No one was in the clubroom, when Onoda opened the door. No lights. Not even a ghost. Empty hands at the boundary, his eyes darted through darkness. There were no stark white notes set about. No warnings. No comments.
He couldn't see a single explanation for the package sitting at his door.
"Onoda." His own name coming faint to his ears. "You doing alright?"
He startled, jumping like static electricity. Glancing from a hand to a face, it was just Naruko. Onoda tried to breathe, calm, but it didn't work - particularly in the face of the toothy grin slowly fading from his friend's face.
Stammering took up all his air. "Oh." This early in the morning, it should have only been a senior in the room - a captain. Anyone else. "Oh, n-no, I'm fine!"
Eyes flickered to scraped elbows, his face, and Onoda was too aware of the bandage over his cheek. Naruko noticed many things. He could notice how long someone had ridden a bike - could catch how often it was oiled on sight - the exact sort of person to declare vengeance for any slight against a dear friend.
"Didja fall off your bike?" The words weren't guarded. Just as friendly as ever.
Onoda held his breath. "N-no! No," he said. If he lied, he would never get through. "I slipped on something!" Right at his doorstep, unfortunately treated by overnight rain, and worse by his clumsy feet. "We got a delivery and I just ran out right over it."
Being honest was the easier way out. It made Naruko let his shoulders fall, swing an arm around, offering food and boisterous jokes about early birds, and -
"If it happens again," sharp grin and bright red eyes. "I'll help you out."
He returned a shaky smile.
It would be better not to give anything he couldn't take back.
The words had been worn away by rain and dew.
When Onoda got home, he plied away the paper, modeling tools carefully in hand. Tweezers, forcing his hands still, leaving a lamp over the damp note. It was a little like putting together a figure. Painting on details, using tutorials he'd seen online, sprucing up the cheap sets he couldn't turn down. He forced palms against his knees. There was old recorded anime waiting under the television. But he didn't turn his eyes away from the remaining ink, hoping it would thin down from the veins reaching across paper and tape.
He couldn't make out much.
The tube had been sealed shut, with something other than tape. But the sound of hollow plastic banging inside didn't make him feel any better.
Please, he could see.
Michi, was clear, preceded by something too familiar.
It took razor blades and scissors and deep night to get the tube open safely. He shouldn't have been so worried. It wasn't anything that meant much.
After all. It was just a water bottle.
When Onoda would stay late, far past every schedule he normally kept himself to, it was Teshima who would sneak up behind him. For better or worse, with jokes and concern, he always did that. A captain to be, welcoming smile and hands everywhere he went. Today, he sat down, glancing over the empty table before Onoda. Usually, it was - letters, addressed to another country. Onoda didn't have anything to cover up his anxious stare forward, beyond light and space.
"Are you feeling any better after that race?"
His mouth felt dry. He'd forgotten his bottle at home. "The Interhigh was okay!" There would be food on the table already. Some set aside just in case.
When Onoda looked up again, Teshima was wearing a twisted smile. Too often unreadable.
"You're not even thinking about Minegayama?"
Onoda almost jolted out of his seat.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed - since August. September.
"It was good!" He spun in his chair, properly facing Teshima - stepping on his feet, for a moment. "I-I mean, it was really fun, you were so incredible then." He took a deep breath. "It was wonderful to have the chance to race with you."
The words echoed a little hollow in his mouth.
But Teshima chuckled. "I'm glad we could finally race as teammates." A hand landed on his shoulder, gentle, careful, fingertips pressing through shirt and jersey. "You're the exact kind of person I'd always want on my side."
"Thank you," Onoda said.
His head hung down. Fingers - wrapped around his back, till his head was pressed against Teshima's shoulder in quiet darkness. He couldn't return it. But Onoda took Teshima's other hand, hanging down, and squeezed as much as he could allow himself. Dying cicadas filled the room, reminding him of broken bicycle spokes.
Teshima's voice is muffled through cloth and hair when he asks, "Is it Makishima?"
