Aren’t we supposed to visit a shrine together?” Kuri asked.

Ryu looked up from the bed they shared. From the bed they shared with all their clothes on. Kuri sat tailor-fashion dead centre in the bed, golden hair cascading down her shoulders and with those deep blue eyes measuring him. Ryu had draped himself diagonally across it with his head hanging outside. The last being the reason he needed to look up to face her.

Hatsumode? Why not?”

Urufu had worked them to the bones ever since their respective Christmas dates. Well not Kuri; she did the working all by herself as usual.

January the first. They spent New Year’s Eve at his home with Kuri visiting. Celebrating the new year at a shrine would have been the normal thing to do, but gruelling hours of working during the first half of their winter break made certain they were fast asleep long before midnight.

I could call Ko-chan,” Kuri suggested.

Ryu grumbled a little. Things were good between him and the couple once again, but he still hadn’t fully come to grips with them being able to bite as well as bark.

Or don’t you want me to?” she added.

Do I not want you to? That wasn’t really the question, was it? Telling Kuri not to ask her best friend out was something he needed to be careful with. If he wanted to spend some time alone with his girlfriend, well that wasn’t a problem. If he wanted to avoid Kyoko; that was an entirely different beast. “No Hatsumode with friends sounds fine,” Ryu decided. “Why not give sis and Urufu a call as well?” He could just as well be magnanimous.

Sounds fun. I missed out last year.”

You were working last year. With Nao to boot. “So, all six of us?”

All nine,” Kuri corrected him.

Nine?” Ah, of course. “But Tomasu and Jeniferu only makes eight.”

Kuri smiled. “Noriko mentioned inviting Hitomi for hatsumode.”

Noriko mentioned? You mean Urufu, don’t you? Or maybe it had been sis after all. Urufu and Kuri weren’t on the best terms with each other any longer. The drawn out war with Kareyoshi took its toll in the end. “Sure, six or nine, what’s the difference?”

Later today or tomorrow?”

Girls liked to dress up. Kuri just did it with supersonic speed because of who she was. It wouldn’t be fair to the others. “Tomorrow. That way it won’t feel as rushed.” That way her body guards won’t scream bloody murder.

Kuri stretched like a cat and Ryu admired how her body curved in all kinds of alluring ways. Hers was a special kind of beauty, which only made sense considering her part time work. Your average school girl didn’t work as a model, or in Kuri’s case a rising super star. It still sometimes befuddled him walking by her side with her face plastered to bill boards all around them.

He slid down on the floor. His sister making good friends with Kuri eventually led to Kuri standing on the receiving end of Noriko’s endless nagging. By now it finally showed. The flat that was Kuri’s home slowly started to resemble a home. Sure, parts of it was still too sterile, but at least it didn’t look abandoned like it had done when he first came here. Back then she referred to it as her golden cage.

The oversized bedroom they sat in very much looked like where a young woman slept, not to speak of the bathroom attached to it. As he glanced through the door opening Ryu felt a smile come to his lips. The living room no longer tried competing with the school gym for having the cleanest floor. That was definitely Noriko’s doing, or rather her insisting on bringing friends over whenever she visited Kuri. Groups of friends needed somewhere to sit, and in the end odd pieces of furniture slowly found their way there.

There was a kitchen which even sported plates and glasses for more than one person these days; including a pair of cups that would look horribly out of place no matter where they were placed. Those were a terrifying memory of their Christmas date.

The sound of Kuri’s voice reached him through his thoughts, and pushing with both hands against the floor Ryu rose to his feet and looked at Kuri as she spoke in her phone.

Ah, she began with Kyoko. I guess it’s a twofer. Calling Yukio wouldn’t be needed. If you spoke with one of them you spoke with them both.

Ryu left the room. His thoughts right now weren’t entirely truthful. Kyoko was Kuri’s best friend. They’d chit chat about absolutely nothing for at least half an hour. He could as well spend that time shopping for something to eat, and there was a convenience store nearby.

On his way out he grabbed his coat and slowly buttoned it up in the lift. He threw the guard a glance, nodded at Kuri’s personal body guard, wrapped his scarf around his neck and walked through the sliding doors.

While warmer than Sapporo, this still couldn’t be called warm. Ryu tugged his coat closer to him as he hugged the walls by the pavement in an attempt to get a little cover from the wind. Another two freezing blocks got him to the convenience store and Ryu greedily snuck into the warmth.

He stayed a little longer than planned, absently leafing through the magazines by the window, to get some warmth back into his body. Coat was all good and well, but by now Ryu regretted not having donned the sweater he left with Kuri.

It couldn’t be helped. He put back the last magazine, grabbed the pre-packaged lunch boxes and sauntered over to the counter where a girl in her early twenties had stood sending him disapproving glances while he went through one magazine after another.

Just because he could, Ryu sent her one of his most devastating smiles and got the expected reaction in return. He paid, she stammered and Ryu was on his way back to Kuri.

Pre-packaged convenience store lunch in a luxury flat made it feel more like home. It would have felt even more like home if Ryu had stayed the night, but he wanted to escort his sister to the shrine, something that told Christina how he still failed badly in the department of allowing Noriko to live her own life.

Just to give him a little hell Christina sent Noriko and Ulf a message each with a heads up. Now it was up to them how to use it.

Christina loved Ryu. That wasn’t the same as blithely allowing him to behave like an arse, and Noriko had fought hard to get together with Ulf. Even when Christina still was jealous of the midget she always admired the little ball of endless energy. You deserve him.

They deserved each other. Ulf was all too often an insensitive buffoon, and Noriko had a personality eminently suited to handle that side of him; probably because she was an insensitive buffoon herself. Which was, Christina silently admitted to herself, only part of the truth. Noriko had ghosts of her own.

Christina grimaced and finished her make-up. After that clothes were a quick business. She had long since discarded the idea of going in a kimono. That garment wasn’t meant for someone with her looks. Instead she settled for a variant of what she had worn during the Christmas date with Ryu. White and cream coloured with a splash of blue. Very few could wear that since you needed a very distinct kind of blue eyes to hold the composition together. She was one of those few. A luxurious mass of golden hair helped.

For most anyone else thinking those thoughts was bragging or at least wistful thinking, but being the Princess of Scandinavia had been her job for over ten years, and after that she created her own empire of beauty. So she knew how she looked, and right now she wanted to look her best for Ryu without going full battledress.

