The first thing Chiaki discovers about the past, before the slang and the noise and the utterly unbroken look of it all, is how crowded it is. He’d already assumed, given the time period he was aiming for, that there would be more people around than he was used to, but he never expected anything like this, this sea of bobbing heads, swinging bags, eyes and limbs and voices everywhere he looks. He’s hardly even landed steady before someone knocks him in the chest with one shoulder, followed by a laughing woman stepping on his foot. No one asks to see his papers, issues him a stern reminder about curfew, demands to know what he’s doing outside of his sector. In fact, no one seems to notice him at all. It feels strangely liberating. Still, it makes finding his way around a little harder. He has money, sure (the higher-ups give you everything you might need -- proper clothes, identification, the right currency, even some food to get you started) but he wanders in and out of ten different stores still unable to find a map, a guidebook, something. He understands the language, but the way the posters and street signs are written seem clunky, archaic. He slumps down on a curb to catch his breath and jumps when someone taps him on the shoulder. An officer, he’s convinced, hands fisted and braced -- but it’s only a woman with a baby clinging at her hip, curious as to whether he’s lost or simply frustrated.
“Not from around here?” She asks, her smile serene, unburdened in a way he’s never seen before, never even heard of before.
“You could say that,” he says.
So she helps him find the right kind of store, directs him to a detailed guide of Tokyo, even explains all the different wards and districts, hands soft and uncalloused as they trace the colored lines. He casts a furtive glance at her baby, grabbing at magazines on a far shelf, and wonders, a brief, dark thought, if there’s anything at all to be scared of in this time. Still, he thanks the woman, the words strange against the shape of his mouth, and pours through the little book. There are over fifteen museums in this district alone. He’s not sure where to start.
But first, assimilation. He tracks down a library relatively easy, and after recovering from the shock of how vast it is, gets to work. Reading has never been his strong suit, but still, he struggles through all the text he can get his hands on, the rhythm of the diction untangling, smoother in his head with each passing sentence. It’s strange, he finds, to hold a book that hasn’t been blackened with scorch marks, that isn’t ripped or missing pages or plain altered, but he supposes it’s something he’ll have to deal with: the newness, the wholeness of everything here. It’s not like he’ll be around long enough to get used to it, anyway.
(The second thing Chiaki discovers about the past, no matter how much he tries to bury it somewhere deep within himself, is the beauty. Color seeps out of each shape and surface; the sky is enormous, a warm film pulled over the expanse of the earth, blue and bright and unobscured by smoke, ash. On his third day, he comes across a river, sunlight wound across the surface like a line of fire. It's much larger and darker than the faded illustrations made it seem, and suddenly, he can hardly breathe, heartbeat stiff and weighted in the low of his chest. His hand aches for a pen, a brush, anything -- but he fights the urge. He can’t bring anything back, and it would be stupid to leave a trace of him behind. The less he makes an impression on, the better.)
After four days of nonstop studying, he’s pretty sure he can blend in, and on a whim, enrolls in a nearby school. It’ll give him something to do while he’s looking for the painting, and the concept of it has always interested him: his mother attended one for a few years (or so he's been told) before the raids started. Their offices don’t require much -- a few forged signatures, one or two falsified records. Before he knows it, he’s standing in front of a crowded room in a stiff uniform, staring at rows upon rows of bored faces. His spot is on the side, next to a window, a brief swell of muttered voices echoing around him as he sits. A girl in the row next to him gifts him with a brief glance, chin pressed to the desk, eyes bright and narrowed at the crest of her sleeve. He doesn’t pay much attention, already focused on the lesson that’s begun. He knows that he’ll still do poorly when it comes to language, that their mathematics will be stale and outdated and unbearably simple. History -- that, he’ll listen to.
Afterwards, he struggles to keep pace with the mass of bodies moving out the doors and onto the sidewalks, still not used to the concept of a crowd. It’s effortless to everyone else, voices heavy in the air around him, talking about strange things like parents and after school jobs and upcoming exams, things that he would surely know about if he was like them but for now, feel far away from him, smothered and jumbled as if coming from underwater. “Hey, move it,” someone says, and a rough hand shoves him forward, so hard his knees nearly hit the concrete.
“Get out of the way if you’re gonna be walking like a old man.” He turns to see two guys he recognizes from his class, shoulders shaking with ugly-sounding laughter. “What, are you stupid or something?”
For a moment, Chiaki wants to laugh too. He and the few other boys the same age in his sector roughhoused for years out of sheer boredom, giving each other their fair share of split lips, swollen eyes. He’d be surprised if either of these idiots had ever even thrown a decent punch before. Still, he’s not in the best mood. When they turn away, he can’t help but give one a hard push on the back with the sole of his shoe. “Watch it," he says.
The guy responds with a harder shove at one shoulder, knuckles braced. “You looking to start something on your first day, new guy? Pretty ballsy.” He swings out his elbow, barely missing. A few other students have stopped to watch by now. “Come on.”
He stays still. He knows he shouldn’t be doing this, drawing unneeded attention to himself, and maybe if this had happened a day later, a week later, he’d be able to be “the bigger person” or whatever it is people say, but right now, he’s tired and hungry and has a headache and is beginning to hate this, all of this (because sure, his world is awful, but he never knew any better, never knew just how dark a mirror it is when held up to this place of clean books and rushing rivers and so much pleasantness you could choke on it, where everyone’s biggest concerns are failing tests and helping strangers and getting somewhere by a certain time because they have nothing more pressing to deal with, nothing at all to be afraid of, and the worst thing is he can’t even dwell on it because the first rule of leaping, before being forbidden to tell anyone you meet about it and doing your best to blend in is always remember you can’t stay) so instead of walking away, he pulls back and decks the moron right in the jaw, so hard his back hits the concrete with a sick rattle. His friend jerks away, hands raised in surrender, but after a quick breath, the guy is up again, lunging for his legs. It’s not even a fight; he easily dodges every clumsy swing, quick to knock him back down to his stomach once, twice, three times. When he finally tires himself out, Chiaki grabs him by the collar, fist already up and ready to deliver one last blow.
“Are you serious, Takuya?”
He turns his head, only to see some short girl push her way to the front of the crowd that’s gathered -- the one from the row next to his, he remembers. She crosses her arms, one eyebrow raised.
“I mean, I knew you were a jerk, but I can’t believe you’d really mess with someone on their first day.”
