Back to Earth

Kujo stared at the blinking cursor of his email as he mulled over what to do. His American gaming friend Violet said she was finished with her exams and wanted to meet him. She hadn't set a time or date, but it was all happening so fast. Kujo felt a giddy excitement as he wondered what she would look like. She had always said she was really shy and never gave out her picture, but now she wanted to meet him?

"Please don't be a man," Kujo begged.

"Kujo!" Raine shouted behind him. He jumped and covered himself, then covered his screen instead, then closed his screen instead.

"Raine?" he asked in confusion.

"Oh, sorry, were you looking up porn or something?" she said with a hearty smile. "I knocked but you didn't answer."

Kujo gasped and turned red. "I wouldn't look up porn in the guild hall!"

"Really?" Raine said with a skeptical grin. "You know Exile is always watching."

Kujo's face turned pale. "Is she really?"

Raine laughed into the space of his room. "No, I'm just kidding. But onto more important matters. Kujo."

"Yes ma'am?" Kujo asked. He pushed his covers away to prove he was still decent.

"Want to go to Germany?" she replied. "An anniversary is coming up, one that I always go home for."

"Germany?" Kujo asked. Now it was his turn to be skeptical.

Raine nodded but gave a sad smile. "Exile used to go with me. Then I had Doc take me once. Now I rely on Miho."

"Is Miho not going this time?" Kujo asked with concern.

"No, she'll be coming too, but..." Raine said. Then she laughed again. "I just thought it'd be nice for you two to get along. Is that okay?"

"Of course!" He had always wanted to visit Germany and wondered if there were some World War II museums he could visit. He became a huge fan of German tanks after playing that one massive multiplayer online game about World War II tanks, and after watching that one anime about girls fighting each other in World War II tanks. If Raine weren't standing in front of him he'd probably be dancing on the spot. "Can we go places while we're there?"

"Yeah, probably, just make sure you pack a suitcase since our inventories don't work on Earth," Raine said. As she watched Kujo fist pump, she suddenly got a feeling he had already forgotten Miho would be coming. Raine sighed a little and stepped into the hall. "Sorry, Miho," she whispered.

When Miho met them at the guild hall's portal outside, Kujo was going over a list of the things he would be bringing. Things like extra warm weather clothes, extra cool weather clothes, suntan lotion for when it was hot, chap stick for when it was cold, a camera, extra batteries, and bug spray. It was a small miracle he managed to fit it all in a single suitcase. Miho contemplated using another wrestling move but when he looked at her to ask if she was listening, she quickly faked a smile and nodded her head. Then she pretended to check her device in case she forgot something.

"Don't worry about it, Miho," Raine said. "Maybe having Kujo along will be a good thing. For the both of us."

Miho shied away from the teasing smile but still gave a small nod. The three of them left the guild portal and entered Atlantis, the server for the European region. Raine excused herself as she walked off to a nearby medical ward. But when Kujo asked Miho why, she just shook her head silently and stared down. When Raine came back she was carrying a flat pile of metal and fabric with two large wheels. After unfolding the wheel chair, she carefully took a seat and relaxed her arms and legs. Kujo stared at Miho but she ignored him. She asked if Raine was ready and she nodded. After double checking they were still in a party, Raine asked her device to send them to Schatten Garden.

Schatten Garden was an entry point to Nirvana in Frankfurt, Germany. It was a beautiful city with a condensed and prominent skyline. Beyond the skyscrapers were tight streets containing old and modern architecture. Bridges spanned the length of a wide river that ran beside the metropolitan area. Beyond the bridges and toward the edge of the city were pockets of thick, leafy trees. Raine instructed Miho to push her toward the medical wing. As they waited in the hall, Raine took a breath and exhaled.

"Kujo?" she called, "You don't need to hide back there."

Kujo set down their things and stepped in front of the wheelchair. Raine wore a white long sleeve shirt and long white dress. However, no legs touched the ground, and no arms rested against the armrests. Her limbs at been amputated at her elbows and knees. Kujo's body language showed apprehension and nervousness. Raine picked up on it and tried to keep her smile as genuine as possible. Miho painfully looked away.

"You said we're going to Kirn?" Kujo asked.

"Yeah," Raine answered. "It's about an hour and a half away."

Kujo pointed as his face took on a new fear. "How are we supposed to get there if you can't drive us?"

Raine studied Kujo's mounting panic and then laughed. In fact, the more she thought about his logic, the more she laughed. She thought she had heard every response she could have when someone saw her quadriplegia. Some people said nothing. Some people told a stupid joke. Some people ignored her. Some people forced a smile. Some people cried. But no one had ever made her laugh before.

"Miho," Raine said. "I think I have tears in my eyes." Miho bent down with a smile and used her thumbs to wipe Raine's eyes. "Two friends of mine are going to pick us up. We'll be staying at a hotel nearby so we don't bother them, but they'll be with us for the most part. They're very nice people."

