. That had to be Urufu’s fault. Yukio was his best friend, and together they pushed Kyoko into a corner where she had to chose between her best friend and her boyfriend. The result was a given.

That hurt. Ryu could see in Kuri’s eyes how much that hurt. He felt it himself, because more often than not, Noriko was absent as well. It was as if Urufu wanted to tell him and Kuri that if they became a couple, then that would be at the cost of their friends.

Damned dirty way of fighting. But Urufu always played dirty, and he wasn’t even ashamed of it. Efficient, he called it. Dad, is this the way you solve things as well?

Ten members lost, four new gained. Six if you counted Tomasu and Jeniferu. Apart from their two Irishima High newcomers there was a freshman and one junior, both previously from Red Rose Hell. There was a list as well, the red list.

“These are the applications from students Kareyoshi paid others to bully,” Kuri said, and she got the expected shouts of outrage.

Kuri, you’re a wonder, but I don’t think you understand just how deeply rooted our antagonism towards Koreans and Chinese are. The uproar would blow over. What happened to non white foreigners wasn’t news at all. As long as the harassed students were non Japanese Asians a lot of the parents would silently applaud the actions.

Then again, with Kuri going up in flames, well you never knew. Urufu once said he might be ruthless, but that Kuri was the dangerous one.

While Kuri continued to pour petrol on the flames Ryu contemplated why he wasn’t more disturbed by Urufu keeping his distance, than he was. Maybe because Urufu was just as much the condescending arrogant arse that he accused Japanese people to be.

With a smirk Ryu amended that thought. Urufu got his daughter killed in Sweden, but that wasn’t the work of some right wing loonies like the insane assaults on Urufu, Yukio and Kyoko.

I’m pretty sure you have your share of the idiots in Sweden as well, Ryu thought. You were just to old to notice it.

In the centre of the café Kuri finished her thinly disguised speech.

Ryu looked at Jirou, who grinned and tapped on his keyboard. They must have gained yet another one or two members. From Irishima High or Himekaizen Ryu didn’t know.

Maybe we won’t lose overall in the end anyway.

Ryu rose from his chair and joined Kuri. He’d promised to show how they belonged together whenever he got a chance, but this time he also represented their club, even though it was an unofficial one.

“Two new members? Superb! There are clubs with just two members,” he said and flashed his best smile. That bought them another member. “Don’t be shy. We’d like more members from Irishima High, for balance I say.” Ryu kept his smile glued to his face. The effort got them yet another.

“Two cute girls from Irishima High,” Kuri said and laughed. “No male takers?” Her voice rang like bells in the café.

You know, that’s outright unfair.

Unsurprisingly she hooked two boys. Freshmen both.

And it was unfair. Kuri and him working in tandem was a behemoth when it came to recruiting. It worked just as well this year as it had done a year ago.

But it wasn’t fully a year ago, was it? Urufu’s brainchild. Dammit, Urufu, you’re usually so full of yourself, so where the hell are you now?

Jirou shook his head and added the new members. Now, even if another half a dozen left the club, they’d have the numbers needed to continue their activities.

Which mean Urufu was absolutely vital, Ryu noted. Urufu embodied their walking talking sessions. Without the ingenious problems he posited they were worthless.

Ryu saw how Kuri suddenly grabbed her phone. One moment she was happily chatting with their latest members and giving bland answers to what had to be journalists, the next she stared at her phone with a predatory smile in her face.

“Seems he’s not abandoned us,” she said. Her voice broke a little, and the subtle tone of sadness took some of the edge away from her cynical comment. “Ryu, get the tablets. We got some documents from Ulf.

I can organise the walk as long as the material is here. “Yeah, I’ll do that,” Ryu said, and his mood rose several degrees. It didn’t matter that Urufu was an arse. As long as he delivered he wasn’t a total arse.

A hand landed on Ryu’s shoulder. Slender fingers digging in and a moment’s caress. “I miss him as well,” Kuri said, “But you’re my boyfriend now, so please bear with him, will you?”

That was one hell of a way to declare both your love as well as your loyalty. Ryu wasn’t certain he liked it all that much, but Kuri just said that she wouldn’t cheat on him. Guess she can’t forget she got cheated on herself when she was young. The first time.

