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Where did he go?”

Kyoko looked at Yukio. Hurt. Kuri-chan had hurt him, and so had Urufu.

Who cares?”

Yukio!” She loved him. That didn’t mean she couldn’t admonish him. “I care, and so do you.” And so does Noriko. Noriko, I’m so sorry.

They needed to find Noriko, and she needed to convince both her and Yukio to go searching for Urufu. Or rather, she needed to convince Yukio to lead them to wherever Urufu was, because she was certain Yukio knew.

Outdoors was a baking oven despite August running towards its end. That baking oven cooked Kuri-chan and a Ryu who was as smugly satisfied today as he’d been ragingly angry yesterday.

You idiot! Idiots! Both of you. Cause they were. Best friend be damned. Kuri-chan was still her best friend, but this time she really pushed that friendship to its limits. How could you?

Does it change anything?” Yukio asked.

Kyoko grabbed his hand and forced him through the entrance and into the blazing sun. It was like walking into a wall of heat. Despite lying almost at the very edge of the ocean not a single gust of wind reached the resort.

I have to help Noriko. She deserves better.”

And if she doesn’t want to be helped?”

She definitely wouldn’t want to be helped, but she needed to. Kyoko had already made her mind up. Memories of Kuri-chan’s panicked look when the four of them returned a day late from Ise lingered in Kyoko’s mind.

Idiot! You broke up with him. You don’t have the right to be jealous any longer. But she had been. And she had done something about it. I wonder if you’ll even keep his friendship after this? Because Kuri-chan hadn’t tried to get together with Urufu again. Kyoko was sure about that.

I’m ashamed of being his friend.”

Yukio! Never say that again! Besides, he didn’t...”

He could have said no!” Yukio interrupted. His voice rose to a growl. Then a glimmer of fear reached his eyes.

Oh no! You don’t get to be scared of me. You have every right to be angry. “Yukio, I understand. I know you’re not angry at me.”

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean...”

I understand.” Kyoko hugged him close despite the heat. “I understand.”

Our pockets?” Yukio suddenly asked, and Kyoko loved him all the more for how he dared change his mind when needed.

Despite the worry she felt in her heart Kyoko grinned. “Noriko will pay for her share.”

Yesterday Urufu paid their salaries. For being teenagers they were loaded. Half a million yen shared between them ought to suffice for hunting down Urufu wherever he had gone.

Then let’s go fetch her.” Yukio finally nodded, and Kyoko almost jumped out of his arms and rushed indoors. She had already prepared three daypacks and she didn’t intend to give Yukio the chance to change his mind back again.

They needed to find Noriko quickly. They had to find her before the sight of Kuri-chan and her brother filled her with disgust, and if Kyoko knew Noriko right, self hatred.

Yukio, follow me!”

Kyoko didn’t wait for an answer but dragged her boyfriend after her as soon as he was done attaching the small backpack to his back. One of her own on her back, one in her hand and Yukio in the other she ran to the beach despite the heat. Halfway there she had ordered the taxi thanks to a headset dangling precariously from one ear, and less than a minute later she found Noriko.

Kyoko waved at the girl, but Noriko’s eyes were fixed at the shoot where Kyoko knew both Kuri-chan and Ryu were to be found. Kuri-chan because of work, and Ryu, well Ryu because he finally cemented his relationship with his girlfriend since a few months.

Noriko!”

That finally drew her attention, and she looked back. This time she even waved back.

Over here, Noriko!”

Their friend stood up in momentary confusion and pointed at herself. Kyoko nodded and beckoned her to her.

What’s going on?” Noriko said when they were close enough to talk. Her voice was subdued, just like her entire being was subdued since a day.

We’re going to have a long talk with Urufu,” Kyoko said.

It hurt to see how mentioning his name brought even more sadness and pain to Noriko’s eyes.

If you want to slap him I’ll help pin him down,” Kyoko promised.

He just vanished.”

Behind them Yukio coughed to get their attention. Both girls turned their heads to hear what he had to say.

He didn’t just vanish. He’s visiting family, or something.” Yukio’s eyebrows twisted together at his insane statement. “His family from that other world. Anyway, I know where he is.”

Huh?”

Kyoko stared at Noriko rather than her boyfriend. For once the girl looked stunned with confusion. Not a trace of sadness was to be seen on a face that was busy showing exactly how flabbergasted Yukio’s words had made her. Yukio, you’re my hero. I love you!

Look. In that other world he had relatives here. That’s where he got his looks from. OK?”

That kind of made sense. If he was a half then the other half by definition had to have roots here in Japan, even if it was a Japan in another world. Almost the same. The worlds are almost the same. He always says that.

By her side Noriko’s face had taken on a bit of determination, and inside of her Kyoko shouted with joy at watching that new expression.

We’re going to him, and this time we’re making sure you get him.” Kyoko wondered how she could be so certain. “He’s fond of you. More than fond given what he agreed to in Ise.” Because, if Urufu really didn’t have any interest in Noriko at all, then Kyoko was certain he’d either have bedded her for real or simply refused to share the bed in the first place.

You think so?” And at once Noriko’s face reverted to the misery that had been plastered to it for a day.

Look, Noriko,” Yukio said. He stared down at his feet when he spoke, as if he didn’t dare face their friend. “Urufu’s been hurting like hell. I don’t think what he did was a beginning.”

But he slept with her!”

For the next minute or so Kyoko just held the sobbing girl in her arms. Despite Yukio’s clumsy words Kyoko understood he only meant well, and maybe Noriko needed to be reminded of what had happened to move on.

Still staring at his feet Yukio waited until Noriko’s sobs had subsided before he dared speak again. “You know, I think that was his way of ending it. I believe they said good bye.”

For a while Yukio’s words only resulted in silence.

What makes you think that?”

Kyoko glanced at Yukio over Noriko’s shoulder. You’d better get it right this time.

You saw your brother today.”

Yes?”

I believe something had to break first.”

Huh?”

They’ve been together all this time with nothing happening.”

Yes?”

Would you agree Ryu and Kuri are finally together for real now?”

Kyoko could feel some of the tension in Noriko’s body go away.

Ah. But if she tries to...”

She won’t,” Kyoko said. Now when she understood what Yukio had been aiming at it suddenly made sense. “They’re not getting back together again.” Half a year. The idiots needed half a year to break up.

Then, if what you say is right, Urufu’s really free for the taking?”

Relief at Noriko’s words filled Kyoko. That’s my girl! “Let’s go hunt him down for you, shall we?”





There’s something that’s been bugging me,” Yukio said when they had changed trains once and hopped into a taxi.