Fingers shaking, Onoda was glad he kept his nails closely cut. He wouldn't drive anything into Teshima's hand, hanging on this tight. Explaining what he'd done to someone who was always so kind to him - so accepting. Cold sweat settled on his neck, below his eyes.
"If someone doesn't want ..." He didn't even know how to ask. "If someone seems like they want to be left alone, I mean." Sitting here, he wasn't sure what the problem was, and that made it worse. "Should I not bother ... them?"
It wasn't an answer - it was hardly a question.
"Makishima isn't the type of person to answer much." It all came slow. Methodical. Onoda couldn't read Teshima well. What was concern, and what was veiled suspicion. "But if they didn't," Teshima said - quiet, "They would say as much."
Onoda started to shift - a question burgeoning from that vague answer - but Teshima drew away first.
"Well. Should, more like," he said. He pushed a hand on Onoda's head. He couldn't see through Teshima's arm, little more than his voice evident. "But that's true for anyone, I figure."
Onoda couldn't figure out much about people.
Not much more than the ache of concern in his chest, and sick wave of anxiety through his gut.
People said a lot in what they didn't make it out of their mouths.
"Thank you," Onoda said. He smiled. "I feel a little better."
And Teshima smiled back.
Tired an expression as it always was.
He wasn't sure what he needed to fix. Let alone if he could in the first place. But there were words that always hung over his head and that was something.
Onoda wrote Makishima, as he ever did, but started another small pile. It built itself into an old box. Closet filled with old packaging for what figures he found cheap, there was one big enough for paper - covered by blue and clouds, even with wear edging along the sides. Enough to hold a dented, crooked water bottle.
Letters without a destination. Words filled paper with nonsense and theories, thoughts and dreams, fears and apologies. Everything but a proper source. His hand cramped up. He would drop the pen and lay down his head, confused, and unsure, but - determined.
One way or the other, traveling back from where he was, he'd find what he was looking for.
It had taken weeks to build the courage.
In her shop, beset by late October night, he was the only customer she had to worry about. She fawned over the BMC as much as she had when first giving him the bike. It wasn't every day, apparently, that she had the chance to work with such a lovely bike.
"And you needed one that fit you!" She had insisted, multiple times over. "Imaizumi and Naruko have bikes that are perfect for them. I'd hate to let that go unchecked!" Kanzaki was nice - a little overwhelming, almost scary, but very, very nice.
So Onoda spoke a little louder. "Could I ask you something?"
She'd seen more races than he'd ever be likely to be in. There was no one else he could imagine talking to about it. No way to phrase it, no way to speak, no way to know. When she agreed -
"What do races do to people?"
Hair was falling across her face, out of the bun she'd hastily twisted it into. Questions settled in her curve of her mouth. But she wouldn't go back on her word.
"A lot of things." Kanzaki flicked a pedal on his bike. The two watched it whirr brilliantly, masking her quiet huff. "It makes some people determined. To keep their place or do better." She floated around the room, shuffling through boxes and wires. "It makes other people happy. Watching or participating, it's a pretty mutual feeling." He could remember Makishima's tears, Kinjou's joy, Tadokoro's assured pride in everyone around. "There are a few that get a bit monstrous about it." She laughed. An echo followed her, impossible to track her face. "Well," she hummed. "That's more a figure of speech. Don't take it to heart too much, okay?"
Onoda had to glance down to make sure his fingers hadn't vacated his hands. He said, "I won't." He could imagine it - the sights. Faces he could hardly make out.
"And ... then there are the people who quit." Her voice dropping like an unwanted toy.
It was such a careless phrase, but she didn't look back from his bike - didn't laugh or smile. Onoda's ears whined, louder than crowds and distant motors.
"Why would people quit?"
That earned him a giggle. "I don't know! People don't really like to talk about that part, Onoda." She swung her hair around her head, back ever-tighter, without a glance of her face. "What people let stop them isn't any of my business."
