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With feet planted firmly in the air

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Yamada sits comfortably in his seat, looking up. The radio receiver and headphones rest unused nearby, unnecessary for a short test flight like this. He watches as the hot air balloon makes its slow descent back to the ground, looming larger and larger every minute. The balloon floats lazily, casually, reminding Yamada of soap bubbles he used to play with as a kid. They just float wherever the breeze takes them until they pop.

As the balloon gets closer, it’s easier to see its pilot at work. Takaki moves like a natural as he adjusts the ropes and the burner, making sure there’s just the right amount of hot air to bring him back down to earth instead of carrying him away from the harbor today. Even if Yamada isn’t close enough to clearly see the details yet, he can easily imagine the serious look of concentration mixed with an expression of joy that often rests on Takaki’s face when he’s working.

For Takaki, hot air ballooning isn’t just a hobby; it’s a way of life.

The air harbor has been quiet today with no incoming traffic at all to their tiny little outpost town by the edge of the sea. Takaki had declared after a few minutes of standing outside that morning, it was a perfect day to test drive the recently repaired balloons.

Takaki knows the language of the wind better than the language they speak.

The pilot leans over the side of the basket and waves. That’s Yamada’s cue to leave his lookout and head to the landing strip. He jogs the short distance out to the wide expanse of dirt to wait. Above him, he can see Takaki still hard at work, concentrating on adjusting the burner as he floats down to a safe landing. Yamada shouts up at him to throw down the rope, but the wind carries away his voice.

But Takaki knows what to do without direction from Yamada. It’s only a moment later before he leans over the side again with a grin and tosses the rope down for Yamada to catch. With leather gloves on to protect from rope burn, Yamada grabs hold tight. If he doesn’t help steady the basket, there’s a chance a rough landing will scuff up the bottom of the basket, rendering their repairs a waste of time. Or worse, the basket might tip over when it hits the ground.

He knows the dangers of a rough landing: the pilot falling out of the basket, or getting trapped under the massive amount of deflating balloon fabric, or the balloon accidentally catching on fire.

He’s seen it all before.

But today, the landing goes smoothly and soon the balloon and its pilot are back safe on solid ground. Takaki hops out of the basket with ease, peeling off his own leather gloves and then pushing his goggles up to his forehead.

“Everything worked perfectly,” he reported with a bright smile. “Good as new.”

Takaki had been working on meticulously rebuilding the balloon’s busted burner for the past few days while Yamada had been weaving the basket back together. Takaki had been up to his elbows in spare parts for the past few days. Between the two of them, they’d probably gone through a month’s worth of coffee in a few short days while focused on the repair work.

Yamada nods as they get to work detaching the balloon from the basket and folding it back up to store until its owner could come to pick it up later.

“How was the view up there today?” Yamada asks.

“Stunning,” Takaki answers as he focuses on tying a knot to keep the balloon bindings in place. “I could see the cows over at Mr. Sato’s farm roaming around like they were looking for better grass to eat.” He laughs before continuing. “I bet the leaves on the trees will start changing soon. The air had that end of summer feel to it today.”

“That end of summer feel?” Yamada repeats with an amused scoff. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know how to explain it. That’s just what it felt like,” Takaki says, looking up to the sky as if that might magically provide him with an answer. He then turns back to face Yamada. “Are you going to go with me to see the leaves change this year?”

Yamada hesitates.

“We’ll see,” he says, going with the safest answer. Not a commitment, not an outright refusal either.

Takaki knows not to push further, but Yamada catches a hint of disappointment on his face as he turns to start lugging the balloon back to their warehouse.

Yamada looks up at the sky, the bright blue stretching out over him, punctuated only by a few wispy clouds. The sky, which seems to go up and up and up forever, makes him feel dizzy just looking at it.

He’s often wondered what the world looks like from above, often imagined the sights Takaki describes to him after every flight. But the fear holds him back, holds him firmly to the ground, and he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to rise above it.

~^~^~^~^~^~

Takaki yawns loudly as soon as he walks into the office, which is Yamada’s cue to thrust a coffee mug into his hands. Takaki blinks unexpectedly for a moment and then smiles, as if Yamada hasn’t done this multiple times per week for the past five years since they opened the air harbor together. When Takaki stays up late patching baskets and balloons, Yamada makes sure the coffee is extra strong the next morning.

“Thanks,” he croaks before he takes a sip, letting the steam from the cup rise to caress his face like a gentle wake up call.

“We’ve got three balloons on the way,” Yamada says as he pours his own cup. “Radioed in about ten minutes ago. There’s a hearty wind coming from the sea today, so we’ll have to keep a close eye on them.”

“Three?” Takaki repeats, looking a tiny bit stressed out because the coffee hadn’t quite kicked in yet. “With the wind like this? We’ll need Chinen to help. Was he supposed to be working today?”

Yamada shrugs. Chinen works with them part-time but never on a set schedule. Like the balloons, he usually just floats in and out whenever he wants to.

“I’ll give him a call then,” Takaki says as he starts heading towards the lookout post. “And I’ll be out here waiting for the balloons.”

Once Takaki’s gone, Yamada gets back to his daily routine: making sure the bookkeeping is in order, putting together an inventory of spare parts they need to order, keeping the coffee hot. But it’s not long before the bell on the door jingles and Keito walks in, followed by a blur of white fur dashing inside.

“How’s my favorite puppy today?” Yamada says with a smile as he picks up the small dog which had run immediately to his feet. The dog barks once and licks his face a few times before he starts squirming to be put back down.

“Your favorite puppy,” Keito replies with a sigh as he sets a bundle of mail and the newspaper on the countertop, “is extremely energetic this morning. You’d think he’d had some of your coffee.”

