Pinku's whole body twinged with anticipation as her alarm clock coaxed her to rise. It was the start of her second semester at high school, with new teachers and students to meet during the day, and she was not looking forward to it. Still, knowing how much time she needed to get ready in the morning, she dragged herself out of bed for a quick shower. Then came her regime.

First, she savagely dried her long bleached hair with a hot blower, picking out the streaks of magenta-pink hair with a comb so that they weren't buried in the messy nest of hair that resulted. Then she took out the pale white concealer that contrasted starkly with her deeply tanned skin and applied it heavily on her lips and around her eyes so that she looked almost cat-like.

Her school uniform was a plain sailor style with a white blouse and burgundy skirt, but nearly two months ago, she had added two inches of length to her skirt by sewing on a burgundy ribbon. With her plain black shoes, she wore a pair of brightly colored socks—pink with white polka-dots—and she wore them up to her knees. The two inches of extra skirt and the special socks might not take effect right away on her first day of the new semester, but chances were, they would be a big hit the second day.

Her mother dropped her off at the school building, something Pinku was always grateful for. As the car pulled up to park just feet away from the front steps, Pinku sneered at the multitude of other teenagers she saw swarming around.

"Have a good day!" Her mother always wished her that before unlocking the car doors, and always with a gooey-warm smile.

Pinku couldn't help but soften a little and reply, "You too, Mom," before climbing out of the car.

As her mother drove away, Pinku turned around to face the building, hiking her backpack up onto her left shoulder. For a moment, she just stood to observe how many people seemed to notice her. There were a few that she knew only noticed her because of her hair and makeup, while others held her with deeper recognition. Seeing a few of the latter, she snorted with satisfaction and marched confidently up the steps.

Before heading to the classroom, she ran her usual custom of "taking attendance", as she called it. While making her way through the crowded hallways of lockers and students in uniform, she noticed a pair of green socks with white dots, blue socks with white dots, yellow socks with white dots, and red socks with white dots. She made sure to lock eye contact with each girl wearing each pair of socks, but said nothing, and didn't even slow her trek. Including her, all five were accounted for. With a grin, she took out her cell phone and opened a text conversation with four other people, their usernames Midori, Ao, Kiiro, and Akai: Good luck w sem 2.

Pinku's first class was Social Sciences, and she had a new teacher. Seeing the unfamiliar face, she released a controlled sigh as she moved through the room to take the backmost seat. She barely heard the bubbling roar of her classmates talking, getting out every bit of gossip they could before class began. Sitting with a slouch, her eyes followed the new teacher, waiting for that moment when she would look at her new student with exasperation and judgment. But the teacher was occupied enough organizing her lesson plans and other papers.

"Quiet now, class," the new teacher said, her voice raised over the din. Gradually, the students silenced and seated. "I am Su Kawatta, and you may call me Kawatta-sensei. As I take attendance, please respond loudly and clearly…"

Pinku slouched further in her chair, her fists clenching the edge of her desk. Don't be stupid. Don't say it. Don't be stupid. As always, she knew she would be the last name called, always at the end of the alphabet: "Yoki Zenya," Kawatta-sensei called.

"Here," Pinku responded firmly. She heard a soft sigh and pursed her lips. Don't.

"Zenya-san," the teacher said, "how you compose yourself outside of school is your own affair, but I won't allow manba to distract my class. Do you take my meaning?"

Manba was the common term for the style of hair and makeup that Pinku and others like her adopted: the bleached hair, the deep tan, the colored hair, the heavy makeup. After a momentary inner storm, Pinku calmly met her teacher's eye and replied, "I do, Kawatta-sensei."

"Good. I thought you would."

As the teacher commenced with the lesson for the day, Pinku paid no attention. She sneaked her cell phone out of her backpack and hid it in her lap as she opened the same text window from before: SKwttEi. M&M.

It wasn't five seconds before she received responses:

Midori: M1. 4th.

Ao: M2. 2nd.

When she pressed the button to lock her phone, it also seemed like a switch for her mood as she was instantly able to shrug off her teacher's remarks and she dedicated herself to the lesson, taking notes with a purple-ink pen.