My body’s eighteen this year. The time for being a beautiful girl was coming to an end. Now fifteen long years of being one of the most beautiful women on the planet lay ahead of her. Just as it had done all those years earlier in the upstream world.

She took the lift down, waved her body guard to her side, and together they left the building. For once she sought out the car with the pair of body guards Vogue assigned to her. There were times for being rebellious, but this was not one of them. Hatsumode was very much a public occasion, and going without very visible body guards was tantamount to attracting accidents to happen. She had her share of fanatic stalkers; it came with her job.

The car took them to where she had previously agreed to meet up with Noriko. She left it with one body guard still at the wheel and walked to where she expected to find Ryu all alone.

He wasn’t, there at all, and neither was Noriko. Oops, guess I’ll have to call him and see where he followed his sister. She decided to make that call as quickly a possible. Standing all alone in her outfit attracted far too much attention, body guards or no body guards.

Out of service? Christina wasn’t too surprised. They days around New Year saw the network pushed to capacity.

Then the next problem arrived. Christina saw Hitomi walk up on her, just as much without an escort, and to Christina’s consternation in an absolutely gorgeous kimono. Right here and now Hitomi was competition, which didn’t bother Christina at all. Right here and now they were two supremely beautiful women all alone but for the body guards who still decided between being discrete or behaving like bullying muscle.

Kuri? I expected Noriko.”

Damn! Ryu, or in worst case Nao, would have come in handy now. At least anyone of those two would have taken the worst heat off them.

I’m trying to call Ryu, but there’s no answer.”

Hitomi gave her a calculating stare. “Both Noriko and Urufu failing to arrive in time? What did you do?”

Nothing much,” Christina answered.

A sudden gust of wind crept inside he coat. It might look luxuriously warm, but in reality it was only designed to make her look hot in more ways than one. Clothes that actually did keep the cold out usually didn’t look fantastic on the wearer; Ulf was a shining example.


Ah, but Ko-chan said she’d come later. With Yukio I guess. “Oh, they’ll arrive in half an hour or so,” Christina said.

Hitomi smirked. “Half a century’s worth of experience suggesting two dressed up girls stay here waiting alone for half an hour?” The grin turned into a grimace. “Did you leave you brains in that other world?”

A bit further away people were already aiming phones at them. Both body guards outside the car looked uncomfortable and made themselves very visible. Staying here below the stairs to the shrine was no longer an option.

Up for a ride?” Christina said and nodded at the car.

Hitomi tilted her head. “Not really, but anything is better than being ogled here.” She flipped her handbag into her hand and strode away in the direction of the closest body guard.

Mutely Christina followed. Not the best way to start the day. She caught up with Hitomi. Guess we’ll drive around a little while I call the others.

They reached the car and got inside. Both body guards joined them and with a silent whirring the car left the shrine. Watching the stairs grow smaller and smaller Christina fished for her phone. Ko-chan was priority. Ulf and Noriko were elsewhere, most probably with Ryu in tow.

No service? She glared at her phone and shot Hitomi a questioning stare. The girl opened her own handbag and dug into it. After a short while she wielded a phone with a triumphant smile on her face. Then it darkened.

No service.”

Kyoko grinned and pulled at Yukio’s hand. “We’re early, and she might be late. Wait?”

Yukio shook his head. “Let’s see if they’re already up by the shrine. Man, I’m freezing my butt off.”

While Kyoko wasn’t entirely convinced, there was the chance that Kuri-chan had opted to climb the stairs and wait for them with something to eat or drink in her hands. Looking up the stairs Kyoko observed how they’d be over and done with the harsh climbing once up there. If worst came to worst they could always send Kuri-chan a call. The last thought made her mind up, and Kyoko followed Yukio up to the shrine.

There were quite a few stalls there. Nothing like the main temples and shrines, but still enough to make everything look festive. January second also meant there were a lot of people on their first visit for the year, and a lot of people meant that when Kyoko finally remembered to call Kuri-chan she found out much too late that her phone had next to no signal.

I’ll call her in a moment, Kyoko thought when Yukio offered her some amazake. Then the warmth of the drink and Yukio being close to her made that moment into two, and a hot bite of Yukio’s food took another several moments. Before she knew it half an hour had passed since they were supposed to meet.

Kyoko! Kuri!” Yukio said just as she frantically dug for her phone in her pockets.

Where? Kyoko looked around, but she didn’t see nothing like the unmistakable blond sunshine anywhere.

No, I mean she should be here,” Yukio said.

Kyoko’s phone still refused to connect to any network. “No, we should have been there,” she responded and pointed in the direction of the stairs.

Yukio had the decency to look ashamed when he grabbed his phone and made the call. Apparently he had better luck with his connection. He glued the phone to the side of his face and stared into the air.

No! Kyoko shook her head when she noticed how he just continued staring into the skies without talking. Kuri-chan’s phone is out. Kyoko grimaced when Yukio finally gave up and gave his phone an angry glare.

Message her so she knows we tried?” Kyoko said.

She didn’t need to. Yukio’s fingers already stabbed furiously into his screen.

At a lack for anything else to do Kyoko stared at the crowd around them. Hatsumode made itself reminded in the clothing. While she and Yukio wore normal clothes there were a lot of kimonos here, and it being hatsumode several men wore them as well.

Sent,” Yukio said and turned her attention to him again. “Urufu and Noriko are here as well, together with Ryu,” he added.

Kyoko grimaced again. Well, they were supposed to celebrate together this time, so she couldn’t really complain about Ryu coming with his sister rather than his girlfriend. She just didn’t have to be happy about it. Noriko and Urufu didn’t get anywhere near enough alone time.

Yukio must have noticed that grimace, because he suddenly hugged her. “They’ll be fine,” he said, and Kyoko understood that ‘they’ meant Noriko and Urufu. “I still want to get in touch with Kuri though.”

Just as he said that Kyoko saw Tomasu and Jeniferu in the crowd and waved to them.

Haven’t seen you since Christmas, how are you doing,” Kyoko said, but she hoped Jeniferu wouldn’t answer how she really felt.

Jeniferu’s face split up in a smile that almost reached her eyes. “It’s super! I never got to do this last year.”

I don’t know if you’re pretending to have fun or if you’re trying to. It really didn’t matter, did it. If fun was the game of the day… “Heard anything from Noriko?” Kyoko said.

Tomasu looked at Jeniferu, and she looked back at him. Then both of them broke down in laughter. This time her grin reached all the way to her eyes.


Yep, she’s not in the toilet.”