The guy squirms, struggling to pull away. “What’s it to you, Konno?”
She shrugs. “Nothing, except you guys are blocking the doors. And you,” she says, looking at him now. “You already got a couple good hits. Just let go of him already.”
He doesn’t even know how to respond to that, to the sight of her, this tiny, short-haired girl standing in a sea of guys who tower over her, who’s fixed him with a stern, even glare, who is unfazed and stalwart and has the largest, brownest eyes he’s even seen. Inexplicably, he can’t look away -- which is a bad thing, he soon learns, because it gives Takuya a opening to reel back and land a punch square against his teeth, rough enough to send him to the ground. A roar of voices is quick to follow, senseless in the air around him. He can taste blood, wet at the corners of his mouth, and when he looks up, the girl’s moved in front of him now, shoving the guy back, saying things like “that was cheap,” and “Yuri already went to get a teacher, so you’d better hope that they go easy on you,” and this is pretty much the exact opposite of what he should have done, because now everyone knows his face, everyone will remember him being here in this moment, and he doesn’t want to deal with getting into trouble on top of all that, not right now --- so he runs. Someone shouts after him, but he doesn’t stop, not until he’s rounded the corner of the main building, found a stretch of worn-down grass and shadows no one’s paying attention to. With a deep breath, he slumps against the brick wall. He balls one hand, presses it to the corner of his lip. It’s already swollen. Just great. He doesn’t have anyone to blame but himself. Maybe this school thing wasn’t such a good choice after all --
“Hey. You okay?”
He looks up. The sun is blinding, a hazy wreath around their shapes, but he can tell at once it’s her again. Beside her is a different guy, hands in his pockets, gaze uneasy.
In one brisk movement, he wipes the last of the blood onto his sleeve and glares at her. “What do you want? I was gonna stop. He hit me.”
The words are as sharp-edged as he can manage, but she doesn’t even blink. In fact, she takes a few steps closer, looking him square in the eye.
“What are you talking about? I was there. I saw what happened.” She leans down, steadying on her bare knees with open palms, so close that he presses his back flat to the building if only to put another inch between them. Her expression is strange to him, wide and unabashed but without all the hardness she wore before. Worry, he realizes. “I saw blood on the sidewalk. Did you break anything?”
“It looked painful,” the guy behind her says. Chiaki glances at him, then back at her. The unswollen corner of his mouth wrinkles in a faint smile.
“No big deal. Nothing that won’t heal,” he says.
“Kind of sucks for your first day.” She traces one shoe tip through a patch of loose dirt and grass. “Being new is hard, I bet.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” he says, and can‘t keep from chuckling, the sound unfamiliar, heavy in the low of his throat. It feels sort of good. “Who’re you guys, anyway?”
“I’m Kousuke Tsuda,” the guy says, hand at his chest, the other hovering above her head, “and this is Makoto Konno.”
“I know what my name is, Kousuke, geez,” she grunts. “Why don’t you tell him my phone number and where I live too, while you’re at it?”
“I’m just trying to be polite --”
“Anyway,” she sighs. “Who’re you?”
He rests his elbows on his knees and briefly wonders whether it’s smart to give out his real name before deciding he’d get way too confused by a fake one. “Chiaki,” he says, and coughs. For a moment, the thin line of her mouth wavers -- he has no idea if it’s common or even used yet in this time period, so sue him -- but then she’s smiling, and again, he finds himself unable to look away.
“Do you wanna play baseball with us?”
He has no idea what that is, but the sun is still high in the sky and the guy -- Kousuke -- is holding out a hand to help him up and the girl -- Makoto; he repeats it in his head a few times, an easy rhythm -- is grinning now, her eyes bright, her every movement open, unfazed in a way that should still seem alien to him but looks strangely right on her, and he can‘t help but think: why the hell not?
He means to go back. Really, he does. The rule is three months, whether you’ve done what you’ve come to do or not, and he knows that, knows that to disobey means consequences, painful consequences that will leave scars of all kinds on him. It isn’t like he’s ignoring the passing of time; he keeps records, little scribbled phrases in a notepad Makoto gave him on his third day there, two weeks, four weeks, two months and six days, except that soon, he’s writing only a week past ninety days, only three weeks and four days, only a month, justifications of all kind scratched in with a harsh hand, rendered unintelligible in the margins. It isn’t like he’s in denial or something stupid like that; he has good reasons for staying. For one, he’s found the painting -- or, at least, where it will be. Apparently he overshot the right destination, because as it turns out, the museum lists it as still being in restoration until, at the earliest, summer. Still, he goes every day after school and baseball, listening to the soft click of his footsteps on the marble floor, standing in front of the empty space, display lights casting hazy shadows at the edges of the glass. There‘s only a slip of paper, listing its status. He reads it every time.
The second reason is that -- well, he’s having fun. He’s had friendships before, sure, but none that weren’t born out of necessity or trauma or just plain boredom. He genuinely likes these guys, likes all the little things about them that shouldn’t matter but somehow cling to his thoughts -- Makoto’s way of telling stupid jokes at the most inopportune moments, the wrinkle of her mouth when something’s bothering her but she refuses to admit it; Kousuke’s wry corrections when one of them says something wrong, how he always swings away on the mound. He likes doing fun things with them for no reason in particular: reading magazines in the aisles of a crowded store, eating ice cream out of paper cups, hanging onto handrails even when there’s empty seats on the train. He likes being able to laugh.
Most of all, he likes playing baseball, the smells of the mitt and ball and bat, the sand-white vastness of the field, warm beneath the worn soles of his shoes. Almost every day, they go, sometimes putting on a mock game, sometimes pitching and hitting, sometimes just throwing the ball back and forth. Usually, it only lasts an hour or two, but on the first day of his fourth month there, Kousuke has to leave early -- something about helping out at his dad’s clinic. “Yeah, what a coincidence you’d leave just as I’m about to strike you out,” Makoto yells after him, throwing her mitt down with a half-laugh, half-grunt when he lifts up a flippant hand in farewell. Chiaki muffles a chuckle into the roundness of his mitt. “You laugh now,” she says to him, grin sharp. “but you’re up next.”