Yamada laughs as he watches Keito’s pet scurry around the floor, slipping and sliding every now and then across the wood. Keito keeps an eye out for the puppy while he plops into a chair to chat for a bit. The air harbor was at the end of his delivery route, so he usually stopped to rest before heading back into the village.

The newspaper Keito brings is full of headlines about what’s going on in the rest of the country. Political unrest in the capital, border disputes with the neighboring country to the north, and other stories that fill Yamada with a cold creeping feeling of dread whenever he reads them. He much prefers the stories of the villagers Keito brings with him instead.

“When you get a chance, you need to go to Ms. Takahashi’s bakery. She’s got these new croissants that are amazing,” Keito starts with before telling Yamada the whole story about how Ms. Takahashi had accidentally come up with her new recipe while working late one night.

He continues with more stories: the twins Takeru and Haruma spent a day pretending to be each other and no one had noticed, Sachiko’s baby had finally taken his first steps, Mr. Nakagawa had closed his butcher shop for a week for a vacation to the mountains.

“And what about you?” Yamada asks once Keito is done speaking. “What’s all the news in your life?”

Keito pours himself a cup of coffee before he answers with “not much.” His little puppy dashes between his legs, startling him enough to almost drop the cup. “Not much except practicing with the guitar and taking care of Pablo Jr. I think he’s probably more stressful than raising an actual human baby.”

The puppy, which Keito had named after his former childhood pet, simply wagged its tail and looked up at the deliveryman innocently. And then, without warning, chomped down on one of Keito’s shoes.

“Enough about me,” Keito says as he tries to ignore the slobber quickly covering his feet. “How’s your balloon going?”

“I’m… making progress,” Yamada answers. Actually, he had finished constructing the basket a month ago, but had been procrastinating on finishing the balloon since then. The longer he stretches out his project, he thinks, the longer he can avoid the question of flying the balloon too.

Other than Takaki and Chinen, Keito is the only other person who understands Yamada’s fear of heights. And out of all of them, he’s the one who’s always been the gentlest and most sympathetic. He never pushes Yamada to just “get over it” or teases him about it. Keito simply offers support.

Constructing an entire hot air balloon from scratch had actually been Keito’s suggestion initially. He thought that if Yamada built it himself, he’d be more motivated to overcome his fear.

“Progress is always good,” Keito smiles.

“I’d really like to see the leaves with Takaki this year,” Yamada admits quietly. “But time is running out.”

Keito pats his shoulder, a gesture of kindness he’d come to expect from the deliveryman. “It’s okay to go at your own pace.”

Before Yamada can respond, however, they’re interrupted by someone barging through the office door.

“I’m baaaaaac-rgaahh!”

Chinen’s proclamation of his arrival had shifted into an incomprehensible shout of fright halfway through as Pablo Jr. dashed away from Keito’s shoes to greet him at the door. Yamada watches as Chinen leaps up to the countertop, scattering mail in all directions in his attempt to escape the small dog.

“My nemesis!” Chinen exclaims as Keito calmly scoops up the puppy, who is still happily wagging his tail and barking in greeting. Chinen has never been good dealing with animals, no matter how friendly they are.

“Stop being overdramatic,” Yamada says as he picks up his mail from the floor. “We’ve got work to do.”

“I’ll see you later,” Keito laughs as he heads for the door to where his bicycle is waiting outside. Yamada watches as he puts the puppy in the basket, making sure he’s secure, before he pedals away back to the village.

“Are you quite done making a scene?” he asks Chinen, who’s still resting comfortably on the countertop like he’s an overgrown child.

“Maybe,” Chinen grins.

Yamada shakes his head, grabbing a pair of gloves. “Let’s just go help Takaki, so he doesn’t try to land three balloons by himself.”

~^~^~^~^~^~

After a long day, Yamada likes the quiet of the workshop at night. Sometimes, he and Takaki stay late tinkering with burners or weaving together wicker baskets, having only the flickering lights of their lamps to keep them company. The shadows dance across the walls like friendly companions showing off their skills. Yamada likes how the wide open space they use to work in doesn’t feel constrictive. They have two stories worth of space to work on multiple balloons at once if necessary, and then still room to spare.

With Takaki gone back to the village to visit his sister and nephews tonight and Chinen travelling up the coast to visit his friend Yabu, Yamada has the whole open space to himself. They don’t have any repairs to make, so he has plenty of time to work on the unfinished tangle of fabric that he’s been avoiding.

Yamada stands at the base of the ladder, looking up. This side of the workshop has a wide balcony built in to store extra parts, but it’s also where all of Yamada’s sewing materials and fabric currently resides. Takaki had suggested months ago that he work up there as a way to get acclimated to the height.

“Baby steps,” Takaki had said.

To Yamada though, each step feels like a giant leap. A leap that might send him crashing down to earth at any moment.

He’s never climbed up there without Takaki being nearby in the workshop. He doesn’t want to waste the opportunity to keep working on his project, but he’s afraid he won’t be able to climb back down when he’s done working, either.

“Baby steps,” Yamada whispers to himself before he takes a deep calming breath. His hands latch onto the sturdy wooden ladder as he hoists himself up, step by step. A wave of dizziness hits him at the top, so he takes a moment to steady himself again before he crosses the last bit of distance to reach his destination. He immediately presses his back up against the wall, taking whatever comfort he can from its sturdiness.

The dizzy spell passes after another few deep breaths where he wills himself to not slip into a panic.

He left his half-sewn fabric by the chair he usually sits in, but he notices something different tonight. A bunch of pillows and blankets are haphazardly piled up nearby. A note and a tiny rag doll had been placed on top. He recognizes Takaki’s handwriting immediately.

