The walkway still curved behind him when sand gave way to gravel, and then to the concrete stars used in Japan to reinforce the beach line. Walking barefoot on the uneven surface hurt his bare feet less than he remembered.
Another benefit of 20 kilos less weight, Ulf thought.
He drank the sound of water crashing ashore and enjoyed the feeling of solitude as the sound of shouting voices grew fainter behind him. Above the sea scattered clouds bathed in crimson red. A momentary glory, he knew. Not the luxurious hours of ever fading dusk from home. He felt a pang of homesickness from the memories, but shook it off. There was a different beauty to the sharp transition between day and night here, neither less beautiful, nor more, just different.
The sound of waves breaking against the cliffs was followed by a spray of salty water, and when he wiped his face dry he heard another sound.
“Ulf!” That was Swedish, not Japanese.
He glanced up to where she was perched. “Ina! So you went here as well?” Ulf climbed up an intricate puzzle of interlocking concrete figures and took a seat beside her. “Too noisy?” he asked and pointed towards the beach.
Christina just nodded in affirmation.
He turned his head and looked at her profile. Beautiful, always stunningly beautiful. “You want to be left alone?” he asked and made as if to rise.
“No. No, it's fine.”
They shared a moment of silence. Not an awkward one. Just some time of peace.
“You remember...” Ulf stared at her and broke into embarrassed laughter. They had spoken the same question. “You first,” he offered, still smiling.
“Spending days at the beach.” Christina's voice faded into silence as an invitation for him to fill the emptiness.
“A driftwood fire in the evening,” he answered, the last word a mere whisper. He glanced at her just in time to see her lips start moving.
“Uhum, and sausage barbecue at sunset...”
“Like we were still kids...”
“… when it got cooler after sunset...”
“...getting/offering a jacket from/to the one you're interested in...” Again they had spoken together.
“Those summer romances were so embarrassing.”
“But so cute. And anyway, they were more part of middle school than senior high.”
“So you're saying our friends are kids?”
“In more ways than one, yes.” Christina flashed him a melancholy smile. “They really are adorable.”
“Uhum, yeah they are.”
“I miss home.”
Ulf saw her sag, reached out with his arm and drew her closer. For a little while, while she wept silently, he just listened to her muted sobs and embraced her shaking body.
Memories shared. Memories lost. They had this much left. More than friends, less than lovers.
Then, as he heard voices coming closer, he wiped her tears with the back of his hand. Ulf turned his head closer to her and watched her face. A grieving beauty. You're a world away right now. He bent his head to her ear, close enough to kiss her had he wanted, and whispered: “We're getting company. You'd better laugh at a happy memory soon.”
The closing voices turned into faces, and Ulf rose when he saw Ryu's hurt expression. The unspoken accusation couldn't be turned away by pretending nothing had happened.
“She's not...” Ulf swore and switched to Japanese. “Christina's feeling homesick,” he said and rose to his feet. He jumped down the cliff and waved to Ryu. Ryu can't do anything about her being homesick. He can feel jealous, but even he will understand this is a comfort that's mine alone to give. Ulf walked closer to the sea and knelt over a few flat stones.
“Still, just the two of you over here.” Ryu's voice held a sharp edge to it, and Ulf could hear Noriko and Kyoko murmuring in agreement.
Ulf threw a look behind Ryu. Both twins showed pain in their eyes. Damn, I hate seeing Noriko hurt. Ulf needed to change the topic quickly. He flicked one of the stones he had picked up across the water. It glanced across a wave top, bounced off it and dove into the water. He threw another stone, with more power and a flatter arc. Damn, when did I start paying this much attention to her feelings. It hit a wave and vanished. He filled his head with memories from a childhood lake shore and threw the third stone. Damn, she's just a kid. I shouldn't care like this! The third stone touched the surface perfectly and bounced four times before it vanished behind a wave crest.
“… at least answer what I'm saying...” Ryu's voice stopped all of a sudden. “How did you make the stones bounce on water?”
Ulf grinned. The topic had shifted. They live on an island, but they've not grown up with open water. Funny people. But for now that oddity saved him. Still, Noriko. He hadn't expected to feel her pain so clearly.
“You know,” he said, “we've long since broken up. I hope you'll let us share the friendship we have left.” He looked at Ryu, the young brat who had grown into a man so quickly. This was another stepping stone for him to adulthood.
“I know,” Ryu said and failed to bounce a stone of his own on the surface.
Ulf helped him adjust the angle a little.
“It's just that it hurts seeing you so close.”
“And I won't take that away from you two, or I'll lose her.”
Yea, he's definitely growing into manhood.
Behind him Ulf noticed Kyoko glaring at him. The look she gave him didn't need the company of words to tell him what she thought: “Male bonding fuelled by testosterone. Idiots!”
“Ko-chan, climb up to me, please!” Christina's words finally broke the uneasy spell.
Almost. Noriko sought Yukio's company in a way that Kyoko forgave, but still told Ulf how angry she was. Noriko, you shouldn't fall for me. Ryu doesn't want it. And you really are sixteen, both body and soul.
But so was Ryu. So was Ryu. That excuse grew less valid for every week that passed by.