The weather was bright and clear in spite of the lingering chill of the retreating winter, and Kazuya and his biomimetic streetcar, Midoriko, were making their usual rounds on the sky tracks as the sun had started to sink. There were a handful of patrons on board, some whom had come to know Midoriko and Kazuya on sight and had a friendly word to share as they entered the streetcar. There were a lot of patrons at this hour—a few elderly folks who simply enjoyed the serenity of riding the sky tracks at sunset; young professionals heading out to business dinners or even home, if they were lucky; parents escorting their children to and from their after school activities; a group of high school girls chattering about materials they wanted to pick up from Tokyu Hands—a small cross-section of human life that Kazuya had come to love about his work. When he had graduated high school, he had tried out a few odd jobs for awhile, but in the end when Yuu approached him with the information that the city would be drastically expanding its biomimetic transit network soon, becoming part of the official system seemed natural.
Self-sustaining mass transportation devices that could imitate the growth process of biological organisms had been around since after the war, having developed out of military technology looking for viable methods of rescuing lost soldiers in situations where they lacked the resources to power conventional technology. The long growth cycle of biomimes made them unsuited for their original purpose, but they became popular in the civilian market as pets which simultaneously functioned as an alternative mode of personal transportation. They couldn’t be called rare by the time Kazuya had received Midoriko, but the flourishing of the technology seemed to have really taken root once he got older. Even as he drove now he could see a great number of other streetcars on their spontaneously generated sky tracks, some part of the regular infrastructure of the city, others private vehicles transporting only their owners and their friends, perhaps out for their nightly drive.
As they descended the tracks back to the road to pull up to the area outside Hakata station, Kazuya spotted a woman dressed in pink who seemed to have nodded off in the bus shelter. He didn’t even need to do anything as Midoriko let out an excited ring on her own, recognizing Naoko in an instant. Naoko started awake at the sound of the bell and groggily picked herself up, joining the short queue of people entering the streetcar.
Their friendship had stretched over many years now, even though they had come to see each other less and less as time and place alternately separated them. It was to Naoko’s kindness that he owed Midoriko. When she found him all those years ago in the park where he was crying, upset at having been left there by his older brother and cousin, without preamble she had pushed the tiny, dormant streetcar that she had won in a match onto him, determined to give him something that could cheer him up. That had always been the way with Naoko, who back then seemed an unfalteringly cheerful existence in a time where Kazuya saw everything through a pessimistic, wavering lens. The knowledge that the tables had turned since then ate away at Kazuya’s gut when he looked at her now, remembering the conversation they had had late into the evening as he and Midoriko took her home after that middle school reunion drinking party last year. Naoko was Naoko, but he didn’t know how to tell her that.
After all the passengers had exited, Naoko came through the doors and walked up to stand at the front of the streetcar. “Hi, Kazuya, Midoriko,” she said, patting her hand against the inner shell of the car affectionately. Midoriko couldn’t do anything back of course, but Kazuya had raised her from dormancy and could read her mood immediately. He could tell the silly streetcar was elated to see Naoko again.
Kazuya smiled at that, but it quickly turned into a look of concern as he looked at Naoko. “You look exhausted,” he said.
“I feel it,” she said, leaning her head back against the steel bar behind her. “I don’t think I can keep this work up very much longer.”
Kazuya frowned, unsure what he needed to say in that moment. Since leaving university Naoko seemed to have nothing but trouble at sticking with one thing or another, adrift and unhappy with all of her choices. The burnt out person before him was so different to the outgoing and free-spirited person he grew up with. Being here with her and Midoriko now, he couldn’t help but recall the time they had spent on her aunt’s streetcar so many years ago.
“Come here, Kazu-kun,” she had said, kneeling on one of the sidelong seats of the streetcar, looking out the window. “See?” she said, pointing to a trio of gulls flying alongside the bus.
“It is pretty cool seeing the birds up here,” Kazuya said, joining her. Midoriko was still too small to ride at the time, having not reached full adulthood, and it was rare that Kazuya had the opportunity to ride in other people’s biomimes like this.
“I told you it was. Look, there’s even three of them,” Naoko said, her eyes bright. “It’s like, one for each of us, or something.”
“Didn’t you once say you were going to become a bird-keeper?” Kazuya asked, recalling a memory from shortly after they had first met.
“Did I?” Naoko said, not remembering. “Well, I don’t think I’d particularly want to become one now.”
Because you decide on something new every week, Kazuya thought, because even in middle school he was still a bit of a cynic. Still, his curiosity had led to him asking, “Why not? You said you even wanted to start a bird-watching club.”
“I guess I just like to see them when they’re flying,” Naoko said. “I don’t think taking care of them in cages would be the same thing. Maybe there’s a job like following birds as they migrate or something. That might be cool.”