She’s not what?”

Jeniferu struck the back of her hand to her forehead and stared skywards. “How thoughtless of us! How could we possibly forget...” and she bent double laughing again.

Around them people stared at the two wheezing teenagers.

Seems Christina called her, and, and, and...” Tomasu said between laughing fits.

So Noriko got real pissed off when her bro didn’t leave ahead to meet Christina.” Jeniferu stood straight again and wiped hair from her face.

And I don’t know exactly what happened, because I spoke with Ulf about it, and he just went: bloody idiot, suits you you dickhead, why don’t you spend all of hatsumode there, and so on.”

Kyoko stared at both of them. They stood hugging each other, more for support than to show any affection, because both still shook with silent mirth. It’s good to see that smile on you again. I’ve missed it. Whatever happened it was worth it.

Yukio must have used the comedy stunt to buy drinks, because Kyoko felt his arm on hers, and then a bottle showed up in her hand. He promptly gave Jeniferu and Tomasu one each, twisted the plastic cap off his own, pushed the glass marble back into the bottle and emptied his Ramune in one go.

I never learned how to open one of these,” Tomasu said when he was alone with an unopened bottle in his hand and both Kyoko and Jeniferu greedily followed Yukio’s example.

When Yukio tried to help him Jeniferu growled. “My boyfriend,” she said and pushed Yukio’s hands aside. She gave Tomasu a good stare and took the bottle from his hand. Very slowly she removed the plastic so he could see, popped the centre of the cap out and demonstratively placed it on top of the marble. “Thomas, you do the pushing.”

His face lit up. “Ah, that’s why the damn cap is there!” With a huge grin he pressed, and when the marble dropped into the bottle he grinned as if he had just invented the wheel. “Super, Jennifer!”

OK, that’s the bribe. Now spill it, man. What about that toilet?”

Oh,” Tomasu said, “Noriko’s not in it,” he added helpfully.

The three of them arrived at some station earlier, and Ryu had pressing needs...” Jeniferu began.

and we expect Noriko and Ulf to show up here any minute now,” Tomasu filled in.

Eh, man, what about Ryu?” Yukio asked, but by then Kyoko had already doubled over in laughter of her own.

They left him inside?” she guessed.

Not funny you two!

Ryu grimaced. At least he knew what shrine they were supposed to visit.

He spent the better part of a half hour searching for his sister and Urufu after he was done in the men’s restroom. Twenty minutes it took before he was struck by understanding and made for the next train.

Not funny at all!

He kept swearing silently and downed the last of his coke before discarding the bottle in a recycling can.

The train arrived with a thunder and he boarded. A little less than ten minutes later he left and stretched his strides to make up for some of the time he had lost. Walking at a brisk pace was something he was better at than his sister. Her short legs simply didn’t allow her to keep up any tempo at all. A few minutes later he boarded the train headed for his destination.

Sometimes Ryu wondered how Urufu could stand her snail’s pace when the two of them were together. That made Ryu recall the part about the two of them together, and his thoughts soured again. It wasn’t as if he disliked Urufu, not really. In fact Ryu considered him one of his best friends, but him and sis together. Well, it just wasn’t right.

Ryu also knew he needed to be more subtle about his disruptions in the future. That Yukio and Kyoko would follow up on their threat he didn’t doubt in the least. That would be bad, but not fatal. Kuri dropping him like a hot potato, however, would be. There was also, Ryu understood, the risk of Noriko, with the help of their mother, cutting all ties with him as well. He couldn’t chance breaking up their family, because family was all the home he knew.

He swung back and forth to the rhythm of the train, and as they closed in on their destination the number of kimono gradually increased just to suddenly vacate the train all at once; Ryu one of of them but sans the kimono. Their family might be old money, but he wasn’t enough of an Edo era remnant to wear a kimono of his own.

He followed the sea of people all walking in one direction, and when the crowd split up Ryu just followed the greatest concentration of traditional Japanese clothing. He overtook most of them and caught up with the ones ahead.

The street he walked slowly sloped uphill, and he soon got warm and a little sweaty, which wasn’t anything a vending machine couldn’t help. A can of coke later he felt ready to defeat the slope at a good pace.

Ahead of him the shrine area loomed, and a last push up the brutal stairs had him in a crowded place flanked by stalls, and somewhere here the others were bound to be. If only his phone could connect to the network he’d find them in no time at all. As it was he had to search for them the old fashioned way.

Searching for friends was thirsty work, but some amazake and a cup of hot tea solved that problem. Worse was that he had no luck finding his friends. He walked from stall to stall, and once he even waited by the shrine to see if anyone he knew would show up to offer their prayers.

In the end he gave up looking for the dead giveaway tall blonde in the crowd. Had Kuri been here he’d have seen her by this time. Or rather, when his phone finally connected to the network he promptly called her.

Christina,” she answered with the muted sound of a driving car in the background.

Where are you?” Ryu wondered.


You don’t say. He shook his head. “I’m at the shrine now.”

Could you please tell the others we’re a little late.”

We? Ryu looked around. He couldn’t. “I seem to have misplaced them,” he tried.

Misplaced?” There was something off with Kuri’s voice. Ryu could have sworn he heard muffled laughter.

They aren’t close enough for me to tell them,” he said instead of explaining what had happened.

This time he was certain he heard a guffaw.

We’ll be there in fifteen minutes or so. Would you wait for me?”

Would he wait for her? She was his girlfriend. Of course he would. He nodded until he realised she could hardly hear him nodding in the phone. “Sure.”

You’re a sweetie,” Kuri said and closed the call.

Ryu stared at the phone. She still hadn’t explained the part about ‘we’, but he guessed he’d know soon enough.

A cold wind reminded him that fifteen minutes standing still would be fifteen very uncomfortable minutes, so he shuffled in the direction of the nearest stall serving amazake. On his way he managed to buy something warm to eat as well. It went down his stomach in no time at all, and Ryu swore a little as he glanced at the long queue where he had just bought his food.

He had just managed to buy and drink his amazake when he finally recognised Urufu and Tomasu chatting with each other a bit away. With hurried steps Ryu closed in on them, and when he caught up he saw his sister sharing a conversation with Jeniferu. Yet another stall away Yukio showed Kyoko something; a prospective gift most likely if Ryu guessed right.


There was no reaction.


This time there was one. “Ryu, you took your time.”

Urufu turned his back to him, and so did Tomasu. Ryu swore both were grinning.