“Sure,” Ryu promised.

A few minutes later he was back from the inner room with an armful of tablets. “Guys, it’s walking talking time!”


Noriko walked a few steps ahead of Urufu and Yukio. In the middle, torn between love and friendship, Kyoko hung as if she was strung up on a rubber band running from the boys to Noriko.

If it had been Kuri you wouldn’t have a problem, Noriko thought. Then she regretted it. That bitterness was unbecoming, and Kyoko had done nothing to deserve it. Noriko silently apologised to her friend in her mind.

What happened? Noriko listened to the boys bantering behind her, or rather the man and the boy. In one year I made the best friends of my life, but it feels like we’re breaking apart. The question remained. What happened?

“Noriko, wait for me!”

So you finally solved that puzzle. “Oh, sorry,” Noriko said. She wasn’t, and she wasn’t above teasing Kyoko a little. However, she did wait. When her world broke down both Kyoko and Kuri were there caring for her. Kyoko still was.

When Kyoko caught up to her Noriko had slowed down enough for the boys to overtake them.

“How are you?”

“Huh?”

“I don’t see you smiling much.”

Maybe that was true. Thinking of Nao hurt, and not thinking of him at all was impossible. Noriko clenched her fists and nodded. “Haven’t seen much to make me smile.”

“Oh come on!”

Noriko felt a hand grabbing her blazer and turned. Staring at Kyoko’s cardigan she couldn’t but help look at the bust filling it out. Maybe if I had more of those Nao wouldn’t…

“They hurt, and they’re not the reason Yukio wants me.” Then Kyoko’s face flared red. “Not the only reason. I mean… oh shut it!”

Oh! I forgot. “You and Yukio. At that resort.”

“Yes, and we told you already.”

“He saw you?”

Noriko received a glare in return. It would have been scarier if Kyoko’s face hadn’t been beet red.

“Of course he did!”

And impossibly enough Kyoko’s face reddened even more.

“Hey, girls, what are you...”

“Don’t look!”

“Don’t look!”

Noriko glanced at Kyoko who had shouted the same demand as her, and they laughed together.

“Why can’t...”

“Yukio, straight forward.” Urufu’s voice. “No looking. You heard them.” This time it came out strangely muted.

Noriko swore she could hear Urufu stifling a laughter, and the only reason she didn’t see his shoulders shaking must be that oversized blazer of his.

He goes on about how lightweight he is, but here he’s solid. Noriko caught herself staring at Urufu’s back. I watched it when he saved me. And with that thought came the memories of the assault and her crush on the troublesome foreigner with the funny hairdo.

They closed in on the Haven, and Noriko spent some time walking down memory lane. How she had fallen in love once again with the boy who saved her; this time not even knowing it was the same guy, and how she eventually had to give him up, because there was nothing coming between the fiery love burning between him and Kuri.

An arm hugged her closer and Noriko knew Kyoko understood what was going on in her head. Thank you. Kuri might be your best friend, but you’re my best friend.

As they drew closer to the entrance Noriko’s memories chaotically surged around in her head. Nao chasing her, and her rejections of him. Should I have kept rejecting him. I wouldn’t hurt like this if I had. But she wouldn’t have experienced that love neither.

I promised myself I’d never regret what I did.

With some of her self confidence restored she raised her head, tears be damned, and smiled. Her cheeks were a little salty when she licked her lips.

“Noriko, how are you?”

Noriko grinned. “Fine.” And strangely enough she was. Remembering how much she had been in love with someone else than Nao made her feel fine. In a way it was like cheating a little on Nao, two timing him in her head if nothing else. Thank you for being there Urufu.

As if she had called out to him he turned and looked at her. She got the strangest of smiles from him. Nothing like the wolfish grin she had wanted for herself. Sadder, and a lot lonelier.

I forgot you’re hurting as well, but you idiot! You did that to yourself.

Then they were at the door, and Yukio pushed it open. Kyoko left Noriko’s side and rushed to her boyfriend.

Noriko brushed her eyes with the back of her hand just as the doorbell jingled. Good thing I don’t waste my time with make-up. It would have been ruined by now.