The rest of the morning was fairly uneventful, as her teachers for her other lessons were ones she'd known from the previous semester. Pinku couldn't help being a little excited for lunchtime. It was the first time she would be eating in the cafeteria instead of in a classroom. Going through the meal queue, she happily slid her tray along, picking and choosing what out of the available selection she wanted to eat. The lunch lady working behind the counter was very warm and friendly, and didn't seem at all startled by Pinku's manba as she smiled and offered her a soda.

Yet for all her excitement, Pinku did not anticipate the bit of tension underlying her decision of where to sit. The cafeteria was a bustling sea of noise and activity, people clearly divided into groups of friends, jocks, and classmates. Not being part of a group herself, she had no understanding of where to sit.

She stomped her foot, dispelling her intimidation. It was silly, really. It had been two months, and she still forgot how to use her image. Peeling off a pre-printed pink sticky note from the pad in her backpack, she carried her tray into the valley of tables. The table by the large picture window was clearly the best, especially with the sunlight pouring in on this clear day, so she walked by. At one point, the sticky note fluttered out of her grasp, landing in someone's food tray.

"Hey, who's throwing stuff in my food?" the girl giggled, nudging the boy she was sitting next to.

Pinku halted in her tracks.

The girl quieted as she picked up and looked at the symbol printed on the sticky note. Then she turned around and saw Pinku, alarmed by her manba. "Did you drop this?" she asked.

Pinku kept her eyes locked on the girl and replied in an even tone, "I don't drop things."

The girl took a moment to notice that Pinku's skirt was lengthened beyond the typical regulations and recognized the bright-color-with-white-polka-dots socks. In a whirl, she turned back to the friends at her table: "I'm getting too hot sitting in the sun. Can we move?"

Everyone readily agreed with her, and in seconds, the table was cleared. Her face the epitome of innocence, Pinku shrugged slightly and sat down with her backpack and tray to eat her lunch. She pretended not to notice the stares and whispers of "sukeban" and "gang member", but the more of it she heard, the more relaxed she felt, and the better she could enjoy her first cafeteria experience.

Her mood improved even more when she returned to Kawatta-sensei's classroom for Psychology class after lunch. All students arrived and were in their seats before there was any sight of the teacher. Kawatta-sensei came through the door two minutes late, slowly crossing to her desk as she continued to rifle through her coat pockets. She set her folders and papers down, then took off her coat, shaking it and digging desperately through all outside and inside pockets. The class quieted their gossip and antics as they noticed that the back of their teacher's coat was scorched with a large hole burned through near the bottom. When Kawatta-sensei realized her class was staring, she hurriedly stashed her coat behind her desk with a huff of embarrassment.

"I apologize for my tardiness, class," she said in a weary voice. "I misplaced my wallet and took a late lunch looking for it. If anyone could find it and return it to me, I'd…I'd appreciate it." Her brow scrunched in puzzlement as she bent to pick up something from the floor, something that had fallen from her coat: a piece of blue paper. Her eyes widened as she read it. She looked up at her students a moment, nervously considering them, then looked back at the paper and seemed to read aloud from it: "I would also like to apologize if I insulted anyone earlier. A student's clothes and personal style are unique to them and who they are, and their individuality should be celebrated, not censored." She swallowed hard and stuffed the paper into her coat pocket. "For today, perhaps it would be better…Psychology can be difficult to swallow, so perhaps for the first day, today, you can all engage in some solitary study. Take out your textbooks and silently study the first chapter. I will prepare a small five-question quiz on the chapter for tomorrow, so…to it, then."

The students remained quiet as requested, but looks passed between them as they wondered about the change in their teacher.

Pinku immediately took out her textbook and began to study and take notes, trying to hold back her habit of humming while she worked.


The dismissal bell rang. Midori walked with her friends to their lockers, feeling content with her first day of the new semester and with the classes she was taking.

"I'm glad we have Mizuno-sensei for science," she said. "She's good with taking the time to explain things well."

"I know," Sakura replied, "and I need all the help I can get with science."

"Neko Burger anyone?" Tori asked.

"Not me," Midori sighed. "I have to go home and watch my sister. Mom and Dad's anniversary." Opening her locker, she took out a handsome brown Victorian-style long coat. While she worked on buttoning it, she saw Sakura pluck up the matching buckled top hat and playfully plunk it on her head of long wavy hair. Midori chuckled, "Thanks."

