Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Chapter six (segment six), 2016, November, Yukio

It wasn't that he disliked being part of a dirty game, but he definitely disliked being partially kept unaware of what was happening.

At least that was what he had thought.

Half an hour after Urufu arrived together with Kuri Principal Nakagawa joined them accompanied by a man in his sixties Yukio had never seen before. They more or less forced the club members to end their meeting in the inner room and after that the six of them sat down around the large table.

This is for you,” Principal Nakagawa said and placed four documents on the table.

Yukio looked at the one given to him. It was a written permit signed by the principal to stay here far beyond any reasonable curfew. He looked up at the principal asking a silent question.

I need you here, or let me rephrase that, we need you here,” Nakagawa said and nodded at his companion.

My name is Noguchi Satoru, and I'm the vice principal of Irishima high. At this moment our principal and the vice principal of Himekaizen have a similar meeting with Hasegawa Ai, Takado Nao and the Wakayama twins from your school.”

Yukio nodded numbly at the unexpected information. What's going on? he wondered.

Hamarugen-san, do you recall a conversation we had here this spring?” Principal Nakagawa asked.

Urufu blinked at the surprisingly polite words, and Yukio threw Vice Principal Noguchi a look to find out how he would react. There was none.

Flipping open a laptop Urufu grimaced and looked back at their principal. “What part of it?”

Principal Nakagawa responded with a surprisingly youthful grin. “Good boy.” Then he turned all serious again. “The part about a population deficiency of epic proportions,” he continued.

Yukio shook his head. He had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, and across the table he could see Kuri frown as well. At the moment he wished Kyoko was here, but she still had close to half an hour's worth of work to do, but looking at the fourth permit Yukio understood that she would be called here as well when she was done.

Please go on, I'm listening,” Urufu said.

Mind if I smoke?” Noguchi-sensei broke in.

Glancing at the ashtray on the table Yukio knew it was a rhetorical question, but it was the kind of polite courtesy an adult extended to another adult. Which meant Irishima high's vice principal knew something very few people did.

Not at all,” Urufu answered, and Yukio could feel a thin string of tension stretching across the room.

Would you like one?”

Principal Nakagawa frowned disapprovingly at the offer and stared at his Irishima high counterpart.

I think I'll decline,” Urufu said. “It's illegal now both in Sweden and here. I mean for a minor like me.” He glared at Noguchi-sensei. “Besides I needed extraordinary measures to break an almost forty year old bad habit, so I think it would be a pity to take it up again. Wouldn't you agree?”

Yukio could hear his own sharp intake of breath. It didn't matter that he already suspected that Noguchi-sensei was in he know. Hearing it stated so clearly still surprised him.

Noguchi-san, don't you think this is enough?” Principal Nakagawa asked when the silence threatened to become oppressive.

I just had to know. Or rather I've known for some time, but I still didn't believe it.”

Gentlemen, population deficiency it was, not my smoking,” Urufu said, and Yukio sent him a grateful thought for bringing the conversation back on topic.

Mister Hamarugen,” Noguchi-sensei started in a strange, jilted western way, “there is a fast way to expand when the market is shrinking.”

Urufu looked back over his laptop screen. “Market! If you think your students are your customers you're sadly mistaken.”

What else would they be,” Noguchi-sensei said, and for the first time he looked surprised when he stared at Urufu.

With the usual clattering Urufu hammered down something on his keyboard before answering.

Products, we're your products. If you're unable to make that distinction you shouldn't dabble in education.”

Look young mister, Irishima high has a good...”

Irishima high is secondary education. I'm not young and I ran tertiary education for a living. Don't give me that crap!”

Tertiary? Nakagawa-san, didn't you say he was some kind of IT-management?”

Principal Nakagawa smirked, and then he smiled. “I did. His own business, and it seems it branched out.” With a twist of his head Nakagawa-sensei looked at Urufu. “Tertiary education?”

Think of it as a private university. It wasn't really, but it's the simplest way to describe it. Nothing big. Say some five hundred students all in all.”

A surprisingly throaty laughter welled up from Nakagawa-sensei. “So when you said you had some ideas for your club you were basing them on experience.”

Urufu nodded. “Not all, but most of it. The club is my class.”

Should have known. It showed during the midterms by the way.”

Good for us. Population deficiency!” Kuri shot in from her chair when the conversation meandered away yet again.