Kujo relaxed a little and offered an embarrassed apology. He took on a more subdued expression and asked if she was willing to talk about her condition. Raine nodded and recalled a traffic accident years and years ago. It was typical of many traffic accidents. Her parents were driving her home from college one night and a drunk driver hit them at an intersection. Both her parents lost their lives and she suffered a spinal injury that rendered her limbs useless. The accident was gruesome and the doctors told her she was lucky to be alive, even if they had to take her arms and legs. She never appreciated their assumptions until she heard of the possibility of regaining access to her lost limbs through Nirvana.

"I was a test case at first but when it worked, I became a full Utopian employee," Raine said. A doctor came by and said he was ready to receive her. Miho pushed Raine into a small examination room and then shut the door. After a few minutes, they came back out. Black gloves rested against her armrests and black boots were nestled in the footrests. They hid prosthetic limbs. But Raine did leave the medical center in better spirits. Kujo pushed her toward the entrance to Schatten Garden where a man waved. Miho waved back and jogged ahead.

"So when you said anniversary, did you mean their deaths?" Kujo asked.

"Are you disappointed?"

"Of course not." He pushed a little faster. "I always wanted to know more about the person Miho looked up to." Then he leaned forward and smiled for Raine.

When they reached Miho and the man she talked to, Raine introduced him as Conrad Eichel, a police officer in the Kirn Police Department. Raine had known him since the fourth grade. He was married to a woman named Klara Eichel. She had worked part time jobs until their son had been born, and now lived comfortably as a housewife. Raine had known her since the second grade.

"We grew up together in Kirn," Conrad said. "We didn't venture far from our native city, but that's not a bad thing."

"Klara didn't come?" Raine asked.

Conrad gave a wide smile. "She went to get groceries to cook you a nice dinner."

The ride took them through rolling hills covered in thick trees. The skies remained clear and without any traffic on the road, they reached Kirn in a little over an hour. The sprawling town shared its architecture with nature quite well. For every row of tightly packed houses, there were groves of dark, bushy green trees. Much of the town was built like a winding river through the hillsides. At the ridges of the hills, poking out of the tree top canopy, were quartzite crags. At the center of the town was a quarry cutting a path to the east.

They stopped off at a hotel to reserve a room and leave their luggage. Then they continued to Conrad and Klara's house, a small blue building sandwiched between two large white buildings. When Conrad opened the door, he shouted for Klara. He passed her, kissed her on the cheek, and said he had to get ready. She told him his lunch was in the fridge and then walked to Raine to hug her. Raine felt the familiar embarrassment of not being able to hug back but tried not to let it show on her face. Klara then hugged Miho, giving her a kiss on the cheek. A small voice drew Klara's attention toward the kitchen.

"How was the ride?" Klara asked, walking back to a doorway in the hall. Miho moved the wheelchair inside and Kujo shut the door.

"We didn't have any trouble," Raine said. Klara came back with a small toddler in her arms. "Klara, this is Kujo, another guild mate of mine. Kujo, this is Klara. And that adorable little guy is Dieter."

Kujo bowed his head and leaned close to the toddler. He stared back with unflinching eyes.

"Stay for dinner, won't you?" Klara begged. Raine told her she was silly to think otherwise. While Klara set the child down in the living room, Miho wheeled Raine into the kitchen to let her catch up with her friend. Miho played with Dieter in the meantime. Kujo wasn't sure how to busy himself, so he wandered around the house and then watched some tennis matches on the television. When dinner was ready, Kujo marveled at the exotic German cuisine.

"It's just Galumpki, green beans and some sweet potatoes," Klara said with a laugh.

"Which is Polish, not German," Raine added.

When they finished, Raine thanked Klara for the hospitality and said she would visit again tomorrow. Miho and Kujo bowed their heads and then walked down the narrow street. Raine's wheelchair bounced in a steady rhythm as it rolled over the indents between the sidewalk squares. Their hotel was nearby, not more than a ten minute walk, but Miho walked slowly to let Raine enjoy the surroundings she once called home. At the hotel, they sat and talked for a while but then Raine wanted some snacks. She told Kujo to hold the fort while she and Miho went to the local store.

"What kind of snacks do you want?" Miho asked.

Raine laughed. "We'll grab some chips or something and a drink, but that's not why we're taking a stroll."

"Oh?" Miho asked, curious about her intents.

"It's obvious you're keeping your distance from Kujo," Raine explained. "Even if Kujo is oblivious to it."

"Good, he doesn't need to know," Miho said quietly.

"You can do better than that," Raine said. "I couldn't get us two rooms, but at least I got us two beds. If you don't mind me looking the other way while playing Bach in my head, you two can have all the fun you want in that second bed."

