Chapter 27

“Sweet Rosa Mundi”

“Wow, look at that!” Sugi said in an excited, loud voice, pointing at the machinery at work.

After a whole week off they had finally been allowed back to school, and it was clear that during that time it had been undergoing some changes. The entire damaged wing had been outright demolished, and the worker crew was hard at it clearing the rubble out for future construction to happen. There were signs and tall barriers all around the area, and they had to look from a very safe distance at the construction work.

“I didn’t know it was that bad,” said Ran, leaning on her crutches and looking at the workers from right behind the Keep Out fence sign.

“What are we going to do? Our poor school.”

“We’ll be fine, Sugi-chan. Really, don’t worry.”

“Ran-chan is always so confident, tee-hee,” Sugi said, giggling and smiling at her friend.

The rest of the students were no less interested in the work, and at the entrance hall they all were gathering around the new classroom lists. Not many changes, to most everyone’s satisfaction.

“Well, that’s not too bad. Really, I wonder,” Ran said, looking around. “Yes! Nagataka-kun!”

Sugi followed in the direction Ran was looking and waving at, and saw Nagataka walking into the building. She gasped at his appearance, battered and bruised and with a somewhat darkened left eye, but he seemed in good spirits, and smiled openly when he saw Ran. He hurried his pace between the two of them with a confident step.

“Good morning,” said Ran, “how are you feeling?”

He nodded at them. “Good morning, Ran-chan, Sugi-chan. I’m okay actually, I suppose it looks worse than it is,” he hesitated when he saw Sugi looking at him, and scratched the back of his head. “You see, Sugi-chan, I-”

“No, no, it’s okay,” Sugi interrupted, “I’m just glad you’re okay, Nagataka-kun.”

“Huh. I suppose it is then, thanks,” Nagataka said, arching his eyebrows in surprise.

“You’re welcome.” Sugi smiled, and then looked behind Nagataka. “Oh, Etsuko-san, Tamako-san, good mo-”

She didn’t have time to finish before Etsuko rushed to them and, without prompt or warning, grabbed Nagataka by the collar and pushed him to her face.

“Where the hell is Sumire-chan?!” she shouted.

For a moment nobody said a word. The entire hall had gone quiet, and Nagataka was looking at a very angry Etsuko from a really close angle and without a clue of what she was talking about.

“What the h-”

“Don’t you what the hell me! Where. Is. She!”

She reached back with her right arm, clenching her fist, but before she could do anything, Tamako grabbed her from behind, holding her in a tight embrace.

“Etsu-chan, stop it please,” Tamako said.

“Let go! She’s gone from home! She’s been taken by these assholes, where is she?!”

While Etsuko struggled to free herself from Tamako, Ran suddenly pushed Nagataka back and got herself in front of Etsuko, grabbing her by the wrist and forcing her to let go of the young man.

“What, you too now?” Etsuko said, grabbing Ran, and the latter grabbed Etsuko’s jacket in return.

“Stop it already!” Sugi shouted, jumping in between them and trying to push the two girls away from each other.

The whole commotion was stopped with an extremely loud whistling. Every head turned to see Hoshiko pull two fingers out of her mouth and frown at the group of students. She looked, quite literally, deadly serious, and the only one who didn’t reel when their eyes met was Etsuko.

“That’s enough,” Hoshiko said. “Fighting in the hall, just where do you think you are?”

“Kokawa-sen-” Ran started talking, but clammed up immediately when Hoshiko gave her a very intense look.

“It was our fault, Kokawa-sensei,” Tamako said, and before Etsuko could protest, she put a hand to her mouth. “We started this fight. Our most sincere apologies.”

Hoshiko looked around at the expectant faces of the students, and turned to Etsuko and Tamako again. “Hm. Very well, we will talk after class. Everyone else, it’s enough chit-chat, class is about to start. Now!” She finished with a sharp clap of her hands, as it looked like nobody wanted to move. The students moved out, and both the murmur of the rumour mill and the shuffling of feet rushing to the classrooms filled the air.

“Sensei,” Ran said, but was cut short again.

“You three too, off to class you go.”

“Yes sensei,” Sugi said, dragging Nagataka and Ran away.

“What the heck was that?” Nagataka said when they were a safe distance away, disengaging himself from Sugi.

“I don’t know… I mean, Sumire-san hasn’t been coming recently…” Sugi replied.

Nagataka looked at Sugi, who was giving Ran a few glances as she spoke but without succeeding at prompting an answer from the latter.

Nagataka raised an eyebrow. “Ran-chan, do you know something?”