Kyoko shifted a little to give room to Noriko who had fallen asleep again. The last day sure had taken its toll on her small frame.

About the entire affair with the four of them?”

Yukio turned to face her. She could see how deep in thought he was. Right now he was thinking aloud rather than talking with her.

No. It’s about the two different worlds thing.” Yukio fell silent again.

Kyoko waited for him to resume his train of thought. In the meanwhile she stared out the windows where small rice paddies were replaced by even smaller tea plantations. They were definitely heading into the mountains, and everything was smaller here. Well, apart from the mountains. Those might be ever present for most Japanese, but being a Tokyoite she had little reasons and even fewer occasions visiting them herself.

The people who talked with Ryu,” she heard Yukio’s voice say. “It’s the thing with a Swedish organisation that keeps bugging me.”

But the arrivals all came from Sweden. Or at least the Sweden in that other world. Kyoko didn’t understand what her boyfriend was getting at.

You see,” Yukio continued as if he’d been reading her mind, “they pop up here in Japan. People who have never existed in this world.”

Yes?” Kyoko said.

He wasn’t. Wasn’t merely thinking aloud that was. She knew he wanted her to react to what he was saying from time to time.

So there’s little reason for that Swedish section for whatever.”

Why not?” Kyoko said. She could hear from his voice that he had reached the point where he was bouncing his thoughts with her.

Urufu told me there had to be a Swedish organisation in that other world, because both he and Kuri got invites, so someone knew what was going to happen.”

That made sense. But a Swedish organisation in this world? Suddenly she felt cold in a way that had nothing to do with the AC in the taxi hammering them with a freezing draught.

So you arrived there as well?” Yukio said. “If there is a Swedish organisation in this world I’m pretty sure there are people vanishing from this one and ending up in another.”

But that means there aren’t just two worlds.”

Yukio nodded. “A chain of them I believe. I can’t explain, but I’d call them upstream and downstream worlds.” He frowned. “I don’t think it’s possible to go back to the world Urufu came from from this one, so upstream.” Then he grinned, an expression he’d had the help from Urufu to master, and one that still melted Kyoko’s heart. “That would make this one a downstream one.”

Under her arm Noriko shifted uncomfortably in her sleep, and Kyoko nudged a little away in her seat to make it a little more comfortable for her petite friend.

And you think this one is an upstream one for another world?”

Yukio nodded. “I have to work on this idea with Urufu, but yeah, I believe so.”

I wonder what it’s like,” Kyoko said as the taxi left what went for a main road up here and started climbing up streets so narrow meeting another car would have been impossible. Would I feel that creepy feeling of almost the same that Kuri-chan spoke about?

What what is like?” Noriko asked sleepily and freed herself from where she had nestled under Kyoko’s arm.

Hello sleepyhead,” Kyoko said. “We’re almost there.”

What what is like?” Noriko repeated.

Kyoko glanced at Yukio.

The thing with two worlds and all that,” he said.

Urufu’s old world?”

Uhum.” Kyoko wanted to have this conversation together with Urufu, just like Yukio, so she chose to give Noriko the simpler answer.

The taxi came to a stop, and Yukio paid the driver.

We’re here?” Noriko said, and Kyoko smiled at how she turned her head in search of Urufu.

A short guffaw had them both look at Yukio.

Almost,” he said. “I don’t know exactly where it is, but I have his mother’s maiden name, so I thought we’d ask in the shop here,” Yukio added and nodded at a small shop squeezed in between two houses.

Kyoko watched him go inside while she shouldered her backpack. Noriko did the same.

Looking around Kyoko noted how everything was small except the houses. Apparently, in a relative sense, there was more space here, but also more money. Where she lived houses like these would have cost a fortune, or rather the plot they stood on. Housing in Tokyo was brutally expensive according to her parents.

They were also surrounded by a less oppressive heat. It was still hot, but no longer the brutal heat at the resort. The valley the sides of which the village climbed funnelled a weak breeze that refreshed the air, and Kyoko stood admiring the greenery further up the mountainsides together with her friend until Yukio came back out from the shop.

Straight ahead and just across a public parking place. She said we couldn’t miss it,” Yukio added and nodded at the shop he had just left. “Anyone wants a snack? I couldn’t just ask and not buy anything.”

Which house?”

Urufu once told me I’d know if I ever saw it, but that he didn’t understand himself. The lady in the shop basically said the same thing.”

He didn’t understand it himself?” Noriko said.

Yukio shouldered his backpack and took the lead. “This was back before Himekaizen,” he said over his shoulders. His safe and wonderful shoulders. “There was a time when it was important for him to tell me memories of his.”

Kyoko wondered where this was going, but for now she was content with listening to Yukio’s voice. This was the voice of a boy who made best friends with Urufu. Not the disillusioned Yukio of recent. She preferred the Yukio who took pride in his friend. If for no other reason than because it reminded her of when she still took pride in Kuri-chan. I have to make up with her. Even if I can’t forgive, at least we have to make up.

They rounded a corner and suddenly a small gravel parking place spread out before them.

Oh gods!

Across it old style Japanese houses competed for space with more modern ones. All in what both Urufu and Kuri-chan had described as a faux European style. And then there was the exception. It shouted out it’s foreignness, blared how it didn’t belong here and in general made her wonder if the builders had taken leave of their brains.

It also spoke of a familiar world. One she had seen on pictures every day since Urufu filled their first club room with photos from Sweden.

Yeah, I see how we couldn’t possibly miss it.

Yellow, standing panel, white corners and tiles a burned orange red colour that basically never roofed a Japanese home. Urufu must have grown up around houses like this one. As alien as it was to her, as much a definition of normality for the child he once was.

Didn’t you say his relatives were Japanese?”

Kyoko looked at Noriko. “Yes, they are.” Well, in as much as this family is related to him. He wasn’t born in this world.

Then, why?” Noriko said and pointed at the abomination across the gravel.

I guess influences work both ways. Why don’t you ask him?”

Ask him? When...”

Kyoko grinned. On the street an open mouthed Urufu stood staring back at them. Even from this distance she could see how shame competed with joy in his eyes.

Noriko, run to him! He’s all yours now.”





Yukio took Kyoko’s hand in his and grinned. He grinned at Noriko rushing ahead across the gravel as if she had forgotten all her pain. He grinned at how much Kyoko had grown the last year. He grinned at how much their love had grown, and at this very moment he grinned with relief when he understood that he still shared feelings of friendship with the idiot who just received a bundle of pure joy in his arms.

Urufu, make her happy! She deserves it. Then Yukio laughed silently. Noriko, make him happy! He deserves it.

Beside him Kyoko squeezed his hand, and when he glanced at her he saw tears forming in her eyes.

