Author's Note: Yeah, just... let's not talk about the delay and get right into it.

Data 5: The Results

~Nabare Fuuka~

Akasaka Ai-san was standing in front of the lockers that morning, looking incredibly suspicious. Her eyes scanned over the crowd over and over, obviously looking for someone. Who? Nobody knows, but when she finds them they would probably going to be embarrassed she stood out so much. Just like I thought, that girl was just too weird. I pledged to have nothing more to do with her, a promise that ended up not lasting the day.

When I got to homeroom my friends looked sour. "How did it go yesterday?" I asked. I already knew, having devoted significant mental and physical effort to sabotage them, but I was trying to be nonchalant about it.

Rushika-chan displayed her frustration openly. "Awful. We were waiting almost three hours before anyone thought to check the room. It was spotless! And she was totally not there! She must have snuck out with everyone else and skimped out on cleaning duty." The "she", of course, was Kyoko-san. Shoko-chan didn't want us referring to her by name in case someone overheard.

Harumi-chan punched her open palm with a heavy slapping sound. "I still say we should have trashed the room to get her in trouble." Her tiny figure concealed a bad attitude and a huge chip on her shoulder; she was great to have as an ally, but if she got rowdy only Shoko-chan could calm her down.

Shoko-chan shook her head. "Everyone who had cleaning duty with her left her all alone. Every other person assigned yesterday was either lazy or an ally of mine; I specifically made sure of that. If she had escaped, the room would not have gotten clean. And the teachers may leave interpersonal relationships for the students to deal with, but if we start vandalizing the classrooms they won't be able to turn a blind eye to it. Besides, she isn't the only one who would catch it for a stunt like that."

I know it's difficult for you to believe Shoko-chan was the mastermind behind your torment. I'm sure you must hate her. But you have to believe me, Shoko-chan wasn't always like this. She isn't some mean girl that hides behind a smiling face, ordinarily. I've known her since the second year of elementary school when she joined my class as a transfer student. She quickly made friends with her open personality, and always had a kind word for everyone. I was shy and passive back then, and it was Shoko-chan that pulled me out of my shell. Without her I might not have a single friend today. That's why I was so conflicted about helping you at first. I owed my whole social life to her... did going behind her back make me ungrateful? At the same time, what she is doing is clearly wrong. Opposing that couldn't be wrong, could it? I'm not defending her, because I know what she's done to you can't be forgiven so easily... just... I don't know. I know she's wrong, but I don't feel like she's evil. That's all.

"Would still be worth it." Shoko-chan's glare ended that line of the conversation. Harumi-chan clicked her tongue, but accepted her final word. Instead she turned to me. "Hey, Fuuka-chan. I forgot my lunch today, gimme some money."

"Again?" I sighed as I pulled out my purse. "I wish you'd be more responsible, I can't be lending you money all the time."

"What's the problem? If you're running low, just ask your parents for some. Your dad just got promoted, he can afford it." Well, I supposed that was true, but...

Shoko-chan tapped her desk for attention. "I thought it over last night, and I think I know what happened. Someone, probably one of the boys with more chivalry than sense, is helping her on the sly." A chill wind ripped through me, solidifying my blood into ice. I had to ball up my hands to keep my hands from shaking, and I desperately hoped nothing was showing on my face. "Either they helped her by cleaning in her stead, or they got her outside the school either through the back gate or in one of the teacher's cars. I don't know who they are, not yet, but... don't worry. I'll find out."

Maybe it was just me, but it felt like that last part was directed right at me. But she didn't know who it was, right? She just said that! No, she couldn't know. They couldn't have seen me, they were waiting at the front of the school, and the two of us escaped out the back. But wait! She might have found out I wasn't really with Ryou... that might be enough to make her suspicious. But there was no proof! She couldn't prove anything! I flattened my tongue against the roof of my mouth, so that even if I opened my mouth nothing stupid would come out. I tried to act like Shoko-chan's comments had nothing to do with me...

If Shoko-chan meant to press me for more info she lost her chance. Kyoko-san entered the room just then, and as usual everyone went silent. Usually everyone would go back to their seats and ignore her, too... but not this time. Everyone was too stunned to move.

Kyoko-san strode through the classroom with her eyes straight ahead and her hair pulled back into a cute little ponytail. The shadows under her eyes had vanished, and the color had returned to her skin. She was even smiling! The difference between yesterday and today was so stark we almost didn't recognize her. Where did the shrunken, cowed, haggardly Kyoko-san go? And how did she get replaced by this sunny, happy Kyoko-san in a single day? Her rebirth was nothing short of miraculous. The truth was she looked a lot like this on her first day; her treatment at the hands of class 1-C was to blame for her failing health and loss of drive. All that happened was that the past month of abuse and neglect had been erased; that's all.

I started panicking immediately. You idiot! Don't get so worked up because one person is nice to you! If your mood improves that fast everyone's going to know something's up! Shoko-chan's eyes were bugging out of her head; I could actually see the light bulb go off over her head. 'No doubt about it, Kyoko-san has an ally after all!' That had to be what she was thinking. The boys were looking at Kyoko-san with surprised and smiling faces; her new lease on life had raised their appraisal of her. Maybe one of them was thinking of confessing? The other girls, not as sharp as Shoko-chan, only shook their heads and wondered how, unable to figure anything out. Kyoko-san took no notice of them; she merely went to her seat and sat down, as she did every day. To her credit, she did not glance at me even once. She probably thought she was protecting me by doing so; she knew if she so much as glanced at me someone might figure out I was helping her. Just like she said, she didn't want me being targetted next.