So she pitches and he hits, then he pitches and he hits, which leads to lazy lobbing from home plate to each of the bases, which dissolves into her chasing him with the ball when he accidentally clips her ear with a wild throw. After fifteen tries, she nails him. He hurls it back once or twice in due revenge, but misses on purpose both times (not that she needs to know that). In fact, he isn’t even aware of how much time has passed until he realizes he’s having trouble seeing the ball in the air. The light’s been starved to a cooling pink and orange, dusting the thinnest line of the building tops.
“Whoops,” Makoto says, sheepish. “I wasn’t paying attention. My parents are probably getting worried.”
He follows her outside the fence, then remembers that they all walked to the field today. “Where’s your bike?”
“The brake’s sticking again. My dad took it to someone he knows who’ll fix it up.” She makes a face. “I don’t know why he can’t just get me a new one. But anyway, I’m walking for the rest of the week.” She casts a cursory glance around. “Hey, what happened to yours?”
He shrugs. “Forgot it again.”
“What’s your deal? Kousuke gave you his old one so you’d ride it, not leave it home all the time.” She pauses, then presses a few fingertips to the curl of her lips, holding back an obvious laugh. “And after we went through all that trouble teaching you how.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he interjects, waving it off. That was a fun memory -- hobbling on the seat like an uncoordinated five-year old, Kousuke directing from the front with Makoto holding him upright from behind, listening to her laugh until she cried when he went all of two feet before collasping into a heap on the sidewalk, cursing. “I’ll remember tomorrow.”
The streetlights are beginning to flicker, light hazy in the cool air. With a sigh, she adjusts the strap of her bag so it rests at the crumpled line of her collar and waves, already walking away. “See ya.”
“You’re going by yourself?”
She turns back. “Yeah. Why not?”
“Well, just -- it’s dark. And it’s gonna take longer to get there than normal. Want me to walk you?”
She’s giving him a weird look now, and he realizes that the words felt smart enough in his head but now sound stupid, hanging out in the open air where everyone can hear them. At the moment, all he could think of were the horror stories he always used to hear about people vanishing, how you were basically asking to be robbed or beaten or worse by outsiders if you defied curfew and walked the streets alone, but now he’s beginning to think that all that stuff probably doesn’t apply here and is two seconds away from opening his mouth and taking it back when: “sure,” she says, and smiles, barely visible in the dim light. “If you want, I mean.”
So he does, past the river and the arcade and the steep incline of the road, the last of the afternoon crowds milling in doorways as shops prepare to close. They try to beat the train, racing through the last ten yards, but the warning lights are already flashing red, gates clicking as they swoop down to block the crossing. The wail of a whistle follows, sharp and swelling in the air around them.
“Man, you really got me good,” he mutters as they wait, hand clutched to his throbbing cheek. “Bet I’ll have a bruise.”
“No way.” Makoto spins around at once, frowning. “Let me see,” she says, and before he knows it, she’s grabbed the front of his collar and yanked him down an inch or two. One hand, small, tightens around his face, palm curled, fingers firm. Behind her, the train is a senseless, roaring shape, but he barely hears it. Her eyes seem even darker now, wreathed with dusk and gleams of passing windows; her fingertips press to the swell of his cheek, cool against the dull burning, like wind, like rain. He holds his breath and prays as hard as he can that he isn't blushing.
With a harsh sigh, she lets go and turns back. “Oh, you’ll be fine,” she says over her shoulder, already ducking under the rising gate, moving so fast that he nearly trips trying to catch up. “Quit being a baby.”
She changes the subject then, something about sisters and allowances and pudding, and although Chiaki tries to follow the best he can, he’s finding it a little harder now. The truth, no matter how much he tries to bury it like all other potentially troubling things, is -- well, he kind of likes her. In the ways he mentioned before, sure, but also in other ways, liking-the-way-she-smells ways, scribbling-in-the-right-answers-on-her-math-homework-when-she’s-not-looking ways, thinking-about-dorky-things-when-he’s-alone-like-her-hair-and how-she-gets-mad-when-he-makes-fun-of-her-feet-and-what-it-would-be-like-to-hold-her-hand ways. In fact, one time when they were on the train, he spent nearly fifteen minutes inexplicably psyching himself up to do just that, one of her arms loose at her side, lingering close to his bent leg -- reached forward just as she lifted it to tap Kousuke on the shoulder, having to pretend instead he was reaching for a coin under a seat. Of course, it isn’t like he wouldn’t have pretended it was an accident if it’d actually worked out. He realizes how stupid and weird and slightly creepy that sounds, but he can’t help it. He likes how she hums and jiggles both feet when she‘s happy, runs hands through her short hair and chews on her lip when she’s frustrated. He likes how she makes him laugh so hard, intentionally or otherwise, that whatever he’s drinking often comes right out his nose. He likes how she’s frank and loud and utterly unconcerned with herself. Before, he’d never known a girl who didn’t carry herself with some kind of weight at her back, who didn’t tend to fade into the scenery from time to time. Now, that all just feels inadequate.
(and he knows this is dangerous thinking, knows that there is an expiration date for him, for her and him, for her and him together in this place talking about stupid sisters and favorite puddings and other things that don’t matter and that he shouldn’t even entertain the thought of trying to make it anything more than that because it will just lead to millions upon millions of awful, no-good things but despite it all, he still wants to try because he’s spent his entire life as responsible and restrained and thoroughly unsatisfied, and for once, just once, he wants to be selfish, wants to nurture this little warmth inside him instead of smothering it to ash, wants to be nothing more than a stupid kid with a crush, even if it’s only for a little while, even if --)
“Man, I’m starving.” Makoto groans, both arms up in a lazy stretch. “Walking really takes it out of you.”
He can’t stop himself. “Hey, it’s not too late,” he says, fingers picking at the thick strap of his bag, gaze jumping to his feet when she turns to listen. “Maybe we could, I don’t know. Grab dinner somewhere or something.”
For a moment, she doesn’t say anything. They’re already at her house, he realizes, closed gate followed by a looping path to the front door, brief shadows flitting past windows brimming with light.
“Um, sure. Kousuke’s supposed to be done by now, I think. I’ll just call him, and --”
She fumbles with her phone before managing to flip it open, a motion that makes him think the brief waver he heard in her voice wasn’t his imagination. It would be the easiest thing in the world to go along with it, but it's just no use. The words spill over.
“No, I mean. Just us.” He rubs one hand against the back of his neck. “Not that Kousuke’s not great or anything like that, but I just thought, y’know. If you want.”
