h e r e is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)
― E.E. Cummings
Makoto Niijima wasn’t very good at doing nothing.
Of course, there was a vast difference between “doing nothing” and “sitting still.” Makoto did plenty of sitting still, especially when she studied, or the occasional times she let herself unwind with a yakuza movie. (It didn’t matter whether she’d already seen it or not. Every time felt like the first time.) Even in her idle time waiting for the train or riding to and from school, she spent the minutes quizzing herself in some fashion—about academics, about their latest infiltration as Phantom Thieves, about strategies she’d picked up in passing from that schoolmate of Yusuke’s.
Hifumi Togo, right. One for one.
Because even with her priorities in check and her goals clearer than ever and her five-year plan sowing its own seeds in her planner—or, perhaps, because of all that—she was acutely aware that time spent in Palaces or uncovering the depths of Mementos was time detracted from her studies. Times that needed to be made up, for sure, but still time that she could never get back and do over.
Opportunity cost, she remembered her teacher calling it. Two for two.
Quizzing herself came in handy.
Makoto had read once upon a time, in one of those international fantasy novels that it was practically a crime not to have read by the age of sixteen, about some hourglass-like device that let you travel backward in time, to be in two places at once so long as you were never caught in the act. Sometimes she wished those devices really existed, that she owned one so she could be twice the woman everyone else expected of her and three times what she expected of herself. But that would be scorning the advice her father instilled in her and Sae almost every day he was around: that you could only live each day once, truly live it, and never again. And fantasy or not, she relied on that more than most things in her life.
Still… maybe it could have some use when she found herself cross-legged at the foot of Akira’s bed on a Saturday afternoon, cradling a cup of Leblanc’s latest brew in both hands while some romantic comedy geared toward their age group blared from his old-fashioned TV. Sure, it wasn’t really doing nothing—she was comfortable here, soothed by Akira’s warmth and the steady beat of his heart in time with the tick-tick-tick of his wristwatch. But a part of her felt like it was nothing, and weren’t perceptions important, too? Didn’t the Phantom Thieves make their whole livelihoods, anonymous though they were, on them?
And more importantly, even though she was comfortable with this, and even though this was little more than Leblanc’s attic in the grand scheme of things, how was she supposed to just deal with the fact that she was in Akira’s bedroom, on his bed, with his arm wrapped around her waist? At the very least, her fidgeting from time to time should have been understandable, even though neither of them said anything about it. He was still a boy—a boy she liked, and was testing new waters with, to boot. What was she even supposed to be doing, besides staving off the heat in her ears and the way she wrung her hands?
The possible answers to that question were as endless as they were flustering.
“I didn’t realize these were the sorts of things you liked to watch,” she finally murmured—miracle of miracles—during a particularly, dare she say, cheesy dance montage in the main character’s imagination.
“Sometimes,” Akira murmured back. His coffee cup lay half-empty on the windowsill, and she was more than aware of his arm flush against her back, his fingers drumming idly on top of his comforter. “I don’t have a preference one way or the other. I’ll watch just about anything, really. But sometimes it’s fun to rent something just to see the look on the cashier’s face.” He laughed to himself. “Ryuji has a game that’s sort of like that.”
Makoto could feel her voice flatten more than she heard it. “Do I want to know?”
“He goes to the convenience store in Shibuya and tries to figure out three things to buy that would confuse the cashier the most.”
Makoto rolled her eyes. Back to the movie it was, then. “I guess I don’t quite see… where all the intrigue comes in. Of course relationships are an integral part of every movie, even familial ones. Probably especially familial ones… But to base an entire story on a romance between two people? On nothing more than the prospect of a relationship? Where do you find the excitement? How do they leverage that?”
Akira shrugged. That was the nice thing about getting to watch a movie in the privacy of the café: they could talk freely without souring the opinions of others. It was a forum and a theater all in one. “It’s all about the will-they-won’t-they, I guess. That’s what gets you, and keeps you watching until the end. Or they introduce some element of a mystery, like a secret admirer.” He nodded toward the screen. “Kind of like this one. So you’re left guessing who it could possibly be, and whether they’ll get together in the end.”
Makoto wasn’t totally convinced. “Well, of course they’ll get together in the end. It’d be a terribly written romance otherwise—What are you laughing at?”
There was this look that Akira got once she’d stepped into her mind enough times around him. She couldn’t place when he’d started doing it, but she had to wonder if it had been long before she noticed it herself. She wouldn’t be surprised; it was hard to notice many things when she was so used to looking inside instead of out. He got this glint in his eyes, and a knowing little smile that tugged at the corner of his lips. It was kind of cute, really—always gave her a little flutter in the pit of her stomach and stopped her mid-sentence, even if her thoughts kept on running.
It was the sort of thing that could become formulaic, if it happened enough: she’d ramble about her thoughts, he’d give her the look, she’d stumble and demand an explanation in spite of her own unusual naïveté, he’d laugh a little more. They’d spiral like that, somewhere into familiar, affectionate bickering and back to comfortable silence, if they would only give themselves some more time.