It was obvious enough.
"I don't think quitting is anything bad. I'm sure there are good reasons for it," he mumbled. "But I'd like if I knew how to convince people to stay."
She turned. "Sorry," she said. "You can't make people change their minds when they've already got their hearts set."
Kanzaki pushed herself up to sit on the table. Watching him, with a smile he could never read. "But a lot of people aren't as set as they think." She grinned. "There are other ways to stick around, you know. Not everything is about competition."
Light rose and fell like the sun had broken loose of its chains. Onoda ignored the sounds of cars driving past. The breath in his chest built up with a smile that didn't make it to his face.
"A race is a race," she answered. "That's all it is! There are a lot of racers who put their all into it, but they have to save a little for everything after, too." Kanzaki clapped her hands together and stood straight, always giving everything she had. "Sometimes they really hurt themselves by doing that. Cycling is important for more than just winning. And winning is only ever one moment." She held up a finger. "The same goes for losing. So don't worry about that part so much."
The questions came unbidden to his mouth. "What if losing made someone not want to race anymore?" He couldn't bring himself to touch why it was he needed to know.
She paused. Kanzaki was terrifying that way. She seemed to think about every possibility.
"I've known cases like that before," she murmured. "But stopping's never made anyone feel better. There are more regrets out of never doing it again than having lost a few times. You don't have to compete to enjoy it, but quitting over losing one race is a little silly."
He couldn't say for sure. He'd never really known - couldn't be sure of how much it hurt. Winning had never been what mattered, to him. If that was what mattered to them, he wasn't sure what he could give them to make it better.
When they didn't seem to want anything from him, he couldn't be sure if it had anything to do with winning.
By the time he glanced back up, her smile was all the more suspicious. Teeth broke into view when he jolted under her gaze. "Most of life isn't a race." She pointed, a grin and a wink. "Everything takes time. Whoever it is will probably feel better given that. Alright?" Kanzaki grinned. "Don't take everything onto yourself so much. Other people have to figure out things on their own, too."
Onoda smiled back. He was glad she was still here. Regardless of anything else. Watching her glow under the weight of everything she knew, he was glad he'd gone to her.
He wasn't sure how to use it. But it was somewhere to start.
It came as a letter.
Kanagawa. Odawara. Hakone.
How have you been!
Toudou didn't speak in questions. But when Onoda stared at the paper, drowsy and anxious, he could almost see something between the lines. He brushed it off. It stuck to his skin, regardless. It wasn't so easy to overlook anymore.
The mountain awaits! If you'd come to ---
Onoda folded the letter up and put it away.
The nagging sense in his gut - making him sick. It wasn't fair.
No one told him anything.
The first step began in his ever-present stammer.
Tadokoro glanced down from the shelves. All of them cleaning before the worst of winter hit. He'd been studying different things than Kinjou - business and budget, but he still came in more for it all. Dozens of days, Onoda found him talking to Kanzaki, boisterous voices overwhelmed to incomprehensible noise in his ears. He didn't have the sense for it all that the two of them did - children growing up to take over family business, from the start.
People had asked, so many times, if he was alright. Onoda wasn't sure what it meant.
"Looking for something?" he asked, a broad grin along.
He had won races. Made friends. Passed classes and tests, decently enough. Found deals in Akiba and kept up with the newest Love Hime arrange CD that had come out. He'd even been able to catch up on the fall season right before the finales started airing. Onoda knew he shouldn't have felt - constant encroaching sickness weighing on his chest, any moment he wasn't distracted enough.
"Do you..." His hands were cold, pressed up against his neck. He'd forgotten the scarf this morning. "Yes," Onoda said. "I um ... I don't know if you have it? But if you do..."
"What is it?" Tadokoro hopped off the bench, feet slamming into concrete. It didn't make his height any less intimidating, but that was alright. It was a fact. Relaxing in of itself. "If I don't, then we'll go out looking for it. We've got more than enough favors between us to find anything."