Kuri-chan, you idiot!” Her voice was soft and silent, but Yukio heard the words anyway.

Maybe Ryu’s good for her,” Yukio tried.

I hope so. I hope so for all four of them.”

The squeeze got firmer, and Yukio tightened his grip on her hand. “At least they helped us two find each other. Has to count for something.” His voice was a little more shaky than he had expected.

That made the tears leave her eyes. “Oh Yukio! It means the whole world for me! Of course it counts.”

And he knew why her tears mixed sadness with joy. Those who had given the two of them so much happiness broke their own apart.

Man, you hold on to her this time, or I won’t forgive you,” Yukio shouted when he saw the usual signs of awkwardness in Urufu. “You made her cry. You comfort her.” He’d be damned if he let Urufu get a chance to wriggle out of it this time. If he had no feelings for Noriko, well too bad, but Yukio didn’t believe that was the case.

Noriko’s back expressed her gratitude for Yukio’s words. How she managed that while she clung to the man she’d hunted for months Yukio didn’t know, but she did.

Urufu, we’ll leave the two of you alone for a while,” Kyoko said. Then she pulled at Yukio’s hand. “I can’t even begin to express how angry I am with you, but I’m not Noriko, so what I think doesn’t matter.” She pulled harder, and Yukio followed her down the street in the direction of what looked like a derelict school.

Just as he was about to sigh with relief a voice from behind called to them both.

It doesn’t work that way. We’ll tag along. I have too much to apologise for, and not only to Noriko.”

Man, what a bother! Yukio played Urufu’s word in his head again. We, at least he said ‘we’. “Sure. Noriko you can bring your boyfriend.”

Kyoko’s body went rigid beside him. Yukio could feel it through her hand. Looking at her he saw how she held her breath just like he did.

There was no response.

There was none.

Just the sound of feet following them.

This time Yukio didn’t even dare to glance at Kyoko. He stubbornly stared straight ahead of him and hoped the street would lead somewhere reasonable.

A gust of wind carried a faint scent of fresh water.

Another the sound of some lonesome cicadas.

They’re frogs,” Urufu’s voice said from behind his back. “When I was a kid I thought they were crickets.”

With that weeks of worries ran off Yukio’s shoulders.

He’ll give it a try. He’ll give her a chance!

Tell me more,” came Noriko’s subdued voice.

Then the footsteps caught up with them, and a little later Yukio saw Urufu and Noriko pass him and Kyoko hand in hand.

They look like a couple.

Yukio knows just about all of it, and I’ll just bore Kyoko.” A slight hesitation. “I’ll tell you as much as you want to listen to later.” Another moments hesitation. “When we’re alone.”

Yukio finally dared to let out the long sigh that had waited inside him. By his side Kyoko did the same.

Now what?” he said.

They were under a canopy of bamboo before Urufu answered. “We’ll get something to drink by the old school.”

After that the four of them walked in silence until they had left a rice paddy behind them and crossed another narrow street. It was Noriko who eventually broke the silence just before a can of soda slammed into the bottom of the vending machine.

Urufu. I’m curious, but did you have any siblings?”

Huh? What kind of question is that? Yukio looked down at Urufu who was busy picking up the can.

Yeah. Two older sisters and one younger.”

And your mother, or father? Whoever is from here?”

Yeah. My aunt.”

Yukio watched a wide grin spread on Urufu’s face.

Oh! Man, that’s some quick thinking!

And he or she moved to Sweden and got married in this world as well?”

Yeah. Mom did, but I was never born here.”

And your father worked in construction?”

How did you know?”

How could anyone not know?

Three of them burst out in laughter. Only Urufu stared back with a nonplussed expression in his face.

That arrogance. You sure got it from your father,” Noriko said, and brought another round of laughter to the three of them.

Huh?”

Your aunt’s house. It should never have been built in Japan. Like never ever even in your dreams.”

But...”

That it still stands and looks like it does is testimony to your father’s skills. He must have been very good.”

Urufu fed a few more coins to the machine and Yukio watched how he picked up drinks for all of them.

He was. He’s retired now, if he’s still alive.” Urufu stared back up in the direction of the alien house. “Archipelago construction. He always said it’d last longer than the neighbouring houses.”

How old is it?” Noriko asked.

Urufu scratched his head. “I wasn’t born yet. Say a little over fifty years old.” He grinned sheepishly. “I always thought it looked strange inside. It’s very Japanese you know. Not the facade, but the inside. Dad said it had to be or it would start to rot.”

Yukio shook his head in wonder. Urufu’s words about change and adaption weren’t his own after all. He’d inherited them. From both sides of his family given how his Japanese side had decided to erect the visual insanity further up the hillside.

Urufu,” Noriko said, “your sisters. They’re alive in this world as well?”

Urufu nodded. He bent his head backwards and gulped down half his soda. “That’s why this feels a little like home.” The can went to his mouth again. “My aunt thinks mom is my grandmother, or at least she pretends that’s what she believes.” He took two steps and discarded the can into the recycling bin.

Urufu, we need to talk,” Yukio said.

I know. Let’s get another bottle each and head back. Could as well introduce you.”





Noriko felt tired. More tired than she had ever done since she accepted she had fallen in love with Urufu again.

He didn’t protest when Yukio suggested he was her boyfriend, but then he didn’t acknowledge that she was neither. That kind of left her in limbo, and now she had to push the issue.

They were seated by a huge wooden table in the house that was indeed strangely Japanese inside. Very traditionally Japanese at that, except for a couple of rooms one of which she sat in right now.

Wooden flooring. She could see the ground beneath her through gaps she believed were deliberate. The room had to be abysmally cold in winter.

Most of the house, the parts that didn’t face the street, could just as well have been from some peculiar Edo era movie. With utility details that must have been modern half a century ago skilfully hidden to preserve the look of an old Japanese rural home.

She drank the impressions. Even if Urufu hadn’t been born into this world, this was still part of what had formed him. Every detail counted now when she was on the verge of finally hauling him in.

The aunt, the old lady of the house, had given her a searching stare and then looked at Urufu. Then, during a fleeting moment when they changed rooms, she grabbed Noriko’s arm.

If you can heal him, then I approve. If you can’t, then break up!”

As demands went that one was unfair, but Noriko didn’t care. If she merely had to move a mountain or two then that was fine. She had smiled at his aunt and met her eyes in what was probably a very rude way.

I don’t need your approval, but I need him whole,” she had answered.

That bought her a wolfish grin and a huge surprise. She never expected Urufu to get that part from his mother’s side.

Right now it was make or break. They were alone. Urufu sat facing her across the table.

I need to know,” Noriko said. “Are we going out?”