"You know," Tori said, "I don't mind the classic lolita style, in fact I really like it on you, but the green polka-dot socks?"

Midori smiled with a sparkle in her eye. "I know. But lolita can be boring sometimes without a little bit of fun." She slipped on an elegant pair of gloves, then took up her backpack—a shoulder bag that matched her classic style. "See you tomorrow!"

Midori hated taking the train. Of all the things she hated in all the world, taking the train was the worst. But she had no choice, considering how far away she lived. So she stood on the platform, idly throwing a green yo-yo as she watched some of the other people milling about. As always, there was the man near the corner by the trashcan who played a drum made of an overturned bucket. She was often surprised by how cool it sounded. There was a woman trying to keep her young children away from the edge of the platform. But most worth noting were all the other men: how many there were, if they were traveling alone, their age, and whether or not they were occupied with a cell phone or newspaper. She needed to know who to avoid.

The train glided in and hissed to a halt. Like a pouncing cat, Midori darted for the doors as soon as they slid open. But the car was already packed, with no seats available. You've got to be kidding me. She took her place at the only strap she could find, holding on as the train lurched to a start and moved along the track. As she became used to the balance of the moving train, she released her hold on the strap. With her right hand continuously throwing the yo-yo, she used her now-free left hand to take out her cell phone and check her text messages. She had only just punched in the code to unlock her phone when she felt a hand slide over her rear and rest there. Take it off, take it off! Then she could feel the hand gently apply pressure.

She felt heat rise to her face as she forcefully punched her phone screen with her thumb, opening up a special app she had downloaded. Once open, the app flashed a message, which she showed over her shoulder to the man behind her: Excuse me, did you just grope me?

Her only response from the man was more pressure.

She tapped the angry face icon on the app and showed him the new set of words: Groping is a crime.

But still the hand remained.

The app's next step would be to show a message that threatened police action, but Midori had a far better tactic. The yo-yo was a very deceptive little toy; considering the ease with which she threw it and its green enamel paint, it appeared to be a regular plastic yo-yo. But when Midori flicked her wrist, throwing the yo-yo back between the man's legs, he discovered that it was no ordinary plastic yo-yo, but a painted lead yo-yo.

In an instant, she could feel she was free from his grip and heard a sharp intake as the man tried to keep his pain a private matter.

Midori shook her head and deleted the app from her phone. I should've known it wouldn't work. Then a new text message popped up for her: Pinku: Good work with sensei today.

Midori replied:

Anytime.


Ao was in no rush to head home after school. Her stomach gurgling told her that maybe she should spend her study time somewhere with good food. The closest place to the school was Neko Burger. Ao sneered at the saccharine smiling cat statue that greeted guests at the door—even though she secretly thought it was sort of cute—and stepped inside. Keeping her head bowed, she subtly scanned the area, particularly the service counter. One set of people was ideal: there was a group of four guys lined up together at the cash register nearest the bathrooms. Without a backpack, her arms were full of textbooks, papers, and folders, so she found an unoccupied table next to the wall and set her things there. At the bottom of the pile was a folder that she pried open to retrieve one piece of pre-printed blue paper. Then she casually crossed toward the bathrooms, and without anyone noticing, stuffed the piece of paper into one of the boys' large hoodie pocket.

The boy, feeling the slight tug on his hoodie, found the paper inside, but by then, Ao had already turned the corner to go into the girls' bathroom. He read the paper, then frantically nudged his buddies so that they could look as well.

"May I serve you?" asked the counter clerk.

The boys put in their orders, then the boy read from the paper, "And one cheeseburger, fries, and small chocolate shake."

When Ao returned to her table, she saw the boys take their trays of food to their table, which was in easy view from where she sat. Satisfied, she opened one of her textbooks to study, working patiently.

About a half hour later, the boys got up from their table, looking around the room as they left the building—leaving behind one uneaten meal of a cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake.

Excited and hungry, Ao eagerly collected her school things and shifted over to their abandoned table to eat the food. Also sitting on the table was the blue paper she had dropped off, with instructions and a symbol. She put it back in her folder to reuse it another time. Then she brushed her pigtails behind her, rolled up her sleeves, and attacked the cheeseburger.