I got caught up,” Ryu said in an attempt to salvage a little of his pride.

Caught up?”

Well,” thinking of what had happened combined with the biting cold and the warm amazake he had just drunk suggested a pressing need. It wasn’t just a mug of amazake Ryu realised. “Guys, please wait for me!”

There was a queue, but it wasn’t horribly long, and Ryu soon came back, a lighter and relieved man.

Not funny you guys! Not funny at all!

Noriko waved to Kuri as soon as the golden hair was visible above the stairs. With a smirk she noted how more than a few men turned and stared at the two girls leaving the stairs. Either of them commanded attention, but tall goddess in creamy white and the very definition of Japanese beauty in a gorgeous kimono side by side was more than most men ever saw in a day.

Thank all gods I never tried winning Urufu in a competition of looks! It wouldn’t have been a competition, Noriko admitted. She was petite and cute, but against that kind of opposition ‘cute’ didn’t even give you a place in the starting field.

Once again Noriko was reminded of how lucky she had been. The sheer stupidity shared by Kuri and Urufu paved the road for her. How two people so obviously in love with each other ever arrived at the conclusion that breaking up was a good idea evaded her. Well, she didn’t complain. Urufu’s love was hers now. At least Noriko felt moderately secure it was. As far as she knew he didn’t lie outright, and he said he loved her.

Noriko!” Kuri called out. “How’s your date with Urufu?” A gleam of joyous malice shone from her eyes.

Better now.”

Hitomi shot them both a glare. “What are the two of you up to now?” she asked. She must have seen the glee shared by Kuri and Noriko both.

I don’t see my boyfriend,” Kuri said.

Noriko snorted and looked down. She even covered her mouth with one hand. While she never was as obsessed with what was proper as Kyoko when they got to learn each other, a cackling guffaw in public was still too much. “He had to wash his hands,” Noriko said. This time she didn’t entirely manage to stifle that cackle.

Kuri offered her both a smile and a questioning look. “And that is bad exactly why?”

Noriko told her.

No, you didn’t!”

For a moment Noriko had to make certain Kuri wasn’t angry. Leaving her idiot bro behind whenever he needed to visit the toilets, while great fun, was sabotaging Kuri’s date. Still, Kuri looked more amused than angry. “Sure did,” Noriko chanced.

Kuri walked the remaining steps between them and gathered Noriko up in an embrace. “I want to be with Ryu just as much as you want to be with Urufu,” she whispered in Noriko’s ear. “If my boyfriend needs a lesson then by all means teach him one.”

What’s with the ‘my boyfriend’? “You know, sometime he’s an idiot, but he still has a name you know.”

Kuri grinned. “Looking at you just now I wondered,” she said and took a place in a queue to the closest stall.

Noriko glanced at what they sold and frowned. “You sure about that?” Dark sauce and creamy white clothing probably didn’t agree with each other in a crowded place like this.

About what?”

That food.”

With a smile Kuri fished up a small napkin box from her handbag. “Always be prepared,” she grinned.

Mind lending me some of those?” Hitomi said and took her place beside Kuri in the queue.

Noriko shook her head but joined them anyway. Takoyaki and cold weather definitely agreed with each other, and it was part of going to a festival of any kind.

While they waited for their turn the others joined as well, and Noriko exchanged some friendly insults with Kyoko and Yukio. She nestled closer to Urufu who had chosen to stand behind her and opened the zipper to his eye catching jacket. It wasn’t eye catching in a good way, but it was warm, and he was warm, and she felt safe with her back pressed against him with his arms loosely around her.

Noriko,” Kyoko suddenly said and woke Noriko from her private world of momentary bliss, “shouldn’t we call your brother.”

Mmm,” Noriko answered and slowly shook her head. She could feel her hair rubbing against Urufu’s chest. “No service,” she added without checking her phone. She added a grin to be on the safe side. Talking things out with Urufu and Hitomi convinced her the hurtful show in her classroom just before Christmas had been a brutal but somewhat effective way to hammer a message through Ryu’s thick skull. That still didn’t mean Noriko felt entirely certain Kyoko had done it all for her benefit.

Lots of people here.” That was Yukio coming to her rescue. “Hard to get on a network.”

Huh? I’m connected. Do you want me to call...” Urufu began behind her.

You’re disconnected,” Yukio interrupted him. “No signal at all, man. Got it?”

But look, I’m… Hey give me back my phone!”

Look, out of battery. These gadgets just give up in crowds,” Yukio said and gave the phone back to Urufu. Noriko saw the black screen flashing by and guffawed. Yukio, sometimes you’re just awesomely cool!

Dammit! Why did you shut it off?”

Out of battery.”

Hell it is! I have a power bank and there’s no way...”

He said: Out. Of. Battery.” Kuri’s voice didn’t exactly invite to an applied study in relativism.

But I… OK I get it. Out of battery. How stupid of me.”

Noriko turned in his arms and hugged him. “You’re not stupid. Just a case of bad memory.”

Yeah, whatever. How long am I going to be out of battery?”

Until we tell you your, what did you call it, power bank works again.” Kuri’s smile was sweet and deadly. “Now this girl needs to go wash her hands. Hitomi, feeling dirty as well?”

Hitomi nodded, and with their hands full of food both girls expertly navigated the crowd in the direction of the restrooms closest to the shrine.

Noriko smirked, and then the voice of her idiot bro told her he had found them.

Kyoko, Yukio, I got…” He met Noriko’s eyes. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said.

No problem, man. We’ll stay around for a bit longer anyway.”

Noriko sent Yukio a thankful thought for pretending nothing was out of the ordinary.

Uhum, guys. I don’t see Kuri. Know where she is?”

Ladies stuff,” Jeniferu offered. She and Tomasu had joined them just before Urufu’s phone… went out of battery.

Ladies stuff?”

Washing her hands,” Jeniferu explained.

Ah, maybe I should wait for her. Where did she go?”

Jeniferu pointed her fingers at the restrooms closest to the stairs.

Not funny you guys. Not funny at all!

There was a long line to the ladies restroom. Twenty minutes long. Ryu had timed it. That was quarter of an hour ago, so he was confident Kuri had never gone here in the first place.

This just has to be sis, or Urufu. Giving it another round of thought Ryu accepted it could be Yukio’s or Kyoko’s doing as well. They really, really disliked his tampering with Urufu and Noriko. Ryu grumbled, used the men’s restroom as a precaution and left the area.