If only she could close her ears. Her eyes were already shut as she waited for his answer.

Please, Noriko! Look at me if you want me to answer that question!”

She opened her eyes.

Noriko, there are a number of constraints...”

Yes or no,” she demanded.

He was silent for a moment. “If you want to, yes, but...”

Yes! He said yes! “I understand.” He finally said yes! “You can tell me all about the buts later, but you’re my boyfriend now? I’m your girlfriend?”

I give,” Urufu grinned. “You want this arse of a man you can have him. Yes, you’re my girlfriend, or I your boyfriend, or whatever you prefer.”

Then a sudden second of fear. “But you don’t really love me, or at least won’t tell me if you do?”

Urufu’s eyes went soft and his grin thinned into a smile. Two hands reached out across the table. “That’s the thing. I think I’ve been in love with you for a while now. I… I just never noticed.”

And she needed to make once thing absolutely crystal clear. More for herself than for anyone else. “But you still love Kuri?”

Urufu nodded. “A part of me always will I’m afraid. Do you still want me as your boyfriend knowing that?”

And she needed an edge. A something that was hers alone. “Did you ever tell her you loved her?”

He shook his head. “Never so she heard. I was too scared.”

Do you love me?”

Yes, I love you Noriko.”

It had to suffice. She had something Kuri never got. She had a confession. “I love you Urufu.”

He didn’t spoil the moment by stating the obvious, that he already knew. He just squeezed the hands she had placed in his.

In a way she surprised herself. She’d seen Urufu and Kuri, and she’d seen the awful courtship of Yukio’s and Kyoko’s. Both couples had been madly in love when their mutual feelings were confirmed. Even for Kuri’s part. There was no way the tall beauty hadn’t known all along. For her own part Noriko mostly felt relief. Maybe the burning feelings would come later. Or maybe they had already passed. After all this was the third time she fell in love with him.

But she did feel love. A deep and profound love. So she squeezed back.

It was a perfect moment of shared silence for them. Too perfect.

You can come out now,” Noriko said.

Two, no three faces popped around the door post. All grinning wildly. Then Kyoko dashed to her side.

I’m happy for you!” There was a moment’s hesitation. “For you as well,” she added to Urufu, and Noriko knew her friend hadn’t forgiven him yet. At that moment Noriko understood how she in ways was older than her friends. Kuri and Urufu excepted obviously. And she also understood something equally important. Kuri was her friend. Noriko hadn’t forgiven her for sleeping with Urufu, and maybe she never would, but Kuri was still a friend.

That thought was the final one in a long chain of thoughts and fears. Tears welled up in Noriko’s eyes, but she didn’t try to blink them away. Instead she let go of Urufu’s hands and rose to hug Kyoko.

I’m happy. I’m so happy,” Noriko mumbled into Kyoko’s shoulder. “If that had to happen to end what was already broken, then I can live with it. Maybe they needed an end for us to have a beginning.” There was no maybe, and it wasn’t the end, but it was an end, and it definitely was the beginning for her and Urufu.

If worst came to worst a day would come when she would have to let him go, but even if such a day eventually came, what was the alternative? To never have him at all? A life where she never got to share her love with him? That was no alternative at all.

Are you certain about this?” Kyoko whispered.

Yes,” Noriko answered. And neither her voice nor her mind held any lies. “I love him so very much.”







Despite shame competing with a whole lot of self disdain Ulf looked at the girl he had just confessed his love to. It was real. He felt it in his very bones. He’d always admired honest persistence, and somewhere down the road that admiration had grown into affection and later into what he had to admit was love. When that happened he didn’t know. During the summer that was about to end soon probably.

He saw Noriko take a seat with Kyoko, and the girls spoke softly with each other. On his shoulder he felt Yukio’s hand and on his head one unfamiliar yet so well known.

You’re Akane’s boy. I don’t know how, but I know.”

Yukio’s hand tightened its grip. “Man, we need to talk.”

Aunt, it seems my friends need me for a while.”

The hand in his hair stiffened.

Bloody hell! I forgot where I am.

Akane’s boy,” she said and left the room. “Kanto! What horrid luck. When the kid learns Japanese he speaks Kanto dialect.” A receding giggle accompanied her foot steps.

And how the bleeding hell am I supposed to explain this? Ulf shook the thought away. “OK, you’ve got my attention.”

Yukio grabbed a chair and sat down. This close Ulf began to get a grasp of what the man his best friend would soon grow into would look like.

Urufu, we need to go to Sweden.”

Huh?”

I know you don’t have a passport, but some day.”

Ulf blinked away his confusion. “Sure, I’ll be happy to bring you back home for a visit.”

Yeah, that as well. Man, I’d love to, but that’s not what I’m talking about.”

Across the table the girls had stopped talking.

What’s going on?

When I get older I hope to marry Kyoko.”

If the room had been silent when he held hands with Noriko that was still a deafening cacophony compared to the absolute stillness that hung over them now.

If you want to,” Yukio added in a voice that surprised Ulf by its utter lack of hesitation.

The man he’s already begun to grow into, Ulf accepted. Damn you’re so cool!

If you want to,” Kyoko responded. “I can’t have children, remember?”

An indrawn breath told Ulf Noriko hadn’t wanted that to be spoken out aloud.

Not in this world you can’t,” Yukio said, and Ulf’s head swam from the shock of listening to those words. “Urufu’s got scars from his high school years, or rather, he no longer has them.”

What on earth are you talking about?

Oh. Oh! Yes, I’d very much love to marry you. Twice if that’s needed.”

Twice? Ulf could take it no longer. “Guys what the hell are you two going on about?”

Yukio,” Kyoko began, “is pretty certain people are, eh what should I call it… transiting from this world as well. To a downstream world he calls it.”

Yukio nodded, and before Ulf had a chance to edge a word in he added to Kyoko’s words. “Urufu, you had a restart in this world. I believe we can as well.”

I never asked for it,” Ulf said as if by reflex. He’d been torn away from a perfectly good life. One, he glumly admitted, that more and more became part of his memories rather than reality.

You didn’t, but Kyoko and I might have to one day.”

Slowly what Yukio and Kyoko had said started to form a pattern in Ulf’s head. Lemme see, if what they…

So just like Urufu arrived here from his old world you’re saying you can transit and arrive in another?” Noriko broke in.

And she’s so much brighter than I am. Did I fall in love with her or her brains? Both, Ulf decided and settled for listening to her making sense of the insanity.

And since both Kuri and Urufu were fourteen when they arrived you expect to be fourteen as well?”

Yukio nodded.

What?

In bodies where Kyoko was never stabbed?”