A warm hand on his shoulder. "I was looking for a phone number ..."
Tadokoro stared, at that. "Another school's?"
"Hmph." Tadokoro flipped out his phone, sturdy and well-worn. "Well, I can't help much with that, but ..." Even his mutter was louder than he'd intended - "She'll give me no end of trouble for this." He glanced over, frown unable to sweep away the laugh lines at his eyes. "Alright, fine. Fine."
He held it to his ear. Onoda's heart slamming in his chest. Asking would be so simple. Being straight-forward. He should have. Faint ringing from that far away.
"Toudou? Yeah. Yeah, it's me." Tadokoro mussed his hair, already holding the phone away from his ear. "Listen. Oi, listen for a moment! I've got someone here who could use your help."
Onoda picked the date.
"Would you like a race?"
Onoda picked the place.
"I'll give the two of you anything you might need!"
Onoda picked the time.
"It has to be one of the two of you to inherit the title from me, after all!"
So Onoda took the train to Tokyo, closing his eyes, and listening to the busy thrall of crowds around him.
Dark blue gloves. His usual jacket. When Onoda stepped off the train, onto the main platform, it was strange not to hear the typical clatter of his cycling cleats against concrete. People rushed out around him like a waterfall and it was all he could do to keep up, avoid troubling anyone else. Even down here, lights filled up every wall. Laughter. Announcements running overhead, timestamps and advertisements, till he finally broke above ground.
It was beautiful, on Christmas Eve.
No snow. Not so picturesque as that. He'd probably never be so lucky. But the streets shone with people and excitement, and - usually, he'd be at home. Usually, he was gone before night fell, picking at the chicken his mother had bought with friends.
Lanterns and flickering bulbs hung bright in his lenses. It was nice. During the summer, he'd thought he'd spend the end of the year with Naruko and Imaizumi - that he'd be pulling and pulled along, pushed to try food he was too mortified to attempt alone. Not that he'd be standing in a square alone, making himself as small as possible before the crowds of couples and groups.
Without a bike. Or helmet. Nothing to hold him down.
They'd be here.
If Toudou kept promises, at least.
Onoda admonished himself.
Pressing freezing hands together.
He felt just as unfair as the sight he'd been waiting for.
It was messy hair through a crowd.
A little tall, a little not. Windswept, hardly walking on ground. And -
"But Toudou," quietly petulant. "If you wanted me to help with shopping, why are you making me wait outside? It's cold."
"You are here to help me carry presents," louder, confident. "If you see what I'm buying, it ruins every element of surprise! Surely you must appreciate that."
"Maybe, but -"
"Excellent! Stand here, and don't go anywhere! I'll be back soon."
Toudou made crowds part like sweeping doors aside.
They covered Manami up again like they weren't there at all, the slightest glance of a tired smile.
They looked the same. He wondered if he did. Five months apart. They weren't tall enough to see over people. But through the gaps, he could see them rocking on their feet, staring up at the bright neon overhead, across screens flashing with advertisements and news. Onoda stood behind - against - glass, and brick. Overhead, lights turned red, and people started to cross. Their hands rose, fingertips pressing together, and bobbed side to side, floating like a lure. They looked around.
All the way down the street to the opposite side, distant, as crowds cleared out with lights to go.
Traffic lights turned blue. Reflected on the cars as they sped across. Like a game to lose. As people started piling up again, through a broken line of sight, he was frozen at the one moment he had to run forward. Back and forth, red again.
People pushed, inadvertently, purposefully. Maybe it was just his feet moving. He couldn't say. Out from the wall, he was tripping, awkward through black ice and the web of feet along the street. But the clothing store's entrance was out of sight. Cars sped across the street again, as though they'd never stopped. Onoda jumped, trying to see back across, over the heads and shoulders of those around him - unable to catch a glance of the blue he was looking for, through the lights above, tinging everything ice and gold.
He fell back.
"Hello there," he heard.
And couldn't catch his lungs.
"What brings you out here?"