“No. Yes, well, maybe.” She looked around. They had arrived at class already, and there were too many ears around them. “Really now, I’ll tell you later Nagataka-kun.”

“Uh, okay then. I guess it’s classes for now.

The morning classes were less interesting than Ran would have expected, or rather, they flew by in a blur as she kept her eyes on the empty desk that should have been Sumire’s. The one she had only claimed on the day after the first attack, and had never used again. The way Etsuko had come rushing at Nagataka had her rather confused, but from the little sense she had made out of her words, the military may had had something to do with Sumire’s disappearance.

But I thought she was just at home recovering, this doesn’t make sense, why would they kidnap her after we stirred so much trouble yesterday?

She hoped they would be able to have a more civilized conversation with Etsuko during the lunchbreak.

“Shimizu-sama? Are you okay?” Ayame thought next to Ran as the last class before lunch break dragged on and on for her.

Ran looked at the girl and nodded, pointing again at Sumire’s empty desk.

“Stop worrying Shimizu-sama, we will find her.”

The bell had barely finished ringing when Etsuko rushed again into their class, going straight at Nagataka. Even with the crutches, Ran managed to intercept her before she reached him.

“Out of my way, Ran!”

“Etsuko-san, calm down!” Ran retorted.

Etsuko grabbed her again, but Ran didn’t fight her at all, except for staunchly refusing to move out of the way. A few moments later Tamako entered the class, looking rather stressed as she tried to reach her friend.

“Don’t you get it? They have her!”

“I get it!” Ran shouted, finally dropping the crutches and, without warning, grabbing Etsuko by the shoulders. “I get it, I really do, just stop already.”

“What-” Etsuko tried to struggle free, but Ran didn’t let go, until Tamak arrived to restrain her temperamental friend.

“Etsuko-san, please let’s just talk. I can promise you, Nagataka-kun had nothing to do with it.”

Etsuko froze when Ran said that, and after a few moments, furrowed her brow as she looked at her face. Ran was showing all the determination she was capable of mustering, and for a moment Etsuko lost herself in that gaze. She couldn’t remember seeing that kind of look on Ran’s face ever.

Ran took a moment to look around. The entire class had their eyes on them, and several people from other classes looking on from the corridor. For a moment she thought she had seen Hoshiko looking at them from the back of the mob of people, smiling, but the image was gone when she was distracted by Etsuko.

“Okay fine, let’s go talk.”

A few minutes later they had all made for a quiet spot behind the main building, sitting on a patch of grass far enough from prying eyes. After they settled down, with Etsuko and Tamako on one side, Ran and Nagataka on the other, and Sugi on the side, trying to be invisible and looking like she’d rather be somewhere else, Ran started talking.

“Etsuko-san, what happened?”

Before Etsuko could say anything, Tamako put a hand on her friend’s shoulder, and began an explanation.

“We went to visit Sumire-chan during the break, but her father wouldn’t let us come in and see her, no matter how much we asked.”

“He did the same with us,” Ran said, and Sugi nodded in agreement.

“Yes, and with us every time we went. Etsu-chan got a bit tired of that, so we came up with a plan. I distracted his father arguing that I wanted to see Sumire-chan, and in the meantime Etsu-chan sneaked up the emergency stairs and broke into the house.”

“You what?” Ran and Nagataka asked simultaneously.

“Aaaah, why so surprised?” Etsuko said.

“You’re not one to talk, Ran-chan,” Sugi said, making her friend blush considerably and earning herself a look of curiosity from Nagataka.

“Anyway, as it turns out-” Tamako continued, but was promptly interrupted by Etsuko.

“Sumire wasn’t there. She wasn’t home at all!”

“What? How? Why?” Ran said.

“Once I broke in and saw that Sumire wasn’t there-”

“We had a bit of an argument with his father,” Tamako finished. “He told us that the military had wanted to talk to her after the attack on the school, and they took her away, and hasn’t seen her since.”

Nobody said anything, but Etsuko was holding Nagataka’s gaze with an intensity that betrayed how much she wanted to pounce at him, simply because he was the closest person with any connection to the military she could find. It was Ran who finally broke the silence.

“You have to be kidding me! They took Sumire-san too? And he didn’t do anything? He let them?”

“I don’t know if he let them, or if-” Tamako said.

“Wait.” Etsuko interrupted. “What do you mean ‘too’?”

“I mean just that! Etsuko-san…” Ran looked at Nagataka for a few moments, and nodded, both at him and at herself. “Look at Nagataka-kun.”

