Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Not dropped

I realised I should probably have written this earlier.

The story is most definitely not dropped, but I'm currently swamped with work. This will last for another week or so, after which I'll have the time needed to continue writing.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Chapter two, 2018, field trip, segment one


Winter break ended and the short third trimester began. For the second years it came with both a period of enjoyment and a lot of worries. Exams were a lot more important than they had been last year, but long before those the last week of January promised a small adventure with friends.

One long week in the Kansai area. Osaka and Kyoto were on the itinerary, which probably meant a short visit to Kobe and Nara both. These weren’t places unknown to Christina. She had visited both of the larger cities several times during her previous life, and the hatsumode she never got to spend with Ulf turned into a shoot in Kyoto.

She fidgeted as she packed the last pieces of clothes into a large bag. Most of it was empty, but the section with her clothes bulged in protest of being abused. The empty sections were for new clothes and souvenirs. Her fidgeting however wasn’t the result of a protest. While she had visited the cities before she had never done so together with someone she wanted to share the experience with, and that made her nervous.

Ryu might still be a boy barely growing into manhood, but he was her boy. Lingering feeling for Ulf didn’t change that she had fallen in love with the prince charming of their school. Not because he was prince charming; that was just a part of him, but because he’d been there caring for her when she had no right to expect being cared for.

I always thought I’d make this trip with Ulf. But she hadn’t. Not really. They were falling apart before they even slept together. That first summer when he broke down after watching a suicide held both the beginning and end of that love. In the end she couldn’t compete with the memories of the wife he lost to that other world.

I hope you make the most of it, Christina thought and smirked. A little jealousy always accompanied the moments she saw Noriko and Ulf share together, but these days it was a healthy kind of jealousy, or at least as healthy as was possible. Ulf’s first woman in this world was doomed, and Christina had been that woman. The second only had to compete with that first one.

Only. Damn, Noriko, you make me proud of all strong women out there! Because Christina knew perfectly well what kind of competition she represented herself, and Noriko had bulldozed right through it with all of her a metre and a half. Yeah, my kind of girl! Jealousy be damned. If anyone deserved Ulf it was Noriko. The question was if Ulf deserved her.

The smirk spread into a thin smile, and after that a happy grin. Christina had long since stopped fidgeting, and now she shouldered her bag and left her luxury flat. A home these days. Another thing she had Ryu to thank for. Occasionally they spent their nights here, and Ryu’s parents both knew and accepted it. Ryu, however, didn’t accept that she treated it like a hotel room, and piece by piece it took the form of a home.

The lift dropped her at the entrance floor, she waved at the uniformed guard sitting behind the reception desk and left through sliding doors with her personal body guard in tow. Outside the pair Vogue assigned to her waited, as always, in a car, and the four of them rode, not to Tokyo station, but to the Shin Yokohama one.

While an obvious detour it was also a lot less obvious. She’d take the Shinkansen from a station that was less likely to be swamped with journalists who knew exactly when the Himekaizen second years departed for their field trip east. That thought brought a growl to Christina’s face. Journalists stalking thee students because of the sensational foreign model was one thing.

Damn, if they only stalked me. I’m used to it. Another six students were shuttled to that station as well. The old gang plus Hitomi. Friends of a girl raped didn’t make journalists drool. Friends of the raped daughter of a US ambassador did. The backlash of that disgusting story hadn’t died down. If anything it blew up again when Kareyoshi was incarcerated.

She leaned back in her seat and caught some sleep. Sleeping on the go was a superb Japanese habit Christina had adapted to as quickly as possible.

Her body guard tapped her shoulder when they had arrived, and she left the car and grabbed her bag from the trunk. It hung from her shoulder as she entered the station, not her body guard’s. He wouldn’t be of much use if burdened by her luggage.

Inside the gang waited. One person left it and met her. Ryu. Always Ryu who showed how he cared. It warmed inside of her, and it told her she had been right to move on when her heart broke from her own actions. Thank you Ryu for loving me! Thank you Ulf for letting me go!

Ryu hugged her and moved her bag to his own shoulder. He made it look like it just happened to slide over to him, but she could feel how he snaked under it when he hugged her.

In difference from Ulf Ryu truly was a natural athlete. Christina wondered if he had inherited it from his mother. She always seemed so much more lively compared to his father. The thought of the serious man rolling around on the ground like a cat made her giggle, and she shot Ryu an apologetic smile when he gave her a nonplussed stare.