She pinched her cheeks to give them some colour and went inside.

It was time for Urufu’s show. Noriko wasn’t sure she liked it much, but when it came to understanding what made an organisation tick she trusted him over anyone else, even over her own father.

Mom maybe could match you, but I don’t think so. Noriko sent a silent apology to her mom.

“Look who’s here!”

“The absent heroes!”

“Your benign lord has arrived to grace his subjects,” Urufu shouted.

So you had this side to you as well? Noriko shot him a surprised stare. You really meant what you said about idiot bro being the prince and you the king.

She hardly listened to the jeers. An Urufu she had never seen before drew all of her attention.

You’re not supposed to do that!

He climbed a table, with his shoes on and all, and clapped his hands over his head.

As if you needed to be any taller in the first place!

“My loyal subjects, listen to you king. Heed his call!”

From the corner of her eyes Noriko saw students exiting the inner room, Kuri among them. She threw Urufu a long, longing glance before she stared at her feet. Behind her idiot bro arrived, one hand possessively grabbing Kuri’s hand.

Ryu, you’re outmatched. I’ve never before seen anyone shine more brightly than you.

“Watch my loyal lieutenants. First among equals,” Urufu called out. “When we’re all gathered like this, what do we do?”

Some of the jeering died down.

“What do we do?”

Are you going to lose it now?

“You don’t know?”

He had their entire attention now. For a few more seconds, if even that.

“Then how lucky you are, because your king does!”

Urufu clapped twice. Yukio dropped his backpack on the table between Urufu’s feet.

“Bring out the goods, my good man!”

“As you command, my liege.”

Damn you. You prepared it!

“Remember your number! Over there! One.” Urufu pointed at Hitomi-chan. “Two, three, four, five, six, and, one, two...”

Kyoko, I envy you. You made the better choice.

“And now, my people, we start this year’s first real walking talking session. Yukio, Kyoko, assignments. Noriko, backup. Ryu and Kuri, trim the teams. Jirou, you help our freshmen. Ai, you handle the Irishima crew.”

They’re spellbound. Urufu, you bastard! But she couldn’t help staring at him in admiration, and Noriko, for the first time, understood fully what had once made her fall in love with Urufu. It had been there all the time, but he had hidden it so well.


What the hell? First real walking talking session this year. You arse!

But no matter how much Ryu grumbled he just couldn’t compare what they were doing now to his own attempt just days earlier.

It didn’t help that sis ran Urufu’s errands with a brightness in her eyes that hadn’t been there since Nao cheated on her.

And Nao, you coward, you’ve not shown your face since.

Which technically wasn’t true. His face had shown up more than once. Usually together with Kuri’s, on ads on billboards, television, the Internet and magazines. His fame grew, backlit as it was by Kuri who had stayed the sensation for half a year now.

“Kuri,” Ryu started and glanced at his sister.

As every time before Kuri just shook her head. She grabbed his hand and leaned closer. “I’ll be there whenever she wants a shoulder to cry on, but I’m not interfering directly with Nao.”

“But they should at least talk, or let me punch his face.”

Kuri smirked and tightened her grip. Her hand was smooth and warm, just about perfect like anything else on her body.

Damn, she’s not listening. Ryu flashed his most winning smile at one of the new members from Irishima High, and got the predictable result in return, plus a small bonus. The girl threw Kuri an uncertain smile.

Ryu looked at his girlfriend just to find out what kind of predatory grin she had served the poor girl, but there was none, just an amused and welcoming smile. OK, that one didn’t work. Let’s push her some more.

“What was your name, again?” he asked the girl.

“Ryu, really! It’s Chiyo. She’s so cute so you really should remember her name!” Kuri said in mock exasperation and let out a bubbling laughter. It came to an abrupt stop, and Ryu felt her flinch.

Now what? Oh, of course.

That bell like laughter had rung farther than she planned. Further ahead of them Ryu saw Urufu turn, mesmerised by the sound.

Well, you’re an arse, so why don’t you just hurt a little bit more! Ryu tugged Kuri closer, and for the first time since they agreed on her boyfriend girlfriend deal she tried to pull away.