"Raine!" Miho said in a panic. "That's so wrong, I can't believe it came out of your mouth!"

"I was just joking," Raine said, half telling the truth. "But they say you learn a lot about someone you share a bed with." She could hear Miho making noises with her tongue and wondered how flustered she was. "I have nothing against Hinata, but unless Kujo tells you he's off the market, you might as well fight until the end."

"It's not like that," Miho said with a sigh. "I love Kujo and Hinata both. They're important to me. If they're happy then I'm happy."

"It's easy to say that now, but that pain you're hiding won't go away," Raine said. "You know Conrad, Klara, and I grew up together. And we knew each other since elementary school. What you don't know is Klara and I were both in love with Conrad for a long time. At first we were content with being friends, but when we graduated high school, we got more serious. I went to college to show him I could make something of myself and Klara worked odd jobs here and there to be as close to him as she could. When I had my accident, I wasn't thinking about my parents that had just died, or my injuries, or how much my life would change. I was thinking about Conrad, and about how he would never love a disabled freak with no arms and legs. So I gave up, and didn't talk to him or Klara. I made it clear I would never say anything to either of them. It took a long time and some rehabilitation in Nirvana for my feelings to come full circle. As their friend of course." Raine twisted her head to see if Miho was still listening. The poor girl was hunched over in tears.

"You're not a freak," Miho said as she sniffled. "You're the strongest, kindest, and greatest friend a person can ask for."

"Of course I don't consider myself a freak now," Raine said in embarrassment, "but you understand the point I was making right?"

Miho cried a little more but nodded.

They reached a gas station and bought some chips, candy bars, and soft drinks. Miho tied the bags to the arms of the wheelchair and began walking back to the hotel. Inside, Kujo was watching tennis matches again, but offered to help with the bags. He wasted no time in pouring himself a plastic cup of soda while he asked Raine about her childhood. When their yawns became more frequent, Raine said she'd take the far bed. Kujo offered to sleep on the floor but Raine quickly shot Miho a glare. Miho whined silently and then forced a laugh.

"You can sleep in the bed with me Kujo, I don't mind," she said with a smile.

"It's alright, I don't want to bother you," Kujo answered. He rubbed his head and smiled at the wall.

"Kujo, we're adults," Miho said sternly. "You can keep your hands to yourself, right?"

"Of course I can." He felt his face grow hot.

"And I can do the same," Miho said. She walked to the bathroom and waved her hand as if dismissing any other arguments he might come up with. Raine caught a glimpse of Miho's terrifically embarrassed face and decided to help her along.

"Kujo, can you turn off the light?" Raine asked. He did so and the room went dark. After hearing the springs of his bed contract, Raine shook her head to get comfortable. Now she just needed to pretend she was part of the scenery and stay quiet. Kujo would have to sit in the darkness with only the sound of water splashing off Miho's body in the shower to keep him company.

Miho slowly opened the bathroom door to a dark hotel room. She wasn't expecting the lights to be out, but it did make it less embarrassing for her to cross the room with only shorts on and a shirt. She didn't wear her bra to bed either. Once she could make out Kujo's sleeping outline, she stopped toweling her hair and brought a knee to the mattress. She carefully put her arms down and then pulled the rest of her body onto the sheets. Then she stared at Kujo's back. The bed was much smaller than it looked.

In front of Miho, Kujo tried to pretend to sleep. It wasn't working. He couldn't control his breathing or think of baseball or German World War II tanks. He tried thinking of Hinata but quickly second guessed that idea when her lips, and tongue, and saliva came at him in full force. And because of that, he was thinking of Miho's nude reflection in his apartment window again. And because of that, he was thinking of her alluring smile as she walked the rail overlooking the river in Serenity. Kujo pursed his lips as he secretly wondered how long it would take for her to fall asleep just so he could see what kind of face she made. Then he felt an arm slip under his and a soft hand search his chest. It stopped and small fingertips pressed against his skin.

Miho pushed herself against Kujo's back as she screwed her eyes shut in confusion. She didn't know why her hand was touching him and she didn't know why her chest was probing his lower back. She wasn't even wearing her bra. She pressed her nose and mouth into the center of his back and breathed. His shirt smelled like it had been left in the sun. Her second arm slipped under his body and joined her other fingers on his chest. She felt him move and squeezed tighter. But when she felt larger fingers around hers, she loosed her grip. Kujo moved again and then turned over to face her. She blinked and stared back with wet eyes.

Kujo knew her lips were pressed together to hold back whatever noises she wanted to make. But he couldn't help himself. He brought a hand to her face and she drew toward it. Keeping her eyes on him, she gently nuzzled his palm with her cheek. She blinked and stared again. Kujo bent closer and kissed her forehead. Miho shivered under the touch but slowly closed her eyes and lifted her chin. She began panting lightly. Kujo worked his way down, and kissed her cheek, and then the top of her lip. He could feel Miho's quick breaths warm his chin. She purred quietly and then whined.