Around him the crowd showed no signs of thinning out. People left and more people arrived. They’d do that for the rest of the day and the following day as well. Three or four days, depending on how you defined it, and the one time of the year when you’d expect to see men in kimono.

Grumbling again he went in search for his friends, even though he felt ready to redefine the very word ‘friend’ right now. He couldn’t fully understand why they were so cross with him. Noriko was his sister. Didn’t he have a responsibility to do what was best for her?

Another part of his mind nagged a little; ‘hubris’ it said, but it did with Urufu’s voice, and Ryu firmly shoved it away.

Morning had turned into afternoon, and with the sun setting the overcast day slowly left the morning blue behind it and took on a more yellowish tone. As the day turned over so did the people visiting the shrine. There were less old people and more students coming here in groups that had gathered before climbing the stairs to the shrine. With different people came different voices. Muted talk gave way to laughs and the cleaner timbre that comes with youth.

Now, or even a little later, was when they really ought to have shown up. When afternoon merged with evening and lanterns were the only thing abolishing the darkness both lightning and people would change once more as university students and those who still spent their days settling into new jobs replaced middle and high schoolers.

That didn’t give Ryu all that much time. If the rest of the gang planned to abandon him whenever they had the chance Hatsumode was bound to become some sick joke.

He grumbled a little. As if it wasn’t already. Determined not to sample too much of what there was to drink Ryu went in search for Kuri. While he did stop by a few stalls he made certain he only catered for his hunger. Strangely enough he enjoyed himself despite being alone. It gave him time to think and experience his surroundings rather than being part of a large group where people were more interested in each other than what was around them.

Is my world growing? he thought. Is it me growing? That was more disturbing in a way. Ryu felt perfectly happy being a child who never agreed to being one. It gave him both the freedom he wanted as well as the right to be needy.

A rapidly darkening, winter grey Tokyo sky accompanied him from stall to stall, and occasionally a biting gust of wind reminded him he was outside rather than inside an old style shopping mall. Snacks made company with traditional fast food, and after some time Ryu forgot he spent hatsumode alone. He aimlessly walked the temporary street, sampled some more snacks, bought himself a fortune slip and read it while waiting for his turn to make his prayers.

Medium luck, it said, and after pocketing it Ryu decided upon something equally medium important to wish for. After tugging the bell rope he left to make place for the people behind him and went in search for some amazake. By now the chilly weather won over his wariness against getting caught in the men’s room again. After all he had run out of luck finding the others anyway.

Just as that thought brought a frown to his face he caught a glimpse of a golden halo. Ryu quickened his steps, and after negotiating the crowd he finally caught up with Kuri.

Kuri, sorry I’m late,” Ryu said and tried to make it sound like he hadn’t been on the receiving end of an elaborate prank.

She turned, half a head taller than most men around her, and made her coat, or whatever it was, swirl. “Ryu, finally! See, I’m really waiting for my boyfriend,” she said to someone Ryu couldn’t see.

Aww, come on, he can’t be that good,” came the faceless reply.

Ryu took another step, came up beside Kuri and tried to see who had spoken. “She thinks I’m good enough for her. Isn’t that enough?” he said in the general direction of faces staring at the girl by his side. It usually ended any kind of argument like this in school, and he felt confident about the result here as well.

Of course she got herself a looker,” someone said.

Wow! That’s just unfair. Those looks and that boyfriend,” another added. This time a girl’s voice.

You look absolutely fantastic!” Ryu said to Kuri. He didn’t have to pretend. She did, just like she always did whenever she made anything even slightly resembling an effort with her appearance.

Why, thank you!” Kuri leaned over and gave him a quick kiss. “You’re stunning as well.”

Ryu hugged her back. He had no reason giving her an answer. He couldn’t aspire to her heights when it came to looks, but he knew very well what kind of impression he made among mere mortals.

Where are the rest?” he asked to change the subject when he was sure Kuri’s admirers had given up.

She pointed a few stalls ahead, and of course she just had to flit her fingers through her hair so it cascaded into a golden flower. Sis is right. Kuri really is a stage monkey. But then again that was how she made her living.

He followed her outstretched hand with his eyes and saw Hitomi ahead of them. “And sis?”

She is,” Kuri began and managed to give him a smile both predatory and beautiful, “looking for a restroom I think,” she finished with just an inkling of menace in her voice.

So he caught up with us in he end. Yukio grinned. Man, that was outright evil of you! He wondered how long Ryu had waited outside the restroom by the stairs before he understood Kuri wouldn’t appear there.

Between bites of food Yukio looked at where Ryu and Kuri stood talking. He felt Kyoko’s hand squeeze his and by now he knew her well enough to know how her smile threatened to spread into a grin without having to turn his head.

He looks happy,” she said, and Yukio heard how it already had.

He swallowed what he had in his mouth. “Don’t you think he’s had enough?”

Yukio felt Kyoko shake her head through her grip on his hand. “Urufu’s your best friend. Ryu needs to learn to stay away.”

But Kuri’s your best friend. What about sabotaging their date? “Kyoko, I’m good for now. I believe Ryu got the message.”

Kyoko pulled his hand, forcing Yukio to turn and face her. A smidgeon of an ice cold gust gripped his neck when his muffler came loose for a moment. “He hasn’t. Maybe he never will.” Her voice held a hardness Yukio wasn’t used to hear.

Give them a break, will you?” Yukio pulled Kyoko along with him and made some distance between them and Ryu. While Kyoko and Noriko were bound to come up with something sooner or later, Kuri and Ryu could at least enjoy the company of each other for now.

They caught up with Tomasu and Jeniferu and joined them in the queue to the shrine. Yukio glanced at Tomasu to see what he thought of the Japanese customs. Two years together with Urufu made Yukio look upon what was considered normal with new eyes. To his surprise Tomasu seemed perfectly unperturbed, but Jeniferu was giddy with excitement.

Strange. Yukio knew Tomasu hadn’t lived in Japan during his previous life. Ah, of course! He had, however, worked as a professor teaching Japanese in Sweden. It made sense that kind of work included learning about Japanese culture as well as the language. Urufu says the New Year’s celebrations is the big event for fireworks in Sweden. Apparently it was in most of the western world.

You done this before?” Yukio asked the couple ahead of him. He didn’t direct the question to any of them, but given how Jeniferu bounced up and down in the queue he could guess about her answer.

Both of them turned and shook their heads. “I spent last year back home,” Jeniferu said. “And you?” she added and looked at Tomasu.

He smirked and looked back. “What do you think?”