This is your personal comfort zone!” the note begins. “If you’re up here and start feeling overwhelmed, just lie in this pile of pillows until you calm down. If it’s really bad, you can cuddle the doll too. (Don’t laugh, okay! I made it myself. Well, my sister did most of the stitching, but I did the face all by myself.) I read in a book that having something to hold onto might make you feel better. So if I’m not around, at least you’re not alone.

The note is signed with Takaki’s barely legible signature and a silly-looking smiley face. Yamada laughs as he puts the note away in his pocket for safekeeping. He takes a closer look at the rag doll and laughs again at the lopsided smile Takaki had stitched on its face. There was a reason why Yamada was the one who did most of the stitchwork when patching up balloons.

Grabbing his sewing gear and fabric, Yamada settles down into his cushiony “comfort zone” instead of his usual chair. And soon he gets so engrossed in the work that he forgets how high up he is.

He works so late that he eventually decides to sleep up there, back against the wall, curled underneath the warm blankets and with the rag doll safe in the crook of his arm. In the morning, Takaki shakes him awake with a grin on his face and a cup of coffee in his hand.

~^~^~^~^~^~

Request for landing, request for landing.”

The voice crackles over the radio in its usual slightly distorted tone. Yamada looks up from his book to see a hot air balloon in the distance, flying in from the west. He hadn’t expected any flights into the harbor today, but seeing as how they weren’t busy, he radioed back with permission to land.

He slips his gloves on and then heads out to the landing field, watching as the balloon rushes down towards the ground a bit faster than Takaki usually flies them. The pilot is busy adjusting his burner, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on slowing him down.

It’s going to be a rough landing.

Yamada sprints back quickly towards the workshop to grab a long hook. If he works fast enough, he can snatch the side of the basket to keep it from tipping over. He’s not quite sure where Takaki is at the moment, so he just shouts his partner’s name as loud as he can and hopes he’ll come looking. An extra pair of hands would be helpful.

But there’s no time left as the balloon’s basket skims the ground like a rock tossed into a pond. Yamada works fast to hook the basket and then he locks his knees in an effort to hold the basket in place. His arm muscles feel the strain against the momentum as the weight of the rapidly deflating balloon wants to pull the basket and its pilot forward, but Yamada holds fast, not budging.

Finally things stabilize just as Takaki emerges from the workshop with some rope and another hook.

“Sorry, I wasn’t fast enough,” Takaki apologizes as he gets closer. “But everything seems to have turned out okay. You’re not hurt, are you?” The last question was directed toward the balloon’s pilot.

The guy shakes his head, not looking too fazed by the rough landing as he climbs out of the wicker basket, grabbing his backpack along the way. “I’m fine,” he answers cheerfully. “Not the first time that’s happened to me. Though usually it’s because of a strong wind.” He turns to look at his deflated balloon strewn across the ground. “This time I think I’ve got a slight puncture problem. Ran into a flock of rather angry birds before I got here,” he chuckles as if it’s no big deal.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” Yamada says, walking over to inspect the balloon more closely. “We can fix you up in no time.”

“Thanks,” the pilot replies. “My name’s Arioka Daiki by the way. And, uh, well I have another favor to ask too…”

“What’s that?” Takaki asks, looking up from where he was inspecting the basket for any damage.

Daiki looks a bit sheepish before answering. “Can you tell me where I am? I’m waaaaay off course.”

“I think we can help with that too,” Yamada laughs.

With some maneuvering, they get Daiki’s balloon into the workshop and Yamada starts looking for any punctures he’ll need to patch up while Takaki helps Daiki with the maps.

“Well no wonder you’re lost,” Takaki exclaims, looking appalled. “Your maps are like ten years out of date. Let me get you some of Inoo’s. He’s the best mapmaker I know—”

“The only mapmaker you know,” Yamada interrupts.

“And his maps are guaranteed to be more accurate than what you’re using,” Takaki continues without acknowledging Yamada’s comment. He never misses an opportunity to proudly talk about his friend’s mapping skills.

Chinen pops in the workshop right around the same time with food for lunch. “Anybody hungry? Oh, we have a guest! Hi!” He waves to Daiki. “You get first pick of the stuff I got from the bakery.” He holds out a small bag for the wayward pilot.

“Why are you never here when I need an extra pair of hands?” Yamada lightly scolds Chinen.

“But I’m here now,” the part-timer pretends to act innocent. “And I brought lunch!”

It takes the better part of the afternoon before Yamada is satisfied that he’s patched up all the tiny holes in Daiki’s balloon. Takaki spends most of that time helping Daiki plot a better route to his intended destination while also marking a few alternate routes in case the wind changes. Yamada listens as Takaki talks about weather patterns, giving Daiki tips on how high he needs to take the balloon to catch a good cross wind.

“Have you ever taken this route before?” Daiki asks, tracing his finger along the line on the map. It passed through a gap in the mountains, taking him northwards towards the bigger cities out there. Far away from their little village by the sea.

Takaki nods. “Last year I traveled up through there to visit some family. As long as you stay away from more birds, you shouldn’t have any trouble.” He grins and Daiki laughs along with him. Yamada always appreciates how easily Takaki can set someone at ease, just with a smile and a few teasing words.

“What about you?” Daiki asks, directing his attention to Yamada.

“Oh no, I don’t fly,” Yamada shakes his head. But he doesn’t add any other explanation, suddenly feeling embarrassed as Daiki’s eyebrows creep up his forehead in mild surprise.

“This is a good time of year to travel through there, isn’t it? Right as the season is changing from summer to autumn,” Chinen interrupts to take the attention away from Yamada, turning to Takaki for an answer.

“Yeah, the cooler temperatures will help you fly better,” Takaki says, “and the view is quite amazing.”

