Makoto got her motorcycle license within the first trimester of university, and all things considered, she probably has Johanna to thank for that. Which she supposes isn’t so different from thanking herself, but semantics hardly matter when you’ve got an engine to gun and proof of your own power in your wallet. Or when it’s the second day of your summer vacation, and you’ve got a couple hundred kilometers to kill before sunset.
To be fair, it’s not the amount of time that bothers her, or the distance. They decided it months ago: if they could handle a month and a half apart in the same city, they could handle a few months at a time in different prefecture, and even then, perhaps it would only be for a year. And she revels as much as she likes in the speed and the wind and, childishly, how cool she must look in a cropped leather jacket and skintight jeans and a scarf flowing behind her. How intimidating and aloof she must seem now, hardly who she was in high school. How she catches the eyes of boys and girls alike when she dismounts and tucks her helmet under her arm, tugs off her gloves with her teeth. It’s kind of flattering. (Maybe that’s why Ryuji called her Miss Post-Apocalyptic Rider so long ago, long before they had even encountered the end of the world.)
It’s not even the awkward conversation she had with Sae before she left. She’d spent so much time worrying about how to word things, whether it would be best to speak ahead of time over the phone, or in person right as vacation began, only for Sae to sit her down at dinner and tell her, “If you’re responsible enough to own and operate a motorcycle, you’re responsible enough to spend a few nights with a boy.” Even if Sae did raise her eyebrow and add, “And with his parents around.”
That’s the problem. Sort of.
They’re… civil people. But that’s all the credit she can give them at the moment. Partly because she only spent a few minutes with them, in the company of all their other friends, shifting from foot to foot when he introduced her and buzzing with equal urges to indulge in one last hug and to make a decent first impression. Partly because even when she’s the only person on the road, with the rev of the engine snd the low whistle of the wind a constant background buzz, she still needs to pay attention to her balance and where she’s going.
Partly—and this is the biggest chunk of all—because it’s hard to think of anyone who could let their son bear the brunt of a politician’s lie and a delinquent’s reputation for the better part of a year as anything beyond “civil.”
It’s one of the only things she’s been able to think about, from the moment she and Akira made their plans, all the way through packing. (In fact, it’s second to, embarrassingly, all her worries about whether she needed to shave anywhere beyond the usual, and that was all Ann’s fault, because of course it was Ann’s fault.)
But she’s had a couple of hours and a few rest stops to think about it, to tap out status updates to the two people who needed it the most. To dip her toes in the occasional reassurance that Akira’s parents liked her well enough, even more so the more he told them about her. It’s the one time she’ll allow her reputation to precede her. She’s had a couple of hours and a few rest stops to look out at the ocean and check her luggage on the back rack, really feel the wind in her hair where her helmet usually forbids it, feel less like some mysterious biker girl and more like who she really is.
Nagano Prefecture might not be home, but it will take her for who she is. And so will a boy who lives there.
The one thing Makoto enjoys about being good with directions is that she only needs to visit a place once to remember exactly how to get there. It’s a strange combination of photographic and muscle memory, though she knows for a fact that neither of those things really exists. (There she goes; semantics again.) It’s how she knows the twists and turns of the suburbs when the sun hangs just low enough in the sky, how she knows exactly where to pull up before killing the engine. Akira is waiting for her on the front steps to his apartment building, looking almost forlorn, but his eyes light up as soon as he sees her, and he clears the walkway in seconds, barely waits for her to take off her helmet and shake out her hair before he lifts her up and holds her, primal, like he doesn’t plan to let go for a long time.
He doesn’t. That’s what makes the travel time all the more worth it.
“You’re hot,” he says once he gets past hellos and finally sets her on her feet again.
Makoto blushes. “Thank you?”
“No. Well, that too, I guess.” He laughs—something she’s heard crackle through the phone countless times but always, always sounds warmer to hear in person—and toys with the hair plastered to her cheeks. “You’re sweating.”
Which makes her smile, sheepishly. “It’s the leather.”
“I’ll take ‘Phrases I’ll Never Get Tired Of’ for four hundred, Mr. Trebek.”