If nothing else, he caught his glasses. Pushed them back to his face as he turned - face half hidden by his hands, smile frown fearful expression out of sight as he looked straight at Manami.
"Oh," he whispered.
They were smiling.
"Um," he managed - struggling to swallow. His eyes burned. He wasn't sure why. "Well, um."
"Toudou dragged me along for shopping," they interrupted. Words rambled along air, freezing up in his ears. "Normally I like to sleep on days like this. There isn't even any snow to play with!"
Managing to nod, dumbly, Onoda couldn't speak.
"Well, I like to go out for the first sunrise, but that's not for another week. But I guess this is kind of nice." They were looking up, away. Hair covering their eyes. They were grayer than they'd been in the summer - shining gold in the sun, racing uphill. It was hard to tell what was bags at their eyes and what was simply a lack of light. "I've never seen Tokyo on Christmas Eve."
"I have!" He'd spoken before realizing. Manami didn't look back - he saw them shiver - it was cold. It was just cold. "I mean ... I always like to come out here for the holidays ... everything's really beautiful." Onoda let his hands fall. "I'm glad you're here to see it."
"Mm," they said.
Onoda took the last step to lean against their wall, standing in the silence between them for - five red lights, flickering for instants to yellow between that and blue. Toudou didn't reappear from the store.
"It's been a while," Onoda said. Too scared to stare down, that they could disappear again, his eyes jolted between the glance of their jacket and anything else. "I forgot to ask for your number after the Interhigh. I'm really unused to using my phone with -" Friends. He said, "Anyone but my parents."
"Running into you was really lucky!" he lied.
"A little like fate," they murmured.
The comment stung. "How have you been?" he asked. It wasn't the right question.
"Fine," they said.
He wasn't getting anywhere. "What's Toudou shopping for?"
"Presents, I think ..." It brought them back, a little. Manami wasn't so stiff, folding their arms against their chest, puffing out a cheek. "It was really sudden. She came around and basically dragged me out of the house when I was trying to sleep. She insists we made arrangements a week ago, but I don't remember that." They laughed. It was nice - quiet chimes. He couldn't remember how long it had been. "But I guess I forget a lot of things."
Onoda nodded. "I understand ..." Smiling. He didn't know what to say. Didn't have a way to keep it going. "Everyone always admonishes me for how bad my memory is."
"Ah," they said.
Onoda twisted his fingers together.
They were right here.
"Is there anything you're looking forward to?" he asked.
Crowds overtook his voice. Their voice made it through what little space remained. "Not really."
"Maybe I'll do a little more shopping too," Onoda said. "I made something for my team, but I don't know the kind of stuff you'd like very well."
"Don't worry about it," Manami interrupted. Their mouth was open, unspoken words, before they stopped and looked away. "I don't really want anything."
"...Are you sure?"
"I have a bike," they said. "And gear. Food. I'm not too sick," and fell back upon themself, before huffing something like a laugh. "It's fine. I'm fine. I have what I need."
Manami held bare hands up to their face and breathed out, warm fog taking up the air. Short-cut nails. So low the skin was red and dry. In profile, they looked mismatched - a puzzle of shapes and colors along their face, patchy cold burning at every rounded edge. Light trapped behind their shadow highlighted a cold that grew in Onoda's chest, shivering and digging its way out.
"Would you like to borrow my gloves?" Questions and words burst out without him. Concern jumping to the forefront of any normal anxious thought. "I'll be fine without them, I don't want you to get sick-"
"Let's get out of the cold," Manami interrupted. "You know this area, right?"
He didn't. For all he enjoyed the city, Onoda hardly knew most stores, most areas. All he could be sure of was Akiba, but he did his best. It was simpler than jumping through the rails of uncomfortable conversation. He glanced back, constantly unsure as to whether they'd still be there, if they'd wander off to something more interesting, but they were always there - illuminated with neon flickers and as loud as snow he wished would fall.