“Aaah?” she protested, but complied. “What is it?”

“Nagataka-kun got all that for the same reason Sumire-san was taken.”

Etsuko kept looking at him, while Tamako continued the conversation.

“What do you mean?”

“The reason was… This is really secret, so please, don’t tell anyone, okay? When the aliens attacked, they took Sumire-san, and I managed to get her back,” Ran said, surprising the two girls speechless. “So I brought her home, and that was it I thought. I… Well, my dad told me not to tell anyone, I guess that’s why, and I don’t know how they figured out Sumire-san was taken. If that’s why they took her.”

“O… Okay then,” Etsuko said, sounding very confused. “So how does that have anything to do with Nagataka?”

“Because I knew who it was that defeated the aliens that day,” Nagataka said. “And no, I won’t tell you why, but I didn’t know anything about Sumire-san at all. All I’ll tell you is that they took me in and were trying to beat the information out of me.”

“The feck? Isn’t your father in the military?” Etsuko said.

“Yes, yes he is.”

“But… Aaah, who cares, how did you get out? Why isn’t Sumire-chan here?” Etsuko said, still eyeballing Nagataka distrustfully.

“I don’t know!” Nagataka insisted. “But I’ll find out.”

“You will?” Tamako said, interrupting Etsuko before she had a chance to say another word, and putting a hand to her shoulder.

Nagataka nodded, and took a few moments to organize his thoughts. “Look, I suppose there’s no harm in telling you, but like Ran-chan said, keep this secret. After… Well, after this, I suppose,” he said, pointing at his bruised face, “the people who killed the aliens had a few words with the military, and we’re all going to work together now. That means there’s no reason why they should still have Sumire-san. I’ll talk with my father, and we will get her out if she’s in there, okay?”

“Okay, Nagataka-san,” Tamako said, squeezing Etsuko’s shoulder to silence her. “We’ll trust you. Can we go do it now?”

Nagataka thought for a few moments. “I don’t think so, but I am meeting with my father and some other people right after school. I doubt I can even contact him before that, this whole situation is very complicated, it’s really-”

“Ooooh, it’s complicated!” Etsuko suddenly exploded. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place! I’m so sorry Sumire-chan is such an inconvenience for your busy father!”

“Etsu-chan! Please calm down,” Tamako pleaded.

“Like hell! How can you…” Etsuko started to complain, but when she met Tamako’s eyes, she slowly quieted down and, after a few moments holding her friend’s gaze, she sighed and turned to Nagataka. “We’re coming with you after school. Let’s go Tamako.”

Etsuko stood up and left without another word, while Tamako thanked them before chasing after her short haired and temperamental friend.

Ran sighed.

“I can’t believe they still have Sumire-san,” Nagataka said, in a low and angry voice.

“Really, what are they thinking? Well, I’m going to get the others, if they think they can just… I can’t believe they’ve had her all this time! If they’ve hurt her-”

“Ayame-chan, Isamu-san!” Sugi called, interrupting Ran and waving at the two girls. “Over here!”

Ran was surprised by this, and when she looked at Sugi, she realized she was trying way too hard to keep her usual happy and calm demeanour.

“Sugi-chan, what’s wrong?”

“Ah? Nothing, Ran-chan, why do you ask?” she said, smiling widely.

“Sugi, I know you well enough, please tell me.”

“Ah, hehehe, it’s nothing, I’m just a little worried. It can’t be helped, right?”

“You don’t have to hide it,” Ran pleaded.

“Ran-chan, it’s okay. Don’t worry about me please.”

When Ayame and Isamu arrived, Nagataka quickly filled them in before leaving, claiming it’d be too suspicious for him to spend the lunch break with all of them.

“I can pass it off as those two being annoying, and other than that I’ll go play football as usual. I’ll see you later.”

“Ah, see you later Nagataka-kun!” Ran said, earning herself a smile from him.

“It’s not a good idea,” Isamu remarked as Nagataka walked off, opening her bento box without another word.

“What isn’t?” Ran asked.

“Nagataka-san taking them with him.”

“Really? It shouldn’t be a problem,” Ran countered, “they’re not Nereidas, and they weren’t there. It’s just Sumire-san they’re interested in.”

“Of course!” Ayame said. “If we all go with him it’ll probably be even less suspicious! We could make a class field trip! All of us go!”

Isamu gave Ayame the barest of glances before going back to her lunch, while Ran and Sugi were more amused by her suggestion. Even so, the mood was heavier than usual, there were too many uncertainties gnawing at them.

The only one with unshakeable enthusiasm was still Ayame.

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