Miho searched for the rest of his mouth and kissed him deeper. She tried to engross herself with Kujo's touch and smell, but flashes of Hinata appeared. After all, she was the only other person Miho had ever kissed. Miho squirmed under Kujo's forceful touch. She remembered doing the same thing to Hinata. But when Kujo began reaching under her shirt, she felt a sharp pain in her heart. Miho grabbed Kujo's hand and pulled it back down. She brushed her forehead against his chest and she shook her head over and over. Her lips trembled and her eyes became teary, but this was as far as she would go. Hinata might forgive her for kissing Kujo if she begged and cried enough, but anything more would be betraying her trust. A trust she waited three grueling years to get back. If Hinata disappeared from her life again, her heart would break. She would go crazy.

Kujo listened to Miho's sobbing but didn't dare break the silence. Miho was as important to him as Hinata. And unfortunately, he didn't have the willpower to reject either one of them when it came to intimacy. But perhaps Miho was right to stop him. Maybe he was just caught up in the moment. It left him a bit lonely when he thought of it that way, but when her sobs became less frequent and her voice calmed down, curiosity got the best of him. He leaned back to see her face. She was breathing evenly with glistening cheeks and closed eyes, and a mouth open ever so slightly. Kujo smiled and played with her hair. She had cried herself to sleep.

The next morning Raine saw an interesting sight. Although the two of them were still friendly but awkward, there was a great deal more embarrassment in their faces. And whenever one thought the other wasn't looking, they smiled like children in love. Raine said the three of them should go out and have a look around before visiting the cemetery where her parents resided. Kujo asked about World War II museums but Raine couldn't recall any in the area. She did admit there were many castles though. She asked Miho to stop and Raine singled out a large white building on a hill. Trees from red to green obscured a mass of stone walls and small towers.

"That one is Kyrburg," Raine said. "It's pretty famous. It has a restaurant and there's even a whisky museum inside. Want to take a look?"

Kujo frowned a little as he forced a nod. The heavy drinking he did on Magic Appreciation Day wasn't far enough from his mind yet, but having lunch at a castle did sound elegant. They continued walking with Raine giving them historical snippets of all the places nearby. They passed Kirchstra├če 4, an evangelical church and Auf der Schanze, a graveyard. When they reached Castle Kyrburg, they could see two other castle ruins, Schlo├č Wartenstein and Burgruine Steinkallenfels in the distance.

After lunch at the Kyrburg resturant, and a little tour through the cellar museum, Raine was mentally prepared for the purpose of her visit. They stopped at a flower shop to pick up a pair of carnations as well as incense, something Miho started the year before. Raine remained silent for the rest of the walk. When they passed through the black iron gates of the cemetery, they followed a winding path around a visitor center and passed a line of cherry trees. Although they weren't in season, Kujo was still awe-struck, just as Miho had been in previous years. When they reached the set of gravestones, Miho positioned Raine symmetrically between them and lit her jar of incense. She bowed slightly to Kujo to show her intentions.

Rained watched Kujo and Miho take a kneeling position and then pause. They brought their palms together at the same time and bowed their heads in silence. The smell of incense left a sporadic taste in her mouth. They both opened their eyes and returned to an upright kneeling position. Raine smiled gently, amazed at the respect their physical bodies showed. They were strong and elegant, but exuded a calmness only the Japanese knew. Raine felt her nose stinging.

Miho stood first and bent over Raine to wipe her eyes. Raine said she was thinking about something else, and that she was fine, but Miho still leaned around the wheelchair to hug her. Kujo took the carnations and gently set one down in front of each gravestone. Raine thanked him and he wandered off to the side. He mentally read off the German names in front of each headstone and checked the dates. He awed at people who had lived for nearly a century, but became somber for those who never reached his age. Kujo glanced back and saw men in suits standing behind Miho and Raine. Miho looked frightened.

"You should join your friends," a heavy German accent spoke. Kujo spun around to face the stranger. Blue eyes stared out from under a wide-brimmed black hat. A large black scarf was wrapped around his cheeks, nose, and neck. He wore a long light brown trench coat and black pants and boots. His gloved hands opened the coat to show a silenced pistol in a holster under his armpit. Against the other side of his torso he had a military submachine gun with an even larger silencer.

"Oh man," Kujo muttered.

"Do not raise your hands or act out of character," the man said. He curled his hand inward as if asking for something. Kujo made an educated guess and slowly took Clytia off. The man pocketed the bracelet and motioned Kujo to Raine and Miho with his hat. "We are just out for a walk on a beautiful day, ja?"