Yamada feels his cheeks turn a bit red, so he turns back to examining the balloon one last time for any additional maintenance it might need. His friends were too kind, saving him from having to admit to his fear of heights.

He can’t even hold a simple conversation with a traveler.

Daiki, however, doesn’t seem to mind too much. He’s as friendly and cheerful as ever while they reassemble his repaired balloon back out on the landing strip, thanking everyone for their help and promising to visit if he’s ever in the area again.

Yamada waves goodbye to the balloon as it floats up into the sky, taking note of the tiny patches now dotting the fabric. At least seeing that, he feels like he’s been helpful.

~^~^~^~^~^~

It’s not unusual to find Takaki looking out at the sea when he’s not too busy. There’s a spot on the top of the hill where he sits, sometimes eating lunch out there if the weather is nice enough. Yamada has long suspected that he finds the perpetual motion of the waves calming. That push and pull of the tides which never ceases. It’s a lot more predictable than the chaos of running an air harbor brings.

Usually when Yamada walks up to the top of the hill, he finds Takaki with a serene smile on his face. But today, the expression is concern. The wind coming in from the sea whips strands of hair into his eyes since the goggles he usually wears are hanging uselessly around his neck.

“Do we have any incoming balloons right now?” he asks.

“No,” Yamada answers. He’d just walked up here to ask Takaki if he wanted anything to eat.

“Good,” he says. “There’s a bad storm coming. Go radio out that our harbor will be closed until tomorrow at least.”

Yamada would ask how Takaki came to that conclusion when there are currently only a few fluffy white clouds hanging in the sky on the horizon, but he trusts Takaki’s knowledge of wind and cloud patterns. Plus, Takaki just always seems to know. Like some sort of innate weather beacon no one else was born with.

They return to the main building to find Chinen chatting on the radio.

“I swear I can do a cartwheel with no hands,” he says, sounding frustrated the person on the receiving end didn’t seem to believe him. “It’s not physically impossible!”

“Are you chatting with Yabu again?” Yamada complains, rolling his eyes. Yabu runs the air harbor further up the coast, and he and Chinen talk together by radio more than they do actual work most of the time. But Yamada doesn’t really mind since Chinen usually gets all the latest important information (and gossip) about traveling balloons from their neighbor.

“Good,” Takaki says while he rummages through a cabinet for a hammer and some nails. “Tell Yabu that we’re closed until tomorrow, so he can be on the lookout for extra traffic his way. And then you go home. We’ll take care of things here. You can warn everyone about the storm coming. It’s going to be a bad one.”

Instead of making a joke like usual, Chinen springs into action. There’s no arguing with Takaki about his weather predictions. If he says there’s a storm coming, then it’s best to start getting prepared. By the time Chinen hops on his bicycle to head back to the village, a dark mass of clouds can be seen hovering on the horizon, getting close by the minute.

Yamada and Takaki work in silence as they board up the windows of their building and tie down anything that might get blown away by the strong winds.

“It’s a storm to welcome the beginning of autumn,” Takaki says once they settle into the back room of the harbor’s office for the night. “I hate those the most. You can just tell by the smell in the air how much damage they’ll bring.”

Yamada doesn’t bother to ask what that’s supposed to mean. The storms this time of year are almost always the fiercest they have to weather, leaving behind broken trees, ruined crops, and smashed buildings in their wake. Yamada hopes this one won’t be as bad, but he can already hear the wind outside wailing, searching for gaps in the old wood of the building to sneak through.

“How about we play cards?” Yamada suggests, pulling out his old deck. The edges are frayed from years of use, but they’ll do the trick to get their minds off of the storm. The rain has arrived in full force, so there’s nothing left to do for the rest of the night but wait for it to pass with a fresh pot of coffee and plenty of time to kill. Though he knows Takaki hates when storms roll through, Yamada secretly loves how it always gives them a lot of downtime to just hang out together.

“Loser has to tell a weird childhood story,” Takaki says, taking the deck to start shuffling.

“Chinen’s already told me all your weird childhood stories,” Yamada teases.

Takaki deals out a hand for each of them. “You sure about that?” he asks with one skeptical eyebrow raised. “I have plenty.”

The wind and rain roar together like a devilish symphony outside, and the light from their lamp dances along. But the two of them are more focused on reminiscing about their childhoods, the card game often getting sidetracked by their conversations.

“There was one time where Inoo was complaining about being really itchy everywhere,” Takaki began, laughing. “So I convinced him that an evil witch lived in the mountains and she had cursed him. And then I convinced him that the only cure for the itchy curse was rolling around in the mud. He was absolutely…” Takaki trails off for a minute because he’s laughing too hard. “He was absolutely covered from head to toe, looking like a monster that had just crawled out of a swamp. His mom was so mad at us when he went home later.”

“How did he believe that!” Yamada exclaims between great big incredulous laughs. “You can not be that persuasive. You’re such a terrible liar, like even seven-year-old Inoo would have known that.”

“I think he was just desperate for any sort of relief from the itching,” Takaki answers with a shameless shrug. He grabs the cards to start shuffling again for another round.

“So… did it help?” Yamada asks, still curious. He’s been dealt a bad hand for this round, but if he can keep Takaki talking and distracted, he might be able to bluff his way to another win.

Takaki loses his composure and starts laughing again before he can even answer. “Oh no, not at all. Turns out he had poison ivy.”

Yamada claps a hand over his mouth to hold back a laugh, but it escapes anyway. “Oh that’s awful. You’re awful.”

“I didn’t know that at the time! I was seven!” Takaki continues to laugh, trying to defend himself.