This time it was Nakagawa-sensei who opened up a laptop. Yukio could see how he was unused to it, or rather handled it the way Yukio once took for granted before he met Urufu and Kuri. Now he, just like most club-members, were more proficient with this kind of electronic devices than they would have dreamed possible half a year earlier.

If we help you tear down Red Rose Academy's financial foundation there are still a few hundred students who would need a school.”

Urufu nodded. “What about their middle school?”

There is sufficient capacity within walking distance from Red Rose Academy. Among other your middle school,” Noguchi-sensei said and motioned a hand in Kuri's direction. “As for us we're only interested in the high school students.”

Urufu grinned. “Fine, let's talk business,” he said, and Yukio noted how he shared a hungry expression with Kuri, almost like two vultures waiting for a feast.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Chapter six (segment five), 2016, November, Kyoko

A few days earlier Kyoko turned on her heals when she saw Nao walk in on his girlfriend chatting with Ryu and Ai-chan. Or rather Kyoko turned because he walked in on the two girls chatting with each other while Ryu pretended to laze around.

She hadn't been far away enough to entirely avoid catching up on the topic which was the real reason she decided not to join. Besides Noriko wanted some time alone with Nao-sempai, and five of them would be even worse than four.

Now Kyoko turned on her heals when she walked in on Urufu and Kuri-chan quarrelling. It wasn't the first time the pair were involved in verbal fencing, but something in Urufu's voice betrayed an anger stronger than Kyoko had experienced before. Even though both of them spoke in Swedish it was clear to Kyoko that whatever they disagreed about had turned vitriolic some time ago.

She almost made it down the stairs before the heated discussion degenerated into fully fledged shouting, and Kyoko ran the last steps down before she was seen by any teacher arriving to defuse a possible fistfight.

With a heavy lump in her stomach Kyoko tapped her phone alive and stared at the photo delivered to her by an unknown sender. It showed Kuri-chan in a revealing dress outside what had to be some kind of nightclub. Even though the photo was shot in a cityscape and didn't reveal what time of year it was taken Kyoko knew enough to realise it had been shot last spring. Last spring when Kuri-chan still worked as a hostess.

Kyoko flipped away the photo and dialled Yukio. Right now she needed someone to share her worries with. Someone she could trust fully to stay by her side.

They met at Stockholm Haven café and when Kyoko entered Yukio already sat by a table in a corner. From the inner room she heard voices telling her a number of club-members had gathered after one of the spontaneous walking talking sessions that had become more and more common during Urufu's hospitalisation.

The main café was filled with the usual crowd of Himekaizen students generously sprinkled by Irishima high uniforms, but today for the first time Kyoko saw the red blazers signalling Red Rose Academy there as well.

The red and green of Red Rose stood out against the black gakuran and navy blue sailor uniforms from Irishima high. In contrast the muted, almost yellow, beige on black trousers from Himekaizen looked drab. Still, it was their café. Urufu had found it for them long before it became a popular hangout among the students.

Kyoko waved to Yukio, slipped inside the counter and into the narrow kitchen area. There she quickly changed into her work clothes before re-entering the café.

Working part time here didn't pay as well as Urufu's stunts, but she got a lot more hours here. Sometimes Noriko did hours here as well. Not because of any need but to get the experience she said. Yukio and Ryu helped out as well evenings that were especially busy.

Kyoko high fived the waitress, a university students who worked full hours Saturdays and Sundays, on her way out and started taking orders. James did all the work on the inside of the counter while Kyoko delivered orders to the tables and kept them clean of dishes.

She saw Yukio catching up on some of the items for tomorrow's full scale waling talking session while at the same time running a low voiced conversation over Skype with someone from their sister club in Sweden.

There was barely time to sneak over to his table from time to time to share a brief moment of hands touching or to playfully caress his hair when she hoped no-one saw. Well, James did from his position behind the counter, but he didn't seem to care as long as she kept up with her work. He smirked and rolled his eyes dramatically, but Kyoko knew it was all for show.

A couple of hours after she arrived the café entered an evening lull and Kyoko got James' permission to share Yukio's table for a short time. She showed him the photo and explained the circumstances.

Yukio put his tables aside and gave the photo a cursory look before he stared at her. Seeing Kuri-chan in scant clothing wasn't anything new for any of them. They had even been invited to a studio shoot earlier this autumn.

Why do you have it?” Yukio asked.

Someone sent it to me. I've never seen the email address.”