The first eatery he found was a cafe. By the time he had his wallet out, ready to speak, declare something, Manami already had two steaming cups in hand. He folded under their wide confused stare.
"Oh," they said. "Sorry. I'll let you buy something else if you'd like."
"No!" Onoda took the mug, in their blank surprise. Anything was better than nothing. "Thank you ... what is it?"
"Tea." Most open booths were taken. The two of them settled at the open island of a table in that sea of people. Manami rotated their cup, ceramic grinding against plastic. "The rep always says it's healthy."
"Which flavor?" he stammered in return. The heat was too much for him to parse out much taste.
"I don't know. I figured whatever was expensive would be pretty good though."
Tea dripped out Onoda's mouth, back into the cup. It wasn't right to accept so easily. But want trumped what was right. He hid behind the steam on his glasses.
"Have you been in many races," they said, without question.
"Just one," he mumbled. Worse had been the anxiety making a nest in his lungs, hiding from encroaching winter. There was so much more than just that. "It went well." But they probably didn't want to hear about such things.
"That's good." Manami stared out the window and he followed, landing the shop Toudou should have been browsing.
"Is it alright for you to be in here?" he murmured. "Since Toudou told you to wait ..."
Onoda would have stood through blizzards with Manami, to keep them company, to not be alone. He kept that to himself. When he turned back, they weren't looking out the window anymore. Nothing more than a fixed stare upon him.
"Did I say something wrong?" he asked.
Onoda wasn't observant, but it would have been impossible to miss the quirk at the corner of Manami's mouth, in trying to avoid their eyes. Bags brushed past as people took to vacating and seating around them. He waited.
They hummed, finally. "It's nothing." And stirred a small spoon through their tea. "I doubt Toudou needs me here in the first place."
A little late - Onoda realized what he'd said.
"What for?" they asked. Distant.
"I saw you before," he said. "And didn't say hello sooner." It was almost sly. Maybe Kinjou would have been proud.
Their cheek rocked along their palm. "Why were you out here, again?"
Or maybe not sly enough.
Manami's eyes crinkled with their smile, as he froze.
"Ah, sorry," they said. "You said you'd already made things for your friends, I think. Last minute shopping, then?"
He nodded - made the attempt. An expression like that shouldn't have made him feel like he'd been sliced to ribbons. Bright and absolute and utterly untouchable. It felt familiar - a farewell that had been said too many times over already. No matter how hard he chased. By any rights. Onoda shouldn't have come here.
"Fate, huh." Their smile wilted into nothing when they looked away. "...I suppose she didn't tell you anything either."
Onoda coughed. "What?" Tea made his eyes burn.
A sigh, and words crumpled up in his mind, in his mouth, as they said, "Toudou likes to do things like this." A little fond, a little frustrated, but it was emotion on their face. "Fun surprises." He couldn't find the space to speak. "...It's kind of a terrible idea if the two of us aren't on bikes."
He covered his mouth. For all they were, Manami didn't look perturbed - the same confusion they always seemed to have toward him, hidden in the distance of the table between them.
"I mean ... Toudou didn't ..." He could stop right there. But they were already softening to nothing. There was no reason to believe in fate - not when he didn't want it to be something so unknowable. No more words in his mouth, when he knew exactly what he was here for. "I asked Toudou to."
Not when he didn't want this to be his own choice.
"Manami, the truth is," he said. It had been a long time. Longer still since he'd heard them use his name. "I wanted to talk to you."
Onoda was used to seeing them carefree and distant. But like this - they felt packed away, the only thing remaining of them the form in front of him, and the cooling tea they bought. There'd be nothing else if he didn't do anything.
"In September, I got a package," he said. Choosing the facts, over the web of confusion swimming like needles in his head. "There wasn't a return address. I think someone left it there. And ... the note was soggy. It had gotten wet, so I don't know all of what it said." He didn't have to know to be sure. "But there was a water bottle inside."
Somewhere in that rambling maze of words, their hand had slipped over their mouth.
