Monday, 4 January 2016

Chapter four (segment seven), 2016, October, Noriko

Noriko paid the cashier.

Only two rooms left, she thought.

Tomorrow she'd receive more than a few harsh words from their class rep, but Noriko didn't care. Joining the club members rather than going out with her class was a given, as it had been for almost everyone else.

“Bro, I've paid until eight, but after that anyone staying here will have to pay for themselves.”

Ryu looked back at her from a door opening. “We'll only be one room by eight. I've told them already.”

When did you grow up to be this reliable? Noriko nodded and gave her brother a smile. More and more often he deserved her approval these days.

And who was that Irishima High girl? I can't recall seeing you spend so much time alone with one girl. Ryu without either harem or fan-club was a scary thought. You're changing.

Her brother, no longer 'idiot bro', left the karaoke box and walked over to her.

“Any news?” he asked.

Noriko shook her head. An email told her Kyoko and Yukio were on their way to the hospital. They should have arrived by now.

“Haven café or home?” she asked instead.

Ryu grimaced. “Haven,” he said. “We need to break the news to them.”

“Do we have to?” Noriko said.

“Transparency,” Ryu said. “That's the one thing Urufu is adamant about. They deserve to know, and we can't start cheating now.”

Noriko bit her lower lip and clenched her hands into fists. “How much do you know?” Distrusting her brother wasn't fair, but if he knew anything more she had to know as well.

“As much as you,” he answered. “Honestly. Nakagawa and Kuri might know more, and perhaps...”

“And perhaps Kyoko and Yukio,” Noriko filled in.

“And perhaps Kyoko and Yukio,” Ryu agreed. “You know, sis, I'm scared. I don't think I've ever been truly scared before.”

“It's Urufu we're talking about. The barbarian knight from Red Rose. He's too stupid to know how to be hurt,” she lied. The words came out strange from her mouth, and Noriko hoped Ryu didn't notice. One look at him told her he had.

“Yeah,” he said, “your idiot knight in shining armour.”

Does my voice sound that forced? It probably did, because Ryu's voice held no conviction. My knight in broken armour, more likely.

Looking behind her brother Noriko saw Nao leaving the room.

“Haven?” he asked when he arrived at the counter.

Noriko nodded. “Anyone else?”

Nao looked over his shoulder. “I think the rest from our box will join as well.”

As if to prove him true Sakura-chan and Nori-kun showed their faces and entered the corridor hand in hand. They were soon followed by Fumiko-chan and Hitomi-chan, and with that the remaining eight club members all fit inside the last karaoke box.

Noriko smiled at Nao and made for the exit. “I guess we're leaving then,” she said over her shoulder.

She felt his hand take hers and when they entered the street outdoors her brother flanked her on her other side. Noriko could hear him speak with Sakura-chan, but as usual there were almost no answers from the silent girl.

With a smirk Noriko tightened her grip on Nao's hand and felt him respond in turn.

The evening turned colder and she had to tighten the collar of her jacket to keep the wind out. Within a few weeks a scarf wouldn't be out of order.

As they came closer to their destination, and for that reason closer to their school, they met more and more groups of Himekaizen students. Most seemed to be on their way home from an hour of karaoke bawling, and in the case of larger parties on their way to some restaurant to celebrate the most insane cultural festival in the history of Himekaizen.

Noriko waved to those she recognized, and their group was waved at from a lot more fellow students. Fame hadn't passed them by.

Before long they arrived at the run down coffee house they'd made their second home. Noriko gave students around her a cursory glance before she opened the door and entered to the sound of jingling bells.

Over a dozen culture exchange club members sat spread around three tables and cheered their arrival. When the karaoke die-hards finally arrived virtually the entire club would be present. Only four members absent, four of her best friends absent, and all of them at the same hospital.

Noriko nodded at James when he pointed a thumb in the direction of the espresso machine. Apart from her coffee she ordered some sweet cake and went to grab a table.

She looked up when Hiroyuki came over to her and shot her a worried look.

“I'll tell all of you later,” she answered his unspoken question.

Ryu, Nori-kun and Sakura-chan joined her, and behind them she saw James carry a tray with their orders. Fumiko-chan and Hitomi-chan chose chairs at the closest table and hung their coats over the backrests.

Noriko waited for James to return with the last of the orders in a futile attempt to postpone the inevitable, but as he left for the counter with an empty tray pressed to his body all conversations around the tables silenced and a multitude of eyes sought hers expectantly.

She rose and met the eerie silence from almost twenty club members.

“I have something to announce,” Noriko said and felt how brittle her voice sounded. “During today's fashion show Urufu was assaulted by visiting students from Red Rose Academy.”

It took the combined effort from Ryu and Hitomi-chan to silence the angry roar that filled the café.

“He was taken to a hospital and some of our friends are there right now to find out how bad it is. I'm afraid that's all I know.”

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