Her cell phone buzzed an alert. Wiping her hands on her skirt, she moved her finger along the cracked screen to open her text messages:

Pinku: Good work with sensei today.

Ao smiled and replied:

no prob will split m2 w gang

Not a moment later, a reply popped up. It startled her, not expecting one so soon, and read:

Pinku: Keep it.

Ao's smiled flickered as she felt tears push through her eyes. She forced a small laugh through them, taking a big, relishing bite of her cheeseburger. Then she wiped her hands and replied: thks While eating her free meal, she stared at the text messages, reading them over and over and wondering, Does she know? Is that why she wants me to keep it all myself? I hope she doesn't know…well, I guess… She swallowed a mouthful of fries. I hope she doesn't know.


Pinku found her mother's car waiting for her after school. Her mother always had a big smile waiting for her, and Pinku returned with a big smile as she climbed into the car.

"Have a good day?" her mother asked.

It always made Pinku laugh that her mother said the exact same thing when she dropped her off and picked her up, especially since her mother never seemed to realize. "Yeah, it was okay. Just a couple of my classes I don't think I'll like."

"Are your teachers giving you a hard time about your manba?"

Pinku shrugged. "Just one did."

Her mother moved one hand off the steering wheel to pat her daughter's hand. "You know you don't have to wear it anymore, hon."

"I know," Pinku replied quietly, "but I'd…I dunno, I'd feel weird without it."

"I know," her mother sighed softly. Then she smiled lightly and said, "It's your decision, hon, but I do miss your cute face."

A smile tugged at Pinku's cheek. "I know, Mom. I promise I won't wear it forever."

When they got home, her mother made spaghetti for supper—her stepbrother's favorite western food—then they all sat together to watch their favorite game shows. Pinku's mother and stepfather took their cozy spot on the couch as they always did, and her stepbrother Kuon took the big armchair. She stood in front of him with hands on her hips, blocking his view of the TV. He was a year younger, but always acted like the older brother with his conquering attitude.

"What's it gonna be?" Pinku asked him.

"It should be you moving outta my way," he replied, leaning to catch a glimpse of the TV.

"Headlock it is!" Pinku hardly got the words out of her mouth before she attacked him, hooking her arm around his head and pulling him out of the chair with a laugh.

He gasped and pretended to be choked, then tickled her stomach, which made her let go. Still, she was faster and planted herself in the chair with a "HA!" of triumph.

"You two are louder than the show," her stepfather remarked.

Both children chimed, "So-rry, Dad," in the same mocking singsong tone.

Kuon made himself comfortable on the floor when his hand brushed something—a pink sticky note with a symbol on it. It looked like a lollipop with the kanji for "revenge" drawn on the candy. "What's this?" he asked.

Pinku tried not to look guilty. "I dunno. Must have been stuck to my shoe or something."

"Since when do you wear shoes in the living room?"

Pinku tucked her stocking feet behind her as she readjusted her sitting position. She pretended to search her clothes for other things stuck to them, then simply shrugged. "The hallways at school are always littered with random cra…" She stopped herself, glancing toward her parents. "…random stuff."

"Whatever." Kuon crumpled it up and threw it toward the coffee table.

Pinku made a mental note to throw it away the moment she got up from the chair.

"BANZAI!" The familiar silly alert tone sounded from her phone, startling her mother.

"Can you silence that while we're watching?" her mother requested.

"Sorry." Pinku turned down the volume and opened her text window.

Kiiro: HFjymAi & TFjykAi ruined by not;ebook in the mudd

Pinku sighed. Kiiro's texts always got sloppy when she was really upset.

Pinku: Chem avail.?

Akai: me

Kiiro: tytytyty

Pinku chuckled. Kiiro always thanked them too much. But it was gratitude like that which always made her feel good about their little gang.

She almost wished she knew who they were.


ALMOST TWO MONTHS AGO

Ao: got a note saying to txt u?

Kiiro: me 2

Midori: Same here.

Akai: same

Pinku: I'm glad u all did. I hope u don't mind but I noticed u were all having kinda a rough time. I've been having a rough time too. Thought we could all help each other.

Midori: Who are you?

Pinku: A kindred spirit. A misfit, really. I don't really wanna give my name & don't think u should either.