Kyoko clung to Noriko and nodded as well.

Oh!

That would explain the people who dragged Ryu off to that interview he mentioned,” Noriko continued.

Ulf had heard about it, but he never reflected on its potential meaning.

And you want to be seen as important, or unlucky enough to be sent, what did you say, downstream?”

Not today, or anytime soon, but one day, yes,” Yukio said. “At least as long as I have Kyoko. Without her I don’t care.”

Yukio! I love you!”

That reaction from Kyoko told Ulf everything he wanted to know about the bond they shared. Some people just get it right from the beginning. I’m happy for you, and a little envious.

I think you might be right,” Noriko said. She seemed deep in thought. “I think they forced Kareyoshi to rescind the expulsions. Yeah, you’re right.”

Expulsions or no expulsions didn’t really have anything to do with this, or did they?

I am, am I not,” Yukio said and laughed. “How else could people from Sweden force anything at all to happen here?”

Neither of the men Ryu spoke with that day were Swedish. Ulf knew as much, but Ryu was adamant they came from Sweden, or represented Sweden in one way or another. Pieces in a jigsaw puzzle slowly fell in place, and he stared at Yukio with open admiration. A string of worlds connected like links in a chain.

Can I go back?” he heard his own voice say.

The look Noriko gave him cut deep into his heart.

I don’t want to. Not any longer,” he added, both for her sake as much as for his own. That life was gone. Even if he could go back it was a life once lived. He’d never be able to go on with it and pretend the life he lived now was just a short episode he could discard. This was his life now.

Memories from a day in Odaiba rushed to him. Sano-san, I understand. I finally understand.

With that Ulf accepted his old life had ended, and that a new one had begun, that where there was a transition there was also a restart. He’d become Hamarugen Urufu, who called himself Ulf Hammargren. He was both the man who had once been as well as the teenager with the memories of that man. He was both less and more than he had once been, and more importantly, he just was.





They stayed the night. Yukio and Kyoko shared one room, and she and Urufu another. They didn’t sleep with each other, not even the way they had at the hotel. That was one of Urufu’s conditions. At least he didn’t demand that they separate their futons, and when morning came Noriko woke hugging Urufu through the linens.

Breakfast was a sombre affair with questions hanging in the air. Urufu spent most of it in silent conversation with his aunt who wasn’t his aunt, so Noriko didn’t get the time she wanted with him.

There would be other days. A lot of other days if she was to decide, and so she let him have the time he needed. She had promised him after all, even if they were a couple now. She intended to keep that promise. Reeling him in and caging him were two different things. He’d always need his own time, or she’d lose him forever.

Yukio and Kyoko were immersed in their own world of hopes and plans, and Noriko left them to it. Instead she looked out the windows at a landscape as alien to her as Urufu’s old world. Tokyo was Tokyo, a world of its own, and most of Japan was nothing like it. In ways, she suspected, that faraway city where Urufu grew up would be less alien. At least it had to be a cityscape, even if on a much smaller scale.

I wonder what Himekaizen is like now. It scares me to go back.

Not all of them would. Far from. The four of them, she knew. For most of those admitted to Irishima High there was little reason to return to the school that had abandoned them though. To the madman.

She had her own reason – he spoke with his aunt, and her brother very much a similar one. Kyoko and Yukio were bound by ties of friendship, and they had each other. And Sato-sensei. Urufu’s guardian scares me, but she’s on our side. Not everything scary was bad. But her other friends? The other club members? Why when Irishima High was a much better school?

Noriko admitted she was an idiot, but she didn’t care. As long as she had Urufu she’d make do, and he needed her. He was still broken. Healing, but broken. That probably meant Kuri was broken as well. Part of her, Noriko suspected, never left that locked classroom where a sixteen year old girl lay shuddering in tears she had brought on herself.

I moved on, or so I thought. Kuri, why? Suddenly Noriko couldn’t breathe. Urufu, where did you leave part of your soul? Because somewhere a sixteen year old boy lay whimpering in pain as well. Somewhere, but Noriko couldn’t even begin to guess where.

Accepting that he wasn’t her perfect hero had taken some time, but accepting just how deeply flawed he was would take some more. Older didn’t automatically mean better.

Somehow Noriko was happy she’d been left to her own devices. A bit of silence, a slice of strangeness and an ounce of pure joy around her was exactly what she needed to make any sense of the tumultuous last week. Sure, she’d been pushing hard for months, but everything fell in place the very last days, and despite planning for it she couldn’t cope in the end.

Not everything had gone as she planned. Definitely not the part where Kuri and Urufu shared their bodies with each other.

But.

In the end.

He was hers.

A tinge of heat reached Noriko’s cheeks. Does that make me his? Because she had heard Kuri and him that night, and if Noriko was his, then one night... Noriko slammed a mental door on that line of thought. She refused to connect what she had heard with her fantasies about her own first time.

A few steps brought her to a strange outdoors that was still indoors.

Most girls my age have already done it. And another mental door had to be closed. She could worry about that later.

Noriko admired her surroundings. Originally designed to keep the cold out. Here it kept the heat out. A little wood, and a whole lot of glass. And sun shades. Just like at Himekaizen. Whoever once built this wanted a space that defied any definition of what was indoors and what was outdoors.

Construction? He can’t have been in construction. This is the work of an architect.

Her grandfather on her mother’s side had been one as well. Cheating winter wasn’t all new to her, but she’d never seen anything on this scale in a home.

There was some kind of commotion behind her, and Noriko left the room to find out what it was all about.

It’s too heavy for you. If you give us a ride I’ll take care of it.”

Take care of what? Noriko looked at Urufu, and then at the huge sack at his feet. What’s that?

You sure. You look like a city boy.”

Look, aunt, I’ve done this before, OK?”

Urufu! For being so bright he was surprisingly stupid sometimes.

I guess you have, after all,” their old host said. There was something awestruck in her eyes, and also something sad. “Fine, take it to the car and I’ll drive.”

Yeah,” Urufu said and hoisted the sack onto his shoulder.

Urufu!

Stringy muscles on his arm, neck and back hardened and relaxed in a show of gorgeous efficiency. For a moment he struggled under the weight, far more than half her own, but then he slid one foot to the side and made for the door.

It’s heavier than I remembered,” he said and turned his head over his free shoulder. “And I’m a bit skinnier now.” His entire body followed after his head. “But I’ll manage,” Urufu added and shot her a grin void of any sorrow, hesitation or regret. For the first time in half a year he was just a mischievous boy playing a friendly prank on her. “Thank you, Noriko,” he added, and her heart jumped.