He’s still looking at the ground, but at the corner of one eye, he can see her take a step backwards, can hear the rattle of the gate as she leans against it. “Um,” she says, so quiet he barely catches it. He moves closer, stopping just a foot or two from her. “I don’t,” she tries again, but once again, the sound dies away, her lips moving with the ghost of something lost of him. He’s looking at her face now; she’s looking anywhere but his. “I j-just--Chiaki,” she says, her lips flat with the sound of his name, and he’s only known her a few months and this is the first time he’s ever brought anything remotely like this up before and he knows it’s too much, too fast, he knows, but what the hell, he’s already come this far, might as well go for broke. All of a sudden, one of his hands is gripping the sliver of gate just above her head and the other is hovering at the unsteady line of her shoulder and then he is kissing her.
More than anything else, it feels warm. For a moment, he swears he feels her begin to return the pressure, the faintest line of her fingers soft against his chest, as if she’d moved to push him away only for her hands to get confused as to what they were doing in the brief space between their bodies. He savors it -- which is smart, it turns out, because approximately four seconds later, she jerks away with an indignant cry, then swings her bag around her hip and proceeds to start hitting him with it.
“What are you doing!?” Backing up does no good; she follows ruthlessly, face flashing bright red beneath a streetlight. “What’s the matter with you!? You can’t just -- you can’t --!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he manages to grunt between blows -- seriously, what does she have in that bag, rocks? -- trying and failing to dodge. “I just--”
They both turn to the house. A girl with long dark hair -- her sister, he’s guessing -- is leaning out one of the windows, laughing. “I saw, I saw! I’m telling Mom you’re late and kissing boys outside the house!”
“Miyuki, you better --” Makoto screams back, but the kid's already vanished, leaving her free to turn back to him and get in one more hit for good measure, screaming things like “see what you did!?” and “If you ever touch me again, I swear I’ll --” and now, people passing by are beginning to stop and stare and all of her house’s windows seem blotted with frenzied shadows and with a quick assessment of the number beneath his wristband -- five, plus the charger he’s got tucked in his bag -- he starts walking back the way they came. He hears Makoto call him again, angry at first, then almost worried -- Chiaki? Chiaki! -- but by that point, he’s running, people reduced to blurs on either side, the air cool and humming in his ears, and then he leaps --
-- and lands unsteadily, the baseball diamond’s fence the only thing that keeps him upright. At least he’s gotten past the point of rolling around on the floor.
“What’s wrong?” He turns only to see Makoto, mitt tucked under one arm. Makoto of a few hours ago, he remembers, and brushes himself off, trying his hardest not to stare at her mouth. “I didn’t hit you that hard, did I? I was sure you’d catch it!”
He glances down. Sure enough, there’s the ball, resting against his shoe. His mitt, too. He picks both up, waiting for her to slide her own back on before lobbing it high in the air. “No big,” he says. “Sorry. I was thinking about something else.”
(In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the smartest thing he‘s ever done. Next time, he’ll take it a lot slower -- maybe give it another month or so, so that if she goes to bean him again with her bag or a book or a baseball bat, he’ll be all healed up for it. Yeah, he thinks, thoroughly ignoring the weight of the date-filled notebook in his pocket. Next time, he’ll get it right.)
“Why are you thinking about something else during baseball!?” From a fair distance away, Makoto laughs, the sun thick in her hair, rimmed at the edges of her body. He takes a deep breath. “I swear, you’re such an idiot sometimes.”
Any other day, he’d throw out a retort, but for now, he just shrugs and raises his mitt for the next throw. After all, at the moment, he honestly couldn’t agree more.
There’s no denying she isn’t in the greatest mood -- seriously, hadn’t she shot down his idea of going to a night game just the other day? -- but it isn’t until she loudly announces, fifteen minutes into a half-spirited game of catch, that she’s going home that Chiaki begins to think something’s seriously wrong. He can’t remember the last time Makoto bailed so quickly -- but there she is outside the gate, slinging her bag over her head, kicking the baseball away when on a whim, he rolls it to the tip of her shoe.
“You sure you don’t want me to go get you some ice for your face first?” Kousuke shouts from home plate, obviously worried. “I swear I didn’t mean to hit you like that --”
“It’s fine,” she insists, quick to bring her hand down from her face when she turns to wave. “See ya.”
“Hey, c’mon!” He swings the gate open and lets it slam shut behind him, quick to step up next to her. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m fine.” She tucks a lock of hair behind one ear; her cheek flashes between splayed fingers, swollen, fringed with darkening color. “Man, Kousuke’s right, that looks really bad,” he says, and reaches out. “Let me --”
But he’s barely grazed her shoulder when she knocks his hand away, jerks backward a few clumsy steps as though he’s burnt her. “How many times do I have to say I’m fine!?” Her arms lead to fists on both sides; her eyes are bright and sharp and something else, something he can’t quite pinpoint. Usually, he’d have let it go by now, assume she was pissed about some little crack he’d made and forgotten about, and maybe he's just still on edge about that whole crazy thing with Takase and how he still can’t figure exactly why she’s been avoiding him and of course, there’s the little matter of someone out there using the remaining leaps from his charger, the charger he lost because he’s stupid, he’s so stupid, losing track of it like that, not even realizing it‘d fallen out of his pocket. He can feel it, too -- the ebb and flow of time disturbed, like a distant thundering, like a little coil, twisted crooked then bouncing back to shape. The sudden weight of certain moments, as though they’ve already happened once, twice, three times before. Anyone else would think déjà vu, but Chiaki knows better. So sue him if he’s a little tired and a little cranky and a little fed up with not understanding her, not getting anything she’s done lately, and maybe that’s what makes him pull her back by the shoulder when she turns again to leave.
“Hey, what’s your deal? Can't you just admit what you’re mad about for once?”