And all I could think about was how she was going to get me in trouble with my friends. I turned away from her, feeling worse than ever. I should be happy for her, but my first instinct was to protect myself and worry about what it meant for me if she was in high spirits. I turned in my desk, stealing another look at Shoko-chan. She was facing forward, one finger curled around her chin, staring intently at the front of the classroom. No, she didn't suspect me. Not yet. I hoped that she was considering how to stop her campaign of terror, but feared she was thinking about how to ratchet it up. I really tried to share Kyoko-san's happiness, but even a drop of dread is enough to poison those waters. My stomach turned again and again.

I know it must pain you to know your friend felt more nervous than anything at having so visibly cheered you up. I know... I haven't been a very good friend. That's why I'm writing this... so you know exactly who I am, all the good and bad.

There were no whispered rumors today, no barbed insinuations or oblique put-downs. Everyone was too surprised to stick to the script. The only thing anyone could talk about was how Kyoko-san looked like a totally different person today, and something good must have happened. Homeroom started mercifully soon after, so I didn't think anyone had reached any conclusions. So far, my secret was still safe. A few delicate inquiries between classes confirmed this; no one knew the reason for Kyoko-san's behavior. The girls were either discouraged or dismissive, based mostly on whether they thought all their hard work had been erased or whether this was a last brave front she was putting up before total collapse. The boys were glad she was rising above the torment, and true to what I said earlier one even mentioned she "wasn't bad-looking". Shoko-chan was silent, not willing to discuss the matter right now. I guessed she was still mulling things over. In a way, that was scarier than if she had openly suspected me.

I hadn't expected it to have such a dramatic effect so soon. I was just trying to cheer Kyoko-san up, not turn the whole class upside down. I began to have serious second thoughts. If it was going to be like this, maybe I should have openly befriended her from the start? More importantly, she looked like she was really looking forward to tonight. That's right... I promised to see her after school. Not anywhere really spectacular; I couldn't go anywhere popular for fear of being spotted by someone from our class, but there was still lots to do in Tokyo while you're incognito.

That meant I needed to leave school without Ryou again... I needed to tell him. This time in person, if only to make up for blowing him off yesterday.

It was easy to meet with Ryou when I needed to (so why don't we see each other more often? I brushed that thought aside.) He always went to the rooftop during lunch; maybe he didn't get along with his classmates? He was leaning against the fence, staring out across the Tokyo skyline. His lunchbox was in open in his hand but still untouched, neglected. When I said "hi" to get his attention, he turned toward me with glassy eyes like he'd just woken up. He nodded without much enthusiasm. "Oh, hey Fuuka."

I shrunk back a little, trying to look very small. "I'm really sorry about yesterday." He continued looking at me blankly. "I know I should have told you earlier, but things got hectic and I got completely caught up in it... I sent you a message as soon as I could... I'm really sorry. Can you forgive me?"

Ryou blinked, waking up from his nap. "Huh? Oh. OH! Right, yesterday. Yeah, don't worry about it. Things happen."

Was he even listening? I didn't really feel like I'd been forgiven. No... more like he didn't really recognize I'd done anything wrong. "And... I'm not going to be able to make it tonight, either. There's something important I need to do."

He completely accepted this. "Okay, cool. There's something I need to do too, so that works out well. Thanks for letting me know."

What was this? It would have been better if he hadn't forgiven me and responded coolly. If he'd brushed me off or sulked, I at least would have felt like a connection had been attempted but walled off. But this was a totally different kind of reaction. He spoke too much like a stranger or casual acquaintance. I wasn't a bother or a hindrance to him... I wasn't really an anything. I felt like a hole had been drilled in my foot and all my color and meaning were draining out. Whether he walked home with me or not didn't matter. I didn't matter.

"Fine," I said with a hard edge. It was the only thing keeping the tears out of my voice. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow. Maybe." Then I bolted down the stairwell, hardly paying attention that another pair of students passed me by on my way down.

I wasn't sure why I added that last word. After two days without each other, wouldn't it be all the more important to meet each other? Wouldn't missing any more set a bad precedent? It was all going wrong. Even though the Kyoko-san situation was going so well, things with Ryou were going worse than ever. I realized with dread I needed to go somewhere I really didn't want to be. I needed to speak with Akasaka Ai-san.

Her friends were there, but she wasn't. "Back for more, huh?" said the dark-haired girl as I approached. Miyuki-san, I think. "I'm surprised. After the treatment she gave you I figured you'd never want to come back. Let me apologize for that, by the way... she usually isn't like that, you just caught her at a bad time..."

The other girl, Ami-san nodded emphatically. "Speaking of bad times, though, she has errands to run. I don't think she'll be back before the lunch period ends. Sorry!" I was sorry, too. Sorry I swallowed my pride and came down here for nothing. "Hey, aren't you going out with Katamino Ryousuke-kun? Do know if he was in Shibuya last night?"

... Where was this going? "I don't know where he was last night... I wasn't with him. Why? What was Ryou doing in Shibuya?"

"Nothing!" Miyuki-san elbowed her friend in the ribs while staring at me, her face looking like plastic. "Nothing at all! I'm sure it was someone else anyway!"

"O... kay." Now that I thought about it, what had Ryou been up to last night? While I was with Kyoko-san, what had he been up to behind my back? And why did these girls seem so interested in it? Were they trying to tell me something? Could Ai-san have something to do with why Ryou seemed so-

No. That's stupid. I pushed a rancid thought from my head, but the scent lingered. Just a whiff sent panic tearing through me; I had to believe there wasn't a connection there. I stamped it down until it was gone... yes, there was no reason those two would be connected. None at all.

I know you don't want to be hearing about my love life. I wouldn't be telling you this except... it's important. Even while I was trying to help you I had this in the back of my mind, too. I don't know if it excuses anything, but... please. Just put up with me on this.