In the midst of it all, she fully expected him to say something like, "You're doing it again," or, "It's just a movie."
Instead, he said, "Are you sure you want to be a police commissioner?"
Makoto looked at him incredulously. "Of course I do. After everything we've done so far, after everything—everyone—we've fought... what else would I ever want to be?"
"I dunno." This time, the smile was a little more obvious. "A film critic, maybe."
"Well, what good would they—oh, I get it."
Damn, if he wasn't sharp as a tack sometimes. No wonder she liked him so much.
“All right,” Akira said after another fifteen grueling minutes of the movie, even though Makoto had to admit, the mystery he’d been talking about was starting to get to her. “What’s on your mind?”
Makoto blinked in surprise, though she wasn’t sure if it was because the paused movie snapped her out of her own trance or because he’d called her out. “Wh-what makes you think there’s something on my mind?”
He didn’t need to say anything. All he had to do was look at her, and she cracked.
“Okay, fine, I just… I just thought that we were supposed to… actually, go out. Isn’t that what you do when you’re going out with someone?” The pauses in her own words weren’t lost on her, and certainly weren’t for lack of her own articulation. She winced, and wished for a moment that she could go back and do that over. Just that one sentence.
Akira tilted his head. “Haven’t we? Not necessarily as a couple”—not yet, anyway; it had only been a couple of days after all—“but, we have gone out, just the two of us.”
“Well, I suppose… but that was more for Eiko’s sake, and less for ours, wouldn’t you say?” Come to think of it, most of the times they had gone out were for that whole undercover thing, if they could really call it undercover. Before that, she probably wouldn’t have been caught dead in Shinjuku otherwise. Sure, she’d uncovered the truth about that Tsukasa scumbag, and sure, Eiko had just recently forgiven her for that whole ordeal, but God, at what personal cost had it come? In retrospect, after dragging Akira through all that, she was surprised he even agreed to see that one movie with her, let alone be so bold as to ask her out—
No. She was doing it again. Finding the loophole in her father’s words to relive day after day as immutable memories.
She gathered herself again; if she couldn’t have a do-over, she could at least retroactively make up for it. “They also weren’t necessarily… dates. The connotation wasn’t all there, if you know what I mean.”
Akira shut off the TV altogether, took a long sip of his coffee—which had to be lukewarm by now—and shifted to face her head-on. He kept both hands in his lap; she seemed to be just aware of his absences from her now, if not more so. “Are you unhappy?”
The way he asked it, so soft and concerned and almost broken-sounding, had Makoto scrambling to deny it. How could she be unhappy with him in such a short span of time? How, when he’d done so much to listen to all of her thoughts when they came out without her offering, to support her decisions as they came to her, to come looking for her by the student council room to take the subway with her like some puppy she’d trained? (Well, no, that wasn’t quite right—he looked for her of his own volition, and he had his own commitments to handle on the afternoons the student council kept her busy.)
She collected herself, and started again. “It’s not that I’m not happy. I do enjoy spending time with you, you know that. I just thought that perhaps… we could go on a date sometime. A real one, not that we’re… I mean, now that you’re my…”
“Boyfriend?” Akira supplied—like they’d been together so long that he could finish her sentences without a hitch—and Makoto had never felt her face burn so hot. It only seemed to delight him, to see her that way.
“You wouldn’t have to worry about anything,” she insisted by way of keeping the conversation going, without making herself something to laugh at. “I’d be fine planning everything out. We could meet downtown, or here, and go from there.”
He leaned back on his hands, and gave her a quizzical look. “I can’t tell if you’re trying to make my life easier, or subvert some kind of norm. You’re the kind of person who would do either. Or both.”
Makoto leaned over him to set her cup beside his; even that gesture was enough for her to feel like she was imposing, and yet his eyes on her compelled her to keep from apologizing for it. “It might be a little of both. And I can’t tell if my mannerisms make me too obvious, or if you just know me that well.”
Akira smiled. “It might be a little of both.”
Maybe time had little bearing on whatever formula they were developing. Maybe it was only a matter of familiarity. As much as it shocked her, people married in less time, for fewer reasons. It wasn’t so inconceivable for them to have discovered the things that made them smile in the span of a few months of knowing one another.
There was a long silence between them, and though Makoto found herself looking around the attic, tuned into the buzz of conversation and the brew of coffee and curry from downstairs, the urge to do anything and everything was starting to disappear. It wasn’t completely gone, no, but a few wayward glances in Akira’s direction reassured her that they didn’t have to pour out everything, right now, for the moment to be worth anything.
Akira sat up straight, patted the space next to him, and picked up the remote. “C’mere,” he said, well-meaning more than devious, as he turned the TV back on. “Tell me your theories. I don’t have a clue who’s sending those emails.”
Makoto pursed her lips, looking between him and the still-paused movie, and allowed herself to shift until their knees bumped together. Instead of saying sorry, she asked, “How do you know I have theories?”
“I’d be more surprised if you didn’t have a theory by now.”
“I thought it would have been obvious.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Makoto tried to hide a smile of her own, and failed. “Spoilers.”
That had to count as three for three.