The game continues on, with Yamada having to share a story about the time he and Keito got chased by some of Mr. Sato’s cows, and then Takaki telling about the time he and Chinen secretly hopped onto a train and rode it down the coast to the next town.

“No, I’ve heard that one before,” Yamada says, waving his hand. “Chinen likes to tell that story at least once a week to all of our customers, warning them about the dangers of riding a freight train like a hobo.”

“He’s right though,” Takaki agrees, nodding his head. “I would recommend balloon travel over train travel any day.”

A loud thunk from above interrupts their conversation before Yamada can remind him that buying a ticket for a passenger train is much better than being a stowaway on a freight train.

“I wonder if we just lost a few shingles from the roof,” Takaki muses, looking up for any signs of water starting to seep through. “You wanna climb up there and check?” He grins, pointing up.

“Very funny,” Yamada deadpans.

“I’m only teasing,” Takaki says, gathering up their forgotten cards again. “I’ll patch the roof up tomorrow.”

They resume their card game as the storm continues to rage on outside, ushering in the beginning of a new season. After the storm is gone, Yamada knows the leaves are going to start fading to different shades of reds, oranges, and yellows.

If only he could pause time for just a bit longer.

~^~^~^~^~^~

“Tell me about the first time you flew in a balloon,” Yamada says without warning. He hears an unexpected clang of metal on metal accompanied by a muffled curse as the sudden question startles Takaki from where he’s working on changing the oil in the old pick-up truck they only use for emergencies.

Takaki rolls out from under the truck, peering up at Yamada with a grease-stained, confused face. “The first time I flew a balloon?”

Yamada shakes his head. “No, not as a pilot. The first time you were ever in a hot air balloon. I want to hear what it was like.”

Takaki narrows his eyes as he sits up, looking suspicious even as he starts putting his wrenches back in his tool box. “Are you just procrastinating on your balloon? Because you distinctly told me two hours ago to not let you procrastinate.” He glances up to where Yamada had been silently sewing earlier.

“Actually… I just finished it,” he admits quietly.

The last stitches were finally in place, completing what was months’ worth of work to construct an entire hot air balloon from scratch. Yamada almost can’t believe it. For a while, he had convinced himself that his project would just go on and on forever.

“It’s done?!” Takaki exclaims with a bit too much enthusiasm as he suddenly finds the energy to bolt up from the floor. “I’m so proud of you!” he says as he rushes over and climbs the ladder up to inspect the stitchwork in the fabric.

“Thanks dad,” Yamada says dryly.

“You should be proud yourself,” Takaki admonishes him. “This is fantastic work. No one else in the village, not even me, can say they’ve made an entire hot air balloon from scratch.” Takaki chuckles and adds, “You could add balloon-making on as a side business if you wanted.”

“Just the one is good enough for me,” Yamada shakes his head. “Anyway, you never answered my question.”

Takaki climbs back down and finds a seat on the nearest workbench. “Right… my first time in a balloon…” He purses his lips as he thinks back to find the answer. “I think I was around five years old.”

“That young??” Yamada sits down beside him. “Were you even tall enough to see over the edge of the basket?”

Immediately, Takaki rolls his eyes and shoots him a glare. “I was tall for my age and have long legs, thank you very much.” He then adds, “I stood on my tiptoes,” as a quiet mutter under his breath, making Yamada giggle a little.

“My dad took me,” he continues. “It was just a test flight I think, because I don’t remember it lasting really long. Really, it was so long ago, I can’t remember a lot of details. The thing that really stands out is just how it kinda felt like magic to be floating in the air. Like I had transformed into a bird, able to see everything from above. It was just amazing. From then on, I knew I wanted to keep flying.”

Yamada doesn’t say anything.

“Sorry,” Takaki says, and suddenly he’s very focused on trying to wipe grease smudges off his face. “It was so long ago, maybe that’s not the vivid description you were looking for?”

“No, it was great,” he answers, shaking his head with reassurance. “I just wanted to hear what it was like.”

Takaki stands up to grab his tools and continue his work on the truck. “It’s an experience like nothing else, that’s for sure.” Another moment later and he’s disappeared underneath the old vehicle again, his feet sticking out as the only visible body part.

More and more, it’s something Yamada is sure he wants to experience too. But the actual idea of lifting off the ground in a balloon makes his stomach turn and his knees feel weak. Unlike everything else in the workshop, he doesn’t know how to fix that.

Yamada looks down at his feet, his boots caked in dried mud from when he was out clearing debris leftover from the storm off the landing strip earlier in the day. They’re heavy shoes, but he’s always taken comfort in how it feels like they hold him down to earth.

~^~^~^~^~^~

“We’re throwing a party!” Takaki announces as he walks into the office.

Yamada looks up from where he’s checking over the business’s bookkeeping records to see Takaki smiling brightly. “Is Inoo finally coming home?” he asks, knowing that’s the only real reason Takaki would even suggest such an idea.

Takaki nods excitedly. “He’s on his way right now.”

Yamada pushes up his sleeves with determination. “Then we’ve got a lot of prep to do with not a lot of time. Let’s get going.”

The afternoon is a blur of cooking, decorating, scolding Chinen for trying to eat the food, more decorating, and making sure everything is in place for a welcome home party. It had been six months since Inoo had left again to continue his quest to map their whole country. He sent them postcards every now and then, updating them on where he was (and usually what he was eating too), but it would be nice to have him back home for a few days before he set off again.

They decide the workshop is too messy and crowded with baskets and burners and balloon parts to host the party, so they set everything up outside. Takaki helps hang lanterns around the landing strip, though the full moon will provide plenty of light later once the sun sets. The villagers arrive early and help out with the last minute preparations too.

Inoo’s hot air balloon is instantly recognizable because he’d modified it to suit long-term travel. A bigger basket for carrying more supplies, and some fins and propellers to make it more maneuverable.

