Having arrived yesterday, but without Nao, Noriko felt a little nervous when she shakily navigated the slope down to the short road that connected skiing facility with the small cluster of hotels where they lived.
Nao was arriving by bus and should be here any moment now, and Noriko didn't plan to miss out on more time with him than needed.
Suddenly her feet shook more than usual, and as they had done with depressing regularity her skies betrayed her again. She was left as an undignified heap on the ground.
Noriko suspected she spent more time getting back up on her feet than skiing and cursed whoever had decided that alpine skiing was a fun way to spend your free time.
After she managed to get back on her feet again Noriko reluctantly left her dignity behind her and punted her way to the parking place.
The bus arrived, but Nao didn't. Another arrived an hour later, but still no Nao, and he didn't even reply to her mails.
Distraught she went inside the foyer, bought a cup of tea and seated herself by the windows from where she could see the buses arrive. Three cups later and another bus without Nao she gave up and took the elevator to their room.
Worst Christmas ever, she thought as she dragged out a futon and threw herself on it. Noriko knew she behaved like a spoiled child, but it just wasn't fair that her idiot brother was out there having the time of his life with Ai-chan while she had to wait for a boyfriend who didn't even have the grace to tell her he was late.
Sucks, she sulked.
But even sulking got boring, and in the end Noriko tired of playing the lonesome orphan. She sent Nao a choice nasty mail and went down for the last few hours of humiliation on the slopes.
Well outside she couldn't stay angry for long. Despite making a habit of falling on her butt with the grace of a lame elephant the whiteness surrounding her was simply breathtaking.
With temperatures at a friendly minus two or three she was never cold, and with renewed vigour she finished her lonely skiing day and returned to the hotel. Nao or no Nao, after a day like this taking a hot bath outdoors promised to be heaven.
Noriko slipped inside the women's locker room, stripped and brought her towel into the bathing area. Ai-chan was already there rinsing off before the baths, and so was Noriko's mother.
“Hi mom,” Noriko said and sat down on a pallet.
“Where were you all day?”
“Waiting for Nao, and failing. Yeah and trying to ski, and failing.”
Both mother and brother's girlfriend displayed risen eyebrows.
“Nao didn't come, and he hasn't mailed me.”
Ai-chan dunked herself with water and moved to the exit. Noriko's mother followed her, so Noriko found herself in a sudden hurry. Outside she sank into the shallow pool and waited for the interrogation to continue.
“Does he usually do that?” her mother wanted to know.
Noriko was prepared for that question. Her mother positively despised people who didn't communicate.
“No, he only does during a shoot, because they're not allowed to have their phones on,” Noriko said. Crap! Don't tell me he got dragged into whatever problems Kuri brought onto herself! Still, that only made sense, and if so Noriko feared Nao might not show up at all.
“What's with that face?” her mother said.
Noriko pouted and slid deeper into the water to hide her sulking expression. This was her own problem, and nothing she wanted to drag her parents into. But I wanted Nao here. Stupid Kuri! First you took Urufu away, and now Nao as well.
She submerged to wash away that thought. Kuri hadn't taken anyone away, and Noriko knew she was being unfair. OK, maybe you didn't, but I'm still the only one without someone now. And that thought was a lie as well. If Nao couldn't join them then that meant Kuri and Urufu had no way of meeting as well.
When she came back up above the surface for a breath her mother was waiting, and Noriko noticed how Ai-chan just waited for an answer.
“Spill it!” That wasn't her mother's friendly voice. That was the voice of her mother the few times Noriko knew she could outmatch Kuri.
“I want to know as well. We're involved now?”
“Involved with what?” Noriko's mother said, and by now her tone had taken the quality needed to cut through stone.
“There's a lot of students at Irishima high...”
“Yeah, and a few teachers as well...” Ai-chan continued.
A few teachers? Idiot! You got your principal salivating all over the place at the chance to sink Red Rose.
“Yes… we're kind of not friends with Red Rose Academy now,” Ai-chan said, and Noriko coughed when she heard that understatement.
“Noriko,” her mother began. “You're going to tell me exactly what you've been up to. I know some of it, but I didn't know you got Irishima high involved as well.”
Tonight will be no fun at all. Then Noriko spilled all of it, or almost all. The secret about Urufu and Kuri living their lives for a second time had to stay a secret.
As she talked she saw Ai-chan raise her eyebrows from time to time at some choice details that hadn't made their way to her yet. It wasn't as if Noriko had tried to keep them secret from her or anything, but so much had happened that some parts just got forgotten.
She began from the attempted rape, continued with Urufu's expulsion, glossed over Kuri's dangerous stunt as a hostess and the assault on her in the girls' locker room the previous spring. She told them about the revenge mission Principal Nakagawa had sent Urufu on, about the suicide and the attack on Urufu behind the gym during the cultural festival. Last of all Noriko told them about Kuri's smear campaign and the dirty war that followed.
Talking about it all made Noriko remember. Parts of it she relived, sitting there in the hot spring water, but other parts she hadn't experienced herself. It's been a long year. A long year and a half. Was it worth it? Yeah, I fell in love and broke my heart. Then I fell in love again, and I made friends with you all.
The strangest of her new friends were Yukio and Kyoko, maybe because they were so normal. I hope you had a good Christmas date.