Crap, I didn’t mean for you to hurt as well.

The thought barely registered when Ryu saw his sister beelining for Urufu. Some problem or another she hadn’t been able to help a team solve, Ryu guessed. Just as she reached her target she threw him and Kuri a measuring look. It quickly turned into an angry stare.

What’s she up to?

Noriko nestled in all the way under Urufu’s arm, and Ryu saw him give her a surprised glance while at the same time typing out some outline on a touch-pad.

“Is it really that cold?” Kuri’s voice said.

Both Ryu and Chiyo looked at the show playing out around Urufu. Whatever Noriko had planned, it worked in a way. Urufu’s face no longer displayed pain, but instead it showed discomfort with Noriko’s closeness.

“Uh, I think I’ll join Ai-chan,” Chiyo said and made herself scarce.

Ryu followed her back with his eyes until she reached his ex. Damn, goes both ways, I guess, he thought when the familiar lump built in his throat. He wasn’t anywhere near over his former girlfriend. Why did I agree to this stupid set-up in the first place? Ah, yes, Vogue would have forced another boyfriend on her otherwise.

Was that even legal? Ryu doubted it, but then there were a lot of things that weren’t strictly legal, and showbiz, in any of its forms, was infamous for being hard on the girls. Slave contracts his father once explained, and Ryu wondered how he knew. There never was an answer.

“Ryu. Ryu! Idiot bro!”

Ryu shook his head and stared at the apparition facing him. “Yes?” he said somewhat belatedly.

“Don’t yes me,” his sister said. “Urufu needs the two of you to handle the next station,” she continued and glanced at Kuri.

You really don’t like to see Kuri and me together. Hell, I probably wouldn’t if I were you. “Sure,” he drawled and pretended he disliked being disturbed by his sister.

“You,” Noriko said and pointed a finger at Kuri, “had better shape up or I’ll take him from you.”

“Huh?” Kuri said.

“Even if just for comfort, I’ll take him from you, so get your shit in order and make up with him.”

“Language!” Ryu protested.

“Shove it, idiot bro! Fix that station and leave Kuri to me.” Noriko growled at him, and for a moment Ryu played with the thought of disobeying her. “You want to see if I’ve mellowed the last year?” Noriko threatened him.

Ryu caved in and made ready to help out with the next station. After he let go he started walking a bit brisker, but he only got a few steps ahead of the girls before he heard his sister again.

“Kuri, you can ask Ryu about me. Whenever I really put my mind to something things end up the way I planned.”

“What is this? A declaration of war?” And that was Kuri’s voice. It had an edge to it Ryu hadn’t heard for a while.

“Kuri, just trust me on this. If you don’t make up with Urufu in a week I’ll make sure he never as much as looks your way again. Your call.” With those words Noriko caught up with him and sprinted ahead of him all the way to where Urufu lounged by a stone wall and helped one team with a problem.

This is bad, Ryu thought. Really, really, really bad. Sis is scary whenever she gets that way. She hadn’t, for two years now. That attempted rape scared her from acting too rashly. In a way Ryu felt happy that side of her had been restored. Still bad. She got that part from mom, and dad always backs down whenever she’s in that mood.

Ryu glanced at his girlfriend. Do you have any idea how scary sis can get? he thought when Kuri returned a quizzical look.


The solution to her problem surprised her. Playing rival to Kuri would help her get over Nao quicker. Besides, Urufu needed a distraction, or he’d just keep on moping over Kuri. And it wasn’t as if she was offering her body to him. She’d just kind of make it look that way. At least to Kuri.

Idiot! Moron! You love him so much your eyes water over every time you see him feel bad, and you’re the very reason he feels bad in the first place. The epic stupidity of the two adults stunned her. Noriko couldn’t understand what made people go to such lengths hurting themselves and each other despite being in love.

Anyway, it would be kind of fun teasing her brother. If he wanted to play Kuri’s boyfriend, then he could watch his sister cling to Urufu like a lovesick puppy.

Only one problem. Noriko needed to gather up the guts to do any clinging to begin with. Nestling under Urufu’s arm a bit earlier nearly drained her of all her bravery.