“A party for me?” Inoo says once he lands, feigning shock. “Oh you shouldn’t have!”

“We always throw a party for you, you dork,” Yamada says. He watches Inoo jump out of the basket with a grin. “It’s the only way to ensure you’ll come back.”

Takaki barrels past him to greet Inoo with a half-hug, half-tackle. “Glad you’re home again.”

A flash of light and a loud poof nearby startles Yamada enough to look away from the happy reunion of friends. He turns to see Yuto, one of his friends from the village, holding a large camera with an even bigger flash.

“What are you doing?” he asks. The party is getting into full swing around him, with people talking and hugging and already digging into the snacks he prepared.

“I’m capturing memories,” Yuto grins before turning the camera on Yamada.

The bright flash makes him wince, and he’s left blinking away the spots in his vision for a moment. “If that turns out awful,” he warns, “you better burn that photo.”

Yuto gives him a sly look. “Maaaaybe,” he says before running away to take more photos of the partygoers before the sun set completely, robbing him of decent lighting to continue. Yamada admires how carefree Yuto always seems to be, like nothing in the world is ever a problem for him. He seems fearless.

“Why are you over here scowling?” Inoo says, unexpectedly slinging an arm around his shoulder.

“I’m not scowling,” Yamada replies, though he guesses he probably still does have a somewhat sour look on his face from the blinding camera flash.

Inoo just smiles and gives him a hug. “You want to hear a crazy story?” He continues on without waiting for an answer. “I was out west about a month or two ago, and I started having some trouble with my burner. So I landed in the first spot I could find to check it out. And you know what? I happened to land right in the middle of a field of goats.”

“What?!”

“Goats!” Inoo repeats for emphasis. “They were everywhere. They even climbed inside my basket and tried to eat my hat. It was awful, I’m telling you. Out of all farm animals, they are certainly the hungriest.”

Yamada laughs. “It’s good to have you home again. I’ve missed your weird stories. Oh, and speaking of stories, I heard one the other day about when you had a case of poison ivy as a kid.”

Inoo’s eyes go comically wide for a moment before he rests a hand on Yamada’s shoulder. “Excuse me for a moment,” he says in a serious tone. “I have to go murder your business partner.”

“Just don’t make a mess,” Yamada calls out after him with a laugh.

A familiar blur of white fur dashes up to Yamada’s feet, immediately sinking its teeth into his shoes. Yamada leans down to pick up the hyperactive little puppy.

“Well hey there Junior,” he begins. “You like to explore, don’t you? I bet Keito is worried though not knowing where you are. Maybe we should go find him.”

With the puppy cradled in his arms, he works his way through the crowd until he finds the deliveryman with a guitar in his hand, sitting beside Hikaru, the village’s best musician. Hikaru has his own guitar and is giving Keito tips on how to play. Keito looks a little starstruck and his hands a bit shaky, but he fingers the chords exactly how Hikaru directs him to. Yamada waits a few moments, just listening to the music, instead of interrupting. But Pablo Jr. gets squirmy and he’s forced to put him back on the ground.

“Junior!” Keito scolds when the puppy runs around his legs before trying to snuggle himself up his pants leg. “I told you not to run away.”

“He was fine,” Yamada says. “I took care of him. You look to be a little busy anyway.”

Hikaru gestures for Yamada to come sit with them for a while. “You want to learn to play too?” he offers his guitar to Yamada.

“No thanks, I just prefer to listen,” he answers, settling onto the bench beside his friend. The sky was starting to darken as the sun slipped past the horizon, but the party didn’t seem to be ending any time soon. “But I know Keito’s been trying to learn guitar for a while. Hope he’s been a good student so far?”

“He’s a fast learner,” Hikaru answers before turning back to Keito. “Shall we continue?”

Yamada listens to the music, with Hikaru’s gentle corrections and Keito’s quiet apologies when he hits a wrong note. They play for a while with others chiming in to sing along to the tune. Yuto stops to snap a picture, temporarily blinding all of them for a few minutes. The jam session only pauses later when Hikaru decides to grab something to eat, leaving Yamada and Keito alone for a bit.

“You finally worked up the nerve to ask Hikaru to teach you,” Yamada grins, relishing an opportunity to tease Keito. “How’d you do it?”

Keito scratches the back of his head and laughs. “Well, I just brought my guitar with me, and he asked if I played. And I was honest and said I needed a teacher. He’s not as scary as I thought he’d be.”

“He’s not scary at all,” Yamada rolls his eyes. “I don’t know why you thought that in the first place.”

The puppy barks happily a few times as if to agree with him. Keito just shrugs.

The party continues late into the night until by the end of it, Keito and Hikaru are playing music for Takaki and Inoo as they dance on top of a table, and Chinen joins them up there only as a way to avoid the puppy trying to eat his shoes. Yamada watches it all and smiles. In another few days, Inoo will pack his bags again and ascend into the sky, off to map out more distant lands.

But for now, they’ll all create wonderful memories.

~^~^~^~^~^~

“Hey, there’s been a crash.”

Chinen’s voice is uncharacteristically serious as he pokes his head into the office. He’d been manning the radio while Yamada and Takaki had been going over inventory. They both look to him for more information.

“Seems like the pilot is going to be okay, but they’re asking for you guys to clean up the crash site,” Chinen continues, explaining briefly where the balloon went down. “Not sure about many more details than that.”

“Thanks,” Takaki says as he begins digging around through the drawers for the keys to the pick-up truck. “You’re in charge while we’re gone. Don’t set anything on fire.”

“That was ONE time!” Chinen huffs, but doesn’t stick around for anything else. He’s been around long enough to know what to do to keep the air harbor running while they’re out.