She almost laughs with him, but then she catches sight of the door opening in the distance and the shadows in the front hall, and she sobers. And she questions. And she can’t tell if she’s regressing, or if anyone else in her position would do exactly the same. Akira must see the change in her expression, definitely sees her scramble for the gifts in her overnight bag, and it isn’t until after he cranes his head behind him that his voice drops.
“They’ve been waiting for you,” he says, and Makoto isn’t sure if it’s supposed to sound reassuring or not.
He helps her bring the motorcycle in and parks it right next to his bicycle, and stands beside her when she greets his parents with a deep bow and two boxes from Ginza. They take the box with a short thanks and a greeting of their own, and have the decency—civility—to show her to a guest room and let her freshen up before supper. It’s thoughtful, and respectable, but it’s also to be expected. It’s like a polite tightness of the lips instead of a genuine, well-meaning smile.
But maybe she’s overthinking it. It hasn’t even been an hour.
It’s a whisper in the dark that, along with a touch to the shoulder, startles Makoto to attention after a few hours of sleep. Actually, she can hardly call it “sleep”—more like a few fitful hours of dropping into unconsciousness, rolling onto her back or her sides, resigning herself to the cycle of it. It always happens when she overthinks. About her sister, about her law degree. About how Akira’s final year of high school must be going.
About his parents.
They were perfectly fine at dinner. They asked her questions about university, about the year Akira had spent in the city (as though they couldn’t ask him themselves—or, perhaps, they hadn’t bothered to). They cut the castella cake she’d brought, and refrigerated the daifuku—strawberry and red bean, which she brought almost exclusively because Akira had been craving it for weeks. But she couldn’t help feeling a coolness at the table, a stiffness that formal language couldn’t remedy, and she had the sinking feeling it had nothing to do with their relationship.
It followed them around the neighborhood, too. Akira didn’t take her very far, only for a short walk where they laced their fingers together and he showed her the places he liked to frequent if he didn’t feel like riding his bike. And then they made one last round of the block, and he poked back in to get his bike, and he told her to hold on tight.
She wasn’t allowed to have any passengers for at least a year, but this would do. It was worth feeling the wind and clinging to her shoulders and planting her feet on the back wheel’s spokes. They’d died once before. It was worth living a little. He said university must have done this to her, and she said that cognitive thievery must have changed him, too, when he pulled over just outside a nearby alley and fished two wrapped daifuku out of his pocket.
“I didn’t steal them,” he insisted, absently thumbing some powdered sugar from her lips and licking it clean. “They’re mine, and you can’t steal what’s already yours.”
“So what you’re telling me,” Makoto said, “is that you didn’t steal my heart, either.”
Akira’s eyes sparked. His grin went wide. “University has changed you.”
Which was nice to see before they rode home again, and the coolness settled back in.
It wasn’t that she planned for his parents to love her instantly or break out the baby pictures, no matter how many good graces she had been in because of her work ethic or her family’s name. But at the very least she’d hoped, maybe even mistakenly expected, to have some kind of heartfelt conversation with Akira’s mother long after he’d gone up to his room, about the kind of boy he’d been and the kind he’d become. Even a light-hearted warning would have felt like something. Instead, they sat beside each other with the television on, and gestured toward the stairs, and told her to make herself at home. And perhaps all three of them realized then that they were asking for the impossible.
And perhaps Akira knows that too, now. He’s still nudging at her shoulder blade, in spite of her sharp gasp, and doesn’t let up until she’s sitting up, the light sheet pooling at her waist and the ache for sleep still clinging to her eyes. It’s too early for the sun to be streaming in, but Akira looks wide awake, kneeling beside her on the floor.
“Where are your glasses?” she asks. She’s barely decent in a pair of sleep shorts and a loose shirt that doesn’t even match.
Akira hums, amused. “I don’t wear glasses anymore, remember?”
“You looked good with glasses.”
“I know.” He reaches up to angle a desk lamp away from her before he turns it on, and in the dim light he’s smiling. Watching her like he needs to know she’s really here. “You’re sleepy.”
Makoto purses her lips. “You woke me up.”
“Will you come with me?”
He pecks her once to quiet her, even though she must taste like morning breath, but he’s kind enough to let her brush her teeth first. They talk in hushed voices, though it’s not so much talking as it is Makoto asking him where they’re going that they don’t need to change into actual clothes and Akira refusing to answer, only telling her to grab her jacket. There’s a rush that passes through and between them as they tiptoe past his parents’ room, even if they aren’t doing anything forbidden or even frowned upon, but she knows he feels it too from the way he squeezes her hand in the dark.