Ao: I agree

Midori: You don't know our names, and we can't know yours, but we're supposed to help each other?

Kiiro: so?

Akai: how?

Pinku: I put together an idea. I'll send it as an attch. Just look it over and let me know.

Ao: cool

Kiiro: um

Midori: Is this what I think it is?

Akai: on board

Midori: Really?

Ao: srsly?

Akai: sure

Pinku: Good. Anyone else?

Ao: yeah I guess

Kiiro: I don;t knoiw

Midori: I'd say no, but should I be afraid to?

Pinku: Absolutely not, M. I promise it's all your own decision.

Midori: A promise from some anonymous person who stalked me and calls herself Pinku? Yeah, I feel really comfortable with that.

Ao: this will work?

Akai: well thought out

Kiiro: rly?

Pinku: Thanks, Ak. None of u have to decide today. Just let me know if u decide to.

Ao: ok I'm in

Pinku: r u sure?

Ao: yeah

Akai: I'm in

Kiiro: umm

Midori: I'm not. Thanks, I guess, but no.

Kiiro: is it, ok can I try it & see?

Pinku: Yes, K, u can try it & pull out if u decide not to.

Kiiro: ok

Pinku: Midori, u know how 2 reach me if u change ur mind.

Midori: Yeah, thanks. I won't. And please delete my contact.

Pinku: Done, M. Everyone else, thnks for joining Lolipop Fukushuu!

Akai: P?

Pinku: Yes, Ak?

Akai: howd u know?

Pinku: That ur having a rough time?

Akai: yes

Pinku: I didn't know for sure. U seemed happier than the rest of us.

Akai: so how?

Pinku: U didn't sound happy when ur dad called u.

Akai: oh I didn't think ne1 else was in the bathrm

Pinku: I didn't mean 2 b nosey

Akai: u were hiding?

Pinku: Have a nice weekend!


PRESENT DAY

"Shall I pick you up at the usual time, then, miss?"

"Yes, Buretu, thanks."

Akai climbed out of the silver Maserati and waved to the chauffeur as he drove off. The school was still and silent; it was too early yet for any students to arrive. But as Akai pulled open the front door, she knew it was not too early for the custodians. She paused for a moment, making sure the halls were, at the moment, empty. There was only one custodial cart in sight that she would need to keep tabs on. As for the security cameras, she smiled and waved to them as she walked by, her steps quick but deft.

Just as the custodian was coming out of a classroom to rejoin his cart, Akai ducked inside the chemistry lab. The door was unlocked, meaning it had already been visited by a custodian, giving her less to worry about. One lock that would give her trouble, however, was the one on the classroom cabinet. Weaving through the lab tables, she set down her designer shoulder bag and approached the cabinet. A combination lock—easy. She slowly turned the dial until she felt a settling click. Then she turned it the other way for another click, then back the other way for the final click, and in no time, the cabinet was open.

Backtracking to her bag, she took from it an empty glass water bottle and unscrewed the lid. Then she mused in front of the cabinet a moment, her eyes scanning over the various bottles and their labels, until she spied a glass bottle with clear liquid labeled nitric acid solution. Borrowing some gloves and goggles, she slowly and carefully filled her empty water bottle halfway with the solution. Then she returned everything to the cabinet, locked it, and took out a pair of gloves from her bag, slipping them on—they looked almost identical to a designer brand, the outside lined with soft beige leather, but they fit fairly uncomfortably with the inside lining being a very thick, tough leather. She kept them on as she slung on her bag and carried the water bottle with her out of the room. With no one in sight yet, she waved to the cameras again and left the building, taking a spot on the stairs outside to read.

It wasn't long until teachers began arriving, then students. Her circle of friends were among the first of the students to arrive, as usual, including her upperclassman boyfriend, Ren. As he approached, he exaggerated his surprise at seeing her there, jutting his head back and shouting, "Are you kidding me?! I thought for once, I might beat you here, but you still got here before me!" He stood over her with his fists on his hips, being comically commanding. "One of these days, I'm going to be here first and get that great big kiss like you promised."

Akai chuckled. "Just sit down and stop pouting," she said as she carefully set down the water bottle beside her, away from him.

"Geez, are your hands cold again?" he asked, taking her gloved hands in his.