“Where are those damn keys?” Takaki mutters, checking his pockets.

Yamada holds up the key which had been hanging on the back wall with all the other keys. “Calm down and let’s go,” he says, tossing them to his partner.

Takaki has to coax the old truck’s engine to start with a string of curses and a few good slaps on the dashboard. They only ever drive the truck when they need to clean up a crash or they need to get to the village in an emergency. It’s been several months, almost a year, since the last crash they went to. They’re fortunate, Yamada thinks, that the pilots who pass through around here are generally skilled enough to avoid the avoidable dangers and lucky enough to miss the uncontrollable ones too.

It also helps that most people know not to fly near the mountains to the north except through the few gaps and passes on the map. A hot air balloon needs flat, treeless land for a safe landing, especially in an emergency. The long swaths of farmland and grassy plains between the sea and the mountains are perfect. That’s one major reason their village was built in between the two geographical features.

There’s an awful pit resting in the middle of Yamada’s stomach, like it always is when they have to go to a crash. Seeing the mangled remains of a balloon and its smashed basket do nothing to help alleviate his fear. And on top of that, the pilots are not always so lucky to make it out okay. He’s grateful that they don’t have to worry about the pilot this time, whoever it is having already been carted away by capable hands to the doctor.

Ironically though, Takaki is always more anxious at a crash than Yamada is. Or, really, he’s just too honest to hide what he’s feeling. And maybe he’s secretly worried that going to one too many crashes will finally scare Yamada away from ballooning for good.

Yamada, however, has plenty of practice at pretending to be calm when everyone else is terrified.

“Roll the window down,” Takaki says as he cranks the handle for the one on the driver’s side. “This truck always makes me feel claustrophobic. Like, how do people travel anywhere without feeling the wind against their face?”

The old truck creaks and thunks as it travels up the winding mountain road, the curves making Yamada’s stomach churn even more. He’d try to focus on how pretty the leaves are now that they’ve just begun to change, but that only serves to remind himself that time is flying by faster than he needs it to.

“Wow,” Takaki breathes as they finally reach their destination. “Chinen did say the pilot was okay, right?”

Yamada nods because he’s at a loss for words looking at the crash site.

“That person must have nine lives,” Takaki continues as he shifts the truck gears into park.

The scene before them is covered in a smoky haze. The shredded remains of the balloon are tangled up in tree branches and charred almost beyond recognition. Sparks from the burner must have ignited a fire on impact. The basket, however, looked mostly intact, perhaps being the means for the pilot to escape the flames. Someone had already put the fire out before they’d arrived, so all that was left was to gather up the remains.

“Let’s get to work,” Yamada sighs. He puts on his goggles and gloves before heading to the wreckage. He’ll start with the basket first, examining it to get a better idea about the crash before he and Takaki hoist it into the back of the truck. “What do you think happened?”

Takaki has his hands on his hips, lips pursed together as he thinks over each scenario in his head. “Inexperienced pilot gets too close to the mountains, gets caught in the stronger wind gusts higher up, loses control,” he guesses, pointing his finger in the air to better illustrate his thoughts. “Balloon deflates, snags the tree in a pretty sharp fall. Pilot bails out after everything catches fire. That’s probably the most likely situation.”

“Flying can be pretty dangerous sometimes, huh?” Yamada says quietly, though Takaki still manages to hear him.

“Only about as dangerous as any other form of transportation,” he replies. “Probably less, statistically speaking. But it helps to know what you’re doing too.”

It takes them more than an hour to clean up the mess left behind and secure it all in the back of the truck. Yamada checks and double checks all the knots in each of the ropes just to make sure everything was tied down tight. The queasiness in his stomach has dissipated now that they have the situation under control.

“We might be able to salvage the basket and some parts from the burner,” Takaki says as he hops back into the truck. His face looks a lot more relaxed than it did earlier.

They drive back down the mountain leaving a multi-colored swirl of leaves in their wake.

~^~^~^~^~^~

“What if I just threw you straight into a basket with a fully inflated balloon and then cut the ropes, so you wouldn’t have time to escape before you’re up in the air?” Chinen suggests with a mischievous grin plastered to his face at the idea.

“That’s an awful suggestion,” Keito chimes in, looking at Chinen with a somewhat horrified expression. “You shouldn’t force someone into a situation like that. If Yamada doesn’t want to fly, he doesn’t have to.”

“It’s just a hypothetical situation,” Chinen replies, unapologetic as always.

Yamada rolls his eyes at both of them. They’d been discussing for at least the past twenty minutes ways to help Yamada overcome his fear of heights. He was mostly ignoring their conversation in favor of sorting his mail.

“Okay, but what if he was blindfolded?!” Chinen’s face lights up with excitement over his newest idea.

Keito continues to look disturbed by Chinen’s suggestions. “That would defeat the whole purpose of flying.” He turns back to Yamada to add his own idea. “Maybe you should read a lot of different safety manuals. They more you know, the less scary it will be.”

“How is that going to help?” Chinen scoffs, and their argument continues.

Yamada appreciates their concern, but he feels like he’s being pulled in opposite directions. Chinen’s methods are too extreme; Keito’s too passive. They both have good intentions but none of their ideas are helping him work up the courage to climb inside a hot air balloon and float up into the sky.

He thinks it’s just something he’s going to have to figure out on his own.

“Hey,” Takaki says as he walks into the office, holding a familiar puppy. “I found this little guy in the workshop trying to eat my shoelaces. Thought you might want him back.” He hands the squirmy bundle of white fur back to Keito, who cradles the puppy in his arms.

“I told you to stop wandering away,” Keito says to the puppy, petting the top of his head. “And shoes are not food.”