"I wanted to know," he said. So much softer than he wanted. Onoda couldn't manage to be loud. But it was firm. No stuttering. Not here. "If you knew anything about that."
"That was me," came faint through pale fingers.
Take it back, was obvious. He couldn't hide from that fact anymore. The sick lurch in his chest every time he remembered it was enough to know what it meant. Please, though. There were too many questions and every step was a free-fall.
"Do you not want to be..." He stopped. He wasn't sure what they were ever supposed to be. Makishima and Toudou were rivals. Imaizumi and Naruko were teammates. Kanzaki was his friend. And Manami. He'd made a promise, with Manami. Onoda had kept his side of it. Involuntarily, his fists balled up, beneath the table. "Do you not want to talk to me anymore?"
Saying anything else would have been too much.
Maybe they would have run away on the spot. Just as much as they'd done, up on Fuji, flying impossibly far.
"I couldn't," they said. As though those two words were enough. Or - he hoped they could tell - just how much he didn't understand. From themself. From himself. He hoped. Broken promises were hard to carry.
"Why ..." He'd prepared. Not enough, apparently, through the words dying in his mouth. Some part of him wished it had been a small mistake. That he'd made it up. It was all too loud and his tongue felt swollen in his mouth.
Manami said, "I didn't know what to do." Their hands had slid up, over their eyes, digging up through their hair. The thrum of people around pitched up and far below, from the whine in his ears. "I still don't."
Onoda said, "I don't either."
They hiccuped something like a laugh. Hands falling down, they were smiling, red-faced and damp. "I'm glad that part's mutual."
It made his eyes prickle and burn. They seemed so kind. They were. It didn't make it hurt any less - didn't make it any easier to speak.
But he could answer, "I am too." That was honest enough.
Teeth ran into their lip, with that shaking grin, eyes everywhere, constantly falling back to him no matter where they tried to look.
"I thought about doing a lot of things," Manami said. "It was really awful." Rubbing their face with the heel of their palm, bright blood-shot eyes more obvious by the moment. "Toudou was so mad when she found out what I'd done. But I don't think she knew what to do either." They stared back out the window. A little more lively. Pretty, with the golds flickering as replacement sunlight through their hair. He missed this. He missed them. "I got advice, but I ... I was still trying to figure it out. I was hoping I'd know something before ..."
"Manami," he said, again - after they trailed off. Another lost statement. Or opportunity. "I ... I'm glad I got to see you today. " Failing to look at them, again. "...I was scared. For a long time."
They smiled so much more like this - it was worse, unpracticed, wavering creases at their eyes. It was so much more than they'd ever given him before. Manami's mouth opened. Closed.
"Yeah," they said. Hoarse. "I know."
They never apologized when it might have mattered. Or maybe it wouldn't have helped. He could never stop doing it enough himself to tell. He wasn't sure why it was this way. Or of anything about them.
"All I can do is talk." He couldn't even bring himself to say how much it hurt. "But maybe we'll both know better later ... if we can see each other again." It took breaking brick to say, "If you want to."
People left enough that he could hear the music playing. Kneading his hands together. His tea was cold. Eyes jumping from there and up, short pictures to gauge any response.
It was too little. What had been said.
But every snapshot of them smiling, tired and worn and wide, like they had been in that last moment together made what minuscule spark it was worthwhile. Knowing that they were just as present - just as terrified and unsure as he was - of every question they couldn't ask, made it feel less alone. However distant a line it was.
"Please," they said. Gently. And on their lips, he could see the silent murmur of a name they could hardly write, hardly say. "It's a promise."
Onoda let out a breath he'd been holding. Months down the line, he didn't want much.
So it was enough to sit there in silence, drinking tea in dwindling company.
Enough to walk outside to Toudou's frustrated complaints and surprise.
Every time he glanced back to Manami's laugh, hands held like iron behind their back, it was something to know.
He didn't have to understand right now. Didn't need to hear it right now.
After all. It wasn't a race.