Yukio palmed his face and sighed. “Wrong question, sorry. Why do you have it. Why wasn't it sent to Kuri?”

Maybe it was, but Kyoko didn't know. The moment she decided not to intrude on Kuri-chan's and Urufu's fight was also the moment when she lost her chance to ask exactly that question.

I don't know,” Kyoko admitted. She swallowed a mouthful of lukewarm tea while the thought about Yukio's question. Why had anyone bothered with sending her that photo. A warning? A threat? It didn't make any sense.

OK, the important thing right now is that someone has a photo of Kuri that could be bad for her.”

Bad. She could be expelled,” Kyoko said.

Unless they can prove it was her job I don't think so. Besides Principal Nakagawa is on our side.”

What do you think will happen if this blows up?”

Yukio screwed together his face until it was wrinkled like an overripe fruit. Then he sucked in some air and sighed again. “Don't know. Suspension for breaking curfew maybe. I honestly don't know.”

Think we should tell them to stop spreading the rumours?”

Even though Kyoko was the one asking that question she suspected she knew part of the answer. Kuri-chan was her most important friend, but that also made her more aware of Kuri-chan's shortcomings, fifty years old or sixteen didn't matter when it came to those. Kuri-chan suffered from an overblown self-confidence, and since she started modelling again Kyoko had seen shadows of a personality she didn't care all that much for. There was something vengeful about Kuri-chan, an ugly resentfulness that made her keep jabbing at an opponent until she got a killing blow.

Yukio rose from his chair and went for the counter. “Why don't you ask her?” he said and waved at the door through which Kuri-chan and Urufu entered.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Chapter six (segment four), 2016, November, Noriko

Noriko grimaced when she saw her brother hand in hand with Ai-chan. Not that she had anything against her brother's choice of girlfriend; on the contrary. For the first time he got serious with anyone, and on top of that he chose someone with her head firmly screwed on to her body. That was a good thing in Noriko's book.

The reason she grimaced was far simpler. The pair came walking towards her, which meant they'd stop and chat and ask her what she was doing, and that in turn made it unlikely she'd be able to spend time alone with Nao.

Sis, over here!”

Noriko looked at her shoes and smirked. Then she plastered a false smile over her face and looked up again.

Idiot bro, what do you want?”

There was a distinction between what words she used and her expression. While she often thought of him as her idiot bro she never really disliked him. Abhorred him, hated him and felt disgusted by him, sure, but not dislike. When you grew up as tight as they had done you learned to be honest, and Noriko honestly saw that her brother was growing into a good man. An idiot, self-centred and much too playful man, but a good one nonetheless.

He must have seen something in her face, because a shadow of worry ran over his eyes when he glared back. Then he got a hold of himself and put up a show of ignorance.

Sis isn't cute like you,” Ryu said to Ai-chan, but Noriko felt how the words rather were directed at her.

She's a lot cuter than you. We both are,” Ai-chan responded and gave Noriko a toothy smile.

Good girl! As long as you don't behave like a puppy he'll stay interested. Noriko shook her head and shot Ryu's girlfriend an approving grin. That's girl conspiracy for you. Chew on that idiot bro!

Ryu, there's...”

Noriko-chan, there's...”

Both girls went silent and looked at each other. In the end Noriko nodded at Ai-chan to continue.

We're… I'm helping Ryu with your fight.”

You're helping us with what? Oh. Oh! “Ai-chan, are you certain that you want to get involved?”

Rather than give her an answer Ai-chan grabbed Noriko's arm and pulled her aside.

He already got Irishima high involved, and my friends probably know we're dating by now.”

What's that got to do with anything? “I don't understand,” Noriko said. She glanced at where her brother stood a bit away. He leaned lazily against a wall and made a show not to disturb the privacy of the two of them.

Your brother isn't exactly subtle, so people already know he's behind those rumours.”

Alarm flared throughout her and Noriko grabbed Ai-chan's hands. “That's not true! Ryu isn't the one who started them. He's just helping out.”

In return Noriko got a sad smile. “I know that. Ryu told me as much, but he's kinda famous and my friends at school believes he's the one. Besides they only know of that Ageruman model from your school.”