The hell? They’d been riding in the car for five minutes or so, but Yukio still couldn’t drop the sight of how Urufu went under the sack and moved it onto his shoulder in one smooth, snakelike movement. The overbalancing was for show. Yukio knew Urufu well enough to know when he downplayed himself. In truth his best friend never even lost an ounce of control when swinging around half his own weight as if it had been a bag of toilet paper.

All four of them were in the car. Urufu had insisted. Urufu’s aunt, who wasn’t his aunt in this world, drove. For once Noriko didn’t take the middle seat. Rather she sat to the left, right behind Urufu, and Yukio himself took the uncomfortable place in the middle. To his right Kyoko had her face glued to the window drinking impressions of a Japan she probably very seldom saw.

As from a distance Yukio heard Urufu and his aunt merrily chatting about nothing. Short laughs were replaced by guffaws, and then all of a sudden Urufu went quiet mid sentence.

We’re here!” he shouted, and Yukio gave up any pretence of keeping anything a secret from the old woman.

She had already hit the brakes, and the car rumbled onto a gravel parking place with nothing but a lonely vending machine there.

Urufu jumped out and was busy opening the rear compartment when Yukio followed Kyoko and threw the white metal construction a closer look. A coin slot alright, but where were you supposed to pick your choice?

Here we go,” Urufu laughed. He carried the sack to the machine, and like making a judo throw he sat down on one knee and rolled it from shoulder to the ground. It hardly moved any dust as it settled down. “120. More expensive than I remember.” He turned and faced his aunt. “70. I like 70.”

You’re doing the heavy work. You decide.”

Urufu rolled open the sack. “Yukio, a hand please.”

Yukio walked to Urufu’s side.

Rice? But it was all a sandy brown. “What the?”

You city boy you!” Urufu was all toothy grin and looked more like a happy elementary school boy than a high schooler. “You’ve never had a bowl of decent rice in your life.”

What are we doing?” Yukio felt he needed to calm Urufu down before he went hyper.

Up here,” Urufu said and motioned for Yukio to help him lift the sack. “And in it goes.” The sack overturned and Yukio listened to the sound of lots and lots of rice being swallowed by the machine. By now he began to have a grasp of what it was all about.

And now?” Yukio asked. More for allowing Urufu to have his fun than anything else.

It’s this year’s rice. And I’m getting to give it a seventy percent polish. The best. It tastes the best!” He laughed and moved the now empty sack to fill it with policed rice. “Wow! This time I can read the instructions!” Then three coins went into the machine, Urufu punched in his preferences and it whined into life. Then a deafening sound somehow reminding Yukio of a brutal downpour that once caught him when he waited in a bus stop.

He’d seen it on TV. Everyone had, but this was the first time Yukio experienced rice polishing so close. City boy. Urufu was right about that. Everyone bought white rice and ate it.

But why?” he wanted to know over the thundering noise.

Just wait until aunt boils it. You’ve never tasted anything like it.” Urufu gave Noriko a long stare. “You might,” he admitted.

Huh? Oh, it’s because she’s rich. It it really that expensive?

Maybe,” Noriko said. “A few times only. We’re not really all that into fancy sushi restaurants.”

More than a few times, if my guess is right, Yukio thought. Over a year’s worth of working with Urufu gave him a pretty clear picture of what kind of people walked the Wakayama parents’ circles. But she wants him to have his moment of glory. Yukio saw how her eyes softened when they met Urufu’s.

Kyoko, this was the right thing to do,” Yukio said into his girlfriend’s ear.

She grabbed his hand and nodded.

Maybe not the burning love you shared with Kuri, maybe not even enough to make you forget about her. Yukio looked at Noriko. But I think Noriko might just be the better one for you after all. It was strange. Half a year earlier he’d told Urufu Kuri was the best part of him. So what had changed? Urufu. You changed. Kuri had as well, but her change started earlier. You broke, both of you. Two broken people couldn’t heal each other. Don’t you dare break Noriko as well! But that was for her to decide. She chased Urufu down and cornered him.

And we’re done.”

Yukio stared at Urufu rolling the sack closed again and wrench it over his shoulder before he walked back to the car with his bounty.

Noriko, you’re in for some competition when school starts. Maybe not really competition. This autumn a different kind of girls would flock to Urufu’s side. And more than a couple of sports clubs as well, Yukio guessed.

Noriko just looked at Urufu. Sure, Yukio saw a fair share of admiration in her eyes, but she’d grown up with her brother after all. Physical prowess maybe wasn’t all that new to her.

Who wants the best bowl of rice ever?”

Yukio smiled. Urufu had already promised that.

Aunt, do you have any really good tea at home?”

She smiled as well. “This is Mie.”

I’ll make the tea,” Urufu beamed. “I’ve trained… I’ve trained for a really long time now.”

If you say so,” she said and patted his head just as he offloaded the rice into the car.







Noriko stared at the stall.

They’d stayed another night and three more meals. She shared a bed with Urufu, hugged him throughout the night, but nothing more than that apart from a short peck of a kiss she received in the morning.

She stared at the stall again.

Urufu was right.

She hadn’t.

No restaurant could compete with rice polished an hour before it was eaten. Especially not when, as Urufu’s aunt told them, it had grown on the best paddy in the village. The same was true of the tea as well, and Urufu, well he must really have trained just as much as he said.

The first of three meals. A cup of green tea and a bowl of rice. Nothing more.

She stared, no glared, at the stall. It would be a while before she could buy train station bento again. Or a convenience store one for that matter.

In a few minutes their train would arrive and they’d leave this backwater town which still was the centre sustaining that small village. Suzuka lay not too far away, Urufu had told her, but that city was a jumble of random buildings smeared across the plains without a semblance of planning.

A few days more filled with a mix of work and finishing their summer homework, or in this case verifying that their already finished homework displayed signs of independent thinking.

Hers did. Noriko knew for a certain. A year ago it hadn’t. Not really. Urufu designed the workshops for the freshmen so that they at least tweaked their expected canned results a little. Not so for the juniors. Applying critique he said.

They had no seniors. Not any longer.

When she threw the stall another look Noriko smiled. Nao had long since stopped hurting in her chest. Would she have stayed with him if he didn’t run away the way he did? Noriko would like to think so. He might not be the brightest of guys, but then neither was her brother, and she still behaved in an almost civil way around him.

Hungry, but not that hungry?”

Noriko smiled at Kyoko’s words. “Something like that.”

Both girls glanced at the stall and started giggling.

Should I call Urufu over here?”

Noriko looked at the station building where he stood chatting with Yukio, then she looked at Kyoko. You left your boyfriend there. I should probably take that advice to heart. “Let them be.”

Of course Noriko wanted Urufu by her side, but she had promised, and she’d go nuts if he didn’t give her any time for herself.