Her darkening expression is enough to convince him that saying that was a mistake. At once, she whirls around fully, bag swinging hard against his thigh. “What’s my deal!?” She yells. “You’re the one doing stupid things like having fun at night games without us and jumping in front of me to take a fire extinguisher to the face like an idiot and going out with someone when you already --”
She stops, then, whatever came next dead in her throat, lips briefly unraveled from their firm line. “W-When you didn’t even tell us about it first,” she finishes after a moment, but something tells him that wasn’t originally the end of that long sentence. Still, she’s looking at him in a stark, almost sad way now, and for a moment, he feels bad. It wasn’t like he went out with someone else with an explicit agenda in mind -- what can he say, Hayakawa is cute and smart and actually likes him, doesn‘t stop talking to him for days on end like certain other people he knows -- but he can’t deny that he’d hoped, somewhere deep down, she’d be bothered by it. Now that it’s happened, it doesn’t feel as good as he thought it would. He just wants to take it back, leap to the beginning of this week and start all over again. He rubs the skin just under the edge of his wristband and mentally groans at the flash of 01 beneath it. In desperation, he’d jumped back more than once to before he’d lost the charger in the hopes that that would solve his problem then and there, but he soon found out it was immune to that kind of time-travel loophole, and anyway, it was already too late when he finally did track it down the old-fashioned way, its little walnut-shape hollow and dried. He’ll have to save his last one for something a little more important.
“Hey,” he says, softer now. “I didn’t mean to --”
“Whatever,” she cuts him off. “I don’t even care anymore. Totally over it.” She turns, hand flat at her cheek again as she trudges through the grass. “Say hi to Yuri for me.”
“Makoto,” he starts again, but she’s already broken into a run, disappearing around the bend before he can so much as to take a breath. With a sigh, he runs a sweaty hand through his hair and goes back onto the field, rolling the ball around the dip of his mitt in thoughtless patterns.
“What, thinking again?” He looks up at Kousuke, mitt raised in the air. “Throw it!”
He does. It’s a bad one, the ball hitting the dirt a full foot or two in front of home plate. “I just don’t get her,” he says as Kousuke tosses it back, because it’s the simplest way he can describe this whole situation, this knotted, stinging feeling he’s been carrying around in the low of his stomach for what feels like forever now. He kicks the pitcher’s mound for good measure, then touches his wrist again, the band soft against the flushed skin of one knuckle.
“Ah, don’t worry about it. She might stay mad for another day or two, but she’s not one to hold a grudge or anything. Give it some time.”
Another back and forth. This time, he throws too hard, the metal rungs of the back fence shuddering at the impact. Kousuke scoops it up once it’s bounced a few feet through the grass.
“To tell you the truth, Makoto’s always been kind of clueless when it comes to that kind of thing. I remember this one time,” he says, “when we were in grade school. One of the kids in our class always gave her these presents at every holiday, little things he’d buy. He’d put cards in them asking her to be his girlfriend. She never answered him or anything, but she didn‘t throw them away either. I saw them all in her pencil box once. So after a while, he gave a gift to someone else instead. She didn’t say anything about it, but you could tell she was pretty pissed off. I remember she ate everyone’s lunch at our table that day, just walked around and took food without asking.” Kousuke laughs, briefly fingering the worn stitches on the ball before tossing it high in the air to catch himself. “Also, that gift ended up getting thrown out a window at some point. She insists to this day that it wasn’t her, but I have my doubts.”
He tosses it again then, moving towards the plate so as to switch, but Chiaki doesn’t even try this time, too busy covering his face with his mitt. He knows. Of course he knows. Seriously, why else would he tell that kind of story? Is it really that obvious?
“I don’t know,” Kousuke says, and the brief wryness of his smile when he goes to pat him on the shoulder is more than enough proof. “Just something to think about.”
(If anything, he hopes whoever’s using his leaps will at least have the decency to erase the last few days and let him start fresh. Maybe things will turn out better the second time around.)
He loses track of time once he’s back in his own era. Part of this is due to his punishment: a late return matched with telling someone in the past about time-leaping (even if he can’t remember doing it) is a grave matter, and one he suffers for repeatedly, if the still-healing scars left along the lines of his neck and chest are to be believed. Once he’s finally allowed to return to his sector, it’s summer again, a pale imitation of the one he once experienced hundreds of years ago, every brilliant color he remembers carved down to shades of gray, the smell of trees and heat and rushing water replaced by the numbing taste of smoke. The few other people living in his building cast curious glances in his direction, but they never ask, never even mention it. He isn’t allowed to tell them what he‘s been through, anyway, and even if he could, he doesn’t think he would. They’re better off not knowing.
He goes on. Weeks pass and weigh on him like years, every second nearly tangible, a thread strained to the point just before it snaps. Finally able to draw again, he drowns himself in it, sketching out anything he can remember before it seeps from his memories, buildings, landscapes, faces familiar and vague, blotted across every sheet in stark, wild shapes. He runs out of paper quickly and puts in an order for more, but finds out it will take at least a month. In desperation, he traces on the spaces of wall hidden behind by what few pieces of furniture he has, shoving them into the center as he works. He’s young but he feels like an old man, tired and bled clean of purpose, simply waiting for some kind of ending.
(He still can’t find the painting, but it doesn’t disappoint him as much as it once would have because more than anything else, he knows she surely did everything she could and that is good enough, more than good enough, because he thinks about that last moment at the riverside every day, sees it at the fringes of his dreams, replays it in his head when he’s eating or scavenging or drawing, and wonders again and again how she had the capacity not to hate him for what he left her with; he certainly hates himself more and more every day, hates himself for being too much of a damn coward to just spit out what he wanted to say when he had the chance, for instead giving her the only small semblance of hope he could bring himself to offer, a genuine but weightless token that at the time, felt right but now haunts him, a sliver of all he could have said better, or stronger, or with real words.)
Then, on a day that is cold and quiet and thoroughly unassuming, it happens. He is laying on his bed, contemplating the pros and cons of drawing on the ceiling, when a sudden roar of voices echoes against his closed door, phrases like “wandering around outside--” and “--strange look” heavy against the metal of the walls. After a moment, he swears he hears someone say his name too, and that’s what inspires him to get up, to go down the hallway and around two corners and into the open entrance where everyone is standing around and staring at a girl with her back to him, a girl who’s wearing clothes that are bright and new-looking and oddly out of place. She‘s talking to the head of the building, voice frantic, one hand running through her hair, and his breath withers to nothing and his throat is burning with words and names (a name) but it isn’t until he asks, “what’s going on?” and she turns that it becomes real. He barely has time to move his arms out of the way before she screams his name, tackles him with nearly enough force to send him to the floor, face buried in his chest, fingers and palms laced at the low of his back.