Now that’s oddly cold, man!

Jeniferu didn’t look taken aback at all. “With your personality I think you’d rather read about Hatsumode than taking part in it,” she said.

He blushed.

No, you didn’t! “Man, really?”

He blushed some more. “I didn’t want to look like a foreign buffoon,” Tomasu admitted. “Then I found out you were supposed to go with friends and family.”

So why didn’t….” Oh, now that’s just sad. “Sorry I said anything.”

Yukio watched Jeniferu cuddle up closer to her boyfriend. “You’re among friends this year,” she said.

Tomasu looked like he wanted to pull her even closer, but it was clear to Yukio how he restrained himself. So you’re still fighting those memories. I hope you’ll be able to move on. “Yep, lots and lots of friends,” he said in an attempt to banish the awkwardness.

Jeniferu threw him a grateful glance, bit her lower lip with a flash of determination in her eyes and stared at Tomasu’s arms. Another gust of wind found its way between people in the queue and caught her hair. She dug in under his arms and hugged him close to her. It was cold, but not that cold.

I admire your bravery.

Kyoko squeezed Yukio’s hand, and he knew she had seen as well. “Look, we’re moving forward,” she said. “Move on you idiot couple!” she added and dispelled the fears that had suddenly clung to the four of them.

Thomas, we’re getting behind,” Jeniferu said and almost managed to lift her boyfriend from the ground.

She’s putting on a show of bravery, but man, she’s doing a damn good job at it. While Yukio felt sorry for Jeniferu, he admired the strength that made her go on.

The queue moved a little, the four of them kept bantering and after quite some time it was Tomasu’s and Jeniferu’s turn for prayers. Yukio noted how Tomasu discretely instructed his girlfriend, and being the bright girl that she was she caught on without a hitch. The sound of hands clapping followed by the dull, metallic rasp of the bell went by as if they had been natives. After that it was Yukio’s turn, and as he was most definitely a native he and Kyoko went through the motions without giving it all that much thought.

They stepped down, joined Tomasu and Jeniferu, and then Yukio turned to see if anyone else from their group had caught up with them in the queue. He saw none and decided to escort the three of them to a stall where they could have a little amazake to banish the cold.

Here the crowd thinned out, and Yukio had ample time to look for promising stalls. To his dismay the one he was looking for stood located side by side with where fortune slips were sold. That meant another queue.

Guess we’re getting both something to drink as well as our fortunes then. “Kyoko?”

She followed where he was staring and nodded. “Fortune slips?” she asked the other two.

Fortune slips?” Jeniferu asked.

Kyoko didn’t answer and when Yukio was about to she tugged at his sleeve and shook her head.

It’s a tradition here,” Tomasu said. “It’s reminiscent of visiting an oracle.”


You just had to turn this into a display of academic prowess, did you? “Tomasu, why don’t you...” Once again Kyoko tugged at his sleeve, and Yukio fell silent.

That’s the origins of it anyway,” Tomasu said. “Now it’s just a cute ceremony where you buy yourself a yearlong personal horoscope.”

Jeniferu frowned. “A year is a long time if you don’t like what you read.”

Tomasu hesitated a little. Then his face lit up in a grin. “If you don’t like what you read I promise to tie your slip to the highest of those branches,” he said and pointed at a tree growing just by the wooden wall to where most of the bad luck slips were already tied.

You’re a good man. She might not understand it all, but I bet she understood you just offered something only for her.

Noriko frowned when she saw Yukio tip toe to reach a branch instead of doing the sensible thing and tie his fortune slip to the wall prepared for it.

Behind him Jeniferu stood clapping their hands and alternated between throwing him joking cheers. By Jeniferu's side Noriko saw Tomasu palming his face. OK, I missed something. Yukio finally managed to fasten his slip to the branch and both girls laughed and made a victory sign each.

As long as they’re happy, Noriko thought just as Urufu came up from behind and slipped his arm around her shoulder. “What’s up?” he asked.

Noriko grabbed his hand and moved closer to him. “I have absolutely no idea,” she said. It felt good being so close to him. It felt good feeling how he pulled her closer. Urufu might have his ideals about women, but at least she herself needed to feel a little of the possessiveness he so openly despised. It made her feel wanted. “My boyfriend,” she said and hoped he got the hint.

My girl,” he answered.

She felt him fumbling with something behind her back, and then his jacket opened and she was enveloped in lining still warm from his body. “Urufu, what are...”

He zipped his jacket closed with her inside. “See, there’s room for us both.”


My girl,” he repeated, and Noriko could almost feel how he grinned.

For a moment she entertained the thought of giving him a verbal bashing, but in his own clumsy way he had just done exactly what she wanted. Embarrassing as it was with people staring and giggling at them she still enjoyed how he showed that he wanted her close.

She backed into his chest, and he met her act with both of his arms holding her. They pressed against her breasts, but she pretended she didn’t notice. Given how thick the lining of his jacket was he probably didn’t know.

Man, what are you doing? She’s your girl; not your pet.”

Noriko looked at Yukio and stuck her tongue out at him. Joy and a slightly mean need to tease him a little rose in her and she meowed loudly.

Noriko?” she heard from behind her back.

She meowed again and laughed.

Kyoko, Jeniferu and Tomasu joined Yukio in staring at her and Urufu.

Noriko?” Kyoko asked.

It was warm inside Urufu’s jacket. She felt the heat of his body on her back, and he was close, closer than he had ever been since the trip to his aunt who wasn’t really his aunt in this world. Noriko purred, or at least tried.

Just looking at the two of you makes me blush,” Tomasu said.

Noriko grinned when Jeniferu made a failed attempt at opening his jacket. Halfway through the grin Noriko noticed how awkward Jeniferu’s moves were, and on the verge of saying something nasty Urufu’s hand suddenly left her stomach and covered her mouth.

Don’t say anything!” he mumbled in her hair. “She’s trying her best.”

Trying her best? Then a memory flashed through Noriko’s head. One of three Himekaizen students pressing her to the ground and the fourth doing… something else. Despite the warmth and safety of Urufu close to her she shuddered. She’s got guts. I wonder… Noriko firmly aborted that line of thought and shoved it into the darkest recess of her mind.

Thomas, just give up! She’s got you outmanoeuvred,” Urufu shouted, and Noriko sent him thoughts of love for how he defused the minefield she had almost trampled into.