Kyoko glared at her.

What is it?”

Don’t!”

Don’t what?”

Don’t copy Yukio and me. We’re us, and we’ve been together for a year now.”

So what?”

You asked for it.” Something hard reached Kyoko’s mouth. “You remember how Yukio and I were all over each other a year ago, and Kuri-chan and Urufu as well?”

Now that hurt. Noriko looked at Urufu. While Kyoko’s words hit home there was no menace in them. “Yes, I do.” In fact she remembered how she and Nao had been all over each other. At least for the duration of the school festival. “Kyoko, it’s the third time.”

Third time?”

It’s the third time I’ve fallen for Urufu. I guess some of the madness must have burned away.”

Don’t!” Kyoko said again.

Noriko never turned to face her friend. She let her eyes rest on Urufu instead. “At least tell me why!”

To Noriko’s surprise Kyoko didn’t hesitate a moment. “Find out how he loves. Ask him about his wife. Is his a fiery love, or a calm one?”

How could I ever believe I was older than you? She’d seen him with Kuri. There was no need to ask. Gods! He even biked to Kyushu after they broke up. She didn’t know if her own love was of the burning kind or not, but she did know she allowed herself to be pulled into Nao’s pace.

Urufu, I want a hug!” Noriko surprised herself with that outburst.

Around her people stared at her with smiles or smirks.

He came walking. There was something pained about his smile, but he came walking. Behind him Yukio followed with a huge grin on his face.

A hug you said?”

Noriko nodded. This was a bad idea.

He swept her up in a bear hug as if she was a grade schooler. Then he swung her around.

Down! Down this instant!”

I refuse,” he said and swung her around.

Noriko recalled how she had demanded her brother let her down ages and ages ago, just moments before she realised she had fallen in love with the same boy for the second time. This time Kuri wouldn’t come to her help, and Kyoko, well Kyoko was certain to help Urufu rather than the other way around.

You arrogant...” She didn’t make it any further. She was interrupted by bubbles of laughter leaving her throat. “Down, or face the consequences!”

She swirled around another full circle.

Noriko climbed up Urufu’s arms until she was close enough to grab his head with both hands. His face was so close.

I warned you.” She pulled once more and opened her mouth.

He met her, and she felt his tongue inside her mouth.

Another full circle, and another.

If he never let go it was too soon. She hungrily tasted more of him. Surprised by her own greed she twisted so she could get even more.

The fiery kind. I knew that.

And she kissed him some more.





I didn’t expect them to make out like that. Kyoko felt a little guilty. She was, after all, the one who pushed Noriko to be a little more greedy.

Something’s wrong?”

Sorry, no, nothing.” She put away the touchpad. The waterproof touchpad she had requested Urufu acquire well over a month ago.

He complied, and by now she did some of their planning and analysis together with Yukio in the family bath.

Yukio, could you cut another fifteen percent?”

He moved over to her side, and she revelled in his naked body. Despite everything Urufu and Kuri-chan said she very much appreciated watching Yukio whenever they shared a bath.

Ten or twelve,” he said after checking the screen. “Doesn’t need trimming to be honest.” He looked at her. “That’s my girl.” He smiled. “Seeing that we could cut it down even more, that is.”

A little of his ability must have rubbed off then. “This part,” she said. “It’s a little process centric, but I want to keep it that way.”

How so?”

Well, you know how Urufu wants us to be product centric, but this just rubs me the wrong way.”

Yukio stared at her with more interest in his eyes. “Elaborate,” he said, copying one of Urufu’s favourite expressions whenever he went into teaching mode.

Well,” Kyoko started. “They’re delivering a service.” Despite having trouble finding the words she knew where she wanted to go with this one. “If you reduce it to the tangible components then who’s going to take responsibility for it?”

Yukio grinned. “You’d call an outdoor spa a component?”

Kyoko nodded so hard she splashed water all over the touchpad. “Definitely! They’re not selling spas in the first place. You can’t buy one without at least a one year service agreement.”

Yukio put the edge of both his thumbs in his mouth. He was adorably cute like that. “I’m listening.”

A spa’s basically a bathtub. They’re selling a bathing experience, and that’s a lot more.” Words were really the hard part. “Look, Yukio, a bathtub can’t have a goal.” No that wasn’t right. “Those making a bathtub can have a goal, but not those servicing it.”

Huh?”

She knew she was being unclear. “I want someone being responsible for the entire sale, and I want everyone involved actually being involved in the entire sale. And involvement is process rather than product.”

Are you saying...”

Yes, I’m saying Urufu is wrong about this. He’s got it backwards, at least here. They’re not selling off the shelf software.”

I what?”

Kyoko looked up at the voice. Urufu walking with a towel in his hand and Noriko tagging along just behind him. They just got together. Guess she’s still conscious of being naked around him.

Urufu, have a look at my suggestion. If you like it you can sprinkle all those fancy words around.”

Urufu read through what she had written. “So you want to drop the product centric approach?”

Kyoko nodded.

You know it’s kind of built into the very backbone of agile development.”

Then there’s an error in that backbone,” she stubbornly persisted.

Convince me!”

Look, Urufu,” she was getting agitated now, “people who can’t say why they’re doing something should just stop doing it.”

He met her stare with eyes wide in surprise. “And from a high schooler!” Then he shook his head. “Fine, we’ll do it your way then.”

Just like that?”

Just like that.”

Why?”

Because my gut feeling tells me to. Because I’ll cut your analysis to shreds and probably understand why it’s the right thing to do, and then find the flaws in your presentation, and then have Yukio cut them away.”

Kyoko high fived Urufu. “Hear that, Yukio?”

They should, but they should know why,” Noriko suddenly said.

Kyoko stared at her. “Huh?”

Look, what you’re doing might be a good thing, but if you don’t understand why then then there’s something wrong with the doing, not with the what.”

Huh?” This time all three of them stared at Noriko.

I guess it’s the difference between having a purpose for doing something and the goal for that something.”

Something clicked in Kyoko’s brain. “You wonderful, fantastic girl! I love you!”

Huh?”

She looked at the entrance. Oh oh. Well, can’t avoid it forever.

You keep working even in this place,” Ryu asked from where he stood beside Kuri-chan.

Kyoko nodded at the two newcomers. You’re not setting the pace for this, you’re not! “And a good thing it is. Noriko just solved the entire problem.”

I did?”

She did?”

Kyoko laughed. “She did. I’ll rewrite before you get it, Urufu. OK?”

He grinned and sat down in the water. “I think I see where you’ll be going. Yeah, we’ll definitely run with your idea.” The water rippled around him. “Noriko, I’m wrong. It’s fine to be close here.”