“W-What,” is all he manages to get out at first, because the only things he can think to say he would repeat until he couldn’t breathe any longer, like oh my god oh my god oh my god and makoto makoto makoto, which probably wouldn’t be very productive to the situation. “How did you get here?” He finally manages, hoarsely. She mutters a long string of words into his shirt -- something about finding a charger, another time-leaper, getting help from someone somewhere -- but he doesn’t catch most of it and he soon realizes, arms tight at her shoulders, her hair warm against the hollow of his neck, that he honestly couldn’t care less.
“You‘re hard to find,” she says once she’s pulled away, flushed and grinning. Her hair is a little longer now, her face somehow more mature -- how old is she now, he wonders: nineteen, twenty? There is a faint 01, tattooed high on her arm. A day-old burn pokes out from under her sleeve. “I might have missed the mark the first few times,” she admits after following his line of vision, eyes briefly dark. “I saw the city on fire.”
He wants to ask her so much more, say so much more, but the others are staring, some wide-eyed, others' faces dark. “C’mon,” he says, fully aware of all the questions they must be piecing together, and grabs her hand. “Tell me about it down here.”
- - -
His room is tiny and messy and utterly unprepared for company; in retrospect, if Chiaki had known this was going to happen, he’d probably have cleaned up a bit. Still, Makoto strides to the center of it, turning in a slow circle as she takes in the few ratty pieces of furniture, the stacks upon stacks of papers, the short, silver walls. “So you live in what is basically a tuna can,” she says. “Nice.”
In the past, he’d usually have had a retort for sarcastic comments like that, but at the moment, he can’t think of much that doesn’t involve kissing her. He settles for ruffling her hair. “Watch it,” he says. “It’s not too late to throw you out.”
“Oh, please. You wouldn’t dare and you know it.” She responds with a smile and a shove, moving past him to the crooked table he keeps in one corner. He’d respond, but with what? She’s right, after all. “What are these?” She’s looking through the papers he stacked there now, eyes wide as she traces the spiraling lines with one fingertip, then another.
“Just some drawings. No big deal.”
“You never said you knew how to draw.” She moves to another pile, smile deepening as he sees her come across places familiar to her: the front of the school, the karaoke place she liked them all to go now and then, the baseball diamond’s wide shape. “No wonder you wanted to see -- the painting!” At once, she jerks around to face him. “Did you find it?”
He hadn’t thought the truth would be that hard to come out with, but she looks so damn hopeful he can’t help but swallow it whole. “What painting?”
She raises an eyebrow. “Oh, I don’t know. I vaguely remember some painting that was the entire reason you came back hundreds of years through time and space, that I was supposed to take care of and keep safe for the rest of my stupid life to make sure it got to you okay. Ringing any bells?”
“Oh. That painting.” He doesn’t want to be the one to tell her it’s not here, but knows it would be much worse to lie about it. In the end, he settles for a shrug, but it’s still enough to get the message across.
“I can’t believe it,” she mutters, hands tangled against her skirt. “I was sure --”
“C’mon, it’s not your fault. A lot could have happened between now and then.” He takes her hand, knuckles and fingertips small against the lines of his palms, and squeezes it. “It doesn't mean I'm not happy to see you, y’know.”
She stares at the knotted shape of their hands, swinging in the space between them, and briefly squeezes back before pulling away. “Yeah, well,” she mutters, the bridge of her nose coloring, and returns to the papers. She’s moving towards the stack nearest to the wall, he realizes, and tries to grab them first only for her to yank them out of reach. “Oh, ah, those are just,” he starts to say, but she’s already spread them out across the open space on the table: her sitting next to him in class, her running after a good pitch, her on her bike, the lines of her body made up of dark, even strokes.
“I-I just wanted to keep you fresh in my mind,” he says when she looks at him with what can only be described as barely-contained amusement.
“Is that so.” She gives them all another cursory glance; seizes one, a larger portrait of her standing in front of her house, one finger jabbed at it. “Please don’t tell me you really think my nose is this big.”
At first, he thinks she‘s serious, but then she laughs, warm and rough-edged, the sound of it like a ghost of something once buried brought back to life -- he can’t even remember the last time he heard someone laugh, that he’d even thought about doing so himself -- and suddenly, he can’t help but join in, the smell of ink and paint thick in the air, him and her surrounded on all sides by places and people that are whole and familiar and much, much too far away.
- - -
After a meal of watery soup and some instant noodles he took from a ransacked store a few days back -- “seriously, you still have these in the future?” -- he stretches and yawns, then meets her eyes across the little circle of clean floor he made for them to sit in.
“Can I ask you something?”
She blinks, mouth full. “Sure,” she chokes out.
“What exactly happened back there? I mean, what made me tell you about leaping in the first place?”
He’s been wondering about this too, playing over their conversation on the field several times in his head hoping to find some small hint he’s missed. He had pressed her then too, as they’d walked to the riverside in relative silence, but all she’d told him were the things that he himself had said in a timeline wholly erased to everyone but her, something about a really bad accident and frozen time and other things he can’t remember any longer. He hopes that maybe now, it’ll be just be another memory, able to be slid in and out of her mind without any trouble -- but there’s that same dark look she wore back then, like a shadow’s passed overhead. She wipes a drop of soup off her cheek, then looks down at her lap.
“You used up all your leaps,” she says after a long moment. She covers her mouth with both hands, fingers spread just enough to let sound through. “And then, you were gone.”
“Gone? Like I went back?”
She shakes her head. “No. Gone. Gone gone.”
He nods, doing his best to hide the fact that he’s just had the wind knocked out of him. He’d heard of that happening before, had even been told horror stories along that vein by the higher-ups when he was preparing for his trip but he’d always believed they were just that: stories. He wants to know more -- what the hell would have made him use that last leap? What kind of accident was it, exactly? Had she been hurt or lost or even dead? It’s strange, to be considering his course of action like it has yet to happen. He can have no effect on it now because he already made a choice then, one that was stupid and self-destructive but probably entirely necessary; he does have a little faith in his own judgment, after all -- but the way she’s looking at him now is enough to tell him that he needs to change the subject. “Are you still hungry?” He says, standing. “I can make more.”
She shakes her head, standing too. “No, that’s okay.” He throws their bowls onto the table, careful not to let the little that’s left splash past the rims onto his papers. “My turn,” she says, and when he turns around, she’s smiling again. “I have a question too.”