Yamada laughs. “He’s just a natural explorer.”

“It’s more like he knows we’re all going to look out for him, no matter what he does,” Takaki replies.

Keito tilts his head as he thinks about that. “Huh. I guess you’re right.”

Pablo Jr. lets out a quick happy bark at Chinen, who had been trying to sneak silently out of the room during the conversation. Chinen’s eyes go wide as they all turn to look at him.

“You should pet Pablo,” Yamada says to him. “He’s happy to see you.”

The look on Chinen’s face says he’s trying to calculate his escape, but after a few seconds he lets out a deep breath and tentatively stretches his hand forward. Yamada waits to see whether Chinen chickens out. But in the end, he lightly pats the top of the puppy’s head.

“This isn’t so bad,” he admits. “He’s softer than I thought.”

The puppy barks again happily. Then Chinen grimaces and recoils his hand. “Ugh, he licked me! I’m dyinggggg!”

Takaki laughs, looking amused at how quickly Chinen’s reaction switches. “Baby steps,” he says. “Baby steps.”

~^~^~^~^~^~

Yamada looks down at the ground, focused on making sure he’s not missing any spots as he smoothes out the landing strip. He likes this kind of methodical maintenance sometimes because it gives him time to think. With his rake, he works away any gouges left behind by rough landings, any potholes leftover from a heavy rainstorm.

“It’s today.”

Takaki’s voice interrupts his focus. He turns to see Takaki facing towards the mountains, looking up towards the sky instead of at the ground. His rake hangs uselessly in his hand.

Yamada knows what he’s talking about before he even says another word. He knew it would be coming soon. The peak time to view the autumn leaves, only a brief few days where the colors are at their most stunning. Takaki goes every year to see them, and every year he asks Yamada to come along with him to experience the spectacular view.

Every year, Yamada says no.

But not this year. Though the knots of anxiety are already forming in his gut and his hands are starting to sweat uncomfortably while still curled around the rake, he wants to try to fly.

Takaki’s turned his gaze towards him, his expression a mix of hopefulness and skepticism of being turned down every time before. He’s trying his hardest to steel himself for disappointment, Yamada can tell.

“Let’s take my balloon,” Yamada says. His heart is pounding already.

Takaki’s eyes widen in disbelief. “Are you really…?” His expression changes to one of delight, the same one he often has on his face when he’s looking out over the ocean or preparing a balloon for takeoff. Then he suddenly looks hesitant. “You know you don’t have to feel obligated to say yes if you—”

“I want to go this year,” Yamada interrupts him. “I mean, I know I could live my whole life just fine without ever flying in a balloon. But I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I don’t want to miss out on opportunities and experiences just because I’m afraid. Eventually, I just have to take that first step forward and try.”

Takaki breaks out in a wide grin. “Then let’s get moving while the wind is in our favor.”

Yamada’s hands shake a little while they assemble his balloon outside, and his heart rate hasn’t slowed down a bit. But Takaki talks him through the process, gives him reassurances about everything, triple checks every inch of the hot air balloon just to help him feel more at ease.

Yamada tucks the tiny ragdoll Takaki had made for him a few weeks ago into the pocket of his pants. The idea is still cheesy, and he teases Takaki for it occasionally, but he appreciates it like a good luck charm. An extra bit of confidence to accompany him on the trip.

Yamada takes a deep breath and climbs into the basket that he’d constructed piece by piece all on his own. The balloon is almost inflated now, so he lets Takaki focus on his piloting duties. Those rough hands adjust ropes and levers with the same kind of practiced precision of a surgeon.

“Don’t forget. You can tell me if you want to stop at any time, or if you feel overwhelmed or sick or anything,” Takaki repeats to him for what feels like the millionth time. Yamada only nods his head again in response.

Once the balloon lifts off the ground, it doesn’t feel to him like any magical or special moment, perhaps like he’d imagined. They simply start to float, just like a soap bubble on a breeze. Yamada thinks he prefers this actually, how their slow ascent into the air simply feels normal. But he still takes a few deep breaths to remain calm.

The higher they go, the more his perspective shifts to make everything look like it’s shrinking. He tries to memorize the visuals. The world below him is a doll house with moving pieces. Mr. Sato’s cows grazing in the distance are toys dotting the landscape. The mountains, however, loom closer and closer by the second; the only things too large to shrink.

“Are you scared?” Takaki asks.

“Yes,” Yamada admits honestly. A wave of dizziness had hit him a few seconds ago, but it passed quickly. “But I feel like I can handle it.”

Takaki gives him a tour of the land below as they pass over it, keeping him focused on stories of scenes from past flights. After what seems like both forever and a few seconds, they reach the pass through the mountains. The wide gap is the safest way through for balloons, but it’s also the best place for viewing the autumn leaves. Everything surrounding them is an explosion of color, the reds and yellows and oranges mixing with the few evergreens scattered around.

Yamada is sure he’s never quite seen such beauty like this. He’s seen the leaves change colors from the ground before, but from the air, it’s so much more spectacular. Up here, he has a wider angle. It feels like they just spread on and on forever.

“I considered once borrowing Yuto’s camera to take a picture of all this,” Takaki says. “But then I decided against it. It’s somehow more enjoyable because of how fleeting the moment is. Another day or two and this’ll all be half-gone.”

“But then they’ll do it all over again next year,” Yamada replies.

“Yeah,” Takaki smiles.

Yamada is sure that this one flight hasn’t cured him of his fear, but it’s a first step. Here he is with his friend by his side, accompanied by the familiar hum of the burner working to keep them aloft. Here he is floating between two mountains in a hot air balloon he put together with his own two hands.

Here he is, with feet planted firmly in the air.