They would at that I guess. Of course they'd know about Kuri. Her face is all over Tokyo now. A flash of suspicion sprung up in Noriko's mind. “Kuri, ah, Ageruman-san dates another boy at school, so you don't have to worry.”
Kuri desperately tries to mark her territory when it comes to Urufu, but you don't need to know that. The mere thought that someone like Kuri could be afraid that her boyfriend would be taken away from her was ludicrous. Especially if you knew Urufu and how loyal he was. It made Noriko a little angry on Urufu's behalf, but he wasn't her matter to worry about any longer, if he had ever been.

Allowing her thoughts to run their course Noriko turned her attention back to Ryu's girlfriend. The relief written in her face was almost comical to watch.

I'm not worried,” Ai-chan said.

Noriko decided to let the lie slip. “Good,” she said instead. “Now, about helping us, what are you talking about?”

Well,” Ai-chan began, “not to speak badly about Himekaizen, but Irishima high has a pretty good reputation. We're spreading the rumours to friends in other schools as well.”


Including Red Rose.”

You idiots! “That could be dangerous,” Noriko blurted out.

Ai-chan took a few moments to make sure no pedestrians were close enough to overhear them. “You mean an assault like the one at your school? Don't worry. There are a lot of powerful parents with connections to Irishima high.”
You mean there are a lot of rich kids at your school rather than the poor sods at Himekaizen? “That was unexpectedly blunt, coming from you.” Despite her words Noriko felt her opinion of Ai-chan had just risen a few notches.

That's exactly as blunt as expected from me,” Ai-chan answered and rose another one.

Noriko followed Ai-chan's example and waited for a sudden crowding around them to disperse. “Why are you telling me this now?”

Because I want you to pipe down,” came the brutal reply.

What? “You know we really need the momentum to keep up.”

Sure, but if you leave it to me for a while it'll look like the source of the rumours changed.”

Yeah, she sure has her head screwed on right. Ryu, you got yourself a first class girlfriend in her. “I can't control Kuri,” Noriko said.


Eh, Ageruman-san, the model. She's a force of nature to begin with, and it was her boyfriend who got assaulted.”

Her boyfriend? So it was all a vengeance trip?”

Noriko gave the question a few seconds of thought. She needed to give Ai-chan an almost truth as an answer.

No, it began with some girls being sexually assaulted at Red Rose. The rumours are true.”

Really? How would you know?”

Maybe more than an almost truth was needed after all. “I was one of those girls.”

Friday, 11 March 2016

Chapter six (segment three), 2016, November, Ryu

When he opened his school bag Ryu found the planner still inside. At first he smirked, but it quickly grew into a smile. He wondered if Urufu had used something like it earlier in his life. Fifty, he's over fifty. Did they have laptops thirty years ago? Ryu didn't know, but he decided Urufu probably had been dependent on pen and paper to do his planning early on.

You're silent.”

Ai-chan's voice made Ryu look up from his bag. She was cute and was likely to be a real beauty a few years down the line. But it wasn't her looks that caught his interest. Not that looks didn't matter. For him they definitely did, but having grown up with Noriko he doubted he could ever settle for someone docile.

I thought if I'm silent like now and you talk like you usually do then on average we'll be, well, average.”

The insult earned him a fist and a glare. Neither were entirely playful, but nor were they in earnest.

You mean if you continue to make an effort to look good you don't have the mental resources to speak at the same time?”

Guess I deserved that one. “You're the one who ordered me to look good,” Ryu said. “My poor mind can't grasp why.”

Ai-chan grabbed his ears in her hands and pulled his face to hers and gave him an almost kiss. Only their noses touched.

I haven't told my friends about you, even if they suspect by now, and you need the goukons I arrange to spread those rumours of yours.”

So you noticed, didn't you? But he didn't really care. As long as Ai-chan was the only one who understood what he was playing at he felt safe. While he didn't know her all that well yet he still didn't believe she was the kind who'd betray him unless he gave her reasons to. Those reasons being two-timing her or dumping her, which could have been a concern hadn't he been truly interested in her.

Why this place?” Ryu asked to change the subject.

Ai-chan sat down on a stool by the windows and looked out. Behind them the clerk answered questions about prices from another group of teenagers, and Ryu waited for them to vanish inside the building before he joined his girlfriend.

Didn't you recognise their uniforms?”

Ryu shook his head. Apart from a few extreme elite schools he only knew the uniforms from Himekaizen and Irishima.

Sheesh!” Ai-chan sighed and palmed her face in an exaggerated expression of despair. “Why do I even try? You want to sink Red Rose Academy, and you don't even know their uniforms?”