“So you had a lot of leaps when you first came to the past, right?”
“Yeah, a few.”
“What kind of stuff did you change?”
“Um,” he says, thinking. He crosses past her to the bed in the far corner and lays down with his hands behind his head, knees bent. “Not much. I let something about the future slip once. You guys thought I was crazy, so I had to leap back so you wouldn’t shun me. Oh, and one time, we had some really good food -- I don’t even remember what it was anymore -- but it was so awesome that I wanted to have it again just in case we never went back there again before I had to leave. Kind of stupid, but yeah.”
“Not really,” she says, sitting down beside him with a sigh, the low of her back pressed to his hip. “Anything else?”
He does remember one other time, something he probably shouldn’t bring up because she might yell or punch him or both, but he’s never been very good at holding back once the words are already in his mouth.
“Once, I kissed you.”
“Eh!?” She nearly slips right off the bed. “W-What happened?”
“Nothing much. I hadn’t known you for very long at that point, so it was a dumb thing to do. You hit me with your bag.”
“Oh.” With an obvious cough, she runs a hand through her hair, her face flashing in the crook of space beside her elbow. Her expression is strange: partly surprised, partly like she wishes she could go back and slap Makoto-of-a-hundred-years-ago. He isn’t sure how to approach the implications of that; settles for pretending to be enamored with the ceiling.
The wind moans against the thinness of his walls. The light is low, his one lamp’s bulb a sallow color, casting threads of light along the curve of her neck and nose. In a single soft motion, she turns to face him. Her arm moves across his chest, steadying just above his shoulder as she leans down over him, one inch, then two.
“Well,” she says. “I don’t have my bag with me now.”
His hands twitch. He meets her gaze, heavy and dark above him. In a desperate attempt to keep from turning red, he keeps talking. “Not sure if I trust you,” he says. “You know how to throw a punch, too. You might wail on me for giving it another try.”
For a long moment, he’s afraid he’s ruined whatever was about to happen, but then she laughs, other hand fitting just so in the space beside his head, fingers tugging thoughtlessly at his mess of red hair. “Probably,” she mutters, and then closes the distance herself, lips soft and tasting of lukewarm soup and shitty noodles, of words unspoken and, as it turns out, unneeded.
Yeah, he supposes, hands tangled in her hair, then firm at her back. Any other questions can wait until later.
- - -
He wakes to the sound of sirens, a low wailing in the distance. Morning, probably. They must have fallen asleep at some point. He breaths in, then flinches at the touch of someone’s fingertips at the line of his jaw. They’re soft, and move slowly across his skin, settling at a jagged scar below his ear, scabbed over.
“That hurts, stupid,” he says with a wry turn of his lip, and she pulls back.
“Sorry,” Makoto whispers. “What happened?”
“Don’t worry about it.” He opens his eyes to see her staring back at him, hair mussed, shirt wrinkled and curled up to her navel. Now he remembers waking up several times during the night to the sound of someone snoring; he'd just laughed, touching the small shape of her hand between them to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. He can hear voices out in the hallway, too.
“You can’t stay,” he says.
She smirks. “I don’t remember asking for your permission.”
He wishes more than anything that he could pretend everything would be okay, that he’ll teach her all the rules, the best abandoned places to loot from, what days of the month it’s wise to stay hidden, and she’ll learn to blend in quickly, that they‘ll be together and happy and this place won‘t seem so bad any longer. He knows the people in his sector won’t turn a blind eye to the scene last night, though, that officers have probably already been called to come and investigate someone who’s wandered out of bounds. He’s learned to handle their brand of “justice” just fine on his own, but he’d rather die than let them touch her.
“I’m serious,” he says. “They’re gonna come and see what’s up after last night. It could be really bad.”
She shrugs, nose pressed firm to his pillow. “I can handle it.”
He sighs and unthinking, reaches out to wipe off a clot of dust clinging to the skin just above her lip. She is still as his hand lingers, thumb tracing the swell of her cheek, the steady line of her chin. The burn flashes beneath her sleeve, a ragged shape, nearly lucid in the dim light.
“What about your family? What about Kousuke and your other friends?”
She barely moves at first, but still, there’s a change in her face, small and crooked but somehow encompassing. At once, she sits up straight, shoulders rendered unsteady, back hunched as though burdened with too much weight.
“I-I didn‘t really think about that,” she says finally. “I just…y’know. Ran.”
Silence. After a long moment, he rolls off the bed, picking up his shoes and starting to pull them on, then grabs hers from their heap in the corner and tosses them to her, smiling when she looks up at him. In the distance, the sirens reach a graceless pitch.
- - -
So they run, through the hallways, out a locked back door he has to kick a few times, into the heat and pockmarked light of early afternoon, roads worn down to fossils in the dust, the sky a storm of ash and soot. Allowing himself one backward glance, Chiaki sees several officers milling at the front of the building; takes a deep breath, his hand hovering just above the frantic rise and fall of her back.
It doesn’t take long to reach the bridge. He knows she can make it back from here; after all, this is where he leapt for the first time, toes and heels pressed firm to the edge, heart a stone in his stomach as he checked the number on his wrist for the umpteenth time, terrified he would splat against the dark land below. It’s the sunken imprint of a dead river, he’s realized since he‘s been back; on both sides, short, steady inclines, littered with broken rock and debris. Hundreds of years ago, below the ghosts of buildings built up and torn down, walkways paved then forgotten, thousands upon thousands of footprints left by those long-stitched into the earth, he’s sure this was the place where they’d once sat side by side, sunset a drowning color in the sky, stupid kids skipping stones at the water’s edge.
“Well, this is stupid,” Makoto says, in a tone that’s probably meant to sound angry but just comes across as unbearably sad. “You really think you can just make me go back, just like this? You don’t get it, do you!? You said you’d be waiting, you said that, so I worked hard and went to the library all the time and took care of your stupid painting like my life depended on it and I’ll have you know, I graduated only thirty-five places behind Kousuke, and he’s a fricking genius, so there, and now you’re saying I can’t stay like I just took the train up here --”
“I’ll come back.”
“-- when really, I nearly died at least three times because I kept landing in the wrong place, all so I could just see your stupid face again, and -- what?”