What did I do?” he asked.

Oh, you didn’t,” Christina said. “Maybe your father did.”

Huh?”

She threw an arm around him and followed him back to their friends. “Nothing. Just forget it,” she said.

Ryu’s eyes widened in slight annoyance, but she noticed how he decided not to pursue the matter.

Christina grinned and threw Hitomi a glance. “Isn’t it time we found you someone?” she said in an attempt to get a reaction out of the always calm beauty.

I don’t think so,” came the reply.

How so,” Christina said. If she had started it she could as well push the provocation a little. Right now she felt an unexplained need to be a little mean.

The girl lit up in a stunning and surprisingly malicious grin. “I don’t think Ryu would like it very much.”

Huh? What? What!

Monday, 8 April 2019

June 24, 2040, a mug of tea


Christina listened to the laughter once again. It came from above, so she guessed they were on the wooden deck. Since she wanted a little something between a breakfast and a lunch, joining whoever was responsible for the mirth seemed like a good idea.

She climbed the wooden stairs hugging the hillside until she reached the flat top where house and attached outdoor facilities were located, among them the wooden deck from where shorter bursts of laughter could still be heard.

I wonder what’s going on. Peering around the corner Christina only found Yukio, Ko-chan and Ryu. The married couple both hung on the railings shaking with laughter, and Ryu just stood there with arms hanging by his side. How did he end up on the receiving end?

Christina smirked and made herself visible. “What’s the joke?” she asked.
Ko-chan smiled back and grabbed Yukio with her free hand. “Ryu just made us remember something.”

Funny ha ha,” he said. Still, something twinkled in his eyes, and Christina suspected he wasn’t anywhere as angry as his sulking demeanour suggested.

She shrugged and walked inside through great glassed doors thrown wide open. The day promised a little heat and almost no clouds at all. The glaring sun that had accompanied her up the stairs still lingered in her eyes, and her walk to the kitchen felt much darker than it really was.

Hot water in a mug, a bag of tea and one slice of lemon later she returned the way she came. The short time indoors was enough for her eyes to adjust, but as soon as she entered the planking outside sunny brightness forced her to squint. When she had readjusted once more Christina gave the dark blue sea a long gaze before she turned her attention to the three stooges.

So, what was that all about earlier?”

Ko-chan and Yukio both gave her smug smiles in return, and Ryu, he still sulked.

Come on, let me in on the funny, will you?” Christina said when none of the three offered to break the silence. She waited for anyone of them to answer while she stretched and bathed in warm sunlight.

Toilet adventures,” Ko-chan finally said.

Christina dragged a chair and a small table to the railings and sat down. “The Kyoto field trip?” Rather than waiting for an answer she lifted her mug of tea from the deck and placed it on the table.

Kyoto field trip?” This time it was Yukio who spoke. “No we meant what happened...”

But there was a toilet incident in Kyoto, wasn’t there?” Ryu interrupted.

Why are you so keen on… Oh, hatsumode. Yeah, that was bad. “Yes, second or third day during our second year field trip to Kansai,” Christina said. She still felt a little guilty about what Ryu had been put through. The least she could do was to help him out a little now.

She listened to seagulls screeching and tried to remember what had happened. While toilets certainly had played a major part during hatsumode as far as Ryu was concerned, Christina only vaguely recalled some students she really didn’t know who missed a bus and got scolded later. So why do did I remember Kyoto when toilets were brought up. She shook her head. Nothing came to her.

Kuri-chan, you missed out on almost half the trip,” Ko-chan said.

I did? Christina squinted against the sun and met Ko-chan’s stare. “I forgot.”

How could you forget,” Ryu said. “It was your fault those kids missed the bus.”

It was? Gods! It was.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Chapter one, 2018, Hatsumode, segment ten


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.

Nothing.”

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.

Inside?”

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 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!”

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Chapter one, 2018, Hatsumode, segment nine


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?”

What?”

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.”

Urufu?

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 list 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?”

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Chapter one, 2018, Hatsumode, segment eight


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 both 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.”

Urufu!”

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 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 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 approal.

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 tough brought bile to her mouth.

Wazzup?” A voice shouted in 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.”

Monday, 25 March 2019

Chapter one, 2018, Hatsumode, segment seven


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 admire 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.”

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.