She was still a little awkward around him. Hers had been a major crush after all, two times over, and she did confess rather publicly. Even though she no longer harboured any feelings for him, or at least not any strong ones, she once had.

I hope she understands I’m doing this for her sake. But Noriko knew she might very well earn herself a broken friendship in return.

We’re falling apart. The thought scared her. What could she do to keep her friends? Would it go so far that she was forced to choose between them? I refuse to do that. Even if they can’t stand each other every one of them is equally my friend.

“What is it?”

Noriko looked up and bit her lower lip. “Nothing Urufu,” she lied.

He frowned and gave her a quizzical stare.

Noriko shrugged, threw a glance in Kuri’s direction and hoped Urufu didn’t notice.

He did. “If you’re planning something funny, just don’t. I don’t need your help to patch us up again.”

Noriko grimaced and met his eyes. Damn, he’s still far more perceptive than an average kid. Guess that comes with experience. “What do you mean with patching up?”

Urufu responded by patting her head. A thoroughly condescending gesture she hated, but he bore her no ill will. Had she known why he did it last year she’d jumped with joy. Anything cute needed patting according to him, and a year ago she’d do just about anything to be considered cute in his eyes – which she already was, as she learned later.

But cute was never the same as loved, she thought sourly. Oh, get over it! When he found out Kuri was his age I never stood a chance. Noriko faced him squarely and grinned. “As in act as a go between?”

Urufu turned to help a team leader who had arrived with his touch-pad. A few sentences later the problem had gone away. Then he turned back again. “Yes, that would be exactly what I don’t want you to try,” Urufu said.

“Don’t worry,” she answered, and grinned even more widely. “Just about the last on my mind.” Urufu’s nonplussed expression made her laugh, and all her nervousness went away. “Look,” she said, and hugged his arm. No matter how small her breasts were he had to feel them through their clothes. “Trust me, I’m not doing that.”

For the first time he blushed because of something she had deliberately done to him.

Yes! Victory! she thought. It had nothing to do with Kuri, just that she for once managed to get the upper hand on him.

“You know...” Urufu scratched his head. “Eh, Noriko, I promised not to treat you as a child, but you know...” He made an attempt to get out of her grip, but Noriko just squeezed harder. “Noriko, well...”

“Yes?” she said and pressed his arms even harder against her chest. “You were saying?”

“Noriko, people are watching!” But he made no attempt to free himself.

“Watching? Heartbroken little me getting support from my friend?”

The gaze he gave her made her heart jolt. “More like guessing your bra-size,” he said. “Look, Noriko, I’m bad rebound material, OK?”

A little further away Kuri stared at them. Noriko noted how her eyes widened and her mouth twisted in disapproval. Do something if you dislike it!

This was fun, and as far as Noriko knew it really couldn’t backfire any worse than Kuri getting really angry with her, and making Kuri angry would be a victory in itself. She was one of Noriko’s two best friends, and an angry Kuri was a Kuri who showed feelings rather than the ice-queen who had attended school ever since she broke down after dumping the man she loved more than anything else.

A joke, nothing more.

Then Urufu’s arm twisted when another team wanted his help.

The stares she received from the girl who approached Urufu could as well have been daggers, but that mattered little. What did matter was that when Urufu turned Noriko got dragged closer to him, and then his arm moved across her chest, and a sensation of pleasure spread through her body faster than she had imagined possible.

Noriko jumped, but this time her grip on his arm trapped her instead.

She met Kuri’s gaze, and this time it wasn’t filled with disapproval. Kuri’s eyes quickly moved away and searched a head above.

What? She’s staring at Urufu?

Then Noriko, for the first time, knew what jealousy and hate looked like.

Shit!

This was more than she had bargained for. While she watched Kuri stare at Urufu with open wrath in her face Noriko experienced a surge of sensations. No way! I’m not! But she was. When she clung tighter to Urufu this time it was no longer a joke. Feelings she hadn’t felt since early autumn welled up unbidden.

No no no no! But there was no denying it. She had fallen in love with him twice before. Denying what she felt was like refusing to believe she got wet when it rained.

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