She looked at Tomasu and saw how he looked, not back at her but above her head. Something in his eyes told her he exchanged something with Urufu, and she knew she was right when he finally nodded once and ripped open his own jacket.

Jennifer! I’m gonna get you!”

Noriko barely managed to stop a cough attack, but when she released the hand that covered Urufu’s, which was still over her lips, she saw Jeniferu screeching with glee. Ah, OK, so she has healed a little bit at least.

Tomasu hunted his girlfriend all over to the wooden wall, between the trees and back again.

Or maybe not, understanding dawned on Noriko when she realised that he not even once ran fast enough to catch Jeniferu. It wasn’t until she stopped and leaned forward gasping and wheezing it became obvious, but then Jeniferu laughed and pretended to fall backwards into Tomasu’s waiting jacket.

He wrapped it around her, but Noriko couldn’t but help notice how he very much didn’t zip it closed the way Urufu had done with her.

Always able to run away. She still needs to be able to run away. Damn you pigs! I hate you! Noriko felt pressure build in her eyes, and then Urufu’s hand was there wiping away the tears that burst through.

See no evil, say no evil,” he whispered. “I’d need another two hands for you to hear no evil,” he added, and she turned in his arms and hugged him desperately close to her.

I’m whining because I can’t make you take me to your bed. I never understood how lucky I am. She squeezed as much as her tiny arms could. At least I want to bed you.

Noriko, you still make us blush.” This time it was Kyoko speaking.

Noriko wiped the last tears on Urufu’s sweater and faced her friend. Reluctantly she zipped open Urufu’s jacket and stepped out of it. An icy wind replaced his warmth, and standing in the open Noriko realised how much of Urufu’s love for her seeped through to her during the short time she played along with his tender prank.

Better like this?” she said.

Much better,” Kyoko said and nodded approval.

By her side Jeniferu shot Noriko a grateful look and stepped out of Tomasu’s jacket. Staying wrapped in his arms must have taken a heavy toll on her bravery. Staying wrapped in the arms of the man Noriko could so obviously see Jeniferu still loved to desperation.

I never want to be like that. Never ever! Just imagining being afraid of Urufu’s touch brought bile to her mouth.

Wazzup?” A voice shouted in an English awful enough for Noriko to cringe.

She turned around and met the eyes of her brother. “Nothing much,” she said. “We’re just looking for a toilet.”

Kyoko stared at Ryu’s expression when he heard his sister’s cold answer. So they’re still at it. They obviously were. She herself hadn’t forgiven Ryu. It was only Yukio’s insistence that kept her from helping Noriko with whatever mischief she had on her mind.

Right now mischief wasn’t on her mind however. Yukio’s adoring attempt to tie her ominous fortune slip to a branch higher than he could reach was. It was after all the very branch the taller Tomasu had promised Jeniferu, but since she received a mildly positive one she decided to keep it.

Man, give me a hand, will you?”

She shot Yukio a smile. Try as he will tip toeing wasn’t enough, but it was the attempt that counted. She looked as Urufu sauntered over to them and helped Yukio tie the offending slip to the branch.

I’m so uncool,” Yukio said and gave her a sheepish smile.

Kyoko ignored some girls giggling and pointing fingers at Yukio. “Where did it end up?” she asked.

Did what end up?”

My slip.”

He looked up at the branch and nodded at where Urufu had tied the piece of paper.

What did you want to happen?”

Yukio smiled.

Kyoko smiled back at him. “An uncool guy would still be trying instead of making it happen,” she said.

He didn’t reply, but he did take her head in his hands and planted a kiss on her forehead.

He’s the best man I’ve ever met, Kyoko thought. As an afterthought she glared at the girls who had dared making fun of her Yukio. That brought a grin from him.

You made me cool, Urufu.”

He made Thomas cool as well,” Jeniferu said out of nowhere. She fidgeted a little. “But he was already cool to begin with.”

Kyoko looked at her. A shimmer of envy reached her eyes, but it was clear Jeniferu meant nothing bad with it. She’s envious of me? Kyoko glanced at Urufu and Noriko who had followed him to the tree. Jeniferu paid them no attention at all. In the midst of a mild confusion Kyoko decided Jeniferu had every reason to be. After all Yukio had done for her Kyoko felt safe in the world of two they had created for themselves. He even found us a small chance for a world of more than two. Yukio’s love bridged worlds. What more could she ask for?

Jeniferu’s reaction said something more as well. She must have seen how Noriko and Urufu yet had to share that platform of absolute trust. They might look like a perfect couple, difference in height be damned, but they still had a bit to go. Most of it, Kyoko thought, was Noriko’s fault. Urufu would never abandon her, but sometimes a flicker in Noriko’s expression showed how she yet had to believe that.

We done here?” Urufu asked.

What do you people normally do on Hatsumode?” Jeniferu replied.

Urufu grinned. “Don’t ask me. As someone Japanese.” He turned and gave them nonplussed stares when everyone fell silent and glared at him.

Man, do you know just how funny that was?”


Urufu’s perplexed face drew a smile to Kyoko’s lips, and she walked right up to him and stared into his eyes. “What my boyfriend here was saying is that you look Japanese and spoke Japanese, so why shouldn’t you be able to answer the question?” Or rather, given the absurd studying you’ve done you’re probably able to give us a historic recount of Hatsumode the last five hundred years or so. She didn’t say the last part loud. He wouldn’t understand anyway.

Hey, looking Japanese and speaking Japanese...”

Is a damned good start,” Tomasu interrupted him. “Wouldn’t you agree. Now just be kind to the kids and spill it.”

She had spent a year and a half with Urufu and Kuri, and over half a year with Tomasu. It didn’t matter. Listening to her junior telling Urufu to care for the kids still felt wrong. Professor in Japanese, was it?

You do the spilling instead. With your academic merits and all,” Urufu said and answered her silent question.

Tomasu grinned. “I believe we already came to the conclusion I read about things instead of doing them.”

He wasn’t here then,” Yukio protested when Urufu’s eyes widened in honest surprise. “So, man, what do we do?”

We spend a night alone in a crowd and wonder what the hell happened,” Urufu said.

Noriko yanked his arm and gave him a furious glare. “That wasn’t her fault, and you know it!”

Her fault? Oh, last year. Kuri never showed up. “I think we’ve done just about everything we’re supposed to do,” Kyoko said. Now was a good time to take some of the heat away from Urufu.

Around them the crowd shifted a little. Families and the old were all on their way out. In their place groups like their own arrived, some of them high school students, but more and more university students. It really was time to leave.