Crap! I guess I should have known better. There had been something tugging at his mind, but since the cultural festival occurred early October just about every school switched from summer to winter uniforms just days earlier. There simply was no way to get used to the winter uniforms from other schools in so few days.

Ryu looked at Ai-chan and took her hands in his. “Sorry. I usually only see the Irishima high and Himekaizen uniforms on my train,” Ryu said. That wasn't entirely true, but the other uniforms belonged to schools too far away to be anything but reminders that some students covered indecent distances when commuting to and from school. To and from some of those elite schools he knew about.

You know, I don't have any friends from Red Rose, but...”

The tension in Ai-chan's hands grew, and Ryu could feel her fingers squeezing his. She's doing this for me, but she's unhappy about it.

Yes?” he said.

He kept is gaze on her eyes in an attempt to make her look at him, but she continued staring at their hands and played with his fingers.

It doesn't seem right,” Ai-chan said after a while. Suddenly she looked up, but she still averted her eyes and pretended to watch the passersby on the street outside. “Someone did something awful to you. I can understand that, but why would you go after the entire school?”

She's in love with me, and she's hurting herself for my sake. Ryu lifted her hands and kissed the fingertips. “It's not that easy,” he said and joined in her pretence of watching people strolling down the pavement.

Make me understand. Please!”

There were teachers involved, and even if we can't prove it I know the principal looked the other way.”

Her gasp told him she wanted to believe, but that what he had just said sounded just too fantastic to be true.

My friend, Urufu, has some pictures,” Ryu continued. “They wouldn't mean anything to you, but for all real victims they're all the proof we need.” Because you wouldn't believe they sent a goon to attack Kuri last term, and they attacked Urufu during the festival.

Ryu still wasn't entirely certain that last attack was sanctioned by Red Rose. It stank of pure revenge, and the sheer idiocy of assaulting someone when you were dressed in your school uniform more or less invalidated the idea of a conspiracy.

I appreciate what you're doing for me,” he said, “but don't do anything dangerous. This is our fight.”

Ai-chan turned her face to him. A glimmer of sudden determination ran over her eyes when she faced him. “I want to be closer to you. If someone hurt you I'll hurt them back.”

There was a reason she had piqued his interest in the first place, and Ryu admitted to himself that her boyish reaction to a fight attracted him.

I'm not after the students at Red Rose Hell,” he said. “If anything I want to save them from that quagmire.” He let his lips play over her fingers again and enjoyed how she blushed at the touch.

What… what do you mean.” The tool in her eyes told him she no longer thought of the war between the two schools, nor that he was bringing in Irishima high on their side as well.

We're taking Red Rose down,” he said. Before he let go of his plans and enjoyed the evening with her she had to understand that he was serious. If she decided to leave him as a result, then so be it.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Chapter six (segment two), 2016, November, Christina

When Ulf drummed up the speed of his feet Christina had to pull his sleeve to physically slow him down.

Ulf, I didn't just accidentally fall behind them.”

I know,” he answered, “but I feel well enough to keep up. You don't need to show me this kind of concern.”

Crap, he thinks I'm worried about his health! Truth be told she was, and more than a little, but if he said he was good then she needed to believe him. Besides it wasn't the real reason she held him back.

Waiting for two cars to pass them and the sound of engines to die off a bit she walked with Ulf along a 7-Eleven that could have passed for a Stockholm memory from two years earlier.

Ulf,” she said when both the sound of engines and lit store-front were behind them. “Are you sure about the science track?”

For once she spoke Japanese with him even though they were alone. Some concepts didn't translate all that well into Swedish, and the Japanese system with a one size fits all freshman high school year didn't exist in Sweden. Hadn't existed when she attended high school the first time, and didn't these days.

He gave her a look of curiosity but responded in Japanese as well. “It's my main background. I'm in IT, so computer science is kind of natural for me.”

You're about as much in IT as I'm in modelling,” Christina grumbled, but she regretted her words as soon as she had spoken them. Since a few months she was very much into modelling again.

Ulf pulled her closer to him and laughed silently. “Fine, I'm into management and development processes.”

Thank you for forgiving me when I'm an idiot! “Ulf, can you handle it with your grades?”

There were a few moments of silence only broken by the sounds of their feet on the ground and the occasional car of the street.

You know,” Ulf began, “I think I'll have an easier time with the science track than the liberal arts one. Less dependent on the Japanese language.”