Noriko smiled and took a seat just by his side. “Heh, then I’ll be just that,” she said and leaned into him.

You can’t possibly even pretend you’re not feeling Kuri-chan standing behind you! Crap, you could cut slices out of the tension here.

You’re close to each other.” Kuri-chan’s words bounced off the water and vanished into the night one by one.

Maybe it was better this way.

I just heard it was fine being close to my boyfriend.”

Your boyfriend?”

Kyoko waited for the explosion.

Urufu tilted his head backwards, and through the surface Kyoko saw how Noriko’s hand gripped his like a claw. That must hurt, even to you.

Yeah, we’re a couple now, Christina.”

Oh, I didn’t know,” she answered and walked into the pool. Long legs rippled the water just like Urufu’s had done earlier. While her voice was strained Kyoko heard no anger.

Behind Urufu and Noriko Ryu stood frozen in place.

He’s a good man,” Kuri-chan said after lying down in the water. “Care for him, will you?”

He’s a great man, and yes, I will.”

Do you love her?”

This time Kyoko felt pain spreading in her throat. Of all questions she hadn’t expected that one. Kuri-chan, I’m so sorry!

Yes, yes I love Noriko.”

Kyoko stared at Urufu and Kuri-chan. Silence and pain spread around her until it was almost unbearable.

I’m happy you found someone to love.”

Please Kuri-chan, don’t sound that bitter! You knew how much he loved you. But Kyoko also knew how much the tall girl needed to hear those words, and now she had, for someone else’s sake.

I’m not. Not him. I’ll never agree to it.”

Ryu?”







While her world broke down just a little more Christina surprised herself by honestly feeling happy for Ulf. Bitter, yes, angry, yes, hurting yes, but happy still. She hurt him so much, and whenever he was in pain it hurt her as well.

She stared at Noriko. No, the midget didn’t gloat, but in Noriko’s eyes Christina saw a determined flame. The girl was ready to take even her on if she tried to get Ulf back.

I like you Noriko. I like your guts. You’ll be good for him.

But still it hurt.

I’m happy you found someone to love,” she said. Then the words registered in her mind. What am I saying? I broke up with him. How petty a human have I become?

I’m not. Not him. I’ll never agree to it.”

Christina looked at Ryu in surprise. She knew how he felt about his little sister’s crush on Ulf. She hadn’t expected him to come clean about it though.

Ryu?”

And why is Yukio getting involved?

Yes Yukio?”

Shut the hell up! Good thing Noriko’s your sister and not your property. Agreeing with it, blah! Shithead!”

Look, she’s my...”

Shut up you moron!” Ko-chan said all of a sudden. “Agreeing with it? Are you stupid. None of us care if you agree with anything or not.”

You don’t have the right to...”

And neither do you, idiot bro.”

If you don’t break up with him immediately I’ll...”

Tell mom? Please do. Or dad? That would, if possible, be even more stupid.”

Noriko, I’m you’re brother. You have to...”

How tainted did you become. How much of Red Rose is part of you?”

Christina didn’t have to look twice at Yukio and Ko-chan to see the open disgust in their faces. That Noriko shared it stunned her, but what scared her the most was the burning contempt in Ulf’s eyes.

I expected more of you. Ryu’s disapproval was more understandable than what the rest of them believed. “Ryu, I’m also over fifty,” Christina said.

She searched his eyes and received a nod of understanding.

I know, but that’s different.”

Is it? How?”

Well, I’m a guy and...”

You really don’t want to go there,” Christina said. “Especially not with me.” She probably sounded more irritated than she was. Japanese gender values were very different from those in Sweden, but at least she hoped her friends understood there wasn’t a trace of racism in Ryu’s anger.

He backed down, just as she had expected.

I still don’t like it,” he said and entered the spa.

She waited for him to make it halfway to her.

You don’t have to like it. I disagree with you, but no one can force you to like it.”

Ryu smiled at her and Christina saw exactly the wrong kind of hope in his eyes.

That still doesn’t give you the right to control your sister,” she added to shoot him down as firmly as possible. Everyone was entitled to their opinions, but acting on them was a different thing.

She’s still my...”

She’s not your anything.” Christina glared at her boyfriend. “While she’s a minor your parents have the right and responsibility to make decisions for her. You, none at all.”

He pouted. Ryu actually pouted. “You’re just taking his side as always,” he said and glanced at Ulf.

Damn, sometimes he’s just a kid. Christina was too angry to feel uncomfortable around Ulf and Noriko despite what she had done just days earlier.

No, I’m taking Noriko’s side.”

Tell us when you’re done. Listening to the two of you makes me sick,” Yukio suddenly blurted out and stepped out of the pool.

Ko-chan kept her silence but followed him. Christina was sure she saw her shoulders rise in frustrated rage.

Noriko stretched uncomfortably from where she had nestled under Urufu’s arm as if to seek shelter from the verbal onslaught. The discomfort however, Christina noticed, had nothing to do with being naked so close to someone else. I anything Ulf was Noriko’s only safety here, and that hurt in more than one way.

Look,” Ulf said, “we’ll let you and Ryu talk things over.” He gave Noriko enough room to sit up properly. “I’d like some tea anyway.”

Ulf, please...”

Christina, you did nothing wrong, but sometimes you’re dumb as a post.”

Christina thought for a moment if she would get angry or not. Ulf verbally insulting her was so unusual she didn’t have the luxury of an instinctive reaction, and in the end she was glad she didn’t.

Explain,” she said.

Ulf was halfway to the doors, and Noriko had already gone inside. “They’re still kids. I see what you tried to do, but it was too little too late.”

Ulf?”

Until he apologises,” Ulf pointed his index finger at Ryu who by now sat beside her, “they’ll never understand that you only tried to partially cover for him.” Ulf shot a glare at Ryu. “You’re an arse kiddo. Grow the hell up!”

Ryu half rose. “You don’t have the right...”

As your friend I can only wonder if you’re a moron or not.” Ulf suddenly grinned and shook his head. “Telling Christina and Noriko what is right or wrong for a woman. How bloody stupid can you get?”

This is Japan...”

And I’m trying my best to get the hell out of here, but they refuse to hand me a passport. Don’t ever try that shit on me again!”

Christina shuddered despite steam rising from the spa. Rapidly becoming infatuated by the boy by her side didn’t lessen the fear of Ulf suddenly deserting her at all.

Ryu, he said he wanted some tea,” she said in an attempt to defuse the situation.

I am. Have a nice chat.” Ulf turned and headed for the doors. Almost there he turned once again. “Don’t forget homework. Summer’s almost over.”

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