She’s staring at him now with an expression suspended between boiling rage and genuine surprise, so awkward that he grins, partly because laughing would get him kicked in the shin and partly because -- well, hell, he means it. The last time, he couldn’t possibly have made that kind of promise, would have suffocated under the weight of it once he returned for fear of not being able to find a way back, of the possibility of being trapped or jailed or hobbled or simply unable to ever get his hands on another charger, leaving her chained to a dead hope forever. In flipping it around, he’d meant to doom himself to a lifetime of playing the waiting game instead -- but she’s here, whole and breathing before his very eyes, and miracles are all too real. If she can do it…
“Just give me some time. A year,” he says. “I’ll make it back.”
She crosses her arms. “Really?”
“You better mean it. Trust me, I will find a way back just so I can beat your brains out,” she grunts, and this time, he does laugh, the sound warm and dry in his mouth. Anyone else, he’d cast his chips against on that gamble, the 01 on her wrist a stark reminder, but so help him, he believes in her, in a way he hasn’t believed in anyone for a long, long time.
“The painting,” she suddenly says. “I’ll make sure this time. I’ll try something else, I don’t know, but --”
The rest of her sentence is lost when he pulls her into a full-bodied hug, arms firm just below of the hills of her shoulders. He hadn’t allowed himself this last time, he remembers; he'd known that if he reeled her in with more than one arm that he wouldn’t have had the strength to let go, that he’d have stayed, no questions asked, screw the rules, screw the system. Now, he closes his eyes; feels the way she fists her hands in his shirt.
“Don’t kill yourself over it, idiot,” he whispers. “It doesn’t matter that much.”
“But I want to do this for you.” Her grip tightens, knuckles pressed through to the breadth of his chest. “Because I ---”
The last part is whispered into his shirt, so quiet he misses it entirely.
“Because you what?”
Another whisper, a little firmer. He chuckles, tries to pull away to hear, but she’s got an iron-grip, holding him tight against her face. The tips of her ears peek out from between thick locks of hair, bright with color.
"What are you saying?”
She mutters it this time, almost like a bark, burning through his shirt -- and still unintelligible.
“Okay, now you’re just messing with me, right?”
With an angry exhale, she shoves him off. “Geez, never mind! You don‘t even know how to listen! I swear, you‘re so -- so --”
He’d quickly envisioned a lot of possible endings for that particular sentence, but none that included her grabbing his collar in both hands and yanking him down to meet her mouth once more, pushing him back firm against the guardrails as though he’s the ninety pound girl in this relationship. He wishes she’d give him the chance to kiss her for once -- still returns her energy tenfold, pulling her full against him.
“I’ll come back,” he repeats against her mouth, and it's a promise he intends to keep.
Soon, she stands at the edge; casts one last glance back at him, eyes startlingly bright against the colorless sky, before she leaps. Ten feet from the ground, she vanishes with a sharp pop, and he's left staring at the now-empty space.- - -
(Four weeks later, a discovery is made by trespassers deep beneath the remains of a long-collapsed building on the outskirts of his sector: a small collection of valuables that was incorrectly recorded as having been destroyed in a fire some time before. Whatever once contained them is a half-melted shape, indistinguishable from the rubble, but most of the pieces are unbroken. There are a few ivory statues, some small artifacts that mysteriously disappear before the items can be properly transported, and a painting near the bottom of the pile entitled A Picture of White Plum, Camellia, and Chrysanthemum, faded with age and blackened at one edge -- but whole.)
The moment Chiaki arrives, he knows it’s summer. He just isn’t sure what year yet. He doesn’t even attempt to land on his feet, instead rolling through the dirt before coming to a stop on his stomach, arms stretched out and stiff at both sides, closed eyes pressed to warm earth. He can feel grass, tickling the lines of his palms; he hears cicadas, trilling in senseless swells. He turns on his back and all he sees is light, limned at the rims of his vision. He’s at the baseball field. The sky is blue again, so blue it nearly drowns him, and then he is laughing, his chest sore with the weight of it. He made it. There’s ash in his hair and dried blood caked at the corner of his mouth and he has done several less-than-moral things in a very short period of time, including but not limited to theft, assault, and evasion, and there’s no telling how long he’ll have before it‘s all roaring at his back, what will happen tomorrow or next week or even in the next ten minutes -- but he made it, and he’ll use the time he does have wisely, that’s for sure.
At a loss for where to go first, he decides on the museum. It’s cool inside, and quiet. Hardly anyone’s ever there on the weekdays, he remembers; mostly mothers with crying children and little old ladies in click-clacking heels. There’s a handful of new exhibits, and he lingers in front of each of them. More than one, he recognizes as younger, brighter versions of the pieces recovered in his time; wonders again, grinning and shaking his head and still half-dizzy with disbelief, how she managed to pull it off. He doesn’t need to see the painting here any longer; he’s held it in his own two hands, touched careful fingertips to the strokes, smelled the faintest memory of fresh paint. He’d doubted that promise for maybe three seconds in that entire meeting they had in the future, but as it turns out, that was still three seconds too many, and apparently, his thinking about her has acted as some sort of beacon, some kind of lighthouse in the sea, because then he turns the corner and she is there, everything else in his head turning to mush.
She’s standing maybe ten feet away, talking to a tall woman with a curtain of long, dark hair; her aunt, he remembers, from one brief time he'd met her. They are looking at one of the exhibits and talking. They both have a similar kind of gravity to them, he realizes, happy and brave but also carrying days and weeks and years of time within themselves, things other people would allow to vanish from their memories without so much as a second thought. He knows that feeling well. He's certain all leapers do.
After a long moment, the aunt excuses herself. Alone, she turns to look at another painting down the line. The display lights cast long, yawning shadows along her bare legs, the slope of her shoulder and neck. Her hair seems even longer now, and he briefly wonders if maybe he overshot the right time by a year or two. As long as he's here, he might as well give it a shot.
He takes a few steps forward. Eyes glazed over with thought, she glances up at the sight of someone approaching, then returns her attention to the display for a full sixteen seconds before doing a double-take.
Neither move, the sounds of echoing heels on marble, whispered conversations between exhibits a noisy wreath around them. Like a dork, he waves, other hand rubbing the back of his neck.
“Hey,” he says. “Am I late?”
Later, there'll be time for conversations about new jobs and stupid sisters and favorite puddings, for ironing out all the tangles in this unorthodox relationship, for goodbyes, inevitable or otherwise. For now, he waits, there at the end of the hall, and she runs to him.