So you mean your grades aren't that important?”

They're important and they suck!”

Christina stopped in her tracks at the sudden vehemence in Ulf's voice.

How come you're so angry about your grades? They're low, but not disastrously so. Look at mine!”

Ulf sighed. “We'll get to those later. I think Noriko will help, and between the three of us we'll have you above the cut-off.”

Dammit Ulf, don't treat me like an idiot! “You didn't answer my question.”

Ulf took a long time to answer, and they got almost a block close to their destination. “I guess,” he said finally, “that I hate being dragged down because of my Japanese.”

We both are, and yours is a lot better than mine.”

He nodded but still managed to look downcast. “It's just… it's just that I grew used to being among the best when I was a high school student for real.”

For real. Ha.” And what exactly do you mean by 'the best'?

Ulf looked morose for a moment. “Yes, you're right. Here we're real students as well. Only makes it worse.”

Among the best you said?” Christina suggested, digging for some more knowledge about his past.

Yes. Even though I pretty much flunked music and did poorly at sports I still managed five flat with the system back then.”

Five flat?”

He looked at her. “You were, what, one year behind me? You must have used the one to five scale.”

Yes. Changed sometime during the nineties. So, five flat?”

That's my mean from high school. Made me feel like a king.”

What he had just said finally filtered through Christina's mind. “You graduated high school with five point zero? What?”

Our sister club is in an elite school, my old school. Think I told you earlier. We were five in our class with perfect grades.”

Gods!” Christina took two quick steps and stood facing him. “You're not kidding?”

No, I had it easy. Chalmers was harder. It seemed everyone had grades like mine, and most had worked a lot harder. I never really shone there, but I didn't mind.”

Of course you went to Chalmers. That's so… Ulf.” She laughed and poked his chest. “So you have a master’s degree?”

Uhum, science and arts.”

Eh, that's a strange combination.”

Sorry, my bad. Science from Chalmers. After the dot com crash I took up English studies at university. Evening courses to fill my time. Got my arts degree from there.”

Me and my big mouth. I should have guessed. “Two, the idiot has two degrees,” Christina said at a lack for a decent retort.

Don't worry. Took ages to get the last one. I didn't finish until a couple of years ago, so I spent, what, twelve years getting it.” Ulf laughed. “Was just a hobby after all.”

Yes, sounds like my Ulf. You ran a company and got yourself an extra master’s degree as a hobby. And you kept up that Japanese combat training of yours.”

Aikido, not combat.”

Whatever. You've got too much brains for your own good, you know that? Probably why you always think too much.”

If he had that kind of learning capacity he might just make the science track just fine. As for herself Christina held no overblown hopes about her academic ability. She'd claw herself through the Japanese high school system one way or another, and after that she'd be done with her studies. She had a world to conquer.

Ulf,” she said after the content of their conversation became a future reality. “I guess that means we'll never be in the same class.”

I guess not,” he said. “Would you prefer for me to go for the liberal arts track instead?”

Christina threw out her hands in horror. “No! Don't build your future on me!”

The look she got in return was filled with equal parts respect and hurt.

Please don't. You can't depend on me. But she would have liked to share more time with him, and she was on the verge of saying something stupid when she saw the entrance to Stockholm Haven café ahead of them.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Chapter six (segment one), 2016, November, Kyoko

This is from me,” Kyoko said and reached over the table with her bag.

The small karaoke booth barely had room for all eight of them, but Kyoko really wanted to spend some time with their extended inner circle before they all went to Stockholm Haven café where the rest of the club were headed.

Noriko took the offered bag in her hands and looked inside.

What is it?” she asked.

A little something from Yukio and me,” Kyoko answered.

By her side Yukio frowned and shook his head. “Don't accuse me of that atrocity. Wallet, my participation was strictly limited to my wallet,” he said and grinned.

With a squeal Noriko opened up the bag and quickly ripped through the gift-wrapped box inside.

It's so… so… green!” she said, but her eyes glittered and she was already digging up her phone from a pocket. “I always wanted one of these,” she continued and firmly planted her phone inside the skin.

It really was as intrusive to the eyes as Yukio had said.

Happy birthday!” Kyoko said, and her eyes glimmered just like Noriko's.

Ryu, we decided that to be a cool as Urufu you have to look as antique as Urufu,” Yukio said and took the verbal baton from Kyoko.