It’s chilly on the rooftop, or as chilly as it can be inland in July, and Makoto feels absurd in floral shorts and ballet flats and a leather jacket. But Akira’s looking at her like she’s the moon, even though the moon is right there, right above them. They’re fenced in up here, and when she leans against it she can’t help but feel sick for a moment with the brief memory of Shiho Suzui—who must be doing fine, is doing fine according to Ann. “So…” she starts, looking around and drawing her jacket around her body. “This is where you wanted to take me.”
“It’s not much,” Akira says. “I know this whole place isn’t much compared to the city.”
“But it’s home?”
For a while Akira doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have any sweets on him this time, either, and he only slumps back beside her against the fence. He draws in the summer air, stale and humid and not cold enough, and pushes it out again. “I want to go home,” he says; his voice cracks.
Makoto doesn’t think it’s because he’s still sleepy. “You are home,” she says. “Aren’t you?”
He shakes his head. Clenches his fists. Loosens them. Clenches and loosens. Four in the morning is far too early for adrenaline to spark in the blood, but it must be in him. It must do this to him all the time. “You don’t see how they look at me in school.”
Four in the morning is far, far too early for her defenses to flare up, but they do in her. “Tell me.”
He stiffens, the way he used to do for months whenever he heard a gunshot, the way he used to freeze for a split second at the sight of the police in Shibuya. “I don’t want to,” he says, in the kind of distant tone that twists her heart to snapping. She doesn’t have to hear the echoes of laughter or see the blurs of sideways glances to know they’re there; she was witness to it all that April, when she barely knew he existed. It kills her to know that April repeated itself.
“Akira,” she murmurs. She doesn’t say his name often, but it slips out sometimes, when her heart is so full of him that she can’t contain it. She looks silly, dressed the way she is, and the humidity and the leather make her pajama top cling to her skin, but she steps closer to him, maneuvers herself between his legs and holds his hands in hers. “Where is home?”
He looks like she’s asked him a million different questions, like he could answer her a million different ways. For a while, he breathes—just breathes, like it’s the only thing he can get himself to do. Maybe she triggered something. Maybe her presence… maybe coming was a mistake after all. He squeezes her hands tight, tight, pushes out all that air in him, and it’s when he exhales that a tear trickles down the corner of each eye. Silent, calm. Easy. Like he must have talked himself out of panic a hundred times, and this is as far as he lets himself get. Her heart feels as sick as her body did, but the feeling lasts longer.
She doesn’t know just how long it takes him to settle in again, or how many times he’s had to do this before. But eventually he lets go of one hand—just the one—and rests a hand on her chest. Just above her heart. “Home is here,” he says. “And it’s too damn far.”
There are a lot of things you can hear in Nagano just before sunrise. Crickets dropping off to sleep. The roar of a solitary car down the road. A single yellow bunting singing in the distance, right on its own schedule. The sorts of things you write poetry about. Makoto’s never written a poem about a heart left in two, and she’s never heard the nauseating way it cracks until now. Shakily, she reaches up to cover his hand with hers, to give it a bittersweet squeeze. “Then come back,” she whispers. “Come back. You never left.”
“I left the city,” he says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
She squeezes his hand again, presses it underneath her jacket like he might meld with her if she tries hard enough. “You’ve never left here,” she tells him. Pushes his hand to her heart and hopes he can feel it throbbing. “You came here, and you stayed, and you never left.”
When Akira’s mother comes down to start breakfast two hours later, they’re huddled on the couch with the news on at a dull blare. Akira is asleep with his head in her lap, breathing even like he must have craved to do for months. Makoto greets her, with crossed ankles and formal language and the whole nine yards, like she isn’t the girl from Tokyo who blazed in on a bike to claim the heart of an innocent boy who claimed hearts all his own.
She comments that she would love to help, but she’s a little incapacitated.
If his mother disapproves of her refusal, she doesn’t show it, and so long as Makoto can thread her fingers through Akira’s hair and text Sojiro about mid-year re-enrollment at Shujin Academy while he trudges through opening Leblanc for the day, she can’t really bring herself to care.