Friday, 20 July 2018

June 24, 2040, apology


Kyoko looked up when she heard foot steps closing in. Kuri-chan; she still recognised the distinctive sound of shoes touching ground. The sound of a professional, and the sound of a profession that eventually bled into the very essence of Kuri-chan.

Got something you want to say?” Kyoko said.

Kuri-chan sat down beside her. “It’s about the third summer,” she began.

Kyoko nodded. “Noriko’s on the way here with some tea. Let’s wait for her.”

Kuri-chan shook her head. “I owe her a separate apology. This one is for you.”

Kyoko hugged her knees and waited. Third summer, the second one in Himekaizen, hadn’t been the best of summer vacations for any of them.

I’m sorry I led Ulf on the way I did despite being together with Ryu.”

But from a friend that made no sense at all. But from a friend.

Yukio and I didn’t really care,” Kyoko said. “We took Urufu’s and Noriko’s side, and I’m not going to apologise for that.”

A thin shimmer behind her spoke of yet another absurdly early Swedish morning coming to life. It would continue to do so for hours in the same, lazy way evenings took forever to become night. This was nothing like Japan at all. Even nature was different.

Kuri-chan draped a blanket across her back. “It’ll get colder still,” she said after tugging it in across Kyoko’s shoulders. “I know,” she said and sat back. “Ulf told me. Still owe you an apology though.”

Why?”

Because I didn’t give you one back then. An apology for the lack of one.”

Her face, still beautiful like an angel’s despite her reaching 40, turned, and Kyoko silently sat facing Kuri-chan like she had so often during the years their friendship remained unbroken. It wasn’t any longer, had been both broken and mended somehow; yet Kuri-chan remained her most important friend.

I’ll accept that apology,” Kyoko said. “Thank you.”

Kuri-chan rose. “I’ll go find Noriko now.”

Because that apology has to be the real thing. Kuri-chan, you’re a much better friend than you think. Kyoko turned and stared after the receding back of what was, despite everything, the best friend she had ever had.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Chapter two, 2017, ends and beginnings, segment ten


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

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

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

But still it hurt.

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

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

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

Ryu?”

And why is Yukio getting involved?

Yes Yukio?

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

Look, she’s my...”

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

You don’t have the right to...”

And neither do you, idiot bro.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She searched his eyes and received a nod of understanding.

I know, but that’s different.”

Is it? How?”

Well, I’m a guy and...”

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

He backed down, just as she had expected.

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

She waited for him to make it halfway to her.

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

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

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

She’s still my...”

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

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

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

No, I’m taking Noriko’s side.”

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

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

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

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

Ulf, please...”

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

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

Explain,” she said.

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

Ulf?”

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

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

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

This is Japan...”

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Chapter two, 2017, ends and beginnings, segment nine


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

Something’s wrong?”

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

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

Yukio, could you cut another fifteen percent?”

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

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

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

How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh?”

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

Are you saying...”

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

I what?”

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

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

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

Kyoko nodded.

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

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

Convince me!”

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

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

Just like that?”

Just like that.”

Why?”

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

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

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

Kyoko stared at her. “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

Huh?”

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

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

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

I did?”

She did?”

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it was better this way.

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

Your boyfriend?”

Kyoko waited for the explosion.

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

Yeah, we’re a couple now, Christina.”

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

Behind Urufu and Noriko Ryu stood frozen in place.

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

He’s a great man, and yes, I will.”

Do you love her?”

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

Yes, yes I love Noriko.”

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

I’m happy you found someone to love.”

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

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

Ryu?”

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Chapter two, 2017, ends and beginnings, segment eight


Noriko stared at the stall.

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

She stared at the stall again.

Urufu was right.

She hadn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had no seniors. Not any longer.

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

Hungry, but not that hungry?”

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

Both girls glanced at the stall and started giggling.

Should I call Urufu over here?”

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

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

Kyoko glared at her.

What is it?”

Don’t!”

Don’t what?”

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

So what?”

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

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

Third time?”

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

Don’t!” Kyoko said again.

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

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

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

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

Around her people stared at her with smiles or smirks.

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

A hug you said?”

Noriko nodded. This was a bad idea.

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

Down! Down this instant!”

I refuse,” he said and swung her around.

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

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

She swirled around another full circle.

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

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

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

Another full circle, and another.

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

The fiery kind. I knew that.

And she kissed him some more.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Patreon

After some pushing I finally opened up a patreon page.

https://www.patreon.com/StenDuring

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Chapter two, 2017, ends and beginnings, segment seven


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yukio walked to Urufu’s side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She grabbed his hand and nodded.

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

And we’re done.”

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

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

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

Who wants the best bowl of rice ever?”

Yukio smiled. Urufu had already promised that.

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

She smiled as well. “This is Mie.”

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

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

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Chapter two, 2017, ends and beginnings, segment six


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But.

In the end.

He was hers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You sure. You look like a city boy.”

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

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

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

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

Urufu!

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

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

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Chapter two, 2017, ends and beginnings, segment five


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

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

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

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

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

The hand in his hair stiffened.

Bloody hell! I forgot where I am.

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

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

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

Urufu, we need to go to Sweden.”

Huh?”

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

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

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

Across the table the girls had stopped talking.

What’s going on?

When I get older I hope to marry Kyoko.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

What on earth are you talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yukio nodded.

What?

In bodies where Kyoko was never stabbed?”

Kyoko clung to Noriko and nodded as well.

Oh!

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

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

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

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

Yukio! I love you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The look Noriko gave him cut deep into his heart.

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

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

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