Should we wait for everyone to come here first?” Ryu said.

Kyoko nodded. She really wanted to say something nasty about finding him a public toilet instead, but Yukio had asked her to tone it down. “Yes, sounds like a good plan.”

She watched Yukio and Urufu walk away to buy a last something to eat and long before they returned Kuri-chan and Hitomi joined them after having done their prayers. Kyoko waved and got waved back at in return.

Ko-chan, where’s Yukio?”

Kyoko nodded in the direction the two boys had vanished. “Shopping,” she explained.

Kuri-chan’s head turned as she looked where Kyoko pointed. Her hair billowed out and caught in the wind. A golden halo surrounded the goddess in wintry white and Kyoko grinned. Watch and despair, Ryu.

Beside Kuri-chan Hitomi just shook her head and smirked. She made a small gesture as if to cover her ears when gasps and admiring shouts reached them from those who had seen the spectacle.

Ryu, while not despairing, stared at his girlfriend with a stupefied look on his face. Of the Prince of Himekaizen there was nothing left; just a lovestruck boy.

Christina, you look stunning.”


Did you rehearse or was that natural?”

You loved her once. There’s no need to be that mean.

To Kyoko’s surprise Kuri-chan just lit up in a childish and happy grin that detracted quite a lot from her looks but added all the life Kyoko wanted to see in her best friend’s face.

Of course I rehearsed,” she said, “and you gave me all the time I needed.”

Urufu waved with some sticks of food he had in his hands. “Took me some time to get. What’s more in store for me?”

Kuri-chan’s grin grew wider. “Don’t you wish to know?”

Noriko looked at Kuri and hoped it wasn’t a glare. Urufu’s bantering with his former girlfriend still made her feel uneasy. It was something very close to jealousy, but Noriko hoped she hadn’t gone all the way there.

She hooked her arm around Urufu’s, but that just forced him to have his hanging down by his side, and right now she wanted to feel him hugging her. No, that wasn’t it. Right now she wanted him to show how she belonged to him, because that meant he belonged to her. It didn’t make a lot of sense, and Noriko knew it went contrary to everything Urufu believed in, but she didn’t care.

She slipped her hand out of his arm and threw it around his waist. To her huge satisfaction he moved the arm she had just freed up and placed it around her shoulder, allowing her to snuggle closer.

Ryu frowned at her and she stuck her tongue out at him. Childish or not; who cared? He’s mine! Nothing you do will make me leave his side. She glared back at her brother.

She felt how Urufu looked down at her head. “Something’s up?” he asked.


Cute.” His head came down and suddenly his nose dug into her hair. “And you smell good.”

Try as she did, from time to time, to coerce him into her bed she still wasn’t used to him being so physically close. Noriko quickly found herself with absolutely no need for a muffler to warm her in the waning January day.

It’s embarrassing,” she mumbled.

Want me to stop?” his voice said just by her ear, and she felt lips touching it.

If anything she blushed even harder, but when she felt his head rise again she quickly threw her free arm around it and pulled him down. “No, please stay!”

He obliged, and Noriko turned in his one handed embrace and threw both arms around him. Feeling this close was a luxury she experienced far too seldom. When she finally let go of him the rest of the gang had vanished to leave them both a modicum of privacy. Even her idiot brother had made them company.

Where did they go?” she wondered.

Parking lot, I guess,” Urufu said. He took her hand and pulled hesitantly. “Join them?”

She might not want to, but Noriko understood their friends would wait for them. To gather once again after they left the shrine maybe didn’t make much sense, but it was a thing friends did. She allowed herself to be pulled through the crowd, passing between stalls and people until they finally made it to the steep stairs.

Walking down them she let go of Urufu’s hand and used the railing. They met people going up, and behind her she heard others going down just like she was. This year’s hatsumode was about to end for her. In difference from last year it promised to be a good memory and a promise of a better year ahead of them.

Of course it’ll be a better year. Last had been hell. Well, with one exception, and he walked by her side.

Below the stairs the street split in two. Whoever once decided the location for the shrine wanted it at a crossroads of sorts. One of the streets hugging the hill the shrine was located on emptied into a parking lot, and Noriko assumed that was where they were headed. She took the lead, but only a few steps further ahead on the pavement Urufu caught up with her just as she passed beneath a low branch jutting out from the hillside.

I enjoyed hatsumode this year,” he said and mirrored her thoughts.

Noriko decided to keep her silence. She might have taken him from Kuri, but the tall girl still remained a dear friend of hers, and Kuri was very, very important to Urufu. In ways, Noriko knew, Kuri had made it possible for her to become a couple with Urufu. Kuri’s sacrifice. Noriko didn’t intend to forget that.

When they arrived at the parking lot Ryu was already gone, and so was Kuri. When she looked again Noriko noticed that Tomasu and Yukio were gone a well.

What’s going on?” Noriko asked and looked around her.

Toilet,” Kyoko said.

Noriko shook her head. “Look, you’re taking the joke too far.”

Jeniferu shook her head and giggled together with Kyoko and Hitomi. “Different joke,” Jeniferu said.

Different joke? Noriko frantically searched her surrounding for whatever the morons had come up with this time. At the far end of the parking lot she found the public toilets in question. By it Kuri’s bodyguards stood stone faced and very pointedly didn’t look at Tomasu who was working on something together with Yukio.

Guys, they aren’t really...” Noriko began when she slowly understood what was going on. “Kuri’s going to have a fit.”

Inside.” Hitomi said.


She knows what’s going to happen. She’s inside with Ryu.”

That explained why the body guards didn’t do anything. Noriko threw Hitomi a glare anyway. Then she stared at Kyoko. “You should know better!”

Kyoko just returned a huge grin. “Fun, isn’t it?”

Noriko shook her head. “Really! Grow up!”

Noriko,” Yukio shouted as he and Tomasu returned, “keys.” With that he lobbed two padlock keys to her.

What the hell! With a grin on her face Noriko stared at the small building. Then she weighed the keys in her hand.

At least her mom laughed hysterically when Noriko explained why Ryu hadn’t followed her home, but the same couldn’t be said of her father.

Threw them away? That’s very bad of you,” her mother had said before she collapsed in a laughing fit. That was when Noriko came home a few minutes earlier.

Her mother was still giggling when Noriko’s father came down the stairs with car keys in his hand.

He growled as he went to the garage for his toolbox. On his way there he turned once and glared at them. “Not funny you two. Not funny at all!”


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