“I’ve never heard of a job like that,” Kazuya said, although maybe it did exist.
“I probably wouldn’t do that either anyway. My dad thinks I should probably go on with math at university.”
“Isn’t that a long way away?”
“Yeah, but in another year we’ll be writing tests to get into high school, and then it’ll matter more, and I have to compete with Asa-kun and Hashimoto-san before then, so I have to…” she said, almost absently, “…it’s good to work and think on it now.”
“Whatever,” Kazuya said, not wanting to press her about it. “Those are just regular old gulls, right?” he said, watching as they swerved off in a different direction than Rinko’s tracks.
“Yep,” Naoko had said. “But I like seeing them fly around with people up here.”
“Don’t look so worried,” Naoko said, breaking into his thoughts, a weary smile coming through on her face as she rested against the bar behind her. “If it ends up not working out, it’s just another road I guess.”
“Naoko,” Kazuya said seriously. He looked at the other patrons at the back of the streetcar, hesitant to express his thoughts as this wasn’t really the best time or occasion. However, he felt that he had something he needed to say that had been unsaid all these years, even if it was during a short break outside Fukuoka’s busiest station before he and Midoriko would restart their route. “Is there anything that would make you happy? Because you…years ago I met you, when I was really just a moody brat, and it was you who gave me the two things that I can say…” he paused, struggling to put it just right. “—the things that somehow led me what I have now. Without Midoriko,” he said, keeping his gaze on the control box in front of him, “and without you, who always seemed so bright and warm an existence when we were young, I wouldn’t have been able to become stronger too. I would have ended up lonely, and unconfident about everything in front of me.”
“Even if I arrived on the same path as I’m on now, I don’t think I could have been the same without you two. You both changed the world around me,” he said, briefly halting to straighten the thought out. “No, it’s that I— you changed the world around me, and then I changed to accept that world, and it became a more beautiful thing. So that’s why I need to say this, even if you’re not used to hearing it. If there’s anything you need, Naoko, anything that could make you feel happier, or just…steadier, or less insecure, as you look ahead… I want to give you that, if I can.”
He determinedly looked up from the control box to meet Naoko’s gaze, finding an expression he remembered from that same time in middle school, full of trouble, full of grace, a mixture of Naoko-who-is-bright and Naoko-who-is-lost. The Naoko somewhere in between her endless dreams and the grips of her fears.
“If that’s how it is, a place to rest, for now,” Naoko said, with a smile approaching her usual warmth. “I’d like that.”
“Sit down and sleep a little,” Kazuya said, knowing he’d probably have to try talking again to her later. Naoko had said her part, and it was on the hour now and time to resume the rounds. Still, as they drove off onto the sky tracks, Kazuya felt happy just to have said it, and to have Naoko and Midoriko still here, together with him. There were lots of patrons tonight, and he dropped them off each in their own time as the sun sunk lower on the horizon. The passengers emptied out a little the further they got away from the station, and in the mirror he could see Naoko with her head bowed, half-asleep. Kazuya was honestly happy with just that.
They were travelling through the neighbourhood where he grew up when the signal for stopping lit up in front of him. He tried to hide his expression, realizing it was Naoko getting off early, far away from where she lived now. It still felt like he hadn’t helped anything, and he felt regretful as he directed Midoriko down off the sky tracks, pulling up to the stop outside the park.
“Naoko,” he said, staring at out the window ahead of him.
“Kazuya,” she said, cutting him off.
He looked back at her, surprised to see the energetic expression on her face, adorned with a smile he had fifteen years worth of memories of.
“Midoriko,” she said, resting her hand lightly on the inner shell of the streetcar. “It’s okay. I want to take a walk.” She exited then, heading straight through the neighbourhood park where they had first met when they were eight.
He could feel Midoriko spin her wheels a little in attempt to communicate, even though she wasn’t supposed to do that when they were on the job. He reluctantly switched off the brakes and rotated the handle, applying power and guiding Midoriko back on to her sky tracks. As he looked up ahead of him he saw something moving from the corner of his eye. Turning his head slightly, he saw a pair of gulls flying level with Midoriko, slowly overcoming her speed and pulling ahead of them.
Looking at them, Kazuya somehow felt keenly that Naoko had to have seen them too. “It’s fine, Midoriko,” he said, patting the shell of the streetcar. “Naoko does things freely, as always.”
Midoriko rang her bell in response.
Turning from the birds, Kazuya eyed for a moment the new omamori for traffic safety that Naoko had given Midoriko as per their New Year’s tradition, before setting his gaze back on the beauty of his hometown at twilight. “And you and I, we’ve got a smooth road ahead.”