Both Nao-sempai and Ai-chan gave him questioning stares before they glanced in Urufu's direction.

That won't be enough to give our secret away, Kyoko thought. And we have to be allowed to at least make some stupid jokes about it from time to time.

Ryu made a show of hiding his face in his hands. “Seeing what sis got what kind of awful do you have in mind for me?”

In response Yukio pushed another paper bag across the table.

Kyoko grinned in anticipation and waited for Ryu to open his birthday gift. The staff probably wonder why this booth is so silent. Well, let them!

What the? You bastards!”

What is it?” Ai-chan wondered by Ryu's side. The surprising addition of a girlfriend had taken them all a bit aback, but she made her best to fit in, which wasn't easy given that her old style Irishima high sailor uniform looked out of place mixed with the Himekaizen Academy blazers.

Bloody hell, it's an honest to god planner. I haven't seen one of those in...”

Kuri-chan yanked Urufu's arm before he had the chance to finish his sentence.

Planner?” Ai-chan asked.

It's what dad used before his first smart-phone,” Ryu said and glared at Yukio.

Happy birthday,” Yukio said perfectly unperturbed. “Now you can look as cool as Urufu.”

The cool one smirked. “I don't use one of those. Look, I can prove it!” he said and fished up his phone. “All digital here.”

Ryu opened his faux leather-bound planner and flipped through the pages. “Just to show you I'll use it.”

About planning, have you decided about next year yet?” Nao-sempai said.

Noriko nodded and looked up from her phone. “Science,” she said.

No surprise there,” Ryu observed. “She's the brains here. I can't compete, but I'll do science as well.”

Liberal arts,” Yukio and Kyoko said in union. She looked at him and then they both burst out in laughter.

We'll stick together I guess,” she said and boxed him on his arm when he pretended to groan.

We don't separate that way, but something like liberal arts for me as well,” Ai-chan said. She snuggled up closer to Ryu and glanced at Kuri-chan.

You really don't have to worry that much. Kuri-chan only has eyes for Urufu.

Liberal arts,” Kuri-chan said and pretended she had misunderstood Ai-chan's look.

Well played, Kyoko thought. You understand what makes people tick. With a nod of approval to her friend Kyoko saw how Ai-chan relaxed a little.

Seven pair of eyes stared at Urufu who hadn't said anything.

What?” he asked when he finally understood his opinion was wanted.

What? What are you going to study next year?” Nao-sempai asked.

Me? Science obviously.”

Science? With your grades?”

Kyoko could only agree with Ryu's reaction. With Urufu's results she wasn't entirely positive he'd be able to handle liberal arts, let alone the much more difficult science track.

Look, it's my written Japanese that sucks, not my brains!”

Japanese? You're flunking more than your exams in Japanese. Kyoko shook her head. If Urufu wanted to go through science hell it was his decision.

From the corner of her eye Kyoko saw Kuri-chan giving Urufu a look that told him that for those two the topic wasn't finished. Hmm, finished. Kyoko looked at the clock. They had only a few minutes left. It was time to wrap it up and leave for Stockholm Haven café.

The last songs were a mix of birthday celebration songs. For most for most of them they didn't even bother with music, and after a last round of roaring laughter they left the booth and made for the streets.

On their way to meet the rest of their friends Kyoko hooked up with Yukio and pretended not to notice how Kuri-chan and Urufu fell behind them. There had been an uneasiness between those two the last days, and Kyoko guessed they needed to discuss something.

Ai-chan, your friends coming as well?” Kyoko asked to clear her thoughts of her misgivings.

Ryu's girlfriend turned and met Kyoko's look. “Yes, a few of them. Seems more fun than a goukon anyway.”

And here I thought the last goukon delighted you,” Ryu shot in. That comment won him a pair of flushed cheeks from Ai-chan and friendly scowls from the rest of them.

Be nice, man. She's your girlfriend,” Yukio suggested.

I'm always nice. I was born nice.”

You were born full of yourself.”

Yukio's last retort made Kyoko hug him closer to herself. You've grown, she thought. You're manlier now.

You deserved that one,” Noriko noted and elbowed her brother. “You can keep him, Ai-chan. He's damaged good anyway.”

Hey, it's my boyfriend you're talking about!”

It's my idiot brother.”

You can have the idiot part. I'll take the boyfriend material,” Ai-chan shot back.

Kyoko grinned. Ryu's surprise boyfriend had a lot more spunk than her looks gave away.