"Yeah."

"You need more meat on your bones, warm you up better. For the sake of your health and general well being, I think I'll have to treat you to a burger after school today."

"I can't argue with professional opinion." She pecked a quick, sweet kiss on his mouth.

"PDA, PDA!" their friends shouted.

"Oh, shuddup!" Ren shouted in return. "You're all just jealous."

But Akai wasn't paying attention. Looking past her mob of friends, she saw Pinku arrive. As she walked by, Akai locked eyes with her and nodded, all so quickly that not even Ren noticed.


Kiiro sat in the back of her first-period math class, trying not cry. Normally, in lieu of taking notes, she would be drawing and writing in her notebook, creating the latest manga adventures of her cute-creature hero named PataPata. But her notebook and her drawings were ruined by muddy streaks, some of them stuck together and unable to come apart without getting torn. Nearly a month's work on her manga was destroyed. At the moment, she didn't have the heart to draw more. All she could do was draw a sketch of a sad, teary-eyed PataPata and whisper, "I'm sorry," to the pitiful critter. She had been so upset that morning, that she didn't even bother looping the longer strands of her hime hairstyle, letting it just all hang limp in uneven lengths.

Then the teacher announced that it was time to turn in their assignments. As Kiiro looked for hers, she heard two girls scream. Looking up with anticipation, Kiiro watched as the two girls who had destroyed her notebook the day before held up their backpacks.

"What the hell?!" one of them cried. "My papers and books are all…"

"…burned and wet!" the other finished.

"Shoot, my phone's in there!"

The teacher stepped forward to look. "No, don't put your hands in! It looks like somehow acid got spilled in your bags. Do you girls have any idea how this happened?"

The girls looked at each other with bewilderment, then back in their bags. They seemed to, at the same time, notice red sticky notes with symbols stamped on them, the only things miraculously not destroyed by the acid. The girls looked at each other again and slowly shook their heads. "No, sensei, we don't."

Kiiro tried to suppress her grin as she took out her own phone and texted: tytytytyty


Pinku read the text during lunch as she sat alone in the cafeteria at the same table she had claimed the day before. The gratuitous "thank you"s made her chuckle. I bet Kiiro is one of those cute girls, like a little sister type. As she continued eating her food, she found herself wondering about the others.

Ao seems kinda tough. She never says much and she's a bit on the short side, but…every time I've seen her she has this look in her eye like she's staring everybody down, like a guard dog. I don't know why, but it makes me imagine that she's the middle child in a big family.

Akai is the girl that everyone wants to be. She's pretty, she's popular, she's rich. I'm guessing her dad is too busy to spend time with her. But there's something more…they always say that the perfect ones are hiding something, and I'm sure that's right with her. I just don't know what it is.

Midori is the older sister. Akai's the oldest, I think, but Midori acts older, more mature. She seems refined. Maybe she's rich, too. She'd kinda have to be to afford classic lolita clothes.

Looking around the cafeteria, Pinku found each of the girls. All of them had friends to sit with. The number of friends changed, but all of them had friends, even though two of them were first-years, like herself.

"BANZAI!"

She jumped, turning down the volume of her phone's alarm. Then she checked the newly arrived text message:

Midori: I think we should meet each other.

Pinku looked up at Midori, three tables away. The message wasn't sent to the whole group—just her. She replied:

I think not knowing each other is a good strategy for us.

She saw Midori look down—perhaps she was hiding her phone in her lap. Then a new reply popped up:

Midori: You started this gang as a support group. We're off to a good start,

but we could support each other in more ways if we knew each other.

Pinku wasn't even finished reading the message when Midori added:

I don't mean to poke my nose in our sukeban's business, but you seem lonely.

Pinku felt her spine grow rigid. She kept her eyes focused on the phone instead of Midori and forcefully tapped out a reply: Drop it.

She couldn't stand it: the entire school was afraid of Lolipop Fukushuu. Even teachers were afraid to report the gang activities they experienced because of the possible consequences. But Midori only saw her leader as a weak, lonely little first-year.

She privately texted Akai:

Any chem left?

Akai: yes

At the end of the school day, when Midori went to her locker to get her coat and hat, her favorite top hat was ruined, corroded with acid. She simply sighed and texted Pinku: Understood.